Facts and Incomplete Information

A modern notion of hard-nosed common sense is to appeal exclusively to positive facts. This is also a major basis of simplistic notions of empirical science. Serious scientific methodologies are more indirect, and quite a bit more involved.

From a broadly Kantian point of view that I think Plato and Aristotle would also endorse, all putative facts are really just assertions of facts, made by people. The validity of the corresponding assertions depends on the soundness of the reasons that lead us to believe them. Thus, regardless of whether our concern is ethical or scientific, it is always the quality of reasons that matters in assessing the validity of assertions.

The notion of a fair and objective weighing of evidence for or against an assertion presupposes that we symmetrically consider the pro and con, as Plato emphasized in his discussions of “dialectic”. But the simplistic bias for positive facts results in an inherently asymmetrical treatment any time we have to deal with incomplete information, because what putative facts we currently have in our possession is in part a matter of sheer chance.

In a fact-biased approach, if there happen to be insufficient facts in our possession to adequately support a hypothesis, the hypothesis is likely to be be dismissed out of hand as “speculation”, regardless of how inherently plausible it might otherwise be. We end up assuming something is not true merely because we cannot empirically prove it is true. This is independent of any other prejudice that may also enter into situations involving human judgment.

Once again, I want to recommend a prudent suspension or qualification of belief in cases of incomplete information, rather than active disbelief. (See also Debate on Prehistory.)

Cause

Aristotle flourished before the great flowering of Greek mathematics that gave us Euclid, Ptolemy, Apollonius, and Aristarchus. In his day, mathematics amounted to just arithmetic and simple geometry. In spite of the famous Pythagorean theorem that the square constructed from the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal in area to the sum of the squares constructed from the other two sides, the historic reality of the Pythagorean movement had more to do with number mysticism, other superstitions, and curious injunctions like “don’t eat beans” than it did with real mathematics.

I think Aristotle was entirely right to conclude that arithmetic and simple geometry were of little use for explaining change in the natural world. I’ve characterized his physics as grounded in a kind of semantic inquiry that Aristotle pioneered. We are not used to thinking about science this way, as fundamentally involved with a very human inquiry about the meaning of experience in life, rather than predictive calculation. For Aristotle, the gap between natural science and thoughtful reflection about ordinary experience was much smaller than it is for us.

Aristotle invented the notion of cause as a semantic tool for expressing the reasons why changes occur. Aristotle’s notion is far more abstract than the metaphor of impulse or something pushing on something else that guided early modern mechanism. Even though the notion of cause was originally developed in a text included in Aristotle’s Physics, the “semantic” grounding of Aristotelian physics places it closer to logic than to modern physical inquiries.

I think the discussion of the kinds of causes could equally well have been grouped among his “logical” works. In fact, the form in which we have Aristotle’s works today is the result of the efforts of multiple ancient editors, who sometimes stitched together separate manuscripts, so there is room for a legitimate question whether the discussion of causes was originally a separate treatise. We tend to assume that there must be something inherently “physical” about the discussion of causes, but this is ultimately due to a circular argument from the fact that the more detailed version of it came down to us as part of the Physics (there is another, briefer one that came down to us as part of the Metaphysics).

Since Hume and especially since the later 19th century, many authors have debated about the role of causes in science. Bertrand Russell argued in the early 20th century that modern science does not in fact depend on what I have called the modern notion of cause.

More recently, Robert Brandom has argued that the purpose of logic is “to make explicit the inferential relations that articulate the semantic contents of the concepts expressed by the use of ordinary, nonlogical vocabulary”. I see Aristotelian causes in this light.

I want to recommend a return to a notion of causes in general as explanatory reasons rather than things that exert force. This can include all the mathematics used in modern science, as well as a broader range of reasons relevant to life. (See also Aristotelian Causes; Mechanical Metaphors; Causes: Real, Heuristic?; Effective vs “Driving”; Secondary Causes.)

Everyday Belief

In ordinary life we are guided by well-founded beliefs about many things of which, strictly speaking, we do not have knowledge. Our beliefs are still well-founded in the sense that if asked, we can give reasons for them, and plausibly respond to questions about those reasons. We ought to continue to hold those beliefs, unless and until we are confronted with better reasons for a different conclusion.

Brandom would remind us that we have an implicit ethical obligation to keep our beliefs in good repair. We have a responsibility for the consequences of applying our beliefs. We have a responsibility not to hypocritically pretend to hold incompatible beliefs. In general, we have a responsibility to take our explicit and implicit commitments seriously. This entails a willingness to participate in dialogue, to explain our reasons and answer questions about them.

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.

Leibniz on Justice vs Power

In Meditation on the Common Concept of Justice (ca. 1703), Leibniz made points that deserve to be quoted at length. Editor Patrick Riley notes that “Leibniz’ radical formulation of this question follows Plato’s Euthyphro (9E-10E) almost literally, though Plato was dealing with ‘holiness’ rather than justice” (Leibniz, Political Writings, p. 45).

Leibniz says, “It is agreed that whatever God wills is good and just. But there remains the question whether it is good and just because God wills it or whether God wills it because it is good and just: in other words, whether justice and goodness are arbitrary or whether they belong to the necessary and eternal truths about the nature of things, as do numbers and proportions” (ibid).

For present purposes, what is important is whether justice and goodness depend on an arbitrary will or have criteria of their own, not whether those criteria are necessary and eternal.

To say that justice and goodness depend upon an arbitrary will “would destroy the justice of God. For why praise him because he acts according to justice, if the notion of justice, in his case, adds nothing to that of action? And to say… my will takes the place of reason, is properly the motto of a tyrant” (pp. 45-46; brackets in original).

“This is why certain persons, too devoted to the absolute right of God, who have believed that he could justly condemn innocent people and even that this might actually happen, have done wrong to the attributes that make God lovable, and, having destroyed the love of God, they left only fear [behind]” (p. 46; brackets in original).

“Thus all [Lutheran] theologians and most of those of the Roman Church, and also most of the ancient Church Fathers and the wisest and most esteemed philosophers, have been for the second view, which holds that goodness and justice have their grounds… independent of will and of force.”

“Plato in his dialogues introduces and refutes a certain Thrasymachus, who, wishing to explain what justice is, [says] that is just… which is agreeable or pleasant to the most powerful. If that were true, there would never be a sentence of a sovereign court, nor of a supreme judge, which would be unjust, nor would an evil but powerful man ever be blameworthy. And what is more, the same action could be just or unjust, depending on the judges who decide, which is ridiculous. It is one thing to be just and another to pass for it, and to take the place of justice.”

“A celebrated English philosopher named Hobbes, who is noted for his paradoxes, had wished to uphold almost the same thing as Thrasymachus: for he wants God to have the right to do everything, because he is all-powerful. This is a failure to distinguish between right and fact. For what one can do is one thing, what one should do, another” (pp. 46-47; brackets added).

“[I]f power were the formal reason of justice, all powerful persons would be just, each in proportion to his power; which is contrary to experience.”

“It is thus a question of finding this formal reason, that is to say, the why of this attribute, or this concept which should teach us what justice is” (p. 48). By “formal” Leibniz here means something like “essential”.

Demonstration in Spinoza

Kant and Hegel both objected to Spinoza’s unusual presentation of his Ethics in something resembling the style of Euclid’s geometry. I think of philosophy mainly as interpretation rather than simple declaration, so I am broadly sympathetic to this point. On the other hand, I think Pierre Macherey is profoundly right when he emphasizes the non-foundationalist character of Spinoza’s thought.

The unique meaning Spinoza gives to “Substance” (not to be confused with its Aristotelian, Scholastic, Cartesian, or general early modern senses) is that of a complex relational whole that encompasses everything, rather than a separate starting point for deduction of the details of the world. Because of this, the apparent linearity of his development is just that — a mere appearance.

Hegel does not seem to recognize that Spinoza’s Substance resembles the relational whole of Force that Hegel himself developed in the Phenomenology. This is inseparable from an implicit notion of process in which relations of force are exhibited.

Macherey says Spinoza sees the world in terms of an infinite process, i.e., one without beginning or end or teleological structure (Hegel or Spinoza, p. 75).

(I would argue that neither Aristotle nor Hegel actually endows the world with teleological structure, though they each give ends a significance that Spinoza would deny. For Aristotle, it is particular beings in themselves that have ends. For Hegel, teleological development is a retrospectively meaningful interpretation, not an explanatory theory that could yield truth in advance. But for Spinoza, ends are either merely subjective, or involve an external providence that he explicitly rejects.)

It seems to me that the “point of view of eternity” that Spinoza associates with truth is actually intended to be appropriate to this infinite process. Spinoza points out that eternity does not properly mean a persistence in time that lasts forever, but rather a manner of subsistence that is entirely outside of — or independent of — the linear progression and falling away that characterizes time.

(Kant’s famous assertion of the “ideality of space and time”, which means that space and time are only necessary features of our empirical experience, is not inconsistent with Spinoza’s commendation of the point of view of eternity. Though it has other features Spinoza would be unlikely to accept, Kant’s “transcendental” as distinct from the empirical is thus to be viewed from a perspective not unlike Spinoza’s “point of view of eternity”.)

Spinoza wants to maintain that the order of causes and the order of reasons are the same. Whereas Aristotle deconstructs “cause” into a rich variety of kinds of “reasons why” (none of which resembles the early modern model of an impulse between billiard balls), Spinoza narrows the scope of “cause” to “efficient causes” in a sense that seems close to that of Suárez with inflections from Galilean physics, and suggests that true reasons are causes in this narrower sense. It seems to me that Spinoza’s “order of causes” resembles the infinite field of purely relational “force” that Hegel discusses in the Force and Understanding chapter.

Spinoza wants us to focus on efficient causes of things, but to do so mainly from the “point of view of eternity”. This takes us away from the event-oriented perspective of linear time, toward a consideration of general patterns of the interrelation of different kinds of means by which things end up as they concretely tend to do. In speaking of means rather than forces, I am tacitly substituting what I think is a properly Aristotelian notion of “efficient” cause for the meaning it historically seems to have had for Spinoza.

In pursuit of this, he takes up a stance toward demonstration that is actually like the one I see in Aristotle, in that it is more about improvement of our understanding through its practical exercise in inference than about proof of some truth assumed to be already understood (see also Demonstrative “Science”?). As Macherey puts it, for Spinoza “knowledge is not simply the unfolding of some established truth but the effective genesis of an understanding that nowhere precedes its realization” (p. 50). (Unlike Macherey, though, I think this is true for Aristotle and Hegel as well.)

Demonstration in both Aristotle’s and Spinoza’s sense is intended to improve our normative understanding of concepts by “showing” their inferential uses and points of application. It is only through their inferential use in the demonstrations that Spinoza’s nominal definitions and axioms acquire a meaning Spinoza would call “adequate”.

Kantian Intentionality

Brandom’s Woodbridge lectures – published in Reason in Philosophy (2009) — are to date the best introduction to his groundbreaking thought on Kant and Hegel.  He makes it clear this will be a rational reconstruction of key themes rather than a textual or historical commentary.  

The first lecture, entitled “Norms, Selves, and Concepts”, summarizes the innovative account of intentionality Brandom attributes to Kant.  According to Brandom, Kant raises the radical question of representational purport — what it even means for someone to take something as representing something.  Simultaneously, Kant breaks with the standard early modern view of judgment that identified it with mere predication.  

“Here is perhaps Kant’s deepest and most original idea, the axis around which I see all of his thought revolving.  What distinguishes judging and intentional doing from the activities of non-sapient creatures is not that they involve some special sort of mental processes, but that they are things knowers and agents are in a distinctive way responsible for….  Judgments and actions make knowers and agents liable to characteristic kinds of normative assessment….  This is his normative characterization of the mental” (pp. 32-33; emphasis in original).

For Kant, to judge and act are to bind ourselves to values, or as Brandom calls them in arguably more Kantian terms, “norms”.  The rules or principles by which the content of our commitments is articulated Kant calls concepts.  Brandom quips that Descartes had asked about our grip on concepts, but Kant asked about their grip on us.

Reversing the traditional order of explanation, Kant says we actually understand concepts in terms of the role they play in judgments, rather than understanding judgments in terms of component concepts.

What Kant calls the subjective form of judgment (“I think”) indicates the relation of a judging to the unity of apperception to which it belongs.  Brandom says this tells us who is responsible for the judgment.  (I think the identity of unities of apperception is actually more specific than that applied to human individuals in common sense, because the constellation of commitments that is the referent of “I” today may not be quite the same as it was yesterday.)

In making a judgment about something, we make ourselves responsible to that thing — to however it may actually turn out to be.  Judgments are supposed to be about how things are.  To make a judgment about something is to acknowledge that how it actually is has authority over the correctness of our judgment.

What we make ourselves responsible for in judging is the content of the judgment, which Brandom will understand in terms of what further inferences it licenses or prevents from being licensed.

Finally, what we do in making ourselves responsible is to make ourselves responsible for a fourfold task: to integrate our judgment into a unity of apperception; to renounce commitments that are materially incompatible with our judgment; to endorse commitments that are material consequences of our judgment; and to offer reasons for our judgment.

Kant’s alternative to judgment as predication, according to Brandom, is judgment as the undertaking of these task responsibilities, understood ultimately in terms of the ongoing synthesis and re-synthesis of unities of apperception.  Further, “The key to Kant’s account of representation is to be found in the story about how representational purport is to be understood in terms of the activity of synthesizing an original unity of apperception” (pp. 37-38).  

“[W]hat one is responsible for is having reasons for one’s endorsements, using the contents one endorses as reasons for and against the endorsement of other contents, and taking into account countervailing reasons….  [W]e are the kind of creatures we are – knowers and agents, creatures whose world is structured by the commitments and responsibilities we undertake – only because we are always liable to normative assessments of our reasons” (p. 38).

Concepts “are rules for synthesizing a unity of apperception.  And that is to say that they are rules articulating what is a reason for what” (p. 39).

“Kant’s ideas about the act or activity of judging settle how he must understand the content judged” (ibid).  Kant’s methodological pragmatism, Brandom says, consists not in privileging practice over theory but in “explanatory privileging of the activity of synthesizing a unity of apperception” (p. 40).

A unity of apperception is not a substance (and especially not in the rigid early modern sense).  As Brandom says, it is the “moving, living constellation of its ‘affections’, that is, of the concomitant commitments that compose and articulate it” (p. 41).  Looked at this way as extended in time, I would say it is not an existing unity but rather a unity always in the making.

All conceptual content for Brandom traces back to this original synthetic activity.  “[R]epresentational purport should itself be understood as a normative (meta) concept: as a matter of taking or treating one’s commitments as subject to a distinct kind of authority, as being responsible (for its correctness, in a characteristic sense) to things that in that normative sense count as represented by those representing states, which are what must be integrated into an original synthetic unity” (p. 42).

The early modern tradition took it for granted that referential representational intentionality is prior to inferential expressive intentionality – in effect that it is possible to know what is being talked about without understanding what is said.  This would seem to me to require a kind of magical clairvoyance.  As Aristotle might remind us, we approach what is primarily through what is said of it, not of course by the mere saying, but through the care and responsibility and many crisscrossing revisitings that we invest in understanding what is said.

Brandom suggests we look for an approach to Kantian objectivity by a kind of progressive triangulation through examining material incompatibility and material consequence in what is said.  “Represented objects show up as something like units of account for the inferential and incompatibility relations” (p. 45) that for Brandom come first in the order of explanation. To treat something as standing in relations of material incompatibility and consequence “is taking or treating it as a representation, as being about something” (ibid).

The most important and valuable parts of Kant’s thought, Brandom suggests, can be reconstructed in terms of the process of synthesizing a unity of apperception.

Pippin on Mutual Recognition

Hegel’s ethical, epistemological, and political notion of mutual recognition has its roots in his early writings, predating the Phenomenology of Spirit, and is most famously developed in the Phenomenology itself.

Some older commentators claimed that in the late period of the Encyclopedia and Philosophy of Right, Hegel turned his back on this grounding in intersubjectivity in favor of what Robert Pippin calls “a grand metaphysical process, an Absolute Subject’s manifestation of itself, or a Divine Mind’s coming to self-consciousness” (Hegel’s Practical Philosophy, p. 184).

Pippin thinks those writers were “insufficiently attentive to the unusual foundations of the mature theory of ethical life, or to Hegel’s theory of spirit (Geist) and so the very unusual account of freedom that position justifies” (p. 185; for other aspects of Pippin’s reading, see Naturalness, Mindedness; Self-Legislation?; Actualization of Freedom; Hegel on Willing).

What Hegel calls “true” or “concrete” individuality “should not be confused with questions of pre-reflexive self-familiarity, self-knowledge, existential uniqueness, personal identity, psychological health, and so forth” (pp. 185-186).

The concrete individual for Hegel is an ethical being, i.e., a being to be understood through her actions and commitments, and as such embedded, ramified, and temporally extended — anything but an atom “acting” instantaneously in a vacuum. It is this ethical being — not factual existence — that is constituted by mutual recognition.

Pippin notes that recognition of others as “free” as an ethical aim is not directed at meeting any psychological need for recognition. (Certainly it is also not about believing they have arbitrary free will. Rather, it is to be identified with an elementary requirement of Kantian respect for others as a starting point for ethics.)

Pippin agrees with Ludwig Siep — a pioneer of scholarship on recognition in Hegel — that Hegel “understood himself to have clarified and resolved the great logical problems caused by the sort of relational claim implicit in a radical theory of the constitutive function of recognition (wherein the relata themselves, or agents, are ultimately also relational) in his account of ‘reflection’ in particular and the ‘logic of essence’ in general” (p. 183n).

The freedom said to be the essence of spirit — which emerges concretely from mutual recognition — involves a mediated relation to one’s own “individual immediacy”. Mediation grounds reason, which grounds universality (in the mid-range Aristotelian rather than the unconditional Kantian sense, as distinguished in Self-Legislation?), which grounds the actualization of freedom.

Hegel is quoted saying “in an ethical act I make not myself but the issue itself the determining factor” (p. 192). This is the perspective he identifies with “ethical life”. “When I will what is rational, I act not as a particular individual, but in accordance with the notions of ethical life in general” (ibid).

To interpret ourselves and others as ethical beings or “respectfully” is to understand ourselves and them as each “freely” acting from an ethos, in the sense that we genuinely share in it by virtue of “willingly” and actually acting on it — and that is genuinely ours by the fact that we have thus willingly taken it up, whoever “we” may turn out to be — rather than treating action as a matter of our empirical selves causing things and/or being caused to be in a certain way, and freedom as a matter of power-over.

Hegelian freedom is never an intrinsic property of a substance or subject; it is an achievement, and what is more, that achievement always has a certain fragility, or possibility of losing itself. The acting self “can only be said to be such a self when [it acknowledges] its dependence on others in any determination of the meaning of what is done” (p. 200). For Hegel, what agency consists in is thus not a “metaphysical or substantive question” (p. 204). Instead, it involves a kind of non-arbitrariness or responsiveness to reasons. It seems to me one might say it is a sort of procedural criterion.

Hegel is quoted saying “In right, man must meet with his own reason… The right to recognize nothing that I do not perceive as rational is the highest right of the subject” (p. 244). Pippin continues, “Further, it is not sufficient merely that subjects actually have some sort of implicit, subjective faith in the rectitude of their social and political forms of life, that they in fact subjectively assent….. What I need to be able to do to acknowledge a deed as my own… is in some way to be able to justify it” (pp. 245-246). “It is never a good reason simply to say, ‘This is how we do things'” (p. 266). For Brandom’s take on the same aspects of Hegel, see Hegel’s Ethical Innovation; In Itself, For Itself; Brandom on Postmodernity; Mutual Recognition.)

Suarez on Agents and Action

Among the greatest of the Latin scholastics, Francisco Suárez (1548-1617) was a profoundly original and highly sophisticated theologian-philosopher who significantly influenced early modern thought, and also produced monumental summaries of several centuries of Latin scholastic argument. A full third of his gigantic Metaphysical Disputations was devoted to an extremely detailed and systematic discussion of causality. A large volume entirely dedicated to efficient causes has been translated to English, and a web search popped up several secondary discussions. My comments here will be very high-level, mostly based on those.

In this scholastic context, traditional Aristotelian terms like cause, being, and substance are all given very different explanations from the nonstandard but hopefully both more historical and more useful ones I have been giving them. Latin scholastics tended to have a somewhat neoplatonizing, substantialized notion of Aristotelian causes. A common view was that any cause must be a substantial entity of some sort, whereas causes in the common modern sense are events, and I read Aristotle himself as identifying causes with “reasons why”.

Suárez held to the view of causes as substantial entities, and apparently went on to argue that all causes give Thomistic being (esse) either to a substance or to an accident in a substance. This influx or “influence” is described as a kind of immaterial flowing of being that makes or produces, without diminishing the agent. In the case of an efficient cause, this influence occurs through action, and the substantial efficient cause is called an agent. (By contrast, in the above-linked article, which has brief additional remarks on Suárez, I quoted Aristotle saying in effect that an agent’s action is more properly an efficient cause than the agent, and that something like a technique used in an action is more properly an efficient cause than the action.)

Suárez’s metaphysical emphasis on actions producing being in things has been characterized as transitional to a modern, event-based view of causality. While Suárez himself held to the idea that causes were substantial agents, early modern mechanism indeed seems to have kept his emphasis on action but moved to an event-based view.

It seems to me to have been a historical accident that mathematical natural science arose on the basis of an event-based view. While mathematics certainly can be used to develop precise descriptions of events, any mathematical analysis relevant to this can also be construed as a “reason why” rather than a mere description. On the frontier of analytic philosophy, Brandom is again suggesting that a consideration of reasons actually circumscribes — and is necessary to underwrite — consideration of events and descriptions. This suggests a new motivation for recovering Aristotle’s original reason-based view.