Formalist Existentialism?

The English translation of Alain Badiou’s Being and Event III: The Immance of Truths has just been published. This will not be a review of the book, which I have only begun to read; I may say more about it in future, but for now I’m just taking it as an occasion for more general comment.

Badiou’s deepest influences are Sartrean existentialism and a kind of extreme formalist view of mathematics. For Sartre, what distinguishes the human is an ability to make utterly arbitrary choices. Such views have historically been justified by appeals to human likeness to an omnipotent God that, while commonly raised by religious sectarians, actually diverge from more broadly accepted views of orthodoxy in religion, which temper appeals to raw infinite power by emphasizing that God is good and more reasonable than we are, and therefore does not act arbitrarily. Sartre and Badiou are both militant atheists who aim to ground the argument for human arbitrariness in some other, nonreligious way.

I think what we need for ethics is to recognize that we are beings who partake of an active character. We do things, and along the way we make choices between alternatives, but real-world decisions — the only kind there are — are never made in a vacuum. I think activity necessarily involves purposefulness (seeking some good, i.e., something judged by someone to be good in some way, even if we would completely reject the judgment). Any kind of purpose at all is incompatible with complete arbitrariness. (See also Beings.) But Badiou would disqualify this whole line of thought, because he doesn’t believe in ethics or in purposes that are independent of arbitrary decision.

I call Badiou’s appeals to formalism in mathematics extreme because — utterly contrary to the spirit of the early 20th century program of David Hilbert, which is usually taken as the paradigm of mathematical formalism — Badiou claims that his formalist arguments directly apply to the real world. The whole point of Hilbert’s formalism is that it doesn’t care about the real world at all. For Hilbert, mathematics consisted in purely hypothetical elaboration of the consequences of arbitrary axioms and definitions. He likened this to a kind of game.

Badiou’s use of purely formal elaboration from arbitrary starting points is decidedly not hypothetical. According to Badiou, Paul Cohen’s theorems about generic subsets, for instance, are supposed to directly lead to political consequences that are supposed to be liberating. We are supposed to get some enlightenment from considering, e.g., immigrant workers as a generic subset, and this is supposed to represent a kind of unconditional or “absolute” truth that is nonetheless immanent to our concrete experience. But the treatment of arbitrary hypotheses as unconditional truths is utterly contrary to what Hegel meant by “absolute” knowledge, which I would argue is really supposed to involve the exact opposite of arbitrariness. (See also Hegelian Finitude.)

I am only a moderately well-informed mathematical layman and claim no deep understanding of Cohen’s results, but the basic idea of a generic set or subset seems to be that it is an arbitrary selection of elements from some pre-existing set. Being arbitrary, it has no definition or characteristic function (other than by sheer enumeration of its elements). But in classical set theories, new sets and subsets can be formed from an arbitrary set. Badiou relates this to Georg Cantor’s proof that any set has more subsets than elements. In itself, I find the latter unobjectionable. But Badiou likes classical set theory because it gives a putative mathematical respectability both to arbitrary beginnings and to actual infinity.

According to Badiou, belief in actual infinity is revolutionary and good, whereas disbelief in actual infinity is conservative and bad. Infinity is supposed to be revolutionary precisely because it is unbounded. This just means that it can be used as a putative license for arbitrariness. I want to insist on the contrary that there is nothing socially progressive about arbitrariness! Badiou’s recommended political models are the chaotic Maoist cultural revolution of the 1960s and the ephemeral May 1968 Paris uprising. I don’t see that the oppressed of the world gained any benefit from either. (See also Infinity, Finitude.)

Badiou explicitly endorses arguments of the notorious Nazi apologist Carl Schmitt that were used to justify a permanent “state of exception” in which absolute political power is asserted. This intellectual red-brown coalition is unfortunately being taken seriously by some academic leftists. The unifying theme is the claim that metaphysical support for arbitrariness is the key to achieving social justice. There are much better ways…

Questioning the Role of Action

Which comes first in the order of explanation: action, as immediate doing; or patterns of activity or practice, as extended, intricately developed over time, mediated, purposeful, and responsive to circumstance? I think it is more the latter.

What I aim to question here is not at all the reality of change or activity, but rather what might be called the “action model” — a way of explaining extended processes and changes and human reality in general in terms of punctual and immediate actions or events. The question is, do we focus on understanding larger processes and developments as the sum of discrete actions, or do we focus on understanding more or less immediate actions in terms of their place in larger processes and developments?

There is more than just a simple polarity here — meaning consists of both concrete detail and a larger context, and we need each of these to help elaborate the other. Nonetheless I want to suggest that it is better to explain things from the larger perspective of activities rather than the narrower one of actions.

Immanent Action?

Alain de Libera, who previously published a French translation of Aquinas’ On the Unity of the Intellect with extensive notes and commentary, opts in his Archaeology of the Subject to focus on the much shorter treatment of Averroes by Aquinas in Question 76 of the first part of Summa Theologica. In the current context, de Libera is most interested in developments on a time scale of centuries, and the latter text was far better known in later times.

In this Question, after briefly summarizing the argument from On the Unity of the Intellect that Averroes makes the human something thought rather than a thinker, Aquinas makes a more abstract claim that Averroes confuses immanent and transitive action.

De Libera appears to be setting the stage for an “archaeological” inquiry into the notion of immanent and transitive action, which he says originated in anti-Averroist arguments but came to have much more general purport.

According to de Libera, Aquinas claims Aristotle’s authority for the thesis that “thought is an immanent action” (Archéologie du sujet volume 3 part 1, p. 301). Implicitly, Aquinas would have meant that thought must be an action immanent in the soul, since the whole dispute with Averroes was about the way in which thought is said to be “in” the soul.

In support, de Libera cites (p. 301 note 1) a passage from book IX of the Metaphysics, for which I’ll substitute Joe Sachs’ translation: “of those things which have no other work besides their being-at-work, the being-at-work of them is present in themselves (as seeing is in the one seeing and contemplation in the one contemplating, and life is in the soul, and hence happiness too, since it is a sort of life). And so it is clear that thinghood and form are being-at-work” (Sachs trans., p. 179; I’ve been using the more conventional “actuality” rather than Sachs’ arguably better “being-at-work” for energeia).

This was part of Aristotle’s larger argument that “the end is work, and the work is a being-at-work, and this is why the phrase being-at work is meant by reference to work and extends to being-at-work-staying-complete [entelecheia]” (ibid). Sachs comments in a note, “That is, beings do not just happen to perform strings of isolated deeds, but their activity forms a continuous state of being-at-work, in which they achieve the completion that makes them what they are. Aristotle is arguing that the very thinghood [ousia or substance] of a thing is not what might be hidden inside it, but a definite way of being unceasingly at-work, that makes it a thing at all and the kind of thing it is” (ibid).

I would note first of all that thought is not mentioned in the passage from Aristotle. Contemplation is, but Aristotle in his carefully minimalist way just says contemplation is in “the one contemplating”. What he chooses to explicitly say is “in the soul” in this way is the being-at-work of life.

Secondly, there is a big difference between the “action” Aquinas speaks of and “being-at-work” in Aristotle. Action seems to be considered in the first instance as something punctual and immediate, whereas Aristotle emphasizes extended processes like building a house, and seems to think there is something essential about their extendedness.

Third, de Libera makes it clear that Aquinas thinks of action principally in terms of efficient causation, whereas Aristotle emphasizes the relation of being-at-work to ends.

Fourth, like many later authors, Aquinas seems to have a contracted view of what an efficient cause is. Aristotle says that the art of building is more properly an efficient cause of a house than the carpenter, the carpenter’s hammer, or the hammer’s blow. Aquinas’ example is that of a bailiff acting on behalf of a king. This does capture the sense in which an efficient cause is a means by which an end is accomplished, but I think it is not accidental that Aquinas’ example involves exercising power and emphasizes simple “doing”, whereas Aristotle’s example explicitly foregrounds the way of doing over the more primitive fact that there is a doing. (See also Not Power and Action; Aquinas and Scotus on Power.)

Update: There is always a bit of risk with interim reports. Now that I’ve read a bit further, it appears that the actual argument of Aquinas is that thought is intrinsically an immanent action, independent of the dispute about whether or not the soul its “subject”. The use of this against Averroes was actually hypothetical — if, as Averroes says, thought has its proper “subject” in a separate material intellect, then, Aquinas says, thought would have to be immanent to the material intellect, and as a result we could not legitimately attribute it to the human thinker. This does not affect the four concerns I expressed above, but it illustrates the subtlety and sophistication of Aquinas’ argumentation.

Separate Substances?

One of the more difficult or troublesome aspects of the Aristotelian tradition for me is the notion of “separate substances”. Certainly this was greatly expanded by later writers, but it appears to have a basis in the texts we attribute to Aristotle.

A separate substance would seem to be something that at least does not participate in earthly matter, but in Aristotle there is some ambiguity whether separate substances are supposed to be completely free of matter, or just free of earthly matter. In Aristotle’s thought this makes a difference, because he regarded celestial matter as being fundamentally of a different kind than the earthly matter that is subject to generation and corruption. Conditioned as we are by theories of modern science, this may seem quaint to us, but it is a reasonable inference if we focus on ordinary human experience. In a similar way, Aristotle refers to the movements of the stars as “eternal”, on the practical ground that humans looking up from Earth do not observe them to change.

There is a more general point regarding eternity. Aristotle seems most often to use this term in the pragmatic way mentioned above. He calls things eternal if they are constant within human experience. This is quite different from the stricter sense of eternity, as meaning outside of time altogether. Plato’s geometrical objects and Augustine’s God, I think, are supposed to be outside of time altogether. Both the Aristotelian and the strict notion of eternity are different from the more popular religious sense of eternity as lasting forever. Medieval theologians coined a special word for the latter: “sempiternity”.

The separate intellect or intellects that Averroes talks about do not seem to me to be eternal in the strict sense of outside of time. At one point, Averroes says for example that while he assumes humans will always exist, if per contra humans became extinct, there would no longer be a material intellect. Aristotle had said that the potential intellect is nothing at all until it begins to think, and Averroes seems to say that humans provide the occasions for it to think. Having a dependency on temporal beings seems to me to be incompatible with eternity in the strict sense.

An even subtler question is how to regard the situation in which something strictly eternal is said to act as a final cause that is said to move something earthly. As noted in the last post, Aristotle regarded motion as something existing only in the thing moved. He distinguished “moved movers” from “unmoved movers”, but moved movers are moved by something other than themselves. For Aristotle, everything that is moved is moved by something else; there are no absolute by-their-bootstraps “self-movers”, although most or possibly all beings have some degree of activity of their own. So a moved mover is called that only insofar as it is moved by something else.

The preeminent movers in Aristotle are ends — not mechanical impulses, not generators of something from nothing, not “agents” of any sort at all. Ends have a kind of virtual existence or subsistence that could in principle be independent of any embodiment. They move us in the way that values move us. Aristotle suggests that even earthly matter is moved by ends in some rudimentary way — not that it has consciousness of its own, but that its being exhibits something analogous to preferences to being in one state rather than another. This is just what it is to “have a nature”. All Aristotelian natures have some involvement with ends in this way.

Averroes as Read by de Libera

Alain de Libera has played a major role in reviving interest in Averroes. In 1999 he published a French translation of the crucial book III of the famous (or infamous) Long Commentary on Aristotle on the Soul, which was the first rendering of this work into a modern language. He devotes an 80-page chapter of Archéologie du sujet volume 3 part 1 to reconstructing the more controversial parts of this long-misunderstood text. I’ve previously discussed the reading of Deborah Black in “This Human Understands”, and that of Stephen Ogden in “This Human”, Again.

The modern notion of a subject-agent, de Libera says, originated partly in opposition to Augustine and partly in opposition to Averroes. Though he was responsible for first introducing a notion of “subject” into Aristotelian discourse about the soul, Averroes did not introduce the “modern subject”. According to de Libera, the notion of the human as subject-agent of thought was developed first in opposition to Averroes, then in opposition to the Averroists, then by later Averroists responding to criticism.

“[F]or an Aristotelian as for a Plotinian, the intelligibles in act are not mental states, accidents or accidental forms of a mind posed as substrate and having before it things, themselves bearing qualities, but the intelligibles themselves as intellects in act” (p. 166; my translation throughout). I’ll try to shed some further light on this below.

De Libera cites Aristotle’s own statement that intellect and the intellected are one. He says Averroes’ Latin readers were misled by Michael Scot’s translation of intellectus (intellect as a faculty) for what should have been intellectum (the intelligible). The thesis of the unity of intellect commonly attributed to Averroes is really at its root a thesis of the unity of the intelligible, he says. Averroes primarily has in mind Plato’s problem of how teaching and learning — and shared apprehension and objectivity — are possible.

“The first concern of Averroes is to escape from Platonism” (p. 182). This means we still like forms, but we do not posit free-floating Forms. Aristotle’s alternative is a theory of “abstraction”. Intellect is said to “abstract” intelligibles as universals from the concrete particular contents of what is called imagination. De Libera says that Aristotle used both inductive and “geometric” notions of abstraction, but notes that the commentator Alexander of Aphrodisias particularly emphasized the “geometric” version, which is said to involve conceiving as separate from matter the forms that are nonetheless not separate from matter.

“The noetic problem inherited from Alexander by Averroes is above all that of the production of the intelligible in act: the intentio intellecta” (p. 184). “Intellect is not mind. Nor is it consciousness” (p. 185). The intentio intellecta is not the intentionality arising from the act of a transcendental Ego that Husserl spoke of.

“What is this problem? Not that which Thomas posed to the Averroists, and through them to Averroes: to account for the fact of experience that I think, but rather: to account for the fact that we think, or better, the fact that we think or are capable of thinking the same thing.”

“At issue here is neither the I, nor the human, nor the individual human, but indeed the I and the you” (p. 186). De Libera suggests the analogy of Fregean thought that “is independent of our activity of thought” (p. 187), and says that like Frege, Averroes “opposes thought, intellectio, to representation, cogitatio” (ibid).

The Greek commentator Themistius had suggested underwriting the unity of the intelligible by a unity of “intellect”.

“[T]he theory of the unity of the material intellect has the function of resolving, from a strict Aristotelian point of view, the Platonic question of the possibility of teaching and apprenticeship” (p. 189).

Averroes wants to say that the intelligible is both one and multiple. We can apprehend the very same thing, and yet do so separately. In the forms in our incarnate imaginations it is multiple, but in the immaterial “material intellect” it is one.

Averroes referred to both the imagined, represented, or “cogitated” forms in the soul and to the so-called material intellect with a word that was translated to Latin as subjectum or “subject”. His account of how the two “subjects” interact has become known in secondary literature as the “theory of the two subjects”. Though it was being applied to human imagination and thought, the notion of subject here was understood by his Latin readers as just the abstract one of something standing under something else.

De Libera says it is impossible to understand the theory of two subjects without paying attention to what Averroes says about two related movers. In a famous development in the Metaphysics, Aristotle himself progressively sublimated the “standing under” concept, ultimately replacing it with considerations of potentiality and actualization. De Libera says that in Averroes’ reflections on intellect, “subject” really means mover rather than substrate.

An Aristotelian mover is actually very different from the modern concept of an agent. De Libera quotes Aristotle to the effect that “movement, action, and passion reside in that which is moved” (p. 198).

Averroes, following Aristotle, develops an analogy between sense and intellect. De Libera analyzes Aristotle’s account of the case of sense in four points: 1) that which is potentially sensible exists independent of sense; 2) it only plays the role of mover in the sensitive faculty; 3) the sensible in act (or the sensed) and the sensing or the sense in act are numerically the same act, but differ in essence or quiddity; 4) the identity of the act of the sensible and the act of the sensing in the sensing serves as Aristotle’s explanation for how we sense that we are sensing, or how we have internal sense. In this “synergetic” account, sensation is not a pure passive reception, but rather at the same time is an actualization of a potentiality that we have, and indeed an actualization of us.

De Libera notes that the analogy Aristotle and Averroes both make between sense and intellect in this regard is already enough to invalidate all the readings of Averroes that make the human entirely passive in relation to thought. Intellect for Averroes is not a simple “Giver of Forms” like the transcendent intellect in Avicenna. According to de Libera, in sensation only the potentiality of the sensing functions as a subject of inherence or attribution. That which is potentially sensible does not sense. Similarly, in intellect the intentio intellecta has only one subject of inherence or attribution, which is the potentiality for intellection in the so-called material intellect. That which is potentially intelligible does not think. Nor are intelligibles “emanated” directly to the soul, any more than sensations are received in a purely passive way.

“The receiving intellect is not a sponge. It moves itself. Or better, it is moved. Its movement is a motion by final cause” (p. 212). The two movers in this case are the forms in imagination and the abstracting “active” intellect.

The human is not the subject of thought, but nonetheless she thinks, and thinks at will. Such is the thesis of Averroes” (p. 215). We think when we want. For Averroes, the agent and receptor of the intelligible in act are both eternal, separate substances, but the activities of these separate substances nevertheless take place in us, and are attributed to us. This should correct the misleading impression that for Averroes what the moderns call “the subject” is divided into a part that is mental but not thinking, and a part that is thinking but not mental. It is even further removed from the argument of Aquinas that Averroes makes the human into something like a wall, and into something passively thought by something else rather than something thinking.

Thought in the human is a habitus, or Aristotelian hexis. This is a “second actuality” or “second perfection”, a product of processes of actualization. Averroes makes significant use of the notion of the “acquired intellect” that may come to be immanent in the human, which was explicitly elaborated by al-Farabi using Aristotelian notions of potentiality and actualization. In this context de Libera speaks of production and re-production, actualization and re-actualization. It is by virtue of having this “acquired intellect” that the human has the ability to think when she wants.

The one who has thoughts thinks” (p. 219). “Active” and “material” intellects are two faculties or moments of one thing or process. We act by means of them, and according to de Libera this means that for Averroes, they constitute our form insofar as we are thinking. Averroes holds that Aristotle’s use of “soul” is equivocal with respect to whether or not it includes intellect; that only the animal and vegetable parts of the soul count as form and first perfection of the body; but that intellect nonetheless is our form when we are thinking.

A “Mind-Soul Problem”?

Still slowly making my way through volume 3 part 1 of Alain de Libera’s Archéologie du sujet, I’ve passed through a section in which he raises the question of a “mind-soul problem”. In the wake of Descartes’ mind/body dualism, many modern authors have spoken of a “mind-body problem”, and proposed materialist or spiritualist alternatives to the dualism of Descartes. Hardly anyone in modern times has addressed a “mind-soul problem”.

My own usage of “soul” is intended purely as a translation of what Aristotle called psyche. I usually avoid “mind”, which has a heritage going back to Augustine’s mens, but has come to be widely used both for everything in the sphere of conscious awareness and for the object studied by modern psychology. Modern philosophers may speak of a philosophy of mind, but what is mind, really? In French and German, the word for spirit takes the place of the English “mind”.

The medieval term “intellect” (a translation of Aristotle’s nous) has much more specific connotations than any of these, though it might be argued that the role Aquinas gave it relative to underwriting the soul’s immortality played an important role in the emergence of modern notions of mind or spirit as something assumed to be a relatively uniform singular thing. Mind in Augustine does seem to have a kind of simplicity also, though Augustine’s soul/body dualism was very different from Aquinas’ combination of Aristotelian hylomorphism with his own non-Aristotelian metaphysical notion of intellectual soul.

De Libera points out that numerous medieval authors discussed the contrast between intellectio (thought, concerned with universals) and cogitatio (the soul’s awareness, concerned with particulars and grounded in what was called imagination). I like to read the discourse about intellect as pointing toward what Kant would later call transcendental considerations, whereas cogitation would belong to the empirical domain.

The common translation of Descartes’ cogito as “I think” confusingly crosses this boundary. The “I” part has also been questioned by various authors, but clearly Descartes was talking about a concrete awareness informed by many particulars, although he gave it a privileged metaphysical status. Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding was certainly also concerned with concrete, empirical awareness, but when he had it translated to Latin, the Latin for “intellect” was used to render “understanding”.

As de Libera says, the “mind-soul problem” is concerned with questions like whether the being that has awareness of sensation is the same as the being that thinks. I imagine that there is a kind of sharing, overlap, and community between the two, but not an identity. Many ancient cultures East and West saw distinctions in this area, where most of the Latin Scholastics and Western modernity insisted on an overarching strong unity or formal uniformity of the “intellectual soul” or mind.

And again, what is thinking?

Speaking in the common way, “I think” that thinking is something more profound than the action of an ego. It’s not at all clear to me that it is entirely “mine”; I tend to think the contrary. And I think there is a big element of receptivity in the apprehension of reality. I don’t mean that anything is just handed to us ready-made, but I think it is equally wrong to say that we make it all. What’s interesting to me is the region in between. Thinking has an active component, but it is not simply an “action”. Models for action include creation from nothing and mechanical impulse; neither of these seems to me like a good analogy for thought. Activity is much wider than action.

Aquinas on the Act of Thought

In a few very dense pages, Alain de Libera summarizes a number of key theses extracted from the works of Thomas Aquinas pertaining to the act of thought (see also “The Subject” In Medieval Times; Origins of a Subject-Agent). According to de Libera, these principles — which represented a significant departure from Augustine’s insistence that the human soul should not be viewed as a “subject” in the sense of something standing under something else — attained a wide currency in Latin scholasticism. They laid the groundwork for the modern notion of “the subject” as active mind and ego.

“Thought is an action (actio) or an operation (operatio) called ‘intellectual’ (intellectualis) or ‘intelligible’ (intelligibilis) because it is the deed of intellect and treats of the intelligible, and unites these two dimensions in its proper actuality. Intellectual has two senses: subjective and causal. Contemplation, also called theoretical thought, the knowledge of the intelligible, is intellectual because it takes place in the intellect itself, which is to say that, relative to the body, it is atopical or utopical [without place], because the intellect itself is not located in the body; the other actions called intellectual are so in a causal sense; they are called such because they are directed or imposed, that is to say commanded, by the intellect and executed by means of a bodily instrument — with respect to which, in distinction from the act of thought — they are localizable and localized: this is the case, for example, with walking and riding, two actions called imposed.”

“…There are two kinds of actions: one remains internal to the agent, begins and ends in it (it is called: manens [remaining] or consistens [consisting] or quiescens in agente [resting in the agent]); the other is exercised on another thing or an exterior matter (it is called: exiens [coming out] or progrediens [moving forward] or tendens [tending] or transiens in alterum [passing into another] or in materiam exteriorem [into the matter of exteriors]). This duality prolongs the Aristotelian distinction between immanent action and transitive action…. The distinction, massively utilized to theorize the difference between the psychic (where immanent causality reigns) and the physical (where the transitive reigns), is also applied within the physical sphere, notably to light….”

“…Only that which is in act acts (Nihil agit nisi secundum quod est actu). This fundamental thesis, which lays the foundation of the articulation between actio and actus [action and act], introduces itself in diverse other formulations, such as: Omne agens agit, inquantum actu est [every agent acts, insofar as it actually is], or Unumquodque agit secundum quod est actu [each one acts according to what it actually is]. We will call it ‘the principle of the actuality of the agent’.”

“Numerous principles arise from this or assume its validity. This is the case with [the principle that] that by which something first operates is the form of the operator; the principle of the subjection of action in the power of the agent… and the subjective principle of action [actions belong to something standing under them]” (Archéologie du sujet vol. 3 part 1, pp. 53-56, my translation). De Libera goes on to mention additional principles such as “attribution of action to the principal agent” (pp. 56-57); “action is a function of the being of the agent” (p. 57); “determination of action by the nature of the agent” (ibid); “determination of action by act” (ibid); and “actuality is a determination of the act of an agent” (ibid).

The bottom line of all of this seems to be that thought is the action of an agent. Neither Aristotle nor Augustine treated thought in this way or had this kind of view of action and agency, but a long medieval and modern heritage makes it seem like common sense to many people. Aristotle spoke of intellect as coming to us “from outside”. He was certainly very interested in practical doings, in process, and in being-at-work, but did not reduce these to the discrete “actions” of discrete “agents”. Activity, I want to say, is something different and broader than this. (See also Not Power and Action; Aristotelian Actualization; Aristotelian Subjectivity Revisited).

The Act of Thought

Volume 3 part 1 of Alain de Libera’s Archéologie du sujet carries subtitles translating to The Act of Thought for volume 3 overall, and The Double Revolution for part 1. The cast of major characters will include Averroes, Aquinas, and the Scottish philosopher of common sense Thomas Reid (1710-1796). This tome is packed with extremely interesting material. It also appears to me to intersect with the important work of Gwenaëlle Aubry on the historical transformation of Aristotelian potentiality and actuality into a neoplatonic notion of power and a more modern notion of action. At the time part 1 was published (2014), part 2 was supposed to be a few months away, and de Libera announced titles for volumes 4 through 7. Instead, he has since published three volumes of related lectures at the College de France.

“The philosophers pose all sorts of questions concerning thought. Who thinks? Am I the author of my thoughts? What is the place of thought? What is its theater or its scene? In what way are the thoughts that come from me or that I have mine? Am I the owner of my thought? In sum: is it necessary to say ‘I think’ with Descartes, or ‘it thinks’ with [Belgian new wave musician] Plastic Bertrand, [and philosophers like] Lichtenberg, Schelling, and Schlick? It seems natural to us to believe that the act of thinking takes place in us. ‘Takes place‘ says a lot. That which takes place is [emphasis added]. Being is having a place of being — in other words: it is having (a) reason for being. But what takes place also happens. What takes place in us happens in us, is produced, is effectuated, is accomplished in us. What takes places in us is in us, in whatever way that it has being. It certainly seems natural to believe that since the act of thinking takes place in us, it begins and is completed in us. In us, that is to say in our soul (if we are religious), in our spirit (if we know the French for Mind), or in some part of us (if we [participated in the May 1968 Paris uprising]).”

“There is nothing ‘natural’ in all this. All these beliefs are cultural, and historically constructed. They are assimilated philosophical theses, philosophemes neither proven as such nor a fortiori proven as historical constructs, philosophemes (learned theorems, technical injunctions, theoretical words of order) lived without justification as immediate givens of consciousness, as a flower of experience” (p. 13, my translation throughout).

De Libera refers to very strong assertions by Thomas Reid about the common-sense character of all this. Reid explicitly refers to the mind as a subject. It was philosophers, de Libera says, “who decided that this, or that which thinks, was the SUBJECT of an act, the act of thinking. It was philosophers who decided on this subjective basis that this ‘that’ or this ‘it’ could be known as the author or the actor. They did this partly against Aristotle, and partly in the name of Aristotle….”

“The philosophical construction accounts for a fact of experience: we sense ourselves as the principle, that is to say also as the beginning, the point of departure… of our actions, notably, and very particularly of our thought. But exactly in accounting for this fact, the philosopher encodes it, and never ceases throughout history to re-encode it, to complicate it, to invest in it and reinvest in it linguistically, conceptually, argumentatively.”

‘Denomination’ is one of the keys of this code” (p. 15). “According to Reid, to say that an agent x acts on a thing y is to say that a power or force exercised by x produces or has a tendency to produce a change in y. What is particularly interesting for an archaeology of the subject-agent of thought is that this schema does not apply to perception” (p. 17).

According to Reid, when we perceive objects, the objects don’t act on the mind, and the mind doesn’t act on the objects. To be perceived is an external denomination. According to de Libera, in the language of the Latin scholastics, causal denomination finds its main application in the domain of action. An action denominates its agent causally, and not formally or extrinsically. On the other hand, extrinsic denomination applies perfectly to the ontological and noetic analysis of the object of thought.

For most of the scholastics, as for most modern people, the being-thought of a stone is real in the human, but is not real in the stone. But de Libera points out that the great Thomist Cajetan says about thought in the passive sense what Reid says about perception — both the stone and the thinker are only extrinsically denominated by the being-thought of the stone.

As de Libera points out, Averroes and his Latin followers have been understood as arguing that thinking is an extrinsic denomination of the human. “It requires a solid engagement with [Aristotle’s work on the soul] and its Greek, Arabic, Jewish, and Latin interpretive tradition to understand what this means” (p. 22).

Church councils in the 14th and 16th centuries upheld the opposing views of Aquinas as doctrinally correct. According to de Libera, this opened two paths, one leading to Descartes and the “Cartesian subject”, and the other leading to what he calls a Leibnizian notion of subject as the “thing underlying actions”. He says there is also a third path, leading from Averroes to Brentano, who reintroduced the scholastic notion of intentionality in the late 19th century. In this sense, he says the middle ages were more modern than we realize, and modernity is more medieval than we realize.

De Libera notes that Foucault ultimately derived his philosophical use of the word “archaeology” from Kant. Such archaeology is concerned with very Kantian “conditions of possibility”.

Taking the modern notion of “subject” at its point of emergence demands that we look back to the scholastic subjectum and “being in a subject” — not for the pleasure of returning to the middle ages, but in order to understand Descartes in context. It was not actually Descartes who was responsible for the transition from what Heidegger called “subjectity” (simply being a thing standing under something else) to the mental “subjectivity” of an ego.

Incidentally, de Libera points out one of the first uses of the word “subjective” in a modern sense in Martin Schoock, an early Dutch critic of Descartes who objected that Descartes reduced thought to something “subjective”. He quotes Schoock as saying “The reason Descartes brags about is not reason understood in a general sense, but in a subjective sense, that is to say the reason he can consider in himself” (p. 30).

Here I would note that in an interesting little meditation on Averroes called Je phantasme (“I imagine”), de Libera’s former student Jean-Baptiste Brenet points out that general Latin use of the verb cogitare referred primarily to operations of what in Aristotelian terms was called “inner sense”, as distinct from intelligere, which was the standard word for the “thinking” attributed to “intellect”.

(Inner sense is the closest Aristotelian analogue to what Locke more abstractly called “consciousness”. At least in the Arabic commentary tradition, it seems to involve several distinct faculties that all have what Aristotle and the scholastics following him called “imagination” as their common root. These are said to include what animals use in place of reason to make meaningful discriminations such as the nearness of danger, which is not actually given in external sense. Descartes’ own usage of cogito (first person singular of cogitare) basically covers all forms of awareness. It is a commonly repeated “Aristotelian” dictum that nothing comes to be in intellect without first coming to be in sense perception, but de Libera in an earlier volume pointed out that a more accurately Aristotelian version would be that nothing comes to be in intellect without some basis in imagination, and nothing comes to be in imagination without some basis in sense perception.)

The Quest for Identity

Volume 1 of Alain de Libera’s archaeology of the subject was subtitled (in French) Birth of the Subject (2007). Volume 2’s subtitle translates as The Quest for Identity (2008). Here he will ask, What is it that constitutes the “Me”?

In the hands of the scholastics and early moderns, the subject acquires the personal status of an agent, accountable for her thoughts as well as her actions. De Libera speaks of a “double parasitic relation” of the subject and the person, from whence issued the modern concept of a personal subject. In early modern inquiries into the permanence of the individual “me”, the subject seems to be effaced before the Self and the Person. It persists nonetheless, he says, under the mask of the person.

A series of unexpected itineraries will range from the theology of sacraments to early modern philosophical satire. Historic concerns with puzzles of personal identity will be reviewed together with the scholastic ontology of action and the notion of “extrinsic denomination”. He aims to consider “events in thought” — not a being or a single truth or a determinism that could follow a chronological order, but what he calls a traversal of possible itineraries.

He will ask how the subject — described in an anonymous 1680 French compendium of metaphysics as a simple receptor that de Libera, recalling Aquinas’ brutal critique of Averroes, likens to a wall’s relation to colors on it — became the all-purpose concept of psychology and ethics, of politics and of right, of linguistics and literary criticism? How did a term that had nothing to do with personhood become the modern name of the person? He aims to address these questions via a cross-section of different temporal rhythms, seeking in a nonlinear way to understand an event of thought he calls the “chiasm of agency”, or the installation of the “I” as subject-agent of thought.

He notes that Heidegger and Brentano both highlighted the fact that in scholastic philosophy, “subject” and “object” had close to the opposite of their modern meanings, and this will complicate the inquiry. The development will be much more intricate than a simple reversal.

He begins with two questions asked by Shaftesbury in 1711, in what de Libera calls an ironic arbitration between Descartes and Locke: “But in what Subject that thought resides, and how that Subject is continu’d one and the same, so as to answer constantly to the supposed Train of Thoughts or Reflections, which seem to run so harmoniously thro’ a long Course of Life, with the same relation still to one single and self-same Person; this is not a Matter so easily or hastily decided, by those who are nice Self-Examiners, or Searchers after Truth and Certainty.” (Shaftesbury, quoted in vol. 2, p. 18, footnote).

Shaftesbury mocks the cogito ergo sum of Descartes, reducing it to the tautology “if I am, I am”. According to de Libera, Shaftesbury thinks the real questions are: “What is it that constitutes the We or the I? Is the I of the present instant the same as that of every instant before or after?” (p. 19, my translation throughout).

“In a few lines, Shaftesbury passes… from the scholastic universe of the subject understood as subject of thought… to the universe of the We and the I…, and implicitly to the Lockean response — consciousness, the Self-in-consciousness — and to [Locke’s] criterion of memory. But the latter is no less problematic than the former” (ibid).

As de Libera generalizes, “The archaeology of the subject is in large measure the archaeology of the person” (p. 22). Trinitarian theology and the so-called “mind-body problem” are only disjoint for us. They were not for the later scholastics. How do we even understand statements like those of the Renaissance Thomist Thomas Cajetan (1469-1534) that “the soul as long as it is in the body exists as a semi-nature [but] separated from the body, it exists as a semi-person” (p. 23)? This will take patient archaeological investigation.

Declining to engage in metaphysical debate, Shaftesbury had opted for a moral solution: “I take my Being upon Trust…. This to me appears sufficient Ground for a Moralist. Nor do I ask more, when I undertake to prove the reality of Virtue and Morals” (quoted, p. 20).

De Libera asks, “In a word: why is it necessary for us to posit a subject in addition to ‘ourselves’ to account for the fact that we are what we are, think what we think, and do what we do?… What is it that constrains us to make our acts or our thoughts the attributes of a subject?” (p. 24).

He acknowledges at the very beginning that this second volume did not follow the plan announced in volume 1. I confess that in the main body of this one, I often felt lost in the trees, so to speak, and no longer able to see the proverbial forest. Volume 3 resumes the thread of the main argument, and I will devote more space to summarizing it.

The remainder of volume 2 first addresses some recent English-speaking philosophers on personal identity, notably P. F. Strawson and Amelia Rorty. It goes on to discuss at length the debates occasioned by John Locke’s innovative attempt to explain personal identity in terms of a continuity of directly experienced consciousness, elementary self-awareness, and memory that does not depend on any postulated underlying substantial soul. I’m not a Locke scholar, but I noticed that the explicit wording of some of the arguments seemed to appeal to a sameness of consciousness as opposed to the criterion of continuity I would have expected, as when Locke seemed to be willing to grant the counterintuitive consequence that Socrates dreaming and Socrates awake could be two different “persons”. The difference between waking and dreaming could also be approached as a relative discontinuity, however.

In accordance with de Libera’s interest in the historic “soul-body problem”, there is a lengthy coverage of debates as to whether Siamese twins are single persons or two persons sharing one body. He then goes back in time to medieval debates on whether a two-headed baby should baptized with one name or two.

There is some additional coverage of Locke’s “forensic” approach to identity, which puts moral culpability for actions in first place, over psychological or metaphysical considerations. Some of Locke’s critics argued that notwithstanding Locke’s intentions, he actually weakened moral responsibility, as when he granted explicitly that Socrates waking is not responsible for the thoughts of Socrates dreaming. Both sides of the discussion assumed what Brandom calls a “contractive” notion of responsibility (see also Expansive Agency; Brandomian Forgiveness).

Finally, de Libera discusses the history of the concept of “external” or “extrinsic” denomination — basically, ways in which “accidental” properties are taken to refer to things. This is distinguished from both “formal” and “causal” denomination. In the case of my seeing of a wall, according to many medieval and early modern authors, the wall does not act on me in any way, so the wall would be only denominated externally or extrinsically. Many also held that I do not act on the wall in any way in seeing it either, so I would also be only denominated externally or extrinsically. In this context, de Libera discusses the Scottish philosopher of common sense Thomas Reid (1710-1796), as well as the work of Samuel Clark (1675-1729) and various critics and followers of Descartes. He then goes back to Cajetan.

In conclusion, de Libera speaks of a “chiasm of denomination” that is closely bound up with what he previously called the “chiasm of agency”. He sees a veritable revolution in the treatment of thought contents as something other than external or extrinsic denominations of persons. At the beginning of volume 3, he finally relates all this discussion of denomination back to the medieval controversy over the views of Averroes on intellect and imagination.

Subject and Substance, Again

In the area I have been exploring most recently, we are rather far from the notions of subject and substance that I think Hegel worked back to in the course of asserting that “substance is also subject”, as if this were something new and unheard of.

It was unheard of in the context of relatively standard modern notions of substance and subject. But it is trivially true that “substance” (ousia) in the logical sense of Aristotle’s Categories (as distinct from the much deeper and more interesting sense developed in the Metaphysics) is a “subject” in the Aristotelian sense of “thing standing under”.

It is also true, I think, that substance in the deeper Aristotelian sense is the kind of thing that what I call the human essence or ethical being is, and the latter, I want to contentiously claim, actually deserves to be called a truer form of “subject” than the more standard modern notion of a psychological or spiritual subject-agent.

I’m very aware that I haven’t adequately explained what I mean by human essence, even if I gesture at something by equating it with ethical being. It is important to recognize that most 20th century philosophers rejected the very idea of a human essence. In the course of rejecting it, they made a lot of valuable criticism of notions of human essence that were too easy or had overly specific, arbitrary implications. But essence in general in the best Platonic sense ought to be taken as an open question. And by human, I just mean all of us animals that participate in meaningful language, as Aristotle said.

In having meaningful dialogue at all, we implicitly acknowledge some sort of ethics and standards of reasonableness, even if they are underdeveloped or poorly practiced). We become a “who” through participation in language and the elementary practices of mutual recognition that are entailed by such participation.

Hegel talks about “ethical substance” as the basis of traditional culture. Its “substantial” character is both a strength and a shortcoming. It is unalienated, but ultimately limited by the fact that it just “is what it is”. In his view, this kind of life comes to be eclipsed by modern individualism with its focus on the subject-agent ego, which (to simplify greatly) in turn can potentially be eclipsed or overcome by mutual recognition and “substance that is also subject”.