Bounty of Nature

Nature as we experience it is more characterized by superabundance and diversity of form than by univocal necessity. Even nonorganic phenomena like the weather involve material tendencies toward a kind of dynamic equilibrium. These tendencies — which are even more pronounced with living things — involve an “ability” to spontaneously recover when disturbed, a kind of resilience and adaptability to new circumstances.

The neoplatonists developed a whole metaphysic of “eternal generation” by a kind of overflow. For them, beyond every intelligible essence was something “supra-essential” that could be characterized only indirectly, through its overflowing superabundance. Essence ended up as a kind of after-image of the eternally overflowing primary superabundance of the Good or the One. Transformed in various ways, this notion greatly influenced historical developments in theology, supporting notions of the generosity, providence, and grace of a more personal God.

In a more modest and down-to-earth way, Aristotle had also dwelt on our experience of superabundance, applying it in his biology and in the more general notion of potentiality. In between, the Stoics developed a contrasting emphasis on a univocal direct divine omnipotence with respect to events. In the tradition, all three of these approaches came to be hybridized in all sorts of ways. While I think the approach of Aristotle himself was the best of all, I have a lot more sympathy with theologies of superabundance of form than with theologies of power-over and dominion. (See also Fragility of the Good.)

Multiple Explanations

One of the great strengths of Aristotle’s approach to things is the way it makes use of multiple, complementary kinds of explanation. The paired modalities of actuality and potentiality and the four “causes” (ends and means, form and materiality) all interweave together to create rich tapestries of understanding. Aristotle famously said that to know is to be able to explain, and his notion of explanation is clearly hermeneutic and expansive, rather than reductive. (See also Interpretation; What and Why.; Difference; Classification; Definition.)

Ricoeurian Choice

Part 1 of Ricoeur’s Freedom and Nature is devoted to a rich discussion of choice. He says that to will is to think (p. 41), and that deciding is a kind of judging (p. 43). But also “I project my own self into the action to be done. Prior to all reflection about the self which I project, the myself summons itself… it becomes committed…. Prereflexive self-imputation is active, not observational” (p. 59; emphasis in original).

He develops at length how the interdependence of the voluntary and the involuntary can be seen in processes of choice. “The circle of ethics and practice repeats the more basic circle of motive and decision” (p. 77). Motives partially determine us in certain directions, but in deciding we choose which motives to put first. Deciding involves a combination of analysis and judgment with creativity and risk.

We should not think of a decision as an atomic act coming from nowhere. Hesitation and indecision are valid moments of a genuine process of considering alternatives, and this has implications for the self as well. “[T]his inchoate, problematic mode of myself must be grasped as it presents itself. We have no right to substitute for it the image of the triumphant self which is invariably one” (p. 140). The ambiguity inherent in our embodiment means that our decisions cannot be simply governed by a present totality of inclinations or an evident hierarchy of values (p. 143).

Neither an intellectualist approach that tries to reduce decision to air-tight determination from reasons nor a voluntarist one that turns decision into a creation from nothing is valid. “A living dialectic constantly brings us back from one aspect of choice to the other: choice as the peak of previous growth and as the surge of novelty” (p. 164; emphasis in original). “Thus we must say simultaneously that ‘choice follows from the final practical judgment’ and ‘a practical judgment is final when choice irrupts‘” (p. 181; emphasis in original). “Determination of the act and indetermination of the power do not actually represent two separate moments” (p. 186). (For more on the same book, see Phenomenology of Will; Ricoeur on Embodiment; Voluntary Action; Consent?. In general, see also Fallible Humanity; Ricoeurian Ethics; Oneself as Another; Choice, Deliberation; Practical Judgment; Potentiality, Actuality; Brandomian Choice.)

Ricoeurian Ethics

In the final chapters of Oneself as Another, Ricoeur develops a meta-level discourse about ethics, and concludes with a few “ontological” suggestions. Universalizing Kantian morality and the obligation it entails are said to provide a valuable extension to Aristotelian ethics, but ultimately to require supplementation by a return to Aristotelian practical judgment. This seems just about exactly right.

On the Kantian side, norms are said to concretize Aristotelian aims. The most important and general Kantian norm, according to Ricoeur, is reciprocity. He argues for the importance of the golden rule, citing Rabbi Hillel and the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. The distinction between “power over” and “power to” is discussed. The notion of persons as ends in themselves is emphasized. Procedural justice is seen to complement Aristotelian distributive justice. John Rawls’ summary of justice as fairness is endorsed. Although it is ultimately necessary to return to the openness of practical judgment, the passage through universalizing morality is equally necessary, as a safeguard against arbitrariness. Universality and contextuality go hand in hand, much as I have been arguing.

Writing at a time when French anti-Hegelianism was still quite influential and before the rise of new interest in Hegel, Ricoeur did not think Hegelian Geist — which he mistakenly saw as turning the state into an “agency capable of thinking itself by itself” (p. 255) — fit well with the notion of self Ricoeur wanted to advance. He did not want to follow what he saw as Hegel’s path in returning to an ethics of Sittlichkeit or mores embedded in concrete culture, but saw great potential value in a Sittlichkeit separated from the “ontology of Geist” (ibid) and the “thesis of the objective mind” (p. 256), especially if Sittlichkeit were “bent” in the direction of the openness of Aristotelian practical judgment. (A reading of Geist free of such ontology has more recently been argued by Brandom and others to be a better reading of Hegel himself.) “Our final word in this ‘little ethics’… will be to suggest that the practical wisdom we are seeking aims at reconciling Aristotle’s phronesis, by way of Kant’s Moralität, with Hegel’s Sittlichkeit” (p. 290).

On other matters such as the broad thrust of Hegel’s critique of atomistic individualism in the Philosophy of Right and the general value of dialectic, Ricoeur defended Hegel. The Hegelian concept of Right, he says, “surpasses the concept of justice on every side” (p. 253). The “problematic of realization, of the actualization of freedom, is ours as well in this study” (ibid). Reflection, he says, needs the mediation of analysis.

He says that institutionalized conflict is an essential feature of democracy. We should be accepting of conflict, but draw the line at violence. The idea of Rawls that argumentation is “the critical agency operating at the heart of convictions” (p. 288; emphasis in original), raising convictions to the level of considered convictions and resulting in a “reflective equilibrium”, is cited with approval. Ricoeur speaks of a “reflective equilibrium between the ethics of argumentation and considered convictions” (p. 289).

Respect for persons should take priority over respect for the law. The importance of keeping promises extends beyond its role with respect to personal identity to the space of reciprocity and the golden rule. Gabriel Marcel is quoted as saying all commitment is a response to an other. A notion of imputability is introduced as an ascription of action “under the condition of ethical and moral predicates” (p. 292). To this is added a notion of responsibility. Finally, he endorses Hegel’s concept of mutual recognition.

Unlike Brandom, Ricoeur construed the philosophy of language as analytically separate from ethics. He thus saw a need to go beyond its boundaries, and characterized that as an “ontological” moment. This seems to have two main ingredients.

First, the key to understanding the notion of self he wants to advance lies in Aristotelian potentiality and actuality. He also wants to understand actuality and self in connection with Heideggerian being-in-the-world. “[S]elf and being-in-the-world are basic correlates” (p. 313). Actuality should not be thought in terms of presence. Self should not be confused with “man”, and is not a foundation. Spinoza’s conatus or the general effort of beings to persevere finds its highest expression in Aristotelian energeia or actuality, and thus overflows its deterministic origins. The distinction between actuality and potentiality is associated with that between selfhood and sameness. (See also The Importance of Potentiality.)

Second, a discussion of Husserl’s distinction between the body (viewed externally) and “flesh” in which we live leads eventually to the conclusion that a dialectic of the Same and the Other cannot be constructed “in a unilateral manner” (p. 331). A final discussion of Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Lévinas leads to an “ultimate equivocalness with respect to the Other in the phenomenon of conscience” (p. 353). We need an alternative to “constitution in and through the ego” (p. 334), and he thinks an adaptation of Husserl’s notion of flesh provides this. Unfortunately, he speaks in passing of an “originary, immediate givenness of the flesh to itself” (p. 333). I think the notion of flesh is supposed to suggest something that softens the kind of rigid boundaries between self and other that we associate with an ego, and that is all good. But the other big issue with constitution of meaning through the ego is precisely that the ego was supposed to be a locus of originary, immediate givenness. It seems to me that one of the great values of a hermeneutic perspective is that it does not need to assume anything like that.

With the exception of this brief reference and his apparent attribution in passing of a reflexive “self” to Aristotle, the degree of convergence with what I have been developing here is impressive indeed.

(I think the kind of reflexivity Ricoeur had in mind in the latter case was only intended to be related to action, so his intent was to capture the fact that we can and do act on ourselves. This, I think, is a true and important observation. My quibble there is with attributing a notion of self as a simple unity to Aristotle.)

The Importance of Potentiality

I think modern philosophy generally is handicapped in its thinking about the empirical world by its lack of a notion like Aristotelian potentiality. To build context, I need to first say a bit more about the role of actuality.

The modern concept of a factual, existing world is relatively close to Aristotelian actuality, but the first big difference is that it is not paired with anything. The modern concept of a factual world is something that is supposed to be complete in itself, whereas for Aristotle, actuality in the world is always complemented by some correlative potentiality. Aristotle did not consider actuality alone to be sufficient to account for the world as we experience it.

Actuality also does not exactly correspond to a state of things, but rather expresses what is effectively operative. This is semantically a bit deeper than a notion of state. At the same time, it does not have state’s strong implications of complete determination. It also does not have the monolithic unity of a state. Actuality in the world consists of many coexisting things. Further, it is not intended by itself to provide all the resources needed to account for change and what happens next. This is related to the fact that for Aristotle, the operative determination of things is not entirely univocal. (See also Equivocal Determination.)

Enter potentiality. Potentiality is exactly what is not univocal in the actual determination of things. It corresponds to multiple alternative concrete possibilities of realization already implicit in current reality. This is a far more specific notion than mere logical possibility. Potentiality is closely tied to and informed by the current actuality, in that it exactly occupies the real gaps or holes in the actuality’s incompletely univocal determination. For each aspect of things where there is not univocal determination, there are instead multiple potential alternatives. This correlates with the fact that, for Aristotle — in contrast to Poincaré’s classic formulation of modern determinism — the present does not completely determine the future.

Poincaré famously claimed that from the state of the universe at any arbitrary point in time, its entire future is completely determined. This resembles the Stoic notion of fate, transferred to a modern event-based model of causality. For both the Stoics and Poincaré, the world is completely univocally determined. Like Aristotle, they emphasized the intelligibility of the world and of change in the world, but they made the very strong assumption of complete univocal determination. Aristotle did not.

Aristotle’s notion of intelligibility was broadly semantic, whereas Poincaré’s was mathematical. With semantic interpretation, there is always a question of how far we develop the account, which in principle could be extended indefinitely. It thus naturally lends itself to an account of incomplete determination, corresponding to some stopping point. Aristotle does not claim any more determination than he can show. Poincaré’s approach, by contrast, requires that we assume there is a complete univocal determination of the world by mathematical laws, even though we can never even come close to knowing enough to show it. This assumption leaves no room for anything like potentiality. Potentiality, it seems to me, could only have a place in a semantic approach to intelligibility.

The modern factual world is usually considered as something that just is, without modal qualification, but I have increasingly begun to doubt whether for Aristotle there is any non-modal account of the world. I read actuality and potentiality both as modal concepts, and everything in the Aristotelian world as parsable into actuality and potentiality.

What’s important about this is that potentiality is not just some mysterious “metaphysical” concept that we could maybe do without. It is a distinct logical/semantic modality supporting multiple virtual alternatives for the same thing. It allows us to intelligibly account for the incomplete determination we really experience, rather than treating real-world incompleteness and ambiguity as if it were a kind of flaw. (See also Structural Causality, Choice; Values, Causality; Structure, Potentiality.)

Potentiality, Actuality

Potentiality and actuality are Aristotle’s indispensable modal tools, providing resources for a variety of sophisticated analyses. Notable applications include a nonreductive, “dialectical” interweaving of is and ought that allows conditional “oughts” to be constructed subsuming applicable details of a contextual “is”. This allows something like structural causality to coexist with something like Kantian freedom.

Modern discourse on the relation of “is” and “ought” has generally oscillated between a reductive ethical naturalism that explains “ought” exclusively in terms of “is” on the one hand, and an unexplainable dualism of “is” and “ought” on the other.

With his explicit distinction between modes of potentiality and actuality, Aristotle had a better way. He also talked about the typical modern modalities of abstract possibility and necessity, but concrete potentiality and actuality are the crown jewels of Aristotle’s modal discourse. (See also The Importance of Potentiality.)

Essential Goodness

By essential goodness I mean a kind of multiple potential that is always there. With Aristotle, I don’t assume there is a single Platonic form of the Good. I also don’t assume that the potential for goodness is evenly distributed, but it seems to be plentiful. As befits its potential status, it is simultaneously over- and underdetermined. There is more than one way for a situation to turn out well. This is not automatic, and usually requires our cooperation and active participation.

Part of what makes meanings meaningful to us is their involvement with contingency. Contingency means that what we do matters, but it also means there will always be things beyond our control that we passively experience.

A few of these may be terrible. We lose loved ones. After seeing horrors like the Nazi concentration camps, some people lost their faith, because God did not prevent those things from occurring. This was based on a wrong expectation of a universally present guiding hand in events. Enough wonders do come to us in life that metaphors of providence speak to us, and hope is a good thing. But providence does not necessitate anything, because goodness is a potential that typically requires a cooperating agent(s) for its realization.

Space of Reasons

Wilfrid Sellars (1912-89) was one of the greatest American philosophers of the 20th century. A pragmatist trained in the analytic tradition, he rethought analytic philosophy from a broadly Kantian point of view, and famously criticized the “Myth of the Given”. His positive reference to Hegel as “that great foe of immediacy” made a great impression on the young Robert Brandom.

Sellars originated the phrase “space of reasons”, now much used by Brandom and others. He said that to hold a commitment at all is to invite questions about the reasons for it. The particular reasons for a commitment involve other reasons, which involve still others, and so on, forming a “space” that can be explored through dialogue.

I would note that in Aristotelian terms, the space of reasons would be a kind of field of potentialities. Because the space of reasons is potential rather than actual, it involves a vast multiplication of alternate (counterfactual) paths, structures, and fibrations. I associate it with an open field of potential Socratic questioning and negotiation. By contrast, both individualized ethos and the beliefs generally shared by an existing community would be kinds of actuality, in which particular alternatives are already selected, but may change over time. (See also Normativity; Intentionality.)

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.

Structure, Potentiality

I now want to say, structure — which statically captures a determinate field of potential inferences — is isomorphic to Aristotelian potentiality. These concepts are mutually illuminating.

This helps clarify how Aristotelian potentiality differs from the Platonic power referenced by the same Greek word, as well shedding light on the association I have made between potentiality and counterfactual inference.

From the other direction, the thing to notice is that for Aristotle, potentiality exists only in a pair with actuality or at-work-ness. Similarly, synchronic structure exists only in a pair with diachronic process. I always read the conspicuous lack of definition of the synchronic/diachronic interface as reflecting something like Aristotle’s principled use of underdetermination in order to focus on what is most essential and clearly justifiable.

A lot of people seem to have been very confused about this latter point during the drama over 1960s French structuralism. What passed for dialogue was often a complete disconnect. “Look at how much can be explained synchronically!” “Oh no, you’re abolishing history, free will, personality, and identity!” If the new viewpoint was forgivably one-sided in its enthusiasm, some of the reaction verged on hysteria.

Another source of confusion seems to be that many people apparently thought of structural causality in terms of a monolithic, complete determination. I think instead that structural causality comes in many separate blocks, in an overall context of less-than-complete determination. (See also Structural Causality, Choice; Values, Causality; The Importance of Potentiality.)