Leibniz on Justice vs Power

In Meditation on the Common Concept of Justice (ca. 1703), Leibniz made points that deserve to be quoted at length. Editor Patrick Riley notes that “Leibniz’ radical formulation of this question follows Plato’s Euthyphro (9E-10E) almost literally, though Plato was dealing with ‘holiness’ rather than justice” (Leibniz, Political Writings, p. 45).

Leibniz says, “It is agreed that whatever God wills is good and just. But there remains the question whether it is good and just because God wills it or whether God wills it because it is good and just: in other words, whether justice and goodness are arbitrary or whether they belong to the necessary and eternal truths about the nature of things, as do numbers and proportions” (ibid).

For present purposes, what is important is whether justice and goodness depend on an arbitrary will or have criteria of their own, not whether those criteria are necessary and eternal.

To say that justice and goodness depend upon an arbitrary will “would destroy the justice of God. For why praise him because he acts according to justice, if the notion of justice, in his case, adds nothing to that of action? And to say… my will takes the place of reason, is properly the motto of a tyrant” (pp. 45-46; brackets in original).

“This is why certain persons, too devoted to the absolute right of God, who have believed that he could justly condemn innocent people and even that this might actually happen, have done wrong to the attributes that make God lovable, and, having destroyed the love of God, they left only fear [behind]” (p. 46; brackets in original).

“Thus all [Lutheran] theologians and most of those of the Roman Church, and also most of the ancient Church Fathers and the wisest and most esteemed philosophers, have been for the second view, which holds that goodness and justice have their grounds… independent of will and of force.”

“Plato in his dialogues introduces and refutes a certain Thrasymachus, who, wishing to explain what justice is, [says] that is just… which is agreeable or pleasant to the most powerful. If that were true, there would never be a sentence of a sovereign court, nor of a supreme judge, which would be unjust, nor would an evil but powerful man ever be blameworthy. And what is more, the same action could be just or unjust, depending on the judges who decide, which is ridiculous. It is one thing to be just and another to pass for it, and to take the place of justice.”

“A celebrated English philosopher named Hobbes, who is noted for his paradoxes, had wished to uphold almost the same thing as Thrasymachus: for he wants God to have the right to do everything, because he is all-powerful. This is a failure to distinguish between right and fact. For what one can do is one thing, what one should do, another” (pp. 46-47; brackets added).

“[I]f power were the formal reason of justice, all powerful persons would be just, each in proportion to his power; which is contrary to experience.”

“It is thus a question of finding this formal reason, that is to say, the why of this attribute, or this concept which should teach us what justice is” (p. 48). By “formal” Leibniz here means something like “essential”.

Moral Faith Is Not Dualism

Leading Kant scholar Allen Wood argues in the front matter to his early work Kant’s Moral Religion (1970) that previous mainstream interpretation of Kant was mistaken in treating his views on religion as a weak point of his philosophy. This post is limited to Wood’s valuable orienting remarks in the preface and introduction, so it won’t get to the core of what Kantian moral faith is supposed to be.

According to Wood, Kant’s own concern with very detailed argument has led interpreters to focus on these details to the detriment of a broad view of the outlines of his philosophy as a whole, in which the as yet unelaborated notion of “moral faith” will be of fundamental importance. He aims to recover such a broad view.

(It was Brandom’s original synoptic suggestion of similarly broad outlines cutting across the theoretical and practical parts of Kant’s philosophy that first led me to radically re-assess my previous very negative view of Kant, which had been based on negative remarks in Hegel and Nietzsche and my own earlier lost-in-the-details reading of Kant himself. See Kantian Intentionality; Kantian Freedom.)

For Wood, Kant’s philosophy is at root a philosophy of human self-knowledge in the Socratic tradition. He disagrees with those who have found an irreconcilable (and untenable) dualism at the heart of Kant’s thought.

“The ‘dualism’ in Kant’s view of human nature arises because human activity in all its forms is at once subject to the necessary principles of man’s reason and to the inevitable limitations of his finitude. Humanity for Kant is not composed of ‘two irreconcilable natures’, but there does appear throughout the critical philosophy a kind of irreconcilable tension between man’s rational destination and the finitude within which his reason is destined to operate. This tension, in Kant’s view, is the destiny of man as such, and defines the problems which confront human existence” (Kant’s Moral Religion, p. 3).

To be finite for Kant, according to Wood, is to be subject to the conditions of sensibility. Sensibility constrains the kind of intuitions that we can possibly have. What are called the conditions of sensibility are not just empirical facts, but have to do with the kind of beings we are. Kant asserts that we are beings that have a “blind” sensory intuition of being affected in this or that way, but do not have any infallible “intellectual intuition” that could legitimately give us immediate truths.

Noting that Kant’s epistemology has often been characterized as “empiricist” because of its emphasis on experience, Wood says it is actually founded on a view of the finitude of human nature as a whole, and not on an epistemological dogma that all knowledge must be grounded in immediate sensation. (Like Hegel, I would note) Kant operates with an extremely broad notion of human experience.

Kant famously defends naturalism in science, while simultaneously rejecting what analytic philosophers have called ethical naturalism, or the idea that ethics can be reduced to naturalistic explanations. The thrust of Wood’s argument is that this rejection and Kant’s strong rhetoric about freedom should not be taken to imply a dualism (which latter, as it seems to me, would introduce a supernaturalism about human persons alongside a naturalism about all else).

The logical claim as I reconstruct it is that one can consistently be a naturalist in matters of natural science, but not an ethical naturalist, and at the same time not a dualist and therefore not a supernaturalist about persons either. This seems possible, but more needs to be said. Where is the Aristotelian mean that avoids all the associated dilemmas? As a first indication, it seems to me to characterize a space that includes the ethics of Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel.

“Man’s finite and hence sensibly affected will is a condition for the possibility of moral life, in Kant’s view. If man were not subject to inclinations (if he possessed a divine holy will), obligation would not be the necessary feature of moral life that it is. The very concept of a holy being excludes the possibility of obligation, for such a being would by its own inner nature follow the law, and would not need the constraint which the concept of obligation presupposes. A holy being could not be ‘autonomous’, since an ‘autocracy’ of reason would necessarily govern all its willing. Such a being would no longer be subject even to moral imperatives. Human sensibility is thus a condition for the possibility of our moral life, as well as of our empirical knowledge” (p. 4).

The hypothetical “human holy will” to which Kant contrasts the actual sensibly affected will would be perfect, in the sense of being a perfectly good will such as we might attribute to God.

Such a posited perfection of goodness, I would note, is independent of questions of power or efficacy. Traditional theological views have sometimes attributed total counterfactual omnipotence — an ability to do absolutely any arbitrary thing — to God, but that is a logically separate move. There is an old counter-argument that the state of the world suggests God must not be both all-good and all-powerful. GwenaĆ«lle Aubry in her outstanding Dieu sans la puissance: dunamis et energeia chez Aristote et Plotin (2006) argues that for Aristotle himself as distinct from the commentary tradition following Plotinus, the notion of God as pure act makes questions of power inapplicable.

While speaking in language that is deferential to tradition, Kant stresses divine goodness over divine power, and moral faith over faith in miracles.

Wood says in effect that a hypothetical perfect human will could not even be autonomous in Kant’s sense. Presumably this kind of perfection would render ethics irrelevant, because everything would already be decided for it. I don’t consider it the job of philosophy to speculate about impossible what ifs, but this is interesting for shedding further light on the nature of Kantian autonomy as requiring finitude.

Here I find a further argument that leads to the same conclusion as Wood’s. Autonomy in the Kant I want to read presupposes activities like Aristotelian deliberation and practical judgment, which presuppose that we have less-than-perfect understanding. Therefore, on my own view that will is not really distinct from our reason and feeling but just a different way of talking about them, a less-than-perfect “will” is necessarily a prerequisite for Kantian autonomy.

Wood says that for Kant, reason inevitably suggests the idea of something unconditioned, which is always at least thinkable even if we can never experience it. This makes it tempting to just assume it also has reality. This takes me a step closer to a sympathetic reading of the Antinomies of Pure Reason, which I still have a hard time with.

Contrary to Kant, I still think the Antinomies are due to conflicting assumptions that should not be blamed on any dialectical illusion inherent to reason itself, since I don’t think Reason itself immediately gives us anything at all, be it truth or illusion. Conclusions follow not from Reason alone, but only in combination with particular premises. Therefore I think the direct opposite of what Wood quotes Kant saying, to the effect that dialectical illusions “are sophistries not of men but of pure reason itself” (p. 7).

But the broader Kantian point that Wood makes is that independent of that detail, reason does at least suggest the idea of something unconditioned, which precisely as he says must necessarily be in tension with our finitude. “The tension, the problematical condition in which man finds himself, is thus a result not of ‘two irreconcilable natures’ in man but of the natural conflict between man’s finite limitations and his rational tendency to overcome them. Critical self-knowledge thus reveals human nature not as ‘dualistic’ but as dialectical” (pp. 6-7). Here Wood seems to take Kant’s thought toward a more positive connotation of “dialectic”.

“The dialectic which leads to moral faith is a dialectic not of theoretical but of practical reason. It results not from our limitations as regards knowledge, but rather from our limitations in the pursuit of our unconditional and final moral end” (p. 7).

“The critical philosophy, then, views it as essential to the human condition for man to be concerned with the awesomeness and nobility of his rational destiny, and yet to be aware of his finitude, his inability ever to gain a firm hold on that which reason proposes as his destiny” (p. 8).

Here I prefer to bend Kant in the direction of Hegel, while simultaneously bending Hegel in the direction of Kant in a way that I think Hegel himself suggests. There is more to getting a hold on that which reason proposes as our destiny than a simple on/off state. We do get as far as a firm hold, but that firm hold is still never final or complete.

“Socratic self-knowledge does not end, of course, with a mere recognition of man’s situation, but rather functions as part of man’s higher aspirations themselves…. [It] involves also an appropriate response of a rational and active being…. Moral faith is for Kant the rational response of the finite being to the dialectical perplexities which belong essentially to the pursuit of the highest purpose of his existence” (ibid).

Fichte’s Ethics

Fichte’s System of Ethics (1798) has been called the most important work of moral philosophy between Kant and Hegel. Unavailable in English till 2005, it is apparently a source for some key themes in Hegel’s Phenomenology. It also shows the more nuanced side of Fichte that impressed Paul Ricoeur. Fichte was an unusually powerful speaker, reportedly electrifying audiences with his intensity and bold rhetorical strokes. His thought greatly influenced German Romanticism.

Fichte begins by asking, “how can something objective ever become something subjective; how can a being for itself ever become something represented (vorgestellt)?” (p. 7). He continues, “No one will ever explain how this remarkable transformation takes place without finding a point where the objective and the subjective are not at all distinct from one another…. The point in question is ‘I-hood’ [Ichheit], intelligence, reason, or whatever one wishes to call it.”

“This absolute identity of the subject and the object in the I can only be inferred; it cannot be demonstrated, so to speak, ‘immediately’, as a fact of actual consciousness. As soon as any actual consciousness occurs, even if it is only the consciousness of ourselves, the separation [between subject and object] ensues…. The entire mechanism of consciousness rests on the various aspects of this separation of what is subjective from what is objective, and, in turn, on the unification of the two” (ibid; brackets and emphasis in original).

Fichte revives an explicit appeal to “intellectual intuition” that Kant had proscribed and I find untenable, but carefully limits its scope, mainly using it for the existence of “the I”. Importantly, as the above quote shows, he does not claim to have a direct intuition of the identity of subject and object.

Next he asks, “how we ever come to take some of our representations to be the ground of a being” (p. 8), and answers, “I find myself to be acting efficaciously in the world of sense” (ibid).

This seems like a good pragmatist insight. Here and above, he asks questions about the status of representation and how it comes to be that anticipate aspects of Brandom’s work in this area.

“Insofar as I know anything at all I know that I am active” (p. 9). “I posit myself as active” (p. 10). Hegel criticized Fichte’s reliance on “positing” or postulation of various key notions.

Fichte goes on to specify that “I ascribe to myself a determinate activity, precisely this one and not another” (p. 11), and determinate activity implies resistance. “Wherever and whenever you see activity, you see resistance as well, for otherwise you see no activity” (p. 12). “[F]reedom can never be posited as able to do anything whatsoever about this situation, since otherwise freedom itself, along with all consciousness and all being, would fall away” (p. 13).

Throughout his career, while picking up and intensifying Kant’s occasional voluntarist rhetoric and even aiming to build a system around it, Fichte made things more interesting and complicated by emphasizing that objectivity always involves a resistance to free action. Fichte goes on to specify that activity involves a kind of agility — i.e., ways of acting successfully in spite of the the object’s or the world’s resistance. Here we find ourselves on the threshold at least of the territory more fully explored by Ricoeur in Freedom and Nature (see Ricoeurian Choice; Voluntary Action).

“I posit myself as free insofar as I explain a sensible acting, or being, as arising from my concept, which is then called the ‘concept of an end'” (p. 14). “[T]he concept of an end, as it is called, is not itself determined in turn by something objective but is determined absolutely by itself” (p. 15).

Freedom here is acting in accordance with concepts or ends. While Kant and Fichte both tended to identify this with a kind of exemption from the natural order, this second move is separable from the first. The need to treat freedom as an exemption presupposes a view of natural causality as completely rigid. But more fluid “tendencies” also exhibit the resistance that Fichte makes characteristic of objectivity.

He then claims in effect that the resistance we encounter in the world of sense is actually nothing but an appearance. “[N]othing is absolute but pure activity…. Nothing is purely true but my self-sufficiency” (p. 17). I think Hegel and Ricoeur would each in their own way regard formulations like this as one-sided, and as a step back from his previous acknowledgement of resistance to our action as a basic fact of life, but that is in part because Hegel and Ricoeur both in a sense vindicate appearance itself as being something more than mere appearance.

Fichte is not actually contradicting himself or going back on a promise here, but moving to a different level. I think his point is that objects as separate are ultimately always a matter of appearance. I would agree as far as strictly separate objects are concerned, but I see objectivity in the first instance as a resistant but non-rigid sea of non-separate relations, tendencies, and currents that is not just an appearance, and is only secondarily divided into separate objects that insofar as they are separate are just appearances.

He comes a bit closer to Hegel again when he says “it is the character of the I that the acting subject and that upon which it acts are one and the same” (p. 28; emphasis in original).

But a few pages later he concludes that “all willing is absolute” and that the will is “absolute indeterminability through anything outside itself” (p. 33). “As an absolute force with consciousness, the I tears itself away — away from the I as a given absolute, lacking force and consciousness” (p. 37). One of Hegel’s main concerns in the Phenomenology was to show the inadequacy and undesirability of this ideal of total “independence”. I take “absolute force” as a kind of poetic language in Fichte’s rhetorical style that I would not adopt.

He repeats Kant’s claim that the will has “the power of causality by means of mere concepts” (p. 41). I agree that concepts can have a kind of efficacy in the world, though I would not call it causality in the narrow modern sense. On the other hand, I think talk about will as if it were a separate power not encompassed by the union of feeling and reason is misguided. I don’t think there is any will-talk that doesn’t have a better analogue in feeling-and-reason talk. So the question of the will’s causality does not even come up for me.

“According to Kant, freedom is the power to begin a state [Zustand] (a being and subsistence) absolutely” (p. 41). I don’t consider formulations like this to be typical of Kant’s thought as a whole. It rhetorically recalls voluntarist views in the Latin medieval tradition that saw human freedom as a sort of microcosmic analogue of creation from nothing. The notion of literal creation from nothing, though it achieved wide circulation in the monotheistic traditions, is actually an extreme view in theology whose main use has been to support radically supernaturalist claims of all sorts that are entirely separable from the broader spiritual purport of the world’s religions. Scholars have pointed out that creation from nothing is not inherent to the Old Testament text, and only emerged as an interpretation in the Hellenistic period with figures like Philo of Alexandria. One of Kant’s great contributions was actually to have developed other ways of talking about freedom that do not presuppose any of this kind of strong supernaturalism. (I adhere to the view commonly attributed to Aristotle in the Latin tradition that nothing comes from nothing in any literal sense.) Fichte of course was not at all a supernaturalist like Philo; but like Kant and even more so, in relation to freedom he nonetheless used some of the same rhetorical strategies originally developed to “rationalize” supernaturalism. (And if nature already participates in divinity, supernaturalism is superfluous.)

Fichte improves things by specifying, “It is not the case that the state that is begun absolutely is simply connected to nothing at all, for a finite rational being thinks only by means of mediation and connections. The connection in question, however, is not a connection to another being, but to a thinking” (ibid).

Much as I welcome this emphasis on mediation and connections, it is important to mention that he earlier strongly relied on the claim of a limited kind of direct intellectual self-intuition (pp. 25ff). Fichte was honest enough to acknowledge that he did not have inferential grounds for his strong notion of “I-hood”. The texture of his thought is a unique hybrid of a sort of inferentialism about things in general with an intuitionism about self. The points at which he relies on intuition are the same places where he applies the bold rhetorical strokes for which he initially became famous and popular with the Romantics. But in the long run, it is his emphasis on mediation — both in the form of inference and in the form of resistance to our projects — that holds the greatest value.

In a somewhat Kantian style that seems both more abstract and more simple and direct than that of Kant himself, Fichte sets out to “deduce” first the principle of morality, then the reality and applicability of the principle. For Fichte, the single principle of morality is the “absolute autonomy of reason” (p. 60). Reason is finite, but depends on nothing outside itself. Consciousness is always limited and in that sense determined by the objects it “finds”, but in conscience there is a pure identity of subject and object. Here again we can see how Hegel was in part taking up Fichtean ways of speaking.

Unlike Hegel, though, for Fichte “Conscience never errs and cannot err, for it is the immediate consciousness of our pure, original I, over and above which there is no other kind of consciousness. Conscience is itself the judge of all convictions and acknowledges no higher judge above itself. It has final jurisdiction and is subject to no appeal. To want to go beyond conscience means to want to go beyond oneself and to separate oneself from oneself” (p. 165).

From this it seems clear that Fichte recognizes no standpoint higher than that of Conscience. He identifies morality with good will (p. 149). Hegel on the other hand regards mutual recognition as a higher standpoint than that of the autonomy of Conscience. Although Fichte briefly refers to the concept of mutual recognition he had developed in Foundations of Natural Right (1797), the System of Ethics revolves mainly around a version of Kantian autonomy: “the formal law of morals [Sitten] is…. do what you can now regard with conviction as a duty, and do it solely because you have convinced yourself that it is a duty” (p. 155).

Surprisingly, he says “all free actions are predestined through reason for all eternity” (p. 216), and claims to have reconciled freedom with predestination. This provides a noteworthy additional perspective on his earlier love-hate relation with Spinoza.

“The world must become for me what my body is. This goal is of course unreachable; but I am nevertheless supposed to draw constantly nearer to it,…. This process of drawing nearer to my final end is my finite end.”

“The fact that nature placed me at one point or another and that nature instead of me took the first step, as it were, on this path to infinity does not infringe upon my freedom” (pp. 217-218). This theme of “drawing nearer” and the “path to infinity” was sharply criticized by Hegel, but I rather like it.

I worry a bit when he says “The necessary goal of all virtuous people is therefore unanimous agreement [and] uniformity of acting” (p. 224). He did however also say that “anyone who acts on authority necessarily acts unconscionably” (p. 167; emphasis in original).

“I possess absolute freedom of thought… freedom before my own conscience…. [I]t is unconscionable for me to make the way in which I tend to the preservation of my body dependent on the opinions of others” (p. 225).

“What lies outside my body, and hence the entire sensible world, is a common good or possession” (ibid). “[I]n communal matters, I ought to act only in accordance with the presumptive general will” (p. 228). “I should… act in such a way that things have to become better. This is purely and simply a duty” (ibid). “As a means for bringing about the rational state, I have to take into account the present condition of the makeshift state” (ibid). In the case of unjust tyranny and oppression, “every honorable person could then in good conscience endeavor to overthrow this [makeshift] state entirely, but only if he has ascertained the common will” (ibid; emphasis in original).

“How then can one become aware of that upon which everyone agrees? This is not something one could learn simply by asking around; hence it must be possible to presuppose something that can be viewed as the creed of the community or as its symbol.”

“It is implicit in the concept of such a symbol or creed that it presents something not in a very precise or determinate manner, but only in a general way…. Moreover,… the symbol is supposed to be appropriate for everyone…. [T]he symbol does not consist in abstract propositions but rather in sensory presentations of the latter. The sensible presentation is merely the costume; what is properly symbolic is the concept. That precisely this presentation had to be chosen is something that was dictated by need… because they were not yet capable of distinguishing the costume that the concept had received by chance from the essence of the concept” (p. 230).

“[W]hat is most essential about every possible symbol or creed is expressed in the proposition, ‘there is something or other that is supersensible and elevated above all nature’…. What this supersensible something may be, the identity of this truly holy and sanctifying spirit, the character of the truly moral way of thinking: it is precisely concerning these points that the community seeks to determine and to unify itself more and more, by mutual interaction” (pp. 230-231).

Here we see some anticipation of Hegel’s account of religion in the Phenomenology.

“Not only am I permitted to have my own private conviction concerning the constitution of the state and the system of the church, I am even obliged by my conscience to develop this same conviction just as self-sufficiently and as broadly as I can.”

“Such development… is possible, however, only by means of reciprocal communication with others.” (p. 233).

Like Hegel, he makes mutual recognition a foundation of religion.

“The distinguishing and characteristic feature of the learned public is absolute freedom and independence of thinking” (p. 238). “Since scholarly inquiry is absolutely free, so must access to it be open to everyone” (p. 239).

“No earthly power has the right to issue commands regarding matters of conscience…. The state and the church must tolerate scholars” (ibid).

“All of a person’s efficacious acting within society has the following goal: all human beings are supposed to be in agreement; but the only matters that all human beings can agree on are those that are purely rational, for this is all they have in common” (p. 241).

“Kant has asserted that every human being is himself an end, and this assertion has received universal assent” (p. 244).

“The moral law, which extends to infinity, absolutely commands us to treat human beings as if they were forever capable of being perfected and remaining so, and this same law absolutely prohibits us from treating human beings in the opposite manner” (p. 229). Fichte argues at some length that this last point would be true no matter how dismal we might judge actual history to be.

Unfortunately, Fichte retained some of the prejudices of his time and place. He thought women should be subordinate to men, and his contribution to early German nationalism was not without a chauvinistic side.

What We Really Want

Aristotle distinguished willing from unwilling actions, noting that there are mixed cases in which we do something we ordinarily would not do, in order to avoid a greater evil or to further a greater good. Hegel suggested that what we actually do is the best guide to understanding what we really want. Does this make Aristotle’s distinction meaningless? I want to say no.

It may be that Hegel would reject Aristotle’s secondary distinction between unwilling actions and mixed cases. Hegel might even say that all of Aristotle’s “willing” and “unwilling” actions are better thought of as mixed. Paul Ricoeur has somewhat similarly argued that agency always involves a combination of active and passive aspects.

Aristotle said that we should either judge mixed cases by the particulars of the relevant tradeoffs, or simply consider them as occasions calling for forgiveness. I think this is compatible with Hegel’s perspective. What we actually did in some situation is not necessarily the key to what we really wanted, full stop, but rather the key to what we really wanted under the applicable conditions. (See also Context; Rethinking Responsibility; Brandomian Forgiveness.)

Hegel on Willing

Chapters 5 and 6 of Pippin’s Hegel’s Practical Philosophy address psychological and social dimensions of willing. Hegel is generally close to Aristotle on these matters. Pippin also makes the interesting remark in the introduction that among philosophers, it is actually Spinoza whose approach to freedom most resembles Hegel’s. (For notes on earlier chapters, see Naturalness, Mindedness; Self-Legislation?; Actualization of Freedom.)

He quotes Hegel’s remark that “the will is a particular way of thinking — thinking translating itself into existence — thinking as the drive to give itself existence” (p. 129). “He seems to be saying that the right way to understand the subject’s basic relation to her deeds… is a matter primarily of comprehension or an experiential understanding, and not at all the experience of a power successfully executed” (p. 130).

Pippin says that for Hegel, “the picture of being simply assailed by unmotivated desires and seeking only to satisfy them, is as false as is the picture of the pure contemplator-of-the-good, necessarily and unavoidably moved to act by such contemplation alone” (p. 136). Freedom will involve not some kind of freeing of ourselves from desire, but rather a desire manifested in a form that is also one of reason.

Hegel wants to reconnect the inner and the outer. In particular, the relation between inner state and outer deed will be interpreted as one of continuity, or what he will call speculative “identity”, rather than any kind of causality. What is actually expressed in our actions is according to Hegel the best guide to understanding what we truly wanted.

Self-knowledge for Hegel therefore cannot be separated from knowledge of the world. Moreover, “my relation to myself is mediated by my relation to others” (p. 149). Hegel thinks one deliberates “qua ‘ethical being’ (Sittliches Wesen), not qua rational agent, full stop” (p. 150). He does not accept the “standard picture of individuals exercising an exclusively and uniquely first-personal and self-certifying intra-mental deliberative faculty” (p. 150). “[S]elf-ascriptions of intentions are not to be understood as based on observation; they are not reports of mental items…. When I express an intention, even to myself, I am avowing a pledge to act, the content and credibility of which remains (even for me), in a way, suspended until I begin to fulfill the pledge” (p. 151; emphasis in original).

Hegel “makes clear that he is quite opposed to the most widespread understanding, …the subjective sense that nothing will happen until I resolve to act, understood as something like engaging the gears of action and propelling oneself forward into action” (p. 129). He thinks there is a “defect at the core of a modern notion of agency based on ontologically distinct individual centers of unique intra-mental causal powers” (p. 155).

Instead, he “is asking that we in effect widen our focus when considering what a rational and thereby free agent looks like, widening it so as to include in the picture of agency itself a contextual and temporal field stretching out ‘backwards’ from… the familiar resolving and acting subject, and stretching ‘forward’… such that the unfolding of the deed and the reception and reaction to it are considered a constitutive element of the deed, of what fixes ultimately what was done and what turned out to be a subject’s intention” (p. 152; emphasis in original).

“The proper act-description partly depends on the established context of deliberation and action (what having this or that practical reason for doing this or that could mean in such a context) and partly on what intention and what act-description are attributed to you by others. If that is so, then no trumping priority can be given to the agent’s own expression of intention” (p. 153). (I would prefer to just say “context” rather than “established context”.) This also makes all such assessments “provisional and temporally fluid, unstable across time and experience” (ibid).

The “unfolding of a deed in time and for others, after an agent has begun to act, is as essential a dimension of what makes agency agency as what precedes the putative moment of decision” (p. 156). Hegel is quoted saying “Ethical Self-consciousness now learns from its deed the developed nature of what it actually did” (p. 157; emphasis in original).

“Knowing one’s mind, then, turns out to be ‘having a mind of one’s own’, which, in turn, must be wrested from others and protected in ways neither indifferent to nor submissive to the demands and interpretations of others, and it means a form of mindedness that one must also be able to express and act out, successfully ‘realize’ in the world” (p. 178). (See also What We Really Want. For my notes on Brandom’s coverage of this same Hegelian territory, see Brandomian Forgiveness; Rethinking Responsibility; Expansive Agency.)

Middle Part of the Soul

Paul Ricoeur’s 1960 work Fallible Man (see Fallible Humanity) adopted Plato’s metaphor of a “middle part” of the soul that is an essentially mixed form influenced by both desire and reason. It’s not really a part, but more like what Hegel would call a moment of the whole, in this case the unique moment of combination that makes us us. Thinking of its mixed nature, Ricoeur recalls Kant’s saying that “understanding without intuition is empty, intuition without concepts is blind”, along with the Kantian imagination that linked the two.

“The riddle of the slave-will, that is, of a free will which is bound and always finds itself already bound, is the ultimate theme that the symbol gives to thought” (p. xxiii; emphasis in original). “Today it is no longer possible to keep an empirics of the slave will within the confines of a Treatise of the Passions in Thomist, Cartesian, or Spinozist fashion” (p. xxii) . One ought to consider psychoanalysis, politics, justice.

Striking a somewhat Augustinian note, he goes on “In joining together the temporal ‘ecstasies’ of the past and the future in the core of freedom, the consciousness of fault also manifests the total and undivided causality of the self over and above its individual acts. The consciousness of fault shows me my causality as contracted or bounded, so to speak, in an act which evinces my whole self. In return, the act which I did not want to commit bespeaks an evil causality which is behind all determined acts and without bounds. Where it is a question of a reflection attentive to projects alone, this causality divides itself in bits and fritters itself away in a disjunctive inventing of myself; but in penitent retrospection I root my acts in the undivided causality of the self. Certainly we have no access to the self outside of its specific acts, but the consciousness of fault makes manifest in them and beyond them the demand for wholeness which constitutes us” (p. xxvii). (See also Brandomian Forgiveness.)

Kinds of Reason

As Aristotle might remind us, “reason” is said in many ways. All forms of reason are potentially valuable, but there is a very important distinction between what I’ve been calling the ethical reason that is intimately involved with who we are, and other forms that are more like tools we can use. Also, ethical reason relies on concrete judgments of things, rather than formal manipulations.

In some ways — in terms of the role I see it playing — ethical reason is more like what some people have called “will”. I prefer to avoid the term “will” because it is too often associated with an arbitrary power of decision. I do very much think of ethical reason as the thing in us that ultimately decides things large and small, but the kind of decision involved is always at least implicitly ethical (concerning what we “should” do), and therefore by no means arbitrary.

Common complaints against “reason” concern what I would call what I would call a usurpation of the place of ethical reason by the tool-like kinds of reason, or claims made on their behalf. Contrary to the claims of a certain ill-conceived modernity, tool-like reason can aid us in utilitarian calculations that may help inform decisions, but cannot by itself provide an adequate basis for decision, which is always ultimately ethical.

Whereas tool-like reason aims at precision, ethical reason is maximally inclusive in what it takes takes into account. This inclusiveness is its strong point, but at the same time makes it especially fallible. Due to the fact that we are situated beings in the world, there is no such thing as an infallible decisionmaking process we could use. Aristotle already pointed out that ethical reason is less precise than other forms. Tool-like reason achieves its precision by excluding considerations that ethical reason cannot ignore.

Because of this, concrete realizations of ethical reason can be better or worse. In general, human beings are called rational animals not because we are perfectly rational, but because we have the capability for reason. Especially in the case of ethical reason, that capability is always a matter of degrees. We all use it all the time, and do better or worse. We can also learn or be inspired to do better than we did before.

Guilt

Ricoeur says the notion of sin is first of all the violation of a personal bond that involves “not essence but presence”. This is “from beginning to end… a religious dimension and not a moral one” (p. 52). His gloss of guilt as a consciousness of sin (p. 81) suggests that guilt is also not a moral concept and not related to essence. I think of guilt as a legal concept rather than an ethical one; Ricoeur’s train of thought suggests it is also ultimately religious. It seems to me what goes beyond positive law should be love and forgiveness, but Ricoeur briefly shows an overly diplomatic deference to what I would call the unholy idea of a supra-essential and supra-ethical command.

I’m also a bit nervous about a privileging of presence over essence, and about the work that presence is supposed to be doing.

Essence has often been denigrated, and some very shallow notions of it have been propounded. But insofar as we use that word to translate Plato and Aristotle, I treat their works as the gold standard for what it ought to mean. Problems arise when in opposition to Plato and Aristotle, so-called essences are assumed to be simply known, and thus taken for granted. Husserl had a different, thinner, perhaps even overly precise, almost mathematical notion of essence, adapted to a different context, aiming to be as abstract as possible, whereas I think even Plato and especially Aristotle aimed much more at the concrete.

Ricoeur speaks of a “realism of sin” (pp. 81ff) in the sense that sin is not fully captured by the consciousness of even the repentant sinner. This seems sound, but I’d still rather talk about justice and love than sin and guilt.

“There is no question of denying that the personal imputation of fault marks an advance over the scandalous collective responsibility that permits someone other than the guilty person to be punished. But it must be understood that the price of this advance is the loss of the unity of the human species…. The pseudo-concept of original sin is only the rationalization at the third degree, through the Adamic myth, of that enigmatic bond which is acknowledged rather than understood in the ‘we’ of the confession of sins” (p. 84). Now we seem to have divine blessing of a social bond among all of us talking animals rather than a supra-intelligible command, and I am happy again.

Fault should not be reduced to guilt (p. 100). We are “responsible and captive” (p. 101; emphasis in original). “[M]an had the consciousness of responsibility before having the consciousness of being cause, agent, author” (p. 102). This may begin to anticipate the need for something like the expanded notion of responsibility that Brandom has developed in his work on Hegel. Ricoeur says the recognition of individual responsibility and of degrees of guilt were decisive steps forward.

He stresses a paradoxical character of the “servile will” that is both free and in bondage. I don’t see any paradox in this. The reality just is that we have meaningful freedom, but it is far from total. Aristotle already pointed the way, and Ricoeur himself explained it very well in Freedom and Nature and Fallible Man.

Voluntary Action

Part 2 of Ricoeur’s Freedom and Nature is devoted to voluntary action. For Ricoeur, our embodiment is the key to understanding how this works. Careful attention to the phenomena of our embodied existence refutes all dualism of mind and body. The intentionality of action is practical rather than representational. “Action is the criterion of [willing’s] authenticity…. it is not simply a question of subsequently carrying out our plans and programs, but of testing them continuously amid the vicissitudes of reality…. The genesis of our projects is only one moment in the union of soul and body” (pp. 201-202; emphasis in original).

A tacit action accompanies even the most indecisive willing. In the application of any kind of knowledge, it “has to be moved like my body” (p. 204). Will can only be fully understood in the context of effort, but effort in turn can only be understood against a background of spontaneity. Action always involves both a doing and a happening, a combination of active and passive aspects. The body is not the object of action, but its organ. An organ is not an external instrument, but a part of us.

The body as the organ of our action has both preformed skills that form the basis of reflexes and acquired habits, and involuntary movements associated with emotion. The bodily movements associated with emotion are inseparable from the emotion itself. Habit involves a kind of degeneration of voluntary action into automatism, but this very degeneration makes it more easily deployable. Ricoeur here speaks of an involuntary that sustains and serves voluntary action. Habit can help overcome the resistance of emotion, and emotion can help overcome the inertia of habit.

In effort, the body is moved through the mediation of the nonrepresentational “motor intentions” of desire and habit. Accordingly, voluntary movement should not be understood as essentially preceded by representation. Instead, the realization of intentions depends on the living being’s structural subordination of motor montages to intentions. There can be no willing without ability, and no ability without possible willing.

Both ability and a certain spontaneous “docility” of the body exhibited in simple gestures like raising my arm are prior to any experience of effort. There is also “a seeing and a knowing which the will does not produce” (p. 336). On the other hand, if all our acts are attributable to a same self, it is because they participate in a unity of effort. (For more on the same book, see Phenomenology of Will; Ricoeur on Embodiment; Ricoeur on Choice; Consent?)

Phenomenology of Will

I’m starting to look at Paul Ricoeur’s large early work Freedom and Nature (French ed. 1950). This was to be the first of three volumes on a philosophy of will, of which he only completed two. It turns out to be full of rich detail on the vexing question of the way transcendental and empirical aspects of subjectivity are interrelated.

In this work, Ricoeur combines a Marcelian emphasis on embodiment with a broadly Husserlian phenomenological method. The investigation is to address “Cogito’s complete experience, including even its most diffuse affective margins” (p. 8; emphasis in original). I would shy away from the Cartesian sound of saying “Cogito” at all, but the really important part here is the qualifiers Ricoeur adds. Even in Descartes, cogito has a broad usage that sometimes seems to include perception and feeling, and not just thought in the narrower sense.

Ricoeur here seems to accept something like the Stoic hegemonikon (etymologically related to “hegemony”), which was ancestral to later notions of “will” as a unified faculty or power. I prefer Aristotle’s approach, which accounts for the phenomena — including choice — without the need for such an hypothesis. In the later tradition, it is often ambiguous whether will is really supposed to be a separate power like the Stoics seem to have thought, or simply a name for the cooperation of reason and desire in governing action, as Aristotle probably would have said. (See also Kantian Will.) Here Ricoeur’s use of phenomenological method is a big help in minimizing the impact of this sort of issue.

“To say ‘I will’ means first ‘I decide’, secondly ‘I move my body’, thirdly ‘I consent'” (p. 6). This sort of concrete delineation is very helpful. These are all kinds of things that actually happen and that we can describe or interpret as phenomena, independent of any assumed theory of the will.

Ricoeur had already said he would use something like Husserl’s method of phenomenological and eidetic reduction, “putting in brackets” questions of existence or of the objectivity of appearances in order to focus on what Ricoeur here calls “elaborating the idea or meaning” (pp. 3-4). Eidos was the word Plato and Aristotle used for form. Husserl adopted it for the second of three stages of “reduction”.

Briefly put, Husserl’s first, “phenomenological” reduction emphasizes a suspension of existence claims about the content under examination. The second, “eidetic” one emphasizes a positive examination of the ranges of variation of pure “essences” of mental objects, still not assumed to have any particular metaphysical or objective status. Ricoeur’s gloss “idea or meaning” (emphasis added) already anticipates a shift of emphasis in the direction of hermeneutics. He says he will not use Husserl’s third, “transcendental” reduction, which was supposed to arrive at a “pure” consciousness unaffected by empirical psychology. Ricoeur explicitly notes that “we cannot pretend that we are unaware of the fact that the involuntary is often better known empirically, in its form, albeit degraded, of a natural event” (p. 11).

A main top-level thesis of this work of Ricoeur’s is that the voluntary and the involuntary are reciprocally interdependent, and we cannot really understand either one without the other. Not only is the voluntary partly shaped by the involuntary, but also we only fully understand the involuntary through its impacts on the voluntary. (For more on the same book, see Ricoeur on Embodiment; Ricoeur on Choice; Voluntary Action; Consent?. In general, see also Willing, Unwilling; Rethinking Responsibility.)