Socratic Wisdom

“I went to one who had the reputation of wisdom, and observed him — his name I need not mention; he was a politician whom I selected for examination — and the result was as follows: When I began to talk with him, I could not help thinking that he was not really wise, although he was thought wise by many, and wiser still by himself; and I went and tried to explain to him that he thought himself wise, but was not really wise; and the consequence was that he hated me, and his enmity was shared by several who were present and heard me. So I left him, saying to myself, as I went away: Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is – for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know. In this latter particular, then, I seem to have slightly the advantage of him. Then I went to another, who had still higher philosophical pretensions, and my conclusion was exactly the same. I made another enemy of him, and of many others besides him” (Plato, Apology, Jowett trans.).

The greatest wisdom a human can have is to recognize what we don’t really know. This can be a touchy point, because people who think they just know things they imagine to be true usually don’t like to be told otherwise. But in most areas, the best we can aim for is well-founded belief, which is to say belief that is capable of responding resiliently and in good faith to open-ended Socratic questioning or dialogue, and thus is responsive to the space of reasons. (See also The Epistemic Modesty of Plato and Aristotle).

Husserl on Perception

“External perception is a constant pretension to accomplish something that, by its very nature, it is not in a position to accomplish. Thus, it harbors an essential contradiction, as it were. My meaning will soon become clear to you once you intuitively grasp how the objective sense exhibits itself as a unity in the unending manifolds of possible appearances; and seen upon closer inspection, how the continual synthesis, as a unity of coinciding, allows the same sense to appear, and how a consciousness of ever new possibilities of appearance constantly persists over against the factual, limited courses of appearance, transcending them.”

“Let us begin by noting that the aspect, the perspectival adumbration through which every spatial object invariably appears, only manifests the spatial object from one side. No matter how completely we may perceive a thing, it is never given in perception with the characteristics that qualify it and make it up as a sensible thing from all sides at once. We cannot avoid speaking of such and such sides of the object that are actually perceived. Every aspect, every continuity of single adumbrations, regardless how far this continuity may extend, offers us only sides. And to our mind this is not just a statement of fact: it is inconceivable that external perception would exhaust the sensible-material content of its perceived object; it is inconceivable that a perceptual object could be given in the entirety of its sensibly intuitive features, literally, from all sides at once in a self-contained perception” (Husserl, Analyses Concerning Passive and Active Synthesis, pp. 39-40).

Adumbration is something like foreshadowing.

While many of his contemporaries were caught up in the logical empiricist enthusiasm for literal “sense data” as the supposedly rock-solid foundation for knowledge, Husserl was taking an extremely original approach to a more classical view of the inherent limiting and “transcending” features of sense perception, explicitly bringing out implicit characteristics of any possible seeing of physical objects that seem clear as soon as we bring them into focus and reflect on them.

We need not take something like Plato’s refusal to treat sensation as a source of knowledge as a case of repugnance toward physicality. With Husserl’s help we can “see” a more specific grounding of Plato’s view in reasons inherent to the subject matter. Husserl’s exceptionally clear examples in the realm of visual perception also provide a kind of model for understanding something like Hegel’s frequent complaints against “one-sided” points of view.

“When we view the table, we view it from some particular side…. Yet the table has still other sides” (p. 40). “It is clear that a non-intuitive pointing beyond or indicating is what characterizes the side actually seen as a mere side” (p. 41). “In every moment of perceiving, the perceived is what it is in its mode of appearance [as] a system of referential implications…. And it calls out to us, as it were, in these referential implications: ‘There is still more to see here, turn me so you can see all my sides, let your gaze run through me, draw closer to me, divide me up; keep on looking at me over again and again…'” (ibid).

“These indications are at the same time tendencies that push us toward the appearances not given…. They are pointers into an emptiness since the non-actualized appearances are neither consciously intended nor presentified. In other words, everything that genuinely appears is an appearing thing only by virtue of being intertwined and permeated with an intentional empty horizon, that is, by virtue of being surrounded by a halo of emptiness with respect to appearance. It is an emptiness that is not a nothingness, but an emptiness to be filled-out; it is a determinable indeterminacy” (p. 42).

“In spite of its emptiness, the sense of this halo of consciousness is a prefiguring that prescribes a rule for the transition to new actualizing appearances…. This holds time and again for every perceptual phase of the streaming process of perceiving…. There is a constant process of anticipation, of preunderstanding” (pp. 42-43).

“[A]s soon as a new side becomes visible, a side that has just been visible disappears from sight….But what has become non-visible is not cognitively lost for us…. Having already once seen the back side of an unfamiliar object and, turning back to perceive the front side, the empty premonition of the back side now has a determinate prefiguring that it did not have previously” (pp. 45-46).

“The fact that a re-perception, a renewed perception of the same thing, is possible for transcendence characterizes the fundamental trait of transcendent perception, alone through which an abiding world is there for us, a reality that can be pregiven for us and can be freely at our disposal” (p. 47).

Here “transcendence” just refers to the various characteristics of the incomplete perception of spatial objects he is pointing out.

“[W]e see that every perception [implicitly] invokes an entire perceptual system; every appearance that arises in it implies an entire system of appearances” (p. 48). “What is already given to consciousness in a primordial-impressional manner points to new modes of appearance through its halo which, when occurring, emerge as partly confirming, partly determining more closely…. Advancing along this line, the empty intentions are transformed respectively into expectations” (p. 49).

Perception gives us the very opposite of isolated sense data. Every perception is connected to other perceptions.

“If we ask, finally, what gives unity within every temporal point of the momentary appearance… we will also come across reciprocal intentions that are fulfilled simultaneously and reciprocally” (p. 50).

Substance in the elementary sense of something persisting through change emerges from networks of mutually reinforcing cross-references.

“We can never think the given object without empty horizons in any phase of perception and, what amounts to the same thing, without apperceptive adumbration. With adumbration there is simultaneously a pointing beyond what is exhibiting itself in a genuine sense. Genuine exhibition is itself, again, not a pure and simple possession on the model of immanence with its esse = percipi [to be = to be perceived]; instead, it is a partially fulfilled intention that contains unfulfilled indications that point beyond” (p. 56).

“[I]n the process of perceiving, the sense itself is continually cultivated so in steady transformation, constantly leaving open the possibility of new transformations” (p. 57).

Everything we perceive reaches beyond itself, raising new questions.

“We always have the external object in the flesh (we see it, grasp, seize it), and yet it is always at an infinite distance mentally. What we do grasp of it pretends to be its essence; and it is it too, but it remains so only in an incomplete approximation, an approximation that grasps something of it, but in doing so also constantly grasps into emptiness that cries out for fulfillment” (pp. 58-59).

I suggested above that what Husserl illustrates so clearly about visual perception can serve as a model for other things. In particular, I think both facts and beliefs share the perspectival character of visual perception of spatial objects, because they revolve around analogous issues of correspondence with something external.

The very best and most complete facts about anything at best resemble a collection of still views of a tree from different angles, like the sides of the table in Husserl’s example. The virtue of facts is that they are supposed to be individually self-contained, and individually verifiable by correspondence to states of affairs. Even leaving aside all questions of interpretation that tend to unravel this putative self-containedness, by virtue of their isolation all individual facts still remain “one-sided” or perspectival, like individual still views of the tree.

Even the most complete collection or sequence of still views fails to capture the simultaneous many-sided unity-in-diversity of the concrete tree. The real concrete unity of the tree is not factual but teleological and “transcendental”, forever out of reach of a merely factual approach.

If this is true of the best possible facts, I would say it must also be true of the best possible beliefs, because both revolve around a kind of correspondence to states of affairs. The difference is that beliefs are just assertions of correspondence between what we say and what “is”. But to qualify as a fact, an assertion must also be verifiable by correspondence.

But verification by correspondence can only apply to what appears, not to what “is”, so facts only apply to what appears about states of affairs. Facts in effect just are verifiable appearances. They are an instance of what Plato called “true opinion”. They are objects of justified true belief, and potentially of a kind of subjective “certainty”.

Beliefs on the other hand usually reach beyond appearances toward what is, so although they assert a kind of correspondence, they cannot in general be verified by correspondence. Their well-foundedness in the general case has to do with a goodness of reasons. Well-foundedness by reasons falls short of certainty in one way, but it reaches deeper. It is potentially less subject to perturbation, because it does not directly depend on appearances or correspondence.

I think knowledge is something stronger than well-founded belief. Unlike facts and beliefs, I want to say that knowledge in the proper sense has nothing to do with correspondence to something outside itself. Also, well-founded beliefs may depend on assumptions that could eventually be refuted, but “knowledge” in the sense I want to give it does not depend on any assumptions either.

Contrary to common usage, then, I want to say that facts are not knowledge, and even certainty about appearances is not knowledge.

Judgments of correspondence — including beliefs and facts and certainties about appearance — seem to me to be inherently perspectival in the way that Husserl talks about. On the other hand, that rare thing called knowledge, in the way I am using the term, would be immune to perspectival limitations, because it does not depend on correspondence at all. (See also Husserl on Passive Synthesis; Opinion, Belief, Knowledge?; Sense Certainty?; Taking “Things” as True; Berkeley on Perception; Platonic Truth; Everyday Belief; A Criterion for Knowledge?; McDowell on the Space of Reasons; The Non-Primacy of Perception.)

McDowell on the Space of Reasons

John McDowell’s paper “Sellars and the Space of Reasons” (2018) provides a useful discussion of this concept. Unlike Brandom, who aims to complete Sellars’ break with empiricism, McDowell ultimately wants to defend “a non-traditional empiricism, uncontaminated by the Myth of the Given” (p. 1).

McDowell begins by quoting Sellars: “in characterizing an episode or a state as that of knowing, we are not giving an empirical description of that episode or state; we are placing it in the logical space of reasons, of justifying and being able to justify what one says” (ibid; emphasis added).

For Sellars, to speak of states of knowing is to talk about “epistemic facts”. A bit later, McDowell says that Sellars’ epistemic facts also include judgments and uses of concepts that might not be considered knowledge. Not only beliefs but also desires end up as a kind of epistemic facts. McDowell uses this to argue that the space of reasons is a version of the concept of knowledge as justified true belief. I want to resist this last claim.

McDowell points out that knowledge for Sellars has a normative character. Sellars also regards the foundationalist claim that epistemic facts can be explained entirely in terms of non-epistemic facts (physiology of perception and so on) as of a piece with the naturalistic fallacy in ethics.

McDowell cites Donald Davidson’s contrast between space-of-reasons intelligibility and the kind of regularity-based intelligibility that applies to a discipline like physics, but does not want to assume there is a single model for all non-space-of-reasons intelligibility.

He notes that Sellars contrasts placing something in the space of reasons with empirical description, but wants to weaken that distinction, allowing epistemic facts to be grounded in experience, and to be themselves subject to empirical description. “Epistemic facts are facts too” (p. 5). I prefer going the other direction, and saying empirical descriptions are judgments too.

The space of reasons is only occupied by speakers. Sellars is quoted saying, “all awareness of sorts, resemblances, facts, etc., in short all awareness of abstract entities — indeed, all awareness even of particulars — is a linguistic affair” (p. 7, emphasis in original). “And when Sellars connects being appropriately positioned in the space of reasons with being able to justify what one says, that is not just a matter of singling out a particularly striking instance of having a justified belief, as if that idea could apply equally well to beings that cannot give linguistic expression to what they know” (ibid).

“‘Inner’ episodes with conceptual content are to be understood on the model of overt performances in which people, for instance, say that things are thus and so” (p. 8). “What Sellars proposes is that the concept of, for instance, perceptual awareness that things are thus and so should be understood on the model of the concept of, for instance, saying that things are thus and so” (p. 10). All good so far.

To be in the space of reasons, “the subject would need to be able to step back from the fact that it is inclined in a certain direction by the circumstance. It would need to be able to raise the question whether it should be so inclined” (pp. 10-11, emphasis in original). But McDowell says — and I agree — that this is without prejudice as to whether there is still a kind of kinship between taking reasons as reasons, on the one hand, and the purposeful behaviors of animals, on the other.

McDowell acknowledges that the idea that epistemic facts can only be justified by other epistemic facts is easy to apply to inferential knowledge, but rather harder to apply to the “observational knowledge” that he claims should also be included in the space of reasons. For McDowell, observational knowledge is subject to a kind of justification by other facts.

McDowell and Brandom both recognize something called “observational knowledge”, but Brandom thinks that it necessarily involves appeal to claimed non-epistemic facts, whereas McDowell wants to broaden the concept of epistemic facts enough to be able to say that observational knowledge can be justified by appealing only to epistemic facts. I would prefer to say, observational judgments are subject to a kind of tentative justification by other judgments.

McDowell says that acquiring knowledge noninferentially is also an exercise of conceptual capacities. This clearly implies a noninferential conception of the conceptual, and seems to me to presuppose a representationalist one instead. This has huge consequences.

He says that the space of reasons must include noninferential relations of justification, which work by appeal to additional facts rather by inference. But where did those facts come from? In light of Kant, I would say that we rational animals never have direct access to facts that just are what they are. Rather, if we are being careful, we should recognize that we can only consider claims and judgments of fact, which may be relatively well-founded or not. But appeal to claims of fact for justification is just passing the buck. Claims of any sort always require justification of their own.

As an example, McDowell discusses claims to know that something is green in color. As non-inferential justification in this context, he says one might say that “This is a good light for telling the colours of things by looking” (p. 18). That is fine as a criterion for relatively well-founded belief, but that is all it is.

A bit later, he adds, “I can tell a green thing when I see one, at least in a good light, viewed head-on, and so forth. A serviceable gloss on that remark is to say that if I claim, in suitable circumstances, that something is green, then it is” (p. 19).

This is to explicitly endorse self-certification of one’s authority. It is therefore ultimately to allow the claim, it’s true because I said so. I think it was a rejection on principle of this kind of self-certification that led Plato to sharply distinguish knowledge from belief.

As Aristotle pointed out in discussing the relation between what he respectively called “demonstration” and “dialectic”, we can apply the same kinds of inference both to things we take as true and to things we are examining hypothetically. We can make only hypothetical inferences (if A, then B) from claims or judgments of A; we can only legitimately make categorical inferences (A, therefore B) from full-fledged knowledge of A — which, to be such, must at minimum not beg the question or pass the buck of justification.

The great majority of our real-world reasoning is ultimately hypothetical rather than categorical, even though we routinely act as if it were categorical. One of Kant’s great contributions was to point out that — contrary to scholastic and early modern tradition — hypothetical judgement is a much better model of judgment in general than categorical judgment is. The general form of judgment is conditional, and not absolute.

I think it’s fine to include beliefs, opinions, and judgments in the space of reasons as McDowell wants to do, provided we recognize their ultimately hypothetical and tentative character. But once we recognize the hypothetical and tentative character of beliefs, I think it follows that all relations within the space of reasons can be construed as inferential.

I don’t think contemporary science has much to do with so-called observational knowledge of the “it is green” variety, either. Rather, it has to do partly with applications of mathematics, and partly with well-controlled experiments, in which the detailed conditions of the controls are far more decisive than the observational component. The prejudice that simple categorical judgments like “it is green” have anything to do with science is a holdover from old foundationalist theories of sense data.

I would also contend that all putative non-space-of-reasons intelligibility ultimately depends on space-of-reasons intelligibility.

Opinion, Belief, Knowledge?

There is an empiricist commonplace that identifies “knowledge” with “justified true belief”. This makes knowledge an especially good kind of belief. I regard that as a flat-out category mistake.

I want to suggest that knowledge is not a kind of belief or opinion at all. As usual, I don’t claim to “know” what I “suggest” with some force as interesting or worthy of consideration, so in particular I do not claim to know that knowledge is not belief or opinion. (I am also not trying to say exactly what knowledge is, only to delimit it somewhat.)

What I am doing is recommending a different use of the word “knowledge”, that at minimum distinguishes it from belief or opinion. This is based on the belief or opinion that the belief or opinion that “knowledge is not belief or opinion” is a well-founded belief or opinion.

I read Plato as very sharply distinguishing “knowledge” properly so-called (epistémé) from any kind of doxa (opinion or belief). This would rule out the identification of knowledge with justified true belief.

It is not uncommon, however, to see claims that Plato himself identified knowledge with justified true belief. I will offer a different interpretation of the main relevant passage here. I apologize for using the old Jowett translation, which is easily accessible online.

“Then when the jurors are rightly persuaded of something one could not actually know except by being present — when they judge it, that is, on hearsay, and yet with a true opinion, they judge it without knowledge; even though, if their decision is sound, their persuasion is correct” (Plato, Theaetetus 201).

Ignoring the particular criterion of knowledge mentioned in the example, the essential is that on reflection, we should all be able to agree that there are cases in which we would say that someone has a true opinion without knowledge. So far, this is agnostic to whether or not knowledge is justified true opinion. It just establishes that true opinion in itself is not knowledge.

“When therefore anyone conceives a true opinion of anything without a reasoned statement, his mind is free from error about it, but does not know it; for the man who cannot give and accept a reasoned statement about anything, has not knowledge of it: but when he adds to his true opinion a reasoned statement, he has in addition all that is required to constitute knowledge” (202).

Here it is very important to distinguish between statements about knowledge and statements about someone who has it. What is argued in the above quotation is that the person who has a true opinion and a reasoned statement has what she needs for knowledge.

I would agree that a person who has knowledge can reasonably be said also to believe what she knows. But it does not follow from this that knowledge itself is any kind of belief, or in particular that knowledge is just true belief accompanied by a reasoned statement. Nothing in the argument excludes the possibility that knowledge itself — as distinct from the person who has both knowledge and belief — is tied only to the reasoned statement, and is in itself independent of the person’s belief.

I think this is already sufficient to disprove the claim that this section of the Theaetetus expresses the view that knowledge is reducible to justified true belief.

If knowledge were tied only to the reasoned statement, it would still be true that the person who also had a true belief would have what she needed for knowledge. Again, I don’t mean to say that “reasoned statement” is sufficient by itself to define knowledge, even though I think it gives an important hint. It is worth noting, however, that Plato’s mention of a reasoned statement is more specific than the simple mention of justification.

Also, “truth” is said in more than one way. The kind of truth that could reasonably be said of a belief or opinion is only a correspondence to facts. The kind of truth of principal interest to Plato was very different from this.

I also think there is a broad category of acquaintance that is extremely important to humans, but is different from knowledge. The kind of experience I find interesting is mainly not ephemeral immediate experience, but the more substantial thing that we mean when we say someone is “experienced”. (See also Imagination, Emotion, Opinion; Consciousness, Personhood; A Criterion for Knowledge?; Everyday Belief; Belief is Different from Faith.)

History of Ethics: Plato

Traditional communities, even the most “primitive” known to modern anthropology, have well-defined, generally accepted ways of distinguishing good and bad actions. Hegel called this “ethical substance”.

What I call “ethics” involves a second level, in which the criteria for good and bad are subject to discussion. Here we are not simply laying down the law, but inquiring into the principles that ought to govern distinctions between good and bad. The oldest documented example of this kind of inquiry in our planetary family of cultures is the writings of Plato. How much of the literary character of Socrates in Plato is attributable to the historic Socrates is debated by scholars, but need not concern us here. It is in Plato that we find an actual record of Socratic inquiry. Other so-called “minor Socratic” schools also claimed to be inspired by Socrates, but left no record of critical give and take comparable to what we find in the dialogues of Plato.

Plato clearly recognized the weakness of argument from authority, and put the reasoned examination of principles before the mere fact of anyone’s say-so. He further pointed out that assertions about God’s will and its applicability to real-world cases need to be evaluated as human assertions, on the same footing as others. In discussions about truth, there are no specially privileged assertions or asserters. He set a strong ideal of sincerely seeking knowledge rather than assuming we have it, and by example promoted the modest attitude that humans should avoid making strong claims that human knowledge cannot validate. Many of his most important ideas are only presented as what I call “suggestions”.

Provocatively, Plato suggested that all beings desire the good, and that the Good is the most ultimate formative principle of all things. This reduces evil to ignorance of the true Good. The tendentious claim here is that evil is a kind of lack or defect, and that no one who aims at what is really evil properly understands what they are doing. This gives fundamental ethical significance to knowledge and the quest for better understanding. Treating evil as due to some lack of understanding also suggests a way of forgiving the evil-doer.

For Plato, wisdom and goodness are correlative. Wisdom especially includes the recognition of what we do not know. It is superior to any law. The most wise are the best qualified to govern, but do not want the job and must be coaxed into doing it.

Plato was unconcerned with questions like who decides who is wise, preferring to focus instead on how such judgments should be made. For the latter, he suggested the same kind of free and open dialogue and examination of reasons as for any other questions about truth.

Roots of Action

Returning again to Alain de Libera’s Archaeology of the Subject, de Libera had characterized a typical modern view of human subjectivity in terms of a “subject-agent” that combines the notion of a grammatical subject with that of a cause associated with a kind of “intentions” that are considered to be both mental acts and representations. This is a very specific cultural construct that makes many assumptions. It has acquired a kind of common-sense status, but treating human subjectivity in this way is very far from universally valid.

The common cliché is to call this the “Cartesian subject”, but de Libera’s project is to show that the groundwork for it was actually laid within the Latin scholastic tradition.

My treatment of de Libera’s work has been and will be a sort of journey of discovery; I don’t know in advance exactly where it will end up.

I had begun to look at his treatment of the particular place of Thomas Aquinas in this development. Previously, I have approached Aquinas mainly in terms of his admirable recovery and defense of what I consider to be good Aristotelian principles, and what I take to be his simultaneous divergence from or confusion of some of these that I regard as highly important. So, I felt the need to consult a few sympathetic secondary sources for a view of Aquinas more on his own terms. Now I feel a little better equipped to resume this thread.

It was a commonplace of 20th century Thomism to recommend itself as an alternative to broadly Cartesian views of what it is to be a human being. The contrasting picture de Libera paints is far more intricate and ambivalent. As well as recovering Aristotelian insights, Aquinas took some new steps in a “modern” direction, but many of these were only consolidated by the systematizing efforts of later Thomists. Part of the reason I felt the need to dwell a little on Aquinas was to be better prepared to understand distinctions between Aquinas himself and later Thomistic developments.

“The semantic field of action is nonetheless more complex, its frontiers more porous, when one considers effective usage, the real implementation of the principles mentioned, or when one analyses more finely the lexicon of the authors” (Archéologie du sujet volume 3 part 1, p. 312; my translation).

To begin with, leading 20th century Thomist scholar Bernard Lonergan concluded that a simple distinction between immanent and transitive action is “too rigid” (ibid). Lonergan is quoted (ibid) saying it was later authors who considered it metaphysically irreducible. For Aquinas, agere (to act) has a strong moral sense related to what de Libera calls a “subject of imputation”. In medieval Latin, actio (action) is used to translate both Greek praxis (glossed as moral conduct) and poieisis (glossed as production). Lonergan says Aquinas uses actio sometimes in a general sense that includes both of these, and sometimes more specifically for moral conduct. By contrast, action affecting external matter is more properly called factio.

For Aquinas, actio in the moral sense, according to de Libera’s summary of Lonergan, is associated with “free beings who are masters of their acts” (p. 313). I (and I think Aristotle as well) would say instead ethical beings who are responsible for their acts. Freedom and mastery are here implicitly defined in terms of one another, and ethical being and responsibility are also defined in terms of one another.

As I understand it, Aquinas regarded the will as a function of intellect rather than a separate faculty, so he would not be a voluntarist in the technical sense formulated that way. Nonetheless, as I understand it, he insisted that humans have the equivalent of arbitrary freedom.

I say that responsibility does not involve mastery, nor does ethical being involve freedom to act arbitrarily. This issue is independent of questions connecting action with efficient causality.

Mastery and arbitrary freedom (medieval Latin libertas, or the liberty of the lord to do whatever) are (mis)applications of something analogous to omnipotence on a moral or social level. Early modern apologists for absolute monarchy were strongly committed to an analogy between absolute monarchy and theologies stressing divine omnipotence. For Plato and Leibniz, this was the formula of tyranny. (See also Euthyphro.)

Essentialism?

Is it reasonable to call a philosopher who makes significant use of “essence” or similar terms an essentialist? I would say no. If you look at the Wikipedia article on essentialism for example, it appears to be a term of superficial classification that is used in a hostile or pejorative way. The definition given there is certainly nothing I would identify with.

I find essence to be a very useful concept. This Latin-derived term doesn’t exactly capture any single word used by Plato or Aristotle. Essence is what I call a way of being rather than a thing or property. It corresponds to the more abstract meanings of “form” and “substance”, and to what Aristotle called the “what it is” and “what it was to have been” of a thing. For both Plato and Aristotle it is an object of inquiry rather than something taken for granted. Aristotle’s notions of potentiality and actualization apply to it concepts of alternatives, development, and unanticipated change.

Aquinas’ introduction of a separate explicit concept of existence is a good example of how meanings change with context. For Aquinas, God in the act of creation gives being to possible essences. This implies that the essences are completely preformed, as Leibniz argued explicitly. Leibniz’s pre-established harmony has been viewed as deterministic, though Leibniz argued that it was not. In any case, Aquinas and Leibniz treat essences as discrete possibilities, whereas I read Aristotle as focusing on what is actualized or subject to a process of actualization. Essence as a discrete possibility is still arguably more sophisticated than what gets called “essentialism”, but it is much closer. (See also Platonic Truth; Form Revisited; Form as Value; Form, Substance.)

Form Revisited

My original skeletal note on form dates back to the first months of my writing here. This is intended to be the beginning of a better treatment.

When I speak of form, I have in mind first of all the various uses of the term in Aristotle, but secondly a family of ways of looking at the world largely in terms of what we call form, as one might broadly say that both Plato and Aristotle did. Then there is a very different but also interesting family of uses in Kant. There are also important 20th century notions of “structure”.

Form in its Platonic and Aristotelian senses is closely related to what we might call essence, provided we recognize that essence is not something obvious or pre-given. At the most superficial level it may refer to a kind of shape, but it may involve much more.

Plato was classically understood to assert the existence of self-subsistent intelligible “forms” that do not depend on any mind or body. I prefer to emphasize that he put a notion of form first in the order of explanation — ahead of any notion of something standing under something else, ahead of notions of force or action, ahead of particular instances of things. Related to this, he put the contents of thought before the thinker, and used the figure of Socrates to argue that a thing is not good because God wills it to be so, but rather that God wills a thing because it is good.

Aristotle identified form with the “what it is” of a thing. He put form and things like it first in the order of explanation, but explicitly argued that form is not self-subsistent. At the same time, he made the notion of form much more lively. While Plato had already suggested that form has an active character and that the soul is a kind of form, most of his examples of form were static, like the form of a triangle or the form of a chair. Aristotle on the other hand was very interested in the forms of the apparent motions of the stars; the marvelous variety of the forms of animals, considering not only their anatomy but patterns of activity and ways of life; and the diverse forms of human communities, their ways of life and institutionalized concepts of good. Form figures prominently in the development of the notion of ousia (“what it was to have been” a thing) into potentiality, actualization, and prior actuality in Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Aristotelian form is interdependent with logical “matter” in such a way that I think the distinction is only relative. It is also inseparable from a consideration of ends. (See also Form as Value; Form, Substance.)

At first glance, Kant’s notion of form seems like the “mere form” of formalism, contrasted with something substantive called “content”. A certain notion of formalism is so strongly identified with Kant that in some contexts it has become a name for whatever was Kant’s position. I think some of Hegel’s criticisms of Kantian formalism are legitimate, and some overstated. In any case, the categorical imperative and its consequences of respect for others and the value of seeking to universalize ethical precepts — perhaps the first really original constellation of ethical ideas since Aristotle — are deeply tied to Kant’s so-called ethical formalism. Kant seeks a formalist path to the highest good, and argues that only a formalist path can truly reach it. The fact that it is a path to the highest good has deep implications for the meaning of this kind of “formalism”, and sets it apart from what is referred to as formalism in mathematics, logic, or law. This could also be related to Kant’s idea that ethical reason comes before tool-like reason in the order of explanation.

The 20th century notion of “structure” — to hazard a simplifying generalization — is about understanding each thing in terms of its relations to other things — principally how things are distinguished from one another, and how one thing entails another. Structure is form interpreted in a relational way that transcends fixed objects and properties. Objects and properties can be defined by relations of distinction and entailment.

Subject and Substance, Again

In the area I have been exploring most recently, we are rather far from the notions of subject and substance that I think Hegel worked back to in the course of asserting that “substance is also subject”, as if this were something new and unheard of.

It was unheard of in the context of relatively standard modern notions of substance and subject. But it is trivially true that “substance” (ousia) in the logical sense of Aristotle’s Categories (as distinct from the much deeper and more interesting sense developed in the Metaphysics) is a “subject” in the Aristotelian sense of “thing standing under”.

It is also true, I think, that substance in the deeper Aristotelian sense is the kind of thing that what I call the human essence or ethical being is, and the latter, I want to contentiously claim, actually deserves to be called a truer form of “subject” than the more standard modern notion of a psychological or spiritual subject-agent.

I’m very aware that I haven’t adequately explained what I mean by human essence, even if I gesture at something by equating it with ethical being. It is important to recognize that most 20th century philosophers rejected the very idea of a human essence. In the course of rejecting it, they made a lot of valuable criticism of notions of human essence that were too easy or had overly specific, arbitrary implications. But essence in general in the best Platonic sense ought to be taken as an open question. And by human, I just mean all of us animals that participate in meaningful language, as Aristotle said.

In having meaningful dialogue at all, we implicitly acknowledge some sort of ethics and standards of reasonableness, even if they are underdeveloped or poorly practiced). We become a “who” through participation in language and the elementary practices of mutual recognition that are entailed by such participation.

Hegel talks about “ethical substance” as the basis of traditional culture. Its “substantial” character is both a strength and a shortcoming. It is unalienated, but ultimately limited by the fact that it just “is what it is”. In his view, this kind of life comes to be eclipsed by modern individualism with its focus on the subject-agent ego, which (to simplify greatly) in turn can potentially be eclipsed or overcome by mutual recognition and “substance that is also subject”. (See also Substance and Subject.)

Pure Difference?

A common theme here is the conceptual priority of difference over identity. I think that identity is a derived concept, and not a primitive one (see also Aristotelian Identity).

The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995) in Difference and Repetition and other works argued that a pure notion of difference is by itself sufficient for a general account of things. In information theory, information is explained as expressing difference. In Saussurean structural linguistics, we are said to recognize spoken words by recognizing elementary differences between sounds. In both cases, the idea is that we get to meaning by distinguishing and relating.

Deleuze initially cites both of these notions of difference, but goes on to develop arguments grounded largely in Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, whom he uses to argue against Plato and Hegel. His very interesting early work Nietzsche and Philosophy was marred by a rather extreme polemic against Hegel, and in Difference and Repetition he announces a program of “anti-Platonism” that reproduces Nietzsche’s intemperate hostility to Plato. Nietzsche blamed Plato for what I regard as later developments. Neither Plato nor Aristotle made the kind of overly strong assertions about identity that became common later on.

In The Sophist and elsewhere, Plato had his characters speak of Same, Other, and the mixing of the two as equally primordial. Hegel took great pains to elaborate the notion of a “difference that makes a difference”. But Deleuze wants to argue that Plato and Hegel both illegitimately subordinate difference to identity. His alternative is to argue that what is truly fundamental is a primitive notion of difference that does not necessarily “make a difference”, and that come before any “making a difference”. (I prefer the thesis of Leibniz that indiscernibility of any difference is just what identity consists in.)

This is related to Deleuze’s very questionable use of Duns Scotus’ notion of the univocity of being, both in general and more particularly in his interpretation of Spinoza. For Deleuze, pure difference interprets Scotist univocal being.

I frankly have no idea what led to Deleuze’s valorization of Scotus. Deleuze is quite extreme in his opposition to any kind of representationalism, while Scotus made representability the defining criterion of his newly invented univocal being. It is hard to imagine views that are further apart. I can only speculate that Deleuze too hastily picked out Scotus because he wanted to provocatively oppose the 20th century neo-Thomism that had considerable prominence in France, and Scotus is a leading medieval figure standing outside the Thomist tradition.

For Deleuze, univocal being is pure difference without any identity. Difference that doesn’t make a difference seems to take over the functional role that identity has in theories that treat it as something underlying that exceeds any discernibility based on criteria. I don’t see why we need either of these.

I think Deleuze’s bête noir Hegel actually did a better job of articulating the priority of difference over identity. Hegel did this not by appealing to a putative monism of difference and nothing else, but by developing correlative notions of “difference that makes a difference”, and a kind of logical consequence or entailment that we attribute to real things as we interpret them, independent of and prior to any elaboration of logic in a formal sense.

In Hegel’s analysis as explicated by Brandom, any difference that makes a difference expresses a kind of “material” incompatibility of meaning that rules out some possible assertions. This is just what “making a difference” means. Meanwhile, all positive assertions can be more specifically analyzed as assertions of some consequence or entailment or other at the level of meaning (see Material Consequence). Every predication is analyzable as an assertion of consequence or entailment between subject and predicate, as Leibniz might remind us. It is always valid to interpret, e.g., “a cat is a mammal” as an inference rule for generating conclusions like if Garfield is a cat, then Garfield is a mammal.

What is missing from Deleuze’s account is anything like entailment, the idea of something following from something else. This notion of “following”, I am convinced, is prior to any notion of identity applicable to real things. Without presupposing any pre-existing identities of things, we can build up an account of the world based on the combination of differences that make a difference, on the one hand, and real-world entailments, on the other. Identity is then a result rather than an assumption. Meanings (and anything like identity) emerge from the interplay of practical real-world entailments and distinctions. It is their interplay that gives them definition in terms of one another.

Deleuze was a sort of ontological anarchist, who wanted being to be free of any pre-existing principles. While I agree that we can’t legitimately just assume such principles, I think this is very far from meaning that principles are irrelevant, or actually harmful. On the contrary, as Kant might remind us, principles are all-important. They aren’t just “given”. We have to do actual work to develop them. But if we have no principles — if nothing truly follows from anything else, or is ruled out by anything else — then we cannot meaningfully say anything at all.