On the Nature of the Clearing (3/5)

On the Nature of the Clearing (3/5)

III. Nοῦς and the Clearing

This conceptual background lets Aristotle focus on one ‘side’ of the triangle without losing sight of the others as interrelated moments. In De Anima, Aristotle focuses on the πράγματα-πάθη relation. What must man be like given that he is open to meaning? The meaning or intelligibility in question is not just that of complex states of affairs (e.g. ‘the snow is white’), but includes the intelligibility of the simples composing such states (e.g. the what it is to be white).

In III.4, Aristotle examines this relation by posing the following question: πῶς ποτὲ γίγνεται τὸ νοεῖν? Aristotle’s phrasing reveals the transcendental character of his inquiry. He does not ask whether νοῦς characterizes man’s being or even if it reaches its object (τὸ νοητόν). He takes these points for granted. Rather, Aristotle wants to know how νοεῖν is possible.

Aristotle’s answer is that mind must be immaterial. Thinking (νόησις) must be a single activity composed of two moments, thinking-being and being-thought. His argument in III.4 establishes the conditions for being-thought, while III.5 uncovers those for thinking-being. In both chapters, we learn the mind must be immaterial for νόησις to be possible.

His argument for the immateriality of ‘being-thought’ unfolds in two steps. First, Aristotle argues that ‘being-thought’ must be an immaterial kind of passivity. Second, he confirms this conclusion by appealing to two phenomena.

Aristotle begins his argument by comparing νοῦς to αἴσθησις. As both powers are open to the world, this comparison is a reasonable point de départ. As the argument progresses, however, he significantly qualifies this resemblance. Establishing the relation, he writes:

If indeed it is the case that thinking is akin to perceiving, then either (thinking) will be a kind of suffering by the thinkable (ὑπὸ τοῦ νοητοῦ) or something else akin (to this suffering). Therefore, in either case, thinking will be receptive of form (τοῦ εἴδους) and potentially like this form but, at the same time, not identical to it. Furthermore, as the perceptive part of the soul stands to perceptibles, so too will thought be oriented towards the thinkables. Thus, since thought thinks all things, it is necessary that it be unmixed (with matter), in order that, as Anaxagoras says, it may rule, i.e. acquaint itself with all things. For a foreign body standing in between would obstruct and hinder (thought). Consequently, thought has no nature whatsoever except this, that it is possible (δυνατός). Therefore, that part of the soul called thought (by thought I mean that by which the soul thinks discursively and supposes) is no being in actuality until it thinks. On account of this, it is not reasonable to suppose that thought has been mixed in with the body. For then it would become some qualified thing, either cold or hot, as if it were an instrument like a perceptive faculty, but now it is none of these qualities. Indeed, those who say the soul is the place of the forms speak well, except this (claim) does not apply to the whole soul but only to that part related to thinking, and this part is only the forms potentially rather than actually.

One could reformulate Aristotle’s argument in this passage as an extended modus ponens for the conclusion that mind, being immaterial, has no nature other than its being possible to receive intelligibility. One could formalize it thus:

P1: If mind thinks all things, then (on the assumption that thinking is a reception of the intelligible as perceiving is a reception of the perceptible) mind receives the forms of all things.
P2: If mind receives the forms of all things, it must not have a determinate nature limiting its ability to receive intelligibility.
C1: If mind thinks all things, it must not have a determinate nature limiting its ability to receive intelligibility.
P3: Material things have determinate natures.
C2 (From C1/P3): If mind thinks all things, mind must not be a material thing.
P4: Mind thinks all things.
C3 (From C2/P4): Mind must not be a material thing.
P5: If mind is not a material thing, it has no nature other than being-possible for the reception of intelligibility.
 (From C3/P5): Mind has no nature other than being-possible for the reception of intelligibility.

The nature of the mind is thus nothing but an immaterial possibility for receiving intelligibility. Because it has no nature whatsoever other than being δυνατός, it is receptive (δεκτικός) to the intelligibility of any being whatsoever. This receptivity includes the simple intelligibility of simples as well as the complex intelligibilities of Sachverhalten. The mind is the open ‘place’ where forms come to be, the τόπος εἴδων. In Heidegger’s terms, it is a clearing, the site where things manifest themselves as they are in themselves.

Given this analysis, it seems false to say, as Thomas Sheehan does, that Aristotle was unaware of the ‘disclosedness’ constitutive of man’s being. Distinguishing the various significations of ἀλήθεια in Heidegger’s thought, Sheehan writes:

The common denominator of all three levels of ἀλήϑεια (in Heidegger) is not “truth” but openness with regard to meaning. ̓Αλήϑεια-1 is the “open space” in which we can ‘take things as’…and thereby disclose their meaningful presence. ̓Αλήϑεια-2 is the pre-propositional meaningful presence of a thing. ̓Αλήϑεια-3 is the propositionally correct meaning of something—at least correct for now, until a more correct meaning comes along.

As an interpretation of Heidegger’s account of truth, Sheehan’s taxonomy is both plausible and helpful. As a schema for critiquing Plato and Aristotle, it is less so. Speaking for himself and for Heidegger, Sheehan thinks Plato and Aristotle “missed” the sense of ἀλήθεια-1.

In light of what Aristotle says about νοῦς in III.4, this critique is untenable. Like Heidegger, Aristotle’s preferred metaphor for the openness of man is spatial. Mind is the τόπος εἴδων or the Lichtung in which meaningful presence comes to be. Moreover, this ‘place’ is notable primarily because of its radical absence of determinate form, its ‘ability’ to be everything on account of its being nothing in particular. Heidegger calls this mysterious ability to disclose by means of absence, the “presence of absence” (Anwesen von Abwesen), as well as “the forgotten mystery of being-there” (das vergessene Geheimnis des Da-seins).

One can challenge both Heidegger’s rhetoric of forgetfulness as well as the post-modern pretense to have ‘overcome’ metaphysics. Was the most remarkable fact of Dasein, its being the site of disclosure, really covered up by the tradition? Or, did the tradition think the being of the clearing differently, in a way that doesn’t condemn Dasein to its temporality (Zeitlichkeit) or to a historical appropriation by Being (Ereignis)? If the analysis of III.4 is correct, then a non-historicist alternative to Heidegger has been there from the very beginning. For Aristotle, the clearing is open because it is immaterial. Mind is radically open to the intelligibility of the world through its radical absence of determinate form.

Heidegger would doubtless respond that Aristotle’s account still describes Dasein by means of intraworldly entities. Even if Aristotle broached the phenomenon of ἀλήϑεια-1, the privative character of his description (immateriality or ἀ-μιγής) shows he failed to grasp Dasein’s peculiar mode of ex-istence. After all, privations and negations gain their intelligibility from the thing deprived or negated. On this account, one crudely distinguishes Dasein as something unlike intraworldly entities. In order to make this distinction, though, one’s heuristic must come from entities present or ready-to-hand rather than Dasein itself. One does not let Dasein speak for itself or exhibit its authentic mode of being-in-the-world.

Yet, this Heideggerian response overlooks Aristotle’s radical characterization of immateriality as nothing but potency for the reception of intelligibility. His use of ‘potent’ (δυνατός) does not readily harmonize with the senses of δύναμις or δυνατός enumerated in Book Δ of the Metaphysics. From this discrepancy, one may infer that the potency of νοῦς is not merely the negation or a privation of something present or ready-to-hand. The potency unique to mind, its very being, is sui generis.

In Metaphysics Δ, Aristotle says that there are three senses of δύναμις. First, δύναμις signifies the “source of motion or change in another thing or in the same thing considered qua other” (ἀρχὴ κινήσεως ἤ μεταβολῆς ἤ ἐν ἑτέρῳ ἤ ᾗ ἕτερον). In this sense, knowledge of architecture is a δύναμις with respect to what is being built. Likewise, the art of medicine is a δύναμις with respect to the sick man, even if it that art belongs to a doctor curing himself. His medicine relates to him qua sick. Second, δύναμις can mean that by which one “does something well or according to choice” (καλῶς ἐπιτελεῖν ἤ κατ᾽ προαίρεσιν). For example, when someone is able to play an instrument well, he has a δύναμις with respect to the instrument. Third, δύναμις signifies a state (ἕξις) that is impassive (ἀπαθής), changeless (ἀμετάβλετα), or made worse only through difficulty (μὴ ῥᾳδίως ἐπὶ τὸ χεῖρον εὐμετακίνητα). In this sense, a sturdy ship has a δύναμις because it is impervious to and can withstand severe weather. Similarly, light is a δύναμις with respect to darkness. Its very presence overwhelms and is immune to its contrary.

Moreover, something can be δυνατός in one of three senses. First, something is δυνατόν as possessing the source of change or motion such as the builder or the doctor. Second, something is δυνατόν if it has power over another, as the musician is δυνατός with respect to his instrument. Third, something is δυνατόν if it can change (μεταβάλλειν) or suffer (πάσχειν) anything whatsoever (ἐφ᾽ ὁτιοῦν).

The possible intellect is not a δύναμις in any of the above senses. First, νοῦς is not a δύναμις as a principle (ἀρχή) of motion or change in another qua other. The possible intellect does not change or move others, but is itself actualized by another. Second, it is not a δύναμις as a power for manipulating the intelligible. Νοῦς doesn’t control the intelligible the way a musician skillfully manipulates his instrument. On the contrary, νοῦς receives the intelligible, it is under its control. Third, though the possible intellect is ἀπαθής, it nonetheless ‘suffers’ the intelligible when it moves from potency to act.

Neither is νοῦς δυνατός in any of the above senses. First, it is not potent like a builder in relation to his materials. It does not effect a change but is itself changed. Second, the possible mind is not potent like the musician with respect to his instrument. Third, νοῦς does not ‘suffer’ alteration or locomotion. It does not move from place to place nor does it move from one contrary to another.

So in what sense is νοῦς nothing but potency? Aristotle himself struggles to articulate the peculiar change unique to νοῦς. In fact, he admits that he lacks a word for it. One is “forced to use words like πάσχειν and ἁλλοιοῦσθαι” even though these terms are inadequate (χρῆσθαι ἀναγκαῖον τῷ πάσχειν καὶ ἁλλοιοῦσθαι ὡς κυρίοις ὀνόμασιν). The sense in which νοῦς is δυνατός is sui generis.

Admittedly, it combines aspects of the third sense of δύναμις, being ἀπαθής, and the third sense of δυνατός, having the ability to suffer (πάσχειν). It is paradoxically both passible and impassible. Still, even these senses fail to capture the phenomenon. Nοῦς cannot be ἀπαθής as per the third sense δύναμις. It is not just some really strong or impervious thing in relation to a definite contrary. The ἀπάθεια of mind extends to every material object. On the other hand, it does not just suffer (πάσχειν) in the manner described by the third sense of δυνατός. Its being-potent surely implies more than the ability to go from a worse to a better state or vice-versa. First, the possible mind cannot go to a worse state—an odd fact in itself. Second, as mentioned above, it does not become better by changing from one contrary state to another. Νοῦς becomes better by being ‘more’ of itself, by knowing.

Does Aristotle’s failure to give an adequate phenomenology of νοῦς indicate the limitations of his standpoint? Does it indicate that he succumbed to Dasein’s tendency to interpret itself by means of intraworldly entities? I think the answer to both questions is no, if only because Aristotle is clearly aware that νοῦς is hard to talk about. It eludes the senses of δύναμις and δυνατός applicable to other entities (i.e. things ready and present-to-hand). It is paradoxical, an impassible-sufferer. Given these difficulties, one can agree with Heidegger when he says that νοῦς “is the phenomenon which causes Aristotle the most difficulty.”

Indeed, it causes Heidegger difficulty too, and for the same reason. Nοῦς is ἄνευ λόγου, something without and prior to speech. It is the only form of ἀληθεύειν that proceeds neither by way of κατάφασις and ἀπόφασις nor through σύνθεσις and διαίρεσις. As the ground of λόγος, of simple and complex kinds of taking-as, νοῦς is prior to λόγος and the beings λόγος displays.

Were Heidegger to respond that this defense still operates within the logic of worldly entities, one could make a tu quoque reply. If Aristotle is guilty of interpreting the clearing in terms of the present-at-hand or ready-to-hand, then Heidegger’s own account (and arguably any account) of existentialia is subject to this critique. For instance, Heidegger pleads with his reader to acknowledge that the possibility of Dasein is radically unlike the possibility of logical entities or the possibility of non-Dasein entities. As Heidegger puts it:

The Being-possible which Dasein is existentially in every case, is to be sharply distinguished both from empty logical possibility and from the contingency of something present-at-hand, so far as with the present-at-hand this or that can ‘come to pass.’ As a modal category of presence-at-hand, possibility signifies what is not yet actual and what is not at any time necessary. It characterizes the merely possible. Ontologically it is on a lower level than actuality and necessity. On the other hand, possibility as an existentiale is the most primordial and ultimate positive way in which Dasein is characterized ontologically. As with existentiality in general, we can, in the first instance, only make it ready as a problem. The phenomenal basis for seeing it at all is provided by the understanding as a disclosive potentiality-for-Being.

Like Verstehen and the other existentialia, then, νοῦς eludes categories applicable to beings present-at-hand or ready-to-hand. This evasion is possible because νοῦς, like Dasein, does not have but rather just is its possibilities. Recall again the radicality of Aristotle’s language. He says μηδ’ αὐτοῦ εἶναι φύσιν μηδεμίαν ἀλλ’ ἢ ταύτην, ὅτι δυνατός. Νοῦς does not have this or that possibility, it is nothing but possibility for the reception of intelligibility. Hence, it seems Aristotle, no less than Heidegger, arrived at an adequate characterization of the clearing that does justice to Dasein’s most peculiar mode of being.

Conor Stark
Conor Stark

Conor is a PhD student at the Catholic University of America (Washington, DC, US).


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