Immanent Action?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Averroes as Read by de Libera

Alain de Libera has played a major role in reviving interest in Averroes. In 1999 he published a French translation of the crucial book III of the famous (or infamous) Long Commentary on Aristotle on the Soul, which was the first rendering of this work into a modern language. He devotes an 80-page chapter of Archéologie du sujet volume 3 part 1 to reconstructing the more controversial parts of this long-misunderstood text. I’ve previously discussed the reading of Deborah Black in “This Human Understands”, and that of Stephen Ogden in “This Human”, Again.

The modern notion of a subject-agent, de Libera says, originated partly in opposition to Augustine and partly in opposition to Averroes. Though he was responsible for first introducing a notion of “subject” into Aristotelian discourse about the soul, Averroes did not introduce the “modern subject”. According to de Libera, the notion of the human as subject-agent of thought was developed first in opposition to Averroes, then in opposition to the Averroists, then by later Averroists responding to criticism.

“[F]or an Aristotelian as for a Plotinian, the intelligibles in act are not mental states, accidents or accidental forms of a mind posed as substrate and having before it things, themselves bearing qualities, but the intelligibles themselves as intellects in act” (p. 166; my translation throughout). I’ll try to shed some further light on this below.

De Libera cites Aristotle’s own statement that intellect and the intellected are one. He says Averroes’ Latin readers were misled by Michael Scot’s translation of intellectus (intellect as a faculty) for what should have been intellectum (the intelligible). The thesis of the unity of intellect commonly attributed to Averroes is really at its root a thesis of the unity of the intelligible, he says. Averroes primarily has in mind Plato’s problem of how teaching and learning — and shared apprehension and objectivity — are possible.

“The first concern of Averroes is to escape from Platonism” (p. 182). This means we still like forms, but we do not posit free-floating Forms. Aristotle’s alternative is a theory of “abstraction”. Intellect is said to “abstract” intelligibles as universals from the concrete particular contents of what is called imagination. De Libera says that Aristotle used both inductive and “geometric” notions of abstraction, but notes that the commentator Alexander of Aphrodisias particularly emphasized the “geometric” version, which is said to involve conceiving as separate from matter the forms that are nonetheless not separate from matter.

“The noetic problem inherited from Alexander by Averroes is above all that of the production of the intelligible in act: the intentio intellecta” (p. 184). “Intellect is not mind. Nor is it consciousness” (p. 185). The intentio intellecta is not the intentionality arising from the act of a transcendental Ego that Husserl spoke of.

“What is this problem? Not that which Thomas posed to the Averroists, and through them to Averroes: to account for the fact of experience that I think, but rather: to account for the fact that we think, or better, the fact that we think or are capable of thinking the same thing.”

“At issue here is neither the I, nor the human, nor the individual human, but indeed the I and the you” (p. 186). De Libera suggests the analogy of Fregean thought that “is independent of our activity of thought” (p. 187), and says that like Frege, Averroes “opposes thought, intellectio, to representation, cogitatio” (ibid).

The Greek commentator Themistius had suggested underwriting the unity of the intelligible by a unity of “intellect”.

“[T]he theory of the unity of the material intellect has the function of resolving, from a strict Aristotelian point of view, the Platonic question of the possibility of teaching and apprenticeship” (p. 189).

Averroes wants to say that the intelligible is both one and multiple. We can apprehend the very same thing, and yet do so separately. In the forms in our incarnate imaginations it is multiple, but in the immaterial “material intellect” it is one.

Averroes referred to both the imagined, represented, or “cogitated” forms in the soul and to the so-called material intellect with a word that was translated to Latin as subjectum or “subject”. His account of how the two “subjects” interact has become known in secondary literature as the “theory of the two subjects”. Though it was being applied to human imagination and thought, the notion of subject here was understood by his Latin readers as just the abstract one of something standing under something else.

De Libera says it is impossible to understand the theory of two subjects without paying attention to what Averroes says about two related movers. In a famous development in the Metaphysics, Aristotle himself progressively sublimated the “standing under” concept, ultimately replacing it with considerations of potentiality and actualization. De Libera says that in Averroes’ reflections on intellect, “subject” really means mover rather than substrate.

An Aristotelian mover is actually very different from the modern concept of an agent. De Libera quotes Aristotle to the effect that “movement, action, and passion reside in that which is moved” (p. 198).

Averroes, following Aristotle, develops an analogy between sense and intellect. De Libera analyzes Aristotle’s account of the case of sense in four points: 1) that which is potentially sensible exists independent of sense; 2) it only plays the role of mover in the sensitive faculty; 3) the sensible in act (or the sensed) and the sensing or the sense in act are numerically the same act, but differ in essence or quiddity; 4) the identity of the act of the sensible and the act of the sensing in the sensing serves as Aristotle’s explanation for how we sense that we are sensing, or how we have internal sense. In this “synergetic” account, sensation is not a pure passive reception, but rather at the same time is an actualization of a potentiality that we have, and indeed an actualization of us.

De Libera notes that the analogy Aristotle and Averroes both make between sense and intellect in this regard is already enough to invalidate all the readings of Averroes that make the human entirely passive in relation to thought. Intellect for Averroes is not a simple “Giver of Forms” like the transcendent intellect in Avicenna. According to de Libera, in sensation only the potentiality of the sensing functions as a subject of inherence or attribution. That which is potentially sensible does not sense. Similarly, in intellect the intentio intellecta has only one subject of inherence or attribution, which is the potentiality for intellection in the so-called material intellect. That which is potentially intelligible does not think. Nor are intelligibles “emanated” directly to the soul, any more than sensations are received in a purely passive way.

“The receiving intellect is not a sponge. It moves itself. Or better, it is moved. Its movement is a motion by final cause” (p. 212). The two movers in this case are the forms in imagination and the abstracting “active” intellect.

The human is not the subject of thought, but nonetheless she thinks, and thinks at will. Such is the thesis of Averroes” (p. 215). We think when we want. For Averroes, the agent and receptor of the intelligible in act are both eternal, separate substances, but the activities of these separate substances nevertheless take place in us, and are attributed to us. This should correct the misleading impression that for Averroes what the moderns call “the subject” is divided into a part that is mental but not thinking, and a part that is thinking but not mental. It is even further removed from the argument of Aquinas that Averroes makes the human into something like a wall, and into something passively thought by something else rather than something thinking.

Thought in the human is a habitus, or Aristotelian hexis. This is a “second actuality” or “second perfection”, a product of processes of actualization. Averroes makes significant use of the notion of the “acquired intellect” that may come to be immanent in the human, which was explicitly elaborated by al-Farabi using Aristotelian notions of potentiality and actualization. In this context de Libera speaks of production and re-production, actualization and re-actualization. It is by virtue of having this “acquired intellect” that the human has the ability to think when she wants.

The one who has thoughts thinks” (p. 219). “Active” and “material” intellects are two faculties or moments of one thing or process. We act by means of them, and according to de Libera this means that for Averroes, they constitute our form insofar as we are thinking. Averroes holds that Aristotle’s use of “soul” is equivocal with respect to whether or not it includes intellect; that only the animal and vegetable parts of the soul count as form and first perfection of the body; but that intellect nonetheless is our form when we are thinking.

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.

Aristotelian Subjectivity Revisited

My previous article on this was a bit narrow, focused only on an Aristotelian analogue for the sort of “transcendental” subjectivity developed by Kant and Hegel. Of course, the whole field of “subjectivity” is much broader than that, and properly transcendental subjectivity has little to do with the empirical subjectivity that we have in mind when we call something “subjective”. Here I’d like to begin to round out the picture. (In the background, I’m also imagining what Aristotle might say in response to Hegel’s Phenomenology.)

It is in fact something of a truism that none of the Greeks had a modern concept of the human “subject”. The closest (still distant) analogue is what gets conventionally translated by the etymologically related term “substance” in Aristotle. The elementary notion of substance as a literally existing logical/syntactic substrate for properties –“something underlying something else” — from the Categories was influentially referred to by Heidegger as “subjectity” (intended to stand in constrast to “subjectivity“).

The explanatory role of a literal notion of substrate is raised again in the Metaphysics. Aristotle says the most obvious candidate for a substrate of things is matter. But then he goes on to deconstruct and ultimately discard the whole notion that the most important kind of explanation of things involves reference to a literal substrate. Form — identified with essence or definition, and “what it was to have been” a thing — is then developed as providing more fundamental explanation than any substrate; then form itself is given a deeper explanation in terms of actuality and potentiality.

But neither the elementary account of “something underlying” in the Categories nor the sophisticated discussion in the Metaphysics makes any reference at all to the sentience and agency that are equally fundamental to modern notions of a human “subject”.

Separate from all of this, Aristotle identifies humans as those animals that have language and the ability to reason, which he considers as depending on language. I have argued that the main resource for an implicit notion of transcendental subjectivity in Aristotle is actually his ethical writings. The treatise on the “soul” (psyche) deals with bodily growth, nutrition, movement, and reproduction; with sense perception and imagination; and also with thought, which he refers to as coming to the soul “from outside”. Related treatises address memory and dreams. Human emotions, on the other hand, he deals with not in the “psychological” treatises but rather in the Rhetoric. The context in which Aristotle treats emotion is thus social and communicative rather than inward-looking. He also treats a kind of emotional maturity as a prerequisite for ethical development. He has a refined and well-differentiated notion of situated agency and ethical responsibility, but lacks the obsession with identity shown by many later authors.

I want to suggest that the “whatness” of subjectivity-forms — whether empirical or transcendental — is far more interesting and practically relevant than the supposed abstract “existence” of subject or substrate entities. This is true regardless of whether we are dealing with empirical or transcendental subjectivity. In Heideggerian terms, I want to decouple subjectivity from presumptions of subjectity.

As regards the Aristotelian soul, in Naissance du Sujet (volume 1 of Archeologie du Sujet), Alain de Libera lists four recent analytic interpretations: 1) the psyche is identical to the body; 2) the psyche is an attribute of the body; 3) the body “constitutes” the psyche; 4) the psyche is an immaterial substance. Actually, none of these seems to me to adequately capture Aristotle’s hylomorphism, or notion of the complementarity of “form” and “matter” (neither of which individually means quite what it might seem to, either — see above links). I am also sympathetic to the reading that Aristotelian matter is a relative concept, so that something could be the material for something else that is in turn material for another thing. Something similar, I think, could be said of form.

The relation of soul to body is clearly presented as an instance of the relation of form to matter, though it seems that the relation of form to matter may be different in different cases. In any case I do not think the form/matter relation is intended as an instance of the substance/accident relation. (The notion of “substantial form” was an original development of the Latin medieval tradition, not found in Aristotle, and the bits I understand of the medieval debate on unity or multiplicity of substantial forms further complicate the picture. The key to this whole territory is to understand that there are very many highly distinct and sophisticated positions in the tradition on issues of this sort.)

A further complication involves the relation between “soul” and the “intellect” that “comes from without”, which has a long and fascinating history in the commentary tradition, extending from Alexander of Aphrodisias through the Arabic tradition to the Latin tradition of Albert the Great.

The great Arabic commentator Averroes was apparently the first to ask what is the “subject”, in the substrate sense, of human thought. He came up with the novel suggestion that individual human thought has two such “subjects”: one belonging to the soul that is involved with the body and perception, and one that is an immaterial source of concepts, belongs to the whole human community, gains content over time, and would cease to exist if there were no more humans.

Another intriguing complication in the historical Western tradition is the clear stance taken by Augustine that human mind, soul, or spirit should definitely not be taken as a subject in the substrate sense, e.g., for knowledge or love.

Archaeology of the Subject

Leading scholar of medieval Latin thought Alain de Libera (b. 1948; automated translation of French Wiki page here) has produced a great deal of fascinating work. Well-versed in contemporary continental and analytic philosophy, de Libera excels in developing the sort of historiographical-philosophical nuances that I think are vital to solid understanding. He makes exemplary original use of Foucaultian archaeology and what I have been calling Aristotelian semantics, developing many fine historiographical distinctions in the use of philosophical words that turn out to have huge significance.

He has pointed out the large influence of Arabic philosophy on the Latin West (see Fortunes of Aristotle); contributed to a more balanced appreciation of the great Aristotelian commentator Averroes; documented the work of Albert the Great and his students, developing a surprising Aristotelian background to the German mystics; and explored the contemporary relevance of the medieval debate on universals.

His greatest contribution, however, is undoubtedly the ongoing work on an Archaeology of the Subject, with three volumes in French published so far, and an ongoing lecture series at the Collège de France. I just stumbled on a related article in English.

The article introduces this work by noting a convergence between Foucault’s late “hermeneutics of the subject” and Paul Ricoeur’s book Oneself as Another, suggesting that late Foucault’s “subject” is actually close to Ricoeur’s positive notion of “self”. Ricoeur had said that this self stands “at an equal distance from the cogito exalted by Descartes and from the cogito that Nietzsche proclaimed forfeit” (emphasis in original). (In Freud and Philosophy (French ed. 1965), Ricoeur had referred to psychoanalysis as an “archaeology of the subject”.) Meanwhile, de Libera points out, the French philosopher Vincent Descombes, in defending a positive role for the notion of “subject”, concluded “the subject which it is necessary for us to discover is more Aristotelian than Cartesian”. While de Libera’s terminology is different from the way of speaking I have been developing here (see The Ambiguity of “Self”; Self, Subject; Subject; Empirical-Transcendental Doublet), there is a great deal of common ground, and I have been influenced by his work.

The main historical thesis advanced by de Libera is that the modern notion of “subject” is the result of a complex theological compromise and hybridization between initially very different notions of Aristotelian hypokeimenon (a generic notion of substrate with no intrinsic connection to personality, used by Averroes in raising apparently new questions about what substrate it is in which thought inheres) and Augustinian thought about hypostasis (the Greek term used for a person of the Trinity). I am barely scratching the surface of a highly developed account with many additional distinctions. (See also Pseudo-Dionysius on the Soul.)

This is a vital correction to many grossly oversimplified views of the history of notions of subjectivity in the Western world. My own view of the theological developments he highlights is a good deal more ambivalent, but compared to the value of this historiographical contribution, that seems like a minor difference.