Act and Action

Still pursuing roots of the modern “subject” in medieval Latin scholasticism by way of Alain de Libera’s Archéologie du sujet, I’ve reached the point where de Libera reviews Bernard Lonergan’s detailed account of act, action, and related terms in Aquinas. The most noteworthy conclusion is that Aquinas distinguishes “act” from “action” in opposite ways in different texts, when he combines it with his other distinction between cases of immanent and transient action. This confusion appears not to have originated with Aquinas himself, but rather with the Latin translations of Greek texts that he used.

In any event, the way these distinctions are deployed by Aquinas is to say the least highly fluid, which is to say that any attempt to interpret them univocally would result in contradictions. (Burrell, who considers the analogy of being a later development attributable to Cajetan, nonetheless suggests that there is an analogy of action in Aquinas.)

De Libera constructs a table of Latin terms (vol. 3 part 1, p. 325) used by Aquinas for the Greek energeia (literally “in-actness”, for which I’ve been using the conventional translation of “actuality”) in the agent and in an external product, respectively. Energeia may be actus in the agent and actio in the product, or vice versa. It may be operatio in the agent and either actio or factio in the product. It may be actio in the agent and factio in the product.

“What it is necessary to understand in this context is that for Aristotle it is one and the same principle that accounts for act, whether in the agent or the product. That principle is form” (ibid, my translation, emphasis added). According to de Libera, for Aquinas too form is the principle of both the act that remains in the agent, and that which passes to the product. (Burrell reads Aquinas in a relational way that avoids de Libera’s suggestion of something passing between agent and product. The idea of something passing between agent and product suggests Suarez’s later explanation of efficient causation by “influence”.)

De Libera takes note (pp. 327-332) of the Latin translation of the influential definition of praxis (ethical action or practice) in the treatise On the Nature of Man by the 4th century CE Syrian bishop Nemesius of Emesa used by Aquinas. In Greek, Nemesius says “praxis is energeia logiké“. The Latin translation by Burgundio of Pisa says “gestio is actus rationalis“. But the same translator rendered the same Greek sentence in The Orthodox Faith by the 7th century monk John of Damascus as “actio is operatio rationalis“.

This might seem like a complete muddle. But if we take act as form as the guiding thread as de Libera suggests, it may be possible to get something coherent out of it. On the other hand, some adjustment would still be required if we also accepted the identification of act with action and of action with an efficient cause. If act is supposed to be understood as form and end and action as the efficient cause or means by which an end is accomplished, then act cannot be identified with action.

It is one thing to recognize the limits of attempting to apply univocity and formalism in logic to the real world, and quite another to affirm a contradiction. But this is a quite delicate area, and sometimes there are arguments whether there is truly a contradiction or merely an implicit distinction between cases. The answer to this depends on interpretation, and every interpretation is subject to dialogue.

De Libera says that Burgundio’s translation of John of Damascus “introduces nothing less than the ‘modern’ vocabulary of action” (p. 327). Thus it seems that Aquinas ends up with an unstable combination of Aristotelian and “modern” meanings for act and action, but the instability was already present in the sources he used.

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.)

A Thomistic Grammar of Action

David Burrell’s Aquinas: God and Action (1st ed. 1979; 3rd ed. 2016) is a very interesting unorthodox sympathetic treatment that provides much food for thought. Burrell’s reading of Aquinas’ notion of action is quite different than what I expected to find — more Aristotelian and less proto-modern. How to relate this to the less favorable picture of Aquinas that emerges from Gwenaëlle Aubry’s account — which heavily emphasizes how Aristotelian concern with ends and the good is displaced by the notion of the priority of divine omnipotence, which is not discussed by Burrell — is an open question.

“This is philosophy as therapy, not as theory” (p. 17). “[P]roofs play an ancillary role at best in the theological task [Aquinas] sets himself: to elucidate the parameters of responsible discourse about God” (p. 9). “It seems that he regarded philosophy’s role in these matters less after the model of a scientific demonstration than as a manuductio: literally, a taking-by-the-hand-and-leading-along…. This somewhat novel contention is designed deliberately to help us rediscover philosophy in its proper medieval dress” (pp. 15-16).

“He is not proposing a synthesis of religious experience. He does not write to edify, nor does he appeal to religious life or practice as offering relevant evidence for his assertions” (p. 18).

Noting the intensive preoccupation of 13th century writers with logic and language, Burrell characterizes Aquinas’ work as principally a sort of philosophical grammar designed mainly to show what cannot be properly said of God. He suggests that we take Aquinas’ expressions of negative theology with utmost seriousness. Aquinas’ positive theology should be taken not as a doctrine of God (which would undermine the seriousness of his negative theology), but rather as an exploration of the limits of language.

God for Aquinas is ipsum esse, “to-be itself”. “Odd as it may seem, however, this assertion does not succeed in telling us whether God exists. For its form is not that of an existential assertion, but of a definition giving the nature of the thing in question” (p. 8).

For Aquinas according to Burrell, “to-be itself” cannot be properly described. What appear to be descriptions of God in Aquinas’ works need to be interpreted in some other way. Aquinas uses language indirectly to show what it cannot say, “to increase our awareness of what we are doing in speaking as we do” (p. 7). “Where less patient thinkers would invoke paradox, Aquinas is committed to using every resource available to state clearly what can be stated….We cannot pretend to offer a description of a transcendent object without betraying its transcendence. But reflecting on the rules of discourse brings to light certain contours of discourse itself. And those very outlines can function in lieu of empirical knowledge to give us a way of characterizing what we could not otherwise describe” (ibid).

Metaphysics involves no arcane method or privileged noetic access, only “an adept use of skills commonly possessed” (ibid).

“What people have failed to do is to take seriously Aquinas’ disclaimer about our being able to know what God is…. By attending closely to what Aquinas does, we can see that he is scrupulously faithful to that original limitation. What God is like is treated in the most indirect way possible” (p. 15). When we say that we clearly know a proposition about God to be true, we are in fact speaking only “of God in so far as he is the proper cause of certain effects” (p. 9). “If whatever we can say about something reflects the formal feature of compositeness, anything lacking it will lie quite beyond the range of our linguistic tools” (p. 17).

“[O]ne could easily mistake the logical treatment for a more substantive doctrine…. [Aquinas] even encourages the confusion by using object-language constructions to do metalinguistic jobs. Yet he had clearly warned us that he was not undertaking to treat of God’s nature” (p. 19).

Aquinas is commonly understood to have taught that although “being” has no one univocal meaning, there is an “analogy of being” that makes its meaning uniform by analogy. I have been at some pains to point out that scholarship does not support attributing this view to Aristotle, as is also commonly done. Burrell says it is a serious mistake to attribute it to Aquinas — the analogy of being was actually pieced together by Cajetan, and depends on views significantly different from those of Aquinas.

Actus stands out as the master metaphor guiding Aquinas’ grammatical treatment of divinity” (p. 130). “It is the distinctively human activities of knowing and loving which offer Aquinas a paradigm for understanding action more generally” (p. 131). Here we are very far indeed from Gwenaëlle Aubry’s emphasis on the relation of action in Aquinas to a very non-Aristotelian notion of power. This certainly complicates the picture.

Burrell thinks Aquinas would agree that “exists” is not a predicate. He also thinks that “existentialist” readings of Aquinas miss the mark, and are distinguished by an inattention to language.

“Aquinas’ account neatly avoids what most of us today are persuaded lies at the heart of human action: decision” (p. 140). “[F]or Aquinas willing remains an activity of reason, broadly speaking. So it is proper that the pattern of receptivity be preserved in the consent which lies at the heart of more manifest voluntary actions like choosing. Furthermore, properly speaking, it seems that ends or goals are rarely chosen or even decided upon. Rather they grow on us. Or is it that we grow into them?” (ibid).

“It is at this point that one appreciates how a philosophical analysis works, especially in dissolving pseudo-problems. I have remarked how Aquinas’ analysis of action appears truncated. For it seems that the development of habitus [Latin for Aristotle’s hexis] as a proximate principle of activity demands one more step: to articulate what it is who acts. Such a step would carry us to the ‘transcendental ego’. But Aquinas neatly avoids that problem by recognizing there is no step at all. The one who acts, as Aquinas views the matter, is articulated in the remote and proximate principles of action. Nothing more need be said because nothing more can be said: the self we know is known by those characteristics that mark it” (p. 144).

“Aquinas manages to clear away certain endemic yet misleading ways of conceiving causal process by refusing to accept ’cause’ as the primary meaning of actus” (p. 146).

“Let me first put it paradoxically: the act of making something happen (causation) is not itself an action. As Aquinas analyzes it, causing an effect is properly a relation. The fact that A causes something to happen in B requires acts, of course, but it itself is not an action distinct from these” (p. 147). “In short, what happens is what we see happening to B (or in B). We say that A is causing this to happen, not because we ascertain that something is going on between them…, but simply because we understand that B depends on A to this extent…. Thus, causing does not have to be explained as a further act by the agent. It is, in fact, more accurately structured as a relation of dependence” (p. 148).

“The merit of Aquinas’ analysis is to exorcise the demand that a specific action be identified as ‘the causal process’. He succeeds, moreover, in locating ‘the causal nexus’ squarely in the category of relation. Causality can thus be explained as an ordering relation, given the capacities to act and to be acted upon in the factors so related…. [But] considerable intellectual therapy is always required to render plausible a formal or relational account of causality” (p. 158).

“A causal model misleads us, moreover, when we inquire into the source of action. That road leads one to adopt the language of will. We have already noted how elusive a notion will is…. Actions, however, require justifications rather than explanations — precisely in the measure that they are actions and not movements. Whoever understands actions to be the sort of thing for which the agent takes responsibility appreciates the import of this distinction. Hence Aquinas insisted that the will is an intellectual appetite, thus consciously adopting an intentional rather than a causal model in accounting for action” (p. 190).

All this is much closer to my reading of Aristotle than I expected. There is apparently also a much bigger distance between efficient causes in Aquinas and in Suárez than I thought. Suárez reportedly had just the notion of “influence” between cause and effect that Burrell finds to be absent in Aquinas.

Aquinas on the Soul

Lately I’ve repeatedly mentioned Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), and I feel some additional due diligence is in order. Though I have browsed his major works, I am assuredly no Aquinas scholar, so I want to tread carefully. This is an exploration, and conclusions may be revised.

My currently interrupted arc treating Alain de Libera’s Archaeology of the Subject has brought to light some unfamiliar suggestions regarding Aquinas’ role in the formation of the modern concept of action as a central explanatory term. Act, action, and actuality are three distinct things in Aristotle, and they seem to be three different distinct things in Aquinas. We have to be careful that all these distinctions are not confused. So, I am embarking on a little detour to get a clearer sense of what they specifically mean in Aquinas.

The most famous theologian of the Catholic church, Aquinas is a very substantial figure whose work has given rise to diverse interpretations. His principal concern was what is called revealed theology, which properly speaking is outside my scope here, but he was perhaps best known (and initially controversial) for his philosophical theology, and for fusing discourses of theology and philosophy. Without ever losing sight of things he considered to be known by faith, he gave an unprecedented place to philosophical arguments in his theological works, and also developed a highly original purely philosophical theology, which he held to independently point in the same direction as his revealed theology.

Contrary to the myth that the Latin middle ages were dogmatically Aristotelian, the place of Aristotelian learning and the social status of philosophy in Aquinas’ lifetime were actually quite precarious, encountering widespread opposition from religious conservatives. Were it not for the conciliatory work of Aquinas and its eventual acceptance by the Church, conservatives might have succeeded in rolling back the great cultural advances that began in the 12th and 13th centuries with the influx of Arabic, Hebrew, and Greek learning into the hitherto rather barbarous world of Latin-speaking Europe. If I often sound critical of Aquinas and disagree with his extraordinarily original redeployment of some key Aristotelian terms, that should be taken in the context of this larger historical debt.

On the question of the soul, Thomist scholar Ralph McInerny explains in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy that Aquinas in questions 75 and 76 of the first part of Summa Theologica distinguishes between a substance and a “subsistent”. He also develops a concept of a being’s actus essendi or “act of existence”. Both of these details — which have no precedent in Aristotle — are new to me. This is the same part of Summa Theologica that de Libera was focusing on.

The human soul for Aquinas is not an independent spiritual substance as an angel would be; rather it is the subsistent substantial form and formal principle of an embodied human being. It makes the human what she is, but is not complete in itself. As a principle of a nature, it has no nature of its own, and is not a substance in its own right. Its nature is to be the formal element of a complete (embodied) substance.

According to McInerny, Aquinas stresses that “the soul exists in a living being as the substantial form of an animal”. Socrates as a human has all the vital activities of a living animal. For Aquinas none of these are distinctive activities of the soul itself, because they are involved with bodily functions. On the other hand, the intellect of Socrates is said by Aquinas to be a distinctive activity or “operation” of Socrates’ soul itself that involves no corporeal organ, and this operation is said to be able to exist independent of the body.

Aquinas acknowledges this to be an unnatural state, since the soul is not complete in itself. But he holds that it is enough to establish that the human soul has an operation that does not depend on a bodily organ, in order to show that the human soul is an incorporeal subsistent that can exist independent of the body. Souls of nonhuman animals have no nonbodily operation, and therefore are not immaterial subsistents. At the same time, the intellectual soul of a human is distinguished from an angel precisely because it is the substantial form of an animal.

Taking it as established that Socrates as an embodied human being is not the same as the soul of Socrates, Aquinas according to McInerny argues that Socrates and his soul nonetheless are both “subjects” of one identical activity or operation. Intellect is an activity of Socrates’ soul that is equally an activity of Socrates the complete human. Aquinas holds that for an animal with an intellectual operation, the intellectual soul and the animal (and vegetable) soul are one and the same.

McInerny summarizes, “In the case of other animals it is the animal itself, the living substance, that is the subject of the act of existence, and both soul and body have existence through the substance. Here in the human case, the soul is said to be the subject of the act of existence because it has its own operation.”

Rationality — or acting knowingly and willingly — “is the distinctive form that intelligence takes in human beings as animals. Rationality involves the back and forth of argument moving from one thing known to another, and advancing in knowledge by such movement. Thus, for Thomas, while angels and God can be said to be intelligent, they are not rational.”

“Reason does not distinguish us from animals; it distinguishes us as animals. So according to Aquinas, while it is true that the activities of intellect and will are not the actualities of any physical organs, they are nonetheless the activities of the living human animal. It is Socrates the animal who knows and wills, not his mind interacting with his body.”

If acting knowingly and willingly has the plain ordinary meaning it does in the discussions of responsibility in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, I could fully subscribe to each individual statement in the last two paragraphs. This has no fancy metaphysical prerequisites. But a premise about acting knowingly and willingly does not seem to me to justify a conclusion about the activities of knowing and willing as such. Nor do I think that knowing and willing is the proper activity of Aristotelian nous or “intellect”.

(I think even Averroes would agree that it is Socrates the animal who “knows and wills”, in the sense that those terms have in Aristotle’s ethics. I think he would like the distinction between intellect and the reason of the rational animal. But I think Averroes would go on to specify that knowing and willing and rationality attach to the animal by way of a development of the animal’s “imagination”. I would myself also emphasize the role of language and ethos.)

I am not sure about calling intellect an operation “of the soul itself”, or indeed an “operation” at all. But I truly have no idea what an “act of existence” would be in Aristotelian terms. Plotinus spoke of the natural act of a being as its good. But “act of existence” to my ear suggests something more like Spinoza’s conatus or effort to exist, which seems at least in part to have a Stoic heritage. Neither of these meanings seems applicable to God. But then, neither is it yet clear to me how the “act of existence” of a created being is related to Aquinas’ notion of the pure act of pure Being, which I have understood as conferring the existence of beings.

Form vs Action

Lately I’ve been assembling materials for a contrast between two different “root metaphors” that have been used in making sense of life, the world, and things — one a notion of form associated especially with Aristotle, and the other a Latin scholastic and modern notion of action. This is also related to the historical transformation of the notion of efficient cause and of causality in general.

The first thing to note is that these are families of metaphors rather than uniform applications of the “same” two concepts. Literal shapes, linguistic meanings, and patterns of activity are all called “forms”, but do not reflect the same concept. The “action” of creation from nothing and that of mechanical impulse are two entirely different concepts.

The unifying themes, I think, are that “action” is supposed to be something more or less simple, immediate, and instantaneous, supporting what is supposed to be a kind of bottom-up, foundational explanation of things, whereas “form” always involves some “intensional” complexity and mediation; may involve extension in time and space that further ramifies that intensional complexity and mediation; and supports a kind of “middle-out” explanation that begins with reflection on middle-sized elements of actual experience, rather than a posited foundation of ultimate simple constituents.

(For some additional complications regarding the above simple picture of action, see A Thomistic Grammar of Action.)

Questioning the Role of Action

Which comes first in the order of explanation: action, as immediate doing; or patterns of activity or practice, as extended, intricately developed over time, mediated, purposeful, and responsive to circumstance? I think it is more the latter.

What I aim to question here is not at all the reality of change or activity, but rather what might be called the “action model” — a way of explaining extended processes and changes and human reality in general in terms of punctual and immediate actions or events. The question is, do we focus on understanding larger processes and developments as the sum of discrete actions, or do we focus on understanding more or less immediate actions in terms of their place in larger processes and developments?

There is more than just a simple polarity here — meaning consists of both concrete detail and a larger context, and we need each of these to help elaborate the other. Nonetheless I want to suggest that it is better to explain things from the larger perspective of activities rather than the narrower one of actions.

Immanent Action?

Alain de Libera, who previously published a French translation of Aquinas’ On the Unity of the Intellect with extensive notes and commentary, opts in his Archaeology of the Subject to focus on the much shorter treatment of Averroes by Aquinas in Question 76 of the first part of Summa Theologica. In the current context, de Libera is most interested in developments on a time scale of centuries, and the latter text was far better known in later times.

In this Question, after briefly summarizing the argument from On the Unity of the Intellect that Averroes makes the human something thought rather than a thinker, Aquinas makes a more abstract claim that Averroes confuses immanent and transitive action.

De Libera appears to be setting the stage for an “archaeological” inquiry into the notion of immanent and transitive action, which he says originated in anti-Averroist arguments but came to have much more general purport.

According to de Libera, Aquinas claims Aristotle’s authority for the thesis that “thought is an immanent action” (Archéologie du sujet volume 3 part 1, p. 301). Implicitly, Aquinas would have meant that thought must be an action immanent in the soul, since the whole dispute with Averroes was about the way in which thought is said to be “in” the soul.

In support, de Libera cites (p. 301 note 1) a passage from book IX of the Metaphysics, for which I’ll substitute Joe Sachs’ translation: “of those things which have no other work besides their being-at-work, the being-at-work of them is present in themselves (as seeing is in the one seeing and contemplation in the one contemplating, and life is in the soul, and hence happiness too, since it is a sort of life). And so it is clear that thinghood and form are being-at-work” (Sachs trans., p. 179; I’ve been using the more conventional “actuality” rather than Sachs’ arguably better “being-at-work” for energeia).

This was part of Aristotle’s larger argument that “the end is work, and the work is a being-at-work, and this is why the phrase being-at work is meant by reference to work and extends to being-at-work-staying-complete [entelecheia]” (ibid). Sachs comments in a note, “That is, beings do not just happen to perform strings of isolated deeds, but their activity forms a continuous state of being-at-work, in which they achieve the completion that makes them what they are. Aristotle is arguing that the very thinghood [ousia or substance] of a thing is not what might be hidden inside it, but a definite way of being unceasingly at-work, that makes it a thing at all and the kind of thing it is” (ibid).

I would note first of all that thought is not mentioned in the passage from Aristotle. Contemplation is, but Aristotle in his carefully minimalist way just says contemplation is in “the one contemplating”. What he chooses to explicitly say is “in the soul” in this way is the being-at-work of life.

Secondly, there is a big difference between the “action” Aquinas speaks of and “being-at-work” in Aristotle. Action seems to be considered in the first instance as something punctual and immediate, whereas Aristotle emphasizes extended processes like building a house, and seems to think there is something essential about their extendedness.

Third, de Libera makes it clear that Aquinas thinks of action principally in terms of efficient causation, whereas Aristotle emphasizes the relation of being-at-work to ends.

Fourth, like many later authors, Aquinas seems to have a contracted view of what an efficient cause is. Aristotle says that the art of building is more properly an efficient cause of a house than the carpenter, the carpenter’s hammer, or the hammer’s blow. Aquinas’ example is that of a bailiff acting on behalf of a king. This does capture the sense in which an efficient cause is a means by which an end is accomplished, but I think it is not accidental that Aquinas’ example involves exercising power and emphasizes simple “doing”, whereas Aristotle’s example explicitly foregrounds the way of doing over the more primitive fact that there is a doing. (See also Not Power and Action; Aquinas and Scotus on Power.)

Update: There is always a bit of risk with interim reports. Now that I’ve read a bit further, it appears that the actual argument of Aquinas is that thought is intrinsically an immanent action, independent of the dispute about whether or not the soul its “subject”. The use of this against Averroes was actually hypothetical — if, as Averroes says, thought has its proper “subject” in a separate material intellect, then, Aquinas says, thought would have to be immanent to the material intellect, and as a result we could not legitimately attribute it to the human thinker. This does not affect the four concerns I expressed above, but it illustrates the subtlety and sophistication of Aquinas’ argumentation. (See also A Thomistic Grammar of Action; Roots of Action; Act and Action).

A “Mind-Soul Problem”?

Still slowly making my way through volume 3 part 1 of Alain de Libera’s Archéologie du sujet, I’ve passed through a section in which he raises the question of a “mind-soul problem”. In the wake of Descartes’ mind/body dualism, many modern authors have spoken of a “mind-body problem”, and proposed materialist or spiritualist alternatives to the dualism of Descartes. Hardly anyone in modern times has addressed a “mind-soul problem”.

My own usage of “soul” is intended purely as a translation of what Aristotle called psyche. I usually avoid “mind”, which has a heritage going back to Augustine’s mens, but has come to be widely used both for everything in the sphere of conscious awareness and for the object studied by modern psychology. Modern philosophers may speak of a philosophy of mind, but what is mind, really? In French and German, the word for spirit takes the place of the English “mind”.

The medieval term “intellect” (a translation of Aristotle’s nous) has much more specific connotations than any of these, though it might be argued that the role Aquinas gave it relative to underwriting the soul’s immortality played an important role in the emergence of modern notions of mind or spirit as something assumed to be a relatively uniform singular thing. Mind in Augustine does seem to have a kind of simplicity also, though Augustine’s soul/body dualism was very different from Aquinas’ combination of Aristotelian hylomorphism with his own non-Aristotelian metaphysical notion of intellectual soul.

De Libera points out that numerous medieval authors discussed the contrast between intellectio (thought, concerned with universals) and cogitatio (the soul’s awareness, concerned with particulars and grounded in what was called imagination). I like to read the discourse about intellect as pointing toward what Kant would later call transcendental considerations, whereas cogitation would belong to the empirical domain.

The common translation of Descartes’ cogito as “I think” confusingly crosses this boundary. The “I” part has also been questioned by various authors, but clearly Descartes was talking about a concrete awareness informed by many particulars, although he gave it a privileged metaphysical status. Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding was certainly also concerned with concrete, empirical awareness, but when he had it translated to Latin, the Latin for “intellect” was used to render “understanding”.

As de Libera says, the “mind-soul problem” is concerned with questions like whether the being that has awareness of sensation is the same as the being that thinks. I imagine that there is a kind of sharing, overlap, and community between the two, but not an identity. Many ancient cultures East and West saw distinctions in this area, where most of the Latin Scholastics and Western modernity insisted on an overarching strong unity or formal uniformity of the “intellectual soul” or mind.

And again, what is thinking?

Speaking in the common way, “I think” that thinking is something more profound than the action of an ego. It’s not at all clear to me that it is entirely “mine”; I tend to think the contrary. And I think there is a big element of receptivity in the apprehension of reality. I don’t mean that anything is just handed to us ready-made, but I think it is equally wrong to say that we make it all. What’s interesting to me is the region in between. Thinking has an active component, but it is not simply an “action”. Models for action include creation from nothing and mechanical impulse; neither of these seems to me like a good analogy for thought. Activity is much wider than action.

Aquinas on the Act of Thought

In a few very dense pages, Alain de Libera summarizes a number of key theses extracted from the works of Thomas Aquinas pertaining to the act of thought (see also “The Subject” In Medieval Times; Origins of a Subject-Agent). According to de Libera, these principles — which represented a significant departure from Augustine’s insistence that the human soul should not be viewed as a “subject” in the sense of something standing under something else — attained a wide currency in Latin scholasticism. They laid the groundwork for the modern notion of “the subject” as active mind and ego.

“Thought is an action (actio) or an operation (operatio) called ‘intellectual’ (intellectualis) or ‘intelligible’ (intelligibilis) because it is the deed of intellect and treats of the intelligible, and unites these two dimensions in its proper actuality. Intellectual has two senses: subjective and causal. Contemplation, also called theoretical thought, the knowledge of the intelligible, is intellectual because it takes place in the intellect itself, which is to say that, relative to the body, it is atopical or utopical [without place], because the intellect itself is not located in the body; the other actions called intellectual are so in a causal sense; they are called such because they are directed or imposed, that is to say commanded, by the intellect and executed by means of a bodily instrument — with respect to which, in distinction from the act of thought — they are localizable and localized: this is the case, for example, with walking and riding, two actions called imposed.”

“…There are two kinds of actions: one remains internal to the agent, begins and ends in it (it is called: manens [remaining] or consistens [consisting] or quiescens in agente [resting in the agent]); the other is exercised on another thing or an exterior matter (it is called: exiens [coming out] or progrediens [moving forward] or tendens [tending] or transiens in alterum [passing into another] or in materiam exteriorem [into the matter of exteriors]). This duality prolongs the Aristotelian distinction between immanent action and transitive action…. The distinction, massively utilized to theorize the difference between the psychic (where immanent causality reigns) and the physical (where the transitive reigns), is also applied within the physical sphere, notably to light….”

“…Only that which is in act acts (Nihil agit nisi secundum quod est actu). This fundamental thesis, which lays the foundation of the articulation between actio and actus [action and act], introduces itself in diverse other formulations, such as: Omne agens agit, inquantum actu est [every agent acts, insofar as it actually is], or Unumquodque agit secundum quod est actu [each one acts according to what it actually is]. We will call it ‘the principle of the actuality of the agent’.”

“Numerous principles arise from this or assume its validity. This is the case with [the principle that] that by which something first operates is the form of the operator; the principle of the subjection of action in the power of the agent… and the subjective principle of action [actions belong to something standing under them]” (Archéologie du sujet vol. 3 part 1, pp. 53-56, my translation). De Libera goes on to mention additional principles such as “attribution of action to the principal agent” (pp. 56-57); “action is a function of the being of the agent” (p. 57); “determination of action by the nature of the agent” (ibid); “determination of action by act” (ibid); and “actuality is a determination of the act of an agent” (ibid).

The bottom line of all of this seems to be that thought is the action of an agent. Neither Aristotle nor Augustine treated thought in this way or had this kind of view of action and agency, but a long medieval and modern heritage makes it seem like common sense to many people. Aristotle spoke of intellect as coming to us “from outside”. He was certainly very interested in practical doings, in process, and in being-at-work, but did not reduce these to the discrete “actions” of discrete “agents”. Activity, I want to say, is something different and broader than this. (See also Not Power and Action; Aristotelian Actualization; Aristotelian Subjectivity Revisited).

“The Subject” in Medieval Times

According to Alain de Libera in the second half of Archéologie du sujet vol. 1, Thomas Aquinas was instrumental in developing a view of the soul that was neither Aristotelian nor Augustinian, and that paved the way for the modern concept of “the subject” as an agent, long before Descartes. De Libera says that Aquinas did this in part by introducing the different, very abstract Aristotelian notion of subject (hypokeimenon, “thing underlying”, with no connotations of mind or agency) into the Augustinian model of the soul as an image of the Christian Trinity, and simultaneously introducing the Augustinian biblical Word into an Aristotelian model of abstractive knowledge. Aquinas also drew indirectly on Plotinus, and directly on his teacher Albert the Great’s use of pseudo-Dionysius. In doing so, he effectively removed the stigma Augustine had placed on treating the human soul as a “subject”.

Aristotle had suggested that there is a kind of identity between thinking and what it thinks. It is perhaps not accidental that we use different senses of the same English word “thought” for both. These should not be equated with subject and object in the modern sense; they both occupy parts of a kind of middle ground between what we call subject and object.

According to de Libera, Plotinus developed a kind of identity between three terms (nous, noeisis, noeton — intellect, intellection, intelligible object). His intellect and intelligible object are already somewhat closer to what we call subject and object. In between, he placed an act of thinking or intellection that was to have a kind of identity with both the intellect and the intelligible object.

Plotinus’ notion of act is also quite different from that of Aristotle. Aristotle calls the first principle a kind of pure act that is not an action in the ordinary sense, and has nothing else behind it; for Plotinus, the first principle is a power, and every act is the act of a power. For Aristotle, the first principle is also an end only; for Plotinus, it is both the end and the origin of all things.

The persons of the Trinity are supposed to have a sort of mutual immanence to one another that is completely unlike the case of something underlying something else. De Libera notes that Plotinus and his student Porphyry already used a similar concept of mutual immanence in their discussions of intellect. Augustine ranked his reading of Plotinus as a formative experience second only to his conversion to Christianity.

From the Christian neoplatonist pseudo-Dionysius, Albert the Great drew the notion of a “whole of powers” that is different from either a universal whole or an integral whole.

De Libera notes that the classic formula of the Trinity in Greek — one ousia, three hypostases — was confusingly translated into Latin as “one essence, three substances” or as “one substance, three persons”. By substitution, the coexistence of these two translations yields the obviously self-contradictory formula, “one substance, three substances”, which graphically illustrates the equivocation in medieval usages of “substance”.

(In deference to common usage, I have continued to use “substance” for Aristotle’s ousia, even though I think it is a terrible translation. “Essence” is better, provided we recognize that Plato and Aristotle had views of essence that were not “essentialist” in the sense of treating essences of things as pre-given or as something to take for granted.)

De Libera speaks of the need to parenthesize modern notions of subject and object in order to understand Augustine’s opposition to treating actions and passions of the soul as attributes of a substance. Conversely, for better or worse, Aquinas’ legitimation of this way of viewing the soul brings us closer to modern views. (I think Aristotle would have shared Augustine’s opposition to this formulation, but for different reasons. I think Aristotle regarded the whole human being — and not the soul or the body taken separately — as a “substance”.)

Aquinas introduced emphasis on both what de Libera calls an Aristotelian structure of subject-powers-activities and a pseudo-Dionysian structure of essence-power-operation into a Latin-speaking theological context that had been mainly dominated by Augustine. What I would call this double infusion of additional neoplatonic elements is said by some to have resulted in a more dynamic and relational way of viewing things. (In agreement with Gwenaëlle Aubry, however, I think Aristotelian potentiality is very different from neoplatonic power, even though they use the same Greek word.) Combined with Aquinas’ serious embrace of a version of Aristotelian hylomorphism, this infusion led to a simultaneously more positive and more dynamic view of worldly existence than had been common in the Augustinian tradition, which also helped lay the seeds of modernity.

A broadly neoplatonic view of the world in terms of powers and operations-of-powers thus turns out to have been very important for the emergence of the modern subject-as-agent (as well as, I would argue, the rise of the specific modern notion of causality). De Libera notes that Heidegger ignored both neoplatonism and theology in his famous account of the rise of the modern subject. Meanwhile, Aquinas’ legitimation of the treatment of actions and passions as attributes of a soul-subject-substance — coupled with the interweaving of such attribution with imputations of responsibility — seems to have contributed to a stronger notion of a self as something with univocal identity and sharp edges.