d’alembert’s philosophy: finding descartes & locke in the preliminary discourse

May 28, 2015 § Leave a comment


“Men abuse the best things.” –Jean le Rond d’Alembert / Preliminary Discourse[1]

Abstract: Jean d’Alembert’s introduction to the Encyclopédie, the Preliminary Discourse (hereafter PD) of 1749, stands as a wonderful expression of French Enlightenment philosophy. In the PD the two philosophical branches of rationalism and empiricism are followed by d’Alembert with varying degrees of commitment. This issue will be examined by first sketching out the historical circumstances of the PD, along with what the philosophical problem looks like. Then I’ll offer a brief synopsis on the intellectual background of the Enlightenment, which served as the cultural and intellectual milieu for such geniuses as d’Alembert and Diderot to emerge. Next, I’ll illustrate the positions of Descartes and Locke with regard to their influence on d’Alembert and the wider Enlightenment. After this I will return to the problem, aiming to provide an analysis of how the rationalism of Descartes and the empiricism of Locke are combined, and how they differ, for d’Alembert in the PD. D’Alembert’s PD owes its influence to many thinkers—of predominance are Descartes and Locke. The PD is the reference from where to draw on d’Alembert’s ideas concerning the philosophical underpinnings of the Encyclopédie. This is where his ideas on Descartes and Locke, rationality and empiricism are used as evidence of his (and Diderot’s) brand of French Enlightenment philosophy. Despite d’Alembert’s theoretical inconsistencies, his project should not be left to conclude a negative thesis. His energetic ideas, and his work with the Encyclopédie, stand at the epicenter of anti-authoritarian Enlightenment thinking.

§1. Circumstances and Problems of the PD: D’Alembert was a precocious mathematician who took a vibrant part in the proliferation of scientific interests of the time. When he was in his mid-twenties, he quickly earned himself a place in the cutting edge scientific community of his day. He gained widespread acclaim with his early publication on Newtonian mechanics, the Treatise on Dynamics (Traité de dynamique) from 1743.[2] Sometime in 1746, because he was becoming widely recognized as a rising star, he was invited in regular attendance to the fashionable, high-society salons of the day. It is likely that he met Diderot around this time.[3]

D’Alembert and Diderot were invited by the eccentric editor abbé Gua de Malves, to help with an English to French translation of Ephraim Chambers’ Cyclopedia, otherwise known as the Universal Dictionary of the Arts and Sciences.[4] It is not altogether clear who was invited to participate first.[5] It was the abbé Gua de Malves who had big plans for the project, but he dropped out early on. D’Alembert was brought on to edit and author the mathematical and scientific entries, and Diderot would take care of the rest. This co-editorship went beyond these original positions, with d’Alembert taking charge of much more than the mathematical and scientific entries, including his introduction to the Encyclopédie, otherwise known as the PD. The PD was first published in 1751. This was not the work of an established philosopher, instead it was one man’s expression of the age, brought forth by this mathematician/scientist. D’Alembert’s efforts serve as a classic example of Enlightenment cross-disciplinary élan.

That d’Alembert ran with the best of the French intellectual luminaries of his day earned him the position as a French philosophe. To be a philosophe like d’Alembert and Diderot meant to be counted among such legends as Voltaire and Rousseau. The philosophe’s were not necessarily philosophers, they were more like public intellectuals who took it upon themselves to critique the status quo. Primarily, they were critics of religious dogma and the unquestioned authority of aristocratic ideals. The PD set d’Alembert’s fame, with laudatory comments on his work coming from none other than the political philosopher Montesquieu and the Prussian king Frederick the Great.

D’Alembert introduces us to his brand of empiricism in the opening of the PD: “in short, we must go back to the origin and generation of our ideas.”[6] This fundamental thought aligns d’Alembert to his mentor the philosophe abbé de Condilliac who was an avid Lockean, hence a declaration of d’Alembert’s empiricism.[7] D’Alembert makes use of rational and empiricist principles. There are passages in the PD where his implicit allegiance to innate ideas, undercuts his alleged empiricist project. One example of this is in connection to d’Alembert’s method of judgment as to the validity and certainty of ideas. He wants to be certain of ideas in order to determine what subjects to include in the Encyclopédie, and of course, he wants to know what things we as thinking beings can be certain of. For example, on the tenuous ground of moral evidence, i.e. when we are able to judge, and to be certain of, the rights and wrongs of an ethical situation, d’Alembert writes in the PD that: “Feeling is of two sorts. The one concerned with moral truths is called conscience. It is the result of natural law and our conception of good and evil. One could call it evidence of the heart…”[8] It can be argued that the so-called evidence of the heart is actually evidence of innate ideas. That is to say, if we are to assume that d’Alembert, as he states, is operating from a strictly empirical framework, such a moral idea is not grounded in an experiential account. Instead, his evidence of the heart must be coming from a feeling or conviction based in something other than experience.

This is in contrast to another claim d’Alembert makes in the opening pages of the PD where he asks: “Why suppose that we have purely intellectual notions [innate ideas] at the onset if all we need do in order to form them is to reflect on our sensations?”[9] Throughout the PD it is not entirely obvious that d’Alembert sufficiently mends the thorny issue between his denial of Descartes’ innate ideas, contrasted with his allegiance to Locke’s empirical sense certainty. We will return with a closer examination of this problem in §6 (“Philosophy and d’Alembert,” p.8). Before that, let’s look at the wider framework of the Enlightenment, so as to situate the intellectual and cultural milieu under which the Encyclopédie took center stage. This will be followed by summaries of Descartes and Locke’s positions in relation to the PD and the Enlightenment.

§2. The Enlightenment: Frankel sums up the spirit of the Enlightenment as: “Two great traditions, humanism and science, came together in the eighteenth century. The first had acquired a weapon, the second a conscience: together they constituted a revolutionary program.”[10] The efforts of the philosophes during The Age of Enlightenment were to awaken humanity to its own potential. We needed to reposition ourselves as rational thinkers who rely on the surety of scientific observation. Superstition and religious dogma were undermined in favor of our own human capacities for positive inquiry. Science became a weapon for humanity to wrestle out of the obscurity and unfounded authority of the middle ages and scholasticism. We take it upon ourselves to know about the world starting from our desire to eradicate conjecture. The power of scientific authority is, during the Enlightenment, made to shift from speculation to the power of the individual. To precisely investigate the world by way of simple observation, experimentation, and hypothesis was a new challenge to harness. This impetus meant that the Enlightenment fostered intellectual growth with an emphasis on how the intellect can help the human condition transcend its own limitations. The Enlightenment was an intellectual revolution in favor of the progress of humanity, and the philosophical and scientific ways we come to know the wider universe.[11] The progress of intellectual freedom meant that humankind needed to master the natural world in order to take a firm hold of our destiny away from previous divine dictates.

The Enlightenment was born from the crucible of scientific and philosophical inquiry. In France, with the philosophes, empirical inspiration was imported from England. This rose with such figures as Locke, Bacon, and Newton (among others) who were, more or less responsible for the ever-rising popularity of empirical science and the application of empirical knowledge. These important English thinkers would also serve as the intellectual framework of d’Alembert’s PD. Also, the apparent contradictions between rationalism and empiricism were not unique to d’Alembert alone. This conflict was a problem for many of the French Enlightenment philosophes.[12]

Descartes gained widespread acceptance during the Enlightenment, and with the philosophes, his reception was slightly more ambiguous. This was due to his problematic metaphysics stemming from his mind/body dualism—this had to do with his radical claim for the separation of the human mind from the natural world.[13] His innatism would also be a point of contention. Nevertheless, his significance cannot be overstated. For example, his method of Cartesian doubting, in the name of getting to the necessity of mathematics, physics, and other scientific certainties, endeared Descartes’ rationalism to the energetic inquiry of the French philosophes.

These two thinkers, Locke and Descartes, would inadvertently bring about a central philosophical problem of the Enlightenment: should we as thinking persons adhere to a rationalist outlook, complete with its overreaching metaphysics, or should we ascribe to nothing but empirical evidence, with its reliance on sensory data? The issue of fusing rationalism and empiricism would not be unique to d’Alembert’s PD. Kant would famously tackle this complicated epistemological issue with brilliant results, thirty years later (1780s) in Germany (then Prussia), with his first critique, the Critique of Pure Reason.[14]

§3. Descartes: The wealthy chevalier Destouches, d’Alembert’s father, took care that the young man received a good private education at the Jansenist Collège de Quatre Nations in Paris, and it is likely that the Jansenists were the ones who introduced him to the philosophy of Descartes.[15] The progression of philosophy, as d’Alembert puts it in the PD, is that to the ancient philosophers and scholastics an empirical idea was an “axiom.” From here historically, the empirical axiom allegedly takes a turn during the philosophy of the Renaissance toward innate ideas, as d’Alembert has it anyway. As we will see soon, d’Alembert like Descartes, wants to see a metaphysics of knowledge, as reliant on innate ideas. Locke would aggressively challenge this notion in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, published in 1690.

In the 1630s, sometime before Locke, Descartes’ ideas had a great influence in the birth of early Modern philosophy because of his philosophical method of bringing rational thinking and questioning to the ground zero of the cogito. Descartes helped to get scientific certainty going, and as mentioned, Locke would later take issue with the grounding of Cartesian certainty with innate ideas. Descartes starts with a fundamental doubting of previous modes of securing a method of scientific and philosophical inquiry. As a rationalist, Descartes wanted to figure out a way to justify scientific knowledge by identifying human rationality as innate and God-given. His epistemic method was to begin by doubting all the ways in which we come to know things. For Descartes, this doubt starts with the premise that sense perception is not reliable, where we, by way of this reductive doubt, eventually arrives at the certainty of our own thinking. When most ways of knowing are in doubt, the first thing a person can be sure of is that they are thinking. Hence, Descartes arrives at the famous cogito: “I am thinking, therefore I exist.”[16]

The cogito cannot be doubted, and it is made known to us by what Descartes terms a “natural light.” This natural light is akin to reason. Therefore, anything that cannot be doubted must be certain, and anything that is certain includes such things as universality, mathematical necessity, logic, physics, and metaphysical relations. These things are known prior to experience, and because they are known prior to experience, they must be innate. In the Meditations Descartes writes: “Among my ideas, some appear to be innate, some to be adventitious [not innate], and others to have been invented by me.”[17] Incidentally, for Descartes, God provides us with this innate rational capacity.

§5. Locke: Both Descartes and Locke’s philosophy were on minds of the French thinkers including the abbé de Condillac. He was an abbé (or abbot), but he was not a religious man. In fact, he was decidedly empiricist—after the teachings of Locke. The abbé de Condillac was not only Lockean, his ideas also made use of rationalist components of Descartes.[18] In fact, the PD can be said to be mostly an empirical project. Locke’s empiricism placed a premium on our sensual experience of the world. Essentially, his idea is that our thinking comes about by experience only. In the opening lines of Book I of Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, is a refutation of Descartes’ innate ideas. “It is an established opinion amongst some men, that there are in the understanding certain innate principles…”[19] Locke’s brand of empiricism is typically identified by the so-called tabula rasa theory.[20] The idea is fairly straightforward: we are born not knowing anything, our minds are blank of knowledge, and as we directly experience the world with our senses, knowledge is learned and reflected upon. Our ability to reflect, for Locke, means that we put together the things we have learned by our senses. D’Alembert would also go on to utilize Locke’s theory of direct and reflective knowledge.

§6. Philosophy and d’Alembert: Let us not forget that the Encyclopédie had the immodest goal to survey all human knowledge up to the time of it publication in the 1750s. According to d’Alembert, the Encyclopédie had two aims: one was to set down the order and the connections of the various disciplines of human knowledge. The other was to lay down the principles of mechanical sciences, and the liberal arts.[21] It was d’Alembert’s idea that the manufacturing trades, science, the arts, and philosophy were mutually interconnected as emblematic of the unity of human knowledge. Moreover, if any one of these disciplines would provide a structure to the vast comprehensiveness of knowledge, it would have to be the discipline of philosophy. Because philosophy is concerned with the origins of knowledge, the ordering of human understanding would have recourse to essential philosophical issues, such as epistemological questions having to do with where our thoughts of the world originate.

D’Alembert’s conceptual structure of the PD divides human knowledge into three main branches of thought: memory, reason and imagination.[22] Memory has to do with recalling and bringing to mind sensations and ideas. Reason has to do with the logic, comparison, sequentiality, and assessments of cognition. Imagination combines the faculties of memory and reason to create new ideas and new possibilities.[23] These branches of thought are brought in as an organizational device from which to classify the various subjects of the Encyclopédie. For instance, under the category of memory we find the disciplines of history. With reason we find the disciplines of philosophy and the sciences, and with the imagination we find the disciplines of the fine arts. However, before this Baconian division of human interests and disciplines, d’Alembert will have to go further into positing and verifying where our ideas come from—and for d’Alembert empiricism fits the bill.

Before the division of knowledge mentioned above, knowledge as it is experienced, is initially subdivided into what d’Alembert calls “direct” and “reflective” knowledge. The direct base of knowledge is attributable to Locke, where d’Alembert writes: “all our direct knowledge can be reduced to what we receive through our senses; whence it follows that we owe all our ideas to sensations.”[24] The reflective area of knowledge is also linked to Locke’s reflection, otherwise known as introspection. Introspection itself is reliant on the base of our sense experience. Employing this model, d’Alembert has the dilemma of showing how direct and reflective knowledge transitions into necessary and universal truths.[25] Because d’Alembert stridently rejects innate ideas, he has to find a way that reflection is based on nothing more than a series of sensations.

During his discussion of Lockean reflective knowledge in the PD, d’Alembert takes on the immensely difficult task of justifying our thoughts, and the objects that bring about these thoughts, as somehow one in the same. In other words, he wants to know how “…all of these things produce an irresistible impulse in us to affirm that the objects we relate to these sensations, and which appear to be their cause, actually exist.”[26] His next move is decidedly unsatisfying with his justification that the way we affirm the connection between thoughts and the objects of those thoughts, is with a supra-reasonable instinct: “only a kind of instinct, surer than reason itself, can compel us to leap so great a gap.”[27] There is no way to justify this claim other than to suggest that this instinct must originate in our mind as an innate idea, especially with the claim that the instinct is “surer than reason.” To be sure, part of d’Alembert’s problem rests with Locke, since Locke’s reflective knowledge also cannot justify our ability to go beyond sense data without recourse to some kind of metaphysical connectivity that still sounds a lot like innatism.[28] Such issues like determining the apodictic certainty of mathematics becomes extremely difficult to conclude on the grounds of direct sense perception and reflection alone. Sense certainty cannot account for necessity without recourse to some form of rational connectivity that precedes it, and is intermeshed, with empirical experience.

Surprisingly, Lockean empiricism becomes the unsolved problem for d’Alembert’s philosophical commitments. For Descartes, the issue is one of overreaching. Rationalism overextends its conclusions into areas it cannot verify, i.e. God’s placement of innate ideas into our minds, and does not sufficiently explain where ideas our come from without a structuring principle that accounts for truth. For Locke, our issue is one of limitation. Empiricism limits all thinking as originative and deriving from sensory data. While it fails to provide an adequate explanation as to how sensorial ideas are brought together in the mind, or how we verify truth.[29] Empiricism struggles to adequately provide justification for scientific universals and rigors of mathematical necessity without organizational principles in place prior to experience.

With all this said we must still try acknowledging Descartes’ innovation, for d’Alembert and for the Enlightenment, which surely was his specific method of Cartesian doubting to arrive at the certainty of the cogito. If we are certain that we think, knowledge easily extends from this certainty if we are able to understand the importance of our methods of verification, scientific or otherwise. As for Locke, it is debatable whether or not he did away with innate ideas, yet his contribution to the Enlightenment was enormous. Most of his innovation stands with his attempt to ground human knowledge in an empirical understanding that sought to contain the far-reaching excesses of rational metaphysics.

§7. Conclusions: In 1749, when the Encyclopédie was getting underway, Diderot was thrown into the prison at Vincennes for his publication Lettre sur les aveugles (Letter on the blind).[30] It was around this time that a number of important works were published by Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau, and of course, the PD with the Encyclopédie sees its first publication in 1751.[31] Diderot and d’Alembert would eventually split on philosophical grounds, with d’Alembert leaving the Encyclopédie project altogether by 1758.[32] The atheistic and anti-authoritarianism of the Encyclopédie had the vast publication swirling in controversy since its inception. The constant pressure likely wore d’Alembert down. However, publication of the Encyclopédie didn’t stop in spite of d’Alembert’s absence and the seemingly endless attacks from religious conservatives. Its run would last for twenty one years: 1751-1772.

Sorting through d’Alembert’s philosophical problems directs attention to the mistakes we easily make in our own empirical understanding of nature, science, and religion. Knowledge of the Enlightenment is greatly enhanced with our familiarity of the combined emphasis on philosophy and scientific investigation in the PD. Both fields are better understood in the context of the French Enlightenment due to the fantastic inquisitive energy of intellectuals like d’Alembert and Diderot. Opposed to embellishing traditional values, the Encyclopédie was highly innovative in its day, with its multiple articles on manufacturing and the trades. The Encyclopédie also had the audacious goal to bring all of human knowledge into a single system. Apart from the knotted problems with d’Alembert’s philosophical commitments, what can be found in his work that demonstrates the intellectual value of his philosophy? The PD and the Encyclopédie demonstrate the value of independent free thinking and vigorous curiosity. The Age of the Enlightenment is defined by its breathtaking enthusiasm for new scientific ideas, intellectual autonomy and philosophical discovery. D’Alembert and Diderot helped fuse these notions into the project of knowledge brought together as a vast one-of-a-kind monument, in the Encyclopédie, and its introduction, the PD. They wanted to know the world and they wanted to help people understand themselves in their own vital connection with the world. It is only when we are certain of the knowledge we’ve gained that we are able to think of the possibility of something else—something radical.

Aurelio Madrid

[1] Jean le Rond d’Alembert, Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopedia of Diderot, translated by Richard N. Schwab (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 96.

[2] Richard Schwab, introduction to D’Alembert’s The Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopedia of Diderot, translated by Richard N. Schwab (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1995), xvi.

[3] On the other hand, Robert Grimsley notes that Marquis de Condorcet (1743-1794) suggested that d’Alembert and Diderot were childhood friends.

[4] Robert Grimsley, Jean d’Alembert, 9-10.

[5] Robert Grimsley writes that it wasn’t till 1939 that the accounting books for the Encyclopédie show that, contrary to popular belief, d’Alembert was brought into the project as “early as December 1745, while Diderot was not put on the pay-roll until February of the following year.” Robert Grimsley, Jean d’Alembert, 3.

[6] Jean le Rond d’Alembert, Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopedia of Diderot, 4.

[7] Richard Schwab notes that d’Alembert’s thought corresponds to these lines of Étienne Bonnot de Condillac: “Our first object, which we should never lose from sight, is the study of the human mind—not to discover its nature, but to learn to know its operations, to observe how they are combined and how we ought to use them to acquire all the intelligence of which we are capable. It is necessary to go back to the origin of our ideas, to work out their generation, to follow them to the limits which nature has prescribed for them, and by these means to establish the extent and limits of our knowledge and renew all of human understanding.” Schwab quoting Condillac in Jean Le Rond d’Alembert’s, Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopedia of Diderot, n. 8, 5.

[8] D’Alembert, The Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopedia of Diderot, translated by Richard N. Schwab (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 44-45.

[9] D’Alembert, The Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopedia of Diderot, 7.

[10] Charles Frankel, The Faith of Reason, 7.

[11] Charles Frankel quotes d’Alembert: “Happy are men of letters if they recognize at last that the surest way of making themselves respectable is to live united and almost shut up among themselves; that by this union they will come, without any trouble, to give the law to the rest of the nation in all affairs of taste and philosophy…As if the art of instructing and enlightening men were not, after the too rare art of good government, the noblest portion and gift in human reach.” Charles Frankel, The Faith of Reason, 10.

[12] Charles Frankel writes: The philosophes stressed the fact that they had broken with Cartesianism as a system: Descartes, as Voltaire and others wrote, had discovered the mistakes of antiquity, but he had substituted his own in their place, In following Locke, who had ‘reduced metaphysics to what it ought to be in fact, the experimental physics of the soul,’ the philosophes had ceremoniously rejected Descartes’ ‘metaphysical romance.’” Charles Frankel, The Faith of Reason, 14.

[13] Charles Farnkel writes: “At the same time that the great works in social criticism written during the first decade of the century were attacks upon the superstitions of the ancient régime, they were also, for the most part, revolts against the Cartesian reinforcement of supernaturalism—the separation of the mind from physical nature.” Charles Frankel, The Faith of Reason, 13.

[14] Kant writes on the battle between rationalism and empiricism in the preface to the first edition (1781) of the Critique of Pure Reason: “The perplexity into which it [reason] thus falls is not due to any fault of its own. It begins with principles which it has no option save to employ in the course of experience, and which this experience at the same time abundantly justifies it in using. Rising with their aid (since it is determined to this also by its own nature) to even higher, even more remote, conditions, it soon becomes aware that in this way—the questions never ceasing—its work must always remain incomplete, and it therefore finds itself compelled to resort to principles which overstep all possible empirical employment, and which yet seem so unobjectionable that even ordinary consciousness readily accepts them. But by this procedure human reason precipitates itself into darkness and contradictions; and while it may indeed conjecture that these must be in some way due to concealed errors, and it is not in a position to be able to detect them. For since the principles of which it is making use transcend the limits of experience, they are no longer subject to any empirical test. The battle-field of these endless controversies is called metaphysics.” Immanuel Kant, Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, translated by Norman Kemp Smith (New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1965), 7.

[15] Robert Grimsley, Jean d’Alembert: (1717-83), (London, GB: Oxford University Press, 1963), 3.

[16] Descartes writes, “Lastly, considering that the very thoughts we have while awake may also occur while we sleep without any of them being at that time true, I resolved to pretend that all things that had ever entered my mind were no more true than the illusions of my dreams. But immediately I noticed that while I was endeavoring in this way to think that everything is false, it was necessary that I, who was thinking this, was something. And observing that this truth ‘I am thinking, therefore I exist’ was so firm and sure that all the most extravagant suppositions of the skeptics were incapable shaking it, I decided that I could accept it without scruple as the first principle of the philosophy I was seeking.” René Descartes “Discourse on the Method,” in Selected Philosophical Writings, translated by John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 36.

Another version of the cogito can be found in the Meditations, “Sense-perception? This surely does not occur without a body, and besides, when asleep I have appeared to perceive through the sense many things which I afterwards realized I did not perceive through the senses at all. Thinking? At last I have discovered it—thought; this alone is inseparable from me. I am, I exist—that is certain.” Descartes, “Meditations on First Philosophy” in Selected Philosophical Writings, 82.

[17] Descartes, “Meditations on First Philosophy,” 89.

[18] Richard Schwab writes on the abbé de Condillac, “the great French student of Locke, the abbé de Condillac, presented to his compatriots a combination of certain features of Cartesian rationalism with the empiricism of Locke and Newton that was accepted as doctrine among the philosophes, and much of his thought was incorporated into the Preliminary Discourse.” In Schwab’s introduction to The Preliminary Discourse, xxxiii.

[19] In a footnote to the opening lines of Locke’s Essay, an editor’s note reads, “ Locke does not name the ‘men’ of ‘innate principles’ whose ‘opinion’ he proceeds to criticize; nor doe he quote their words in evidence of what they intended by the opinion. […] From the first, Descartes, with whose writings he [Locke] was early familiar, was probably in his view.” Alexander C. Fraser editor, John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Vol., 1, (New York, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 1959), n. 1, 37.

[20] It is commonly known that Locke did not use the actual term tabula rasa, instead we find this in Book II of the Essay, “Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper, void of all characteristics, without any ideas […],” John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 121.

[21] D’Alembert writes in the PR: “The work whose first volume we are presenting today has two aims. As in the Encyclopédie, it is to set forth as well as possible the order and connection of the parts of human knowledge. As a Reasoned Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Trades, it is to contain the general principles that form the basis of each science and art, liberal and mechanical, and the most essential facts that make up the body and substance of each.” Jean Le Rond d’Alembert, Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopedia of Diderot, translated by Richard N. Schwab (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 4.

[22] Charles Frankel tells us that this is known as “the encyclopedic tree” and that the idea was borrowed from Sir Francis Bacon: “This encyclopedic tree presents something of a problem because, after telling us that we find the unity of science by the empiricist analysis of the origin of ideas, d’Alembert tells us that the order of the encyclopedic tree, the order and connection of the various branches of knowledge, is not identical with the true order of discovery.” Charles Frankel, The Faith of Reason: The Idea of Progress in the French Enlightenment (New York, NY: Octagon Books, 1969), 114.

[23] Richard Schwab, Introduction to The Preliminary Discourse, xxxvi.

[24] Jean Le Rond d’Alembert, Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopedia of Diderot, 6.

[25] Ronald Grimsley writes: “D’Alembert was obviously too engrossed with his original assumption that we never perceive anything but particulars to face squarely the problem of universals.” Grimsley, Jean d’Alembert, 233.

[26]D’Alembert’s full sentence reads: “The multiplicity of these sensations, the consistency that we note in their evidence, the degrees of difference we observe in them, and the involuntary reactions that they cause us to experience—as compared with that voluntary determination we never have over our reflective ideas, which is operative only upon our sensations themselves—all of these things produce an irresistible impulse in us to affirm that the objects we relate to these sensations, and which appear to be their cause, actually exist.” Jean Le Rond d’Alembert, Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopedia of Diderot, 8.

[27] Jean Le Rond d’Alembert, Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopedia of Diderot, 9.

[28] John Locke writes on reflection: “Secondly, the other fountain [reflection] from which experience furnisheth the understanding with ideas is,- the perception of the operations of our own mind within us, as it is employed about the ideas it has got;- which operations, when the soul comes to reflect on and consider, do furnish the understanding with another set of ideas, which could not be had from things without. And such are perception, thinking, doubting, believing, reasoning, knowing, willing, and all the different actings of our own minds;- which we being conscious of, and observing in ourselves, do from these receive into our understandings as distinct ideas as we do from bodies affecting our senses.” John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 26.

[29] Peter Schouls writes on Lockean reflection: “This doctrine of representational realism presents a problem for those holding it, namely how do they know that the idea is a true and adequate representation of the object?” Peter Schouls, Reasoned Freedom: John Locke and the Enlightenment (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992), 80.

[30] Thomas Hankins, Jean d’Alembert: Science and the Enlightenment (London, GB: Oxford University Press, 1970), 67-68.

[31] Thomas Hankins lists these publications: “The year 1749 saw the publication of Diderot’s Lettres sur les aveugles, Buffon’s ‘Premier dicours’ to his Histoire naturelle and Condillac’s Traité des systems. Montesquieu’s Esprit de lois appeared in 1748, but it was not read by d’Alembert until 1749. By the time d’Alembert’s Discours préliminaire [PD] appeared in 28 June 1751, Turgot’s Discours (1750) at the Sorbonne on the progress of the human mind, and Rousseau’s Discours sur les sciences et les arts (1750) had also been published. Voltaire’s Siècle de Louis XIV appeared soon after the first volume of the Encyclopédie and praised it lavishly. The concentration of so many ‘philosophical’ works at a time when the Encyclopédie was also beginning to appear caught up d’Alembert in a burst of enthusiasm for philosophy.” Thomas Hankins, Jean d’Alembert, 68.

[32] Thomas Hankins writes of the schism: “After 1753 d’Alembert and Dierot moved farther apart as Diderot turned more defiantly towards materialism and towards a belief in the universal sensibility and activity of matter. D’Alembert was not a deist. His religious position was one of extreme skepticism […]”


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Descartes, René. Descartes: Selected Philosophical Writings. Translated by John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Frankel, Charles. The Faith of Reason: The Idea of Progress in the French Enlightenment. New York, NY: Octagon Books, 1969.

Grimsley, Ronald. Jean d’Alembert: (1717-83). London, GB: Oxford University Press, 1963.

Hankins, Thomas L. Jean d’Alembert: Science and the Enlightenment. London, GB: Oxford University Press, 1970.

Hundert, Edward. “D’Alembert’s Dream and the Utility of the Humanities.” Critical Review: A Journal of Politics and Society 15, no. 3-4 (2003): 459-472.

Kant, Immanuel. Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by Norman Kemp Smith. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1965.

Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Vol., I. Edited by Alexander Campbell Fraser. New York, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 1959.

Schouls, Peter A. Descartes and the Enlightenment. Montreal, CA: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1989.

——. Reasoned Freedom: John Locke and the Enlightenment. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992.

aristotle & agamben: on potentiality & actuality

April 15, 2015 § Leave a comment

stephan krophf

Abstract: We often misunderstand the primary importance of metaphysics, imagining that the manifestation of the world is only a matter of facts. Philosophy shows us that this is not the case, since the seemingly simple relationship between what is potential (δύναμις) and what is actual (ενέργεια) immediately exposes the illusion that our understanding of the world is only a matter of facts. In this paper I wish to do three things: define Aristotle’s potentiality, actuality, and privation, beginning with their relation to substance; investigate Giorgio Agamben’s reading of these concepts to define and conceptualize his position in the essay “On Potentiality” from his book Potentialities; and lastly, determine where Aristotle and Agamben meet, to help reveal the importance of metaphysics as held within our understanding of potentiality and actuality.

I. On Aristotle’s substance: Aristotle writes about potentiality and actuality in Book Θ of the Metaphysics. At this point in the Metaphysics he has just covered his conceptualization of substance (οὐσία). Here, I offer a quick synopsis of Aristotle’s idea on substance, because potentiality and actuality are prefigured into how substances come to be. The concept of substance consists of both a quality and a quantity of something that is in existence. To exist is what it is to be. Substance describes being. Being predicates everything that is a substance.[1] Inquiring into what the being of something is, includes what something becomes through time. Substances are fire, earth, water, air, plants, animals, humans, manmade things, etc.[2] Substances are compounds of form and matter. Substance involves four components: essence, the universal, the genus and the substratum.[3]

Substance is a something to point to that is in existence, since a substance is something that exists. Substance is ontological because it describes what something is. To be in existence, a thing is a composite, a synchronicity of matter and form.[4] Matter is the material, regarded as potential for Aristotle. Form is the shape and action the material takes, and this is regarded by him as actuality. The matter of a thing corresponds to potentiality. It is what a thing is capable of doing. What something is, in its capacity, is interlocked with its form. The precise form of anything determines what it is capable of doing. Form is the kind of thing matter becomes. Form is the species of the matter in question. If a particular form is human, animal, or plant, its potential is self-contained, and self-generated. If the object is made by a person, the potential of matter is actualized by the artisan. Wood is sawn for a boat. The formal material of wood gives it the potential to float on water. Stone is carved for a statue. The formal material of certain stones allows their potential to take a precise cutting.

A. Aristotle’s Potential: What is the source of change within the potential matter of an inanimate thing, or a living thing?[5] With Aristotle such a question brings us into the existence of life. What it means for a living thing to contain both its own potential for growth, and its actualization is certainly a question of what it means to express life, what it means to exist.[6] With the wood of a tree, the kind of potential that wood has to become to be a bed is reliant on an agental potentiality—the wood’s potential needs an agent to bring the wood of the tree into its actuality as a bed. On the other hand, humans have originative potential held within our capacity for life.[7] A wooden bed cannot fabricate itself, yet a baby can become an adult, and an adult has potential within to practice skills. This is a different type of potentiality, when an adult has the capacity, due to her knowledge to create, or to cause a change in something, her potential has the capacity to be fulfilled or to not be fulfilled. The ability to change in this second type of potentiality comes from within the capacity of the agent.[8]

The arts and knowledge are also potentials, since it is from these that art and knowing come to be.[9] These potentials operate under a rational or irrational principle for Aristotle. The rational is determined by its logical form and the irrational is often determined by accident.[10] The difference here is one of privation (στέρησις). Take for example a doctor who practices the art of medicine which has the potential to heal. Her rational potential to heal can falter, thus becoming a lack of healing. The potential to heal contains within it the potential to do harm, and in this example, doing harm is irrational.[11] I’ll return later to the notion of privation with Agamben.

B. Aristotle’s actuality: As for Aristotle’s actuality, let us sustain the notion of potentiality and actuality as inextricably conjoined. To define one, is to consider the other as one progression. We cannot consider the thought of anything as potential unless we somehow account for anything becoming actualized. Potential is preceded by actuality. The actual world brings about potential. If the actual is akin to energy, then energy is what creates potential. Actualization also is akin to work. Matter is working itself out as it is formed. When a house is becoming actualized from raw materials, the potentiality of the bricks, wood, and labor become actualized in the fabrication and construction of the house. Work reveals the potential of the raw materials that become a house to live in. A house cannot be actualized without the architects, carpenters, and stone masons who work to build it.

If substance is being, its existence is actualization. What is not in existence is potentiality. What is potential has not become thought yet. It is incomplete, and when it becomes thought, or rational knowledge, it becomes actualized. Whatever becomes actualized is happening or has happened. We are at our best when our minds are actively engaged in the world. The activity of the mind and of the intellect is bringing things and ideas into being and into existence. For Aristotle, thought and the objects of thought are inseparable. On this fascinating point Aristotle prioritizes the actual above the potential (as mentioned earlier). We might imagine that what is potential precedes the actual, since a progression from one to the other is implied, yet for Aristotle this is not the case, since thought itself is eternal. That is to say, if thought is eternal, according to Aristotle, then it cannot be merely potential because potentiality is incomplete. Therefore if the actual is complete (i.e. it is no longer a potential), only that which is eternal is actualized.[12]

The kinetic (κίνησις) relationship between potentiality and actuality can be thought of as the movement of substances which play a central role in Aristotle’s philosophy.[13],[14]

C. More on Aristotle’s Potentiality and Actuality: Even within the act of thinking we confront the unknown of our intellectual capacity so as to increase our ability to further our actual knowledge into future potential. Recall where Aristotle writes in De Anima, that the intellect “has no other nature than that of being potential, and before thinking it is absolutely nothing” (429a 21-22). This means that thought cannot be nothing, it cannot be simply thinking about things, and then not thinking about things. Thought has to allow for things to come together in potentiality as they become known so as to make things and thinking actual.[15] That the mind is receptive to the world—i.e. it contains what it knows while it receives new thoughts—positions the intellect as potentiality. We might imagine that the potentiality of thought is foundational for all knowledge.[16] In the Metaphysics, Aristotle writes “…it is obvious that actuality is prior in substantial being to potency, and as we have said, one actuality always precedes another in time right back to the actuality of the eternal prime mover” (1050b 2-5). Also back in De Anima, where Aristotle makes the case for the inseparability of thought and object, he emphasizes that our individual potential knowledge seems to be prior to actual knowledge: “but in the universe as a whole it is not even prior even in time” (430a 20-23). If knowledge is said to be actual, then it cannot be prior to potential because everything that is potential must come from something that is actual. The prime mover, as representative of pure thought, is eternal, and for Aristotle, the prime mover is also known as the unmoved mover. All motion originates from the prime mover and motion is the coming to be of actuality.[17]

Sometimes the tangible product of actualization is only an actualization of a visual sensation, as with the actuality of sight. We have the potential to see and actually seeing is the work of sight.[18] Actuality and potentiality as metaphysical concepts are easily relatable to sensation. In Book II of De Anima (417a 5-8) Aristotle writes on the potentiality of sensation. Sensation requires the sensual world to be what it is. We cannot speak of sensation without speaking of that which brings sensation to the fore of actuality. Aristotle questions what it means to experience sensation without an impetus to bring it about. The faculty of sight is a potential for sight, while seeing something is the actualization of potential. Having the faculty to do something is not the same as actually doing it. This encapsulates the idea that potential includes the ability to not be.[19] This leads to privation.

D. Aristotle’s Privation: Then there is the idea of privation (στέρησις).[20] Privation, or doing without, is a potentiality as it is not happening. Aristotle writes of it in four senses.[21] A privation is a simple lack of any particular thing, any negation serves as an example. A privation is the lack of capacity a thing under normal circumstances would have. For instance, someone is blind now who once had the capacity to see. A privation can also mean having the capacity and not using it, e.g. although we see we are sometimes blind to certain things. Also, a privation can be the removal of a capacity, e.g. a criminal is held in chains to curb her potential for violence. Agamben is primarily interested in this third type of privation.

D. Agamben: Agamben does not wish to revive Aristotle’s potentiality and actuality, because actuality and potentiality never went away.[22] When we give thought to potential, we also give thought to power, and power that resides in potential does not have to become actualized in all cases. For instance, humanity possesses political (defensive/military) power it does not have to use. We are free to not use our potential. Having the potential to do something speaks to the ontology of power: where power comes from, and that certain types of political power reside in not using what is potential. Because we have the power to destroy others does not mean we always have to act on such a power. Agamben wants to get at the root of what we mean when we make use of the verb ‘can.’[23] He takes seriously a philosophical line of questioning that asks: “what do I mean when I say: ‘I can, I cannot’?”[24] When we utter the words ‘I can, I cannot,’ we proclaim our potential and ability to do something. We take faith that our potential to perform an act is actually within us. Freedom resides in our choice to act on our potential. While at the same time, when our potential is tested, we wonder if we can we make good on a promise to do something. We do not always know the outcomes of any venture till it becomes actualized. To say ‘I can or I cannot’ does so in the face of uncertainty. Political power does not always know the promise of its actualization till its policies are actualized.

Including Aristotle’s idea of privation, Agamben goes in deeper, since privation is a fundamental part of grasping potential. He identifies this privation as the “existence of non-being.”[25] Privation is a kind of “potential not to be.” Agamben identifies this in Aristotle’s Book Θ of the Metaphysics, where Aristotle writes: “that, then, which is capable of being may either be or not be; the same thing, then, is capable of both being and of not being” (1050b 10). This “not to be” is held within the potential even when it is actualized. To ‘not be’ is potential, yet it is not a simple absence of the actual. That is to say, all potential is not exhausted while it is being actualized. Actualization also contains the ability to not be actualized. The word for this privation is impotence (αδυναμία), Aristotle’s word for a type of privation (στέρησις).

Agamben wants us to take notice of the distinction Aristotle makes concerning potential. As mentioned above (re: “Aristotle’s Potential,” pp. 2-3), there are two types of potentiality for Aristotle, one kind of potentiality is the kind attributable to a child who can learn, or who can gain knowledge. This type of potential is potential in a general sense of the word. The child learns this or that, while the child until she learns it, does not hold that ability yet. The child does not possess the same kind of potential that an architect does. This is the second type of potential. When we say a child can become an architect, it is different than saying an architect has the potential to put a building into action. In the second type, the architect has the know-how and expertise already at hand—she can put a building into action, whereas the child does not possess the skill. This type of potentiality is already in existence within the expertise of the architect. The architect has the ability, so she possesses the potential for a building within her. The potential is within her hexis (ἕξις), her possession.[26]

Now it becomes easier to conceptualize the difference between a mere lack of potential and the Agamben’s “existence of non-being.” Basic lacking is a general privation, whereas having the expertise to do something is the special kind of privation that Agamben and Aristotle are interested in. As this special privation of potential is brought to the fore, thoughts of what cannot happen become evident. The possibility to enact a building also becomes the possibility for the building to not happen for an architect. In politics, and in everyday life, we can easily suffer the results in the name of activities we don’t do. Passivity and quietism hold the power of inactivity. We enact the freedom to not do things we are capable of doing. Problems with passivity are ecological, as much they are political and philosophical. Not doing something is a strategy born from conviction, obstinacy or ignorance. Again, for Aristotle, to have potential in privation, means to have potential in existence. He writes in the Physics, “for the privation is in a way a form” (193b 19-20). Privation means to possess potential whether it is utilized or not.

Our faculties, e.g. the faculty for speech, vision, and even our ability for death, are within the domain of potentiality.[27] To think of someone’s potential is to think of what she is without an actualization of her potential—actually taking place. To inquire into such problems, like what it means when I say ‘I can or cannot’ do this or that, is to inquire into what it means to have a faculty to do something. For Agamben, this is the “originary problem of potentiality.”[28]

From Aristotle’s De Anima, Agamben illustrates more subtleties on potential as the existence of non-being rather than mere lacking.[29] His reading of Aristotle speaks of a transparency of vision. Something that is transparent is also something that is visible. This is a special way to think of transparency rather than the transparency of a clear glass of water. Transparency (διαφανής) of vision is made possible with light. To see a thing’s color, is to see it in the light. When light is removed, vision is taken to darkness (σκότος). Yet when we are in darkness, we see the darkness because we are not blinded by the absence of light. Light, as the provider of color, is actuality. Darkness, as the absence of light is potential. “What is sometimes darkness and sometimes light is one in nature” is how Agamben reads Aristotle’s position.[30] If light presents itself as the actuality of color, then darkness is the potential for light, and its privation: darkness is the potential for color’s absence. Light, in this case is akin to our action in motion. Darkness represents our inaction.

Human privation lacks color when action is nullified and we choose to do nothing.[31] Suddenly we intuit the moral/ethical implications for potentiality as privation. Privation is a lack of action held within potential, when our ability to act is possible. The privation of potency is impotence. A problem of evil is not always one of actively seeking out and enacting evil deeds. As implied, evil can also be the privation of action, the choice or faculty to do nothing, the choice to ignore the suffering of others.

Potential in privation is non-being (i.e. doing nothing) for Agamben. When we bring ourselves to action, the potential for non-being is always at the fore. Every circumstance admits to the range of possibilities that can, or cannot happen. We are constantly in a relationship with our inability to act. What can be is limited by what is. Still, privation need not always be an active choice to be passive. It is feasible that the privation of our potential is something to embrace. Inaction can bring about safety in danger, as much as it can be a measure of humility against the hubris (ὕβρις) of grandeur. Because we have the potential to commit crimes does not entitle us to actualize a criminal act. If someone commits a violent act on us it may not always be the wisest choice to retaliate, depending on the circumstances. Still, we often must come to terms with our limitations in order to surpass them. I often don’t know what my capacity for brave action is, till I’m required to act under duress, exhaustion, or the threat of death.

E. Last Thoughts: Metaphysics in philosophical study has to do, but is not limited to, questions on the basic structures of reality and being. Outside of philosophical questioning we are more accustomed to imagine that the manifestation of our world is only composed of a multitude of facts thrown together. The ontological relationship between what is potential and what is actual shows that any conception of reality has to take into account what can be, and what cannot be. Also, what cannot be, as a privation of potential, an impotence, must be considered in light of what we are capable of. Agamben is sharp to distill this from Aristotle’s genius. Agamben pulls impotence out to show that freedom is not always about action. Possessing the freedom to not do things shows that the metaphysics of potential and actuality go beyond a simplistic positive negative opposition. So much of political power is a privation of military and economic potential. Impotence resides near potential, yet at the same time, it cannot be described as actual. Agamben and Aristotle meet in an act of scholarship. Agamben mines his conclusions from the quarry of Aristotle’s lithic notation. The aporia (ἀπορία) of Aristotle’s potentiality has not been lost, and Agamben demonstrates this suspended when we say “I can, I cannot.” When I can, and do, perform a task, what I cannot do suspends or withholds itself from the task at hand. The suspension of what cannot be must be understood residing at this borderline of coming to be. Every action spells out what has not been. This must be considered as action’s metaphysical coeval, i.e. that the impotence of privation is never a mere absence.

We relate to the world and to people in these terms without knowing how inactivity affects the existence of our being. If potential is born from the actual then all that has not happened relies on what has happened. New paths are forged from what has been, to be transformed into what will be, and to be made manifest in perpetuity. Humans grasp their originative potential taken with our capacity for life. At the same time, we reject the wide range of possibilities forfeited in the name of performing a single task. Not doing something establishes the possibility of impotence concealed by action. Actuality distracts us from what is hidden. Privation discloses itself without ever needing to be put into action. We want to recoil from these observations, they seem too simple. Somehow they are made too obvious once they become evident. Philosophy discloses these relationships and now our work is to contemplate (θεωρία) their value in thought and in practice. To tap into our potential entails that we access what is already there, but has not yet been acted upon, ready to be actualized, reserved, overlooked or ignored.[32]

Aurelio Madrid

[1] Aristotle writes [note: all following quotes belong to Aristotle’s unless otherwise noted]: “We have now outlined the nature of substance, showing that it is that which is not predicated of a stratum, but of which all else is predicated.” Metaphysics, (1029a 7).

[2] “Those generally recognized are the natural substances, i.e. fire, earth, water, aire, &c., the simple bodies; secondly, plants, and their parts, and animals and the parts of animals; and finally the physical universe and its parts; […]. Metaphysics, (1042a 6-10).

[3] “The word ‘substance’ is applied, if not in more senses, still at least to four main objects; for both the essence and the universl and the genus are thought to be the substance of each thing, and fourthly the substratum.” Metaphysics, (1028b 33-36).

[4] “And in one sense matter is said to be of the nature of substratum [substance], in another, shape [form], and in a third, the compound of these” Metaphysics, (1029a 3-4).

[5] “But all potencies that conform to the same type are originative sources of some kind, and are called potencies in reference to one primary kind of potency, which is an originative source of change in anything or in the thing qua other.” Metaphysics, (1046a 10).

[6] “[…] these so-called potencies are potencies either of merely acting or being acted on, or of acting or being acted on well […]” Metaphysics, (1046a 15).

[7] “[…] for the one is in the thing acted on; it is because it contains a certain originative source” Metaphysics, (1046a 22).

[8] “But the other potency is in the agent, e.g. heat and the art of buiding are present, one in that which can produce heat and the other in the man who can build.” Metaphysics, (1046a 25-28).

[9] Jonathan Lear writes: “Man [for Aristotle] is not born with knowledge, but he is born with the capacity to acquire it.” In Aristotle: The Desire to Understand, (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 2.

[10] “[…] for the rational formula to one object in virtue of that object’s nature, and to the other, [the irrational] in a sense, accidentally. […] Now since contraries do not occur in the same thing, but science is a potency which depends on the possession of a rational formula, […]” Metaphysics, (1046b 10-17).

[11] “[…] but the medical art can produce both disease and health. The reason is that science is a rational formula. and the same rational formula explains a thing and its privation […]” Metaphysics, (1046b 6-10).

[12] “Actual knowledge is identical with its object: in the individual, potential knowledge is in time prior to actual knowledge, but in the universe as a whole it is not prior even in time. Mind is not at one time knowing and at another not. When mind is set free from its present conditions it appears just as it is and nothing more: this alone is immortal and eternal […] and without it nothing thinks” De Anima (Book III, ch. 5, 430a 10-25).

[13] Kalpana Seshadri quotes Walter Brogan writing on Heidegger’s 1931 lecture Aristotle’s Metaphysics Θ 1-3: On the Essence and Actuality of Force, “For Heidegger, the fundamental horizon of Aristotle’s philosophical questioning is the problem of movement, and it is in the Physics that Aristotle most explicitly addresses this issue…Heidegger reads the Metaphysics in such a way as to highlight the centrality of the concepts of dunamis and energeia as ontological notions that take up the problem of movement at the very heart of Aristotle’s notion of ousia and his understanding of being.” Kalpana Seshadri “Agamben, the Thought of Sterēsis: An Introduction to Two Essays.” Critical Inquiry 40, no. 2 (Winter 2014): 471.

[14] In Part II, Chapter 2, §26 of Martin Heidegger’s 1924 lecture course on the Basic Concepts of Aristotelian Philosophy, Heidegger discusses an “Interpretation of the Cultivation of the Concept of κίνησις as a Radical Grasping of the Interpretedness of Being-There.” He is trying to get an understanding of kinesis from Aristotle’s Physics, Book Γ, Heidegger writes: “For the understanding of the following considerations of κίνησις, one must be clear as to: 1. The fact that previously the decisive categories were not yet familiar, For us, the concepts δύναμις, ἐνέργεια, ἐντελέχεια, are so worn out that one is not capable of seeing what is at stake in the fundamental meaning of these concepts. We must work to insert ourselves around into the time when the concepts of δύναμις and ἐνέργεια were cultivated.” Martin Heidegger, Basic Concepts of Aristotelian Philosophy, translated by Robert D. Metcalf and Mark B Tanzer (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2009), 198-199.

[15] Elizabeth Balskus cites the scholar Leland de la Durantaye’s comments on this “If thought were merely the sum of things which it has thought, not only would be inferior to its object, but it would also leave unexplained thought’s most singular feature: its ability to reflect upon itself.” Balskus, “Examining Potentiality in the Philosophy of Agamben,” 163. Balskus cites this from de la Durantaye’s book Giorgio Agamben: A Critical Introduction, Stanford University Press, 2009.

[16] Elizabeth Balskus writes, “Therefore, the potentiality of the intellect not only allows for thought to maintain a supreme position ontologically, it is also the foundation of thought in general.” Balskus, “Examining Potentiality in the Philosophy of Agamben,” 163.

[17] “But since there is something which moves while itself unmoved, existing actually, this can in no way be otherwise than it is. For motion in space is the first of the kinds of change, and motion in a circle the first kind of spatial motion; and this the first mover produces.” Metaphysics, (1072b 5-10).

[18] “[…] the actuality is in the thing that is being made, e.g. the act of building is in the thing being built […] but where there is no product apart from the actuality, the actuality is present in the agents, e.g. the act of seeing is in the seeing subject […]” Metaphysics, (1050a 30-37).

[19] Elizabeth Balskus brings this to clarity with “the potential to not be is easiest to understand in an example that both Aristotle and Agamben utilize: possessing a faculty.” Elizabeth Balskus, “Examining Potentiality in the Philosophy of Agamben,” 161.

[20] I will return to the all important notion of privation for Agamben. Meanwhile, Kalpana Seshadri notes, “The conversation about Agamben’s place in the history of philosophy, merely in terms of his work thus far, cannot begin without considering the directionality he gives to the Aristotlian notion of dunamis. If it is the case, as Heidegger suggested in his course on Friedrich Nietzsche, that ‘each thinker only gets one single thought,’ then surely Agamben’s is that of the sterēsis (or privation) that determines the force or the power that defines living being.” Kalpana Seshadri “Agamben, the Thought of Sterēsis,” 471.

[21] See Metaphysics 1022b 22-33.

[22] Agamben writes, “…I think the concept of potentiality has never ceased to function in the life and history of humanity, most notably in that part of humanity that has grown and developed its potency (potenza) to the point of imposing its power over the whole planet.” Giorgio Agamben, “On Potentiality,” in Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy, translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999), 177.

[23] Elizabeth Balskus reminds us that the significance of the concept of potentiality “plays into all aspects of existence,” for Agamben. Agamben’s quote from “On Potentialities” is “I could state the subject of my work as an attempt to understand the meaning of the verb ‘can’ [potere].” She writes “It would seem, therefore, that before we can begein to truly understand Agamben’s political or moral philosophy we should first attempt to grasp this potentiality that lies at the foundation of Agamben’s thought.” Elizabeth Balskus, “Examining Potentiality in the Philosophy of Agamben,” Macalester Journal of Philosophy 19, no. 1 (2010): 158-180.

[24] Agamben, “On Potentiality,” 177.

[25] Agamben, “On Potentiality,” 179.

[26] Agamben, “On Potentiality,” 179.

[27] Agamben, “On Potentiality,” 178.

[28] Agamben, “On Potentiality,” 178.

[29] Agamben cites Aristotle’s passage from De Anima, “…if to perceive by sight is just to see, and what is seen is color (or the colored), then if we are to see that which sees, that which sees originally must be colored. It is clear therefore that ‘to perceive by sight’ has more than one meaning; even when we are not seeing, it is by sight that we discriminate darkness from light, though not in the same way as we distinguish one color from another.” De Anima, (425b 15-25).

[30] Agamben, “On Potentiality,” 181.

[31] Agamben writes, “The greatness—and also the abyss—of human potentiality is that it is first of all potential not to act, potential for darkness.” Agamben, “On Potentiality,” 181.

[32] Agamben writes: “The greatness—and also abyss—of human potentiality is that it is first of all potential not to act, potential for darkness. (In Homer, skotos [σκότος] is the darkness that overcomes human beings at the moment of their death. Human beings are capable of experiencing this skotos.)” Agamben, “On Potentiality,” 181.


Agamben, Giorgio. Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy. Edited and translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999.

Aristotle. The Basic Works of Aristotle. Edited by Richard McKeon. New York, NY: The Modern Library, Random House Inc., 2001.

Balaban, Oded. “The Modern Misunderstanding of Aristotle’s Theory of Motion.” Journal for General Philosophy of Science / Zeitschrift für allgemeine Wissenschaftstheorie 26, no. 1 (1995): 1-10.

Balskus, Elizabeth. “Examining Potentiality in the Philosophy of Giorgio Agamben.” Macalester Journal of Philosophy 19, no. 1 (2010): 158-180.

Bartoloni, Paolo. “Translation Studies and Agamben’s Theory of the Potential.” CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture. Purdue University Press 5, no. 1 (2003): 1-11.

Heidegger, Martin. Basic Concepts of Aristotelian Philosophy. Translated by Robert D. Metcalf and Mark B Tanzer. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2009.

Lear, Jonathan. Aristotle: The Desire to Understand. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Peters, F.E. Greek Philosophical Terms: A Historical Lexicon. New York, NY: New York University Press, 1967.

Seshadri, Kalpana. “Agamben, the Thought of Stersis: An Introduction to Two Essays.” Critical Inquiry 40, no. 2 (Winter 2014): 470-479.

Witt, Charlotte. “Hylomorphism in Aristotle.” Apeiron: A Journal for Ancient Philosophy and Science 22, no. 4 (Dec. 1989): 141-158.

…notes on aristotle

March 28, 2015 § Leave a comment


1) What is the relationship between epistēmē [ἐπιστήμη] (“knowledge,” or “scientific knowledge”) and logos [λόγος] (“reason,” or “argument,” or “discourse”), on Aristotle’s view? How do they differ from one another, and how do they relate to one another? Explain.

By way of answering the above question I will briefly define each term, ἐπιστήμη and λόγος, to show how the two are similar and how they diverge. First, to define knowledge for Aristotle, knowledge, specifically scientific knowledge is about inquiring into the causes of things. Aristotle likens a certain type of knowledge to wisdom itself in the Metaphysics when he speaks of getting to know principles and causes.[2] The “certain principles and causes” he speaks of are (among other things) knowledge of first principles and theoretical knowledge. Theoretical knowledge is knowledge of the ‘why’ of things, asking ‘why is this thing the way it is?’ is to ask about the cause.[3] This kind of knowledge is to be distinguished from mere experience.[4] Experiential knowledge is different from knowing the ‘why’ of something or from a theoretical understanding which can be taught to others.[5] One who has theoretical knowledge is not only wise, but he is also an artist—he doesn’t just know how to make something, he knows how to create.

Επιστήμη is the knowledge of causes, Aristotle’s famous iteration of the “four causes” looks at causes in four different ways.[6] The four causes ask ‘what for the sake of which’ a thing is what it is. They are four ways in which to get to the essence of what a thing is, in other words they are ontological questions. First, there is the question of a “material cause,” whereby we ask what is that out of which a thing comes to be, what is this thing made of? Secondly, there is a question of a “formal cause,” whereby we ask what kind of thing is it, what form does it take, what is its species? Thirdly, there is the “efficient cause,” whereby we ask what the agent that brought about this particular effect is? This is how we commonly think of causality. What caused this thing to come into being? Finally, there is the “final cause,” otherwise known as the telos [τέλος] of the thing. What is this thing’s purpose, what is its end? Επιστήμη is more primary than λόγος, this is a key difference between the two terms.[7] Logic is used to get into knowledge. Knowledge is not, strictly speaking, only about logic. Logic is a means to knowledge.

Now to the subject of Aristotle’s λόγος. Aristotle was philosophy’s first logician. The Organon (the instrument) is a collection of works that cover Aristotle’s work on λόγος.[8] In the six works of the Organon, λόγος is treated in a variety of ways. Λόγος does not vividly stand apart from ἐπιστήμη, since it is the formal structure by which we come to know things. This is a major similarity between ἐπιστήμη and λόγος, i.e. to get to scientific knowledge we must use the structure of logic. Επιστήμη and λόγος are symbiotic. Λόγος is the mechanism by which we explain things and to argue for things. Λόγος is how we come to know truth and knowledge. There are two fundamental ways think about λόγος as a mode of reasoning for Aristotle: the syllogism [συλλογισμός, syllogismos] and the dialectic [διαλεκτικός, dialectikos].

Before I discuss these two central modes of λόγος, briefly, there are other ways to think about λόγος, such as with the Categories, whereby any particular thing is categorized, for Aristotle, along a ten-fold list having to do with predication—i.e. what can be said about a subject.[9] Then there is the semantical λόγος, found in On Interpretation, whereby words, sounds and their arrangements are considered as the fundamental building blocks of a proposition. A proposition either affirms of denies an assertion by particular or universal means.[10]

The syllogism is introduced in Aristotle’s Prior Analytics.[11] The syllogism occupies the center of Aristotle’s logical system. A syllogism contains more than one premise asserted to arrive at either a negative of positive conclusion that is universal. A conclusion that is universal is the opposite of particular or contingent and it is reaching for first principles, and necessity. Essentially syllogisms have to do with valid inference. Validity is not inferred by the truth of the premises in order to demonstrate a particular conclusion. Instead, it has to do with the form of the inference. The classic example of a formal syllogism is worded like so:

1. All men are mortal

2. Socrates is a man

3. ∴ Socrates is mortal.

Here, on the most basic level, the two combined premises ‘all men are mortal’ and ‘Socrates is a man’ are used to bring about the conclusion that ‘Socrates is mortal.’ It is important to note that the two terms must bear some connection to each other, and in this case their resemblance is that Socrates is both a man and a mortal, and the word man binds the two premises to the conclusion. This common binding element is what is referred to as the “middle term.”[12] This middle term need not be factual for the inference to be valid. Valid inferences can be valid with fictional premises. Syllogisms demonstrate scientific knowledge. The logic of the syllogism demonstrates scientific knowledge by way of a valid inference brought about by the conclusion of more than one premises. Demonstration illustrates another way by which ἐπιστήμη and λόγος connect.[13] Logic is a formal language. Λόγος is not the end of ἐπιστήμη, this is how they diverge.

As for the dialectic, Aristotle differentiated it from the syllogism. A main difference is that the syllogism starts with reasoning where the premises are true, whereas the dialectic, on the other hand, reasons from opinions (ἔνδοξα).[14] The dialectic is also a means to knowledge, yet it is less formal than the syllogism because it works with opinion rather than bare necessity and first principles. It is a way to get to know useful things, countering the opinions of others in conversation, and it is used as a way to solve problems that are tough to agree upon.[15]

As mentioned, ἐπιστήμη and λόγος are inextricably linked, we can’t have knowledge with the means of logic. Logic is the formal means by which knowledge comes about. The two differ in that knowledge is more primary than logic, and that τέλος of knowledge is not logic. The τέλος of knowledge is about reasonable thinking, the understanding original causes and the seeking of first principles.[16]
3) Choose a passage for Aristotle’s Protrepticus to amplify and explicate by way passages in other texts from Aristotle. How do these other texts clarify on your reading, the argument of the Protrepticus? Explain.

Aristotle’s Protrepticus dialogue was written while Aristotle was still under Plato’s tutelage at the Academy, sometime in the 350s BC.[17] It was a response to the Antidosis of Isocrates (which was also written around the same time in the 4th century BC). The Protrepticus is known as an ‘exhortation,’ in effect it was urging students to do philosophy. It is an encouragement to lead a life of philosophical inquiry, dissuading potential students from the kind of philosophy, alternately known as rhetorical education, of the kind advocated by Isocrates.[18]

To get things going, I will start by briefly explaining the general discussion of the Protrepticus, this will better allow me to position a key passage from the Protrepticus delivered by the character of Aristotle, so as to compare it with similar ideas found in his later work, namely in the Metaphysics and De Anima. A few of Aristotle’s incipient ideas found in the Protrepticus follow through in fundamental ways, the importance of understanding in and of itself, and that reason is the expression of a human soul.

The Protrepticus is set up between Aristotle, Heraclides, and Isocrates. Like Aristotle, Heraclides is also from the Academy, so he, more or less, represents Aristotle’s position—contra Isocrates. In the dialogue, much discussion is given to the benefits drawn from the mathematical practice of Pythagorean philosophy which was significant for Plato and the Academy.[19] Aristotle agrees with Herclides, because the study of mathematics sets the mind in the direction of intellectual discipline.[20] Both the Aristotle and Herclides agree that the study of mathematics leads one closer to the theoretical thinking of philosophy, the study of which, should be valued in own right.[21],[22] Yet, even mathematics is not as “senior” as the discipline of philosophy which reasons from first principles, original causes, logical demonstration &c.[23] The character of Isocrates does not agree with Aristotle and Heraclides on the grounds that the theoretical sciences (he mentions math, music, and philosophy) are too far removed from the practical sciences.[24] Although Isocrates is not given the room to talk as Aristotle and Heraclides do, we know that he was a staunch advocate for the practical value of rhetoric, of speaking well.[25] He held that Aristotle’s type of philosophy was just not as practical as teaching young folks to speak well.

In contrast to Isocrates, Aristotle felt that the study of philosophy and intelligence should serve as their own end,

Surely the soul is posterior to the body, and intelligence and intelligence is the final stage of the soul, for we see that it is the last thing to come to be by nature in humans, and that is why old age lays claim to this alone of good things; therefore, some form of intelligence is by nature our end, and being intelligent is the ultimate thing for the sake of which we have come to be.[26]

This short passage is delivered by the character of Aristotle in the Protrepticus where he is discussing the end result of things, or better said, he implicitly affirms that the τέλος of human beings is intelligence. In the opening lines of the Metaphysics Aristotle proclaims the one attribute unique to humans, “all men by nature desire to know” (980a 1). It is this simple universal point that opens up, and begins to clarify, the fundamental nature of human knowing for Aristotle. It is what differentiates us from the animals apart from what we share with them, in this case, sensation and memory.[27] Leading up to this passage from the Protrepticus, Aristotle makes plenty of points having to do with the importance of getting to know “what is for the sake of something”[28] which is basically the pursuit of knowledge, and more properly speaking, the pursuit of philosophy. The desire to know becomes the desire to know why something the way it is.[29] Later in the Metaphysics, Aristotle continues to elucidate what he means by knowledge, “it is also right that philosophy should be called knowledge of the truth” (993b 19). This is compared to practical knowledge, which is not to be mistaken for philosophy, since those who work with practical matters do not look into what is eternal.[30] This emphasis on the philosophical pursuit of original causes is made evident again, especially as it relates to the limitations of practical knowledge (to repeat a central theme of the Protrepticus).

Continuing to trace the thread of the soul’s τέλος, Aristotle reinstates and elaborates more on the position made in the above cited passage from the Protrepticus in his De Anima.[31] It is in De Anima where we find Aristotle inquiring about the nature of the soul.[32] Since, as philosophers, we are urged to seek for the original causes of things, inquiring about the soul reveals that which animates and moves things. Throughout De Anima Aristotle works on describing the hierarchy of the soul as it relates to the nutritive and reproductive soul of plants.[33] Then there are the animals, that not only possess the nutritive and reproductive, but most also have sensation or perception and locomotion.[34] All of the preceding characteristics of the soul are contained with what it is to be human in addition to imagination and of course, thinking.[35] This progression of the soul sets up a key point iterated in the passage quoted above from the Protrepticus, whereby “intelligence is the final stage of the soul.”[36] De Anima, then is also following through on critical points made implicit in the Protrepiticus, i.e. human knowledge and thinking itself, are ends in and of themselves. In De Anima, Aristotle keeps repeating that “actual knowledge is identical with its object.”[37] If thinking is identical to its object, then thought of the object cannot happen without thinking. Mind itself is immortal and eternal in this respect it is an original cause. Finding such original causes is a philosophical pursuit. It is on this point where the value of philosophy is to found in contrast to the rhetorical arts of Isocrates. Essentially, when we seek for original causes and first principles we find much more than practical rhetoric, we find ourselves thinking about the universal and the necessary, and we thank Aristotle for taking us there.

__aurelio madrid


Aristotle. The Basic Works of Aristotle. Edited by Richard McKeon. New York, NY: The Modern Library, 2001.

——. Protrepticus or Exhortation to Philosophy (Citations, Fragments, Paraphrases, and Other Evidence). Edited and translated by D.S. Hutchinson, Monte Ransome Johnson. Online pre-publication at: www.protrepticus.info

Isocrates, Antidosis, Persius Digital Library. http://data.perseus.org/citations/urn:cts:greekLit:tlg0010.tlg019.perseus-eng1:255

Lear, Jonathan. Aristotle: The Desire to Understand. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Lloyd, G.E.R. Aristotle: The Growth & Structure of His Thought. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1968.

Mordak, Deborah K.W. Aristotle’s Theory of Language and Meaning. New York, NY: Cabridge University Press, 2001.

Peters, F.E. Greek Philosophical Terms: A Historical Lexicon. New York, NY: New York University Press, 1967.

[1] Word count for answer #1: 1,049 (main body, without footnotes).

[2] “Clearly then wisdom is about certain principles and causes” Aristotle, Metaphysics, (982a 1).

[3] “Knowledge is the object of our inquiry, and men do not think they know a thing till they have grasped the ‘why’ of it (which is to grasp its primary cause)” Aristotle, Physics (II.3 194b 19).

[4] “For men of experience know that the thing is so, but do not know the why, while the others know the ‘why’ and the cause” Aristotle, Metaphysics (I.1 981a 29).

[5] “And in general it is a sign of the man who knows and of the man who does knot know, that the former can teach, and therefore we think art more truly knowledge than experience is; for artists can teach, and men of experience cannot” Aristotle, Metaphysics (I.1 981b 8).

[6] In Aristotle’s Metaphysics (Bk. Δ 1013a 25-40), and the Physics (Bk. II.3 194b 24-40).

[7] “All instruction given or received by way of argument proceeds from pre-existent knowledge” Aristotle, Posterior Analytics, (71a 1).

[8] The title Organon came later, it is not known how, or if, Aristotle arranged the works in such a way. In the Organon the books are usually organized in the following sequence: Categories, On Interpretation, Prior Analytics, Posterior Analytics, Topics, and On Sophistical Refutations.

[9] The ten-fold list runs like this: “substance (man, horse); quantity (two cubits long, three cubits long); quality (white, grammatical); relation (double, half, greater); place (in the Lyceum, in the market); time (yesterday, last year); position (lies, sits); state (has shoes on, has armor on); action (cuts, burns); affection (is cut, is burnt).” This list is from G.E.R. Lloyd, Aristotle: the Growth & Structure of His Thought, New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1968, p. 113.

[10] “To return: of propositions one kind is simple, i.e. that which asserts or denies something of something, the other composite, i.e. that which is compounded of simple propositions.” & “An affirmation is a positive assertion of something about something, a denial a negative assertion.” Aristotle, On Interpretation, (17a 20-5)

[11] “We must first state the subject of our inquiry and the faculty to which it belongs: its subject is demonstration and the faculty that carries it out is demonstrative science. We must next define a premise, a term, and a syllogism…,” Aristotle, Prior Analytics, (24a 10-5).

[12] “I call that term middle which is itself contained in another and contains another in itself: in position also comes in the middle” Aristotle, Prior Analytics, (25b 35).

[13] “By demonstration I mean a syllogism productive of scientific knowledge, a syllogism, that is, the grasp of which is eo ipso [by itself] of such knowledge.” Aristotle, Posterior Analytics (71b 17).

[14] “Now reasoning is an argument in which, certain things being laid down, something other than these necessarily comes about through them (a) It is a ‘demonstration,’ when the premises from which the reasoning starts are primary and true: (b) reasoning on the other hand, is ‘dialectical,’ if it reasons from opinions that are generally accepted” Aristotle, Topics (100a 25-31).

[15] “Not every problem, nor every thesis, should be examined, but only one which might puzzle one of those who need argument, not punishment of perception” Topics (105a 4-5).

[16] “All men by nature desire to know” Aristotle, Metaphysics, (980a 1).

[17] Aristotle was in his mid-30s and would leave Athens and the Academy shortly after Plato’s death ca. 348 BC.

[18] It is not entirely off the mark to suggest that these writings of Isocrates’ and of Aristotle’s doubled as the ancient Greek equivalent of the ad campaign for their respective schools. Hutchinson and Johnson write: “Plato’s Academy was not the only school in Athens that offered training in philosophy, nor was the first one. Plat’s contemporary Isocrates also offered a form of higher education which he called philosophy, and which he insisted on distinguishing from the activities of other pedagogical experts, called ‘sophists’ or ‘professors.” D.S. Hutchinson and Monte Ransome Johnson, “The Antidosis of Isocrates and Aristotle’s Protrepticus,” 2010.

[19] Isocrates’, in his open remarks in the Protrepticus, states that, “but since when Pythagoras acquired mathematic from foreigners he added much of his own, we need to take account of these starting points as well and to include the distinctive stamp he placed on mathematics. He took a philosophical view of many of the truths of mathematics, and made them part and parcel of his own projects, even the ones handed down to him by others…” Aristotle, Protrepticus or Exortaiton to Philosophy (Citations, Fragments, Paraphrases, and Other Evidence), prepared by D.S. Hutchinson and Monte Ransome Johnson, online publication, 2014, www.protrepticus.info, 4.

[20] The character of Aristotle states in the Protrepticus that, “and the soul it contributes to purity in cognition and subtlety of thoughts, as well as accuracy in its reasoning and contact with their own incorporeal substances, as well as to symmetry and good temper and conversion to reality; and in the human person it provides order in his life, as well as respite from the passions and beauty in character traits, as well as the discoveries of other things that are beneficial to human life.” Aristotle, Protrepticus, Hutchinson and Johnson, 5.

[21] The character of Aristotle, after he discusses the way Pythagorean mathematics leads one to philosophy, states, “…the ‘philosopher’ seems to have a drive for a certain science that is prized for itself, and not on account of anything else resulting from it.” Aristotle, Protrepticus, Hutchinson and Johnson, 6.

[22] Hutchinson and John note that. “‘Aristotle’ respects the contribution of mathematics to natural science and thus indirectly to philosophy, whereas ‘Heraclides’ respects the direct contribution of mathematical thinking to philosophical values and positions.” Aristotle, Protrepticus, Hutchinson and Johnson, 9.

[23] The character of Aristotle states that, “…since both in the speeches preceding this point and in the later remarks we will demonstrate that there are many different substances that are unchangeable and exist in the same state, not only the ones in mathematics, and those that are more senior and more honorable than these [i.e. philosophy, first causes, first principles, &c.].” Aristotle, Protrepticus, Hutchinson and Johnson, 18.

[24] The character Isocrates states, “The case is similar with music and the other sciences in which the cognitive aspect is divided off from the empirical. For those who determine the proofs and the arguments about harmony and other things like that are accustomed to enquiring, but take part in none of their practical functions, just like those who do philosophy.” Aristotle, Protrepticus, Hutchinson and Johnson, 10.

[25] Isocrates writes in his Antidosis, “through this we educate the ignorant and appraise the wise; for the power to speak well is taken as the surest index of a sound understanding, and discourse which is true and lawful and just is outward image of a good and faithful soul.” Isocrates, Antidosis, 255, Persius Digital Library. http://data.perseus.org/citations/urn:cts:greekLit:tlg0010.tlg019.perseus-eng1:255

[26] Aristotle, Protrepticus, Hutchinson and Johnson, 24.

[27] “The animals other than men live by appearances and memories, and have but little of connected experience; but the human race lives also by art and reasonings” Metaphysics, (980b 25).

[28] Aristotle, Protrepticus, Hutchinson and Johnson, 24.

[29] “For all men begin, as we said, by wondering that things are as they are, as they do about self-moving marionettes, or about the solstices or about the incommensurability of the diagonal of a square with its side; for it seems wonderful to all who have not seen the reason, that there is a thing which cannot be measured even by the smallest unit” Metaphysics, (983a 15-17).

[30] “For the end of theoretical knowledge is truth, while that of practical knowledge is action (for even if they consider how things are, practical men do not study the eternal, but what is relative and in the present)” Aristotle, Metaphysics, (993b 20-23).

[31] Aristotle’s De Anima traces the hierarchy of plant, animal and human souls, in a similar progression found in the parts of the Metaphysics I’ve been discussing.

[32] “To attain any assured knowledge about the soul is one of the most difficult things in the world.” Aristotle, De Anima, (402a 10).

[33] “It follows that first of all we must treat of nutrition and reproduction…” Aristotle, De Anima, (415a 23),

[34] “Having made these distinctions let us now speak of sensation in the widest sense” Aristotle, De Anima, (416b 33), and “certain kinds of nimals posses in addition the power of locomotion…” Aristotle, De Anima, (414b 18).

[35] “For imagination is different from either perceiving or discursive thinking, though it is not found without sensation, or judgment without it” Aristotle, De Anima, (427b 15).

[36] Aristotle, Protrepticus, Hutchinson and Johnson, 24.

[37] “Actual knowledge is identical with its object: in the individual, potential knowledge is in time prior to actual knowledge, but in the universe as a whole it is not prior even in time” Aristotle, De Anima, (430a 20).

notes on freud’s civilization & its discontents

February 14, 2015 § Leave a comment

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To read Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents eighty-four years after it was first published reminds us how his ideas permeate our everyday discourse on the human psyche. We have to only mention two themes to recognize Freud’s legendary impact—the unconscious and sexuality. Yet to read him again, demarcates another psychological struggle between our polar instincts of eros and thanatos, love and death respectively. These two drives are held within the mind of the individual. Recall that Freud’s id attends to the sexual, destructive seeking parts of us. On the other extreme, the superego as the lawmaker, seeks to internalize social restrictions of our primal appetites and hatefulness of the id. In the middle of all this is the rational ego, which is represented by the conscious mind, the mediator between the two drives. Central to Freud’s argument is that society, at large, tries to enact the same restraints so as to control the individual’s impulsive drives for pleasure (eros: sex) and aggression (thanatos: death).

Not everything goes as planned, stultified sex and frustrated anger manifest into guilt feelings imposed on us via our individual superegos, and also from our societal regulations, in the form of a collective superego. The all pervasive guilt feelings of both an individual and society represent the prevailing discontent felt by all people, referenced in the book’s title. For Freud, religion is brought about to (as he sees it, unsuccessfully) contend with our guilt feelings. Religion is also filling a deep unconscious need for a more infantile “oceanic feeling” represented by a stage of development from our pre-ego infancy when we couldn’t differentiate from our mother’s body, her body and our own.

It’s worth it to read Freud with an ear to his cultural and historical contributions. At the same time, we are quick to recognize him as a great writer, think about the way he writes of our mind’s as containing all our past experiences, compared to the development of ancient Rome. Another curious point, found in a footnote, speaks to man’s advancement when he (primal man) decided to not urinate on every fire he found.[1] Hence, this odd anthropological development is Freud’s example of the power of controlling one’s selfish sexual/infantile urges, so as to benefit society’s demands for energy and the survival of the group.

[1] Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, translated by James Strachy, New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010, n. 3, 63-64.

notes on kant’s c.p.r.

January 29, 2015 § Leave a comment

Salix herbacea — dwarf willow

Immanuel Kant’s (1724-1804) Critique of Pure Reason (1781 & 1787; hereafter CPR) had several aims, one aim had to do with getting at an understanding of how we come to know things by the use of reason. A rigorous critique of reason for Kant includes detailed ways in which our knowledge of the empirical world combines with reason, and how universal and necessary knowledge is justified apart, and combined with, empirical knowledge claims. In order to accomplish these goals, Kant picked up where his predecessors left off. Although there were others, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) and David Hume (1711-1776) represent two predominate philosophical trends from which Kant was influenced, and from where he wished to start his legendary critique.

Leibniz was a rationalist, and Hume was an empiricist. Kant, in the CPR would refer to each, respectively, as a dogmatist and a skeptic. These two modes of philosophical thinking are also referred to by Kant as “transcendental realism.” He writes of them, “hence the transcendental realist conceives outer appearances […] as things in themselves that exist independently of us and our sensibility […]” (A369). In short, this is the typical, and ordinary, way of thinking about objects as distinctly separate from our thinking of them. But how does this apply to Leibniz and Hume?

Leibniz is a transcendental realist, because in his rationalist way of thinking about the world, he separates knowledge into a system that favors the rational over the contingent (empirical). Leibniz divides knowledge of truth in two ways, the rational part of the way man knows things is known as a “truth of reason.” These truths of reason are necessarily and universally true and cannot be contradicted. Such truths are classified as the laws of nature, pure mathematics, and so on. As for contingent truths, Leibniz refers to these as “truths of fact.” Truths of fact are contingently true and are known to us via the senses, i.e. in an empirical way. In Leibniz’s rationalist understanding of the world, God and our God-given rationality are sovereign over and beyond what can be known as a truth of fact. Since the world we know by the senses—a truth of fact—is essentially contingent, then the only way to be sure of things is to appeal to an all prevailing reason. Again, this is a form of transcendental realism because the contingent world of the senses is completely reliant on the rational way in which we come to understand it (i.e. the subject and object are separate).

Hume, on the other hand, is a transcendental realist due to his skeptical empiricism. Hume’s division of knowledge is commonly referred to as “Hume’s fork.” There are, for Hume, “relations of ideas” which are otherwise known as truths of reason, necessary truths such as natural laws, pure mathematics &c. are included in this category. And there are “matters of fact,” the substantive world which is empirically known via the senses. Matters of fact also bear the marks of contingency. Since Hume’s philosophy draws all of its conclusions from an empirical way of understanding, even the associations of ideas can be traced back to an experiential origin. For Hume’s radical skepticism, reason and contingency are not necessarily compatible, therefore a quest for reason in the midst of the sensible becomes pointless (vacuous, arbitrary, &c.). Habit and association are what we have to rely on to put the world together as knowledge (re: inductively).

Both of these views present problems when it comes to justifying an objective (empirical) knowledge that relies on necessary and universal claims to truth (re: scientific knowledge). In Leibniz’s world, rational thinking only affirms itself without proper recourse to the contingent world. And as for Hume’s empiricism, all we have is the sensible world. Therefore for Hume, any recourse to universal necessity becomes unnecessary, and any thought of a fundamental structure that underlies experience becomes only a series of associative habits.

Enter Kant’s “Copernican revolution.” It should now be remarked that this turning from transcendental realism represents what Kant will name transcendental idealism, whereby cognition plays an active role in the way objects are understood, and subjective cognition is no longer separate from the objects of cognition (objectivity). Describing and elucidating transcendental idealism is another primary and critical goal of the CPR. Kant’s emphasis had to do with how transcendental idealism subjectively constitutes the objective world for man. In the 1787 “Preface” to the CPR Kant writes, “Thus far it has been assumed that all our cognition must conform to objects. […] Let us, therefore, try to find out by experiment [i.e. a central project of the CPR] if we assume that objects must conform to our cognition” (Bxvi). It is here that we find Kant demonstrating that objects must conform to our cognitive reasoning, instead of a turn to the objects themselves, or to our reasoning alone. Kant’s transcendental idealism seeks to reconcile rational and empirical philosophy by means of a counter-intuitive change of cognitive perspective. Copernicus shifted astronomical perspective away from a supposed position on an unmoving and centered earth. He took on the perspective of what the universe (and rotating solar-system) would look like if we were on the sun. Heliocentrism ended up making more (calendric) sense than a Ptolemaic system. It was this Copernican thought experiment that changed the way we thought about our calendar and our place in the solar-system, and the universe.

Kant’s new transcendental idealism also changed the way we understand that the very structure of our cognition determines the way objects appear to us. The CPR will be a heroic, systematic and scrupulous attempt to show how cognition does this.

Quite often when we are introduced to the first two (of the four above knowledge terms) a priori and a posteriori, a priori knowledge is typically defined as coming before experience. If we start with this common way of designating a priori knowledge we find ourselves confused, since Kant, in the CPR, explicitly states in the first sentence of the “Introduction,” “There can be no doubt that all our cognition begins with experience” (B1). A way to fully explain how a priori knowledge (reason) is combined with experience (empiricism) would be by way of Kant’s transcendental philosophy, “I call transcendental all cognition that deals not so much with objects as rather with our way of cognizing objects in general insofar as that way of cognizing is to be possible a priori” (A12-B26). A priori knowledge does not happen because of experience, instead, it’s the governing cognitive structure of experience, and it shows itself via necessity and universality discerned apart from the contingency of experience. That is to say, the necessary and universal aspects of cognition are a means by which a priori knowledge is made evident.

To begin with we’ll explicate what these terms mean, with Kant’s special emphasis on synthetic/a priori judgments, and transcendental idealism. Then we’ll continue, by looking at how the four types of knowledge/judgments (a priori, a posteriori, analytic, and synthetic) are comparable to the (above mentioned) “transcendental realist” positions of Leibniz and Hume. We will close with a brief explanation of Kant’s synthetic/ a priori judgment and its connection to transcendental idealism.

The first order of business will be to look at a priori and a posteriori knowledge (alternately referred to by Kant as cognitions). Avoiding the typical way of defining a priori knowledge as ‘prior to experience,’ we will instead define it as having to do with the rational ways in which we know things necessarily, universally, and as irrefutable. A classic example of an a priori cognition is: ‘all bachelors are unmarried.’ With this knowledge claim we immediately think of it as experientially irrefutable. Without being ridiculous, we cannot think of any case whereby a bachelor is married. Once a bachelor becomes married he is no longer a regarded as a bachelor. A bachelor, by definition, is necessarily unmarried, and this necessity holds universally. Unmarried bachelorhood cannot be refuted by the man becoming married. Once we see that a knowledge claim withstands a test of irrefutability, it can then be said to be necessary and universal—hence it is a priori knowledge.

Similarly, a posteriori knowledge is often thought of as happening after experience, but this too adds confusion (for the above mentioned reasons, i.e. all knowledge starts with experience). It makes more sense to regard a posteriori as contingent knowledge that is experientially refutable. The raw material of experiential life is a posteriori, and the rational structuring principle of life is a priori. A posteriori knowledge also accounts for contingency.

Kant was not satisfied to simply retain a priori and a posteriori as the sole means by which we understand things, so he introduced what he called analytic and synthetic judgments. Analytic judgments are usually statements or propositions about the world, having to do with predication. When I say something about an object, I predicate an object. With an analytic judgment, predication is contained within the subject. With a synthetic judgment, predication is not contained in the subject. Analytic and synthetic judgments rely on identity to tell them apart. With analytic judgment the subject predicate link is explicative. Kant’s also calls this “elucidatory” (A7-B11). In other words, the predicate explains, and explicates the subject. As with Kant’s example “all bodies are extended” (A8-B11). The predicate term ‘extended,’ explicates bodies in space, i.e. all bodies have extension, and no body is without extension. With synthetic judgments the subject predicate link is expansive. In other words, the predicate expands the meaning of the subject. Kant’s example is “all bodies are heavy” (A7-B11). The predicate requires us to go elsewhere (re: into experience) to explain the subject. In his example the respective weight of things has to be investigated to know what is heavy, and what is not heavy.

Also, for an analytic judgment to be true, the contrary of the predicate has to be self-contradictory, that is to say, contradiction of the predicate would be inconceivable. With the judgment “all bodies have extension,” no refutation (contradiction) can be conceived of, we cannot think of a physical body as un-extended. Then, with a synthetic judgment to be true, the predicate’s denial is not self-contradictory, that is to say, a contradiction of the predicate is conceivable. As with the judgment “all bodies are heavy,” a refutation can be conceived of, that is, we can immediately think of a physical body that is lightweight, e.g. ultra fine dust particles, &c.

But how are these four terms connected? (a) An analytic/a posteriori judgment is an impossible connection since we cannot appeal to experience to predicate an analytical judgment. (b) Synthetic/ a posteriori judgments rely on experience to expand predication of a judgment. (c) And analytic/a priori judgments are really about logical truth and pure reason, these judgments rely on necessity and universality for their truth claims. (d) Then there is Kant’s special (transcendental idealist) case of synthetic/ a priori judgments, whereby we know something with a priori knowledge, yet, in order to make a judgment about it we must expand the knowledge claim synthetically (more on the transcendental idealist position below).

And what about the empiricism and the rationalism of the transcendental realists, a.k.a. Hume, the skeptic, and Leibniz, the dogmatist?—how do these positions line up with priori/a posteriori knowledge and analytic/synthetic judgments? Both thinkers acknowledged the basic a posteriori/ a priori distinction, yet neither acknowledged these forms of knowledge as intrinsically combined. For Hume, necessity is thought of as vacuous, which is to suggest that an analytic/a priori judgment is something that cannot be founded in experience, therefore, the only valuable combination for him is the synthetic/a posteriori judgment. Hume’s skeptical empiricism allows for a priori and analytic reasoning for mathematics, yet he famously favored inductive reasoning. Contrariwise, Leibniz’s metaphysical rationalism ultimately favored the analytic/a priori, since the substantive contingency (a synthetic/a posteriori judgment) of experience is only a mirror of the rational mind of the subject (and God). Therefore, his dogmatism only allowed for the precedence of reason. The world of the rational subject and the world of substantive contingency only mirror each other and never-the-twain-shall-meet in Leibniz’s system.

Kant’s transcendental idealist innovation was with the synthetic/a priori judgment. An example of this, offered in the CPR, is mathematical: “7 + 5 = 12” (B15). Here, we know that the sum is necessary and universal, we can’t think of another way to add these two numbers without being ridiculous—knowledge of this sum is a priori. Likewise, when we work on the problem out we can possibly get it wrong (this point is made more evident with larger more cumbersome numbers. With “7 +5” the sum is too obvious). A judgment of this sum is conceivably refutable, i.e. it is synthetic, and we might make a mistake in our calculations. Essentially a primary focus of Kant’s CPR is directed at explicating synthetic/a priori claims. His philosophy deals explicitly with synthetic/a priori knowledge, otherwise known as transcendental idealism. Kant wanted to lay down a foundation for science and mathematics while attempting to solve a few of the inherent problems of dogmatic rationalism and skeptical empiricism.

After the “Prefaces” and “Introductions” of the CPR, Kant then takes us through the arguments of the “Transcendental Aesthetic” (A19-B33—A49-B73). It is in the “Transcendental Aesthetic” where Kant proposes the idea that objects are given to us by way of sensual intuition. Basic intuition can be thought of as another word for experience (in an everyday sense of the word). Intuition describes how we are affected by objects, as much as it describes our primary and fundamental receptivity of the empirical world. Kant distinguishes between outer and inner intuitions, whereby space refers to all our outer intuitions, and time refers to all our inner intuitions. “Pure” intuition refers to “all presentations in which nothing is found that belongs to sensation” (A21-B35). This means that for Kant, ‘pure’ is another way of describing what is transcendentally ideal. Essentially, when we (theoretically) extract from all sensible intuition such things as the understanding of concepts, and when we (theoretically) extract the sensual components from experience, we find what Kant refers to as the transcendental, i.e. that specific and unique part of our intuition of space (and time) that is necessary—the a priori. Simply questing for the a priori is not the sole objective of Kant’s expositions on space and time, he also wants to show how if space is an intuition, then it is a synthetic judgment. Likewise, if space and time are synthetic/a priori judgments, then for Kant, space and time are transcendentally ideal.

In the CPR the “Transcendental Aesthetic” is divided into to two sections, “Section I” covers Kant’s arguments for the a priority of our knowledge of space, how space is known via intuition, and how his conclusions about space provide a justification for the synthetic/a priori basis for geometry and the sciences. The first subsection of “Section I” (§2) is titled the “Metaphysical Exposition of This Concept,” (hereafter MetEx), the second subsection (§3) is titled the “Transcendental Exposition of the Concept of Space” (hereafter TransEx). In a footnote Kant explains the difference between the MetEx, and the TransEx: the MetEx of space “investigates the nature of the presentation of space and shows that this presentation is a priori…” [1]This is where Kant demonstrates that space is known to us a priori. And the TransEx of space “shows that and how from the a priori presentation of space something else that is a priori follows—viz., synthetic a priori cognitions.”[2] That is to say, the TransEx of space shows that the science of space, geometry, relies on synthetic/a priori cognitions of space.[3]

The MetEx of space subsection is further divided into four main arguments,[4] grouped into two areas of emphasis, whereby 1 and 2 are arguments for the a priori cognition of space, and arguments 3 and 4 are arguments for space as an intuition, rather than as a concept. Let’s elaborate more on these arguments. In argument 1, Kant basically makes the claim that space is not an abstraction from empirical data. We don’t know about space by experiential reduction, nor do we know about space by the relationships of things. Space is, rather, the underlying part of all outer experiences (re: it is a priori).[5] In argument 2, space is easily thought of without objects, but we cannot think of objects without space. Therefore, space is necessary (it is a priori) and it underlies the “presentation” all of our outer intuitions (A24-B39). Instead of moving consecutively to argument 3, we will jump to argument 4, since this argument allows for a better preliminary understanding of Kant’s argument that space is not a concept, as it is discussed in argument 3.

Kant has already provided two arguments (1 and 2) that the cognition of space is known to us a priori. Now he has to demonstrate that judgments about it are known synthetically as an intuition, instead of analytically, and he has to clarify that space is not a universal concept. With argument 4 it is important to know the difference between the instances of a concept, versus the particulars of an intuition of space. With the instances of a concept, each particular instance of a concept falls under the concept and each instance is not part of the concept as a whole. Each instance of a concept is merely an instance of the concept, rather then an intrinsic part of the concept. An accumulation of like concepts does not constitute a whole concept—i.e. every instance of a table does not make for the entire concept of a table. We don’t know about space by comparing a multitude of space-like concepts. We do, according to Kant, have an intuition of space whereby its particulars are thought of (cognized) as parts of the whole of space. Another way of thinking about this distinction would be to compare the relationship of parts and wholes of an intuition of space. Parts of space do not operate in the same way as concepts do, since space is thought of as an individual “infinite magnitude” (A25-B40). This is to suggest that the particulars of space cannot also contain individual “infinite magnitudes.” The particulars of space are not under space conceptually, they are space intuitively. Particular spaces cannot be taken apart in the same in the way that the concept of an object can be taken apart. When space is divided up into particular parts it does not lose any its spatial qualities, it just is another magnitude of space. Since space is an individual “infinite magnitude” it is not a universal concept (that is to say, it is not analytic)—it is a synthetic/a priori intuition.

Now to argument 3, where Kant repeats that we do not know about space by a reduction of empirical relations, that space is a priori, and that space is not a universal concept. In this argument we also find that the parts of space cannot precede the whole, and since we do not experience space via empirical abstraction, we do, however, experience space via one experience of it, “space is essentially one” (A25-B40). Again, as mentioned in argument 4, the particulars of space are not to be thought of as the particulars of concepts, if space is singular and individual, then a particular of space cannot be taken away that will alter our intuition of space. So our intuition of space does not have to do with comparing conceptual relations, we have to go out into the experience of space to answer questions about it, that is to say, we have to experience space with our intuition—synthetically. We must go beyond conceptual relationships to properly cognize judgments about space. Space is not contained in an analytic concept of space.

Lastly, the argument for the TransEx of space is meant to show that due to the synthetic/a priori intuition of space, the science of space (geometry) is made possible. The MetEx of space already argued that space is a synthetic intuition and that it is an a priori cognition. A transcendental judgment of space makes geometry possible, because, as we’ve shown, mathematics, geometry, &c., require a priori necessity, as much as they require synthetic predication (whereby a contrary is possible).[6] Arguing for transcendental idealism is a primary aim of Kant’s CPR, and the “Transcendental Aesthetic” is no exception to this claim. It too shows that our intuitions (and our knowledge) of space and time are transcendentally ideal.

Kant’s expositions for time, more-or-less, line up with his expositions on space in the “Transcendental Aesthetic” sections from the CPR, with a few modifications. As noted above, when we (theoretically) extract conceptuality, and the basic sensual qualities from experience, we are left with the “pure” intuitions of space and time. Time, like space, is an a priori intuition. Under Kant’s terms, the designation “pure” usually means a priori, and whenever we are dealing with a priority for Kant, we are dealing with the transcendentally ideal. And as mentioned above, if space is intuited as an outer experience, then time is intuited as having to do with inner and outer experience.

For the subject of time, we will not repeat some of the forgoing issues mentioned with the space arguments. Although most of the issues apply to the intuitions of time in much the same way as did the intuitions of space. However, given time’s specific layout in the CPR, we will organize arguments 1 and 2 (the MetEx of time) as the arguments for the a priority of time. And arguments 4 and 5 (of the MetEx of time) are offered as the arguments for the time as an intuition rather than a concept. The TransEx of time consists of argument 3 (from the MetEx)[7] whereby time is positioned as a synthetic judgment that justifies science (or the science of time, whatever that may be, temporal axioms, motion, &c.).

In the first argument in the MetEx of time, time cannot be known through empirical abstraction, just as we cannot know space by way of empirical abstraction. We do not necessarily know about time by comparing empirical events.[8] Time underlies all empirical ways of knowing about it (A31-B47). We already presuppose infinite time in all cognition of things and events. Therefore, cognition of time is a necessary condition of the experience of temporal things and events. Time is intuited in an a priori way (i.e. it is transcendental). In argument 2, Kant presents time as a necessary presentation of experience underneath all intuitions of objects. In other words, time is easily thought of without the presentation of objects, yet we cannot think of objects without the presentation of time itself. Basically, how time gets filled with objects, happens contingently—we have the notion that time can be filled differently—events could have been otherwise. “Appearances, one and all, may go away; but time itself (as the universal condition of their possibility) cannot be annulled” (A32-B47). Therefore, time is a priori.

The two remaining arguments for time from the MetEx (aside from argument 3) are arguments 4 and 5, which offer justification for time as an intuition rather than by conceptualization. In argument 4, time is not a universal concept for Kant. Basically, the instances of concepts are to be differentiated from the parts of time. A concept’s relation to its instances is not the same as parts of time are intuited. For example, if we take the concept of a desk, each instance of a desk does not constitute part of the concept of a desk—an agglomeration of desks does not make for a total concept of a desk. Each desk is a particular instance of the concept desk. An intuition of time does not work the same way. Time’s particulars are not instances of the concept of time. Time’s wholeness is individual, when time’s particulars are brought together, they constitute the wholeness of time, and “different times are only parts of one and the same time…” (A32-B47).

Related to argument 4 is argument 5, to repeat, Kant is trying to establish that time is not conceptual, in other words, time is not analytic, and we are not comparing ideas in order to intuit time. We have to intuit time experientially, i.e. synthetically in order to make an intuitive cognition of it (transcendentally). So in argument 5, Kant’s temporal concerns are similar to his spatial concerns. Due to the infinity of time, time’s individual parts can only be known with respect to the whole. Time’s parts are limitations of the whole. Still we do not need a whole experience of time to know about time intuitively—we only need a single presentation of it to know it as time.

As for the TransEx of time, argument 3 belongs to it instead in the MetEx. It is here, in the TransEx of time, where Kant restates a point made in argument 4 (in the MetEx of space), “Time has only one dimension; different times are not simultaneous but sequential (just as different spaces are not sequential but simultaneous)” (A32-B47). Time has to be experienced to be known, this experience is known intuitively in a sequential way. If time’s intuitive sequence is not known to us analytically, it is known to us synthetically. The a priori and necessary intuitions of time are not analytic. We do not know about time conceptually. We do not know about time by comparing ideas. Another way of putting this would be to say that time is a transcendentally ideal cognition. Transcendentally ideal cognitions explain Kant’s synthetic/a priori judgments about the world, namely these judgments are necessary and about the contingent world of experience (re: judgments having to do with science).[9] This is also where Kant writes about change and motion, made possible via the intuition of time. “Let me add here that the concept of change, and with it the concept of motion (as change of place), is possible only through and in the presentation of time [as an intuition, not a concept]” (A33-B49).

We will see that the spatiotemporal concerns of the “Transcendental Aesthetic” will be for Kant a cognitively fundamental way to get to the rest of the work of the CPR—conceptual understanding relies on spatiotemporal intuitions.

There is a wonderful metaphor Kant offered in the “Preface” to the first edition of the CPR, where metaphysical dogmatism is characterized as the reign of despotic reason, because of this it still retained traces of barbarism and civil wars ensued. Eventually these civil wars culminated into a state of anarchy, whereby the skeptics (of empiricism) who were nomads, would manage to continue the reap chaos (Aix-x). We already know that Kant intended the CPR to contend with a few philosophical issues of his day, namely the rationalism of Leibniz (Wolff, &c.) and the empiricism of Hume. Kant anoints each, the dogmatist and the skeptic respectively. The contention basically had to do with the manner in which each position, according to Kant, was unable to get at knowledge that was both about the world and necessarily true.

In order to see how Leibniz’s dogmatist position applies to analytic statements as substantive, and how Hume’s skeptical position considered a priori knowledge to be vacuous, we will consider each as a way that precludes problems raised in Kant’s CPR. In epistemology we have two distinctions concerning the ways in which things are known to be true (rationally): a priori (necessary) and a posteriori (contingent), these two epistemological classifications were used prior to Kant’s usage. It is also known that Kant introduced two finer distinctions related to the way we make rational judgments about things: analytic (where the predicate is found in the subject, and a contrary is inconceivable) and synthetic (where the predicate is not in the subject, and a contrary is conceivable). We will not demonstrate how these are combined for Kant, Leibniz, and Hume [This subject was explicated previously. See question/answer 2 above.]. We will show that for Leibniz, a substantive position must be strongly related to Kant’s analyticity, whereas Hume’s denies the sovereignty of the a priori.

For Leibniz’s rationalist metaphysics it is commonly known that when reason and contingency conflict, reason always prevails, because ultimately, reason is the only way in which we understand the world.[10] This means that Leibnizian “truths of reason,” which rely on necessity are more important that “truths of fact” which rely only on contingency. But what about a Leibnizian claim that any substantive statements we make about the world are necessarily true? Recall that Leibniz was (for Kant) a “transcendental realist” which meant that objects in the world are mind-independent. For anything to be a truth of reason it had to conform to logical analysis. Essentially under Kant’s rules, if an analytic judgment means that predication is contained in the subject (i.e. to be a judgment of truth, we have to turn to a priori and analytic reasoning), and that a synthetic judgment means that the predicate is not contained in the subject (for it to be a judgment of truth, we have to turn to experience). This must mean that in Leibniz’s terms, if “matters of fact” only reveal contingent truth, then “truths of reason” have to be analytic. The only way to understand the truth of something has to do with the analysis of reason. In other words, in order to say anything substantive about the world, we, if we are followers of Leibniz, have to turn to reason only, since contingency is not useful in Leibniz’s rationalist circumstances. All finite reality mirrors the infinite rationality of God, therefore all meaningful reality must be analytic.

Hume’s empiricism, on the other hand, presents another set of difficulties that are tied to his speculative claim that a priori knowledge is vacuous, arbitrary, &c. Hume presents a straight-forward account of the vacuity of a priori reasoning when he discusses causality. Also, recall “Hume’s Fork” whereby, “relations of ideas” more-or-less represent necessary and mathematical truth, and “matters of fact” represent empirical contingency. If a priori and deductive reasoning relates to what is necessary, then Hume tries to downplay necessary connections by way of inductive reasoning. Put simply, the logical (a priori) connections that are made between causal events are more-or-less habitual for Hume. Usually when we see one event follow another, we connect the cause to the event by way of a priori necessity. Hume’s emphasis is that the a priori connection cannot—no matter how hard we try to find it—be found in experience. Any a priori connection, for Hume, is brought into empirical situations without any tangible determinations of it.[11]

Each philosopher, Leibniz and Hume, attack what the other cherishes. Hume attacks a priori reasoning as vacuous and arbitrary, and Leibniz supports an idea that all reality is essentially rational. As we see for each position, the means by which we justify scientific objectivity become tenuous and strained, since both philosophers admit to clear delineations between subject and object relations in the world. The idea that all substantive truths are analytic for Leibniz becomes something that is difficult to justify, but it seems that he had to appeal to God’s infinite wisdom, and his principles (i.e. the principle of sufficient reason and the predicate in notion principle[12]) to establish his radical claims. Hume had different problems, since it becomes difficult to account for the ways in which necessity is justified simply by means of habit, association, and inductive reasoning. Each philosophical phase, rationalism (dogmatism) and empiricism (skepticism) becomes a study unto itself, but most importantly for our uses, under Kant’s transcendental idealism, exemplified in the CPR, the warring factions began to work together toward something that looked like peaceful reconciliation.

[1] Kant, Immanuel, The Critique of Pure Reason, translated by Werner S. Pluhar, Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Co. 1996, 76.

[2] Kant, Immanuel, The Critique of Pure Reason, 76.

[3] Since the MetEx appeals to the experience of space, and the TransEx appeals to the way a synthetic/a priori intuition of space leads to geometrical and scientific discoveries, a skeptic (like Hume) could deny the relevance of science, but he cannot, in kind, deny the relevance of existence.

[4] Alternately referred to as expositions; here I will opt to refer to them as arguments.

[5] This description looks a lot like innatism, because it suggests that our cognition of space is nothing but an in-born trait. But in argument (3) Kant seems to refute this by making the case that we know about space in one single experience of it. The a priority of space is known in conjunction with experience, thus explaining the synthetic/a priori way that space is cognized—i.e. we can’t have one (a priori) without the other (experience).

[6] Also see footnote 3.

[7] Kant writes in first line of the TransEx for time: “I may refer for this exposition to No. 3, where, for the sake of brevity, I put among the items of the metaphysical exposition what in fact is transcendental” (B49).

[8] See footnote #5, from essay 3 on space.

[9] As noted with space, the TransEx of time shows that the scientific grounding for the intuition of time are synthetic/a priori judgments. This argument may not convince a skeptic like Hume. But the MetEx expositions for time show that the synthetic /a priori judgments of time are primary for experience itself and Hume cannot deny the primacy of experience.

[10] In Leibniz’s Discourse on Metaphysics we find (this is often termed the “predicate in notion principle,” PIN,) from §VIII: “This being so, we are able to say that this is the nature of an individual substance or of a complete being, namely, to afford a conception so complete that the concept shall be sufficient for the understanding of it and for the deduction of all the predicates of which the substance is or may become the subject.” Leibniz, Gottfried, Leibniz: Discourse on Metaphysics, Correspondence with Arnauld, and Monadology, translated by George R. Montgomery, LaSalle, IL: The Open Court Publishing Co., 1950, 14-15.

[11] Hume writes in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (after presenting his celebrated billiard-ball example that aims to dispel an a priori connection between cause and effect): “In a word, then, every effect is a distinct event from its cause. It could not, therefore, be discovered in the cause, and the first invention or conception of it, a priori, must be entirely arbitrary.” Hume, David, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, LaSalle, IL: Open Court Publishing Co., 1958, 29-30.

[12] Noted above in §VIII of Leibniz’s Discourse on Metaphysics.


Altman, Matthew C. A Companion to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2008.

Buroker, Jill Vance. Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason: An Introduction. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Hume, David. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, and Selections from A Treatise on Human Nature. LaSalle, IL: The Open Court Publishing Co., 1958.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by Werner S. Pluhar. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. 1996.

Leibniz, Gottfried. Leibniz: Discourse on Metaphysics, Correspondence with Arnauld, and Monadology. Translated by George R. Montgomery. LaSalle, IL: The Open Court Publishing Co., 1950.

plotinus: the three primal hypostasis

January 29, 2015 § Leave a comment


The Three Primal Hypostases (V, 1 [10])[1]

(V, 1 [10], 1)[2] To begin with, it seems that Plotinus wants to highlight certain modes of the human soul’s becoming into a body. It wanted its independence from the other souls, it forgets its origins while it downplays its own worth. If it is then capable of knowing The One/ The Good, it must know itself better. (V, 1 [10], 2) The Soul, and the soul are the animating life force of the universe. The same is to be said for man, his soul animates him, otherwise he is merely matter, hence: the recasting of a Heraclitus fragment “a corpse is viler than a dunghill.”[3] (V, 1 [10], 3) Although the soul is not perfect, it still retains aspects of The Intelligence from which it stems. For Plotinus, this means that it contains the characteristic of discursive reasoning. (V, 1 [10], 4) If we should find the sensual world amazing enough, we’d do better to recognize that The Intelligible is better than that. Self-composed, The Intelligence thematizes thought itself, it governs all other thought, and it is not as “particular” as the soul is. “It ‘is’ alone,” meaning that it is beyond past and future, re: it is in a state of constant present-ness. Since it is present in this way, this means that it is bound to Being. Something that is thought partakes in being, these twin originary concepts in turn implicate the necessity of identity, difference, movement, and rest. Identity, difference, movement, and rest are also intermixed with other “originating principles” such as number, quantity, and quality. (V, 1 [10], 5) The Intelligence and the Soul are bound together, but where does The Intelligence come from?—The One, “the partless that is prior to plurality.” It appears that The One is unified and beyond a numerical understanding, re: it is not singular and it is not simply a plurality. (V, 1 [10], 6) Problems emerge with an idea that from The One comes multiplicity. There is to be found connections to Aristotle’s ‘unmoved mover.’ “The One leaves its selfsameness undisturbed…” The One is prior to movement—all else moves around, with and for it. A hierarchy would look like this: The One → The Intelligence → The Soul. (V, 1 [10], 7) Even though The Intelligence is smart and it looks like The One, it is only what is intelligible about The One. The One cannot be fully understood. The Intelligible is not diminished in its relationship to The One, after-all, the Intelligible is closely aligned with being. As The Soul’s power is a derivative of The Intelligible, so The Intelligible’s power stems from The One. (V, 1 [10], 8) Plotinus wishes to distinguish between his conceptualization of the (One, Intelligence, Soul) from that of Plato and Parmenides. (V, 1 [10], 9) Although Plotinus sees the differences between the various thinkers who have spoken of The One, etc., he seems to insist on a kind of harmony of the triad. (V, 1 [10], 10) The triad is present in nature and it is present in man. (V, 1 [10], 11) Within us, there too must exist elements of the divine that are tapped into when we make judgments, including and beyond the discursive. (V, 1 [10], 12) Man is not completely aware of how these things are within him, which is why Plotinus recommends looking even deeper inward.

[1] Indiana: Hackett Publishing Co., 1964), 59-71. Plotinus, “The Three Primal Hypostases,” in The Essential Plotinus, translated by Elmer O’Brien. (Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Co., 1964), 90-105.

[2] Format note: I’m citing the section numbers first, followed by that section’s explication, viz: (V, 1 [10], 1) […explication…etc.].

[3] Fragment 96: “Corpses are more fit to be thrown out than dung.”

aristotle: metaphysics book XII (Λ), chapters 9-10

January 29, 2015 § Leave a comment

medieval manuscript of aristotles metaphysics

Aristotle / Metaphysics Book XII (Λ), Chapters 9-10[1]

Part of the job of reading Aristotle is reading and re-reading till one reaches only a satisfactory understanding of what is ultimately being said. We already know that that the Metaphysics have to do with the question of being, and that with the question of being begs the question of a primary being, which can be said to be the ultimate cause. This means that while we are reading only two short chapters, we are also jumping three-quarters of the way into the complexity of Aristotle’s inquiry about being and a primary mover that looks like God. With all this in mind, it is also difficult to ignore a few of the points Aristotle makes in chapters 6 and 7. For instance, there’s the idea that “actuality is prior to potentiality” (1072a, 10). This in itself is interesting since we typically assume that potentiality must precede the actual, so Aristotle’s claim becomes one where potential is contained within the actual. This is a profound thought indeed, one that anticipates Bergson’s ideas of the virtual, and so on. Another point, similar in its profundity, is brought about in chapter 7, where Aristotle names a “mover, which moves without being moved, being eternal, substance, and actuality” (1072a, 25). Along with this mover, Aristotle also attributes thought, the good, the eternal, and a intricate way that it is necessary without being caused itself (1072b, 1-30). From here we move through chapters 9 and 10, where we find Aristotle trying to qualify what the nature of divine thought consists of. His opening up of the discussion starts with the tail end of chapter 8. Aristotle finds inspiration with the idea that the divine is not anthropomorphic and is better thought of as “the first substances to be gods” (1074b, 10). Aristotle continues with the idea that divine thought must be of a substance, it must also be “itself that thought thinks” (1074b, 34). This must mean that the kind of thought that the divine is, must contain thinking before thought thinks about things—the divine is thought (shades of Xenophanes’ divine). Aristotle also seems to discount the idea that this divine thought can be composite, since human thought is not necessarily composed of parts of thought. Divine thought must then be whole, and not a composite of thought units. In Chapter 10 Aristotle compares the good and the higher good (of the divine) to an army and the leader, respectively. This is a way of saying that the good depends on the higher good, and not the other way around. To suggest that order depends on the higher good suggests a telos to Aristotle’s divine, i.e.: order is informed by to good, to be what it is and what it will be. Another point Aristotle addresses has to do with the Pre-Socratic (probably Heraclitus) notion of contraries. Aristotle finds this view lacking in its lack of full explanatory evidence. There are other views Aristotle covers including Plato’s Forms, with a question of how real things (forms) actually participate with the Forms. Aristotle concludes later in the chapter that “the form and the thing are one” (1076a, 35). Characteristic of this move we find the Homeric quote at the end “the rule of the many is not good, let there be one ruler” (1076b, 5).

[1] Aristotle, Metaphysics from The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation, edited by Jonathan Barnes. Princeton: Princeton University Press, n.d., 1692-1700.


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