Direct and Indirect “Knowledge”

For now, this will be the last installment on Alain de Libera’s Archaeology of the Subject. Though he has promised another four and a half volumes, I’ve reached the end of what has been published so far. Here I’ll briefly summarize the remainder of volume 3 part 1.

After analysis of an anonymous Averroist text of the 1270s that criticizes Aquinas in sharper language than that employed by Siger of Brabant, de Libera briefly discuses substance dualism and the plurality of substantial forms in the later Augustinian tradition. He documents the beginnings of the shift toward modern usages of “subject” and “object” in the 13th century. He notes the large difference in connotation between Aristotelian ousia and Latin substantia, glossing ousia as what something is in its depth. (I’ve been continuing to use “substance”, with Aristotle’s own gloss from the Metaphysics of “what it was to have been” a thing.)

He then turns to a long and delicately nuanced review of Aquinas’ compromise between Aristotle and Augustine on the soul’s knowledge of itself. The title of this chapter in French is a pun: by homonymy, it suggests “The Subject Supposed to Know Itself”, but literally, it is “The Subject Supposed to Have Itself”.

At summary level, Aristotle holds that all self-knowledge is indirect, while Augustine holds that the soul directly knows itself through its essence. But de Libera points out that there are elements of directness in Aristotle, and elements of indirectness in Augustine. He emphasizes that “knowledge” is said in many ways, from mere undifferentiated awareness to the strong knowledge that was called “science”. If we want to discuss claims about self-knowledge, we need to distinguish what kind of “knowledge” we are talking about.

In the final chapter, de Libera again mentions the Franciscan Peter Olivi, who in the 13th century criticized the representationalism of the medieval theory of “species” in the name of direct realism. Olivi also further sharpened Augustine’s claims that the soul directly knows itself by its essence. According to de Libera, while Olivi was far less influential than Aquinas, it was the interaction of their legacies that ultimately led to the modern notion of the human subject as agent and ego. Toward the end, de Libera again mentions the 18th century Scottish philosopher of common sense Thomas Reid, who was completely unaware of medieval Augustinian criticisms of representationalism, and re-invented direct realism.

Once again, we have to be careful about too easy assumptions regarding “isms”. Here, it turns out that both advocates of representationalism and advocates of direct realism may make strong appeals to immediacy and presence. The difference is that in modern terms, representationalists appeal to the alleged immediacy of mental representations, whereas direct realists appeal to the alleged immediacy of external objects. I read Aristotle as acknowledging a modest role for immediacy in common sense apprehensions, but as rejecting the idea that immediacy has any kind of privileged status in knowledge. I read Kant, Hegel, Brandom, and Ricoeur among others as strongly supporting this Aristotelian view.

Earlier, de Libera had noted a common Franciscan criticism that for both Aristotle and Aquinas, all self-knowledge is inferential. These days, I would take that as a compliment. In my youth, I uncritically absorbed a large bias toward immediacy myself. Immediacy was supposed to give a truth hidden by ordinary alienation. But in more recent years, I have become sympathetic to Brandom’s thesis that all apparently immediate knowledge is just that — apparently immediate, and that a kind of inference actually is the most primitive source of knowledge.