Thursday, April 23, 2020

The pursuit of perfection and the great chain of being

Consider the following two plausible Aristotelian theses:

  1. A substance naturally pursues each of its own perfections.

  2. Every natural activity of a substance is a perfection of it.

This threatens an infinite regress of pursuits. Reproduction is a perfection of an oak tree. So by 1, the oak naturally pursues reproduction. But by 2, this natural pursuit of reproduction is itself a perfection of the oak. So, by 1, the oak naturally pursues the pursuit of reproduction. And so on, ad infinitum.

So, 1 and 2, though plausible, are problematic. I suggest that we reject 1. Perhaps the oak tree pursues reproduction but does not pursue the pursuit of reproduction. Or perhaps it pursues the pursuit of reproduction, but doesn’t pursue the pursuit of the pursuit of reproduction. How many levels of pursuit are found in the substance is likely to differ from substance to substance: it is one of those things that the substance’s form determines.

We might say that there are more levels of pursuit in a more sophisticated substance. Thus, perhaps, non-living things only have first order pursuits. To use Aristotle’s physics as an example, the stone pursues being in the center of the universe. But the stone does not pursue the pursuit of being in the center of the universe. But in living things, there are multiple levels. The oak tree grows reproductive organs with which it will pursue reproduction, and in growing the organs it pursues the pursuit of reproduction.

Here is an intriguing hypothesis: in human beings, 1 and 2 are both true. Thus there is thus a kind of (potential?) infinity at the heart of our pursuits. For we are capable of forming a mental conception of our perfection as such, which enables us to pursue our perfections as perfections. If an angel offers a dog food, the dog will take it, since it can conceive of food, and thereby become perfected. But even an angel cannot offer a dog perfection as such, since the dog cannot conceive of a perfection as such. However, we can: if an angel says: “If you ask for it, I will make you perfect in some respect or other, without any loss of perfection in any other respect”, that’s a deal we can understand, and it is a deal that is attractive to us, because we pursue perfection as such.

If the above is right, then we have a kind of deep teleological differentiation between three levels of being:

  1. Non-living substances pursue first order perfections only.

  2. Living substances have at least one meta-level of pursuit: they pursue the pursuit of some or all of their first order perfections.

  3. Rational substances have infinitely many meta-levels of pursuit, at least potentially.


Avraham said...

Would not Hegel help for this problem? I mean it is not a chain with no end. It starts at Being and ends at The Absolute Spirit. [At least that is how I understood what McTaggart was saying in his describing Hegel's Logic.]

Brandon said...

'Pursuit', though, suggests that it's change toward completion, and thus not a perfection at all. There is an ambiguity, I think, in (2), in that we can say that substances naturally 'act' in the sense of change toward an end, which is imperfect act and thus not a perfection, and we can say that substances naturally 'act' in the sense of activities that include their own end, and thus are complete activities (and 'completeness' and 'perfection' are synonyms here).

I also wonder if 'pursuit' is like 'trying'. Trying to do X is also trying to try to do x, and trying to try to try to do X, and so forth; but this distinction among these is purely a logical distinction, and in fact you do all the levels at once because they are just distinct ways of characterizing the same act of trying. Perhaps this is related to your potential infinity suggestion -- the levels are in fact just dividing further one and the same action.

Harrison Lee said...

Maybe a way out of the regress could be mounted on the distinction between “phase virtues”—virtues proper to a phase in an individual’s life—and “virtues proper.” The pursuit of perfection may be a phase virtue, but it is not a virtue proper. Correspondingly, it’s not a natural activity to *pursue* perfection once one already has it. That description of the expression or attainment of perfection is too weak to pick out the aspect under which it is virtuous or “natural,” even if the expression or attainment of perfection concurrently involves a pursuit of perfection.

Alexander R Pruss said...


That's a really good point. I think I need a different term than "pursues", as "pursues" suggests you don't have it. How about "strives for"? Even when you have perfection now, you strive to have it in the future.

Consider the common hypothesis that the man who was caught up to the seventh heaven, whom Paul speaks about (and whom most readers take to be Paul), experience the beatific vision. Surely while having that beatific vision it made sense for the man who strive for its maintenance, at least in the sense of having the disposition to answer "Yes" should God ask: "After you come back to your earthly life, do you want to return to the beatific vision?"