Causes: Real, Heuristic?

The neoplatonic and scholastic traditions tended to treat causes as hypostatized real metaphysical principles, either inferred or simply given. Modern science in its more sophisticated statements has generally treated causes in a more heuristic way, as useful for the explanation of lawful regularity in phenomena.

I read the “causes” or “reasons why” in Aristotle as a sort of hermeneutic tools for understanding. This would encompass the kind of explanations employed by modern science, as well as much else that is helpful for understanding things in ordinary life, and for realizing our potential as animals involved with meaning and values.

Aristotle’s Metaphysics treats causes in Book V, in the context of “things said in many ways”. I will here quote the short first chapter, which introduces causes indirectly through the related concept of arché (governing principle, beginning, or as Sachs translates it, “source”):

Source means that part of a thing from which one might first move, as of a line or a road there is a source in one direction, and another one from the opposite direction; and it means that from which each thing might best come into being, as in the case of learning, sometimes one ought to begin not from what is first and the source of the thing, but from which one might learn most easily; or it means that constituent from which something first comes into being, such as the keel of a ship or the foundation of a house, and in animals some say it is the heart, others the brain, and others whatever they happen to believe is of this sort; or it means that which is not a constituent, from which something first comes into being, and from which its motion and change naturally first begin, as a child from its father and mother, or a fight from insults; or it means that by whose choice a thing is moved or what changes changes, in the sense in which the ruling offices of cities as well as oligarchies, monarchies, and tyrannies are called sources, as are the arts, and among these the master crafts most of all. Also, that from which a thing is first known is called the source of the thing, such as the hypotheses of demonstrations.”

“Causes [aitiai] are meant in just as many ways, since all causes are sources. And what is common to all sources is to be the first thing from which something is or comes to be or is known; of these, some are present within while others are outside. For this reason nature is a source, as are elements, thinking, choice, thinghood, and that for the sake of which; for the good and the beautiful are sources of both the knowledge and the motion of many things” (Sachs translation, pp. 77-78).

What is emphasized in the notion of “source”, which Aristotle uses to provide insight into that of “cause”, is what is ultimately — or at least relatively ultimately — behind something, not that which is immediately behind it. By contrast, what I have been calling the “modern” (common-sense, not properly scientific) sense of “cause” is supposed to “operate” in an at least relatively immediate and direct (proximate) way.

Time and Eternity

One of Kant’s innovations was a new analysis of the constitution of temporal experience. His famous theses about the role of synthesis in experience provide new insight into the paradoxes of temporal being or “becoming”, and its relation or non-relation to something outside of time. These had been raised by pre-Socratics like Heraclitus and Zeno of Elea, and more satisfactorily treated by Plato and Aristotle.

Heraclitus famously said that everything flows, you can’t step into the same river twice, and things change into their opposites. Zeno went in the opposite direction, conceiving space and time in terms of instants and points, neither of which have any magnitude. He then pointed out that motion at a durationless instant is a logical contradiction. On this basis, Zeno claimed to prove various things that violate common sense, such as that an arrow can’t fly, and that the speedy Achilles could never catch up with a turtle that had a head start. From this he concluded that motion, space, and time were mere illusions.

Plato seems to have at first focused on a sharp distinction between true “being” as eternal on the one hand, and becoming in time as mere appearance on the other. This distinction allowed him to have it both ways. But in dialogues that are thought to have been written later such as Theaetetus and The Sophist, he came to suggest that being and time are not simply two disjunct categories.

Aristotle made time and space more intelligible by developing notions of duration and extension. For Aristotle, duration and extension come first, while durationless instants, magnitudeless points, and pure flux are all abstractions. I see him as an early advocate of the primacy of process. For Aristotle, the key to making this viable is to be able to explain how becoming as we experience it is really not just a pure flux, but rather is full of islands of relative stability that allow us — contrary to Heraclitus — to reidentify objects as having an underlying basis of sameness that persists through various kinds of change. It turns out that the edges of the islands are not rigidly distinct, but he developed the notion conventionally translated as “substance” to explain our experience of the relatively persistent form of their middles.

It is here that Kant’s contribution is significant. Aristotle develops a plausible account of the persistence of form through change, but he discusses it mainly from the point of view of how things are, even though he separately suggests that experience is also shaped by processes of interpretation by us. Kant took up that suggestion, and developed it in considerable detail. Kant consistently emphasizes our role in constituting the stability of form of things we experience in time, though he also insists on an “empirical realism” that justifies most of what we get from so-called common sense. This implies that for Kant as well, there implicitly must be some basis in the way things are, for the stable constructs we come up with. Much of Hegel’s Phenomenology was devoted to a further development of these Kantian insights.

The neoplatonists and Augustine insisted that things in time have a source and destination in eternity. Classic neoplatonism attempted to treat this relation as a sort of quasi-logical unfolding of the divine essence, while Augustine identified it with the act of creation. The relation of temporal being to eternity remained a notorious point of difficulty in neoplatonism, while Augustine called it a mystery.

Hegel thought that Augustine ended up locating all reality in the Eternal, and that this resulted in a devaluation of actual life and experience. Aquinas already used ideas from Aristotle to allow for a more positive evaluation of temporal being. Some spiritual traditions go further and suggest that we humans have a sort of co-creator role in the world we experience. But it was Kant who mainly developed the basis for a non-supernatural explanation consonant with the spirit of this. The main point is that the world is not initially given in the form of pre-existing objects. We separate out objects from the sensible continuum, but at the same time this is not an arbitrary operation. We can’t just materialize a unicorn by thinking of one, but we do play a major active role in the construction of universals like “horse”, and in the recognition of persistent individuals.

Essences of things, once constituted, seem to “subsist” in some virtual way outside of time. The traditional view was that essences are straightforwardly built into the nature of things, or else simply dictated by God. Either way, this means that for us, they would be pre-given. I don’t think Aristotle really regards them this way, but only in the special case of biological organisms does he investigate their genealogy. Kant on the other hand effectively develops a generalized genealogy of essences, showing how they can be understood as temporally constituted.

Another of Kant’s big innovations is in explaining how we play a significant role in our own constitution. I think it is a grievous error to regard such processes of self-constitution as beginning with a blank slate, or as magically independent of real-world constraints, but there is a very important way in which we end up defining who we are — not by an explicit decision, but indirectly through the sum total of our commitments, actions, and responses to things.

That ethical “who we are”, while originating in time, is itself an essence with virtual subsistence. As with all essences, considered in its virtual subsistence, it is eternal. Aristotle would say that our essence stops evolving when our temporal being comes to an end. At that point, who we were is finally stabilized, as the total act of a life.

Receptive Power?

The later neoplatonists developed a subtle and somewhat paradoxical notion of passive or receptive power. I call it paradoxical because “passive power” almost seems like an oxymoron. In modern terms, it is hard to see how something purely passive could meaningfully contribute to an effect, or even be called a “power”. But in a neoplatonic context, active and passive powers function as correlative terms that collaborate — albeit asymmetrically — to produce effects. When a “patient” is properly prepared, an appropriate “agent” power is supposed to spontaneously come to dwell within it.

All the change is on the side of the patient, whereas what is called “agency” in neoplatonism belongs on the side of the eternal and unchanging. Exactly how a patient in time comes to be properly prepared to be receptive to an eternal agent when it was not before is admittedly rather obscure.

In his late polemics against Pelagius, Augustine treated the agency of grace as residing entirely on the side of the eternal, even going to the extreme of denying that grace in any way depends on the merit or innocence of the recipient. His point seems to have been that grace does not depend on any kind of self-will, no matter how virtuous or innocent it may be — that it is always only received as a gift.

However obscure the neoplatonic notion of the preparation of patients may seem, in the context of a problematic like that of late Augustine, the attribution of effective reality to passive powers suggests a way out of the impasse we are left with if we consider only grace and self-will. Merit or innocence could be considered as configurations of such “passive powers”.

Infinity, Finitude

Here is another area where I find myself with mixed sympathies.

Plato seems to have regarded infinity — or what he called the Unlimited — as something bad. Aristotle argued that infinity exists only in potentiality and not in actuality, a view I find highly attractive. I think I encounter a world of seemingly infinite structure but only finite actualization.

Some time in the later Hellenistic period, notions of a radical spiritual infinity seem to have appeared in the West for the first time, associated with the rise of monotheism and the various trends now commonly called Gnostic. This kind of intensive rather than extensive infinity sometimes seems to be folded back on itself, evoking infinities of infinities and more. The most sophisticated development of a positive theological infinite in later Western antiquity occurred in the more religious rethinking of Greek philosophy by neoplatonists like Plotinus, Proclus, and Damascius.

In 14th century CE Latin Europe, Duns Scotus developed an influential theology that made infinity the principal attribute of God, in contrast to the pure Being favored by Aquinas. Giordano Bruno, burned at the stake in 1600, was a bombastic early defender of Copernican astronomy and notorious critic of established religion who espoused a curious hybrid of Lucretian atomistic materialism, neoplatonism, and magic. He proclaimed the physical existence of an infinity of worlds like our Earth.

Mathematical applications of infinity are a later development, mainly associated with Newton and Leibniz. Leibniz in particular enthusiastically endorsed a speculative reversal of Aristotle’s negative verdict on “actual infinity”. Nineteenth century mathematicians were embarrassed by this, and developed more rigorous reformulations of the calculus based on limits rather than actual infinity. The limit-based formulation is what is generally taught today. Cantor seemingly went in the opposite direction, developing infinities of infinities in pure mathematics. I believe there has been another reformulation of analysis using category theory that claims to equal the rigor of 19th century analysis while recovering an approach closer to that of Leibniz, which might be taken to refute an argument against infinity based solely on lack of rigor according to the standards of contemporary professional mathematicians. One might accept this and still prefer an Aristotelian interpretation of infinity as not applicable to actual things, though it is important to recall that for Aristotle, the actual is not all there is.

The philosophy of Spinoza and even more so Leibniz is permeated with a positive view of the infinite — both mathematical and theological — that in a more measured way was later also taken up by Hegel, who distinguished between a “bad” infinite that seems to have been an “actual” mathematical infinite having the form of an infinite regress, and a “good” infinite that I would gloss as having to do with the interpretation of life and all within it. Nietzsche’s Eternal Return seems to involve an infinite folding back on itself of a world of finite beings. (See also Bounty of Nature; Reason, Nature; Echoes of the Deed; Poetry and Mathematics.)

On the side of the finite, I am tremendously impressed with Aristotle’s affirmative development of what also in a more Kantian style might be termed a multi-faceted “dignity” of finite beings. While infinity may be inspiring or even intoxicating, I think we should be wary of the possibility that immoderate embrace of infinity may lead — even if unwittingly — to a devaluation of finite being, and ultimately of life. I also believe notions of infinite or unconditional power (see Strong Omnipotence; Occasionalism; Arbitrariness, Inflation) are prone to abuse. In any case, ethics is mainly concerned with finite things.


F. W. J. von Schelling (1775-1854) is my least favorite of the major German idealists. He is the one most strongly associated with Romanticism, and has been considered a precursor of existentialism, which does not seem to me like a recommendation. He lacked Hegel’s grounding in Aristotle and more serious engagement with Kant. Even Schelling’s admirers don’t claim much for his rather undisciplined attempt at a Romantic philosophy of nature. He castigated Hegel for his rationalism, while reviving metaphysical use of the pretentious claim of intellectual intuition that Kant and Hegel fought against.

Like Fichte whom he at first followed, Schelling expressed himself in simpler and more approachable terms than Kant or Hegel, but at the cost of sacrificing the multidimensional richness Kant and Hegel both achieved. Like Fichte, he erred in making self-consciousness an immediate intellectual intuition rather than a dialectical development, but unlike Fichte, he also revived general use of intellectual intuition in metaphysics. Fichte is largely antithetical to me due to his hyper-strong subject-centeredness, but he was principled and had a razor-sharp intellect. Schelling is superficially more balanced, but what he balanced his Fichteanism with was a shallow Romantic pseudo-neoplatonism. Having spent a few years in close study of the real Greek neoplatonists, I am very unimpressed by Schelling’s heavy-handed forays into this territory.

Schelling is the one who really does ignore Kant’s warnings about unbridled speculation. Armed with intellectual intuition, he simply leaps into a (pseudo-neoplatonic rather than Hegelian) Absolute. Among his criticisms of Hegel was that Hegel made the Absolute a result attained from a finite starting point. Schelling said this was impossible, since the Absolute is infinite. This reflects a complete failure to understand the misleadingly named Hegelian Absolute, which was precisely not a humanly unachievable theological infinite, but carefully developed in terms that made it an Aristotelian perfection after a kind achievable in an understandable way by a finite rational being without intellectual intuition. (See also “Absolute” Knowledge?; Kantian Discipline; Copernican.)

Schelling in his “Identity philosophy” naively propounded the broadly neoplatonic theme of an original self-division of an infinite Absolute, without all the nuances developed by the Greek neoplatonists that made their version more interesting. (For both Aristotle and Hegel, in contrast to Schelling and the neoplatonists, the “first” principle is really an attractor and an end, not the metaphysical-theological origin of everything. I would not say “just” an end, because for both Aristotle and Hegel, ends are more important than origins.)

The late Schelling’s “Positive” philosophy again pitted intellectual intuition against reason, while also appealing to religious revelation. Early in his career, he had been influenced by the fideist F. H. Jacobi’s proto-Kierkegaardian idea that there is an uncrossable gap between “the conditioned” and “the unconditioned”, requiring a leap of faith. But at least after Jacobi publicly attacked him, Schelling distinguished his view from Jacobi’s more extreme anti-rationalism. (See also Being, Consciousness.)

In profound contrast to Kant, Fichte, and Hegel, across his career Schelling seems to have had no real interest in ethics. His Romantic reliance on intellectual intuition rather than dialectic also means that although he shares some core vocabulary with Hegel, the same terms have very different meanings. (See also Pure Thinking?)

Plato vs Aristotle?

Plato and Aristotle agreed on some matters, and disagreed on others. Throughout the modern period, authors have frequently resorted to rather stereotyped contrasts between them. In the ancient world, the neoplatonists made a serious effort to read Aristotle in terms of their own traditionally “metaphysical” reading of Plato, and thus to largely reconcile the two (see Fortunes of Aristotle; Plotinus). This resulted in a lot of distortion of Aristotle — some of which has persisted to this day — alongside a lot of original development that is only very recently again being appreciated and studied.

I’m putting forward a largely reconciling view, but going in the opposite direction from that of the neoplatonists. That is to say, while the works of Plato will always remain literary classics, I think Aristotle captured the best of Plato philosophically, while adding tremendously valuable further development. Where Aristotle criticized Plato or others in the Academy, the criticisms generally seem sound to me. I also think what are considered late works of Plato like Theaetetus, The Sophist, and even Parmenides may show development in a more Aristotelian direction, especially with regard to the theory of form.

Errors of the Philosophers

As the works of Aristotle and other authors translated from the Arabic became unbanned and began to be understood, this caused considerable tension in the previously insular Latin West. Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas, and others worked to reconcile the two intersecting traditions. Secular masters of arts who were not theologians often concentrated mainly on reading the new texts as they stood — a tradition that continued through the Renaissance. The bishop of Paris issued lists of condemned propositions in 1270 and 1277 (see Wikipedia and Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Scholars generally agree that there was no coherent group or single individual targeted by the whole of the longer 1277 one, which also contained a few propositions endorsed by the not-yet-canonized Aquinas.

In the 20th century, Pierre Duhem influentially claimed that the 1277 condemnation had a large positive effect on nascent medieval natural science, by freeing it from the alleged dogmatism of Aristotle, but with more research, scholarly consensus has backed sharply away from this (although I think there is still some distance to go). This is a good example of the lingering effects of anti-Aristotelian prejudice. Contrary to the stereotype, medieval Aristotelians often cheerfully adopted new ideas when they seemed to have merit, and Italian Aristotelianism in particular was especially friendly to such developments.

A little treatise attributed to Giles of Rome (excerpt relating to Aristotle here) on “the errors of the philosophers” appeared around 1270. In other writings, Giles was by no means hostile to all philosophy, but here he focused on matters of theological concern at the time, with a bit more motivation and analysis than the actual condemnations. “Philosophers” refers with some specificity to the canon of falsafa translated from the Arabic.

As Giles analyzed it, the main issue underlying concerns about Aristotle himself lay in the principle that later scholastics referred to as “nothing comes from nothing”, and that Leibniz later endorsed as the principle of sufficient reason. Leibniz and others found this constructive-flavored notion implicit in Aristotelian and neoplatonic thought to be compatible with theological concerns. More generally, many theologians have found ways to read the broad spirit of Greek rationalism and naturalism as not inherently opposed to their concerns. Greek rationalism and naturalism, unlike many of their modern variants, were not reductive in nature. The thought of Aristotle in particular provides sophisticated resources for integrating concepts of immanent purpose in a rational account of the world that makes no special pleadings.

The notion of creation from nothing is itself a theological interpretation not literally present in Genesis, but creation in time is literally present, and many theologians have been reluctant to give it a figurative interpretation, even though broad principles of interpretation as far back as Augustine allow for figurative interpretation when there are issues with a literal reading. Aquinas, for one, took a diplomatic middle position that reason cannot decide between possibilities of eternal creation or creation in time, so he adopted a forgiving attitude toward Aristotle on the related question of the eternity of the world. I believe Aristotle and the neoplatonists on the other hand clearly thought reason did rule out a creation in time, and that this did not in any way destroy higher spiritual values. Personally, I want to say that they were right on this, so I respectfully disagree with the diplomatic Thomistic position, while considering it historically progressive in its context. (See also Fortunes of Aristotle; God and the Soul; Strong Omnipotence; Occasionalism; Pseudo-Dionysius on the Soul.)

Free Will and Determinism

Free will and determinism both represent overly strong claims when applied in an unqualified way. I’ve already written a bit about the evils of voluntarism.

Aristotle’s “cause” or aitia can be any kind of reason why something is the way it is, and a way that something is typically has multiple reasons of different kinds. The modern notion of cause, by contrast, is intended to provide a single, complete explanation of why an event does or does not occur. The modern notion, unlike the Aristotelian one, is univocal. (See also Equivocal Determination.)

In the reception of Aristotle, historically too much attention was paid to the identity of the underlying “something”, as contrasted to the way something is, emphasized by Aristotle himself — to the point where the standard Latin translation for ousia (Aristotle’s main word for a way of being) came to be substantia or “substance” (something standing under). By contrast, the central books of Aristotle’s Metaphysics start from the notion of something persisting through a change and ask what that is, but in addressing that question eventually reverse the order of explanation, and argue that what can best be said to be underlying just is a way that something is actively what it is. An ousia may be expressed in speech as a simple noun, but this is only a kind of shorthand that can always be unpacked into something like an adverbial expression.

In general, Aristotle suggests that we should value ends more than origins. How something turns out is much more important than where it came from.

Already in Neoplatonism, there was a decidedly non-Aristotelian turn toward putting higher value on origins than results, based on the idea that the One was the origin of everything, and nobler than everything. For monotheistic theologians, it was obvious that God as origin was superior to creation.

Aristotle ends up suggesting that what he calls efficient causes — the direct means by which change is triggered or effectuated, which would include mechanical cases like the classic bumping billiard balls — are not what is most fundamental in making things the way they are. By contrast, the Latin medievals made the efficient cause the root of all others, also applying it to God’s activity of creation from nothing.

Common early modern notions of causality started from this medieval reversal of Aristotle, assuming that efficient causes of the billiard-ball variety came first in the order of explanation. This was related to a widespread anti-Aristotelian privileging of immediacy. Kant and Hegel later developed strong critiques of the privileging of immediacy, but this aspect of their thought was not adequately understood and highlighted until recently. A reduction of all causes to allegedly immediate causes is an error common to both voluntarism and determinism.

Descartes developed a bottom-up explanatory model, starting from simple mechanical causes. This was good for science at a certain stage of development, but bad for philosophy. I would not wish to say that bottom-up explanations have no use (in delimited contexts, they most certainly do). I mean only that it is a delusion to think that nothing else is required, or that they can provide an absolute starting point.

In ethics, Aristotle’s notion of character is a nice relief from the seesaw of free will and determinism. Character is an acquired disposition to act in certain ways. The character of an individual resembles the culture of a community, and the same word (ethos) is used for both. We acquire it gradually over time, from an accumulation of our actions and things that have happened to us. Due to the contributing role of our actions in successive layers of character formation, we are in a broad way accountable for our disposition. On the other hand, it makes little sense to blame someone for acting in accordance with their disposition.