The Act of Thought

Volume 3 part 1 of Alain de Libera’s Archéologie du sujet carries subtitles translating to The Act of Thought for volume 3 overall, and The Double Revolution for part 1. The cast of major characters will include Averroes, Aquinas, and the Scottish philosopher of common sense Thomas Reid (1710-1796). This tome is packed with extremely interesting material. It also appears to me to intersect with the important work of Gwenaëlle Aubry on the historical transformation of Aristotelian potentiality and actuality into a neoplatonic notion of power and a more modern notion of action. At the time part 1 was published (2014), part 2 was supposed to be a few months away, and de Libera announced titles for volumes 4 through 7. Instead, he has since published three volumes of related lectures at the College de France.

“The philosophers pose all sorts of questions concerning thought. Who thinks? Am I the author of my thoughts? What is the place of thought? What is its theater or its scene? In what way are the thoughts that come from me or that I have mine? Am I the owner of my thought? In sum: is it necessary to say ‘I think’ with Descartes, or ‘it thinks’ with [Belgian new wave musician] Plastic Bertrand, [and philosophers like] Lichtenberg, Schelling, and Schlick? It seems natural to us to believe that the act of thinking takes place in us. ‘Takes place‘ says a lot. That which takes place is [emphasis added]. Being is having a place of being — in other words: it is having (a) reason for being. But what takes place also happens. What takes place in us happens in us, is produced, is effectuated, is accomplished in us. What takes places in us is in us, in whatever way that it has being. It certainly seems natural to believe that since the act of thinking takes place in us, it begins and is completed in us. In us, that is to say in our soul (if we are religious), in our spirit (if we know the French for Mind), or in some part of us (if we [participated in the May 1968 Paris uprising]).”

“There is nothing ‘natural’ in all this. All these beliefs are cultural, and historically constructed. They are assimilated philosophical theses, philosophemes neither proven as such nor a fortiori proven as historical constructs, philosophemes (learned theorems, technical injunctions, theoretical words of order) lived without justification as immediate givens of consciousness, as a flower of experience” (p. 13, my translation throughout).

De Libera refers to very strong assertions by Thomas Reid about the common-sense character of all this. Reid explicitly refers to the mind as a subject. It was philosophers, de Libera says, “who decided that this, or that which thinks, was the SUBJECT of an act, the act of thinking. It was philosophers who decided on this subjective basis that this ‘that’ or this ‘it’ could be known as the author or the actor. They did this partly against Aristotle, and partly in the name of Aristotle….”

“The philosophical construction accounts for a fact of experience: we sense ourselves as the principle, that is to say also as the beginning, the point of departure… of our actions, notably, and very particularly of our thought. But exactly in accounting for this fact, the philosopher encodes it, and never ceases throughout history to re-encode it, to complicate it, to invest in it and reinvest in it linguistically, conceptually, argumentatively.”

‘Denomination’ is one of the keys of this code” (p. 15). “According to Reid, to say that an agent x acts on a thing y is to say that a power or force exercised by x produces or has a tendency to produce a change in y. What is particularly interesting for an archaeology of the subject-agent of thought is that this schema does not apply to perception” (p. 17).

According to Reid, when we perceive objects, the objects don’t act on the mind, and the mind doesn’t act on the objects. To be perceived is an external denomination. According to de Libera, in the language of the Latin scholastics, causal denomination finds its main application in the domain of action. An action denominates its agent causally, and not formally or extrinsically. On the other hand, extrinsic denomination applies perfectly to the ontological and noetic analysis of the object of thought.

For most of the scholastics, as for most modern people, the being-thought of a stone is real in the human, but is not real in the stone. But de Libera points out that the great Thomist Cajetan says about thought in the passive sense what Reid says about perception — both the stone and the thinker are only extrinsically denominated by the being-thought of the stone.

As de Libera points out, Averroes and his Latin followers have been understood as arguing that thinking is an extrinsic denomination of the human. “It requires a solid engagement with [Aristotle’s work on the soul] and its Greek, Arabic, Jewish, and Latin interpretive tradition to understand what this means” (p. 22).

Church councils in the 14th and 16th centuries upheld the opposing views of Aquinas as doctrinally correct. According to de Libera, this opened two paths, one leading to Descartes and the “Cartesian subject”, and the other leading to what he calls a Leibnizian notion of subject as the “thing underlying actions”. He says there is also a third path, leading from Averroes to Brentano, who reintroduced the scholastic notion of intentionality in the late 19th century. In this sense, he says the middle ages were more modern than we realize, and modernity is more medieval than we realize.

De Libera notes that Foucault ultimately derived his philosophical use of the word “archaeology” from Kant. Such archaeology is concerned with very Kantian “conditions of possibility”.

Taking the modern notion of “subject” at its point of emergence demands that we look back to the scholastic subjectum and “being in a subject” — not for the pleasure of returning to the middle ages, but in order to understand Descartes in context. It was not actually Descartes who was responsible for the transition from what Heidegger called “subjectity” (simply being a thing standing under something else) to the mental “subjectivity” of an ego.

Incidentally, de Libera points out one of the first uses of the word “subjective” in a modern sense in Martin Schoock, an early Dutch critic of Descartes who objected that Descartes reduced thought to something “subjective”. He quotes Schoock as saying “The reason Descartes brags about is not reason understood in a general sense, but in a subjective sense, that is to say the reason he can consider in himself” (p. 30).

Here I would note that in an interesting little meditation on Averroes called Je phantasme (“I imagine”), de Libera’s former student Jean-Baptiste Brenet points out that general Latin use of the verb cogitare referred primarily to operations of what in Aristotelian terms was called “inner sense”, as distinct from intelligere, which was the standard word for the “thinking” attributed to “intellect”.

(Inner sense is the closest Aristotelian analogue to what Locke more abstractly called “consciousness”. At least in the Arabic commentary tradition, it seems to involve several distinct faculties that all have what Aristotle and the scholastics following him called “imagination” as their common root. These are said to include what animals use in place of reason to make meaningful discriminations such as the nearness of danger, which is not actually given in external sense. Descartes’ own usage of cogito (first person singular of cogitare) basically covers all forms of awareness. It is a commonly repeated “Aristotelian” dictum that nothing comes to be in intellect without first coming to be in sense perception, but de Libera in an earlier volume pointed out that a more accurately Aristotelian version would be that nothing comes to be in intellect without some basis in imagination, and nothing comes to be in imagination without some basis in sense perception.)