- Placing Goodness: The Concept of “Location” in Neville’s Axiological Naturalism
metaphysics of goodness is the work of an unrelentingly systematic mind, but this is no surprise at all. It is simply true to form for Bob Neville, who for decades has been working out the intricacies of his systematic thought. For Bob, being systematic has never meant being systematically selective of, but rather systematically attentive to the cosmic miscellany. This is no less true of his most recent work, in which he develops his strongly realist theory of goodness.
The work as a whole builds across three parts, each composed of four chapters, from the thesis of form as goodness to an account of personhood and human flourishing. These latter parts, where Neville transitions from cosmological considerations to specifically human ones, are tempting places to begin my comments. This is particularly true of chapter 9, where we not only get Neville’s familiar correspondence theory of truth as “the carryover of goodness” from object to interpreter by means of the interpretant, but also, and perhaps even more enticingly, a metaphysical grounding of our obligation to stand in truth-bearing relationships to things.
Ethical theorizing such as this, which aims to circumvent the opposition between modernist infallibilism and postmodernist relativism, is in short supply. And yet, for me to begin with it would be too hasty. I’ve set a more technical task for myself on this occasion. In this article, then, I want to address something prior (dare I say more foundational?) for Neville’s axiology: the idea of locating, placing, or positioning goodness.
In what follows, I will first examine the relationship between form, determinateness, and actuality insofar as this relationship bears upon his account of the whereabouts of goodness. From there, I will offer my understanding of what Neville means when he says that “goodness is resident in things,” with particular attention to how he distinguishes his aesthetic model of goodness [End Page 18] from Whitehead’s own. In so doing, I will take issue with some of Neville’s characterizations of Whitehead and attempt to account for these mischaracterizations by way of a mishandling of spatial language.
Early on, Neville writes: “The [model of goodness] I shall argue for is the aesthetic model according to which goodness is some kind of harmonious togetherness of things with balance, proportion, and measure, things that ‘just fit together.’” He continues: “It deserves the label ‘aesthetic’ because it holds that goodness is something grasped or appreciated in a kind of aesthetic vision or judgment, a matter of coherent perception” (Neville 1). Though not without reservations, it is Plato, Confucius, and Whitehead, rather than Aristotle and Peirce, whom he claims as his inspiration in this metaphysics of harmony and goodness. Goodness is not the realization of a thing’s nature; it does not involve a third term, such as an essence or ideal. To be actual is to be determinate, and to be determinate is to have form, and to have form is to be a harmonious togetherness of other things still in contrast, such as to have achieved relative order out of relative chaos. Harmony is therefore a two-term relationship, and indeterminateness is the lack of relationship. Goodness, Neville holds, is not the opposite of evil; it is the opposite of chaos.
All things, qua determinate (qua form), are good according to Neville, even if they can be bad for one another and therefore evil. “Evil,” he writes, “is the condition in which one harmony is bad for another harmony, as when a healthy germ infects an animal’s body” (xxv). Goodness is therefore the precondition of evil; it is ontologically prior. “[F]orm bears goodness,” writes Neville, “because of its form” (8).
This is not a popular thesis, he acknowledges. One of the reasons he gives for this unpopularity is what he calls “the cultural trickle-down of the modern scientific distinction between fact and value” according to which knowledge has to do with facts but value is a matter of taste. Another reason is likely a consequence of the first, namely, the “democratic impulse” to place all value judgments on an equal playing field...