Thoughts on Teleology

Teleology is another subject on which my perspective has changed drastically over the years.

After a youthful fascination with Plotinus, my main interest turned toward the diverse group of writers loosely associated with French “structuralism”, several of whom were very interested in Spinoza. For some years, Spinoza became the great philosopher I identified with most. I had not explicitly thought much about teleology before, but Spinoza’s very sharp critique in the appendix to book 1 of the Ethics impressed me greatly. At the time, I did not trouble myself over whether it was fair to the historic Aristotle. I defended without reservation the strong determinism of Spinoza and the Stoics, emphasizing an understanding of the causes of things as the main path to enlightenment. At this time also, some contemporary writers on mathematical “chaos theory” were proposing what they called a superdeterminism, which would allow for deterministic explanation of all sorts of nonlinear phenomena, by an innovative separation of the notion of determinism from its traditional connotations of predictability. I had not yet begun to question what I have been referring to here as the “modern notion” of causality. My great preoccupation was with defending the possibility of ethics within a deterministic context.

My deeper engagement with Aristotle began initially with problems of things “said in many ways”. In my professional work as a data modeler, I was very concerned with the ambiguities of common-sense apprehensions of things, which I wanted to overcome in Platonic fashion. The univocity that Aristotle treats in a balanced way I initially saw more one-sidedly as an ideal to aim for in the quest for knowledge, though without underestimating the difficulty of attempting to treat everything in a univocal manner, or as comprehended by a single grand, consistent theory. Meanwhile, my personal interests were focused on questions of the interpretation of the history of human cultural development.

Gradually, I became more and more impressed with the importance of what I came to call “objective ambiguity” in history — the idea that this was not just a defect of our understanding or interpretation, but that the most objective reality of the concrete world may often reflect mixed or “in between” states of things. Eventually, I came to recognize that Aristotle, perhaps more than any other of the great philosophers, deeply thought about this and took it into account. I became aware of the arguments of Leibniz that all necessity is hypothetical, then realized Aristotle had already said that all necessity in generated things is hypothetical.

As Spinoza said, strict causal necessity rules out the “play” in things that leaves room for teleological explanation. But I have become convinced that that “play” in things is not something to be explained away as a mere appearance. Hypothetical necessity respects both the element of (conditional) necessity in things and this inherent “play”. It now appears to me as a priceless Aristotelian mean, and a kind of Hegelian synthesis of determination and play or flexibility.

The way Aristotle applies hypothetical necessity to determination by ends removes the mystery from final causes. Aristotle emphasizes the alternative that Spinoza ignored — that teleology need not be the product of conscious aims of a supernatural being or beings “intervening” in the natural order. In Aristotle’s non-reductionist view of the intelligibility of nature, natural things are shaped by inherent “tendencies” to seek certain states that are nonetheless not strictly determining. (See also Aristotle on Explanation; Ends; Equivocal Determination; Free Will and Determinism.)

Act and Action

Still pursuing roots of the modern “subject” in medieval Latin scholasticism by way of Alain de Libera’s Archéologie du sujet, I’ve reached the point where de Libera reviews Bernard Lonergan’s detailed account of act, action, and related terms in Aquinas. The most noteworthy conclusion is that Aquinas distinguishes “act” from “action” in opposite ways in different texts, when he combines it with his other distinction between cases of immanent and transient action. This confusion appears not to have originated with Aquinas himself, but rather with the Latin translations of Greek texts that he used.

In any event, the way these distinctions are deployed by Aquinas is to say the least highly fluid, which is to say that any attempt to interpret them univocally would result in contradictions. (Burrell, who considers the analogy of being a later development attributable to Cajetan, nonetheless suggests that there is an analogy of action in Aquinas.)

De Libera constructs a table of Latin terms (vol. 3 part 1, p. 325) used by Aquinas for the Greek energeia (literally “in-actness”, for which I’ve been using the conventional translation of “actuality”) in the agent and in an external product, respectively. Energeia may be actus in the agent and actio in the product, or vice versa. It may be operatio in the agent and either actio or factio in the product. It may be actio in the agent and factio in the product.

“What it is necessary to understand in this context is that for Aristotle it is one and the same principle that accounts for act, whether in the agent or the product. That principle is form” (ibid, my translation, emphasis added). According to de Libera, for Aquinas too form is the principle of both the act that remains in the agent, and that which passes to the product. (Burrell reads Aquinas in a relational way that avoids de Libera’s suggestion of something passing between agent and product. The idea of something passing between agent and product suggests Suarez’s later explanation of efficient causation by “influence”.)

De Libera takes note (pp. 327-332) of the Latin translation of the influential definition of praxis (ethical action or practice) in the treatise On the Nature of Man by the 4th century CE Syrian bishop Nemesius of Emesa used by Aquinas. In Greek, Nemesius says “praxis is energeia logiké“. The Latin translation by Burgundio of Pisa says “gestio is actus rationalis“. But the same translator rendered the same Greek sentence in The Orthodox Faith by the 7th century monk John of Damascus as “actio is operatio rationalis“.

This might seem like a complete muddle. But if we take act as form as the guiding thread as de Libera suggests, it may be possible to get something coherent out of it. On the other hand, some adjustment would still be required if we also accepted the identification of act with action and of action with an efficient cause. If act is supposed to be understood as form and end and action as the efficient cause or means by which an end is accomplished, then act cannot be identified with action.

It is one thing to recognize the limits of attempting to apply univocity and formalism in logic to the real world, and quite another to affirm a contradiction. But this is a quite delicate area, and sometimes there are arguments whether there is truly a contradiction or merely an implicit distinction between cases. The answer to this depends on interpretation, and every interpretation is subject to dialogue.

De Libera says that Burgundio’s translation of John of Damascus “introduces nothing less than the ‘modern’ vocabulary of action” (p. 327). Thus it seems that Aquinas ends up with an unstable combination of Aristotelian and “modern” meanings for act and action, but the instability was already present in the sources he used.

Pure Difference?

A common theme here is the conceptual priority of difference over identity. I think that identity is a derived concept, and not a primitive one (see also Aristotelian Identity).

The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995) in Difference and Repetition and other works argued that a pure notion of difference is by itself sufficient for a general account of things. In information theory, information is explained as expressing difference. In Saussurean structural linguistics, we are said to recognize spoken words by recognizing elementary differences between sounds. In both cases, the idea is that we get to meaning by distinguishing and relating.

Deleuze initially cites both of these notions of difference, but goes on to develop arguments grounded largely in Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, whom he uses to argue against Plato and Hegel. His very interesting early work Nietzsche and Philosophy was marred by a rather extreme polemic against Hegel, and in Difference and Repetition he announces a program of “anti-Platonism” that reproduces Nietzsche’s intemperate hostility to Plato. Nietzsche blamed Plato for what I regard as later developments. Neither Plato nor Aristotle made the kind of overly strong assertions about identity that became common later on.

In The Sophist and elsewhere, Plato had his characters speak of Same, Other, and the mixing of the two as equally primordial. Hegel took great pains to elaborate the notion of a “difference that makes a difference”. But Deleuze wants to argue that Plato and Hegel both illegitimately subordinate difference to identity. His alternative is to argue that what is truly fundamental is a primitive notion of difference that does not necessarily “make a difference”, and that come before any “making a difference”. (I prefer the thesis of Leibniz that indiscernibility of any difference is just what identity consists in.)

This is related to Deleuze’s very questionable use of Duns Scotus’ notion of the univocity of being, both in general and more particularly in his interpretation of Spinoza. For Deleuze, pure difference interprets Scotist univocal being.

I frankly have no idea what led to Deleuze’s valorization of Scotus. Deleuze is quite extreme in his opposition to any kind of representationalism, while Scotus made representability the defining criterion of his newly invented univocal being. It is hard to imagine views that are further apart. I can only speculate that Deleuze too hastily picked out Scotus because he wanted to provocatively oppose the 20th century neo-Thomism that had considerable prominence in France, and Scotus is a leading medieval figure standing outside the Thomist tradition.

For Deleuze, univocal being is pure difference without any identity. Difference that doesn’t make a difference seems to take over the functional role that identity has in theories that treat it as something underlying that exceeds any discernibility based on criteria. I don’t see why we need either of these.

I think Deleuze’s bête noir Hegel actually did a better job of articulating the priority of difference over identity. Hegel did this not by appealing to a putative monism of difference and nothing else, but by developing correlative notions of “difference that makes a difference”, and a kind of logical consequence or entailment that we attribute to real things as we interpret them, independent of and prior to any elaboration of logic in a formal sense.

In Hegel’s analysis as explicated by Brandom, any difference that makes a difference expresses a kind of “material” incompatibility of meaning that rules out some possible assertions. This is just what “making a difference” means. Meanwhile, all positive assertions can be more specifically analyzed as assertions of some consequence or entailment or other at the level of meaning (see Material Consequence). Every predication is analyzable as an assertion of consequence or entailment between subject and predicate, as Leibniz might remind us. It is always valid to interpret, e.g., “a cat is a mammal” as an inference rule for generating conclusions like if Garfield is a cat, then Garfield is a mammal.

What is missing from Deleuze’s account is anything like entailment, the idea of something following from something else. This notion of “following”, I am convinced, is prior to any notion of identity applicable to real things. Without presupposing any pre-existing identities of things, we can build up an account of the world based on the combination of differences that make a difference, on the one hand, and real-world entailments, on the other. Identity is then a result rather than an assumption. Meanings (and anything like identity) emerge from the interplay of practical real-world entailments and distinctions. It is their interplay that gives them definition in terms of one another.

Deleuze was a sort of ontological anarchist, who wanted being to be free of any pre-existing principles. While I agree that we can’t legitimately just assume such principles, I think this is very far from meaning that principles are irrelevant, or actually harmful. On the contrary, as Kant might remind us, principles are all-important. They aren’t just “given”. We have to do actual work to develop them. But if we have no principles — if nothing truly follows from anything else, or is ruled out by anything else — then we cannot meaningfully say anything at all.

Being and Representation

In L’Être et représentation (1999), Olivier Boulnois documents the emergence of “metaphysics” in its distinctively non-Aristotelian modern sense among various 13th century authors, including Roger Bacon, Henry of Ghent, and Siger of Brabant, leading to its decisive formulation by the Franciscan theologian John Duns Scotus in the 14th century. Avicenna had already claimed that metaphysics is about “being in general”, whereas Aristotle himself had emphasized that “being is said in many ways”, which implies that there is no “being in general”.

Boulnois suggests that the 13th century authors just mentioned paved the way for Scotus’ innovations by already treating being as a concept. We are so used to that, that it is hard for us to grasp what Aristotle means in suggesting that “being in general” is not a proper concept at all.

Scotus argued against Aristotle that there is a unifying, logically minimal criterion of being, and it is representability. To be representable is to be “not nothing”. Unicorns and other imaginary creatures are representable, whereas Aristotle would not have called them beings. Scotus’ concept of representation seems to be purely logical; to have a representation of something is not necessarily to have understanding of it. For Scotus, God and creatures are equally representable, even though creatures, as finite, can be properly understood by the human mind and God, as infinite, cannot. Whereas Aristotle never speaks of an infinite being — only of a perfect one — Scotus’ generic concept of being is very explicitly indifferent to distinctions between finite and infinite.

It is one thing to acknowledge representation as a logical concept among others, and quite another to give it the kind of special first place status that Scotus does in his ontology, and that Locke does in his epistemology.

Boulnois says it is with Scotus that metaphysics became linked to what Kant later called ontotheology. While separating metaphysics as the account of being from theology as the separate account of God, Scotus also made God indifferently one of the objects of metaphysics, along with all the other beings. The combination of these changes actually brought metaphysics closer to revealed theology, and helped it to be perceived as the safe handmaiden of the later Latin tradition, rather than as independent philosophical theology that some found threatening.

If one speaks of a subject of representation, it could be — in a sense of “subject” closer to that of Aristotle — that in which something stands for something, or it could be — in a modern sense — the one who represents. “In the context of representation, the soul is not the content of its thought, but rather has a representation, distinct from itself” (Boulnois, op. cit., p. 152, my translation).

It seems that for both Scotus and Locke, the mind has representations. The soul in Aristotle is thoughts and feelings and capabilities, not something standing behind them. (See also Repraesentatio; Ontology; Being, Existence.)

Secondary Causes

One of the many things I like Aristotle for is his clear concern for what are sometimes called “secondary” causes. As usual with Aristotle, “cause” means any kind of explanation or determining reason; explanation is in general not univocal; and things are the way they are due to the combination of many causes. Secondary causes for Aristotle play an irreducible role in the overall determination of things. This is part of what I recently called the dignity of finite beings.

The way in which secondary causes operate is pluralistic; there is no single, seamless matrix of causality in the world. Instead we have a superabundance of meaning. Determination is always grounded in actuality, but actuality is never the whole story. We get a better grasp on things by taking counterfactual potentiality into account.

Secondary causes may be either “moved” or “unmoved”. If the form of an animal’s leg joint counts as an unmoved mover, the number of unmoved movers in the world is truly vast. There are also a vast number of moved movers.

Even though there is a great deal of practically meaningful determination in the world, neither God nor physics comes anywhere near completely determining human reality. The world has both real determination and real play in it. See also What and Why; Interpretation).

The Importance of Potentiality

I think modern philosophy generally is handicapped in its thinking about the empirical world by its lack of a notion like Aristotelian potentiality. To build context, I need to first say a bit more about the role of actuality.

The modern concept of a factual, existing world is relatively close to Aristotelian actuality, but the first big difference is that it is not paired with anything. The modern concept of a factual world is something that is supposed to be complete in itself, whereas for Aristotle, actuality in the world is always complemented by some correlative potentiality. Aristotle did not consider actuality alone to be sufficient to account for the world as we experience it.

Actuality also does not exactly correspond to a state of things, but rather expresses what is effectively operative. This is semantically a bit deeper than a notion of state. At the same time, it does not have state’s strong implications of complete determination. It also does not have the monolithic unity of a state. Actuality in the world consists of many coexisting things. Further, it is not intended by itself to provide all the resources needed to account for change and what happens next. This is related to the fact that for Aristotle, the operative determination of things is not entirely univocal. (See also Equivocal Determination.)

Enter potentiality. Potentiality is exactly what is not univocal in the actual determination of things. It corresponds to multiple alternative concrete possibilities of realization already implicit in current reality. This is a far more specific notion than mere logical possibility. Potentiality is closely tied to and informed by the current actuality, in that it exactly occupies the real gaps or holes in the actuality’s incompletely univocal determination. For each aspect of things where there is not univocal determination, there are instead multiple potential alternatives. This correlates with the fact that, for Aristotle — in contrast to Poincaré’s classic formulation of modern determinism — the present does not completely determine the future.

Poincaré famously claimed that from the state of the universe at any arbitrary point in time, its entire future is completely determined. This resembles the Stoic notion of fate, transferred to a modern event-based model of causality. For both the Stoics and Poincaré, the world is completely univocally determined. Like Aristotle, they emphasized the intelligibility of the world and of change in the world, but they made the very strong assumption of complete univocal determination. Aristotle did not.

Aristotle’s notion of intelligibility was broadly semantic, whereas Poincaré’s was mathematical. With semantic interpretation, there is always a question of how far we develop the account, which in principle could be extended indefinitely. It thus naturally lends itself to an account of incomplete determination, corresponding to some stopping point. Aristotle does not claim any more determination than he can show. Poincaré’s approach, by contrast, requires that we assume there is a complete univocal determination of the world by mathematical laws, even though we can never even come close to knowing enough to show it. This assumption leaves no room for anything like potentiality. Potentiality, it seems to me, could only have a place in a semantic approach to intelligibility.

The modern factual world is usually considered as something that just is, without modal qualification, but I have increasingly begun to doubt whether for Aristotle there is any non-modal account of the world. I read actuality and potentiality both as modal concepts, and everything in the Aristotelian world as parsable into actuality and potentiality.

What’s important about this is that potentiality is not just some mysterious “metaphysical” concept that we could maybe do without. It is a distinct logical/semantic modality supporting multiple virtual alternatives for the same thing. It allows us to intelligibly account for the incomplete determination we really experience, rather than treating real-world incompleteness and ambiguity as if it were a kind of flaw. (See also Structural Causality, Choice; Values, Causality; Structure, Potentiality.)

Equivocal Determination

Even though in hindsight it is possible to find reasons why things turned out as they did, the past does not completely determine the future. In general, ahead of time, multiple outcomes are possible. There are many possible ways to meet a requirement, need, or desire, and there are chance intersections and collisions of different, mostly independent vectors of determination. This is all to say that the determination of things is in some measure equivocal (i.e., not univocal). (See also Efficient Cause; Free Will and Determinism; Kantian Freedom.)

A related point is that there is such a thing as objective ambiguity in the world. This means not just that we are unsure or conflicted about something, but that the best or most complete evidence available in a particular case may have more than one reasonable interpretation. (See also Aristotelian Identity; Things in Themselves; Copernican; The Epistemic Modesty of Plato and Aristotle.)

Univocity

Aristotle is the source of our modern notion of univocity. He was also the first to point out many things of interest that overflow our attempts at univocal representation.

Something is said univocally (i.e., without equivocation) if the meaning is the same whenever the representation is the same. This is an important, desirable property in logic, modern science, and engineering. A lack of univocity is one of the major sources of logical inconsistency or incoherence in representation.

A kind of univocity also applies to a Kantian unity of apperception. The unity of a unity of apperception is more or less equivalent to the univocity of an account of something. So since there is a kind of moral imperative to achieve unity of apperception or improve upon it, there is in that way also an ethical use for univocity. But just as unity of apperception requires constant renewal, so too do our attempts at comprehensive univocal accounts of things.

Aristotle frequently points out things that are “said in many ways” (i.e., not univocally). This refers not just to practices of ordinary language, but to meant realities as well (see Equivocal Determination). Being and cause are among the things said in many ways. He also points out cases where a more fluid, pluralistic approach is appropriate — the classification of animals, for instance — or just applies such an approach. Aristotle wants to be faithful to the variety, subtlety, and complexity of the world and everything in it. This is the famous Aristotelian manysidedness, often praised by Hegel.

Univocity is never simply found; it is a possible property of our constructions and passive syntheses. In the design of representations and schemas, there may be tradeoffs between coherence and correspondence, or consistency and comprehensiveness.

If there is an ethical imperative to univocity, there is also one to manysidedness. These are really two sides of one coin (a sort of responsibility our representations have to reality, as Brandom would say). To paraphrase Whitehead, we should seek univocity and distrust it. (See also Aristotelian Semantics; Mutation of Meaning.)