Roots of Action

Returning again to Alain de Libera’s Archaeology of the Subject, de Libera had characterized a typical modern view of human subjectivity in terms of a “subject-agent” that combines the notion of a grammatical subject with that of a cause associated with a kind of “intentions” that are considered to be both mental acts and representations. This is a very specific cultural construct that makes many assumptions. It has acquired a kind of common-sense status, but treating human subjectivity in this way is very far from universally valid.

The common cliché is to call this the “Cartesian subject”, but de Libera’s project is to show that the groundwork for it was actually laid within the Latin scholastic tradition.

My treatment of de Libera’s work has been and will be a sort of journey of discovery; I don’t know in advance exactly where it will end up.

I had begun to look at his treatment of the particular place of Thomas Aquinas in this development. Previously, I have approached Aquinas mainly in terms of his admirable recovery and defense of what I consider to be good Aristotelian principles, and what I take to be his simultaneous divergence from or confusion of some of these that I regard as highly important. So, I felt the need to consult a few sympathetic secondary sources for a view of Aquinas more on his own terms. Now I feel a little better equipped to resume this thread.

It was a commonplace of 20th century Thomism to recommend itself as an alternative to broadly Cartesian views of what it is to be a human being. The contrasting picture de Libera paints is far more intricate and ambivalent. As well as recovering Aristotelian insights, Aquinas took some new steps in a “modern” direction, but many of these were only consolidated by the systematizing efforts of later Thomists. Part of the reason I felt the need to dwell a little on Aquinas was to be better prepared to understand distinctions between Aquinas himself and later Thomistic developments.

“The semantic field of action is nonetheless more complex, its frontiers more porous, when one considers effective usage, the real implementation of the principles mentioned, or when one analyses more finely the lexicon of the authors” (Archéologie du sujet volume 3 part 1, p. 312; my translation).

To begin with, leading 20th century Thomist scholar Bernard Lonergan concluded that a simple distinction between immanent and transitive action is “too rigid” (ibid). Lonergan is quoted (ibid) saying it was later authors who considered it metaphysically irreducible. For Aquinas, agere (to act) has a strong moral sense related to what de Libera calls a “subject of imputation”. In medieval Latin, actio (action) is used to translate both Greek praxis (glossed as moral conduct) and poieisis (glossed as production). Lonergan says Aquinas uses actio sometimes in a general sense that includes both of these, and sometimes more specifically for moral conduct. By contrast, action affecting external matter is more properly called factio.

For Aquinas, actio in the moral sense, according to de Libera’s summary of Lonergan, is associated with “free beings who are masters of their acts” (p. 313). I (and I think Aristotle as well) would say instead ethical beings who are responsible for their acts. Freedom and mastery are here implicitly defined in terms of one another, and ethical being and responsibility are also defined in terms of one another.

As I understand it, Aquinas regarded the will as a function of intellect rather than a separate faculty, so he would not be a voluntarist in the technical sense formulated that way. Nonetheless, as I understand it, he insisted that humans have the equivalent of arbitrary freedom.

I say that responsibility does not involve mastery, nor does ethical being involve freedom to act arbitrarily. This issue is independent of questions connecting action with efficient causality.

Mastery and arbitrary freedom (medieval Latin libertas, or the liberty of the lord to do whatever) are (mis)applications of something analogous to omnipotence on a moral or social level. Early modern apologists for absolute monarchy were strongly committed to an analogy between absolute monarchy and theologies stressing divine omnipotence. For Plato and Leibniz, this was the formula of tyranny. (See also Euthyphro.)