Lagrange's First Critique of Idealism

How can philosophy begin with being if the only object available to us is being-as-known? How can we assure ourselves that being-as-known corresponds to being-as-itself?

Being-as-itself is opposed to being-as-known, and it is impossible that we should be able to transcend being-as-known and arrive at being-as-itself since all being available to us is necessarily being-as-known. Idealism, therefore, is inescapable.

In order to answer such an argument we must first make a distinction. Ideas or representations, what constitutes being-as-known, are that by which we know things and not the proper objects of knowledge. The idea is, of itself, an intentional and relational being which is necessarily related to that of which it is an idea. It is only when we misconceive of the idea as an object that can be considered apart from the object to which it relates that the Idealist objection appears reasonable. The idea, then, becomes a material object that is just as much of a primary substance as what we would normally call a primary substance.

As an essentially relative thing, the idea is, against the Idealists, simply unintelligible without its expressive function.


Where There is No Mean

"Not every action or emotion however admits of the observance of a due mean. Indeed the very names of some directly imply evil, for instance malice, shamelessness, envy, and, of actions, adultery, theft, murder. All these and similar actions and feelings are blamed as being bad in themselves; it is not the excess or deficiency of them that we blame. It is impossible therefore ever to go right in regard to them—one must always be wrong; nor does right or wrong in their case depend on the circumstances, for instance, whether one commits adultery with the right woman, at the right time, and in the right manner; the mere commission of any of them is wrong. One might as well suppose there could be a due mean and excess and deficiency in acts of injustice or cowardice or profligacy, which would imply that one could have a medium amount of excess and of deficiency, an excessive amount of excess and a deficient amount of deficiency. But just as there can be no excess or deficiency in temperance and justice because the mean is in a sense an extreme, so there can be no observance of the mean nor excess nor deficiency in the corresponding vicious acts mentioned above, but however they are committed, they are wrong; since, to put it in general terms, there is no such thing as observing a mean in excess or deficiency, nor as exceeding or falling short in the observance of a mean." (Nic. Eth.1107a10-25)

When most of us discuss morality, we tend to speak about things like murder, theft, abortion, homosexual activity, etc. In other words, we speak about issues which are evil per se. To the extent that we, as a people, cannot come to a common understanding of what is evil per se and what is not, we are vicious and so is our culture. Aristotle is seeking to explain the virtues and to help people who already have decent habits to better deliberate in order to make more virtuous choices, so he is not primarily writing about actions like murder or adultery. Being a good person consists in much more than deciding what is intrinsically immoral and what is not. If we cannot not even agree on this one paragraph then how can we expect to fully understand and live out our human happiness communally?


Intellect as Immaterial

For Aristotle, living things are understood as composites of body and soul. Body, which is matter, is informed by soul, which is form. Matter is also potency, or that out of which something is made, and form is act, or that which makes the matter an actual substance. Following this conceptual correspondence we can say that body, as matter, is potency, and soul, as form, is act. The body and soul composite is merely a specific kind of potency and act composite, namely, the kind proper to living things. Aristotle discusses the different powers of soul and then distinguishes living things according to the powers of soul most proper to them. Plants, for instance, have a nutritive or generative soul, while animals have a sensitive or perceptive soul. Human beings, however, have both the nutritive and sensitive powers, but neither of these are most proper to human beings as such. For humans, the power to understand, commonly referred to as the intellect, is what characterizes soul. There is a difference, though, that divides the human soul from the souls of animals and plants and it is found within Aristotle’s descriptions of each. Whereas the nutritive and sensitive powers require bodily organs in order to be actualized, the human soul cannot have any such organ.
    When Aristotle is discussing understanding he compares it to perceiving, both of which somehow consist in the reception of some object. This power of understanding, intellect, is characterized primarily by its ability to receive form. As something receptive, intellect is in potency with respect to all of the things which it is able to understand. While it is understanding something, or after having understood something, the intellect is, in a sense, actually what it understands, it contains within itself the form of the object of its understanding. This presents us with a problem.
    Remember that the body and soul division is a specific kind of matter and form division, the latter being found within all material reality and not just in living or organic things. All material substances are, by nature, composites of matter and form. But if the intellect, like matter, is able to receive form, then the intellect, like matter, would actually become the substance in question. For some matter to be in the possession of a certain form, a cat, for instance, is nothing more than actually being this same composite substance. For some matter to be informed by the soul of a cat is just what it is to be a cat. This distinction is at the heart of Aristotle’s ontology, but when applied to the intellect it seems incoherent. If understanding what it is to be a cat is identical with saying that my intellect is in the possession of the form of a cat, then the intellect, if it requires a bodily organ, upon understanding what a cat is, would quite literally become a cat. This is obviously not the case, though. The intellect is able to understand all types of forms and yet is never actually a material substance informed by the understood form in question. The implication, then, is that the intellectual power of the human soul cannot possibly require a bodily organ in order to actualize itself. Hence the intellect must be immaterial.