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 modern “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).

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”.

“The Subject” in Medieval Times

According to Alain de Libera in the second half of Archéologie du sujet vol. 1, Thomas Aquinas was instrumental in developing a view of the soul that was neither Aristotelian nor Augustinian, and that paved the way for the modern concept of “the subject” as an agent, long before Descartes. De Libera says that Aquinas did this in part by introducing the different, very abstract Aristotelian notion of subject (hypokeimenon, “thing underlying”, with no connotations of mind or agency) into the Augustinian model of the soul as an image of the Christian Trinity, and simultaneously introducing the Augustinian biblical Word into an Aristotelian model of abstractive knowledge. Aquinas also drew indirectly on Plotinus, and directly on his teacher Albert the Great’s use of pseudo-Dionysius. In doing so, he effectively removed the stigma Augustine had placed on treating the human soul as a “subject”.

Aristotle had suggested that there is a kind of identity between thinking and what it thinks. It is perhaps not accidental that we use different senses of the same English word “thought” for both. These should not be equated with subject and object in the modern sense; they both occupy parts of a kind of middle ground between what we call subject and object.

According to de Libera, Plotinus developed a kind of identity between three terms (nous, noeisis, noeton — intellect, intellection, intelligible object). His intellect and intelligible object are already somewhat closer to what we call subject and object. In between, he placed an act of thinking or intellection that was to have a kind of identity with both the intellect and the intelligible object.

Plotinus’ notion of act is also quite different from that of Aristotle. Aristotle calls the first principle a kind of pure act that is not an action in the ordinary sense, and has nothing else behind it; for Plotinus, the first principle is a power, and every act is the act of a power. For Aristotle, the first principle is also an end only; for Plotinus, it is both the end and the origin of all things.

The persons of the Trinity are supposed to have a sort of mutual immanence to one another that is completely unlike the case of something underlying something else. De Libera notes that Plotinus and his student Porphyry already used a similar concept of mutual immanence in their discussions of intellect. Augustine ranked his reading of Plotinus as a formative experience second only to his conversion to Christianity.

From the Christian neoplatonist pseudo-Dionysius, Albert the Great drew the notion of a “whole of powers” that is different from either a universal whole or an integral whole.

De Libera notes that the classic formula of the Trinity in Greek — one ousia, three hypostases — was confusingly translated into Latin as “one essence, three substances” or as “one substance, three persons”. By substitution, the coexistence of these two translations yields the obviously self-contradictory formula, “one substance, three substances”, which graphically illustrates the equivocation in medieval usages of “substance”.

(In deference to common usage, I have continued to use “substance” for Aristotle’s ousia, even though I think it is a terrible translation. “Essence” is better, provided we recognize that Plato and Aristotle had views of essence that were not “essentialist” in the sense of treating essences of things as pre-given or as something to take for granted.)

De Libera speaks of the need to parenthesize modern notions of subject and object in order to understand Augustine’s opposition to treating actions and passions of the soul as attributes of a substance. Conversely, for better or worse, Aquinas’ legitimation of this way of viewing the soul brings us closer to modern views. (I think Aristotle would have shared Augustine’s opposition to this formulation, but for different reasons. I think Aristotle regarded the whole human being — and not the soul or the body taken separately — as a “substance”.)

Aquinas introduced emphasis on both what de Libera calls an Aristotelian structure of subject-powers-activities and a pseudo-Dionysian structure of essence-power-operation into a Latin-speaking theological context that had been mainly dominated by Augustine. What I would call this double infusion of additional neoplatonic elements is said by some to have resulted in a more dynamic and relational way of viewing things. (In agreement with Gwenaëlle Aubry, however, I think Aristotelian potentiality is very different from neoplatonic power, even though they use the same Greek word.) Combined with Aquinas’ serious embrace of a version of Aristotelian hylomorphism, this infusion led to a simultaneously more positive and more dynamic view of worldly existence than had been common in the Augustinian tradition, which also helped lay the seeds of modernity.

A broadly neoplatonic view of the world in terms of powers and operations-of-powers thus turns out to have been very important for the emergence of the modern subject-as-agent (as well as, I would argue, the rise of the specific modern notion of causality). De Libera notes that Heidegger ignored both neoplatonism and theology in his famous account of the rise of the modern subject. Meanwhile, Aquinas’ legitimation of the treatment of actions and passions as attributes of a soul-subject-substance — coupled with the interweaving of such attribution with imputations of responsibility — seems to have contributed to a stronger notion of a self as something with univocal identity and sharp edges.

Origins of a Subject-Agent

How did the modern equation of subjecthood and agency come to be? How did the notion of “I” or ego come to be substantialized? An extremely influential argument of Heidegger makes this an innovation of Descartes. Alain de Libera argues that this is too hasty, and that the groundwork for this identification was actually laid in the later middle ages. I’m continuing a high-level treatment of de Libera’s extremely important archaeology of the subject (see also On a Philosophical Grammar).

Answering this question will involve an extended historical odyssey through complex interactions between Aristotelian and Augustinian views, and much more. De Libera sees Aquinas in his polemic against Averroes raising four interrelated questions of a more fundamental nature: Who thinks? What is the subject of thought? Who are we? What is man? The second of these seems to have been first asked by Averroes. The other three are largely attributable to Aquinas and his contemporaries, in their reactions to Averroes.

Several points of Aristotelian interpretation (What is substance? What is form? What is act? What is an efficient cause? What is the soul?) will be relevant to answering these, as will Augustine’s meditations on personhood and the nature of the Trinity. De Libera notes that John Locke — a major contributor to modern views on “the subject” — was deeply involved in debates on trinitarian theology. He also discusses Franz Brentano’s modern revival of the medieval notion of intentionality. The medieval version was closely bound up with a notion of “inexistence” or “existing in” of mental objects (forms separated from their matter) in the soul.

In the Categories, Aristotle gives substance the logical sense of something standing under something else. This influenced the Greek grammarians who formulated the notion of a grammatical subject. But in the Metaphysics, he treats this as only a starting point that is quickly superseded by an identification of substance with form or “what it was to have been” a thing, before moving into an account of substance as potentiality and actuality.

De Libera notes a historic division among readers of Aristotle’s treatise On the Soul between those who interpret the soul as an attribute of the body, and those who treat it as a substance in its own right. The latter position has different meanings, depending on whether substance is taken in the “standing under” sense or in the sense of form. De Libera will be particularly interested in the consequences of a further family of positions that make the non-obvious equation of human actions and passions with attributes of the soul.

He notes that “category” in Greek originally meant accusation, and relates this to Locke’s characterization of personhood as a “forensic” notion. We have here to do with subtle relations between attribution, inherence, and imputation with respect to actions and passions in relation to the soul. But what is an action? Must we explain an act in terms of a substantial subject’s power of efficient causation in a late scholastic sense that is far from Aristotle’s? (See also Expansive Agency; Brandomian Forgiveness.)

On a Philosophical Grammar

It seems like a good time to get back to a bit more detail on Alain de Libera’s “archaeology of the subject”, which I introduced a while back. Volume 1 is subtitled Naissance du sujet or “Birth of the Subject”. He begins with a series of questions asked by Vincent Descombes in a review of Paul Ricoeur’s Oneself as Another:

“1) What remarkable differences are there, from the point of view of use, between these words which we place too lazily in a single category of personal pronouns (and particularly here I, he, me, him, her, oneself)?

“2) What is the status of intentions to act? Are they first properties of the agent?

“3) Should we distinguish, as Ricoeur proposes, two concepts of identity, identity as sameness (idem) and identity as ipseity [“selfness”] (ipse)?

“4) What is this self that figures in the expression self-awareness?” (Archéologie du sujet vol. 1, p. 31).

The birth of the subject in the modern sense is what de Libera will investigate. He aims to show how “the Aristotelian ‘subject’ [hypokeimenon, or thing standing under] became the subject-agent of the moderns in becoming a kind of substrate for acts and operations” (p. 39). He quotes a famous passage from Nietzsche denouncing the “grammatical superstition” of the logicians who assume that wherever there is a predicate for an activity such as thinking, there must be something corresponding to a grammatical subject that performs it. Nietzsche says that a thought comes when it wants, not when I want.

De Libera asks, “How did the thinking subject, or if one prefers, man as subject and agent of thought, first enter into philosophy? And why?” (pp. 45-46). He points out the simple fact that a grammatical subject need not be an agent, as when we say “the boy’s timidity made him afraid”. He quotes Frédéric Nef to the effect that action is not a grammatical category. How then did “the subject” become bound up with agency?

He notes that something like this is already at play in Aquinas’ Disputed Questions on the Soul, when Aquinas develops the notion of a “subject of operation” related to sensibility, associating the subject of an action or passion with a power of the soul. How, de Libera asks, did we come to assume that every action requires “an agent that is a subject” and “a subject that is its agent” (p. 58)? (See also Not Power and Action.)

He will be looking for medieval roots of notions that most people, following Heidegger, consider to be innovations of Descartes. Meanwhile, de Libera recalls that Augustine had gone so far as to label it blasphemy to call the soul a “subject”. Knowledge and love, Augustine said, are not in the mind as in a subject.

“This Human”, Again

Stephen Ogden’s Averroes on Intellect (2022) is the first book-length treatment of this fascinating subject of medieval controversy that is centrally focused on an independent philosophical evaluation of the arguments of Averroes himself. Ogden develops a reading of Averroes in close relation both to the Aristotelian text and to the contrasting positions of Avicenna and Aquinas. Averroes, he says, deserves to be taken seriously both as a reader of Aristotle and as a philosopher in his own right. Averroes challenges us to question our assumptions as to what “intellect” might be.

Ultimately, Ogden suggests a sort of compromise between Averroes and Aquinas. This makes an interesting counterpoint to the interpretation of Deborah Black.

Like Black, Ogden highlights the common ground between Averroes and Aquinas. He develops the fact that unlike most earlier commentators on Aristotle, Averroes and Aquinas both explained actual and potential “intellect” in symmetrical ways that made them the same broad kind of being. They also both distinguished a third, “passive” intellect — said to be a kind of disposition of the human imagination — that others have often identified with the potential intellect.

Prior to Averroes, the most common type of reading made actual intellect a singular or universal cosmic or metaphysical principle, while treating potential intellect as something mortal and divided among many individuals. (While fascinating, this is to my mind anomalous with respect to the way Aristotle himself develops the relations between potentiality and actuality. I tend to think of these as only analytically distinguishable aspects, phases, or modes of the same real things.)

Averroes and Aquinas agree that both actual and potential “intellect” are immaterial things that are not dependent on the body. They both defend variants of what is termed “moderate realism” with respect to universals. In this kind of view, universals have reality independent of particulars, but they do not subsist in themselves as Plato thought. They are “abstracted” from human imagination by something called “intellect”.

On the other hand, Aquinas and Averroes approach the interpretation of “intellect” with very different concerns in mind. Ogden agrees with Deborah Black’s point that the role of intellect for Averroes lies in the constitution of intelligible objects. Further, for Averroes the universal singularity of “intellect” carries the whole burden of underwriting a non-Platonic reality of universals as universals.

For Aquinas on the other hand, I would say the primary role of intellect is to underwrite a metaphysically strong notion of personal identity. Aquinas uses a complex original theory of intelligible “species” to do most of the work of underwriting the reality of universals. This leaves him free to repurpose “intellect” as a basis of a philosophical argument for personal immortality that has no parallel in Averroes or Aristotle. Aquinas develops a nuanced account of how the soul exists in genuine union with the body, but each individual soul contains within it intellect that is separable from body. For Aquinas, the presence of intellect within the soul guarantees the immortality of the soul. Ogden mentions in passing Aquinas’ acceptance of Aristotle’s view that memory, however, is inseparable from the body.

Ogden agrees with Black that Averroes successfully explains the experience of human self-awareness in terms of imagination, without needing to appeal to intellect. But Ogden says that for Averroes, in a stricter sense it is indeed only the intellect as our perfective form that “understands”, so perhaps we should say that thought happens within us, rather than that we think.

He mentions that Bertrand Russell said that Descartes should have said “there is thought”, rather than “I think”. I would add that “I” am not a “thinking thing”, but an ethical being constituted by my commitments and practices of commitment.

Averroes

The Andalusian Arab Ibn Rushd (1126-1198 CE), known to the Latins as Averroes, was the most highly regarded commentator on Aristotle in the medieval and Renaissance Latin- and Hebrew-speaking worlds. Many of Aristotle’s central works first became available in Latin due to the translation of commentaries by Averroes that included Aristotle’s full text. In the early 14th century, the pope directed that European universities should teach Aristotle from the commentaries of Averroes, except where the opinions of “the Commentator” contradicted Christian faith. The first printed editions of Aristotle in the Renaissance were actually editions of Averroes with the works of Aristotle embedded in them.

Averroes was an Islamic judge in the Maliki tradition, and also an important medical authority. He maintained that philosophy and Islam taught the same truth in different ways. In addition to commentaries on Aristotle and works on law and medicine, he wrote several works on religion, and a short commentary on Plato’s Republic. The voluntaristic Sunni theologian al-Ghazali had written an influential denunciation of philosophy, which Averroes famously refuted in his Incoherence of the Incoherence. For most of his life he enjoyed the patronage of the Almohad caliphate, which controlled southern Spain and northwest Africa, but the situation was tenuous. Further East, the the Islamic Golden Age’s marvelous flowering of all sorts of learning and popular interest in “ancient wisdom” had already passed, as religious conservatives acquired greater influence.

As a reader of Aristotle, Averroes contributed greatly to distinguishing Aristotle’s own thought from that of the neoplatonically influenced commentary tradition. Though he only had access to Arabic translations of Syriac translations of the Greek, he did an amazing job of close textual analysis, comparing different translations of the same work to get better insight. He still inherited al-Farabi’s over-emphasis on demonstrative “science”, underestimation of the place of dialectic in Aristotle’s thought, and privileging of theory over practical ethical judgment, but on countless other points promoted textually sound and interesting readings of Aristotle’s works.

I feel a little guilty for perpetuating the Western obsession with a very narrow if important strand of his thought, concerned with his unique views on the nature of “intellect”, but I don’t read Arabic and my Latin is very poor, so my acquaintance is mainly based on sources in modern European languages. I also find the whole debate about intellect fascinating in its own right. (See also Fortunes of Aristotle; Errors of the Philosophers; 1277; “This Human Understands”; “This Human”, Again.)

“This Human Understands”

Imagination rather than intellect is actually the main locus of human consciousness for both Thomas Aquinas and the great Aristotelian commentator Averroes whom Aquinas famously criticized, according to medieval scholar Deborah Black.

“[W]ithin the Aristotelian framework which Aquinas and Averroes share, the psychological explanation and interpretation of intellectual consciousness is not itself a given, even if the experience of consciousness is. Consciousness of thinking may play a central role in Cartesian philosophy, and in the system of Averroes’s and Aquinas’s predecessor, Avicenna. But it has no such privileged status in the philosophies of Aristotle, Averroes, or Aquinas, in which the possible intellect ‘is actually nothing before it thinks,’ and is only able to think itself after it has been actualized by some other object”, she wrote in her 1993 essay “Consciousness and Self-Knowledge in Aquinas’s Critique of Averroes’s Psychology”.

The relation of so-called “intellect” (nous) to the human “soul” (psyche) in Aristotle has historically been a major point of contention. These words are used in subtly or extremely different ways by many authors. I strongly recommend holding off on any easy identification of either of them with what modern people think of as subjective mind or consciousness.

Aristotle seems to apply a variant of his fruitful pairing of potentiality and actuality in his rather minimalist account of intellect. These notions were developed in greater detail in the commentary tradition. To hazard an oversimplification, intellect in actuality was considered to be something immaterial that makes things intelligible, whereas intellect in potentiality was considered to be something with no form of its own that takes on intelligible forms.

The great Greek commentator Alexander of Aphrodisias identified the potential or “material” intellect with a part of the soul, which he considered to be inseparable from the body, and therefore mortal. The actual or “agent” intellect he identified with a divine principle that he also gave a cosmological role.

The brilliant Arabic commentator Averroes (Ibn Rushd) argued that both aspects of intellect were symmetrically unique immaterial principles, outside the soul but connected with it. He became convinced that all humans must share a common “material” (potential) intellect, which grounds the real existence of logical universals and intelligible forms, but gets its contents from human imagination, and would not exist if there were no rational animals.

Aquinas located both intellects within the human soul, while giving the latter the elevated, more neoplatonic metaphysical status of an “intellectual soul”, and strongly associating its intellectual character with personal immortality. Especially in later works, Aquinas polemicized sharply against Averroes, claiming that Averroes could not even consistently say that “this human understands”, because for Averroes in his Long Commentary on the De Anima, there is only one material intellect shared by all humans.

Deborah Black argues that the two phases of intellect in Aristotle work together to constitute objects and intelligible forms. This need not imply an experience of immediate self-awareness. For Aristotle, Averroes, and Aquinas, intellectual self-awareness emerges only indirectly.

Black points out that Aquinas typically uses words like “perceives” or “experiences” in talking about self-awareness, and seems to deliberately avoid words implying intellectual comprehension. She sees this as reflecting Aristotelian scruples, and notes the studied vagueness of Aquinas’ endorsement of Augustinian immediate self-awareness. In his refutation of Averroes, Aquinas does appeal to the experience of consciousness, but she notes that he does so initially to argue against Plato’s identification of human being solely with intellect, pointing out that the same person perceives herself both to understand and to sense. “This human understands” does not actually emphasize any deep reflexivity, only individuality.

Aquinas approves of the fact that for Averroes, intellect is in some way united with the body, but argues that because for Averroes that union occurs only through a working of intellect on the contents of imagination, the human individual for Averroes does not herself think. On the other hand, Black argues that Aquinas does not take into account the fact that although what Aquinas himself calls imagination is an entirely passive reception of images, the contents of imagination for Averroes have a much more active character. For Averroes, according to Black, it is the active character of the contents of imagination that manifests human self-awareness. Because Aquinas views imagination as entirely passive, he refuses to acknowledge any credibility to this at all, claiming that the contents of imagination Averroes appeals to are really nothing more than the equivalent of inert colors on an inert wall, and that this makes the human equivalent to a wall.

Averroes compares active intellect to light, and so-called “material” intellect to a transparent medium such as air. Aquinas makes it sound as though the material intellect for Averroes would be analogous to the eye, which would make the material intellect a sort of mind behind our minds. However, Black says Averroes always compared it to a transparent medium, not to the eye. She argues that neither of Averroes’ intellects is a mind or a knower or subject in the modern sense. In her 2004 essay “Models of the Mind: Metaphysical Presuppositions of the Averroist and Thomistic Accounts of Intellection”, she contends that for Averroes, far from being the mind behind our minds that would make us into mere puppets, the material intellect serves as a shared instrument for human agents who individually constitute themselves in imagination.

Averroes’ notion of intellect, Black suggests, is mainly concerned with the constitution of intelligible objects as universals from imaginative content. It does not act as a subject in the modern sense. She cites a number of passages from Aquinas indicating that he, too, often treated intellect as an instrument, rather than as our very essence. (See also Parts of the Soul; Aristotelian Subjectivity Revisited.)

Commitment to Commitment

A commitment to the practices associated with commitment is more fundamental than any particular commitment we may have. To say it another way, taking our committedness seriously is more important than the exact content of our particular commitments as to what is good and true, or to what we will do.

A high level of seriousness about commitments does not mean sticking to our guns at all cost. If we truly take our commitments seriously, that ought to mean that we also want to improve them when we have the opportunity, and to fix them when they are broken.

The American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) famously made the remark that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds…. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do”. One might hope that he really meant to distinguish between a foolish consistency and a wise one — between a kind of rigid adherence to mere formalisms, and what I might call consistency in substance or essence or deep meaning. The latter would be more akin to personal integrity.

Emerson himself was a bit intemperate in the passage that followed (“Speak what you think now in hard words, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said today”). He further confuses the matter by connecting this message with the theme that “great souls are always misunderstood”. This is all in his essay “Self-Reliance”. The rhetoric is quite memorable and there is a sense in which each of these sayings has validity, but they are both what Hegel would call “one-sided” formulations that are highly vulnerable to misuse. Their combination suggests the dangerous implication that it must be our fault if we don’t understand the one who says contradictory things. This clearly goes too far.

In the course of arguing that it is actually possible for a human to have a kind of general knowledge of being, Aristotle in Metaphysics book IV chapter 3 famously defends a principle of noncontradiction that is not merely formal.

He says in part, “For that which is necessary for one who understands any of the beings whatever to have is not a hypothesis” (Sachs translation, p. 58).

“[W]hat it is, after this prelude, let us state. It is not possible for the same thing at the same time both to belong and not to belong to the same thing in the same respect (and as many other things as we ought to specify in addition for the sake of logical difficulties, let them have been specified in addition). And this is the most certain of principles” (p. 59).

“[T]he starting point… is not the demand that one say something either to be or not to be (for perhaps one might suppose that this would require from the outset the things to be shown), but that what he says must mean something to both himself and someone else; for this is necessary, if he is going to say anything” (p. 60).

Robert Brandom argues that all the most important and valuable parts of Kant’s thought can be reconstructed in terms of the process of synthesizing a unity of apperception. This process is not a sequence of events that happen in the world; it is an ethical task for which we are responsible.

No truths follow from the principle of noncontradiction alone. In particular, it is not a deductive source of metaphysical conclusions.

On the other hand, it is what in Kantian language might be called a moral imperative. To be committed to commitment, I would argue, is to embrace that imperative. Stubborn persistence in self-contradiction destroys the possibility of shareable meaning and dialogue. In real life, self-contradiction happens to good people, but that should be an occasion for learning and humility, never something to proudly affirm.

As soon as we acknowledge piecemeal responsibility for the integrity of our commitments, we implicitly have responsibility for the integrity of the whole constituted by all our commitments. Commitment to commitment is an implicit condition of all our particular commitments, and it involves a responsibility for safeguarding and improving the integrity of the whole of our commitments. However fallible it may be, by its very nature it involves at least the germ of the crucial ability to learn, to improve itself and to correct itself.

This also has important consequences for what Kantian respect for others and the related notion of Hegelian mutual recognition look like in practice. First and foremost, respect for others takes the form of recognition of their implicit commitment to commitment, even when we do not endorse all the others’ particular commitments. (See also Brandomian Forgiveness.)

Logical Judgment?

It seems to me that “logical judgment” comes in a wide range of forms, from the preconscious syntheses of our evolved common sense that appear to us ready-made, to the most elaborately explicit works of interpretation. I see judgment as referring principally to a process, and only secondarily to the outcome of the process — to the deliberation more than to the verdict, as it were.

There is a traditional use of “judgment” as a synonym for “logical proposition”. I find this a bit odd; it would make more sense to think of a judgment as at the very least an assertion or denial of a proposition, even in contexts where the connotation of interpretive, deliberative process is suppressed, and the focus is only on an outcome.

In combination with traditional ideas about predication, this identification of judgments with propositions led to a notion of acts of logical judgment in which acts of grammatical predication such as construction of the sentence “Socrates is a human” were viewed as prototypical.

Even Kant’s discussion of the application of concepts in the first Critique bears noticeable traces of this predicative analysis of logical judgment. I think Kant across the larger body of his work played a major role in developing alternatives to the predicative approach that narrowly construed “judgment” as the application of a predicate to a subject. Indeed Brandom argues that Kantian concepts are only intelligible in terms of their contribution to the activity of judging. Nonetheless, when Kant talks about subsuming particulars under universals, the discussion still recalls the predicative approach. Certainly the application of universals to particulars is important, but it is only one of several dimensions that come into play in the constitution of meaning, and it is not the most fundamental.

In referring to the constitution of meaning, I have already implicitly moved beyond the predicative analysis. The problem with the predicative analysis is that it takes meanings for granted, and really only addresses their syntactic combination as pre-existing units. We need to address the broader territory of judgments about meaning and value that go below the level of pre-existing units and preconceived identities. Meanings of terms in context turn out to depend on judgments, which in turn depend on others, and it is the ties of mutual dependency that bind together this open-endedly expanding network that give relative definiteness to our determinations.