Maritain’s Response: Willing Being

In her book The Life of the Mind, Hannah Arendt provides us with this fascinating quote by Maurice Merleau-Ponty: “To reduce perception to the thought of perceiving . . . is to take out an insurance against doubt whose premiums are more onerous than the loss for which it is to indemnify us: for it is to… move to a type of certitude that will never restore to us the ‘there is’ of the world.” (p. 49)

This indeed is the central philosophical problem since Descartes; and, I argue, the central political-theoretical problem of our time. The problem of truth is today a political problem.

Let’s explore one possible response to the problem posed by Descartes and reframed by Hegel. Jacques Maritain in Preface to Metaphysics:

“No sooner do we possess the intuition of intelligible extra-mental being, than it divides, so to speak under our eyes, into two conceptual objects. On the one side there is being as simply existing or capable of existence, as simply given to the mind, or, if you prefer, as a ‘thing’ in the modern sense of the word… On the other side, in another concept which is still being, but under a different aspect, being is perceived as involving certain exigencies and certain laws, or, if you prefer, as recognized, admitted, affirmed by the mind — or as perfection and determination. These two complementary aspects of being are apprehended by the mind, distinguished, in a purely ideal fashion, as two different concepts expressed by the same word.” 

Maritain thus acknowledges the same problem that Hegel points out in Phenomenology of Spirit. That there is a split in being at the moment of apprehension is taken as a given in philosophy. The question becomes what we do with this split.

Maritain’s approach is to recognize that in the event of perception, the mind “intuits” that between the two eidetic manifestations of this “split in being,” it is “thinking the same thing.” It is, in effect to will the identity principle:

“Then the mind intuits that in these two functionally different notions it is thinking of the same thing. It sees intuitively the first principle of all which it will formulate thus: each being is what it is. Here ‘each being’ is being given to the mind and ‘what it is‘ is its intelligible determination, being as affirmed by the mind. Being thus, if we may say so, duplicates itself. To its aspect as posited in existence it adds its aspect as intelligibly determined, as an essential quality.”

In an earlier post, I pointed out the necessity of the habitus and the moment of access to ens in quantum ens for comprehending the identity principle in all of its philosophical richness. It is what Maritain thinks makes this willing of the identity principle possible.

Hegel’s Journey

Hegel’s work sheds some light on the structure of the journey from Erlebnisse to Nous. In Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel devotes an entire chapter to the nature of sense-certainty that lays out the problem quite nicely. For this article, I cite the standard Miller translation with its immensely tasteful cover design (see below).

Sense-certainty, the knowledge that “I see a cup,” or “It is night,” Hegel calls the “concrete content,” of our sense perceptions. He admits that these perceptions seem like the richest and truest kind of knowledge, for sence-certainty seems to take in the entirety of its object in one fell swoop. If I see the cup, I know the cup in some capacity. Yet, upon further reflection, Hegel asserts that “…this certainty proves itself to be the most abstract and poorest truth… its truth contains nothing but the sheer being of the thing.” (p. 58).

Why is this so? Why is it that when I see the cup I know nothing about it other than that it is?

There is a sense here that Hegel is interested in establishing the difficulty of what I call the long road from the this to the what. Hegel calls the data of sense experience a “simple immediacy,” as in it lacks any sort of mediation of consciousness: “…here neither I nor the thing has the significance of a complex process of mediation; the ‘I’ does not have the significance of a manifold imagining or thinking [i.e., the mind has not yet put it into any context or named it, etc.]; nor does the ‘thing’ signify something that has a host of qualities…. the thing is… merely because it is… this is the essential point for sense-knowledge.”

The next assertion, following in the footsteps of Descartes, is the key assertion for modern philosophy. According to Hegel, sense-certainty necessarily splits the pure being into two mediated “thises.” The this I sense, and the “this as object.” (p. 59) This mediation comes through the thing and through myself. If, for example, I have bad eyesight, the apple might appear as a red blob. Mediation through the thing is a key ground assumption for Hegel, as the manifold (raw data) of sense-experience must come from something.

This is what Hegel terms the difference between essence and instance. It is that age-old problem of the one and the many, the problem of universals. Expressed in terms of language, what makes it possible for me to predicate something about the object and to be understood by someone else?

For his part, Hegel does admit that the object exists whether it is known or not. Conversely, he also admits that “there is no knowledge if the object is not there.” This is a key distinction to make in the light of modern impatience with idealist philosophy. The essence, the thing-in-itself is still there in an important way regardless of our knowledge of it.

Now we must ask whether the object must be as we know it through sense certainty. What do our senses actually tell us about reality? Hegel uses the example of the term “now.” If it is 11:00 PM and I say that “now it is night,” write down this truth, then reread it the next day at 11:00 AM, is the thing that I wrote untrue? When I wrote it, it was true using the methods of sense-certainty, yet at 11:00 AM the following day, it is not true to say “now is night.” But the truth of my written proclamation is not thereby negated. Hegel calls this type of assertion a universal.

The this of sense experience is another such universal. Hegel calls it “…the universal this; or… Being in general.” (p. 60) The manifold of sense experiences that constitute the event of perception come in the form of a collection of sense data, what Kant called pure intuition. But this collection of data comes from a “this,” a universal similar to the assertion of a “now.” The same exercise above can be done with the assertion of a “here.” “I” is a universal in this Hegelian sense as well. Each assertion of “I” is an individual instance that varies depending on who utters it.

Hegel’s crucial next step:

“Sense-certainty thus comes to know by experience that its essence is neither in the object nor in the ‘I’, and that its immediacy is neither an immediacy of the one nor of the other; for in both, what I mean is rather something unessential, and the object and the ‘I’ are universals in which that ‘Now’ and ‘Here’ and ‘I’ which I mean do not have a continuing being…” (p. 62)

While I do not continue on with Hegel to assert the whole of sense experience as its own essence. This is the jumping-off point for so many who end their philosophical journey in an unmoored relativism. The essence of experience must come from something other than itself. The ground for truth must exist, the question is whether and how we access it. Yet Hegel nicely outlines the problem I termed in the last post “From Erlebnisse to Nous.” How do we get from these manifold experiences of thises, heres, and nows to predication in language, or more importantly, the truth?

Jacques Maritain’s Habitus

In my last post I spoke about the problem as posed by Aristotle in the Posterior Analytics. I’d like to expound on this problem as posed elsewhere by Aristotle, this time in Book VI of the Nicomachean Ethics:

“If, then, the states of mind by which we have truth and are never deceived about things invariable or even variable are scientific knowledge, practical wisdom, philosophic wisdom, and intuitive reason, and it cannot be any of the three (i.e. practical wisdom, scientific knowledge, or philosophic wisdom), the remaining alternative is that it is intuitive reason that grasps the first principles.”

Nicomachean Ethics, 1141a 5 ff.

Here we find that intuitive reason that we saw before. The greek used here is nous, one of the watchwords for our current endeavor. What does Aristotle mean by nous? While I am not by any means ready to venture a global definition of the term at this point (indeed, a life spent solely in attempting to understand what nous is would not be ill spent), in De Anima we find Aristotle describing it in a limited way regarding its role in “intuitive reasoning” as follows:

“I call nous that faculty by which the soul reasons (dianoeitai) and
comes thereby to belief.”

De Anima, 429a 23

While there is some controversy over the issue, it seems clear to me that, based on the way Aristotle frames the role played by nous in Posterior Analytics, it must be this sort of faculty rather than just a deeper level of induction as Bolton argues in the paper cited above.

So we again return to the question from the last post: what kind of intuition could this be? One possible answer is to be found in Jacques Maritain’s Preface to Metaphysics. In the 3rd lecture of the book, Maritain describes a sort of intuitional or mystical experience that can provide one knowledge of the first principles. Maritain calls it an experience of the ens in quantum ens, or “being as such.” (p. 27)

Before proceeding, we must explain the role habitus plays in fertilizing the garden from which this moment of intuition can spring. Maritain thinks that, required for any such experience, one must attain to a certain capability or readiness in order to access the real. The section is worth quoting at length:

“As you know, to each science there belongs a distinctive intellectual virtue. There is, therefore an intellectual virtue proper to the metaphysician. And this virtue, or habitus, corresponds to being as the object of the intuition just mentioned. We must therefore distinguish two “Lights” in scholastic parlance, one pertaining to the object, the other to the habitus, or intellectual virtue. The characteristic mode of intellectual apprehension or eidetic visualisation — the degree of immateriality, of spirituality in the manner in which the mind grasps the object and conforms to it, demanded by the very nature of trans-objective reality as it presents to the mind as its object a particular intelligible facet — constitutes what the ancients termed the ratio formalis sub qua, the objective light in which at a given degree of knowledge objects are knowable by the intellect. At the same time proportionate to this objective light there is a subjective light perfecting the subjective activity of the intellect, by which the intellect itself is proportioned to a given object, fitted to apprehend it. That is why Thomists say that the habitus is a lumen, a light, not in the objective but in the effective order. For it is concerned with the production or effectuation of the act of knowing.” 

Jacques Maritain, Preface to Metaphysics (p. 26-27)

One possible way of conceiving the role of habitus is brought out nicely in Professor David Walsh’s magisterial book The Modern Philosophical Revolution: The Luminosity of Existence. Walsh ingeniously teases out a grand narrative from a litany of modern thinkers which all point to the absolutely essential role that the luminosity or mystery of the self plays in understanding the basis and proper limits of philosophy. Without a certain openness to the unutterable profundity of personal existence, philosophy becomes a useless academic exercise (or worse, a tool for justifying evil) rather than a means for understanding reality.

Habitus consists in a growing-toward this realization, an “opening up” to the contents of what is there for us in philosophy as a properly lifelong practice. Yet while the habitus paves the way in a sense for the moment of access to being itself, the experience of intuition is ontologically prior to the habitus. This flash of insight, made possible by habitus, is in a way kept alive after the fact as the metaphysician undergoing this process perceives the nature of reality with more and more clarity.

Proceeding to the actual experience itself, I again quote Maritain at length:

“We are confronted here with a genuine intuition, a perception direct and immediate, an intuition not in the technical sense which the ancients attached to the term, but in the sense we may accept from modern philosophy. It is a very simple sight, superior to any discursive reasoning or demonstration, because it is the source of demonstration. It is a sight whose content and implications no words of human speech can exhaust or adequately express and in which in a moment of decisive emotion, as it were, of spiritual conflagration, the soul is in contact, a living, penetrating and illuminating contact, with a reality which it touches and which takes hold of it.”

Maritain describes an experience in which one is able to apprehend being itself in one gargantuan and overflowing, sublime, yet fleeting moment. This sudden stroke of inexpressible knowledge, a flash “pregnant with ontological realism,” to use Maritain’s phrase, is akin to a mystical experience. It cannot be accessed through any technique or process. It comes not from superior technical knowledge of philosophy or any other subject. It is a stroke of genius, a moment of insight, a singular instance of absolute knowledge that allows one to know for the rest of his life that “I am a self… [and that I have access to] the reality of my being, the profound first principle which makes me exist outside nonentity.” (p. 28)  According to Maritain, from this foundation we can continue to cultivate the habitus into higher levels of knowledge through the continued practice of philosophy as a way of life.

From Erlebnisse to Nous

Aristotle writes in Posterior Analytics 100a16 ff.:

“…demonstration cannot be the source of demonstration, and therefore science cannot be the source of science; if, then, intuitive reason is the only necessarily true state other than science, it must be the source of science. It apprehends the first principle (arche), and science as a whole grasps the whole subject of study.

The fundamental presuppositions which ground science cannot be demonstrated through scientific methods. So how do we arrive at these principles? Aristotle thinks, according to this particular translation, that it is “intuitive reason” which provides the ground from which Aristotle can move forward. In another translation I found has it translated simply as “intuition.” Thus we arrive at the following formulation: intuition or intuitive reason apprehends the first principles underlying science. These principles have traditionally been conceived as things like the principle of identity (this thing is a cup; A=A), the principle of non-contradiction (a thing cannot both be and not be in the same way at the same time), or the excluded middle.

The key assumption here is that one needs a notion of a first principle in order to move forward with rational inquiry. In a word, we need to grasp this (or these) first principle(s) with something other than the cognitive tools of science in order to justify their use in science and logic.

Whence come these intuitions? When, as Hegel thinks, the object of sense experience becomes a universal, how do we come to agreement on what the object is? While this may not be a difficulty for most when it comes to normal objects of sense experience (although it is a perennial philosophical question), it becomes a bit more interesting when one considers the phenomenon of motivated perception and how we arrive at the sense that we “know” something. It becomes more interesting still when we examine the constitution of shared meanings such as moral virtue, the founding ideals of a country or the judgement of a piece of art.

Thus, we take it as assumed that our psychology often shapes how we perceive things. But if we humans are primordially nothing more than a bundle of individual perceptions driven by our own personal desires, how do we arrive at shared meanings? In a word, how do we get from Erlebnis to Nous?

This, I think is the question Gadamer is asking in his magisterial Truth and Method, which I just finished reading. At just under 500 very dense pages, it’s going to take me a while to digest all the themes that jumped out at me from the book.

When presented with Aristotle’s question, I found myself wondering, what kind of experience could it be to have such an intuition? What stuck out to me while reading the book is the question of how the understanding of these intuitions underlines a certain intentionality. In other words, of what is this intuition? One does not hear often of someone having a stroke of genius or vision of the identity principle. We do, however, often hear of out of body experiences or sudden mystical cognitions of “being itself” or some such thing. Much more often, we are told that these types of experiences might be a vision of God or the logos itself. As I argued in the About page, active intellect, logos, nous, transcendental ego, absolute knowing or the One might also be conceived as participating (so many other verbs could be used here) in this function, i.e., serving as the ground from which one might be able to move forward using pure reason.

I must stop for now, but more on this later.

Reading between the lines and other Straussian thoughts

Previously, I wrote about Strauss’s method of “reading between the lines.” After searching around for a link to a page that would explain this idea, I found that there were very few places on the internet where it is actually explained. To rectify this problem, I’d highly recommend reading Leo Strauss’s Persecution and the Art of Writing. It is a magnificent book.

But if you don’t have time to read it, I’d like to provide a quick précis of the idea. Essentially, Strauss explains that, oftentimes in history, writers are under certain constraints while writing. This may take a cultural form, as in Maimonides’ The Guide of the Perplexed, written under the constraints of Jewish hermeneutic tradition, or a legal form, as Spinoza felt in his critique of the relation between philosophy and theology Theologico-Politcal Treatise (apparently under threat of persecution by the Church). Whatever constraints an author may be under, they often are led to “hide” their “true” teaching behind layers of contradiction, ambiguity, obfuscation, or misleading emphasis. Thus, it is up to the reader in a sense to familiarize herself with this tendency and dive into a study of the historical, personal, linguistic, formal and cultural details related to a work.

Strauss breaks out two levels of a book that can be analyzed, the exoteric and the esoteric. This leads us to Strauss’s hermeneutic approach to literature, and what were, for me, the reason for reading the book in the first place. Tools like these are extremely important for any student of the humanities, particularly for the student of politics.


The exoteric is the level of the obvious, the level that at which most of us engage when we watch the average action/adventure/comedy film, read the news or an entertaining listicle on the internet. It’s for those moments when all we want is a good, entertaining story or “just the facts.” As Strauss points out, it’s also the level that Spinoza and many other Enlightenment thinkers wanted to popularize in order for the masses to advance into the daylight of widely-known scientific knowledge. Strauss calls this intelligible as opposed to hieroglyphic writing. Spinoza seems to want to make all writing intelligible so that everyone who cares to read any book can immediately (i.e., without mediation) understand it. According to Strauss, Spinoza wanted to end the practice of hieroglyphic writing to effect this change, even to the point of rejecting the entire tradition of political philosophy in the Tractatus Politicus.

However, when it comes to reading old books, including the work of Spinoza himself, this is only half the picture. Strauss spends a substantial portion of Persecution showing how Spinoza uses hieroglyphic techniques to mask what he really wants to say. And, in fact, Strauss argues that the real aim of the Theologico-Political Treatise was to articulate the relation between reason and revelation while providing practical suggestions for how the two should inform the political (p. 200).

Thus we are left wondering, is intelligible writing really even possible? Thinkers like Derrida and Gadamer hold that we are always involved in language in such a way that access to a sense of what the author meant or how he engaged with his social, intellectual and political milieu is not even possible. Strauss, on the other hand, holds that access of this kind is possible and that it in fact opens up a whole new level of understanding (esoteric) for the reader willing to do this type of intellectual heavy lifting.

This opens up the paradox for the writer trying to do this type of analysis who comes across writers like Spinoza who assert the possibility of intelligible, exoteric writing. In Strauss’s words,

“Historical understanding, the revitalization of earlier ways of thinking was originally meant as a corrective for the specific shortcomings of the modern mind. This impulse was however vitiated from the outset by the belief which accompanied it, that modern thought… was superior to the thought of the past. Thus, what was primarily intended as a corrective for the modern mind, was easily perverted into a confirmation of the dogma of the superiority of modern thought to all earlier thought. Historical understanding lost its liberating force by becoming historicism… (p. 158)

There was a meeting between Gadamer and Derrida on this point. I need to read it to get a better sense for how these thinkers understand this problem.

From Parmenides to Philebus: It’s a Process

Plato’s Parmenides is widely considered the most enigmatic of the Platonic dialogues, and rightly so. I think that one would do well to approach this dialogue by “reading between the lines” in the Straussian sense. In the dialogue, we encounter a young Socrates engaging with Zeno, at the time already in middle age, and Parmenides, a well-established master of the philosophical art. This seems to suggest, by form alone, that Socrates was not yet mature enough to take on the magisterial Parmenides.

I’d like to focus on the second part, in which Parmenides uses an idiosyncratic method to determine the nature of the One (alternatively, the Idea of Unity). This method consists in considering the consequences if the one is asserted to possess various accidents (being, not-being, motion, non-motion, becoming, perishing…).

While many scholars disagree whether the argument here is ultimately coherent, there is no doubt that it is difficult to follow and yields no obvious conclusions. If we again apply Strauss’s method as suggested, it seems that this dialogue is meant to demonstrate the difficulties in positing Platonic forms. One gets the sense that the reader is meant to thoughtfully consider all the associated problems with the forms and, in the process become better at defending them. It is, like so many of the dialogues, aporetic.

Luckily for us, Parmenides was not Plato’s only statement on the subject. We must consider the dialectic method laid out by Socrates in The Republic (34b3–c5) and, more importantly in Philebus. Consider Socrates’ words at 15c:

We say that one and many are identified by reason, and always, both now and in the past, circulate everywhere in every thought that is uttered. This is no new thing and will never cease; it is, in my opinion, a quality within us which will never die or grow old, and which belongs to reason itself as such. 

Later on, Socrates describes the process of differentiation that must take place in order for us to get a sense of the universal:

…we must always assume that there is in every case one idea of everything and must look for it—for we shall find that it is there—and if we get a grasp of this, we must look next for two, if there be two, and if not, for three or some other number; and again we must treat each of those units in the same way, until we can see not only that the original unit is one and many and infinite, but just how many it is. And we must not apply the idea of infinite to plurality until we have a view of its whole number [16e] between infinity and one; then, and not before, we may let each unit of everything pass on unhindered into infinity.”

Gadamer provides some insight into this process in his masterful The Idea of the Good in Platonic – Aristotelian Philosophy. It involves “…the division of a one into a determinate manifold that is itself eidetic-ideal.” (p. 119) Think here of listening to a symphony play a chord and then breaking out all the different notes played by all the different instruments. Further,

“… the art of differentiating only reaches its goal when one finds no more specifiable units- tones, phonemes, [etc.]… Differentiation takes place here within the noetic one, and it is the principle of number that the Philebus introduces in this context as the truly illuminating Promethean fire. Here, the Pythagorean heritage, the identification of being with number is explicated on the new level of noetic being” (p. 120, emphasis added).

This “noetic being,” a new concept of the forms which in other dialogues is asserted to subsist independently of individual objects, is one mode of being as pointed out in the last post. Here, Plato is in agreement with Aristotle. We must also note, that contrary to what we found in Parmenides, the manifold is not infinite in this case.

But most importantly, the key insight has been revealed: the dialectic of differentiation/synthesis is “… a world of signs and indices that directs us to the ideal.” (p. 120) Here Gadamer touches on the dialectically structured meaning, greater than the concrete whole, which one must seek in order to make sense of the problem of universals. Here we have a much better picture of how one engages in this dialectic than that given in The Republic. There is a growth into these kinds of truths that ought to take place. To be sure, dialectic is not constitutive of these truths, rather, it is our mode of access to them.

This growth is an ongoing process, in which the universal is at once unified in the logos of sound dialectical thought and manifold in the decisions we make in the moment of choice.

…the ideal of a life harmonized rightly, is – precisely as a result of dialogue – a logos, which directs us to an ergon (deed), to choosing what is right in the moment of choice. (p. 121)

It’s a process.

“Is there anything apart from the concrete whole?”

In the preliminaries of any wrestling match, there is a lot of “dancing around” the ring, when each participant noncommittally pokes around trying to get a feel for his opponent. I felt like this in trying to come up with a focused starting point for this blog, as you can see in the About page. The present circumstances require me to continue formulating questions, a process which could take quite a while. But progress often comes in knowing which questions to ask.

In Chapter 4 of Book III of the Metaphysics, Aristotle asks the question which should dog us today like it did the philosophers of the Middle Ages: “Is there anything apart from the concrete whole?” Obviously, for Aristotle, the answer is yes – in this context, he’s arguing in favor of the idea of universals which allow us to form knowledge of the quiddity (“whatness”) of a thing that we are perceiving.

Yet it is a long road from the “this” to the “what.” That is to say, the process that occurs between our sense perception of an object and our identification of it in the intellect is a difficult one to nail down. Exploration of this subject will form one of the areas of inquiry for this blog. What are these universals?

Aristotle goes on to argue in Book VII of the same work that these universals are not substances which subsist of themselves as Plato thought (although, as Hans-Georg Gadamer argues, Plato in the Philebus seems to stray from this doctrine). As St. Thomas Aquinas points out in his commentary on the Metaphysics, “[It is not]… necessary that a thing should have the same mode of being in reality that it has when understood by the intellect of a knower.” This is key: these “universals” may have an altogether different mode of being. What, then, is the nature of this mode of being?

These questions can become that much more important when we start to ask the vaunted Socratic questions: What is justice? What is virtue? What is the Good? It is hard to argue that these “transcendentals” don’t exist, because these types of universals, that is, ones that are abstracted up to these more abstract manifestations, move us. They can become in some sense our reason for doing things. Even unto death, as has been amply demonstrated in myriad historical situations.

I seriously doubt this guy was thinking about relative cultural values at this particular moment in his life.

Are these universals nothing more than cultural beliefs as philosophers like Heidegger and seemingly every modern sociologist seem to think? Or do they point to eternal truths that we are meant to discover as human beings? If eternal truths do exist apart from the concrete whole, it will be of paramount importance to delineate which types are of the eternal variety.