An Essential Question

Like most terms in philosophy, ‘essentialism’ gets used in a variety of different ways in a variety of different contexts. In its most general use, though, essentialism is the view that some things have essences. What is an essence? Accounts differ, but roughly at least we can say that an essence is a set of properties that a thing must have so long as it is the thing that it is and that it cannot lose without ceasing to be the thing that it is. Not all properties that a thing has are essential, because some of them are properties that a thing can gain or lose without ceasing to be the thing that it is; these are so-called accidental properties. Philosophers argue about whether this is the right way to understand essences and essential properties. Some, for instance, follow Aristotle in distinguishing further between necessary properties and essential properties: a property is necessary if it is one that a thing must have to be the thing that it is and that it cannot lose without ceasing to be the thing that it is, but a property is essential only if it is both necessary and fundamental, explaining why the thing has the other necessary properties it has, but not itself explained in terms of some other property. I’m not much interested here in the distinction between necessary and essential properties. What interests me is that there are plenty of philosophers who want to reject essentialism altogether. They don’t just want to say that for some categories, such as ‘human’ or ‘American’ or ‘fun,’ there is no set of properties that everything falling within that category must have and cannot lose without ceasing to belong to that category. Instead, they want to deny that there are any essential properties at all. I find this puzzling. Here’s why.

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The Power to be Free

I’ve often thought that the classic debates about free will suffer from a conflation of causation and necessitation. More generally, it’s often seemed to me that without a generally satisfying theory of causation, we have no reason to be worried that free will is a mere illusion. Since the reality of rational agency — where ‘reality’ is a matter of our reasoning controlling what we do in a way that cannot be explained entirely in terms of non-rational antecedent causes — seems like a necessary condition of our being able to formulate scientific and philosophical theories that stand a decent chance of being true, we would seem to have powerful reason to be skeptical at best of any philosophical or scientific theory that denies the reality of rational agency (this may be the one thing I think Kant got roughly right). When we notice, in addition to this consideration, that philosophers and scientists have arrived at no generally accepted theory of causation, and that many have even gone so far as to deny that science has any need for the concept of a cause at all, it seems even less sensible to get worked up about the possibility that maybe everything each of us does is determined entirely by antecedent causal factors over which our reasoning has no influence whatsoever. Continue reading

“Just What Is a Platonic Virtue?” Greg Sadler on Plato

As mentioned in an earlier post, my friend Greg Sadler came by Felician’s Lodi campus yesterday and gave a nice presentation on Plato’s conception of virtue. I’m sure Greg will be posting a video of the presentation somewhere,* but I thought I’d jot down a few very brief thoughts here on what he said.

As I understand it, the issue that motivates Greg’s project is something like this:

(1) Suppose we accept the paradigmatically Platonic conception of virtue we find articulated and defended in Plato’s Republic. This account presupposes the tripartite conception of the soul that Plato defends there, and proposes an account of the virtues as regulatory capacities internal to the soul that allow mind to govern the soul’s lower (spirited, appetitive) elements. Plato proposes four virtues–wisdom, justice, moderation (sophrosune), and courage–to play this role. On this view, the virtues are psychological dispositions that inhere in particular souls.

(2) But Plato also regards virtues as Forms, and this fact sits uneasily with (1). Forms are, on the Platonic account, entities distinct from the natural world we inhabit. They are essentially impersonal and non-psychological, and can’t be conceived of as inhering in particulars. They are separate from (chorista) particulars, and particulars depend on them, while somehow “participating” in them. (I’m relying here on the account of Plato’s “middle theory” in the Introduction of Kenneth Sayre’s Plato’s Late Ontology: A Riddle Resolved, but see also the Stanford Encyclopedia entry on the subject.)

The question, then, is either how to make (1) coherent with (2); or if they’re not coherent, how to defend a distinctively Platonic virtue ethics without recourse to the Forms–or failing that, without recourse to the problematic aspects of the theory of Forms.

As Greg pointed out, the first disjunct of the preceding disjunction arguably leads us, via neo-Platonism, to some form of Judeo-Christian-Islamic monotheism. The second disjunct leads us to a sort of Aristotelian (or possibly Freudian) naturalism. An interesting modern version of the first form (highly influenced by Freud, among others) can be found in the work of Iris Murdoch (see, e.g., her The Sovereignty of Good). An interesting modern version of the second form (also highly Freud-inflected) can be found in the work of Jonathan Lear (see, e.g., his book, Open Minded). (Those are my examples, not Greg’s.) It’s a question whether a distinctively Platonic view is still plausible or viable. We had an interesting and somewhat freewheeling discussion of that issue, but I’ll focus on a single theme here.

One worry I have is about the motivation for the project as a whole. The motivation for the project arises from the ontological oddities of Plato’s theory of Forms: Plato thinks that virtues are Forms, but Forms don’t seem particularly virtue-like, at least on any recognizable (to us) conception of virtue. That’s true enough, but Greg seemed to want to suggest that there is a distinctively ethical problem here for Platonism–a problem specific to ethical Forms–that can be raised in abstraction from entirely general questions about the adequacy of the theory of Forms as a metaphysical doctrine. Greg insisted that he wanted to set aside specifically metaphysical questions about the theory of Forms.

I don’t think that that’s possible. To me, Greg’s problem simply looks like the ethical version of the age-old problem of self-predication in Plato. The problem is that Forms are supposed to be paradigmatic exemplars of whatever they’re Forms of. But Forms qua Forms have features that are incompatible with the properties some Forms are supposed to have. No Form is supposed to have physical dimensions, for example, but Forms for physical dimensions are supposed to be paradigmatic exemplars of those dimensions. So the Form of Length is supposed to lack physical dimensions and yet be long (or have length). Likewise with the Forms of Size, Weight, Mass, Height, etc. (my examples, not Plato’s): they’re supposed to lack physical dimensions and yet exemplify size, weight, mass, height, etc. It seems to me that Greg has simply isolated and articulated the ethical version or counterpart of the problem of self-predication in Plato: Forms for moral qualities ought paradigmatically to exemplify moral qualities, but to have moral qualities, a thing must in some sense be psychological or personal, and Forms qua Forms aren’t sufficiently personal to have such qualities.

In either case, I reach the same conclusion. The problem of self-predication suggests that the classically Platonic conception of Forms is untenable, whether in the ethical cases or the non-ethical ones. There’s no way to defend such a theory; it just has to be junked. If we want a virtue ethics that is in any residual sense Platonic, it has to be naturalized and developed in an Aristotelian or Freudian or Aristotelian-Freudian way. Paradoxically, perhaps, Aristotelianism is about as Platonic as a viable Platonism can get.

I wonder whether the intuition that motivates Greg’s attraction to Platonism (and to the problem that comes along for the ride) has something to do with the possibility (or rather, impossibility) of moral perfection. At one point in his presentation, Greg seemed to be suggesting in passing that moral or aretaic perfection is impossible to mortal humans. No just act we ever perform is perfectly just, and no putatively just person is perfect in his possession or exercise of the virtue of justice. Something about our materially embodied selves gets in the way of perfection, and something external to us holds out a standard or criterion of perfection to which we’re obliged to strive, but that we can never hope to reach. In that sense, Platonic Forms seem attractive because they function asymptotically as regulative ideals in a sense that straddles what Plato had in mind in defending them, and what Kant had in mind in defending his conception of pure practical reason.

If you hold this sort of view, and find Plato’s moral psychology generally plausible, Greg’s problem will seem a live one: how do you marry a plausible form of that moral psychology to a plausible theory of Forms? I suspect, however, that if you reject the relevant intuition about moral perfection, as I do, the project ceases to have the same urgency. You can just admit that aspects of Plato’s moral psychology have a certain plausibility; that Aristotle and/or Freud (and their successors) appropriated the best aspects of this psychology; and that we don’t need anything like Platonic Forms to perform the ideal-regulative role that makes moral perfection impossible to us. But that’s just a speculation, and I’m curious whether it’s at all on target.

Anyway, my thanks to Greg for coming down to do the talk. I hope readers get as much out of reading about it here as I did attending it in person.

*Postscript, Sept. 26, 2014: This link takes you to the video for the presentation.

Postscript 2, October 5, 2014: Greg now has a blog post on the issue at his own blog, Orexis Dianoetike.