Virtue Not a Potential

I picked up L’excellence de la vie especially for the early essay of Gwenaëlle Aubry, “Actuality and Potentiality in Aristotelian Ethics” (my translation). Here she makes a number of important distinctions. Contrary to some modern interpretations, Aristotle’s natural teleology and values-first approach to ultimate philosophical questions do not lead to what 20th century philosophers called ethical naturalism, or to any kind of nature-based elitism. I’ve been assuming this all along, but it is good to spell out the argument.

Virtue can sound like the optimal realization of a healthy nature, but for Aristotle it is actually a kind of habit, so it cannot be straightforwardly natural. In Nicomachean Ethics book 2 chapter 1, Aristotle points out that we can throw a stone up in the air a thousand times, but this doesn’t change its natural tendency to fall back to the ground. One may be born with a penchant for courage, justice, or temperance, but for these qualities to become true virtues requires the engagement of reason and what Aubry calls the “transcendental” intellectual virtue of practical judgment (phronesis). Virtue is not an unevenly distributed innate talent, but a result of extensive practice that is available to all. It requires effort and “seriousness”.

If biological nature itself is shaped by implicit ends, what distinguishes human ethical development? “[T]he position of Aristotle is clear: virtue is not natural, but neither is it contrary to nature” (Aubry, p. 78, emphasis in original). Here we are in the territory of what the commentary tradition called “second nature”. Virtue for Aristotle is an acquired disposition. This rules out the notion that it is just the unfolding of something innate. Aubry says that ethical practice is a mediation between nature and something beyond nature. Before the fact, Aristotle evicts both naturalism and supernaturalism, in the way that these are commonly understood.

According to Aubry, in the ethical domain Aristotle’s standard notion of potentiality is subject to a triple modification. First, the goal of virtue is not to “be all you can be”. It is selective. Only the “definitional” potentiality of the human — to be what makes us properly human — is involved in virtue. Second, one only becomes fully human under the condition of actively choosing what one is essentially. “If everyone tends naturally toward the good, no one is naturally virtuous” (p. 79). Third, virtue can only be actualized in the context of a free exercise of reason.

“Virtue, albeit a necessary condition for the actualization of the definitional potentiality of the human, is not itself a potentiality” (p. 81). She quotes Aristotle in book 2 chapter 1 of the Nicomachean Ethics, “It is neither by nature nor against nature that the virtues are born in us, but nature has given us the capacity to receive them, and this capacity is brought to maturity by habit [hexis]” (p. 82). And again from the same, “All that we have naturally, we receive first in a state of potentiality, and it is later that we manifest it in act, as is clear in the case of the sensory faculties…. For the virtues on the contrary, their possession presupposes a previous exercise, as is the case for the other arts” (p. 83).

Aubry notes that this might seem like a vicious circle: it is necessary to act well to become capable of acting well. And in avoiding naturalism, have we replaced it with the opposite excess of a pure imposition? But this is artificial, and resembles the false paradoxes of learning. To be a good musician, one must play an instrument well, and one learns this through repeated practice. To become virtuous, one “practices” doing the right thing in the right way.

Averroes as Read by de Libera

Alain de Libera has played a major role in reviving interest in Averroes. In 1999 he published a French translation of the crucial book III of the famous (or infamous) Long Commentary on Aristotle on the Soul, which was the first rendering of this work into a modern language. He devotes an 80-page chapter of Archéologie du sujet volume 3 part 1 to reconstructing the more controversial parts of this long-misunderstood text. I’ve previously discussed the reading of Deborah Black in “This Human Understands”, and that of Stephen Ogden in “This Human”, Again.

The modern notion of a subject-agent, de Libera says, originated partly in opposition to Augustine and partly in opposition to Averroes. Though he was responsible for first introducing a notion of “subject” into Aristotelian discourse about the soul, Averroes did not introduce the “modern subject”. According to de Libera, the notion of the human as subject-agent of thought was developed first in opposition to Averroes, then in opposition to the Averroists, then by later Averroists responding to criticism.

“[F]or an Aristotelian as for a Plotinian, the intelligibles in act are not mental states, accidents or accidental forms of a mind posed as substrate and having before it things, themselves bearing qualities, but the intelligibles themselves as intellects in act” (p. 166; my translation throughout). I’ll try to shed some further light on this below.

De Libera cites Aristotle’s own statement that intellect and the intellected are one. He says Averroes’ Latin readers were misled by Michael Scot’s translation of intellectus (intellect as a faculty) for what should have been intellectum (the intelligible). The thesis of the unity of intellect commonly attributed to Averroes is really at its root a thesis of the unity of the intelligible, he says. Averroes primarily has in mind Plato’s problem of how teaching and learning — and shared apprehension and objectivity — are possible.

“The first concern of Averroes is to escape from Platonism” (p. 182). This means we still like forms, but we do not posit free-floating Forms. Aristotle’s alternative is a theory of “abstraction”. Intellect is said to “abstract” intelligibles as universals from the concrete particular contents of what is called imagination. De Libera says that Aristotle used both inductive and “geometric” notions of abstraction, but notes that the commentator Alexander of Aphrodisias particularly emphasized the “geometric” version, which is said to involve conceiving as separate from matter the forms that are nonetheless not separate from matter.

“The noetic problem inherited from Alexander by Averroes is above all that of the production of the intelligible in act: the intentio intellecta” (p. 184). “Intellect is not mind. Nor is it consciousness” (p. 185). The intentio intellecta is not the intentionality arising from the act of a transcendental Ego that Husserl spoke of.

“What is this problem? Not that which Thomas posed to the Averroists, and through them to Averroes: to account for the fact of experience that I think, but rather: to account for the fact that we think, or better, the fact that we think or are capable of thinking the same thing.”

“At issue here is neither the I, nor the human, nor the individual human, but indeed the I and the you” (p. 186). De Libera suggests the analogy of Fregean thought that “is independent of our activity of thought” (p. 187), and says that like Frege, Averroes “opposes thought, intellectio, to representation, cogitatio” (ibid).

The Greek commentator Themistius had suggested underwriting the unity of the intelligible by a unity of “intellect”.

“[T]he theory of the unity of the material intellect has the function of resolving, from a strict Aristotelian point of view, the Platonic question of the possibility of teaching and apprenticeship” (p. 189).

Averroes wants to say that the intelligible is both one and multiple. We can apprehend the very same thing, and yet do so separately. In the forms in our incarnate imaginations it is multiple, but in the immaterial “material intellect” it is one.

Averroes referred to both the imagined, represented, or “cogitated” forms in the soul and to the so-called material intellect with a word that was translated to Latin as subjectum or “subject”. His account of how the two “subjects” interact has become known in secondary literature as the “theory of the two subjects”. Though it was being applied to human imagination and thought, the notion of subject here was understood by his Latin readers as just the abstract one of something standing under something else.

De Libera says it is impossible to understand the theory of two subjects without paying attention to what Averroes says about two related movers. In a famous development in the Metaphysics, Aristotle himself progressively sublimated the “standing under” concept, ultimately replacing it with considerations of potentiality and actualization. De Libera says that in Averroes’ reflections on intellect, “subject” really means mover rather than substrate.

An Aristotelian mover is actually very different from the modern concept of an agent. De Libera quotes Aristotle to the effect that “movement, action, and passion reside in that which is moved” (p. 198).

Averroes, following Aristotle, develops an analogy between sense and intellect. De Libera analyzes Aristotle’s account of the case of sense in four points: 1) that which is potentially sensible exists independent of sense; 2) it only plays the role of mover in the sensitive faculty; 3) the sensible in act (or the sensed) and the sensing or the sense in act are numerically the same act, but differ in essence or quiddity; 4) the identity of the act of the sensible and the act of the sensing in the sensing serves as Aristotle’s explanation for how we sense that we are sensing, or how we have internal sense. In this “synergetic” account, sensation is not a pure passive reception, but rather at the same time is an actualization of a potentiality that we have, and indeed an actualization of us.

De Libera notes that the analogy Aristotle and Averroes both make between sense and intellect in this regard is already enough to invalidate all the readings of Averroes that make the human entirely passive in relation to thought. Intellect for Averroes is not a simple “Giver of Forms” like the transcendent intellect in Avicenna. According to de Libera, in sensation only the potentiality of the sensing functions as a subject of inherence or attribution. That which is potentially sensible does not sense. Similarly, in intellect the intentio intellecta has only one subject of inherence or attribution, which is the potentiality for intellection in the so-called material intellect. That which is potentially intelligible does not think. Nor are intelligibles “emanated” directly to the soul, any more than sensations are received in a purely passive way.

“The receiving intellect is not a sponge. It moves itself. Or better, it is moved. Its movement is a motion by final cause” (p. 212). The two movers in this case are the forms in imagination and the abstracting “active” intellect.

The human is not the subject of thought, but nonetheless she thinks, and thinks at will. Such is the thesis of Averroes” (p. 215). We think when we want. For Averroes, the agent and receptor of the intelligible in act are both eternal, separate substances, but the activities of these separate substances nevertheless take place in us, and are attributed to us. This should correct the misleading impression that for Averroes what the moderns call “the subject” is divided into a part that is mental but not thinking, and a part that is thinking but not mental. It is even further removed from the argument of Aquinas that Averroes makes the human into something like a wall, and into something passively thought by something else rather than something thinking.

Thought in the human is a habitus, or Aristotelian hexis. This is a “second actuality” or “second perfection”, a product of processes of actualization. Averroes makes significant use of the notion of the “acquired intellect” that may come to be immanent in the human, which was explicitly elaborated by al-Farabi using Aristotelian notions of potentiality and actualization. In this context de Libera speaks of production and re-production, actualization and re-actualization. It is by virtue of having this “acquired intellect” that the human has the ability to think when she wants.

The one who has thoughts thinks” (p. 219). “Active” and “material” intellects are two faculties or moments of one thing or process. We act by means of them, and according to de Libera this means that for Averroes, they constitute our form insofar as we are thinking. Averroes holds that Aristotle’s use of “soul” is equivocal with respect to whether or not it includes intellect; that only the animal and vegetable parts of the soul count as form and first perfection of the body; but that intellect nonetheless is our form when we are thinking.

Reason, Nature

Ethical reason is our simultaneously active and receptive contribution to the bounty of nature. We are neither masters nor slaves or automatons, but co-stewards of this world.

The open-ended inclusiveness characteristic of ethical reason resembles the superabundance of form in nature, the same resemblance I’d like to think Plotinus had in mind when he said we should act in ways that express a “likeness to God”, which I take in the spirit of Leibnizian affirmative “wise charity”. (See also Fragility of the Good; Two Kinds of Character; Magnanimity; Second Nature; Naturalness, Mindedness; Interpretation.)


Our ethical development, or what Aristotle would call our ethos — our piece of Hegelian Spirit, as it were — builds on our emotional development. A relatively harmonious emotional constitution will be naturally open to the influence of ethical development grounded in mutual recognition.

It seems to me that this is already enough for a fully rich account of a human being. If we have ethos, then things like will, ego, intellectual soul, and mind-as-container seem superfluous.

Second Nature

In the case of a human, Aristotle spoke of the soul as the “first” actuality of the body, and of intellect as a second actuality of a human being. This was extrapolated by later commentators into a broader concept of second nature. Nature for Aristotle is not just the way something statically is, or a set of abstract laws; it is an internal source of motion and rest within each natural thing. In the case of an animal, it is responsible for growth and characteristic bodily movements or behavior. I have glossed actuality (energeia) as at-work-ness, or a status of being effectively operative in a process, so there is a kind of metonymic relation between nature and actuality.

The idea that nature or actuality is something admitting of structural degrees seems very useful. Modern discourse is full of awkward contrasts between, e.g., nature and culture, as if these were mutually exclusive domains. But culture or character or mind exists within — or layered on top of — what we would call physical nature. It is a relatively autonomous additional layer with additional capabilities, that would not exist without the first layer. It is a complex adverbial modification of the active processes associated with first nature. Hegelian Spirit is a thing of this kind. (See also Ethos, Hexis; Rational/Talking Animal; Parts of the Soul; Alienation, Second Nature.)


Human reasoning is never purely formal. I think it works mainly along the lines of the material inference described by Sellars and Brandom. But as Brandom pointed out in Between Saying and Doing, any given material inference can still be represented by a formal inference.

Direct brain-computer analogies don’t seem to me to yield much. On the other hand, the theory of programming languages does yield insights into the foundations of formal reasoning, and the foundations of formal reasoning may indirectly yield insights into the ways human reasoning works.

A case in point is the notion of compilation stages. All programs need to be compiled or interpreted to be run. Usually, this happens in multiple stages. At each stage, expressions in a more expressive language are re-encoded into operationally equivalent expressions in a less expressive language. It may seem counterintuitive that this is even possible, but it is essential to the way something intelligible to us can be made to “run”.

This tells us that operational equivalence and expressive equivalence are not the same thing, and it suggests an analogy for the way second nature relates to first nature. Operational equivalence can be preserved by substituting references for inferences. Something that can only be expressed at a higher level can nonetheless be executed at a lower level. Things that can only be expressed through human language and reason can provide the occasion for operational execution by a physiological mechanism. (See also Free Will and Determinism; Psyche, Subjectivity; Bookkeeping.)


As ethical beings possessed of second nature, except for a few very spontaneous acts, we always have reasons for what we say and do. We hope they are good reasons.

Ethical merit consists essentially in conscientiousness about the goodness of the reasons that motivate words and deeds and are used to justify them. Such goodness of reasons is never merely formal or technical; it is also social and situational. (See also Commitment; Ends; Reasonableness; Interpretive Charity; Agency; Rational/Talking Animal; Things Said; Rational Ethics; Evaluation of Actions; Intellectual Virtue, Love; Honesty, Kindness.)

Alienation, Second Nature

In chapter 14 of Spirit of Trust, Brandom points out a distinction developed by Hegel in the Spirit chapter of the Phenomenology between “actual” and “pure” consciousness. These turn out to correspond closely to practical and theoretical culture, respectively. Here it is important to note that “consciousness” is therefore a very different thing from the “consciousness” of the Consciousness chapter, where we began with a putatively immediate awareness and discovered that even then, every apparent immediacy eventually revealed itself as mediated.

Acculturation, and therefore the “consciousness” of the later chapter basically is a form of mediation. We are no longer making any pretense of beginning with the putatively immediate. Culture is very thick, and a long journey. More superficially, it includes all our attitudes.

In chapter 13, Brandom had quoted Hegel saying it is through culture that the individual acquires actuality. The “individual” here is not the atomistic psychological individual beloved of the Enlightenment, externally confronting objects and others, but a participant in Geist with some much more interesting topology. True individuality for Hegel is not given but emergent. Its borders are much wider, and not topologically closed. Atomic psychological individuals are a hallucination of the modern illness Hegel called Mastery. (Hegel explicitly says the pure “I”, by contrast — conceived after Kant as having no content of its own, but as a mere index of the unity of a transcendental unity of apperception — depends on language for its existence. Brandom reminds us that language is the medium of recognition, the sea in which normative fish swim; and that things said, in being public, acquire a significance that runs beyond what the speaker intended. The purely linguistic “I” becomes the focus of commitment and responsibility, which depend on linguistic articulation.)

In the same passage Hegel also speaks of Spirit as alienation from our natural being. Reading those words I sort of cringe, but in fact Hegel is not talking about anything like Gnostic or Plotinian alienation. The word has that heritage, but Hegel uses it in the same breath with actualization. This alienation is supposed to be a good thing. It is de-immediatization, which is just the other side of the coin of mediation. Hegel is here using an originally negatively connotated Gnostic and Plotinian word for what is for him a positively connotated Aristotelian concept of actualization, which Brandom associates with expression and making explicit. Mediation is in this passage allegorized by Hegel as, in effect, becoming strange (alien) to our putative atomistic psychological selves.

Spirit as alienation should not be read as any repudiation of nature. As Terry Pinkard points out in Hegel’s Naturalism, Hegel is in fact a naturalist, but of the expansive, Aristotelian sort, explicitly antireductionist. The difference with 2oth century naturalisms is that it allows for the emergence of increasingly higher forms of Geist and Hegelian “freedom” over a natural basis. In Aristotelian terms, 20th century naturalism only addresses “first” nature, the more primitive one. Aristotelian and Hegelian naturalism also recognize second nature that includes culture. Even though in other contexts there will still be talk of overcoming alienation, at least one meaning of “alienation” is just the move to second nature.