What Is “I” ?

Empirical subjectivity is not really “I”, in the sense of the “I think” that is the pure unity of apperception in Kant and Hegel. We could informally call it “me” or “myself”. That is a concrete thing in the world of things and facts, to which we participants in reason have a special relation that is nonetheless not identity. Strictly speaking, “I” is a mobile index for the tendency toward unity in a unity of apperception, with no other characteristics of any kind.

What is called consciousness is not a medium or container, but a way of being. What gets called self-consciousness in Hegel is anything but immediate awareness of an object called “self”. It has more to do with an awareness of the limitations of empirical self.

There is a long ancient and even medieval prehistory or archaeology to the now ubiquitous conception of “subjectivity”, which was pioneered in its modern form by Kant and Hegel and has been varied and/or vulgarized in innumerable ways. We can recognize the bold innovations of Kant and Hegel in the modern context and still be intrigued and enriched by this prehistory.

When dealing with such retrospective reconstruction of a putative intellectual development, it is never a matter of the persistence or mere repetition of an identical conception. Rather, the first task is to recognize a larger space of variations and developments, and then, tentatively and subject to revision, to retrospectively reconstruct a stratified and multilinear but coherent development. In French, one might consult Alain de Libera’s massive ongoing L’Archeologie du Sujet.

In the middle ages Averroes, in his Long Commentary on the De Anima of Aristotle, developed a nuanced distinction between what he called intellect, which transcends the individual psyche but operates in it where there is rational apprehension, and what he called the cogitative faculty of the soul, which in modern terms is the seat of empirical subjectivity. The potential aspect of intellect, according to Averroes, subsists in time and accumulates forms as an indirect result of human activity, but is not part of the soul. Rather, it is something shared by all rational animals insofar as they are rational, and it would not persist if there were no living rational animals. (See translation by Richard Taylor.) In modern terms, the cogitative faculty is psychological. The potential aspect of intellect is not psychological but social and historical, resembling what I have called the transcendental field. The active aspect can be reconstructed as ideal in something close to a Kantian/Hegelian sense.

Aristotle himself has provocative, minimalist language about intellect coming to the psyche from without, and about active intellect somehow being identical with its objects. The idea of intellect being identical with its objects was revived by Hegel, with explicit reference to Aristotle. This could never be true of an empirical subjectivity.

Nonetheless — and this is the interesting part — we concrete embodied beings can participate in a transcendental unity of apperception that is bigger than we are in some some delicate virtual sense, like Spirit in Hegel. A suggestion provocatively attributed to Kant and Hegel is that paradoxically it is by virtue of this participation — which insofar as it is active dissociates or decenters us from our empirical selves — that we can say “I” at all. Then because we can say “I”, we can confuse “I” with our empirical selves. (See also Subject; Psyche, Subjectivity; Brandom and Kant; Rational/Talking Animal; Intelligence from Outside; Alienation, Second Nature; Empirical-Transcendental Doublet; Nonempirical But Historical?)

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