Simple Substance?

I tremendously admire Leibniz, but have always been very puzzled by his notion of “substance”. Clearly it is different from that of Aristotle, which I still ought to develop more carefully, based on the hints in my various comments on Aristotle’s very distinctive approaches to “dialectic” and “being”. (See also Form, Substance.)

Leibniz compounds a criterion of simplicity — much emphasized in the neoplatonic and scholastic traditions — with his own very original notion of the complete concept of a thing, which is supposed to notionally encompass every possible detail of its description. He also emphasizes that every substance is “active”. Leibniz’ famous monads are identified by him with substances.

A substance is supposed to be simple. He explicitly says this means it has no parts. In part, he seems to have posited substances as a sort of spiritual atoms, with the idea that it is these that fundamentally make up the universe. The true atoms, Leibniz says, are fundamentally spiritual rather than material, though he also had great interest in science, and wanted to vindicate both mathematical and Aristotelian physics. Leibniz’ notion of spiritual atoms seems to combine traditional attributes of the scholastic “intellectual soul” (which, unlike anything in Aristotle, was explicitly said by its advocates to be a simple substance) with something like Berkeley’s thesis that what can truly be said to exist are just minds.

On the other hand, a substance is supposed to be the real correlate of a “complete” concept. The complete concept of a thing for Leibniz comprises absolutely everything that is, was, or will be true of the thing. This is related to his idea that predicates truly asserted of a grammatical subject must be somehow “contained” within the subject. Leibniz also famously claimed that all apparent interaction between substances is only an appearance. The details of apparent interaction are to be explained by the details contained within the complete concept of each thing. This is also related to his notions of pre-established harmony and possible worlds, according to which God implicitly coordinates all the details of all the complete concepts of things in a world, and makes judgments of what is good at the level of the infinite detail of entire worlds. One of Kant’s early writings was a defense of real interaction against Leibniz.

Finally, every monad is said by Leibniz to contain both a complete microcosm of the world as expressed from its distinctive point of view, and an infinite series of monads-within-monads within it. Every monad has or is a different point of view from every other, but they all reflect each other.

At least in most of his writings, Leibniz accordingly wanted to reduce all notions of relation to explanations in terms of substances. In late correspondence with the Jesuit theologian Bartholomew Des Bosses, he sketched an alternate view that accepted the reality of relations. But generally, Leibniz made the logically valid argument that it is far simpler to explain the universe in terms of each substance’s unique relation to God, rather than in terms of infinities of infinities of relations between relations. For Leibniz all those infinities of infinities are still present, but only in the mind of God, and in reflection in the interior of each monad.

Leibniz’ logically simpler account of relations seems like an extravagant theological fancy, but however we may regard that, and however much we may ultimately sympathize with Kant over Leibniz on the reality of interaction and relations, Leibniz had very advanced intuitions of logical-mathematical structure, and he is fundamentally right that from a formal point of view, extensional properties of things can all be interpreted in an “intensional” way. Intension in logic refers to internal content of a concept, and to necessary and sufficient conditions that constitute its formal definition. This is independent of whatever views we may have about minds. (See also Form as a Unique Thing.)

So, there is much of interest here, but I don’t see how these ultra-rich notional descriptions can be true of what are also supposed to be logical atoms with no parts. In general, I don’t see how having a rich description could be compatible with being logically atomic. I think the notion of logical atomicity is only arrived at through abstraction, and doesn’t apply to real things.

Potentiality and Ends

Perfection for Aristotle is an attractor and not a driver. To be an unmoved mover and to be an efficient cause in the “driving” way this was commonly interpreted in the later tradition are mutually exclusive. Pure act does not act in the normal sense of the word. I am reminded of Lao Tzu, that other great minimalist teacher of unmoved moving.

Plotinus and the later neoplatonic schools reworked the notion of unmoved moving, from Aristotle’s modest notion of the attraction of potentialities to the good, to a principle of overflowing, superabundant positive power that spontaneously generates beings and effects, as a necessary consequence of its very superabundance. Aristotle’s “first cause” affects everything, but only through the collaboration of secondary causes. Though developing nuanced accounts of the grand cycle of procession from the One and ultimate return, the neoplatonists tended to reduce secondary causes to mere effects of the One.

Authors like Aquinas engaged in a tricky balancing act, wanting to assert the supremacy of God while simultaneously recognizing the ethical and epistemological value of Aristotle’s emphasis on the reality of secondary causes. But according to Gwenaëlle Aubry, the theological voluntarism of Duns Scotus and others annulled what I take to be that good Aristotelian concern of Aquinas, completely subordinating nature, truth, and the good to the arbitrary will of God.

This whole historical discussion is greatly complicated by the very different ways in which the same key terms have been interpreted. For example, it makes a great difference whether we consider the art of building or the hammer’s blow to be a better model of the efficient cause. The art of building could be a sort of derived unmoved mover, but the hammer’s blow is a moved mover.

Previously, I have emphasized an interpretation of potentiality in terms of Brandom’s talk about robust counterfactual conditions on the one hand, and a loosely structuralist notion of structure on the other. I read Hegel as recognizing the essential role of this kind of potentiality in any formation of a determinate view of things.

This may sound remote from Aubry’s emphasis on potentiality as a tendency to be attracted by an end, but there is actually a deep connection. Hegel emphasizes the role of potentiality in determination, whereas Aubry emphasizes the role of potentiality as contingency. But Brandom’s counterfactual conditions (an interpretation of Hegelian potentiality) just are contingencies; they are not univocally determined to occur. From the ground up, a kind of pluralism of multiple concrete possibilities is built into the determination of determination.

As Leibniz said, all necessity is of a hypothetical, if-then form. As Kant and Hegel also reminded us, judgments of determination always involve interpretation, and ultimately have a normative form. Brandom makes a similar Kantian point that causality in the modern sense is a product of judgments and inference. These are far from arbitrary; they are subject to a kind of objectivity grounded in counterfactual robustness and mutual recognition. But that objectivity is itself ultimately a normative concept. As Abelard said, the good comes first. (See also Form as Value; Aristotelian Causes.)

Ricoeur on Foucault

I still vividly recall the moment over 40 years ago when the sharp questioning of unities of all kinds in the preface and first chapter of Michel Foucault’s 1969 work The Archaeology of Knowledge very suddenly awoke me from erstwhile slumber in neoplatonic dreams about the One. Today I would say Foucault like many others was terribly wrong in his reading of Hegel, but I still look on that text as a sort of manifesto of historical method. As Aristotle too might remind us, distinctions are essential to intelligibility and understanding.

Just this year, the work of Paul Ricoeur has become very significant to me. Ricoeur expressed admiration for Foucault’s late work The Care of the Self, but in both volume 3 of Time and Narrative and his late work Memory, History, Forgetting, he criticized The Archaeology of Knowledge rather severely.

Ricoeur did not object to Foucault’s emphasis on discontinuities in (the field Foucault did not want to call) the history of ideas, but rather to Foucault’s closely related polemic against the subordination of such discontinuities to an encompassing continuity of historical “consciousness”, and to his further association of the idea of an encompassing continuity of consciousness with the would-be mastery of meaning by a putatively purely constitutive Subject. Ricoeur as much as Foucault objected to such notions of Mastery, but he still wanted to articulate a kind of narrative continuity of what he still wanted to call consciousness.

Ricoeur scholar Johann Michel in his book Ricoeur and the Post-Structuralists agrees that “the subject” for Ricoeur is far from purely constitutive, and “in reality, is not a subject in the substantialist sense” (p. 107). Rather, it is mediate, and only understandable via a long detour through cultural objectifications. As Ricoeur says, consciousness is “affected by the efficacity of history” (Time and Narrative vol. 3, p. 217). “We are only the agents of history insofar as we also suffer it” (ibid, p. 216). Ricoeur’s suffering-as-well-as-acting “subject” gives very different meaning to this highly ambiguous term from the kind of voluntaristic agency attributed to the Cogito by Descartes, and Ricoeur’s “consciousness” is very far from the notion of immediate “consciousness” classically formulated by Locke. I prefer to avoid confusion by using different vocabulary, but agree that the notions Ricoeur wanted to defend are quite different from those Foucault wanted to criticize.

This leaves the question of the relative priority of continuity and discontinuity. Foucault in his Archaeology phase advocated a method grounded in the conceptual priority of discontinuities of meaning, while Ricoeur wanted to give discontinuity an important subordinate role in an approach dedicated to recovering a continuity of consciousness. In my own current Aristotelian phase, I want to emphasize a view that is reconciling like Ricoeur’s, but still puts the accent on discontinuity like Foucault’s. My historiographical notes both tell stories and offer explanations somewhat in the way that Ricoeur advocated, and emphasize the differences and discontinuities favored by Foucault.

Ricoeur also seems to have been troubled by Foucault’s disinterest in what Ricoeur calls the “first-order entities” (p. 218) of history — actual communities, nations, civilizations, etc. (I would note that he is not using “first order” in the logical sense, which is a purely syntactic criterion; he just wants to suggest that these kinds of things are more methodologically primitive for historical inquiry.) I actually think apprehension of something like form comes before apprehension of any substantialized “things”, so my sympathy is more with Foucault on this point. Undoubtedly Ricoeur would say these have a narrative identity rather than a substantial one, which seems fine in itself, but I think any narrative identity must be a tentative result and not a methodological primitive.

Ultimately, I think Ricoeur was motivated by an ethical desire to put people first — a concern Foucault did not make clear he actually shared until The Care of the Self. Ricoeur would also agree, though, that historiography is not simply reducible to ethics, but has largely independent concerns of its own. He seems to have wanted to say that the history of ideas is fundamentally a history of people. I’m a pluralist, so I have no objection to this sort of account as one alternative, but I think people’s commitments tell us who they are more than who holds a commitment tells us about the commitment. I also think higher-order things come before first-order things, and that people are better thought of as singular higher-order trajectories of ways of being throughout a life than as first-order entities. Ricoeur, I believe, was reaching for something like this with his notion of narrative (as opposed to substantial) identity, which I would rather call something other than identity.

Structural Causality, Choice

I now have an Aristotelian account of structural causality. It is exercised by the combined form and materiality of actually used means to desired ends, and behaves like a contextual unmoved mover. As usual with Aristotelian “causes”, this puts it in the context of an expressive semantics, rather than any mechanical metaphor. (See also What and Why.)

We choose among available means to our ends (and, I think, also among alternative derived ends, due to the interdependence of derived ends with means). Then through structural causality, each such choice brings with it a block of consequences that are not up to us. This reconciles structural causality with contingency and Kantian freedom. (See also Potentiality, Actuality; Structure, Potentiality; Efficient Cause.)

(Often, ends are things we just tacitly accept, but we also have the possibility of critically examining what we have tacitly accepted, and possibly changing our commitment as a result.)

Notwithstanding Brandom’s negative comments in passing about structuralism, I think a similar account of the place of structural causality can be applied in the context of Brandomian choice and practical endorsement of commitments.

Modality and Variation

David Corfield suggests that modality has to do with ranges of variation. This seems extremely helpful. He connects Brandom’s notion of ranges of counterfactual robustness with mathematical analyses of variation. Corfield approvingly cites Brandom’s argument that in order to successfully apply empirical concepts at all, we must already be able to apply modal concepts like possibility and necessity. This always seemed right to me, but the talk about possible worlds made me worry about what sounded like impossibly strong quantification over infinities of infinities. Corfield also points out that Saul Kripke originally cautioned against uncareful extension of his possible-worlds talk.

It now seems to me that Brandom’s counterfactual robustness and Corfield’s mathematically analyzable variation together can be taken as an explanation for modal notions of necessity that previously seemed to be simply posited, or pulled out of the blue. Modality suddenly looks like a direct consequence of the structure of ranges of variation. Previously, I associated both structure and Brandom’s modally robust counterfactuals with Aristotelian potentiality, so this fits well.

Corfield also relates this to work done by the important 20th century neo-Kantian, Ernst Cassirer, on invariants behind the various systems of Euclidean and non-Euclidean geometry. He points out that Cassirer thought similar concerns of variation and invariance implicitly arise in ordinary visual perception, and connects this with Brandom’s thesis that modality is already there in our everyday application of empirical concepts.

The British Empiricist David Hume famously criticized common-sense assumptions about causality and necessity, preferring to substitute talk about our psychological tendencies to associate things that we have experienced together. Hume pointed out that from particular facts, no knowledge of causality or necessity can ever be derived. This is true; no knowledge of necessity could arise from acquaintance with particular facts. But if necessity and other modalities are structural, as Corfield suggests, they do not need to be inferred from particular facts, or to be arbitrarily posited.

The kind of necessity associated with structural determination is quite different from unconditional predestination. I want to affirm the first, and deny the second. Structural determination only applies within well-defined contexts, so it is bounded. If we step outside of the context where it applies, it no longer has force. (See also New Approaches to Modality; Free Will and Determinism.)

Leibniz is more familiar to me than Kripke, so when I hear “possible worlds”, I have tended to imagine complete alternate universes à la Leibniz. “Worlds”, however, could be read much more modestly as just referring to Corfield’s ranges of variation.

Matter, Mind

I don’t think any kind of stuff could come first, be it matter or some sort of mind-stuff. What comes first in the sense of principle would be something like form or structure or mediation. (“First” in the general sense of principle is said in several ways, but I’m inclined to re-collapse some of them. These days, I consider ontology to be mostly either redundant with semantic and epistemological methodological senses, or else just a mistake. This leaves a long view of methodology as the best candidate for a principle.) The air of paradox associated with saying something like mediation comes first is dispelled if we recall that apparent immediacy is mediated immediacy. This just reflects the fact that methodologically, we are never at a completely pure beginning, and always start in medias res.

Mind especially seems to me not best approached as a kind of stuff at all. It is first and foremost a way of doing. (See also Mind Without Mentalism.) Then, too, what is loosely called the “matter” that we care about in concrete cases often comes down to potentiality, or dispositions to respond in certain ways when acted upon (which is distinct from Aristotelian matter, as I understand it). Both of these are adverbial characterizations, though things of this sort can always be nominalized for convenient reference.

Aristotle suggests that what is first “for us” (the short view of methodology) is some sort of activity that we tentatively pick out within appearance. We then move forward by developing the adverbial characterization of that activity in terms of form or structure or mediation. (See also Objectivity of Objects; First Principles Come Last; Owl; Passive Synthesis, Active Sense; Radical Empiricism?; Realism, Idealism; Johnston’s Pippin.)

Structure, Potentiality

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

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

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

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

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