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 modern “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).

“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…

Brandom on Postmodernity

Brandom’s third Brentano lecture offers a nice summary of his ethical vision of a Hegelian postmodernity, which has nothing to do with fashionable “postmodernism”, but did inspire the masthead here.

What might be called the traditional view of normativity treats normative statuses as just being what they are, and as simply given to us. According to this view, normative attitudes ought to simply respect pre-given values, and there is no place for inquiry into what is right. Actions are judged in a completely external way, with no regard for the actor’s intent. Hegel used the tragedies of Sophocles to illustrate this. Oedipus accepted full moral responsibility for consequences of which he was totally unaware. This is the stance of a tragic hero. Viewed charitably, it has the benefit of recognizing that everything is not up to us, and that values have a kind of objectivity.

The “modern” view — which I think appeared already among the Greek Sophists — is the polar opposite of the traditionalist view. In its pure form, it reduces all normative considerations to attitudes in the shallow sense, and denies any possible objectivity of values. The attitudes in question can be completely arbitrary. Depending on whether the attitudes that count are anyone’s or only those of the sovereign or of the privileged, the modern view can be anarchistic or authoritarian. But viewed charitably, it has the benefit of suggesting that intentions and personal conscience do matter, while avoiding reliance on a simple givenness of values.

These are both what Hegel called “one-sided” views, each asserting the complete independence of something. Neither statuses nor attitudes can really be completely independent of the other.

The “postmodern” view that Brandom develops out of Hegel recognizes that every thing has some dependence on other things, while also allowing for relative independence. In this view, everyone has both some responsibility and some authority, and responsibility for any given thing is ultimately shared by all of us. All normative statuses are instituted by normative attitudes, but only attitudes that have the structure of mutual recognition can institute genuine normative statuses. Hegel also spoke of confession and mutual forgiveness in this context.

“How can we both make the norms and be genuinely governed by them?”, Brandom asks (p. 76). We do both, but the same person does not do both with respect to the same thing at the same time. “The short answer, I think, is that our past attitudes institute norms that provide the normative standards of assessment for our current attitudes. Such a slogan conceals the rich fine-structure of [Hegel’s] account, however” (p. 77).

Norms are instituted through recollection of an expressively progressive trajectory, Brandom will say (see Hegelian Semantics). “It is in particular the recollective phase of diachronic recognitive processes that explains the attitude-transcendence of normative statuses, which provide standards for normative assessment of the correctness of attitudes” (p. 88).

At any given moment, we should aim “at acknowledging and attributing what we and others are really committed and entitled to, our actual responsibilities and authority” (p. 76). But what we are really committed to can only be seen retrospectively (see Hegel on Willing) and by taking into account the assessments of others. What we are really committed to may on this account be quite different from what we tell ourselves we are committed to.

“The challenge to the intelligibility of normative governance comes from the idea that the authority of norms over attitudes must be total in order to be genuine. It is a manifestation of the deformed conception of pure independence: the idea that authority (normative independence) is undercut by any sort of correlative responsibility to (dependence on) anything else. This is the practical normative conception Hegel criticizes allegorically under the rubric of ‘Mastery.'” (p. 93).

Just because something might be explained without reference to values does not mean that we should so explain it. That would be the cynical attitude that, e.g., people only do good in order to feel good about themselves. Where apparently virtuous actions also appear to have ulterior motives, it is not valid on that basis to assume that there is no genuine ethical motive in play.

“Taking recollective responsibility for another’s doing is practically acknowledging the obligation to tell and endorse a certain kind of retrospective story about that doing. That is the responsibility to rationally reconstruct it as norm-governed. The forgiving recollector must discern an implicit norm that governs the development of the deed.” (p. 98).

“Some things people have done (both ourselves and others), we want to say, are simply unforgivable. (The last century or so provides a host of notorious, alarmingly large-scale candidates.) In some cases, though we might try to mitigate the consequences of evil doings, we just have no idea at all how to go about discerning the emergence of a governing norm we could endorse ourselves. And this situation does not just arise in extraordinary or exceptional cases. Any actual recollective story will involve strains: elements, aspects, or descriptions of what is actually done, at every stage in the developing process, that cannot be smoothly, successfully, or convincingly given such a norm-responsive explanation” (p. 101).

“It might well be that one is in fact incapable of fulfilling that commitment, of carrying out that responsibility. If and insofar as that is so, it is a normative failure that the unsuccessful would-be forgiver should confess. To take proper recognitive recollective responsibility requires the forgiving agent to confess her own inadequacy to the recollective task. Your confession of a failure of your practical attitudes appropriately to acknowledge a norm is a petition for my recognition in the form of my forgiving taking of (co-)responsibility for your doing. My subsequent failure to adopt adequately forgiving recollective recognitive attitudes is something I am in turn responsible for confessing. That confession is itself an act of identification with you: ‘I am as you are.’ My attitudes, like yours, fail adequately to satisfy the norms that they nonetheless acknowledge as binding, as governing those attitudes” (p. 102).

“Paying one’s dues as a member of a recognitive community structured by trust is acknowledging that one is always already implicitly committed to forgiving, responsible for forgiving what one’s fellows do or have done” (ibid).

Referring to Hegel’s famous figure of the cynical valet, Brandom says “The Kammerdiener stands for a view that explains all attitudes in terms of other attitudes, without needing to appeal to governing norms or statuses that they are attitudes towards and acknowledgments of. Hegel does not deny that this sort of explanation in terms of attitudes alone can be done…. But we can ask: what sort of disagreement is it that divides the Kammerdiener and the ‘friend of the norms’ for whom some heroes really are heroes? Is it a cognitive, matter-of-factual disagreement about what there is in the objective world? After all, for Hegel, modernity was right that normative statuses are attitude-dependent. Hegel diagnoses the issue instead as a difference in meta-attitude. He denominates the norm-blind reductive naturalism of attitudes, for which the Kammerdiener stands, debasing: ‘niederträchtig’ (literally, something like “pulling down or under”). The contrasting, norm-sensitive, status-responsive, hero-acknowledging meta-attitude that takes some attitudes to be themselves genuinely norm-sensitive and norm-acknowledging he calls magnanimous: ‘edelmütig’ (literally: noble spirited)” (pp. 90-91).

“[T]he trusting conception is heroic, like the tragic conception, in that responsibility is total. Responsibility is taken for the whole deed. There is no aspect of intentional doings that overflows and falls outside the normative realm of responsibility—no specification of the deed for which no-one takes responsibility” (pp. 106-107).

“Agency as understood and practiced within the magnanimous recognitive structure of confession and forgiveness combines these two heroic aspects of the premodern conception: sittlich appreciation of the status-dependence of normative attitudes and acknowledging total responsibility for the deed as consequentially extended beyond the knowledge and control of the agent. It can maintain a heroic expanded conception of the deed for which responsibility is taken because it has an expanded conception of who is responsible for each doing” (p. 107).

“The neo-heroic postmodern form of practical normativity replaces fate with something we do. What happens is given the form of something done. Immediacy, contingency, particularity and their recalcitrance to conceptualization are not done away with. But they now take their proper place. For we appreciate the necessary role they play in the process of determining the contents of the norms we both institute by our recognitive attitudes and acknowledge as governing that experiential process. The burdens of tragic subjection to fate are replaced by the tasks of concrete magnanimous forgiveness. Where our normative conceptual digestion and domestication of immediacy, contingency, and particularity shows its limitations, when (as in each case, as the Kammerdiener reminds us, at some point they must) they outrun our recollective capacity to incorporate them into the mediated, normative conceptual form of governing universals, that failure of ours is properly acknowledged by confession, and trust in the forgiveness of that failure to fulfill our responsibilities, by more knowledgeable and capable future recollectors” (p. 108). (See also Brandomian Forgiveness; Rethinking Responsibility; Expansive Agency.)

Consciousness in Locke and Hegel

It is not unreasonable to broadly associate the notion of consciousness invented and promoted by Locke with the “Consciousness” whose inadequacies are exposed across the development of Hegel’s Phenomenology. This is probably not clear from my very selective recent mention of Locke, which was focused on his novel approach to personal identity rather than his overall empiricist theory of knowledge, to which I have not done justice either. In addition, Hegel abstracts away Locke’s very prominent emphasis on what he called “ideas”, which are mental representations that Locke takes to be simply given to us in experience. Hegel is able to do this because what Locke calls ideas are supposed to transparently convey whatever they are supposed to represent.

In Hegel’s version, a naive standpoint of everyday “consciousness” is presented as understanding itself as confronting ready-made external objects. These, I take it, are among the things that are supposed to be transparently referred to by Locke’s simply given mental representations. The standpoint of Consciousness in Hegel is entirely superseded from the point of view of its self-understanding, but its practical import is substantially preserved, being refined rather than superseded. The identities and natures of things we interact with — even their qualities — are not simply given to us, but things we interact with do constrain us. That is the push-back of reality that we all genuinely engage with, despite our misapprehension of many subtleties.

One of Hegel’s major points is that any valid discussion of human freedom has to take acknowledgement of that push-back of reality as a starting point. This rules out any notion that we could act with complete arbitrariness, as if in a vacuum. One of Hegel’s other major points is that concrete human capabilities are grounded not in a vacuum, but in concrete potentials already implicit in the reality that also pushes back at us.

Locke’s famous (and in my opinion, broadly sound) polemic against innate ideas often overshadows his implicit reliance on a simple givenness of perceptual contents and other items in experience.

Ricoeur on Locke on Personal Identity

“John Locke is the inventor of the following three notions and the sequence that they form together: identity, consciousness, self…. Locke’s invention of consciousness will become the acknowledged or unacknowledged reference for theories of consciousness in Western philosophy” (Ricoeur, Memory, History, Forgetting, p. 102).  The English word “consciousness” was actually coined by Locke’s friend the Cambridge Platonist Ralph Cudworth in a work inspired by Plotinus, but it is Locke’s systematic use of it that was spread throughout the modern world by his famous Essay Concerning Human Understanding.  Ricoeur’s account significantly draws on that of Etienne Balibar in Identity and Difference: Locke’s Invention of Consciousness.

Chapter 27 of book 2 of Locke’s Essay, “Of Identity and Diversity”, lays out his unprecedented new theory of personal identity as grounded purely in a continuity of memory, rather than any underlying substance.  We tend to forget that Descartes’ cogito, as Ricoeur says, “is not a person….  It bursts forth in the lightning flash of an instant.  Always thinking does not imply remembering having thought.  Continual creation alone confers duration on it” (p. 103).  Ricoeur says that whereas Descartes had sought to conquer doubt with certainty, Locke sought to conquer diversity and difference with an unprecedented concept of pure reflexive identity.

“Proposing to define in new terms the principle of individuation… ‘so much inquired after’…, Locke takes as his first example an atom, ‘a continued body under one immutable superficies’, and reiterates his formula of self-identity: ‘For being at that instant what it is, and nothing else, it is the same, and so must continue as long as its existence is continued; for so long it will be the same, and no other’” (p. 104).

“It is consciousness that constitutes the difference between the idea of the same man and that of a self, also termed person…. The knowledge of this self-identity is consciousness” (ibid).  Locke is quoted saying “as far as this consciousness can be extended backwards to any past action or thought, so far reaches the identity of that person; it is the same self now as it was then; and it is by the same self with this present one that now reflects on it, that that action was done” (p. 105).  

Ricoeur continues, “Personal identity is a temporal identity.  It is here that the objection drawn from forgetting and from sleep, considered as interruptions of consciousness, suggests the invigorated return of the idea of substance: is not the continuity of a substance required to overcome the intermittence of consciousness? Locke replies bravely that, whatever may be the status of the substantial ground, consciousness alone ‘makes’ personal identity….  Identity and consciousness form a circle.  As Balibar observes, this circle is not a logical fallacy of the theory: it is Locke’s own invention, supported by the reduction of substance…. It is not the soul that makes the man but the same consciousness.  With regard to our inquiry, the matter has been decided: consciousness and memory are one and the same thing, irrespective of any substantial basis.  In short, in the matter of personal identity, sameness equals memory” (ibid).

The word “self” is used by Locke in both generic and singular senses, with “no discussion concerning the status of the nominalized pronoun….  Locke had decided to disconnect ideas from names.  Yet, ‘Person, as I take it, is the name for this self’” (p. 106). “The shift to a judicial vocabulary is not far off.  The transitional concept is that of ‘person’, the other ‘name for this self’…. What makes it a synonym for the self, despite its ‘forensic’ character?  The fact that it signifies that the self ‘reconciles’ and ‘appropriates’, that is to say, assigns, allocates to consciousness the ownership of its acts” (p. 107).

Locke thus not only completely rethought the notion of persons in terms of a pure logical identity in consciousness and an analogy with atoms in a void, but also formulated a radically new notion of ethical agency and responsibility, based on an analogy with the exclusive ownership associated with private property.  The ownership model of agency and responsibility leaves no room for more subtle considerations of “power to”.  Indeed, Ricoeur notes that Locke’s approach to politics is entirely grounded in “power over”.

From a purely logical standpoint, Locke successfully avoids many arguments against the putative total self-transparency of consciousness, by making its self-transparency a matter of definition rather than an empirical claim.  Locke’s position is internally consistent.  From a practical standpoint, however, any claim that total self-transparency actually applies to real life is, to say the least, fraught with difficulty.  Total self-transparency seems to me to be more extravagantly supernatural than the Latin medieval notion of a substantial intellectual soul that it replaced.  Also, real people are not atomic unities. From the point of view of more recent physical science, even atoms are not atomic unities. (See also Ego; Personhood; Meaning, Consciousness; Mind Without Mentalism; Aristotelian Identity; Narrative Identity, Substance; Ricoeur on Memory: Orientation; Ricoeur on Augustine on Memory.)

Ricoeur on Forgiveness

The epilogue to Ricoeur’s Memory, History, Forgetting is entitled “Difficult Forgiveness” (after this I’ll return to the beginning).  Forgiveness is “an eschatology of the representation of the past.  Forgiveness – if it has a sense, and if it exists – constitutes the horizon common to memory, history, and forgetting.  Always in retreat, this horizon slips away from any grasp” (p. 457).  

Forgiveness results in “unbinding the agent from the act”.  “In order to be bound by a promise, the subject of an action must be able to be released from it through forgiveness” (p. 459).   Nonetheless, some acts are completely unjustifiable; in particular, crimes against humanity.  In these cases, “justice must be done” (p. 473).  “My thesis here is that a significant asymmetry exists between being able to forgive and being able to promise” (p. 459).   In general, we should not too easily forgive ourselves.  And “The commandment to love one’s enemies begins by breaking the rule of reciprocity and demanding the extraordinary” (p. 482).  “[F]orgiveness has a religious aura that promising does not” (p. 487).

Ricoeur recalls Jacques Derrida’s paradox that “forgiveness is directed to the unforgiveable or it does not exist” (p. 468).  He returns to the theme of “fault”, originally developed 40 years earlier in Fallible Man: “[S]elf-recognition is indivisibly action and passion, the action of acting badly and the passion of being affected by one’s own action” (p. 462).   His analyses have been “an exploration of the gap opened between the unforgivable fault and this impossible forgiveness” (p. 490).  He agrees with Derrida that “forgiving the guilty person while condemning his action, would be to forgive a subject other than the one who committed the act” (ibid).  

Still, he thinks there could be “a more radical uncoupling… at the heart of our very power to act – of agency – namely, between the effectuation and the capacity that it actualizes” (ibid).  This would be an instance of Aristotle’s distinction between actuality and potentiality.  Several times in his later works, Ricoeur pointed out the importance of actuality and potentiality in Aristotle, though he tended to assimilate potentiality to a more Platonic notion of power in the sense of “power to”.  This is what is in play in Ricoeur’s oft-expressed concern for “the capable human”.  Plato’s association of being a being with this kind of “power to” was already richly provocative, but Aristotle took the same word dynamis and gave it a much more subtle and developed meaning, which I summarized as “multiple alternative concrete possibilities of realization already implicit in current reality” (see The Importance of Potentiality).  But either way, forgiveness can be understood as a kind of trust in someone’s potentiality over against past actuality. (See also Fallible Humanity; Middle Part of the Soul.)