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.