Being and Representation

In L’Être et représentation (1999), Olivier Boulnois documents the emergence of “metaphysics” in its distinctively non-Aristotelian modern sense among various 13th century authors, including Roger Bacon, Henry of Ghent, and Siger of Brabant, leading to its decisive formulation by the Franciscan theologian John Duns Scotus in the 14th century. Avicenna had already claimed that metaphysics is about “being in general”, whereas Aristotle himself had emphasized that “being is said in many ways”, which implies that there is no “being in general”.

Boulnois suggests that the 13th century authors just mentioned paved the way for Scotus’ innovations by already treating being as a concept. We are so used to that, that it is hard for us to grasp what Aristotle means in suggesting that “being in general” is not a proper concept at all.

Scotus argued against Aristotle that there is a unifying, logically minimal criterion of being, and it is representability. To be representable is to be “not nothing”. Unicorns and other imaginary creatures are representable, whereas Aristotle would not have called them beings. Scotus’ concept of representation seems to be purely logical; to have a representation of something is not necessarily to have understanding of it. For Scotus, God and creatures are equally representable, even though creatures, as finite, can be properly understood by the human mind and God, as infinite, cannot. Whereas Aristotle never speaks of an infinite being — only of a perfect one — Scotus’ generic concept of being is very explicitly indifferent to distinctions between finite and infinite.

It is one thing to acknowledge representation as a logical concept among others, and quite another to give it the kind of special first place status that Scotus does in his ontology, and that Locke does in his epistemology.

Boulnois says it is with Scotus that metaphysics became linked to what Kant later called ontotheology. While separating metaphysics as the account of being from theology as the separate account of God, Scotus also made God indifferently one of the objects of metaphysics, along with all the other beings. The combination of these changes actually brought metaphysics closer to revealed theology, and helped it to be perceived as the safe handmaiden of the later Latin tradition, rather than as independent philosophical theology that some found threatening.

If one speaks of a subject of representation, it could be — in a sense of “subject” closer to that of Aristotle — that in which something stands for something, or it could be — in a modern sense — the one who represents. “In the context of representation, the soul is not the content of its thought, but rather has a representation, distinct from itself” (Boulnois, op. cit., p. 152, my translation).

It seems that for both Scotus and Locke, the mind has representations. The soul in Aristotle is thoughts and feelings and capabilities, not something standing behind them. (See also Repraesentatio; Ontology; Being, Existence.)

Johnston’s Pippin

Adrian Johnston’s A New German Idealism just arrived, and I’m taking a quick look. It is mainly concerned with Slavoj Žižek’s work. But for now, I’m just concerned with chapter 2 — where Johnston launches a broadside against “deflationary” readings of Hegel, particularly the one he attributes to Robert Pippin — and the preface.

Johnston can be forgiven for not addressing Pippin’s 2018 work on the Logic, but I do not understand why he ignores my favorite book by Pippin, Hegel’s Practical Philosophy (2008).

There, Pippin dwells extensively on Hegel’s Aristotelian side. Much of interest could be said on what it means to be Aristotelian in a post-Kantian context. Many received views will be challenged by such an examination. (For a beginning, see Aristotle and Kant.) As I have said, I read Hegel as both Kantian and Aristotelian (as well as original).

In any case, Johnston seems to think Pippin in Hegel’s Idealism (1989) was intent on reducing Hegel to Kant. That book was indeed concerned to show a strong Kantian element in Hegel. But I did not think of it as reductive. If anything, I read Pippin’s book as a salutary response to those who want to reduce Hegel to a pre-Kantian, and to read Hegel as rolling back from Kant rather than moving forward from Kant. Because he assumes a bad old subjectivist reading of Kant, Johnston seems to think Pippin’s reading of Hegel necessarily rules out the possibility of seeing a realist side to Hegel.

The whole challenge of Hegel is to understand how it it is possible in his terms to be both Critical and realist, without engaging in logical nonsense. (But see Realism, Idealism.) This sort of thing typically requires significant semantic labor, but the achievement of such semantic elaboration is the whole point. Here I worry where Johnston intends to go with his defense of “undialectical” distinctions in the preface. It is one thing to recognize that Hegel does not intend to just do away with Understanding and its distinctions, and quite another to treat those distinctions as final. (See also Univocity.)

Johnston’s lengthy discussion of the positive value of Understanding in the preface does not address how it relates to dialectical transitions. He mainly wants to defend Žižek’s tactic of presenting forced binary choices at particular moments. In particular cases and circumstances this conceivably can be good pedagogy, but it is the details that matter, and Johnston offers no advice on how we are to distinguish a pedagogically good forced choice from a bad one.

(I suspect Žižek’s tactic may be related to his friend Badiou’s defense of the Maoist “One divides into Two” line, which always seemed like blustering nonsense to me. There have been some very rational strands within Marxism; I do not comprehend why someone as intelligent as Badiou would prefer to apologize for the coarsest and most anti-intellectual, but to a lesser extent Althusser did as well. See also Democracy and Social Justice.)

(Worlds away from this, Brandom has a wonderfully clear account of the nonfinality of Understanding’s particular conclusions, illustrated precisely by its very important positive role in the recognition and resolution of error, in which the operations of the Understanding on its own terms give rise to dialectical transitions at the level of Reason, understood in terms of the revision of commitments and possibly of concepts.)

Johnston also seems to assume there is something necessarily reductive about a non-ontological (or not primarily ontological) reading of Hegel. Again, I don’t see why.

I think Aristotle’s metaphysics was basically a semantic investigation, just like his physics. It is the historic forcing of this inquiry back from the wide universe of meaning onto narrow registers of being and existence that I see as reductive.

Based on the work of Olivier Boulnois on the role of the medieval theologian Duns Scotus in the reinterpretation of metaphysics as ontology, I have come to think that in general, modern emphasis on ontology tends to reflect what I take to be historically a medieval Scotist mystification of things Aristotle approached in clearer terms we should recognize today as mainly semantic. (For what it’s worth, the homonymous use of “ontology” in computer science is also mainly semantic.)

Metaphysics or “first philosophy” or “wisdom” was supposed to help us with higher-order understanding, not to be a place where strange existence claims are made.