A Lecture on the Good

by Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D.

SOCRATES:  Tell me then, by Zeus, what is that excellent [págkalon, "all beautiful"] aim [érgon, "work, deed"] that the gods achieve, using us as their servants?

Plato, Euthyphro, 13e, translated by G.M.A. Grube [Hackett Publishing, 1981, p.19; Greek text, Plato -- Euthryphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Phaedrus, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard, 1914-1956, pp.50-52]

A shortened version of this paper was delivered to the Oxford Round Table session, "Perspectives on Ethical Sentiments," at Hertford College of Oxford University on March 25th, 2010. I could not pass up the chance to deliver a talk essentially Platonic in inspiration in response to the very British Empiricist topic of "Ethical Sentiments" and at the very point of origin of the disastrous Analytic tradition of "Oxford Philosophy."

Hertford College features one of the landmarks of Oxford, the "Bridge of Sighs" (at right), which crosses New College Lane. This is simply called "The Bridge" inside the College, and in fact looks more like a small version of the Rialto Bridge in Venice than the original (sinister) Bridge of Sighs. Views from inside the Bridge are featured below, with some other images of the College.

The Bridge is briefly seen near the beginning of the 2011 movie, X Men, the First Class, where characters are shown leaving a door of Hertford College (out of frame to the left from this photo) as though from the pub of the previous scene. There is a pub a block away, but not in the College itself.

In the Republic, Plato sets aside a direct definition of the "good itself" (autò t'agathón). Socrates says that instead we will get something in the nature of the "offspring" (ékgonos) or "interest" (tókos) on the good [Republic, 506 E]. For this "offspring," Plato offers an analogy:  The Good is to the intelligible world, the world of Being and the Forms, as the sun is to the visible world. As light makes vision possible in the material world, and so also opinion about such objects, the Form of the Good "gives their truth to the objects of knowledge and power of knowing to the knower..." [Loeb Classical Library, Plato VI Republic II, translated by Paul Shorey, Harvard University Press, 1935-1970, pp.94-95]. Furthermore, the objects of knowledge derive from the Form of the Good not only the power of being known, but their "very existence and essence" (tò eînaí te kaì hè ousía) [509B], although the Good itself "transcends essence" in "dignity and power" [ibid. pp.106-107]. The word here translated "essence" is ousía, which in Aristotelian terminology is the essence (essentia) of things, i.e. what they are. If Plato has something similar in mind, then the objects of knowledge derive from the good both their existence and their character.

The obscure and metaphorical treatment of the good in the Republic left Plato's own students dissatisfied. This was a tease, and they wanted something more, as well as something more literal. Plato eventually promised a "Lecture on the Good," but then, when the day came, reportedly he only did some geometry constructions, with some vague statements about the Good (e.g. "the Good is One"), as in the Republic (recounted by Aristoxenus, in his Elementa Harmonica, as heard from Aristotle). He does not seem to have ever revisited the issue, certainly not in print.

Aristotle subsequently drew the conclusion that the only general meaning of the good is that it is "that for the sake of which everything else is done." In any particular undertaking, "it describes the end of that pursuit or undertaking" [Nicomachean Ethics, Book I, vii, 1; Loeb Classical Library, Aristotle XIX Nicomachean Ethics, translated by H. Rackham, Harvard University Press, 1926-1982, pp.24-227]. Since we might want to know why any pursuit or undertaking has an end in view, and may conclude that it is because the end is more valuable than the state of affairs previously in place, i.e. it is good or better, Aristotle's definition is in danger of becoming circular:  Pursuits and undertakings have ends in view because they are good, and the ends are good because they are the goals of the pursuits and undertakings.

But there is an ambiguity there. Aristotle's characterization works well for instrumental goods but not for intrinsic goods. An instrumental good is good of its kind if it suits the purpose of that kind of thing. This will hold true even if the purpose is not in itself an intrinsic good but may be an intrinsic evil. Thus, it is possible for there to be good burglars, good pick-pockets, and good contract killers, even where theft and murder are themselves wrongs and evils. The meaning of an instrumental good is thus independent of either its moral goodness or any intrinsic, or even instrumental, value of the end.

The general sense of the word "good" is strongly colored with the instrumental implication, to the point where we are inclined to say about anything good, "What is it good for?" And to say that something is "good for nothing," is to dismiss it as valueless. Yet if everything is only good for something else, we get the problem, in the best Aristotelian sense, of an infinite regress. Aristotle is aware of this and offers happiness as the ultimate human good, for the sake of which we chose the other goods and ends of life [ibid. pp.26-29]. However, Aristotle is also aware that, while happiness is a good for us, there are other goods in the world that are not goods for us. Thus, while we are given an example of an intrinsic good for us, happiness, Aristotle does not give us a general analysis, any more than Plato, of the meaning of an intrinsic good in general. He doesn't think that there is one and explicitly rejects Plato's or Socrates' expectation on this point.

In modern philosophy, there has not been much effort, and certainly little success, to continue the Socratic project of defining the good. The most famous contribution to the issue perhaps has been G.E. Moore's conclusion that the good, or at least the intrinsic good, cannot be defined [Principia Ethica, 1903]. "Good" is a primitive and irreducible concept and can no more be conveyed in an explanation than the quality of the color yellow can be. You just have to see the yellow to know what it is like. While I suspect that many are uncomfortable with Moore's conclusion, there is certainly no consensus that a reasonable alternative exists. Plato's reluctance to give a literal definition in the Republic, and his silence or evasion thereafter, thus may be taken to just reflect his sense of the difficulty of the question and perhaps the possibility of an answer. There is the peculiarity of the matter, however, that an instrumental good can be exhaustively and satisfactorily defined while the intrinsic good cannot. It is paradoxical, at least, that the meaning of instrumental goods should be so transparent in contrast to the intrinsic.

Plato's treatment of the good did eventually lead to a different approach. A clue consisted of the terms of the analogy that Plato offers in the Republic, which are metaphysical. The Form of the Good is higher or prior in existence, and the cause, of all else in the intelligible world, as the intelligible world is higher in existence, and certainly the explanation, if not the cause, of the visible world. The clue provided by this ontological treatment was taken up by the Neoplatonists. To Plotinus and his successors there was an identity between the good and existence. Reality emanates from the Good, or the (Parmenidean) One, as in Plato's analogy, like the light from the sun. All of existence then declines into darkness, not-being, and evil as we move further away from the Good. Pure not-being is also, then, pure evil. There is also the convenience that this whole system can be matched up with Aristotle's metaphysics, so that pure not-being is prime matter (which, as pure potential, does not have any actual existence), being is form (actuality, enérgeia), and there is a continuum from pure form, which is pure actuality and pure good at the top, to pure potential, pure matter, and pure evil at the bottom.

The result of this was the characteristic Neoplatonic answer to the Problem of Evil:  that evil is simply the privation of the good. And since that privation leads ultimately into non-existence, there is an absolute sense in which evil does not exist. St. Augustine liked the simplicity, the logic, and the finality of this answer so much that he wanted to carry it into Christian theology. What went along with it, however, was something that orthodox Christianity would never countenance:  that matter, and so the body, were intrinsically evil. It was left to the Manicheans and Gnostics to embrace the Neoplatonic disparagement of the physical body. Later, as Islamic philosophers, especially Averroës, returned their received Neoplatonism to a more purely Aristotelian form, the metaphysical treatment of the nature of the good was not further pursued -- the good becomes something that God knows; but then what He knows, if not just his own Will, reopened the dilemma of Plato's Euthyphro:  whether what is valuable is loved by the gods because it is valuable, or just because it is (arbitrarily) loved.

Neoplatonism thus did offer a definition of the good, and a simple one at that. The good is existence. If that were simply true in the most general way, one approach would be to say, leaving aside the Neoplatonic Declension, that what exists, simply by virtue of its existence, is good. This does not work very well, unfortunately, with our ordinary moral intuitions that some existing things are bad. A modified version of the theory would be in Hegel, where whatever the Dialectic of history has produced as presumptively good, is then, because the "real is rational," actually good. So what seemed good in the time of Caesar, such as the rape of slave children, was indeed good. Hegel's historicism, however, relativized this judgment, so that something objectively good at one point in history will be replaced by different ideas later, until the End of History is reached with absolute knowledge and the Absolute Idea, apparently in the person of Hegel himself, his era, and his regime, the Kingdom of Prussia, the summum bonum.

One reason that Hegel needs to relativize the good in time is that, if the good is what already exists, there is no need for goals or ends in order to bring about the good. Neoplatonic metaphysics similarly suffers from the disability that the world as such cannot be improved, since greater goodness can only be found in rising through the levels of existence towards the One. This was a common idea in the Middle Ages. Thus, even Spinoza had argued that God has no purposes, since the world, which is pantheistically identical with an ontologically immanent God, is already perfect just as it is. Any need for purposes contradicts the perfection of God -- about which Spinoza could become quite heated.

Therefore, the good, as "that for the sake of which everything else is done," both must be different from the way things are already and must be possible of realization. It cannot be identical to present existence, but it must be possible in future existence. Intrinsic goods are thus not as such goods that suit their purposes, like instrumental goods, but they are the final ends of purposes. They suit themselves. Hegel's theory, although goods are historically relativized, nevertheless takes the existing good of the moment as genuinely good. It is good by virtue of its existence, not by virtue of its nature (although Hegel believes that the nature of all existence is generated by the Dialectic of Reason -- a process, however, that reads more like free association than like deductive reasoning); and someone who is out of step with the ostensive good of the moment, like Socrates, is, as the (Hegelian) Marxists might say, "objectively" wrong.

Such a view of things sharply contrasts with Immanuel Kant. To Kant it is certainly the case that the "real is rational" in the phenomenal world, but this is only in terms of science, not in terms of morality. True goodness, the holy will, is possible among things in themselves but not in the phenomenal world, so that, as Kant famously put it, "...aus so krummen Holze, als woraus der Mensch gemacht ist, kann nichts ganz Gerades gezimmert werden" -- "Out of timber so crooked, as from which man is made, nothing entirely straight can be built" ["Idee zu einer allgemeinen Geschichte in weltbürgerlicher Absicht," "Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Intent," 1784, Was ist Aufklärung, Felix Meiner Verlag, 1999, p.10; Perpetual Peace and Other Essays on Politics, History, and Morals, translated by Ted Humphrey, Hackett Publishing, 1983, p.34; translation based on Isaiah Berlin, The Crooked Timber of Humanity, Princeton University Press, 1990, p.v]. Kant therefore would reject the sort of judicial positivism and/or authoritarianism that threatens in Hegel; and he holds to a clear, almost Platonic dualism between the perfection of the transcendent and the imperfect nature of the immanent. Although the world cannot be perfect, Kant, unlike the Neoplatonists, believes that there can be improvement, both for the individual, morally, and, in external circumstances, materially and politically.

Although an equation of the good with existence might work in the simplest way with Hegel's treatment, Kant's metaphysics makes possible a different adaptation of the Neoplatonic definition. If the good is identical to existence among things in themselves, the problem is that our existence is not the same as existence among things in themselves. Our existence is a conscious existence, which contains a representation of phenomenal reality.

At the beginning of Western philosophy, Parmenides argued that Being cannot become Not Being, and Not Being cannot become Being. This idea, expressed in the Latin formula ex nihilo, nihil fit, is preserved even in modern physics as the principle of the conservation of mass or, since Einstein, of mass-energy. Conscious existence, however, appears, on a daily basis, to arise from nothing, from unconsciousness, and to disappear into nothing again and again. We even see this difference noted in the Buddhist Tripit.aka:

But it were better, O priests, if the ignorant, unconverted man regarded the body which is composed of the four elements as an Ego, rather than the mind. And why do I say so? Because it is evident, O priests, that this body which is composed of the four elements lasts one year, lasts two years, lasts three years, lasts four years, lasts five years, lasts ten years, lasts twenty years, lasts thirty years, lasts forty years, lasts fifty years, lasts a hundred years, and even more. But that, O priests, which is called mind, intellect, consciousness, keeps up an incessant round by day and by night of perishing as one thing and springing up as another. [Buddhism in Translation, by Henry Clarke Warren, "The Mind Less Permanent than the Body," translated from the Samyutta-Nikâya (xii.62), Antheneum, New York, 1982, p.151]

Thus, if we accept the Neoplatonic equation of existence with the good, we would need to ask "which existence?" Existence as such, which, according to Parmenides, does not come to be and is not destructible, is not like the existence with which we are the most intimately involved, that of our own consciousness. After all, the continued existence of my body after death is of no benefit to me if my consciousness is permanently destroyed. But if existence as the good is not our existence, then what is the effect of the equation?

A Platonic or Kantian dualism of being allows that what exists in the world, or in phenomenal reality, need not be good just by virtue of its existence. If the good, however, is existence in itself, or among things in themselves, this would mean that the good (or matters of value in general) consists of the manner in which transcendent existence as such continues to be present in phenomenal existence. My existence as a conscious being is thus not existence in its absolute form; but that absolute existence is nevertheless still present and available to me as the good or other categories of value. In the metaphorical terms preferred by Plato, we could say that the good is the shadow, the projection, the ghost, or the afterimage of true Being in the phenomenal and conscious existence that we possess.

This kind of dualism throws an interesting light on Hume's famous distinction between propositions expressing "is" and those expressing "ought":

I cannot forbear adding to these reasonings an observation which may, perhaps, be found of some importance. In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark'd, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surpriz'd to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, 'tis necessary that it shou'd be observ'd and explain'd; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention wou'd subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceiv'd by reason. [David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, Shelby-Bigge edition, Oxford, 1888, 1968, pp.469-470, boldface added]

In logical terms, Hume's point would be agreeable to Aristotle, in that indicatives of matters of fact go back to different first principles than statements that are moral imperatives. In modern terms, we would say that the logical systems are axiomatically independent. The epistemological question then is the ground of those imperative first principles or axioms. Hume himself first offers subjective sentiment as the foundation of moral judgment, yet in the background we realize that he ultimately appeals to Human Nature, which responds with the customs and habits engendered by experience. In those terms, Hume was not a subjectivist but a kind of historical positivist. Yet I believe that he was always aware that there would be still a logical gap between the imperative moral force of sentiment and what, after all, are the matters of fact of historical experience. I would not want to accuse him of committing his own fallacy, of confusing the "is" of history with the "ought" of moral sentiment, especially when history is, as it happens, "perceiv'd by reason."

With the mixed Neoplatonic-Kantian theory here, existence among things in themselves does not appear as matters of fact in phenomenal existence, but it does appear as the value of phenomenal objects. Consequently, the necessities of nature are divorced from the necessities of value, which means that while the good ought to exist in the world, and ought to be effected by our acts of will, it is not always the case that it will be or that we will effect it with our own acts. We are free, in other words, to do evil, even as natural evils and random misfortunes are free to occur in their own right.

An analogy to this situation might be what is thought to happen to the forces of nature in modern physics, where a single, original, unified force is separated into several forces by "spontaneous symmetry breaking." The form of consciousness as, according to Brentano and Husserl, the intentional relationship of subject and object, itself represents an asymmetry, breaking the symmetry of an existence where there is no distinction between subject and object. Existence as such is thus broken by the form of consciousness, and it becomes the forms of value, good and evil, right and wrong, the beautiful and the ugly, etc., as these vary independently over and against the simple factual existence of objects in the phenomenal world, or even against each other in the phenomenon of moral dilemmas (i.e. doing right results in evils, while doing wrong results in goods).

Another way to conceive of this may be derived from the Br.hadâran.yaka Upanis.ad:

You can't see the seer who does the seeing; you can't hear the hearer who does the hearing; you can't think of the thinker who does the thinking; and you can't perceive the perceiver who does the perceiving. The self within all is this self of yours. ["Br.hadâran.yaka Upanis.ad," Upanis.ads, translated by Patrick Olivelle, Oxford, 1996, p.39]

Thus, consciousness is divided into subject and object, and the subject, qua subject, is not represented or known as are objects. In these terms, the Cartesian principle that "the mind is better known than the body" is wrong, as was appreciated by Kant, and also by Schopenhauer, himself familiar with the Upanishadic argument [The World as Will and Representation, Volume I, 1818, §2]. Given the Upanishadic principle, the subject exists absolutely by virtue of its own existence, but this is not an object of knowledge, while the external existence of objects is not directly known either, since objects as representations exist only by virtue of their presence in the subject. This creates a kind of dilemma. We know objects but do not have access to their existence. We have access to our own existence, in the most intimate way, but it is not an object of knowledge. So how does the unknown content of the existence of the subject become a matter of knowledge? How does the subject know itself? In the Upanishads, this is accomplished by the abolition of the object, something that spontaneously occurs in one form in deep sleep, which, paradoxically, is regarded as a state of consciousness. If we do not agree that deep sleep is a state of consciousness, and accept the Neoplatonic thesis that existence is the good, then we might look to the realization of some kind of knowledge of existence in the object. As a goal, a purpose, and an end, indeed an end-in-itself, then, if the good is that realization, this answers the Upanishadic challenge:  The subject knows itself in the value, as right and wrong, good and evil, etc., of its objects.

The modern theory that is the most like the view here may be found in the metaphysics of Martin Heidegger. As presented in his early book, Being and Time (1927), we find a metaphysical dualism between Being (eînai, in Greek, Sein, in German) and beings (ónta, Seienden). Since what we see in experience are the beings, this is equivalent to Kantian phenomenal reality. On the other hand, Being as such is hidden, for Heidegger, behind the beings. Heidegger's theory is that the "truth of Being" must be uncovered (his interpretation of alétheia, "truth," in Greek) as the veil of beings is somehow temporarily removed or rendered transparent.

The objections I have to Heidegger's theory, however, are formidable. Being, in his view, is truly hidden, and indeed unavailable, until it is "uncovered," and this is a process that is neither rational nor strictly speaking even a matter of will -- ruling out conscious or deliberate inquiry, as after the manner of Socrates. The examples we see in Heidegger are of Being uncovered in poetry or, infamously, in the political movement of National Socialism. Thus, Heidegger says:

The works that are being peddled about nowadays as the philosophy of National Socialism but have nothing whatever to do with the inner truth and greatness of this movement (namely the encounter between global technology and modern man) -- have all been written by men fishing in the troubled waters of "values" and "totalities." [An Introduction to Metaphysics, Anchor Books, 1961, p.166, boldface added]

This notorious passage testifies to Heidegger's regard for the Nazi movement and to his disinclination to view the uncovering of Being as principally a matter of value. It is more his definition of truth than of the good. The most shocking thing about Heidegger's theory, however, is the nature of the values that do seem to be uncovered in such an example. The failure of the Nazi movement did not result in the reform and elevation of Heidegger's moral or political judgment. Instead, Heidegger decided that Being had "withdrawn" itself, leaving us in the bleak and "Fallen" Nihilistic and Existential world of the beings. Thus, it is apparently not up to us to endeavor to uncover Being, but, having failed to exploit the opportunity provided by National Socialism, we are for the time being left without a transcendent dispensation of truth.

The theory here, however, of the identity of being and the good, is rational and Socratic. Far from being "hidden," there is one example of good for Plato that is apparent even to the eye, namely beauty:

Now beauty, as we said, shone bright among those visions, and in this world below we apprehend it through the clearest of our senses, clear and resplendent. For sight is the keenest of the physical senses, though wisdom is not seen by it -- how passionate would be our desire for it, if such a clear image of wisdom were granted as would come through sight -- and the same is true of the other beloved objects; but beauty alone has this privilege, to be most clearly seen and most lovely of them all. [Phaedrus, 250D, after R. Hackford, Plato's Phaedrus, Library of the Liberal Arts, 1952, p. 93, and the Loeb Classical Library, Euthryphro Apology Crito Phaedo Phaedrus, Harvard University Press, 1914-1966, p.485, boldface added]

The visibility of beauty is what we should expect if value is simply the presence of Being as such in the phenomenal objects of conscious existence. Other forms of value, such as the good in general, or justice, righteousness, virtue, etc., historically pose a challenge to Plato's approach. They are not visible, and indeed are matters of disagreement and dispute. Beauty itself, because of aesthetic variety and disagreements of taste, poses a challenge if we expect that aesthetic realism would require a unitary standard.

A recent view that aesthetic variety is consistent, not only with aesthetic realism but even aesthetic objectivity, may be found in Isaiah Berlin. However, the challenge of abstract forms of value still calls for an interpretation of the practice of Socrates and Plato. Plato's adaptation of Socratic Method requires that interlocutors already know the answers to Socrates' questions, which may then be drawn out with the right questions. Plato's demonstration of this in the Meno still impresses, but it is significant that he had recourse to geometry for the example and was unable to show anything nearly as convincing when it came to justice, virtue, or piety. Plato was not sensitive, as we are more now, that posing the proper question is more than half the battle, in philosophy, science, or elsewhere, while posing the proper question usually requires more understanding of the nature of the answer than may be available.

The modern philosopher with the most interest and experience with Socratic Method was Leonard Nelson (1882-1927). Nelson believed that an expanded Kantian conception of reason provided the equivalent of the Platonic Theory of Forms for the practice of Socratic Method. He coupled this with the theory of "non-intuitive immediate knowledge" (nicht-anschauliche unmittelbare Erkenntnis) found in the 19th century philosopher Jakob Fries (1773-1843), whom Nelson himself had rediscovered and revived at the turn of the 20th century [cf. Leonard Nelson, Socratic Method and Critical Philosophy, Yale University Press, 1949; Dover Publications, 1965; Kissinger Publishing, 2008, and Progress and Regress in Philosophy, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1971]. "Non-intuitive immediate" knowledge simply meant that moral or metaphysical knowledge was immediate, satisfying the requirements that usually motivate moral intuitionists, but that it is "non-intuitive," meaning that we are not immediately aware of it. This is conformable to Plato's view that moral knowledge is forgotten, i.e. we have it and are able to remember it, but mostly have not yet done so. That such knowledge is tossed around in our practices and opinions, such as had originally been solicited by questions from Socrates, raises the problem how they can be distinguished from the chaff of falsehood that usually characterized the opinions of Socrates' interlocutors.

The answer to this challenge was not well understood by Nelson, despite his practice of Socratic Method, but more by Karl Popper. Socrates did not elicit answers that functioned as the "regress of reasons" (to first principles) familiar from Aristotle's epistemology. Instead, Socrates looked at the logical consequences of the answers he received, and usually found contradictions between the implications of one answer and those of others. The classic example of this was in Plato's Apology of Socrates, where Socrates forces his accuser Meletus to admit that Socrates must believe in gods, despite Meletus' sudden accusation of atheism, because Meletus himself, in the legal indictment on which Socrates was being tried, accused Socrates of teaching "new spiritual [daimónia kainá] things." Socrates gets Meletus to admit that if there are "spiritual things" [daimónia], then there must be spirits [daímones]. This means that there are gods, since, as Meletus agreed, spirits are either gods or the children of gods [Apology, 27 B-E]. The practice of Socrates therefore did not rely on logical verification, as in the Aristotelian regress of reasons, but on falsification -- the form of argument identified by Popper himself as the modern basis of scientific method.

With the theories of non-intuitive immediate knowledge and logical falsification, Socratic Method cannot achieve results with Cartesian certainty, but it does represent a continuing hermeneutic process of winnowing out the chaff of falsehood, especially self-contradictory falsehood, in opinions and hypotheses about the good and other forms of value. The real and objective availability of non-intuitive immediate knowledge in these matters, as with the more intuitive availability of beauty, is secured by a metaphysical theory that the good is present and grounded in the otherwise factual presence and character of phenomenal objects in consciousness. This provides us with both an epistemology and metaphysics of the good, as Leonard Nelson himself wished to do in completing the work of Socrates, Plato, and Kant. For a simple definition of the good, however, it is the Neoplatonic equation of being and value, with the Kantian dissociation of phenomenal reality from things-in- themselves, that gives us the answer.

After the Lecture

One comment about this paper at the Round Table presentation was that Aristotle did not believe that as much precision was possible in Ethics as in other sciences, which means I was apparently trying for too much. My response was that Aristotle's view in the matter was derived from his rejection of the Socratic and Platonic project in Ethics. Since, frankly, Aristotle had gotten his definition of the good backwards, this meant he believed that "good" meant something different in every "pursuit or undertaking." Thus, the sort of definition or meaning that Socrates and Plato were pursuing did not exist. Now, not to put too fine a point on it, I think this means that Aristotle dismissed and betrayed the fundamental inspiration and project of Socratic Philosophy. Socrates did not ask questions about the other areas of inquiry where Aristotle thought there could be more precision. On the other hand, I note the irony of the theory presented here. A metaphysical theory of the good, derived from Neoplatonism, is actually in one of Aristotle's areas of greater precision, and so the limitations he perceives in Ethics are not even relevant.

A Derivation

In the essay above, there are two points where I am dissatisfied. One is that I don't think there is enough to tie intrinsic goods to purpose. Since instrumental goods can be exhaustively defined in terms of purpose, that they suit the purpose of their kind, I just expect something more or some more obvious or essential connection between value and purposes as ends-in-themselves. Second, the thesis of existence as the good is presented as a hypothesis, not the result of a deduction or an argument from first principles. Such an argument is not necessary, especially when the essay itself describes how a thesis can be examined with Socratic Method in terms of falsifying logical consequences; but a deduction from axioms would be the sort of Spinozist ideal.

What I would like to see is a series of transformations that will move existence from its simplest ontological position into place as an intrinsic content of the ends of purposive action. These transformations could be logical operations, or they might be imagined as the rotations in space ("conceptual space" perhaps) of something like Rubik's Cube -- topological transformations.

The first step, illustrated at left, is the simple distinction, as in Heidegger, between beings, which are immanent and evident to experience, and Being, which is the existence underlying all the beings. Conceiving existence in this way is a privation, removing all the perceptual or conceptual content of the beings, leaving existence as a sort of void, indeed, just the way the Atomists conceived of space, the way Hegel thought that the Dialectic moves from Being to Not-Being, or as Heidegger characterized Being as "hidden." With everything removed except the bare concept of existence, I would call this conception "negative transcendence," since it is transcendent in comparison to the beings but a mere negative conceptive as the privation of all the identifiable content of the beings.

The next step is to realize that intentionality, the subject-object distinction, separates existence into two loci:  The existence of the subject, internal existence, is different from the existence of objects, external existence. This is a transformation that is of profound importance in the history of philosophy. Thus, the Atomists took the One of Parmenides and conceived of it as matter, the existence underlying the objects of experience. Descartes in turn, while accepting material existence in the world, understood that this was not the same as the existence of his own consciousness. In the terms of the thought experiments of Hume (that what is conceivable, i.e. without contradiction, is possible), we can conceive of the world as only consisting of external existence, of matter, or of only consisting of internal existence, my own mind. These have both been done in the history of philosophy. And while we think of the latter alternative in Descartes as threatening solipsism, that I am the only thing that exists, this was easily remedied by expanding conscious existence to embrace all conscious beings. That had already been done in Advaita Vedânta, where my consciousness is identical with or part of the consciousness of Brahman, which is the only thing that exists. Now, however, it is more familiar in Hegel, where all reality is the "phenomenology of spirit [Geist]." That Descartes conceived of internal existence as a separate substance, the soul, over and against the external existence of matters, however, did not follow from the distinction about existence. We do not know that external existence is a substance, separable and durable; and we do not know that internal existence is a substance, or whether or not external and internal existence may be the same substance or different. Soul and matter, if there even are soul and matter, may be just the same existence, or the same substance viewed from different points of view -- as Heraclitus had noted that "the road up and the road down are the same." Thus, Berkeley reduced matter to a representation in the mind, while Hume did the same thing to the soul, questioning whether reason can demonstrate an underlying substantive reality for any representation. Kant's view, that concepts like substance and causality are necessarily applied to phenomena by the mind, nevertheless leaves the question open of what ways, if at all, these concepts apply to things-in-themselves, i.e. existence as it stands apart from our experience. The separation of Being into internal and external therefore does not motivate the Cartesian conclusion that there are thinking substances and extended substances, but it does mean that neither Materialism nor Idealism are motivated either in their Reductionism or in their presumptions of the nature of substance.

The next step in the derivation is to realize that change works rather differently from the perspective of internal as from external existence. What goes along with the metaphysics of matter is causality. Unrelieved causality results in determinism, but it does not change the situation very much when we allow in an element of randomness, as in Quantum Mechanics. In its own terms, following Schrödinger's Equation, Quantum Mechanics is as deterministic as anything has ever been in the history of philosophy. The joy in philosophy that the random feature of Quantum Mechanics allowed for free will was a bit premature. If free will is the lîbêra arbitria voluntâtis, arbitrary free choices, then it is irrational and no different in its form than changes induced by the production of random numbers. Human intelligence then progresses through life, occasionally throwing off random acts, but without any rhyme or reason. If free will is not just a matter of random numbers, even if, by gosh, they're my random numbers, then there must be something rational and cognitive about it. We have purposes, and they have a rational and cognitive content. The classic philosopher who may have understood that the best was Leibniz. Unfortunately, Leibniz figured that if either we or God are to do what is best, there is only one best solution, which means our freedom is properly limited to that solution. Also, our knowledge relevant to our purposes is always limited by any limitation of our knowledge in general. Leibniz believed that God had already arranged the content of the knowledge available to us, which means that, acting for the reasons we have, God can construct those reasons and so direct our actions. This doesn't sound much like free will. However, if we abolish the larger features of Leibniz's metaphysics (i.e. the fatalism of the preëstablished harmony) and also allow for aesthetic variety in our preferences (a kind of random element), then rational purpose becomes something over and above the causality and randomness of the natural order. Indeed, while aesthetic variety introduces a random element, it is not an arbitrary choice between existing alternatives, like the mule between the two bales of hay, but it can be the production of something entirely new, a concept or an imagining that is genuinely novel. After all, Anaximander had to imagine a finite earth floating in space. It was not part of his experience, and previously everyone had assumed that there was an absolute difference between up and down (that is what it looks like), with the sky above and the earth going down indefinitely into the underworld below. So where did he get the idea? Falling apples? His mind had to take a leap, from objects flying through space to the whole earth as such an object. Yet he imagined something without an analogy:  a body in space that did not fall to earth. How could he have come up with such an idea? How does anyone come up with any new ideas? This is as mysterious as it ever was -- at least once the inspiration of the gods was dropped as an explanation. The mystery of creativity is thus the mystery of free will. But will and purpose are the way the world works from a subjective and internal point of view.

The last step in the derivation is to see Being as the material content of purpose. We can look at it this way:  Democritus took the One of Parmenides and placed it as the substratum of natural objects, conceiving it as "material substance," which then begins essentially to take on some features of those objects, e.g. solidity, extension, texture, etc. Aristotle saw substance as the full essence of the objects, with the material substratum relatively, and in prime matter absolutely, featureness. Descartes thought that extension in space was enough as the essential attribute of matter, but Locke believed that there must be other "primary qualities," such as solidity. In the Alice in Wonderland of modern physics, Dirac point particles have neither solidity nor extension. So exactly what "matter" is really supposed to be is very much in play.

As I have noted, Descartes wanted to interpret internal existence as a distinct substance, the soul, over and above matter. Even if this inference does not follow for the reasons detailed by Hume and Kant, it also suffers from the drawback that the nature of the causality that goes with it is inappropriate. The Cartesian soul stands as an efficient cause. In the course of nature it would be, but that is precisely the problem. That is the form of causality of external existence transposed into internal existence. But the form of causality characteristic of internal existence is not efficient causality, it is final causality. Thus, even though we act in the world as efficient causes, in the natural order, this is not intrinsic to what we are. We know what that is. We are conscious wills that are purposeful and free. We may have some blind causes in us, because of our existence as natural objects, but what moves us freely, as far as we are concerned, is our knowledge -- what we see. The existence that could be conceived as matter in external existence, or as the soul, an efficient cause, in internal existence, has its true realization as the purpose, the end, that is intrinsic to the nature of internal existence.

Being as the content intrinsic to internal transcendence is no longer a conception of negative transcendence. Now we know what its content is, whether intuitive or non-intuitive, ranging from beauty to justice. It is the Good. We can be confused about it. We may give Socrates answers that are false. But now we know how to deal with that. The most striking thing, as in Karl Popper's own philosophy of science, is where our answers come from. If we want to understand justice, we may need to come up with new ideas. These are the products of imagination that may be entirely unrelated to experience (pace Hume). Yet they are also products of reason and not some sort of random kaleidoscope [kalós, "beautiful," eîdos, "form," skopós, watch] of conception. What emerges, instead, is something orderly, even as in Nature we already get novel levels of "emergent" order. It is an excellent question where this order comes from even in Nature -- looking at the system of atoms and molecules, we cannot predict, for instance, squids. With the conceptual creativity of our own minds, we know in a way where it comes from:  we dream it up. But if it has something to do with what is true, it must have some ground in reality, and this is what introduces the difficulty even for things like scientific and mathematical knowledge, let alone for matters of value. Now I would say that what we accomplish is something like Heidegger's "uncovering" of Being, but what is uncovered is more like the Platonic vision of the Forms [kalós, "beautiful," Eîdos, "Form," skopós, watch] -- being non-intuitive, it is not a matter self-evident truth, however bewitched people may be by the certainty of what they have imagined themselves. We get fragments of the truth, often distorted. They must be tested and worked on. In these terms, the good as existence is not just any existence, it is our own, the ontological analogue of the Cartesian soul. We still experience a separation from the content of this good/existence, as the Platonic or Neoplatonic Good is removed from us at some metaphysical distance; but our separation now, as proper for Kantian philosophy, is only epistemological. We can overcome it with thought, imagination, and (Socratic) reasoning. This makes it, not just what we are, but the End of what we are also.

Why I am a Platonist

Cause and Purpose, The World Turned Inside Out

A New Kant-Friesian System of Metaphysics



Value Theory

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