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.

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 Space vs Natural Light; Normativity; Intentionality.)

Pure Thinking?

Another recent article by Adrian Johnston continues his polemic against Robert Pippin — as well as Brandom — on the reading of Hegel, addressing Pippin’s 2019 book on Hegel’s Logic and his review of Slovoj Žižek’s book on Hegel, Less than Nothing. Among other things, Johnston takes aim at Pippin’s talk about “pure thinking”, claiming that any such emphasis must necessarily reflect a subjective idealism, like that which Johnston attributes to Kant and Fichte.

Johnston takes Pippin and Brandom’s appeals to unity of apperception in a Hegelian context as prima facie evidence of subjective idealism. This does not follow at all. He objects to Pippin’s emphasis on intelligibility as opposed to sheer “being”. Here I have to agree with Pippin — real philosophers have always been more concerned with intelligibility, and there is nothing subjective about that, either. Intelligibility is the basis of objectivity.

I don’t think Kant’s concern with subjectivity was at all subjectivist. Even Fichte, despite his tendency to ontologize a transcendental Subject, was no garden-variety subjectivist. Johnston rightly points out that Fichte talked about an “I” that “cannot be gone behind”, and that Hegel regarded this as a very one-sided point of view. He is right that the young Hegel briefly aligned himself with Schelling against Fichte. But as much as I find Fichte’s subject-centeredness antithetical, and in spite of a few interesting bits in Schelling, Schelling’s metaphysics of a self-dividing Absolute seems to me but a shallow imitation of neoplatonism, much less worthy of philosophical attention than either the original neoplatonists or Fichte’s objectionably subject-centered point of view. Žižek and Johnston, however, want to use a valorized Schelling to help prop up a metaphysical Hegel.

Johnston claims that Pippin and Brandom end up with a dualism of reasons and causes, and argues that their defense of a kind of modified naturalism is not strong enough to prevent a lapse into subjective idealism. For Johnston, it seems the only way to avoid this would be a direct causal derivation of the “space of reasons” from something physical. I occasionally worry myself that some of Pippin and Brandom’s remarks on naturalism dwell too much on a very narrow if influential kind of naturalism that wants to reduce everything to physical causes. I also want to go a bit further than they do in affirming a nonreductive naturalism. Johnston says he wants to be nonreductive, but many of his remarks (e.g., about reasons vs. causes) seem reductive to me.

I see causes in the modern narrow sense as just one kind of reasons why (see Free Will and Determinism; Aristotelian Causes; Why by Normative Pragmatics). Through the diffuse influence of early modern mechanism, modern people have become conditioned to thinking of causation in what are really just metaphors of some kind of impulse. But in modern physics, serious discussions of causality have much more to do with mathematical law. Mathematical law is a specific kind of reason. So to me, the requirement to explain reasons in terms of causes has things somewhat backwards.

Ultimately, Johnston and Žižek are interested in the emancipatory potential of a kind of materialism broad enough to take in Hegel along with neuroscience or quantum mechanics. At this very generic level I have no issue, but it seems to me that the kind of examination of material conditions that has the most emancipatory potential is directed at things historical, social, and cultural, rather than physiological or physical. Also, it is broadly hermeneutic rather than merely concerned with facts. Overall, Žižek’s prodigous output reflects this, but Johnston’s texts seem curiously removed from such considerations.

Johnston objects that Pippin narrows Hegel’s focus to ethics and epistemology. I’m actually content with just ethics, as it seems to me that already indirectly includes everything else (see Practical Reason). (See also Johnston’s Pippin; Weak Nature Alone.)

“Why” by Normative Pragmatics

Brandom’s normative pragmatics can be seen as providing a general framework for answering “why” questions. Pragmatics is initially about the practical use of language, and normative pragmatics is about good use, which for Brandom especially means good inferential use. Thus, normative pragmatics ends up being broadly concerned with good informal reasoning in life, i.e., with the quality of our ethical and other judgments.

In my view, this concern with the goodness of reasons and judgments also ends up emphasizing the ethical dimensions of judgment in general. There is really no such thing as “value free” judgment. Even what is called mathematical “intuition” is really an acquired practical skill having to do with judgment of what next step is contextually appropriate.

Classically, “why” asks for reasons, or about the goodness of reasons. Taken far enough, this leads to questions about ends.

Aristotle, too, typically framed inquiries in terms of what is well “said of” something. This is a kind of analysis of language use, with a normative or ethical intent, that ends up being inseparable from questions of what is right and what is true. This general approach is actually a form of what Brandom would call normative pragmatics. Brandom would tell us that semantics — or the investigation of meaning — depends on this sort of inquiry. My ascription of a fundamentally semantic orientation to Aristotle carries a similar implication.

Platonic Truth

Plato was much more concerned with what might be called truths of essence than with truths of fact. Truths of essence involve interpretation of meaning, and always have an implicit normative dimension. They are inseparably involved with questions of what is good or right. As Aristotle might say, they tell us what and why something is rather than merely “that” something is.

There is no general way to test whether we have completely grasped an essence, and not just what Hegel would call a one-sided view of it. As Brandom might say, all grasping of essences is defeasible. Plato makes his leading characters say many things that apply this in particular cases. Essences are the object of interpretation, not certain knowledge. (See also Dialogue; The Epistemic Modesty of Plato and Aristotle; Plato and Aristotle Were Inferentialists; Brandom on Truth; Foundations?)

Aristotelian Demonstration

Demonstration is literally a showing. For Aristotle, its main purpose is associated with learning and teaching, rather than proof. Its real objective is not Stoic or Cartesian certainty “that” something is true, but the clearest possible understanding of the substantive basis for definite conclusions, based on a grasping of reasons.

Aristotle’s main text dealing with demonstration, the Posterior Analytics, is not about epistemology or foundations of knowledge, although it touches on these topics. Rather, it is about the pragmatics of improving our informal semantic understanding by formal means.

For Aristotle, demonstration uses the same logical forms as dialectic, but unlike dialectic — which does not make assumptions ahead of time whether the hypotheses or opinions it examines are true, but focuses on explicating their inferential meaning — demonstration is about showing reasons and reasoning behind definite conclusions. Dialectic is a kind of conditional forward-looking interpretation based on consequences, while demonstration is a kind of backward-looking interpretation based on premises. Because demonstration’s practical purpose has to do with exhibiting the basis for definite conclusions, it necessarily seeks sound premises, or treats its premises as sound, whereas dialectic is indifferent to the soundness of the premises it analyzes in terms of their consequences.

We are said to know something in Aristotle’s stronger sense when we can clearly explain why it is the case, so demonstration is connected with knowledge. This connection has historically led to much misunderstanding. In the Arabic and Latin commentary traditions, demonstration was interpreted as proof. The Posterior Analytics was redeployed as an epistemological model for “science” based on formal deduction, understood as the paradigm for knowledge, while the role of dialectic and practical judgment in Aristotle was greatly downplayed. (See also Demonstrative “Science”?; Searching for a Middle Term; Plato and Aristotle Were Inferentialists; The Epistemic Modesty of Plato and Aristotle; Belief; Foundations?; Brandom on Truth.)


No one gets through life without making countless assumptions about things we cannot properly know. In routine cases, this is usually harmless. That does not remove our obligation to give someone a fair hearing if they initiate dialogue asking about our reasons for feeling committed to the assumption. Except in immediate emergencies, we should always be open to such questions, and on our own initiative we should raise such questions to ourselves in ambiguous situations. This means we also need to learn to be good at recognizing ambiguous situations, which involves lifelong care and active practice at doing it. (See also Epistemic Conscientiousness.)


The ethical importance of dialogue can hardly be overstated. The key to ethical dialogue is mutual acceptance of sincere questioning about reasons. To ask a question is not to make a counter-assertion, and no one should ever take offense at a sincere question.

To qualify as based on good judgment or sound reasoning, a commitment or one’s reasons for holding it must be explainable in a shareable way. Sharing of the kind of meaning-based material inference used in everyday reasoning and judgment (as well as most philosophy) is a social process of open-ended dialogue.

The world’s oldest preserved examples of such rational dialogue (or any kind of rational development) are contained in the works of Plato. Earlier figures just wrote down what they saw as the truth. Plato provided many examples of a method of free inquiry. (Aristotle says the atomist Democritus was another initiator of rational inquiry, but the works of Democritus do not survive.) This is yet another reason why Hegel called Plato and Aristotle the greatest teachers of the human race.

Plato bequeathed to us many idealized examples of reasoning by dialogue. He raised them into an art form, creating a new literary genre in the process. His dialogues vary in the degree to which they approximate free open-ended discussion; most often, one character leads the discussion through question and answer, and sometimes even the question and answer is limited. However, since Plato’s dialogues are like plays portraying self-contained conversations, they are very accessible.

The style of question and answer often practiced by Platonic characters like Socrates — commonly known as Socratic method — provides a model for how anyone can contribute to such a development. The questioner tries to reason only from things to which the answerer agrees, but often has to keep questioning to draw out the needed background.

In a fully free and open dialogue characterized by mutual recognition, any party may make contributions of this sort. As Sellars and Brandom would remind us, to assert anything at all is implicitly to take responsibility for that assertion, which is to invite questioning about our reasons.