Aristotelian Subjectivity Revisited

My previous article on this was a bit narrow, focused only on an Aristotelian analogue for the sort of “transcendental” subjectivity developed by Kant and Hegel. Of course, the whole field of “subjectivity” is much broader than that, and properly transcendental subjectivity has little to do with the empirical subjectivity that we have in mind when we call something “subjective”. Here I’d like to begin to round out the picture. (In the background, I’m also imagining what Aristotle might say in response to Hegel’s Phenomenology.)

It is in fact something of a truism that none of the Greeks had a modern concept of the human “subject”. The closest (still distant) analogue is what gets conventionally translated by the etymologically related term “substance” in Aristotle. The elementary notion of substance as a literally existing logical/syntactic substrate for properties –“something underlying something else” — from the Categories was influentially referred to by Heidegger as “subjectity” (intended to stand in constrast to “subjectivity“).

The explanatory role of a literal notion of substrate is raised again in the Metaphysics. Aristotle says the most obvious candidate for a substrate of things is matter. But then he goes on to deconstruct and ultimately discard the whole notion that the most important kind of explanation of things involves reference to a literal substrate. Form — identified with essence or definition, and “what it was to have been” a thing — is then developed as providing more fundamental explanation than any substrate; then form itself is given a deeper explanation in terms of actuality and potentiality.

But neither the elementary account of “something underlying” in the Categories nor the sophisticated discussion in the Metaphysics makes any reference at all to the sentience and agency that are equally fundamental to modern notions of a human “subject”.

Separate from all of this, Aristotle identifies humans as those animals that have language and the ability to reason, which he considers as depending on language. I have argued that the main resource for an implicit notion of transcendental subjectivity in Aristotle is actually his ethical writings. The treatise on the “soul” (psyche) deals with bodily growth, nutrition, movement, and reproduction; with sense perception and imagination; and also with thought, which he refers to as coming to the soul “from outside”. Related treatises address memory and dreams. Human emotions, on the other hand, he deals with not in the “psychological” treatises but rather in the Rhetoric. The context in which Aristotle treats emotion is thus social and communicative rather than inward-looking. He also treats a kind of emotional maturity as a prerequisite for ethical development. He has a refined and well-differentiated notion of situated agency and ethical responsibility, but lacks the obsession with identity shown by many later authors.

I want to suggest that the “whatness” of subjectivity-forms — whether empirical or transcendental — is far more interesting and practically relevant than the supposed abstract “existence” of subject or substrate entities. This is true regardless of whether we are dealing with empirical or transcendental subjectivity. In Heideggerian terms, I want to decouple subjectivity from presumptions of subjectity.

As regards the Aristotelian soul, in Naissance du Sujet (volume 1 of Archeologie du Sujet), Alain de Libera lists four recent analytic interpretations: 1) the psyche is identical to the body; 2) the psyche is an attribute of the body; 3) the body “constitutes” the psyche; 4) the psyche is an immaterial substance. Actually, none of these seems to me to adequately capture Aristotle’s hylomorphism, or notion of the complementarity of “form” and “matter” (neither of which individually means quite what it might seem to, either — see above links). I am also sympathetic to the reading that Aristotelian matter is a relative concept, so that something could be the material for something else that is in turn material for another thing. Something similar, I think, could be said of form.

The relation of soul to body is clearly presented as an instance of the relation of form to matter, though it seems that the relation of form to matter may be different in different cases. In any case I do not think the form/matter relation is intended as an instance of the substance/accident relation. (The notion of “substantial form” was an original development of the Latin medieval tradition, not found in Aristotle, and the bits I understand of the medieval debate on unity or multiplicity of substantial forms further complicate the picture. The key to this whole territory is to understand that there are very many highly distinct and sophisticated positions in the tradition on issues of this sort.)

A further complication involves the relation between “soul” and the “intellect” that “comes from without”, which has a long and fascinating history in the commentary tradition, extending from Alexander of Aphrodisias through the Arabic tradition to the Latin tradition of Albert the Great.

The great Arabic commentator Averroes was apparently the first to ask what is the “subject”, in the substrate sense, of human thought. He came up with the novel suggestion that individual human thought has two such “subjects”: one belonging to the soul that is involved with the body and perception, and one that is an immaterial source of concepts, belongs to the whole human community, gains content over time, and would cease to exist if there were no more humans.

Another intriguing complication in the historical Western tradition is the clear stance taken by Augustine that human mind, soul, or spirit should definitely not be taken as a subject in the substrate sense, e.g., for knowledge or love.