Intention and Intuition

Husserl continues his passive synthesis lectures with more discussion of intuition as a confirmation of the concordance of intentions. It now seems pretty clear that intuition for Husserl is all about the “presentness” of presentations, and unlike the common usage does not involve any leaps. He distinguishes between intuitions that are “self-giving” (principally, external perceptions), and those that are not self-giving, but instead involve a “presentification”, like memories and expectations. He discusses at some length the question whether it is possible in advance to know which of our general intentions and presentations can potentially be confirmed in intuition.

He speaks of intentions “wanting” and “striving” to be fulfilled in present intuition, but contrasts this with a wish or will. Instead, it seems to be a more elemental directedness toward filling in the metaphorical hole in what he calls the “empty” intentions that are not correlated to a present object in intuition from external perception. Preconscious beliefs about an external object are subject to a kind of preconscious corroboration by comparison to direct impressions from sense perception.

I like the quasi-personification of intentions and intuitions here, as “wanting” or “giving themselves” (see Ideas Are Not Inert). Plato in the Republic compared the soul to a city or community of thoughts, feelings, and perceptions, thus suggesting that the kind of unity the soul has is comparable to the kind of unity a concrete community has. All our thoughts, feelings, and perceptions thus need not be attributed monolithically to a single, central agent; rather, our agency as individuals is the combined effect of numerous specialized, more or less cooperating but somewhat decentralized agencies.

All our intentions “want” to coalesce into the unity of a world.

“That we have a consciousness of our own life as a life endlessly streaming along; that we continually have an experiencing consciousness in this life, but in connection to this in the widest parameters, an emptily presenting consciousness of an environing-world — this is the accomplishment of unity out of manifold, multifariously changing intentions, intuitive and non-intuitive intentions that are nonetheless concordant with one another: intentions that in their particularity coalesce to form concrete syntheses again and again. But these complex syntheses cannot remain isolated. All particular syntheses, through which things in perception, in memory, etc., are given, are surrounded by a general milieu of empty intentions being ever newly awakened; and they do not float there in an isolated manner, but rather, are themselves synthetically intertwined with one another. For us the universal synthesis of harmonizing intentional syntheses corresponds to ‘the’ world, and belonging to it is a universal belief-certainty.”

“Yet as we already mentioned, there are breaks here and there, discordances; many a partial belief is crossed out and becomes a disbelief, many a doubt arises and remains unsolved for a time, and so forth. But ultimately, proper to every disbelief is a positive belief of a new materially relevant sense, to every doubt a materially relevant solution; and now if the world gets an altered sense through many particular changes, there is a unity of synthesis in spite of such alterations running through the successive sequence of universal intendings of a world — it is one and the same world, an enduring world, only, as we say, corrected in its particular details, which is to say, freed from ‘false apprehensions’; it is in itself the same world. All of this seems very simple, and yet it is full of marvelous enigmas and gives rise to profound considerations” (Analyses Concerning Passive and Active Synthesis, pp. 145-146).

Active and Passive

“What strikes us now is the ambiguity in speaking of a decision that come[s] to pass on its own or in the matter itself, namely, as undergoing a decision that just arises, and the deciding position-taking that is carried out on the part of the ego as the ego’s reaction” (Husserl, Analyses Concerning Passive and Active Synthesis, p. 92).

At this point in his lectures on passive synthesis, Husserl is beginning to explicitly consider the interrelation of passive and active aspects in perception and judgment, which had already implicitly arisen earlier. He rightly recognizes that there is an important relative distinction between preconscious and conscious dimensions of the overall process.

Already at the outset, though, it appears again that the active aspects seem to be straightforwardly attributed to the ego. A bit later, the shorthand phrase “egoic acts” that troubled me in the previous post gets repeated and elaborated. I still think it would be less prejudicial to attribute the (more) active aspects to something like “conscious deliberation and judgment”, and leave the postulated underlying ego-agent out of it. As Beatrice Longuenesse put it in her discussion of Kant’s treatment of related subject matter, “I who affect myself from within by my own representative act am forever unknowable to me”. I prefer to speak of the process of continually approaching and re-approaching a teleological unity of apperception, rather than punctual acts of an ego. But this is Husserl, who is well known for believing in a unitary rational ego. Luckily, most of his development does not really depend on this.

The other worry that occurs to me here is that the above-quoted passage is far from unique in emphasizing the place of decision on the active side. For instance, he says, “Judging is always deciding this or that…. In all these actions, judging is always only a process of conferring or denying validity that stems from the ego” (p. 93).

I much prefer an Aristotelian emphasis on an extended process of deliberation, and the point of view that it is the rational course of the deliberation that drives the eventual conclusion or choice, rather than a punctual, “free” decision. Larger patterns of activity, I say, are far more important than punctual acts, and subsume anything that can be explained by punctual acts. I had been hoping Husserl would come closer to this.

“[T]he ego passes judgment on its own position-taking…. We will see shortly that this position-taking or this group of position-takings are completely non-independent from the standpoint of intentionality, namely, insofar as they presuppose passive doxa [belief]…. The ego does not always take a position judicatively in this strict sense [e.g., when] it simply perceives, when it is merely aware” (ibid).

I very much like the non-independence part, but the last part raises a new problem, in that it is said to be the ego that perceives and is aware. I prefer to simply say that we have perception and awareness, rather than that we have egos that have perception and awareness.

“[Our position-takings] are completely non-independent insofar as they have their motivation founded in what goes on in perception itself, in perception’s proper and potentially purely passive course. Perception has its own intentionality that as yet does not harbor anything of the active comportment of the ego” (p. 94).

The part about perception having its own intentionality seems to have been a guiding inspiration for Merleau-Ponty. However, Husserl’s reference to the “potentially purely passive” character of perception seems surprising in light of his important point about perceptual “adumbration”.

“‘Active acceptance’ is what carries out a peculiar appropriation, determination, thereby establishing this being as valid for me from now on and abidingly” (p. 95).

This way of putting things seems perfectly fine as it stands, though it is followed by a long ego-centric elaboration. The ego talk continues into the part on “questioning as a multilayered striving”, where, e.g., he refers to questioning as “an activity that is obviously peculiar to the ego” (p. 100).

I would say that questioning is an activity peculiar to rational or talking animals, not to their putative egos.

“[T]he cognitive life, the life of logos, indeed like life in general, runs its course in a fundamental stratification. (1) Passivity and receptivity. We can include receptivity in this first level, namely, as that primordial function of the active ego that merely consists in making patent, regarding and attentively grasping what is constituted in passivity itself as formations of its own intentionality. (2) That spontaneous activity of the ego (the activity of intellectus agens [agent intellect]) that puts into play the peculiar accomplishments of the ego, as was the case with judicative decisions” (p. 105).

I contrast “spontaneous” with “deliberate”, seeing the former as more tied to preconscious synthesis and the latter to conscious synthesis. Spontaneous activity of an ego identified as the agent of deliberate conscious synthesis therefore makes no sense to me. Husserl is not alone in this strange usage of “spontaneity”; Kant, though he doesn’t talk about an ego, seems to have preceded him in speaking of a spontaneity of reason. In both cases, I think the motive was to separate rational motivation from psycho-physical causality, which I do support. (See Spontaneity.)

Here Husserl also explicitly identifies the ego with agent or “active” intellect. It’s unclear to me what Aquinas would think of this identification, but it would only make sense on the broadly Thomistic view that intellect is a proper part of the soul and is the basis of our conscious awareness. I’m guessing Husserl was unaware of the subtleties of scholastic debates about intellect, in which potential intellect in fact played a greater role. (I’ve been suggesting that in Aristotelian terms, imagination rather than intellect is the main basis of consciousness, and attempting to relate this to the Kantian idea of a productive synthesis of imagination, which Husserl identifies as a predecessor of his own notion of passive synthesis.)

All in all, I’m disappointed with this part of Husserl’s text. In spite of his recognition of a sort of active receptivity that is intermediate between activity and passivity, this part repeatedly suggests a rather sharp duality between activity and passivity. Instead of a “fundamental stratification” between passive and active synthesis, I want to imagine a more dynamic interleaving working itself out over time, in which no part is completely passive or completely active. In particular, through shared access to memory, I think the more passive aspects may build on past results from the more active aspects.

It appears initially that the remainder of Husserl’s text does not have the “egocentric” character that bothered me in this part.

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 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.)

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.

“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.

Origins of a Subject-Agent

How did the modern equation of subjecthood and agency come to be? How did the notion of “I” or ego come to be substantialized? An extremely influential argument of Heidegger makes this an innovation of Descartes. Alain de Libera argues that this is too hasty, and that the groundwork for this identification was actually laid in the later middle ages. I’m continuing a high-level treatment of de Libera’s extremely important archaeology of the subject (see also On a Philosophical Grammar).

Answering this question will involve an extended historical odyssey through complex interactions between Aristotelian and Augustinian views, and much more. De Libera sees Aquinas in his polemic against Averroes raising four interrelated questions of a more fundamental nature: Who thinks? What is the subject of thought? Who are we? What is man? The second of these seems to have been first asked by Averroes. The other three are largely attributable to Aquinas and his contemporaries, in their reactions to Averroes.

Several points of Aristotelian interpretation (What is substance? What is form? What is act? What is an efficient cause? What is the soul?) will be relevant to answering these, as will Augustine’s meditations on personhood and the nature of the Trinity. De Libera notes that John Locke — a major contributor to modern views on “the subject” — was deeply involved in debates on trinitarian theology. He also discusses Franz Brentano’s modern revival of the medieval notion of intentionality. The medieval version was closely bound up with a notion of “inexistence” or “existing in” of mental objects (forms separated from their matter) in the soul.

In the Categories, Aristotle gives substance the logical sense of something standing under something else. This influenced the Greek grammarians who formulated the notion of a grammatical subject. But in the Metaphysics, he treats this as only a starting point that is quickly superseded by an identification of substance with form or “what it was to have been” a thing, before moving into an account of substance as potentiality and actuality.

De Libera notes a historic division among readers of Aristotle’s treatise On the Soul between those who interpret the soul as an attribute of the body, and those who treat it as a substance in its own right. The latter position has different meanings, depending on whether substance is taken in the “standing under” sense or in the sense of form. De Libera will be particularly interested in the consequences of a further family of positions that make the non-obvious equation of human actions and passions with attributes of the soul.

He notes that “category” in Greek originally meant accusation, and relates this to Locke’s characterization of personhood as a “forensic” notion. We have here to do with subtle relations between attribution, inherence, and imputation with respect to actions and passions in relation to the soul. But what is an action? Must we explain an act in terms of a substantial subject’s power of efficient causation in a late scholastic sense that is far from Aristotle’s? (See also Expansive Agency; Brandomian Forgiveness.)

On a Philosophical Grammar

It seems like a good time to get back to a bit more detail on Alain de Libera’s “archaeology of the subject”, which I introduced a while back. Volume 1 is subtitled Naissance du sujet or “Birth of the Subject”. He begins with a series of questions asked by Vincent Descombes in a review of Paul Ricoeur’s Oneself as Another:

“1) What remarkable differences are there, from the point of view of use, between these words which we place too lazily in a single category of personal pronouns (and particularly here I, he, me, him, her, oneself)?

“2) What is the status of intentions to act? Are they first properties of the agent?

“3) Should we distinguish, as Ricoeur proposes, two concepts of identity, identity as sameness (idem) and identity as ipseity [“selfness”] (ipse)?

“4) What is this self that figures in the expression self-awareness?” (Archéologie du sujet vol. 1, p. 31).

The birth of the subject in the modern sense is what de Libera will investigate. He aims to show how “the Aristotelian ‘subject’ [hypokeimenon, or thing standing under] became the subject-agent of the moderns in becoming a kind of substrate for acts and operations” (p. 39). He quotes a famous passage from Nietzsche denouncing the “grammatical superstition” of the logicians who assume that wherever there is a predicate for an activity such as thinking, there must be something corresponding to a grammatical subject that performs it. Nietzsche says that a thought comes when it wants, not when I want.

De Libera asks, “How did the thinking subject, or if one prefers, man as subject and agent of thought, first enter into philosophy? And why?” (pp. 45-46). He points out the simple fact that a grammatical subject need not be an agent, as when we say “the boy’s timidity made him afraid”. He quotes Frédéric Nef to the effect that action is not a grammatical category. How then did “the subject” become bound up with agency?

He notes that something like this is already at play in Aquinas’ Disputed Questions on the Soul, when Aquinas develops the notion of a “subject of operation” related to sensibility, associating the subject of an action or passion with a power of the soul. How, de Libera asks, did we come to assume that every action requires “an agent that is a subject” and “a subject that is its agent” (p. 58)? (See also Not Power and Action.)

He will be looking for medieval roots of notions that most people, following Heidegger, consider to be innovations of Descartes. Meanwhile, de Libera recalls that Augustine had gone so far as to label it blasphemy to call the soul a “subject”. Knowledge and love, Augustine said, are not in the mind as in a subject.

Receptive Power?

The later neoplatonists developed a subtle and somewhat paradoxical notion of passive or receptive power. I call it paradoxical because “passive power” almost seems like an oxymoron. In modern terms, it is hard to see how something purely passive could meaningfully contribute to an effect, or even be called a “power”. But in a neoplatonic context, active and passive powers function as correlative terms that collaborate — albeit asymmetrically — to produce effects. When a “patient” is properly prepared, an appropriate “agent” power is supposed to spontaneously come to dwell within it.

All the change is on the side of the patient, whereas what is called “agency” in neoplatonism belongs on the side of the eternal and unchanging. Exactly how a patient in time comes to be properly prepared to be receptive to an eternal agent when it was not before is admittedly rather obscure.

In his late polemics against Pelagius, Augustine treated the agency of grace as residing entirely on the side of the eternal, even going to the extreme of denying that grace in any way depends on the merit or innocence of the recipient. His point seems to have been that grace does not depend on any kind of self-will, no matter how virtuous or innocent it may be — that it is always only received as a gift.

However obscure the neoplatonic notion of the preparation of patients may seem, in the context of a problematic like that of late Augustine, the attribution of effective reality to passive powers suggests a way out of the impasse we are left with if we consider only grace and self-will. Merit or innocence could be considered as configurations of such “passive powers”.

Real Individuality?

“Real Individuality is the last singular shape of Consciousness” (H. S. Harris, Hegel’s Ladder II, p. 77). After this, the focus will move to shareable contents.

We are still in the “Reason” chapter of the Phenomenology. Aristotelian considerations of actualization figure prominently here, along with Hegel’s concerns about Kant’s use of autonomy as an ethical criterion.

According to Harris, in the “internal language of Individuality”, “I am my own project, which is always ‘self-expression’; and the realization of my ‘self’ in some external material is the publication of what I am to others…. The little girl, of whom I once heard in a philosophy class, who asked ‘How can I know what I think, until I see what I say?’ had her feet set firmly on the path towards a Real Individuality that will not deceive itself” (p. 88). “We are all ‘expressing ourselves’ as perfectly as possible all the time” (p. 89). But this means that Real Individuality cannot be used as a criterion of truth, or as an ethical criterion.

“Hegel insists that the identity of project and performance, the identity of the Real End with what is actually done, is so fundamental, so essential, that even the most spontaneous feelings of success… or of failure and regret… are illegitimate. Not even the agent is allowed to compare the project with the performance, because the certainty of Reason that it is all reality implies that the whole ‘inner consciousness’ of the agent is an illusory fiction” (p. 90). (Robert Pippin’s account of this is similar but not quite so sharply worded.) On this view, strictly speaking it would never be legitimate to say I didn’t really mean to do what I actually did, or to neglect what I actually neglected. At the end of the “Spirit” chapter though, Hegel will balance this ultra-strong notion of responsibility with an unprecedentedly strong notion of forgiveness.

“We ourselves find out what we are by seeing what we do” (p. 91). “In any case, what my words mean is a matter of interpretation, and I am not in a privileged position on that question” (ibid). “It is in the Werk [work, or product of action], says Hegel, that consciousness comes to be for itself what it truly is. In his view it is the ’empty concept’ of Real Individuality that disappears as a result. The Werk is what survives; and it survives as belonging to everyone. So the immediate identity of thought and speech… must give way to actions that leave a record of self-realization” (p. 93). “The first ‘experience’ of Real Individuality is the discovery that it is not the agent and the process that is real. What is real is the result, the product” (p. 94).

“What the ‘self-identical form of pure action’ really constructs is the harmony that Leibniz had to ascribe to God’s pre-establishment at the moment of Creation” (p. 96). “We have reached the spiritual ‘perception’ of Reason as a Thing” (p. 97).

But this is Hegel, and there is seemingly always another consequent “shape” of things waiting to emerge beyond the current one. Harris continues, “[N]ow the Werk vanishes back into the vanishing action; in this reciprocal process ‘vanishing vanishes’. For the ‘objective actuality’ of the Werk is only a vanishing moment of the actuality that is truly objective” (p. 97). Harris says Hegel is here switching from use of a pre-Kantian notion of objectivity as independence from us, to a Kantian notion of objectivity as universality. A bit later, the question of independence from us will re-emerge again.

“What Hegel wants to emphasize is that I am my own other, I am always beyond what I say; I can react to it myself…. But it is very useful to have the reaction of another self (especially one that says ‘Nohow’ or ‘Contrariwise’) if I am to become conscious that when I reformulate what I said the first time, my self-critical activity is controlled by an ‘objective’ standard. I want to put something ‘right’ that was ‘not right’ before. ‘Feelings of lamentation and repentance’ are not out of place now; and when I feel that I have got it right finally, the feeling may even be one of ‘exaltation'” (p. 98). Here the Real Individual seems to assert its rights again.

But this leads to a new worry about the Real Individual’s objectivity. “[A]s the naive consciousness of the [thing itself], Real Individuality is the perfectly reconciled or Happy Consciousness. Its own ideal standard always applies to its action in some way or other. The action always deserves to be ‘honored’ by everyone, once the agent has presented it in the right light” (p. 101). “The ‘honor’ of this consciousness arises from its not putting its thoughts together. Anything said, done, thought, or just luckily found can be made into the [thing itself]” (ibid). This I think is related to Hegel’s critique of the Kantian autonomy criterion of normativity, which — contrary to what Kant clearly wanted to be the case — Hegel found to leave the door open to arbitrariness on the part of the autonomous Real Individual.

I have previously claimed that it is not really that hard to be what the Greeks called “blameless”, and I still think that is true. But I would certainly concede to Hegel that there is no way for a third party to conclusively distinguish valid self-certification from subtly self-serving attitudes, which is why Hegel argued that mutual recognition is a better criterion. On the other hand, much as I generally admire it, the universal forgiveness that Hegel will ultimately recommend seems to downplay the spectrum of distinction between ordinary human fallibility and real evil. It is better to err on the side of charity. But it is also better to avoid error when we can…