I wish to draw attention to a duality that runs through many areas of philosophy and elsewhere. It is a very abstract duality and it is not easy to find words to pin it down; yet it seems real and important. Here is a list in which the duality is apparent: volition and cognition, value and fact, desire and belief, energy and matter, cause and effect, potentiality and actuality, necessity and truth, premise and conclusion, meaning and use. Intuitively, the first item in each pair connotes something active, productive, generative, while the second connotes something passive, lacking in the ability to initiate things. The first item is connected to doing, the second to being. Thus mere cognition, fact and belief can’t affect motivation unless accompanied by passion, conation and the will; matter has no causal power without energy, the actual grows from the potential, necessity can force truth on a proposition, premises entail conclusions, meaning generates use. In each case one item is acting in a certain way while the other is going along for the ride. There is the bringer about and the brought about, or the essentially powerless. Belief may indeed guide desire in the production of action, but it isn’t an independent source of power. In some cases the concept of causation is implicit, but the notion to which I am drawing attention is not limited to causation, since it applies in cases like logical entailment (we don’t say the premises cause the conclusion, though we do say that they compel it).  The notion of production seems apt: a set of premises can produce a conclusion, meaning can produce use, necessity can produce truth, and values can produce actions. One thing gives rise to another. Reality contains two sorts of things: things that make and things that are made, the inherently active and the inherently passive. At any rate, we think this way in a variety of contexts; our concepts are colored by the distinction in question. The idea of such a duality is present in our conceptual scheme. I have no neat name for the duality in question, though I think it has clear application; just for convenience we could call it the “active-passive distinction”, though a nice Latin name would dignify the distinction. We are familiar with the is-ought distinction; this is the is-does distinction.

            Given the existence of the distinction, we can envisage various philosophical approaches to it. Some may regard one term of each pair as more basic than the other, some may seek to collapse the two, and some may contest the very meaningfulness of the distinction. In these alternatives we can recognize an array of familiar philosophical positions, ranging from the denial of all notions of power and influence to a stout affirmation of the reality of (possibly noumenal) active things (as in Schopenhauer’s generalized notion of Will). Then again, we can envisage an acceptance of a kind of deep metaphysical dualism—a kind of double ontology. One thing that stands out is that the active seems less empirically accessible than the passive: we don’t see the active agents, still less their mode of activity—as in Hume’s view of causation and in the cases of necessity, entailment, and meaning. There always seems to be a whiff of the mystical about productive things that offends the empiricist in us all. Even in the case of desire its productive power is hidden (as Hume observed). The idea of potential seems positively otherworldly. Entailment is puzzling and unobservable. Meaning is perplexing in relation to actual use (Wittgenstein). Values are regarded as problematic compared to facts. We have trouble understanding the realm of the productive. Skepticism about this realm is therefore predictable. But it also seems true that reality can’t be completely passive, a mere assemblage of constant conjunctions, accidental correlations, pure contingency, and unconnected atoms. For example, it can’t be that the premises and conclusion of a valid argument just happen to be true together; the premises must force the conclusion in some way (as meaning must force use in some way). The world can’t be a totality of unconnected facts; the facts need some sort of cement—causal, logical, or normative. There has to be some oomph somewhere. Reality must contain powers of several sorts, from the powers of the material world to the powers of morality (“I had to do it”). Plato thought that the Good created the entire world; that may be going a bit far, but the active nature of the Good is a sound insight on his part. The organism may need beliefs to guide its actions, but it is stuck without motivating desire (notice the phrase “vital spirit”). Some sort of metaphysical vitalism seems indicated (“pan-vitalism”). Even logic is animated in virtue of its deductive powers (inference is a type of action). Arithmetic has its “operations” (addition, subtraction, etc.). Morality has its imperatives. In addition to this activity we have non-vital stuff—stuff that just hangs there (as Berkeley thought of everything except the will, human or divine). At any rate, much philosophical controversy revolves around these ideas, and it is worth trying to make them more explicit and appreciating their pervasiveness. Just as people speak generally and abstractly of “realism” and “anti-realism”, without reference to specific areas of interest (e.g. Dummett), so we can speak generally and abstractly of “activism” and “anti-activism”. In discussing one area in which this distinction comes up we can acknowledge that it comes up in other forms in other areas, seemingly distinct. For example, similar issues come up in the philosophy of causation and in the philosophy of logic (the nature of necessitation), or in moral philosophy and the philosophy of language (virtues and meanings in relation to action). One might be a global activist or a local activist, or a global anti-activist or a local anti-activist (e.g. you believe in logical necessitation but not causal necessitation). One might even opt for total global activism, holding that all of reality consists solely of active powers or dispositions (Shoemaker comes close to this view in his theory of properties).  The extreme global anti-activist, on the other hand, holds that reality is nothing but a mosaic of unconnected atomic facts with not even logical entailment to hold things together (I can’t cite an historical example, but some positivists come close to this, e.g. Mach). This is the “one damn thing after another” school of thought (approvingly so described by A.J. Ayer): there is no “pushing” in the world, just co-existing. Everything is essentially powerless.

            This subject is very undeveloped, though it forms an undercurrent in many discussions (e.g. Wittgenstein on rule-following and the philosophy of physics). It is hard to know even how to approach it; ordinary language offers few clues. What exactly is this abstract notion of production or making or pushing (it isn’t supervenience)? Can it be given a formal treatment? Can it be made to unite apparently disparate areas of philosophy? How useful is it?[1]


[1] Dummett used to characterize realism in terms of logic: realism is the belief in bivalence, while anti-realism is the rejection of bivalence. In this vein we could characterize activism in logical terms: it is the belief that reality needs to be described by a modal logic, while anti-activism is the rejection of such a logic (so Quine would come out as an anti-activist metaphysically). The metaphysical activist holds that reality consists at least partly of modally described powers, while the metaphysical anti-activist resists that thesis, his ontology consisting of discrete impotent objects. 

2 replies
  1. Free Logic
    Free Logic says:

    Looks like you have approached or are revisiting the perennial fundamental questions of philosophy. You mention that the subject is underdeveloped, probably you refer to the level of theoretical advancements on it, because duality (-ies) are very ancient and constantly talked about subject across cultures, sciences and since times immemorial. And then there is always the question whether someone saying “Fundamentally, duality gives two different points of view of looking at the same object” (Atiyah in the context of math) is right or the guy who says just the opposite. Outside finite empirical matters which mostly can be practically decided this or the other way, realist and anti-realist are locking their horns forever (or embrace each other forever if your prefer yin and yang or peace and love style of metaphors).


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