Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Plotinus on divine simplicity, Part II

We’ve seen how Plotinus argues for the existence of God (or “the One”), and how his conception of God includes something like the doctrine of divine simplicity. But we also noted that for Plotinus, the One is but one of three divine “hypostases,” the other two – Intellect and Soul – being derivative from the One. Let’s look now at how he derives these two further hypostases (once again following Lloyd Gerson’s helpful lead).

First, as a Platonist, Plotinus is committed to the existence of the Forms, for the usual sorts of reasons. (See chapter 2 of The Last Superstition for a refresher course on Platonism. Though the book ultimately opts for Scholastic realism rather than Platonic realism, I try to make it clear why Platonism is intellectually attractive.) Given the Forms’ existence, Plotinus appears to take the following line of reasoning to demonstrate the existence of his second divine hypostasis:

1. The Forms constitute a complex system of eternal necessary truths.

2. This system can exist only virtually in the One, not actually, since the One is not complex but absolutely simple.

3. So there must be a separate, derivative hypostasis to ground the actuality of these truths.

4. But eternal truths cannot exist except as contemplated by an eternal knower.

5. So this derivative hypostasis must be an Intellect.

Once again, let’s comment on the argument step by step (and once again, not everything I have to say by way of commentary should be attributed either to Plotinus or Gerson). Things are what they are because they instantiate certain Forms or universals. This individual triangle and that one are what they are because they instantiate triangularity, this individual cat and that one are what they are because they instantiate catness, and so forth. The Forms are, accordingly, essential to any complete explanation of the world. They are eternal and necessary – this or that triangle comes and goes, but triangularity does not and cannot. They are also logically interrelated in a way that entails various eternal and necessary truths – anything instantiating triangularity necessarily also instantiates trilaterality, anything instantiating threeness necessarily also instantiates oddness, and so forth.

That gives us step (1) of the argument. And the eternity and necessity of the Forms, together with their status as (part of) the ultimate explanation of things, would seem to entail their divinity. Since the One is the divine source of all, the Forms must exist in the One. And yet, as step (2) tells us, since the system of Forms exhibits a kind of complexity, it cannot exist “actually” in the One, which is absolutely simple, but only “virtually.” (Think of the way fire exists “virtually” in a match in a way it does not exist even virtually in a toothpick, since the former has an inherent power to generate fire that the latter does not. The fire exists “actually” only when the match is struck.)

At the same time, the Forms must exist “actually” if they are to explain anything. Hence, step (3) concludes, there must be a second-most fundamental explanatory principle of all reality after the One, in which the Forms are actualized – divine (since it is eternal, necessary, and part of the ultimate explanation of the world) but derived from the One. What is the nature of this “hypostasis” (to use the traditional Neo-Platonic language)? Anticipating a line of thought that would later become associated with St. Augustine, Plotinus argues that though eternal truths exist independent of the material world and independent of any finite mind (this much being familiar from Plato), they must nevertheless exist only as contemplated by some mind, namely an infinite mind (step (4), a move that arguably goes beyond Plato and makes Plotinus’ position a “Neo-” Platonism, though Plotinus himself didn’t see it that way). And thus we reach the conclusion that the second hypostasis must be thought of as a kind of divine Intellect.

But we are, in Plotinus’ view, still short of a complete account of the ultimate causes of the world. This brings us to his argument for Soul, the third of the three hypostases, which can be summarized as follows:

1. Intellect, since it contains the Forms, explains why things have the natures they have.

2. But the objects of the Intellect are not distinct from the Intellect itself.

3. And some things desire objects outside themselves (e.g. a plant “desires” to grow and flourish).

4. So Intellect cannot explain these desires.

5. So a third hypostasis is needed to explain them, namely Soul.

This argument might seem even more difficult to understand than the other two we’ve considered, but I think if we unpack it carefully we can see that it is not all that mysterious, at least given certain key metaphysical assumptions held in common by many ancient philosophers. Keep in mind that the point of Plotinus’ theory of the three hypostases is to show what must be the case if the world we know is to exist at all. It is to provide an ultimate explanation. The One is the ultimate explanation of the being or existence of things. Intellect is the explanation of their natures. But the world of our experience has, we might say, both its static and its dynamic aspects. The nature of a cat is what it is, unchangingly. As step (1) reminds us, Intellect is the explanation of why it has that nature. But as a living thing, a cat also goes through stages of development. It doesn’t exhibit every aspect of its “catness” all at once. In general, living things exist in a way that involves the gradual realization of various ends. Plants “desire” or “seek” to grow and flourish, acorns “aim” to become oaks, and so forth. Most living things do not consciously seek to realize such ends, of course. What we have here is best understood along the lines of Aristotle’s conception of final causality, “goal-directedness” in nature that is for the most part entirely unconscious and unthinking.

This “dynamic” side of the natural order is something Intellect does not explain. The reason is that goal-directedness or final causality involves one thing being “directed toward” something outside itself, and there is nothing like that in Intellect. As I have noted in several earlier posts (e.g. here and here), for ancient and medieval philosophers, thought does not involve the intellect’s “representing” the world outside it, but rather a kind of identity of the intellect with the nature of the thing it knows. This is why step (2) tells us that (the divine) Intellect is not distinct from the Forms it knows; in knowing a Form it does not “point to” something beyond itself, but is rather, in a sense, identical with the Form. (Again, see the earlier posts just linked to for more on this conception of thought.) Since there is no “pointing beyond itself” in Intellect, step (4) concludes that Intellect cannot account for those aspects of the natural world (noted in step (3)) that do involve a thing’s “pointing beyond itself” – that involve “desire,” goal-directedness, final causality. (Plotinus focuses on living things, but to the extent that final causality, properly understood, pervades the natural order in the ways discussed in many previous posts, all of material reality would seem to require such explanation for the same reason living things do.) There must, then, be a third-most fundamental explanatory principle of all reality after the One and Intellect, one which accounts for this “directedness” of things towards certain ends outside them, and this is what Plotinus means by Soul.

It will not have escaped the reader’s notice that Plotinus’ three divine hypostases – the One, Intellect, and Soul – are at least vaguely reminiscent of the three divine Persons of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. Is the parallel more than superficial? I’ll address this question in a third and final post on Plotinus and divine simplicity.

17 comments:

mpresley said...

Like others before me, I just want to thank you for taking the time and providing this material. I know it's not as if your're making a lot of money off this site (I seem to be missing the ads when I log on--must be my broswer settings...), and you haven't asked for contribs as far as I know. I'm guessing that people pay you for this sort of thing in real life? Oh well. We just get your insight; for their $ they get to experience your sharp red pen.

WmTingley said...

Prof. Feser,

I too would like to thank you for your clear writing that makes subtle distinctions accessible to the layman. I've learned a lot as a consequence.

Your last paragraph anticipates the most important question I had, so I look forward to your third post on Plotinus. I have another question, however.

Should we understand what is "virtual" as a potency? If so and the One is pure act and the complex of Forms is identical with the divine Intellect, does that mean that the Forms are themselves in some sense fully actualized?

If so, would this be analogous to a mathematical formula being actualized in the sense that it is fully stated relationship between elements (e.g., F=ma states the relationship between mass and acceleration that can be identified as force)? Or am I on the wrong track?

Ilíon said...

"2. But the objects of the Intellect are not distinct from the Intellect itself."

Really? What a curious assertion.

mpresley said...

Really? What a curious assertion.

Why curious? The explanation follows in the text:

(2) tells us that (the divine) Intellect is not distinct from the Forms it knows; in knowing a Form it does not “point to” something beyond itself, but is rather, in a sense, identical with the Form.

Ilíon said...

Is that really an explanation? Or is it simply a restatement of the assertion?

mpresley said...

Well, it's an "explanation" in the context of describing Plotinus' theory of divine simplicity and, as such, is intelligible (and more than something trivial or redundant). I was just not sure why you thought it to be curious.

Edward Feser said...

mpresley and Wm Tingley,

Many thanks for the kind words -- I do appreciate it!

Wm,

No, it should not be understood as a potency, insofar as the One, being absolutely simple or non-composite, cannot in any way be a mixture of act and potency. Think instead of the way the conclusion of a deductively valid argument is contained virtually in the premises. Intellect and Soul necessarily "follow" from the One the way the conclusion necessarily follows from the premises.

Ilion,

Yes, it does sound odd, especially if we think of "identity" in terms of the identity relation in modern logic. But that is not how "identity" is being used here. The idea is rather that the intellect is "formally identical" with its object, not identical full stop. That is to say, in knowing a triangle (for example) the intellect takes on the form of triangularity, but without becoming a triangle -- that's just what it is to know a thing, viz. to take on its form without becoming a thing of the sort the form is a form of.

Matthew said...

First, as a Platonist, Plotinus [...]

Try saying "Plotinus the Platonist" really fast three times in a row.

Ilíon said...

Plotinus/Feser: "2. But the objects of the Intellect are not distinct from the Intellect itself. ... (the divine) Intellect is not distinct from the Forms it knows; in knowing a Form it does not “point to” something beyond itself, but is rather, in a sense, identical with the Form."

Ilion: "Really? What a curious assertion."

MPresley: "I was just not sure why you thought it to be curious."

E.Feser: "Yes, it does sound odd, especially if we think of "identity" in terms of the identity relation in modern logic. But that is not how "identity" is being used here. The idea is rather that the intellect is "formally identical" with its object, not identical full stop. That is to say, in knowing a triangle (for example) the intellect takes on the form of triangularity, but without becoming a triangle -- that's just what it is to know a thing, viz. to take on its form without becoming a thing of the sort the form is a form of."

Mr Feser,
Firstly, while you might be said (in the modern parlance) to be channeling Plotinus, you remain yourself, you remain a member of the present-day society -- isn't it rather self-defeating to use terminology that you know your audience will not understand as you wish it to be understood?

[Also, even if it is understood as you mean it, does it make sense?]

The reader may recall that I recently characterized Plato's metaphysics as: "Reality consists of unthought thoughts." By this I mean that Plato's 'Forms' are "unthought thoughts" (and I mean that "in terms of the identity relation in modern logic.")

So, it seems, based on Mr Feser's two recent threads on Plotinus, that the Neo-Platonists saw the problem with "unthought thoughts" [and it took them only about four centuries!] and put their minds to solving that philosophical problem ... by positing another, or three, 'Forms' to serve as "containers" for all the other Forms.

And, it seems to me (based admittedly on my over-all understanding of Mr Feser), that the Aristotlian-Thomists still are not addressing the real foundatonal flaw in Plato, the "unthought thoughts."

Ilíon said...

Ilion: "So, it seems, ... that the Neo-Platonists saw the problem with "unthought thoughts" ... [and "solved" the] problem by positing another, or three, 'Forms' to serve as "containers" for all the other Forms. "

It seems to me that Plotinus is making a move which has similarities to what modern-day materialists attempt to do with minds, and as critiqued by Richard Swinburne. You know, the whole "consciousness is a subjective perception, rather than an objective fact, in just the way that 'redness' is" gambit.

Plotinus' 'Intellect' isn't an intellect, is it? It's another 'Form,' another idea/concept which exists all-on-its-own?

Plato's version of reality doesn't start with a mind, it starts with ideas existing independently of any mind. So far, I don't see that the Neo-Platonists have seen the real problem with Plato.

WmTingley said...

Think instead of the way the conclusion of a deductively valid argument is contained virtually in the premises.

Interesting. I think I got it. Thanks.

Edward Feser said...

isn't it rather self-defeating to use terminology that you know your audience will not understand as you wish it to be understood?

I'm assuming regular readers of this blog are well aware that I am an Aristotelico-Thomist, and thus that many of my basic philosophical commitments are very different from those of most contemporary philosophers. And I made reference to earlier blog posts in which I had explained the ideas in question in greater detail. Surely that should suffice for the purposes of the present blog post? (If I had to give a mini course in the differences between classical/medieval thought and modern thought every time I posted on the former, I'd never get anything else done.)

the Neo-Platonists saw the problem with "unthought thoughts" [and it took them only about four centuries!]

"Unthought thoughts" is your term, not Plato's. And while I think his position is wrong, it isn't as silly as you seem to think. Whether universals, propositions, etc. should be regarded as "thoughts" in the relevant sense isn't obvious, and needs argument if it is to be established. Furthermore, the idea in question didn't suddenly leap into existence with Plotinus. Platonism had a long and complex history between Plato and Plotinus (and after Plotinus, for that matter).

the Aristotlian-Thomists still are not addressing the real foundatonal flaw in Plato, the "unthought thoughts."

Sure they have. The view that universals are ideas in the mind of God has always been part of Thomism.

Plotinus' 'Intellect' isn't an intellect, is it? It's another 'Form,' another idea/concept which exists all-on-its-own?

No, it's not a Form. It's an intellect. That's why he calls it "Intellect."

Anonymous said...

all hail Plantinga!

Amelius said...

"1. Intellect, since it contains the Forms, explains why things have the natures they have.

"2. But the objects of the Intellect are not distinct from the Intellect itself.

"3. And some things desire objects outside themselves (e.g. a plant “desires” to grow and flourish).

"4. So Intellect cannot explain these desires.

"5. So a third hypostasis is needed to explain them, namely Soul."

That isn't Plotinus' line of thought. Intellect, like the One before/above it, is creative by nature (so to speak, because the One is beyond "nature" or any other descriptors, of course). In effect, Intellect must create something out of the "superabundance" of its being. What the One creates (and without being diminished or in any way affected by creating) is Intellect, which is the most perfect possible reflection of the One at a level of manifest reality. And what Intellect creates (likewise without being diminished or affected) is Soul, which is in turn the most perfect possible reflection of Intellect at the next level of manifest reality. It's true that Soul does have the characteristic of desiring, but it certainly isn't there just to provide an explanation for desire.

Also, it may seem a bit hair-splitting, but Plotinus doesn't describe Intellect as infinite. He's quite clear that one of the things that separate Intellect from the One is limitedness, and he also says quite definitely in several places (sorry I can't give you Ennead and verse at the moment) that the number of Forms is finite. Intellect, he says, is indeed infinite in power but not in any other sense.

Finally, regarding Ilion's question about "objects of thought" not being distinct from Intellect: What Plotinus says (and it may be a difficult idea to digest) is that Intellect "thinks itself;" that is, Intellect is simultaneously thinker, thinking and thought. It's essential to remember that for Plotinus, Intellect (Nous) is a living, dynamic reality, not a static aggregation of sort of crystallized abstractions. It may be eternal and unchanging, but it's also "perfect life and perfect being" and "boiling over" with creative power, to use some of Plotinus' characteristic phrases.

Axiothea said...

I’ve read your parts 1 and 2 on Plotinus and regret to say that I don’t find much Plotinus in them. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but the impression I get is that you haven’t read Plotinus, you’ve read one book about Plotinus’ philosophy and have gleaned from it whatever you think supports your preconceived views.

For example, you write:

“It will not have escaped the reader’s notice that Plotinus’ three divine hypostases – the One, Intellect, and Soul – are at least vaguely reminiscent of the three divine Persons of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. Is the parallel more than superficial?”

Well, it will not have escaped the notice of the careful student of the history of religion that the Christian Fathers were heavily influenced by Platonism in general and Neoplatonism in particular. One can start with Clement of Alexandria and Origen, if not the Gospel of John. Augustine quotes large chunks of Plotinus verbatim, and the works of Pseudo-Dionysius are altogether a Christianization of Proclean Neoplatonism.

I personally don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that orthodox trinitarian doctrine consists entirely of an attempt to synthesize Neoplatonic trinitarianism with the ambiguous references in Judeo-Christian scripture to Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Anyone who has read Philo of Alexandria or Josephus understands the ongoing effort of the provincials of the Hellenistic era to justify their beliefs in terms of the prevailing (and strongly Platonistic) cultural values of their rulers. I think the prologue of the Gospel of John (and perhaps the gospel as a whole) is another example of the same phenomenon.

What I’m saying is that you’re looking through the wrong end of the telescope in the passage I quoted above. You appear to be working up to claiming that Plotinus provides independent support for Christian theology, when in fact that theology is derived from Plotinus and his predecessors and successors. This is all ground that was thoroughly worked over in the first few centuries A.D. by the philosophers and the Christian apologists, and it might have been nice to see who would have won if the weight of the Roman state hadn’t put its thumb on the scales with the conversion of Constantine. But I’ll be interested in seeing what you actually argue in the promised part 3.

Edward Feser said...

Funny, "Amelius" and "Axiothea" sure sound like the same person. (Or maybe the latter is an emanation of the former?)

Anyway, sorry, whoever you are, but I have in fact read a fair bit of the Enneads, as well as several secondary sources. And I have also been quite explicit that what I say about Plotinus here is a reconstruction of what seems implicit in his position, and specifically a reconstruction based on what Gerson has said. Nor have I pretended to be putting forward the full story about Plotinus' system. (Why anyone would think I was trying to do such a thing in a couple of blog posts, I have no idea.)

So, yes, there's a lot more to his derivation of the hypostases than what I talk about here. And yes, as with the views of all major philosophers, people can take issue with Gerson's take and/or mine. What else is new?

In any event, I'm at a loss as to why you accuse me of harboring some sort of hidden agenda, since I have neither endorsed nor criticized Plotinus' views here, but just tried to set (some of) them out. In particular, I have so far said nothing at all about the relationship between Plotinus' views and Christian ones. All I've said is that this is something I would address in the next post.

From that alone you've somehow already deduced what I'm going to say, and faulted me for not including in that not-yet-published (or even finished) third post the mini history-of-theology lesson you've treated us to.

What can I say? You have truly amazing exegetical powers. Since they include the ability to understand what I write before I've even written it, how can I doubt that your grasp of past writers like Plotinus is superior too?

Matthew said...

Hi Prof,
I have a question about divine simplicity.
I was never able to understand it fully, let me lay out my reasons:

Does divine simplicity hold that God is identical to every attribute that he has, or just the divine attributes? I know that you would say that there is something in God that is analogous to power in us (and this something is identical to God, etc.), but is there something in God that is analogous to the property "being so that is will rain on day X at time Y in year Z" that I have? I don't think that you believe that. So in which way does God have those contingent properties?
Is God analogous to self-identity in us?