Archaeology of the Subject

Leading scholar of medieval Latin thought Alain de Libera (b. 1948; automated translation of French Wiki page here) has produced a great deal of fascinating work. Well-versed in contemporary continental and analytic philosophy, de Libera excels in developing the sort of historiographical-philosophical nuances that I think are vital to solid understanding. He makes exemplary original use of Foucaultian archaeology and what I have been calling Aristotelian semantics, developing many fine historiographical distinctions in the use of philosophical words that turn out to have huge significance.

He has pointed out the large influence of Arabic philosophy on the Latin West (see Fortunes of Aristotle); contributed to a more balanced appreciation of the great Aristotelian commentator Averroes (whose controversial views on subjectivity I briefly discussed in What Is “I”?); documented the work of Albert the Great and his students, developing a surprising Aristotelian background to the German mystics; and explored the contemporary relevance of the medieval debate on universals.

His greatest contribution, however, is undoubtedly the ongoing work on an Archaeology of the Subject, with three volumes in French published so far, and an ongoing lecture series at the Collège de France. I just stumbled on a related article in English.

The article introduces this work by noting a convergence between Foucault’s late “hermeneutics of the subject” and Paul Ricoeur’s book Oneself as Another, suggesting that late Foucault’s “subject” is actually close to Ricoeur’s positive notion of “self”. Ricoeur had said that this self stands “at an equal distance from the cogito exalted by Descartes and from the cogito that Nietzsche proclaimed forfeit” (emphasis in original). (In Freud and Philosophy (French ed. 1965), Ricoeur had referred to psychoanalysis as an “archaeology of the subject”.) Meanwhile, de Libera points out, the French philosopher Vincent Descombes, in defending a positive role for the notion of “subject”, concluded “the subject which it is necessary for us to discover is more Aristotelian than Cartesian”. While de Libera’s terminology is different from the way of speaking I have been developing here (see The Ambiguity of “Self”; Self, Subject; Subject; Empirical-Transcendental Doublet), there is a great deal of common ground, and I have been influenced by his work.

The main historical thesis advanced by de Libera is that the modern notion of “subject” is the result of a complex theological compromise and hybridization between initially very different notions of Aristotelian hypokeimenon (a generic notion of substrate with no intrinsic connection to personality, used by Averroes in raising apparently new questions about what substrate it is in which thought inheres) and Augustinian thought about hypostasis (the Greek term used for a person of the Trinity). I am barely scratching the surface of a highly developed account with many additional distinctions. (See also Pseudo-Dionysius on the Soul.)

This is a vital correction to many grossly oversimplified views of the history of notions of subjectivity in the Western world. My own view of the theological developments he highlights is a good deal more ambivalent, but compared to the value of this historiographical contribution, that seems like a minor difference.