Not Power and Action

My copy of Gwenaëlle Aubry’s Genèse du dieu souverain arrived today, and I’ve started to look at the front matter. She begins by explaining why Aristotelian potentiality and actuality are not reducible to concepts of power and action. In the Metaphysics, the most sophisticated sense of being and substance is associated with the pair en dunamei and energeia. Whereas the grammatical nominative form dunamis could connote an active power, she says the dative form en dunamei was used by Aristotle precisely to distinguish from this. The other essential distinguishing feature of Aristotle’s approach was to make the en dunamei dependent on an energeia (act, actuality, or at-work-ness), a term of Aristotle’s own invention. In French, Aubry translates en dunamei for potentiality as en-puissance, as distinct from the puissance that means power.

“[Potentiality] names, for a given being, the principle of a movement oriented by the act that is also its end and its proper good” (p. 10, my translation throughout). Actuality and potentiality, she says, thus provide an alternative model to that of efficient causality based on the relation between an active and a passive power.

“In the same way that potentiality is not power (active or passive), act is not action. Act does not act [L’act n’agit pas]. On the contrary, it names that for which we act or move: the telos or end, which is also the good” (ibid). Nor should the relation between potentiality and actuality be reduced to that between matter and form. She notes that Aristotle never referred to god as “pure form”.

She observes that book Lambda of the Metaphysics (1071a 4-5) singles out potentiality and actuality as applicable by analogy to all substances of all kinds. (Scholars debate whether “by analogy” adequately translates Aristotle’s pros hen or “toward one”, but that is a side issue.) “This assures at the same time the generality of the ontological discourse and the real primacy of the theological principle” (ibid). (I prefer to avoid the term “ontology”, but that is another side issue.)

“Determining [god] as pure act, [Aristotle’s view based on potentiality and actuality] poses [god] as at the same time identical with the good” (p. 11). She reads Aristotle’s statement of the project of the Metaphysics in book Alpha as “posing the good as a principle and identifying the causality proper to it” (p. 12). The Latin medieval tradition mostly followed Avicenna in treating the Metaphysics as what Duns Scotus called ontology, but the great commentator Averroes characterized the Metaphysics as a philosophical theology, and Aubry also calls it an axiology, or study of goodness and value.

Disambiguating “Power”

As Aristotle might remind us, “power” is said in many ways. Each of these is different.

There is the power that Plato suggests as a distinguishing mark of being in the Sophist. There is the greater power he attributes to the Good more ancient than being. There is Aristotelian potentiality, which I normally prefer to distinguish from “power” altogether, but is referred to by the same Greek word. There is the related notion of power as capacity, of the sort developed by Paul Ricoeur. There is efficient causality, itself said in many ways. There is physical force. There is legal or political authority. There are repressive apparatuses. There is the positive, distributed social power involved in the formation of selves, discussed by Michel Foucault. There is the artistic and inventive power with which Nietzsche was especially concerned. There are claims of supernatural power beyond possible human understanding.

I haven’t yet found where in her French text Gwenaëlle Aubry clarifies how her identification of Aristotle’s god with pure act — involving neither Aristotelian potentiality nor Platonic power — goes together with her identification of the efficacy of the pure act with a final causality realized through “potentiality as tendency toward the end”. I think this has to do with the pure act’s role as an end or attractor, so that the potentiality in question belongs to the things it attracts, rather than to Aristotle’s god. Aristotle’s god for Aubry is what might be called an “inspiring” or attracting cause rather than a ruler and a driving cause.

It seems to me that in order to even be intelligible, a power of any kind must be understood as having definite characteristics related to its efficacy. I therefore think “infinite power” is devoid of sense. Even the “omnipotent” God of Leibniz who selects the best of all possible worlds at the moment of creation only selects an inherent, coherently realizable possibility that is also in accordance with non-arbitrary criteria of goodness. He does not create arbitrarily.

Infinity, Finitude

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Power and Act

I would say without hesitation that having a concept of power and act is better than not having one. Nonetheless, despite my tremendous admiration both for the work of Paul Ricoeur and for the classic developments of Leibniz and Spinoza, I think Ricoeur was mistaken to associate Spinoza, Leibniz, Freud, or Bergson with a properly Aristotelian notion of potentiality and actuality (see The Importance of Potentiality; Potentiality, Actuality). Ricoeur on several occasions in his late works identified Spinoza’s conatus, or the desire and effort of beings to continue being — as well as the appetite or desire of each monad in Leibniz, and desire in Freud — with potentiality in Aristotle.

I think Ricoeur was absolutely right to emphasize both the great value of potentiality and actuality in Aristotle and the generally salutary role of the other concepts mentioned, but I don’t think they are the same. Aristotelian actuality refers not just to a current state of things, but more profoundly to what is effectively operative in a process. In Aristotelian terms, I take notions like Platonic “power”, desire, or conatus to express aspects of this more profound, higher-order, and “dynamic” notion of actuality. This is all good as far as it goes, but such richer notions of actuality still do not give us true Aristotelian potentiality or its pairing with actuality, which I regard as an even greater treasure.

Potentiality consists in the concrete counterfactual conditions that give shape, generality, and a kind of substance or “thickness” to the determination of things in the present. It is always indexed to a specific actuality, supplementing and complementing it. It gives us an explicit way to talk about incomplete determination, multiple possibilities, and openness within that actuality, while still recognizing the reality of determination and concrete constraints. It helps us express real determination without overstating it. It is not itself a power, but rather what defines what our power can do.

Spinoza, in consistently following through his idea that there is only one substance, developed a fascinating relational perspective on things, but he strongly adhered to the early modern notion of a complete and univocal determination analogous to what is found in mathematics, which is ultimately incompatible with the Aristotelian notion of incomplete determination expressed in the idea of potentiality and actuality.

Leibniz’s notion of determination had a teleological as well as a mathematical component. He gave admirable consideration to variety, multiplicity, and alternate possibilities in the development of his thought. Nonetheless his notion of pre-established harmony seems to be a sophisticated variant of theological doctrines of predestination, according to which every tiny detail of the world’s unfolding follows from a divine plan.

A notion that each being has or is a kind of Platonic power is actually compatible with a notion of complete determination. For many years, this was the kind of answer I would have given as to how freedom and determination can be reconciled. In a view like this, the freedom of a being is explained in terms of its having a finite power and efficacy, and determination is explained in terms of how all the powers interact. (Leibniz of course denied real interaction, virtualizing it all into the pre-established harmony.)

In more recent years, I have wanted to stress instead that determination is real but incomplete. This is how I now read Aristotle and Hegel. Of all the major modern philosophers, it now seems to me to be Hegel who actually comes closest to recovering an Aristotelian notion of actuality and potentiality. Unlike Aristotle he does not explicitly talk about potentiality, but Hegel’s rich notion of actualization implicitly captures the nuances of the interaction of actuality and potentiality. (See also Aristotelian Actualization.)

New Organon?

Francis Bacon’s New Organon (1620) was a groundbreaking argument for the importance of an experimental method in science, even though the details of his presentation have mainly historical value. I’m not commending the anti-Aristotelian polemic of this fascinatingly Baroque text, but I do think that polemic in fact mainly addresses kinds of claims for demonstrative science made by later commentators, which I reject and think were quite remote from the views of Aristotle himself.

In spite of Bacon’s overtly anti-Aristotelian attitude, I take his emphasis on the great informative value of active “perturbations” of nature in contrast with mere observation to be a vindication of the relevance of the vital Aristotelian notion of potentiality, as well as a partial anticipation of Brandom’s emphasis on counterfactual conditions as a key to intelligibility. This is a nice alternative to the foundational role of immediate empirical “intuition” in Locke’s theory of knowledge. Locke dwelt much more extensively on a novel empiricist reconstruction of many details of human understanding, but Bacon is the classic early proponent of the idea of an experimental method, which seems not to depend on the representational “myth of the Given” upon which Locke’s theory depends. Experimental methods play an essential mediating role in empirical science.

Consciousness in Locke and Hegel

It is not unreasonable to broadly associate the notion of consciousness invented and promoted by Locke with the “Consciousness” whose inadequacies are exposed across the development of Hegel’s Phenomenology. This is probably not clear from my very selective recent mention of Locke, which was focused on his novel approach to personal identity rather than his overall empiricist theory of knowledge, to which I have not done justice either. In addition, Hegel abstracts away Locke’s very prominent emphasis on what he called “ideas”, which are mental representations that Locke takes to be simply given to us in experience. Hegel is able to do this because what Locke calls ideas are supposed to transparently convey whatever they are supposed to represent.

In Hegel’s version, a naive standpoint of everyday “consciousness” is presented as understanding itself as confronting ready-made external objects. These, I take it, are among the things that are supposed to be transparently referred to by Locke’s simply given mental representations. The standpoint of Consciousness in Hegel is entirely superseded from the point of view of its self-understanding, but its practical import is substantially preserved, being refined rather than superseded. The identities and natures of things we interact with — even their qualities — are not simply given to us, but things we interact with do constrain us. That is the push-back of reality that we all genuinely engage with, despite our misapprehension of many subtleties.

One of Hegel’s major points is that any valid discussion of human freedom has to take acknowledgement of that push-back of reality as a starting point. This rules out any notion that we could act with complete arbitrariness, as if in a vacuum. One of Hegel’s other major points is that concrete human capabilities are grounded not in a vacuum, but in concrete potentials already implicit in the reality that also pushes back at us.

Locke’s famous (and in my opinion, broadly sound) polemic against innate ideas often overshadows his implicit reliance on a simple givenness of perceptual contents and other items in experience.

Ethical Being

Previously I suggested that a modest discourse about beings is all the ontology we need.

At this level, the most distinctive thing about us talking animals is that we are what I would call ethical beings, that is to say beings with potentiality for ethical reason. With Aristotle, I identify each being with its distinctive way of being. Ethical being in the singular is just a name for the quality of being an ethical being. It also translates Hegel’s term sittliches Wesen. Hegelian spirit is actualized by the actions and ethical being of ethical beings. (See also Back to Ethical Being.)

Ricoeur on Forgiveness

The epilogue to Ricoeur’s Memory, History, Forgetting is entitled “Difficult Forgiveness” (after this I’ll return to the beginning).  Forgiveness is “an eschatology of the representation of the past.  Forgiveness – if it has a sense, and if it exists – constitutes the horizon common to memory, history, and forgetting.  Always in retreat, this horizon slips away from any grasp” (p. 457).  

Forgiveness results in “unbinding the agent from the act”.  “In order to be bound by a promise, the subject of an action must be able to be released from it through forgiveness” (p. 459).   Nonetheless, some acts are completely unjustifiable; in particular, crimes against humanity.  In these cases, “justice must be done” (p. 473).  “My thesis here is that a significant asymmetry exists between being able to forgive and being able to promise” (p. 459).   In general, we should not too easily forgive ourselves.  And “The commandment to love one’s enemies begins by breaking the rule of reciprocity and demanding the extraordinary” (p. 482).  “[F]orgiveness has a religious aura that promising does not” (p. 487).

Ricoeur recalls Jacques Derrida’s paradox that “forgiveness is directed to the unforgiveable or it does not exist” (p. 468).  He returns to the theme of “fault”, originally developed 40 years earlier in Fallible Man: “[S]elf-recognition is indivisibly action and passion, the action of acting badly and the passion of being affected by one’s own action” (p. 462).   His analyses have been “an exploration of the gap opened between the unforgivable fault and this impossible forgiveness” (p. 490).  He agrees with Derrida that “forgiving the guilty person while condemning his action, would be to forgive a subject other than the one who committed the act” (ibid).  

Still, he thinks there could be “a more radical uncoupling… at the heart of our very power to act – of agency – namely, between the effectuation and the capacity that it actualizes” (ibid).  This would be an instance of Aristotle’s distinction between actuality and potentiality.  Several times in his later works, Ricoeur pointed out the importance of actuality and potentiality in Aristotle, though he tended to assimilate potentiality to a more Platonic notion of power in the sense of “power to”.  This is what is in play in Ricoeur’s oft-expressed concern for “the capable human”.  Plato’s association of being a being with this kind of “power to” was already richly provocative, but Aristotle took the same word dynamis and gave it a much more subtle and developed meaning, which I summarized as “multiple alternative concrete possibilities of realization already implicit in current reality” (see The Importance of Potentiality).  But either way, forgiveness can be understood as a kind of trust in someone’s potentiality over against past actuality. (See also Fallible Humanity; Middle Part of the Soul.)

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.)