Plotinus Against the Gnostics

Since publication of James Robertson’s The Nag Hammadi Library (1977), there has been a big upsurge of interest in the loose bundle of religious tendencies under the Roman Empire known retrospectively as “gnosticism”. These tended to emphasize extreme forms of transcendence, and to reject the classical notion of the inherent goodness of life in the finite world.

Hans Jonas’ 1958 classic The Gnostic Religion was an early sympathetic account that impressed me in my youth. Jonas gave a somewhat philosophical reading of general gnostic principles, emphasizing the claim that a direct personal experience of metaphysical realities could transform one’s being. I now think that true wisdom does not come from any immediate experience, although immediate experience may encapsulate wisdom already acquired. In light of Kant, I think the idea of direct experience of transcendent metaphysical realities is a category mistake.

Surviving gnostic texts nonetheless contain many bits of inherent interest to the historian of religions, illustrating results of a rather wild cross-cultural fusion between nonstandard Jewish, Christian, Greek, Egyptian, Babylonian, Persian, and even Buddhist elements. Related themes found their way into Ismaili Shi’ism, Suhrawardian Illuminationist Sufism, Catharism, and Jewish Kabbalah. Particularly in the Shi’ite versions, there was at times an element of concern for social justice. This kind of formation, however, seems to be prone to developing an authoritarian or cult-like character, e.g., “I am better than you because I have the secret wisdom.”

Prior to the 19th century, gnosticism was known in the West almost exclusively from extremely hostile heresiological sources, which were often not far from the mentality that groups we don’t like eat babies for breakfast. There was an underground interest in gnosticism among occultists and Jungians, but only in the later 20th century did studies of it acquire broader intellectual respectability.

The pendulum has now perhaps swung too far in the opposite direction of rather uncritical enthusiasm. In this context, the independent critique of gnosticism by Plotinus is worth recalling.

The largest single treatise of Plotinus, the great founder of neoplatonism, the so-called GroƟschrift, was divided into four pieces by his student and editor Porphyry, who gave its conclusion the title “Against the Gnostics”. The three preceding parts, which expressed related views of Plotinus in more positive terms, were “Nature, Contemplation, and the One”, “On the Intellectual Beauty”, and “That the Intelligibles Are Not Outside the Intellect, and on the Good”.

Plotinus criticized the gnostics for making arrogant claims to possess otherwise hidden metaphysical knowledge; for their negative attitudes toward life in this world; and for their feverish multiplication of metaphysical principles. In my youth I had some sympathy for the “esoteric” view, and for general feelings of alienation from the existing world order. However, I have come to believe that the truest spirituality has a universal rather than esoteric character. Also, I have really always believed that nature and worldly being are good in themselves, and that social ills are due to us and not to unjust cosmic forces. I have come to think that Plotinus’ notions of the One, Intellect, and Soul are too strong, but still consider him a major figure. (See also The One?; Power of the One?; Neoplatonic Critique of Identity?; Subjectivity in Plotinus).

Hegel offers many enriching views of the broader matters addressed by Plotinus here.

Toward Spirit

To hazard a simple analogy, for Hegel active “Reason” is to the inherently mediated character of “Self-Consciousness” as statically representational “Understanding” is to putatively direct “Consciousness”. So far in the development of the Phenomenology, Reason has not yet embraced its own character as fundamentally social, shareable, and essentially ethical as well as individually embodied.

“Spirit” will be Hegel’s name for shared ethical culture. Hegel figuratively identifies his ethical ideal of mutual recognition with Christian love or agape, and ethical Spirit with the concrete presence of the Holy Spirit in a community practicing such love.

H. S. Harris begins the second volume of his commentary with an anticipation of what is to come. “First the singular rational agent takes itself to be the principle of a freedom that must replace the law of worldly necessity; then it becomes the true consciousness of the law as opposed to a false worldly consciousness of it; and when the two sides of this consciousness recognize each other as equally necessary, rational Individuality is achieved.”

“Even then the identity of singular desire with universal law is ambiguous and unstable. The rational individuals all have their own lives to lead; and when they claim to be exercising their Reason, by doing what is best for everyone, it is evident both that their view of the rational good is biased, and that there is a competition to be the one individual who does the rational Thing” (Hegel’s Ladder II, p. 1).

“The singular rational consciousness cannot say what is right, universally, and without regard to the social situation and circumstances…. We only think that we can do this… because we already know (instinctively) what we must do, not rationally and universally, but within the definite community of which we are already members.”

“With this discovery, singular consciousness leaves the center of the stage and withdraws to the wings. The subject of experience now is the Spirit. ‘Spirit’ has been implicitly present (for us) as the universal side of the singular consciousness…. But now this universal side emerges as an independent ‘shape of consciousness'” (pp. 1-2).

“The Dasein [concrete being] of the Spirit is language. Wherever I hear (or read) a speech which I recognize to be not mine or yours, but equally mine, yours, and ‘ours’… there the Spirit is” (p. 2).

“[F]rom the inevitable conflict between the universal voice that speaks to all, and the particular voice that Custom designates as authoritative for our particular group, springs disaster for the immediate (or True) Shape of Spirit as a communal self.”

“From the breakdown of Spirit as customary unanimity, ordinary commonsense ‘selves’ emerge. But this world of private individuals is not, and cannot be, a properly rational world…. [T]he execution of the law still requires a singular agent; and the authority of the law must be maintained by a power that is no longer ‘ours’ but alien and arbitrary” (ibid).

“To escape from this breakdown, the voice of the universal Spirit must be alienated conceptually…. But this discarnate voice still has to be incarnated in individual agents” (ibid). The ideal of universality is first transferred from a traditional face-to-face community to an abstract nation-state. But “the faith in a divine authorization of the constitution, is faced by the insight that every rational consciousness must be recognized as such, and hence as equal” (ibid).

“At this point, the Spirit must retreat into the inward voice of moral duty” (p. 3). But this will eventually lead to the explicit appearance of God as the “word of forgiveness” (ibid). The “final reality of the Absolute Spirit… makes its first appearance as the ‘Yes’ of acceptance exchanged mutually between the judging consciousness and the agent” (ibid).

Harris emphasizes that were it not for the “science” of “experience” Hegel develops in the Phenomenology, true communication of content between the singular ethical being and a larger community “would only be effective between the philosopher and us, the philosophically prepared audience. But through the demonstrated identity of the religious community with ‘us’, the communication becomes universal” (ibid). Meanwhile, “in the ‘Yes’ of comprehending acceptance exchanged between agent and judge… the impersonal voice of the universal good… has become completely incarnate as a human relation” (ibid).

Between Transcendentalism and Pragmatism

Josiah Royce (1855-1916) was known as the leading American exponent of absolute idealism. He was recognized for contributions to philosophy of religion, psychology, and logic, as well as metaphysics. I thought of him because apparently, at least in his earlier works, he really did identify the Absolute with an all-embracing, divine consciousness that was supposed to include and underwrite all of reality, quite opposite to the way I read Hegel’s Phenomenology as an extended critique of the point of view of consciousness.

Also quite unlike the “deflationary” approach taken here, he straightforwardly identified his Absolute with God and with Being. Royce’s was a definitely personal God, also existing in time rather than eternally. Early in his career, he developed a novel argument for the existence of God based on the existence of error. According to Royce, the very existence of error presupposes the existence not only of truth against which the error can be recognized, but of a Knower who knows the truth.

Royce had strongly communitarian ethical views, sharply criticizing both the “heroic individualism” of the American Transcendentalists, with whom he shared an interest in German Idealist philosophy, and the individualist views of his close friend, the pragmatist William James. Among other things, Royce thought James in his famous Varieties of Religious Experience focused too much on intensely private experiences of extraordinary individuals, to the detriment of attention to the community aspect of religion. In his theology, Royce strongly associated God with an ideal of a Universal Community.

In his late work, he was increasingly influenced by the great founder of pragmatism, Charles Pierce. He became fascinated with Pierce’s notions of signs, semiotics, and interpretation. While this was not quite the full-fledged anti-foundationalist notion of interpretation developed here, I think it at least points in a similar direction. At this point, Royce developed a new notion of God as “the Interpreter Spirit” providing a metaphysical ground in time for all acts of interpretation, without the interpreters necessarily being aware of this. He extended his notion of the Universal Community, now explicitly calling it a “Community of Interpretation”. I think the latter is a fascinating partial anticipation of Brandom’s much more detailed work on mutual recognition, which also draws on the pragmatist Kantianism of Wilfrid Sellars.

(From Brandom’s point of view, Royce’s communitarianism would still be a one-sided overreaction to individualist trends. It seems to me that Brandom and Ricoeur converge on a very attractive alternative to this old seesaw, putting concrete relations with others and intersubjectivity before either individuality or community.)

Martin Luther King, Jr., acknowledged Royce as the source of King’s own more elaborated notion of the ideal of the Beloved Community, a vision of tolerance and mutual acceptance. I have not evaluated claims of a recent book that in spite of this, Royce also in effect promoted a cultural version of the racist “white man’s burden”.

Royce attempted to derive all of ethics from a single principle of loyalty, understood as loyalty to a cause. He claimed that loyalty to vicious or predatory causes fails to meet a criterion of “loyalty to loyalty” intrinsic to his principle of loyalty. Thus the argument seems to be that loyalty has the kind of universality that Kant claimed for the categorical imperative. However, I don’t think the argument succeeds nearly as well as Kant’s. Kantian respect for people gives a crucial human face to Kant’s formalism in ethics. Even if loyalty to loyalty is concerned to avoid undermining the loyalty of others to the cause, as Royce argued, that seems to me to be a much narrower kind of concern for others. Also, loyalty is by nature particular, whereas Kant’s various formulations of the categorical imperative are actual tests for universality.

Concept of Law

When Kant distinguishes free beings as acting in accordance with concepts of law rather than merely in accordance with law, he makes a vital point that deserves to be expanded upon. Even inanimate objects exhibit rule-governed behavior, and mere obedience is at best a low degree of virtue. To act in accordance with concepts of laws is to act in a principled and thoughtful way, exercising judgment on how best to realize the high-level ends behind a body of law, charitably interpreted in a spirit of universal fairness. It is to take our place as co-legislators in the universal community of rational beings.

Ricoeur on Justice

Among Paul Ricoeur’s last publications were two small volumes of lectures on justice, The Just and Reflections on the Just. These apply the ethics he had formulated in Oneself As Another (see also Solicitude; Ricoeurian Ethics). As in Oneself As Another, he combines Aristotelian and Kantian elements (see also Aristotle and Kant).

Ricoeur notes that Plato and Aristotle often mentioned “the unjust and the just” in that order, and suggests that the initial impulse for justice is a sense of indignation against things like unequal shares, broken promises, and excessive retributions.

He identifies justice fundamentally with equity or fairness, as mediated through institutions and Kantian obligation by universals. In contrast with the I-Thou of friendship, it involves relations of distance with others conceived in the third person. “The other for friendship is the ‘you’; the other for justice is ‘anyone’…. In fact, we have already encountered this ‘anyone’ in those exemplary situations in which our youthful indignation lashes out against injustice: unequal shares, failure to keep one’s word as given, unfair retributions — all institutional circumstances, in the broadest sense of the term, where justice presents itself as a just distribution” (The Just, p. xiii). “An important equation, whereby the just begins to be distinguished from the unjust, presents itself here: the equation between justice and impartiality” (p. xi). It is “under the condition of impartiality that indignation can free itself of the desire for vengeance” (p. xvii; emphasis in original).

He will consider the interaction of two axes: a “horizontal” one of the “dialogical constitution of the self” (p. xii), and a “vertical” one with three levels — an initial Aristotelian one concerned with ends and the good life; an intermediate Kantian one concerned with formal elaborations of procedural justice and universality; and a final one concerned with Aristotelian practical wisdom that also draws on Kant’s Critique of Judgment. He suggests that the Critique of Judgment has more to tell us about justice than the Critique of Practical Reason. Procedural justice, Kantian universality, and deontological obligation here do not supersede or conflict with Aristotelian practical judgment about concrete particulars, but rather mediate its relations to ends. This seems like a very nice way of expressing a harmonization of Aristotelian and Kantian ethics.

Relating justice to Aristotelian ends, Ricoeur wants to defend “the primacy of the teleological approach in the determination of the idea of the just” (p.xvi). “Justice… is an integral part of the wish to live well” (p. xv). “It begins as a wish before it becomes an imperative” (ibid).

According to Ricoeur, the very import of the claim to universality ensures that procedural justice cannot entirely separate itself from a substantive idea of the good in terms of ends. Provisionally adopting John Rawls’ abstraction of equitable distribution of goods as including procedural considerations, he argues that overall equity cannot be realized without “taking into account the real heterogeneity of the goods to be distributed. In other words, the deontological level, rightly taken as the privileged level of reference for the idea of the just, cannot make itself autonomous to the point of constituting the exclusive level of reference” (p. xix; emphasis in original). Ricoeur accepts Rawls’ claim that a pure theory of procedural justice can be developed autonomously, but argues that its real-world applications still require Aristotelian practical judgment.

All people, Ricoeur suggests, have a kind of “power over” others, as a result of the capacity to act. This “offers the permanent occasion for violence in all its forms…. What do we get indignant about, in the case of shares, exchanges, retributions, if not the wrong that human beings inflict upon one another on the occasion of the power-over one will exercises in the encounter with another will?” (p. xvii; emphasis in original). The kind of impartiality that frees indignation from the desire for vengeance, Ricoeur suggests, is embodied in the idea of universally valid law and deontological obligation to avoid harming others.

Ricoeur says actually the most serious issue about justice has to do with what he calls the “tragic dimension of action. It is at this stage that the moral conscience, as an inner forum, one’s heart of hearts, is summoned to make unique decisions, taken in a climate of incertitude and of serious conflicts” (p. xxi; emphasis in original).

The ultimate need for open-ended Aristotelian practical wisdom above and beyond the best discipline of the abstract application of rules, Ricoeur says, is a kind of correlate of the irreducibility of a consideration of ends. This will be the most important thing in the practice of jurisprudence. (Leibniz also suggested something like this with his idea of justice as “wise charity”.) Ricoeur relates such practical wisdom to Aristotle’s notion of (non-sophistical) rhetoric as speaking well in the sense of saying things that are persuasive because rightly said; to hermeneutics; and to poetics. (See also Ricoeur on Practical Reason.)

Justice’s “privileged moment” of mediation through formal universality, while neither self-sufficient nor ultimately decisive, is nonetheless essential to the process. The same kind of mediation appears in Ricoeur’s works in numerous contexts. Freedom is mediated by necessity; our understanding of the self is mediated by a “long detour” through cultural objectifications; open-ended interpretation is mediated by disciplined explanation. Similarly, here an ultimately open-ended approach to justice that begins and ends with Aristotle is enriched and made more rigorous by the additional mediation of Kantian universality.

These examples help clarify the main sense of Ricoeurian (and Hegelian) “mediation”, which is very different from the sort of theologically perfect, transparent mediation invoked, e.g., by Aquinas. Ricoeurian and Hegelian mediation are always bumpy, and the last word is never said.

More Difference, Less Conflict

This is not a panacea because often people are not attuned to logical subtleties, but strife can be reduced by closer attention to distinctions. Even opposite assertions about what are actually different things do not conflict at all, except possibly through their implications. More qualified assertions also reduce the potential for conflict.

Claims of incommensurability tend to end dialogue rather than promote it, so it is not clear that they actually reduce conflict. Intelligible distinctions, on the other hand, are an important part of the implicit basis of civility. Much of civility and ethics is about appropriate response, which depends on intelligible distinctions.

Attention to distinctions is entirely consistent with a Kantian concern for ethical universality. It actually helps. We can do a better job of applying universals to particulars when we have more distinctions to work with. (See also Practical Judgment; Reasonableness; Contradiction.)

Context

The better we can interpret a context, the better we can understand the significance of things within it. In deliberation, the more grasp we have of the relevant context, the more it becomes possible to reach definite determinations.

An Aristotelian sensitivity to the distinctness and complexity of each situation in no way compromises an ethical ideal of universality like Kant promoted — quite the opposite. It is what enables us to apply that ideal well in each case.

In the world, differences in context also sometimes get used as a pretext for false distinctions that negate ethical universality, or are simply self-serving. But if we truly respect ethical universality, this will be of great help in seeing those cases for what they are.

Context provides a kind of anchor for modality, which plays a very great role in the intelligibility of things. Conversely, modality gives context a greater definiteness. Context is also perhaps the most fundamental concept for historiography.

Several Aristotelian concepts are concerned with context. Potentiality captures most of the aspects related to modality, but contingent fact and circumstance as such are associated with Aristotelian “material causes”, and operating means to ends are treated as “efficient causes”. The interpretation of context complements the classic questions of what and why.

From a Brandomian point of view, practical implications of context will be especially important in normative pragmatics, but context also affects determinations of meaning in inferential semantics.

Aristotelian Equality

Aristotle explains justice as a kind of proportionality, or equality of relations between people and similar objects of concern. The pseudo-Aristotelian treatise Magna Moralia virtually identifies justice with equality between people, but then disappointingly goes on to say that since, e.g., there is no equality between father and son or master and servant, the concept of a justice between them does not apply. Aristotle himself was careful to point out that empirically existing distinctions between people in the positions of masters and servants do not necessarily reflect inherent ones between people, and this ought to be generalized. Surviving texts do not explicitly put the same caveat on, e.g., existing inequalities between the sexes, but it seems to me the same logic should apply.

It also seems to me that equality of relations between people and similar objects of concern actually implies effective equality between people. A generalized equality between people would have been a highly controversial assertion in Aristotle’s time, and it seems to me he should be commended for implying it, rather than criticized for failing to make it explicit. It is in this spirit that I consider the Kantian emphasis on ethical univerality a welcome addition, complementing rather than conflicting with Aristotle’s highly cultivated sensitivity to the nuances of particular situations.

Kantian Obligation

Kantian ethics is explicitly governed by a spirit of universality. Universality is the one principle that drives everything else. Arguably, a concern for universality has been implicit in rational ethics since Plato and Aristotle, but Kant made it explicit and absolutely central; formulated it in a more rigorous way; and suggested several informal tests for it (the different formulations of the categorical imperative) that could be used in deliberation. Because it is possible to test maxims for compliance with the categorical imperative, Kant’s one principle can actually serve as a criterion, unlike Plato’s undefinable Good.

Universality implies no exceptions, so it can underwrite a kind of unconditional moral necessity that had no precedent in rational ethics before Kant. It seems that Kant wanted to contest Aristotle’s conclusion that ethics can never be an exact science. Kant borrowed talk about duty from what Brandom has called the traditional one-sided authority-obedience model of morality, but gave it new, rational, universal content. For Kant, every ethical decision should be approached as an instance and application of universal law. This means that in deliberation, we are not just deciding for ourselves what is right here and now, but what would be right for any rational being in similar circumstances. Kant wants us to act as universal legislators, and to respect the principle of humanity in every person.

There is something compelling about this, even for a convinced Aristotelian such as myself. Kant really did come up with something new. But also, Aristotelian sensitivity to particulars has been to an extent historically abused and hijacked by people with “particularist” agendas that Aristotle did not countenance, so a nudge in the direction of universality and respect for all humans is a welcome corrective.

This is not the end of the story. As I’ve noted numerous times, the absolute necessity of the categorical imperative applies only at an extremely abstract level, quite some distance from real-world application. I think this is at the core of Hegel’s impatience with Kantian “formalism”. Hegel is not quite fair to Kant, but Kant often seemed to want to claim he had reduced the whole of ethics to necessity, while directing our attention away from the parts he actually left open.

Next, I need to take a closer look at Kantian maxims, which are supposed to provide the bridge to real life. (See also Categorical Imperative; Kant’s Groundwork; Necessity in Normativity; Deontic; Binding.)

Categorical Imperative

Kant took up what was historically Plato’s quest for a single root principle of ethics, and seems to have succeeded in getting further with it than Plato did. “Categorical imperative” is a less-than-beautiful name for a truly beautiful concept, elegant in its simplicity. Its essential feature is a sort of lifting of concrete choices into universality, in the very strong sense of something said unconditionally of all possible cases. It encourages us to think of a good choice as one that would be good if applied by everyone all the time. This does not positively answer the question what is good or what we should do, but it does help us toward an answer, by ruling out many possibilities.

As with the Platonic idea of the Good, the categorical imperative is conceived as a unique, highly abstract value that should apply to all cases whatsoever. Unlike Aristotle, Plato wanted to hold out for a rigorously single idea of the Good, even though that made it undefinable. Kant also wanted a single ethical principle, but his version is an abstract procedural criterion related to notions of procedural justice, rather than an abstract aim or end like Plato’s. In this case at least, the fact that Kant’s unique principle is procedural makes it possible to say more about it.

Aristotle called Plato’s suggestion of a single principle beautifully said, but went on to note its weaknesses. Plato in effect suggested that contrary to appearances, it is descriptively true that all things aim at the Good. The strong point of this is its inclusiveness. It is most meaningful as a sort of edifying poetic cosmological statement, like when Leibniz said we live in the best of all possible worlds. Cosmically edifying poetry may help us feel at home in the world and thus have a positive effect on our emotions that may aid ethical development, but it does not give us actual ethics. If with Plato we want to consistently say that all things already aim at a unique Good, then that same notion of Good by its very inclusiveness cannot be the kind of thing that could be used as a selective or normative criterion that would actually rule out some possible courses of action, and enable us to tell better from worse. In addition to the issue with its inclusiveness, the explanatory role of Plato’s idea of the Good would be in conflict with its use as a distinguishing criterion of normative selection. (Instead, the strong points of Plato’s ethics lie in epistemic modesty and the ideal of rational dialogue.)

Kant’s attempt to articulate a single root principle of ethics fares better than Plato’s in this regard. As a meta-level strategy, instead of saying a description is true, the categorical imperative says that a procedural criterion should be applied. Kant’s different formulations of the categorical imperative basically represent different informal tests for strong universality. While they are still not sufficient to tell us positively what to do in particular cases, such tests can help us deliberate, because they are sufficient to rule out many alternatives.

Kant developed a unique kind of strong higher-order moral necessity, as a sort of function whose value as a function can be rigorously evaluated, while leaving the evaluation of its arguments (the particulars to which it is applied) as a separate task.

I take it to be a strength of Kant’s approach that the categorical imperative does not actually dictate, but only guides what to do in any particular case. At an extremely abstract level, the categorical imperative has a kind of ironclad moral necessity, as Kant liked to remind us. But this still leaves open the question of its application to particulars, implicitly requiring something like Aristotelian practical judgment to fill the gap.

It does seem strange that Kant so downplayed the work and ambiguities involved in the application of very abstract principles to complex particulars. On the other hand, the categorical imperative was probably the most important new development in ethics since Aristotle. In any case, Kant chose to emphasize a pure procedural principle that can be both determined with necessity, and used to test potential maxims and rule out those that lack plausibility as strong universals, independent of all questions of our interpretation of the particulars to which the principle is to be applied.

Hegel’s formulation of mutual recognition ultimately aims at the same kind of ethical universality as the categorical imperative, while recasting the Kantian transcendental and the metaphysics of morals into something that begins from — but does not remain limited to — concrete social relationships, considered as instances of the universal community of rational beings. While the mature Hegel often criticized Kant’s formalism, the young Hegel had been greatly impressed by Kantian ethics. Hegel’s tendency to superficially polemicize against Kant needs to be balanced against deeper resonances, and the fact that — along with Aristotle — Kant got more pages in Hegel’s History of Philosophy than anyone else.