It is extremely common to see references to “predication” as if it were a central concept of Aristotelian logic. We are so used to a grammatical interpretation in terms of relations between subjects and predicates that it is hard to disengage from that. However, historically it was Aristotelian logic that influenced ancient Greek accounts of grammar, not vice versa.

Modern logicians distinguish between a neutral proposition — which might be merely mentioned, rather than asserted — and the assertion of the proposition. Grammatical predication in itself does not imply any logical assertion, only a normatively neutral syntactic relation between sentence components. But “said of” in Aristotle always refers to some kind of meaningful assertion that has a normative character, not to grammatical predication.

Aristotle talks about what we might call kinds of “sayables” (“categories”). He famously says that we can only have truth or falsity when one kind of sayable is “said of” another. Mere words or phrases by themselves don’t assert anything, and hence cannot be true or false; for that we need what modern writers have referred to as a “complete thought”.

The ordinary meaning of “to categorize” in ancient Greek was “to accuse in a court of law”. Aristotle used it to talk about assertions. It didn’t originally connote a classification. The modern connotation of classification seems to stem from the accident that independent of what “category” meant in his usage, Aristotle famously developed a classification of “categories”.

Aristotle also talks about logical “judgment” (apophansis, a different word from practical judgment or phronesis). Husserl for instance transliterated this to German, and followed the traditional association of logical judgment with “predication”. But the ordinary Greek verb apophainein just means to show or make known. Aristotle’s usage suggests a kind of definite assertion or expressive clarification related to demonstration, which makes sense, because demonstrations work by interrelating logical judgments.

All of Aristotle’s words and phrases that get translated with connotations of “predication” actually have to do with normative logical assertion, not any connecting of a grammatical subject with a grammatical predicate. Nietzsche and others have complained about the metaphysical status foisted on grammatical subjects, implicitly blaming Aristotle, but all these connotations are of later date.

The great 20th century scholar of ancient and medieval logic and semantics L. M. de Rijk in his Aristotle: Semantics and Ontology (2002) argued at length that Aristotle’s logical “is” and “is not” should be understood as not as binary operators connecting subjects and predicates, but as unary operators of assertion and negation on whole propositions formed from pairs of terms. (See also Aristotelian Propositions.)

As in similar cases, by no means do I wish to suggest that all the work done on the basis of the common translation of “predication” is valueless; far from it. But I think we can get additional clarity by carefully distinguishing the views and modes of expression of Aristotle himself from those of later commentators and logicians, and I think Aristotle’s own more unique perspectives are far fresher and more interesting than even good traditional readings would allow.

Masters of Suspicion?

In his work on Freud, Ricoeur famously identified Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud as the three great “masters of suspicion”. Many others have picked up on this phrase, often using it in a dismissive way. While Ricoeur certainly had significant criticisms of all three of these figures, in the Freud book he also credits them with pioneering a valuable alternative approach to hermeneutics. This seems worthy of a longer than usual quotation.

“According to the one pole, hermeneutics is understood as the manifestation and restoration of a meaning addressed to me in the manner of a message, a proclamation, or as is sometimes said, a kerygma; according to the other pole, it is understood as a demystification, as a reduction of illusion…. From the beginning we must consider this double possibility: this tension, this extreme polarity, is the truest expression of our ‘modernity’. The situation in which language today finds itself comprises this double possibility, this double solicitation and urgency: on the one hand, purify discourse of its excrescences, liquidate the idols, go from drunkenness to sobriety, realize our state of poverty once and for all; on the other hand, use the most ‘nihilistic’, destructive, iconoclastic movement so as to let speak what once, what each time, was said, when meaning appeared anew, when meaning was at its fullest. Hermeneutics seems to me to be animated by this double motivation: willingness to suspect, willingness to listen; vow of rigor, vow of obedience. In our time we have not finished doing away with idols and we have barely begun to listen to symbols. It may be that this situation, in its apparent distress, is instructive: it may be that extreme iconoclasm belongs to the restoration of meaning” (Freud and Philosophy, p. 27).

Ad Hominem

An ad hominem argument is a kind of logical fallacy that tries to argue from supposed facts about a person to a repudiation or endorsement of something specific that the person said or did (e.g., so-and-so did bad thing x, so they must be wrong about y).

Sometimes such facts are indirectly relevant to a more specific evaluation, but still there is no necessary logical connection — only at best a sort of Humean accidental association, or what a lawyer would call circumstantial evidence that does not constitute proof. In exceptional cases, careful consideration might legitimately weigh very strong circumstantial evidence enough to sway a decision, but this ought to be rare, because even strong circumstantial evidence is not proof.

Influenced by both Nietzsche and Hume, Gilles Deleuze tried to argue against the current that questions about who are more important than questions about what. I don’t think this succeeded.

Nietzsche, Ethics, Historiography

Nietzsche famously criticized received notions of good and evil, and pointed out the inglorious role of “reactive” and resentful thinking about morals. To negatively frame our notions of goodness and virtue in terms of emotional reactions to bad things done by others is not an auspicious beginning for ethics. It results in a bad order of explanation that puts negative judgments of others before positive consideration of what is right.

Nietzsche pointed out that this occurs more often than we might think. A recurring emphasis on negative, blaming attitudes toward other people over affirmative values is unfortunately all too common not only in ordinary life and actually existing religious practice, but across what passes for the political spectrum. We ought to distance ourselves from this, and develop our values in positive rather than negative terms. We should aim to be good by what we do, not by contrasting ourselves with those other people. As an antidote to resentment, Nietzsche recommended we cultivate forgetfulness of wrongs done by others. I would add that we can have strong concern for justice without focusing on blame or revenge.

Like Aristotle, but without ever mentioning the connection, Nietzsche emphasized a certain sort of character development, and effectively advocated something close to Aristotle’s notion of magnanimity, or “great-souledness” as contrasted with small-mindedness. But in common with some modern interpretations of “virtue ethics”, Nietzsche tended to make whatever a presumably great-souled person might in fact do into a criterion, and consequently downplayed the role of the rational deliberation jointly emphasized by Aristotle and Kant.

Unfortunately, Nietzsche seems to have been so outraged by what he saw as widespread hypocrisy that he sometimes failed to take his own advice to avoid dwelling on the negative. This comes out in his tendency to make sweeping historical generalizations. Thus, he presented all religion in a negative light, and even went so far as to blame the “moralism” of Socrates and Plato for many later historical ills, while failing to note his own partial convergence with Aristotle.

Even at the peak of my youthful enthusiasm for Nietzsche, this negative judgment of Socrates and Plato always seemed wrong to me. Textual evidence just does not support the attribution of primarily “resentful” attitudes to either of them. On the contrary, Socrates and Plato began a completely unprecedented attempt to understand what is good in positive terms, and took great care to avoid prejudice in the process.

Partly as a consequence of his sweeping rejection of Socrates and Plato, Nietzsche looked for alternate heroes among the pre-Socratics, especially favoring Heraclitus. (In the 20th century, with different motivations, Heidegger expanded on Nietzsche’s valorization of the pre-Socratics over Plato and Aristotle, claiming that Heraclitus and Parmenides “had Being in sight” in ways that Plato and Aristotle did not. This seems to me like nonsense. As distinct from poetry and other artistic endeavors (which I value highly, but in a different way), philosophy is not about primordial vision or its recovery; it is about rational understanding and development toward an end, starting from wherever we actually find ourselves. While the pre-Socratics are important in a sort of prehistory of philosophy, the level of rational development they achieved was minimal. Extended rational development first bloomed with Plato, and then was taken to a yet higher level by Aristotle.)

Nietzsche also denied the reality or effective relevance of anything like Aristotelian potentiality, claiming that only what is actual is real. The semantic or expressive category of potentiality underwrites logical and linguistic modality, which among other things in turn underwrites the possibility of expressing objective judgments of “should”, as well as of causality, of which Nietzsche seems to have taken a Humean view. The general role of potentiality and modality is independent of all issues of the correctness or possibly prejudiced character of particular judgments.

Nietzsche’s denial of potentiality is thus related to a denial of any objective good and evil. It is akin to other views that attempt to explain values by facts. He thought mostly in terms of actually occurring valuations, and did distinguish better from worse ones, but mainly in terms of a kind of ad hominem argument from great-souledness or small-mindedness.

In my view, he should have been content to point out that many particular judgments are prejudiced or incorrect, and at any moment we have no sure way of knowing we accurately recognize which these are. Objectivity in ethics cannot be assumed as a starting point, but that does not mean there can never be any. Where it occurs, it is a relative status that is the product of a development. (See also Genealogy.)

Nietzsche’s poetic notion of the Eternal Return does in a way partly make up for his overly strong denial of any objective good or evil. The Eternal Return works especially as an ethical, selective thought that distinguishes purely affirmative valuations from others. I used to want to think this was enough to recover something objective that acts like a notion of good as affirmativeness, but that is contrary to what he says explicitly.


Nietzschean affirmation used to be a very important thing for me. Something like it still is. At root, this just means judging particular goods on intrinsic/situational criteria, from a stance that embraces life without the poison of ressentiment (holding on to reactive, negative emotion). Nietzsche’s poetic images of Zarathustra coming down from the mountain, being friends with the earth, and embracing the eternal return were significant moments of my youth. (See also Genealogy; Honesty, Kindness; Intellectual Virtue, Love; Interpretive Charity.)

Later, I came to think that Spinoza had in a way already said what I most valued in Nietzsche. (Many have recognized the affirmative character of Spinoza’s thought.)

Still later, I came to think that Aristotle had already expressed the affirmative kernel I valued most in Spinoza, and much more.

I have been reading the core ethical message of Brandom’s Spirit of Trust in a related light. (See Index for many posts on Aristotle and Brandom.)


Aside from the critique of immediacy, one of the things that initially attracted me to the first web draft of Spirit of Trust was the discussion of edelmütig (noble-spirited) and niederträchtig (denigrating) attitudes, now concentrated in chapter 15. Though moderately acquainted with earlier sections, I had not yet grasped much of this part of Hegel’s Phenomenology in the original, so it was all new to me. I then read the view Brandom attributed to Hegel as an interesting anticipation of Nietzsche‘s critique of ressentiment. The published version, however, has a significant negative mention of Nietzsche (along with Marx, Freud, and Foucault).

The sense, especially of Hegel’s contrasting pole, is superficially quite different from Nietzsche’s, stressing what Hegel and Brandom call “Forgiveness” and I call interpretive charity, whereas Nietzsche starts from what he takes to be a sort of ideal type of an ancient aristocrat, and notoriously portrays this character as in a sense more hard-hearted than sympathetic. I never liked that particular aspect of Nietzsche, or the way he assimilates Plato to later religious attitudes I see as quite different. But there is a huge literature dispelling all the crude stereotypes of the hard-hearted Nietzsche that are abetted by some of his surface rhetoric. And even if Nietzsche avoided the Christian-sounding word “forgiveness” in favor of something like active forgetting, the essence of the ressentiment he is concerned to reject is holding grudges. Not holding grudges seems a lot like forgiveness. And referentially, Niederträchtigkeit overall still seems to me to pick out about the same characters as ressentiment.

Brandom is especially concerned to pick out the reductive naturalism of a preoccupation with causes of behavior at the expense of considering reasons for it as niederträchtig. This is a much more specialized focus. But reductive naturalism does unfortunately still carry a lot of weight today, and it does characterize numerous elements of Hegel’s account of the valet’s attitude.

In a passing remark, Nietzsche, Marx, Freud, and Foucault are all said to share the niederträchtig attitude. Here I must part company. This sounds like the old “masters of suspicion” stereotype, which I have never considered well-founded. I don’t believe any of them intended to denigrate persons or to circumvent rational argument. They developed new forms of understanding (in the ordinary not the Hegelian sense). Especially in the case of Nietzsche, the great critic of ressentiment, and really for any such intellectual pioneer, the burden of proof for attributing Niederträchtigkeit should be quite high. (See Nietzsche, Ethics, Historiography; Interpretive Charity; Honesty, Kindness; Intellectual Virtue, Love; Robust Recognition.)

As much as I also want to defend the rights and place of reason more strongly than Nietzsche, Marx, Freud, or Foucault did, I don’t see any of them as wanting to simply replace explanation by reasons with explanation by causes the way Brandom says. (Spinoza in his account of human behavior and emotions seems to me closer to actually doing this, but still gets positive treatment in Tales of the Mighty Dead, as he should.)

Nietzsche, Marx, Freud, and Foucault challenged not Reason but rather the claims of what Hegel called Mastery, the nonrelation of which to Reason Brandom has done so much to make explicit. I don’t think any of them stand philosophically on the level of Aristotle or Hegel or Brandom, but they all had important things to say, deserving of far more than one-line dismissals. Marx and Freud did talk about causes, but they both also put a strong value on rationality. Nietzsche especially stresses what Aristotle would call character as a conditioning factor on reason. Foucault talks a lot about historical forms of rationality. Though analyzable in terms of determinate negation, his metaphorical “archaeology” was light-years away from an expressive recollection. But real history is not Whiggish, and at some point we need to address it.

I can recognize Brandom’s description of Whiggish recollective expressive genealogy in my own various attempts at intellectual autobiography. Brandom points out that Hegel’s lectures on philosophy of history, art, and religion also practice this kind of genealogy. (Bad histories of science do too, but I am not sure that is a recommendation.) I cannot guess what if any consequences Brandom sees for general historiography, or even the history of philosophy. But I think we also need to attempt unfiltered, non-Whiggish accounts.

He does clearly say that something that got filtered out in one Whiggish account may become relevant again in another. This would also suggest that attempting to work at the unfiltered level has some importance. (See also Mutual Recognition; Immediacy, Presence; Structuralism; Difference; Affirmation.)