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 But in the Metaphysics, he treats this as only a starting point that is quickly superseded by an identification of substance with form or “what it was to have been” a thing, before moving into an account of substance as potentiality and actuality.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.)

“This Human”, Again

Stephen Ogden’s Averroes on Intellect (2022) is the first book-length treatment of this fascinating subject of medieval controversy that is centrally focused on an independent philosophical evaluation of the arguments of Averroes himself. Ogden develops a reading of Averroes in close relation both to the Aristotelian text and to the contrasting positions of Avicenna and Aquinas. Averroes, he says, deserves to be taken seriously both as a reader of Aristotle and as a philosopher in his own right. Averroes challenges us to question our assumptions as to what “intellect” might be.

Ultimately, Ogden suggests a sort of compromise between Averroes and Aquinas. This makes an interesting counterpoint to the interpretation of Deborah Black.

Like Black, Ogden highlights the common ground between Averroes and Aquinas. He develops the fact that unlike most earlier commentators on Aristotle, Averroes and Aquinas both explained actual and potential “intellect” in symmetrical ways that made them the same broad kind of being. They also both distinguished a third, “passive” intellect — said to be a kind of disposition of the human imagination — that others have often identified with the potential intellect.

Prior to Averroes, the most common type of reading made actual intellect a singular or universal cosmic or metaphysical principle, while treating potential intellect as something mortal and divided among many individuals. (While fascinating, this is to my mind anomalous with respect to the way Aristotle himself develops the relations between potentiality and actuality. I tend to think of these as only analytically distinguishable aspects, phases, or modes of the same real things.)

Averroes and Aquinas agree that both actual and potential “intellect” are immaterial things that are not dependent on the body. They both defend variants of what is termed “moderate realism” with respect to universals. In this kind of view, universals have reality independent of particulars, but they do not subsist in themselves as Plato thought. They are “abstracted” from human imagination by something called “intellect”.

On the other hand, Aquinas and Averroes approach the interpretation of “intellect” with very different concerns in mind. Ogden agrees with Deborah Black’s point that the role of intellect for Averroes lies in the constitution of intelligible objects. Further, for Averroes the universal singularity of “intellect” carries the whole burden of underwriting a non-Platonic reality of universals as universals.

For Aquinas on the other hand, I would say the primary role of intellect is to underwrite a metaphysically strong notion of personal identity. Aquinas uses a complex original theory of intelligible “species” to do most of the work of underwriting the reality of universals. This leaves him free to repurpose “intellect” as a basis of a philosophical argument for personal immortality that has no parallel in Averroes or Aristotle. Aquinas develops a nuanced account of how the soul exists in genuine union with the body, but each individual soul contains within it intellect that is separable from body. For Aquinas, the presence of intellect within the soul guarantees the immortality of the soul. Ogden mentions in passing Aquinas’ acceptance of Aristotle’s view that memory, however, is inseparable from the body.

Ogden agrees with Black that Averroes successfully explains the experience of human self-awareness in terms of imagination, without needing to appeal to intellect. But Ogden says that for Averroes, in a stricter sense it is indeed only the intellect as our perfective form that “understands”, so perhaps we should say that thought happens within us, rather than that we think.

He mentions that Bertrand Russell said that Descartes should have said “there is thought”, rather than “I think”. I would add that “I” am not a “thinking thing”, but an ethical being constituted by my commitments and practices of commitment.

“This Human Understands”

Imagination rather than intellect is actually the main locus of human consciousness for both Thomas Aquinas and the great Aristotelian commentator Averroes whom Aquinas famously criticized, according to medieval scholar Deborah Black.

“[W]ithin the Aristotelian framework which Aquinas and Averroes share, the psychological explanation and interpretation of intellectual consciousness is not itself a given, even if the experience of consciousness is. Consciousness of thinking may play a central role in Cartesian philosophy, and in the system of Averroes’s and Aquinas’s predecessor, Avicenna. But it has no such privileged status in the philosophies of Aristotle, Averroes, or Aquinas, in which the possible intellect ‘is actually nothing before it thinks,’ and is only able to think itself after it has been actualized by some other object”, she wrote in her 1993 essay “Consciousness and Self-Knowledge in Aquinas’s Critique of Averroes’s Psychology”.

The relation of so-called “intellect” (nous) to the human “soul” (psyche) in Aristotle has historically been a major point of contention. These words are used in subtly or extremely different ways by many authors. I strongly recommend holding off on any easy identification of either of them with what modern people think of as subjective mind or consciousness.

Aristotle seems to apply a variant of his fruitful pairing of potentiality and actuality in his rather minimalist account of intellect. These notions were developed in greater detail in the commentary tradition. To hazard an oversimplification, intellect in actuality was considered to be something immaterial that makes things intelligible, whereas intellect in potentiality was considered to be something with no form of its own that takes on intelligible forms.

The great Greek commentator Alexander of Aphrodisias identified the potential or “material” intellect with a part of the soul, which he considered to be inseparable from the body, and therefore mortal. The actual or “agent” intellect he identified with a divine principle that he also gave a cosmological role.

The brilliant Arabic commentator Averroes (Ibn Rushd) argued that both aspects of intellect were symmetrically unique immaterial principles, outside the soul but connected with it. He became convinced that all humans must share a common “material” (potential) intellect, which grounds the real existence of logical universals and intelligible forms, but gets its contents from human imagination, and would not exist if there were no rational animals.

Aquinas located both intellects within the human soul, while giving the latter the elevated, more neoplatonic metaphysical status of an “intellectual soul”, and strongly associating its intellectual character with personal immortality. Especially in later works, Aquinas polemicized sharply against Averroes, claiming that Averroes could not even consistently say that “this human understands”, because for Averroes in his Long Commentary on the De Anima, there is only one material intellect shared by all humans.

Deborah Black argues that the two phases of intellect in Aristotle work together to constitute objects and intelligible forms. This need not imply an experience of immediate self-awareness. For Aristotle, Averroes, and Aquinas, intellectual self-awareness emerges only indirectly.

Black points out that Aquinas typically uses words like “perceives” or “experiences” in talking about self-awareness, and seems to deliberately avoid words implying intellectual comprehension. She sees this as reflecting Aristotelian scruples, and notes the studied vagueness of Aquinas’ endorsement of Augustinian immediate self-awareness. In his refutation of Averroes, Aquinas does appeal to the experience of consciousness, but she notes that he does so initially to argue against Plato’s identification of human being solely with intellect, pointing out that the same person perceives herself both to understand and to sense. “This human understands” does not actually emphasize any deep reflexivity, only individuality.

Aquinas approves of the fact that for Averroes, intellect is in some way united with the body, but argues that because for Averroes that union occurs only through a working of intellect on the contents of imagination, the human individual for Averroes does not herself think. On the other hand, Black argues that Aquinas does not take into account the fact that although what Aquinas himself calls imagination is an entirely passive reception of images, the contents of imagination for Averroes have a much more active character. For Averroes, according to Black, it is the active character of the contents of imagination that manifests human self-awareness. Because Aquinas views imagination as entirely passive, he refuses to acknowledge any credibility to this at all, claiming that the contents of imagination Averroes appeals to are really nothing more than the equivalent of inert colors on an inert wall, and that this makes the human equivalent to a wall.

Averroes compares active intellect to light, and so-called “material” intellect to a transparent medium such as air. Aquinas makes it sound as though the material intellect for Averroes would be analogous to the eye, which would make the material intellect a sort of mind behind our minds. However, Black says Averroes always compared it to a transparent medium, not to the eye. She argues that neither of Averroes’ intellects is a mind or a knower or subject in the modern sense. In her 2004 essay “Models of the Mind: Metaphysical Presuppositions of the Averroist and Thomistic Accounts of Intellection”, she contends that for Averroes, far from being the mind behind our minds that would make us into mere puppets, the material intellect serves as a shared instrument for human agents who individually constitute themselves in imagination.

Averroes’ notion of intellect, Black suggests, is mainly concerned with the constitution of intelligible objects as universals from imaginative content. It does not act as a subject in the modern sense. She cites a number of passages from Aquinas indicating that he, too, often treated intellect as an instrument, rather than as our very essence. (See also Parts of the Soul; Aristotelian Subjectivity Revisited.)

“Western Metaphysics”?

“Metaphysics” has historically had numerous senses, mostly rather far from the way I read the original Aristotelian context. Neoplatonic commentators and later giants like Avicenna, Aquinas, and Scotus already radically reconfigured its meaning, long before the changes associated with early modernity. Authors like Heidegger and Derrida have famously made sweeping indictments of the whole of “Western metaphysics”, based on overly homogeneous and continuist interpretations of the history of philosophy. More broadly, Plato and Aristotle are far too often blamed for views they never held. Even the medieval Latin tradition was far more diverse and interesting than common stereotypes would allow.

Aquinas and Scotus on Power

Gwenaëlle Aubry’s Genèse du dieu souverain (Genesis of the Sovereign God) concludes with chapters on Aquinas and Scotus. She finds that Aquinas systematically substitutes power and action for Aristotle’s less familiar and more subtle ends-oriented concepts of potentiality and act. Aquinas then distinguishes between active power and receptive or passive power, neither of which has much to do with Aristotelian potentiality.

For Aristotle, Aubry says, potentiality is an indwelling tendency of a being to be attracted toward an end. Pure act is the realization of an end (and, I would add, not itself a movement but an unmoved mover that is an attractor). For Aquinas, the receptive power of beings is the power to receive being from God. Pure act is equated with God’s creation from nothing. Aquinas strongly associates being with power; the power of God, pure Being, pure Existence, is for him an active and efficient cause, not an unmoved attractor. On my reading of Aristotle, it is only the less-than-pure acts of moved movers that are active and efficient causes; the “first” cause is an end that attracts beings.

Duns Scotus, according to Aubry, seems to have originated the modern notion of purely logical possibility. For Scotus, anything at all that is noncontradictory is possible, whereas Aristotle considered possibility more pragmatically, in relation to real-world conditions.

Scotus held that the order of the world is radically contingent, able to be reshaped by God’s will. According to Aubry, he explicitly speaks of God’s arbitrary choice, and attributes a power of arbitrary choice to the human will as well. For Aristotle, the source of contingency in the world is the potentialities of things. For Scotus, it is the absolute power of God.

Whereas Bonaventure, Aquinas, and the 14th century pope John XXII treated the “absolute” power of God as only logically distinct from the “ordained” power associated with the order of the world as we know it, and as not actually separately exercised, Scotus insisted that the absolute power of God is actually exercised. He identified the absolute power of God with a kind of pure fact, and insisted that God from eternity could choose to change the order of the world. (I’m inclined to think Abelard was right, and choice is incompatible with eternity.)

God’s choice for Scotus has no reason beyond itself. Scotus explicitly rejects the passage from Plato quoted by Abelard that everything that is has a cause or reason. Aubry says that for Scotus, the good is only good because God wills it so. This is the exact opposite of the argument of Plato, Abelard, and Leibniz that goodness comes first.

Scotus strongly emphasizes the infinity of God in contrast to the finitude of creatures; infinity for Scotus is God’s most important attribute. Moreover, God’s infinite power acts immediately in the world. This reminds me of the extreme positions on omnipotence articulated by Philo and al-Ghazali. According to Aubry, Scotus also says that a worldly prince enjoys a similar absolute power.

In passing, Aubry notes that Descartes — also a voluntarist — held that God creates eternal truths. This seems to be a somewhat Scotist position. (See also Aubry on Aristotle; Leibniz on Justice vs Power; Power of the One?; Disambiguating “Power”; Not Power and Action; Nature and Justice in Augustine; Peter Abelard; 1277; Being and Essence; Being and Representation.)

Being and Essence

The early short work of Thomas Aquinas Being and Essence argued very influentially that the essence or “whatness” of a thing can be understood independent of its existence, and therefore its existence must be something separate from its essence. Aquinas’ fellow student of Albert the Great, Dietrich of Freiberg (1250-1310), held on the contrary that there is no real distinction between being and essence, and that they are only distinct by their modes of signification, or ways in which they are said of things.

Aquinas points out that although essence is also called form, properly speaking the essence of non-simple beings or “composite substances” not only should not be identified with matter, but also should not be identified with form. The essence of a composite substance must include both the form and the matter. However, according to Aquinas, the composite of form and matter still has to separately be given being or existence by the Creator.

In contrast to common neo-Augustinian views that were more sharply dualistic than Augustine himself, Aquinas advanced a distinctive variant of hylomorphism, or the interdependence of form and matter. “Through the form, surely, which is the act of the matter, the matter is made a being in act and a certain kind of thing” (chapter 2).

This is a novel formulation using Aristotelian vocabulary in a somewhat Aristotelian style, and it has a kind of intrinsic appeal. The hylomorphic and implicitly anti-dualist sentiment is admirable. The suggestion that “form is the act of the matter” is appealing in its simplicity, but I don’t find Aristotle using act to explain the relation of form and matter.

Aristotle leaves the relation of form and matter happily underdetermined. He is more interested in ranges of variation of concrete things than in propositions with all abstract terms, however intriguing. That through the act of the matter, the matter is made a being in act is an intelligible and interesting claim, but I don’t think Aristotle would have said that either.

The notion of “act” in Aquinas is moreover not the same as it is in Aristotle. As Gwenaëlle Aubry notes, pure act in Aristotle is a final cause only, and explicitly not an efficient cause, whereas pure act in Aquinas is action, which is precisely and primarily an efficient cause. Aristotle’s first cause is the good that attracts beings; Aquinas’ God creates beings from nothing.

Aquinas goes on to give a novel account of being, famously arguing that in God — but only in God — essence and existence are indistinguishable. God for Aquinas — “I am who am” — is pure Being. His essence is pure existence. He has no other essence, and alone of all beings essentially exists. All other beings get their being or existence from God, and therefore their essence is really distinct from their existence.

Aquinas’ teaching of God as pure Being has to be understood as deliberately counterposed to the neoplatonic One beyond being. It is also incompatible with Plato’s Good that is more ancient and powerful than being.

Dietrich of Freiberg made the Aristotelian point that being is said in different ways for different kinds of things. He argued against Aquinas that the essence of a thing refers to everything about it, just as its being does. A human and a human being, he says, are exactly the same thing. Essence as such already involves being, and there is no being that is not the being of some essence. There is a nice little French edition L’Être et l’essence (1996), edited by Alain de Libera and Cyrille Michon, that has Latin and French texts of both Aquinas’ and Dietrich’s works by this title, with commentary.

Dietrich’s own theology was a highly original Aristotelianizing Christian neoplatonism. He tended to identify God with the neoplatonic One. He was known for his interest in natural science, and developed a detailed, accurate account of the optics of rainbows. According to de Libera and Michon, he spoke of a kind of natural providence. Inspired by Arabic Aristotelianism, he developed an elaborate cosmological-ethical theory of creative intellect. He argued that the human intellect does not just passively receive images of things, but has an active, creative component.

Dietrich was in Paris in the 1270s. Without a doubt he later became a leading light of the German Albertism that de Libera and others have associated both with the so-called “radical Aristotelianism” condemned in 1277 and with the rise of German mysticism. His slightly younger contemporary Meister Eckhart is known to have been influenced by his work.


I’m still slowly working my way through Gwenaëlle Aubry’s Genèse du dieu souverain. She notes that Peter Abelard’s student Peter Lombard (1096-1160) — whose Sentences became the standard textbook of Christian theology throughout the later European middle ages — rejected the novel teachings of Abelard, and defended basically Augustinian views on omnipotence. A more radical notion of omnipotence was advanced by Hugh of Saint-Cher (c. 1200-1263), who first introduced the distinction between God’s potentia absoluta or “absolute” power, and what he called potentia conditionata or “conditioned” power, which later authors referred to as potentia ordinata. Although Bonaventure, Albert the Great, and Thomas Aquinas among others rejected Hugh’s distinction, it would later be adopted by Duns Scotus and many others.

Aubry argues that Bishop of Paris Etienne Tempier’s condemnation of 219 propositions in 1277 actually reflected a less extreme, more traditionally Augustinian, stance on omnipotence than the “absolute power” of Hugh of Saint-Cher. I’ve briefly commented on the 1277 condemnation before.

The accepted mid-20th century view was that the condemnation was prompted by the emergence of a trend of “Latin Averroism”, of which Siger of Brabant and Boethius of Dacia were supposed to have been the leading representatives. The translations of Averroes’ commentaries on Aristotle from the Arabic were largely responsible for the rise of Latin Aristotelianisms, but closer scholarship has shown that even the most “Averroist” Latin thinkers considered themselves simply as Aristotelian, and diverged from the more particular views of Averroes on important details. A revised view of the condemnation was that it simply addressed “radical Aristotelianism” — a wholehearted embrace of Aristotle and various Arabic philosophers that was deemed to be in conflict with Christianity.

Alain de Libera has emphasized, however, that what the condemnation addressed was not merely doctrinal or academic matters, but the first social emergence of “intellectuals” in Europe, along with the idea of an ethical Aristotelianism as a way of life. While some authors have seen this as an essentially secular development and as a direct challenge to Christianity, de Libera, Kurt Flasch, and Burkhard Mojsisch have made the picture much more complicated by documenting on the one hand how this development was continued by the German students of Albert the Great, and on the other that the trend of Rhenish mysticism that included the great Meister Eckhart developed out of German Albertism.

The condemned propositions themselves are quite diverse — from praise of philosophy, reason, and this-worldly ethics to general questioning of authority; to assertion of various limits on God’s power; to Aristotelian emphasis on the importance of “secondary” causes; to theses on the characteristics of neoplatonic separate intellects; to expressions of astrological determinism; to rejection of specific points of accepted Christian doctrine. It is unlikely that any single person adhered to them all; certainly the German Albertist Dominicans whom de Libera, Flasch, and Mojsisch have associated with the broader trend addressed by the condemnation would have not have endorsed the rejection of points of common doctrine.

Those who have seen a theological-political confrontation between Augustinianism and Aristotelianism in the condemnation are not wrong, but it is more complicated than that. The Albertists did not see themselves as opposed to Augustine.

Scholars have debated whether any of the condemned propositions were intended to target Thomas Aquinas. Shortly after the condemnation, Bishop Tempier in fact attempted a move against the teaching of the not-yet-canonized Aquinas, which was thwarted in part by the efforts of Albert the Great, who traveled back to Paris to defend the reputation of his recently deceased student. In between, Tempier succeeded in getting the theologian Giles of Rome reprimanded, although Giles was allowed to resume teaching shortly thereafter and did not much change his arguments. Giles was himself the author of a treatise on the “errors of the philosophers”, but this did not prevent him from making use of philosophical arguments in his theology. Theology during this time generally became far more involved with philosophical questions than it had been.

Albert the Great, who along with Roger Bacon was the first European to lecture on the main body of Aristotle’s works after they were translated from the Arabic, developed a style in which he would alternately say “now I speak as a philosopher” and then “now I speak as a theologian”. This was in contrast to Aquinas, who preferred to emphasize the unity of truth. Around the time of Tempier’s condemnation, unnamed “Averroists” were accused of holding that Christianity and “philosophy” contradicted one another but were somehow both true. Scholars have generally concluded that no one literally held such a view, but it strikes me that it might have originated as a hostile caricature of Albert.


When I talk about beings, or us as beings, I mean this in a very ordinary, pre-philosophical way. It seems to me that to informally qualify as a “being”, something must have a degree of coherence; a degree of resilience or persistence in the face of change; and relations to other beings.

We might form a notion of something absolutely singular or self-contained, but it would not be a notion of a being. The classic notion of something absolutely singular was the One of Plotinus, which for him explicitly preceded all being. For Plotinus, we should only begin to talk about being when we have something that is “both one and many”.

If we speak of beings, it makes some sense to inquire about the being of beings. To me, though, this just means a higher-order consideration of the ordinary “being a being” of ordinary beings. It does not imply some very different “Being with a capital B” that gives being to all ordinary beings.

When Aristotle inquired about “being as being”, he reached two main conclusions. First, “being is said in many ways”. That is to say, being is not a univocal concept; it has multiple meanings. More profoundly, what we nonetheless informally call being itself is itself analogous to something that is nonunivocal rather than univocal. The non-self-containedness that seems to be characteristic of beings means that if we look closely, what we call individual beings do not have univocal identity, but rather are “identified” by a kind of family resemblance to themselves. Beings do not have sharp edges that would unambiguously separate an inside from an outside, and sometimes they change profoundly. Second, being a being nonetheless always involves being some way that is distinguishable from some other way. Calling something a being or saying it “is” in any sense thus expresses a kind of commitment on our part, and as Aristotle and Brandom would both remind us, the very nature of commitments implicitly commits us to abstain from or correct other incompatible commitments.

Being a being in whatever sense thus involves both a determinateness and an openness. Determinateness and openness in turn have to be understood in ways that permit their coexistence. (See also Equivocal Determination; Openness of Reason; Bounty of Nature.)

I want to say that everything important about being a being belongs in the register of “whatness”, or what was traditionally called essence. Contrary to the great arguments of Aquinas as well as to the 20th century mystique of existentialism, I don’t find value in an allegedly separate register of existence. Some people have argued that Aristotle did not have a proper concept of existence, as if this were a shortcoming. I find Aristotle’s direction of our attention to the “what” of being to be noninflationary in a quite salutary way. (See also Substance; Platonic Truth; Meant Realities.)

Modernity, Voluntarism

A draft chapter on pre-Hegelian stages in the history of normativity that Brandom removed from the published Spirit of Trust is now separately available on the internet. Parts or aspects of this historical narrative are the main source of issues I’ve had with Brandom in recent times. I take his removal of the chapter as confirmation that this historical argument should be viewed as an independent, optional supplement to the main philosophical argument of this truly great work. But Brandom still implicitly relies on it in summarily characterizing what he calls the single most important transformation in history — having to do with the status of normativity in the Enlightenment — and I have issues with those statements as well.

He begins by recalling a number of core themes I would wholeheartedly endorse.  Hegel “fully appreciated, as many of Kant’s readers have not” that Kant fundamentally rethought notions of self, self-consciousness, apperception, and “consciousness in the sense of apperception” in normative terms.  This is a vitally important point.

“Judgment is the minimal form of apperceptive awareness because judgments are the smallest units one can commit oneself to, make oneself responsible for”.  The “I” in “I think” that Kant called the “emptiest of all representations” is a kind of formal mark of taking responsibility for the judging.  What is represented in the judgment is what one makes oneself responsible to, and the “I” in turn only acquires determinate reference from what we implicitly or explicitly take responsibility for.  What Brandom following popular usage still calls “conscious selves”, he glosses with precision as “apperceptively unified constellations of commitments”.

Concepts are “rules that determine what commitments are reasons for and against”, and as such govern the synthesis of apperceptive unities, but they should not be thought of as pre-existing.  “Judgeable contents take methodological pride of place because of their role in Kant’s normative account of judging”.  Concepts used in judgments acquire their content from the activity of judging, from what one does in applying them.  Brandom thinks Hegel sees Kant as a “semantic pragmatist” not just in the Fichtean sense of the primacy of practical philosophy over theoretical philosophy, but in the more radical sense that for Kant, a normative account of discursive activity has methodological explanatory authority over the determination of discursive content in both theoretical and practical philosophy.

Brandom identifies Hegel’s Geist or Spirit with discursive normativity, and says Hegel sees earlier moral theorists as offering important insights not just about morality, but about normativity as such.  Hegel himself starts from conceptual norms expressed in language, rather than from moral norms.  He says that “language is the Dasein [“being there”] of Geist”.  “In another (completely unprecedented) move, Hegel historicizes his social metaphysics of normativity”.  Normativity is for the first time explicitly recognized as having a history.  

“The traditional metaphysics of normativity that Hegel sees all subsequent forms of understanding as developing from the rejection of is the subordination-obedience model.”  On this model, obligation is instituted by the command of a superior.  Brandom notes that Hegel initially discussed it under the famous figure of the relation of Master and Servant.

Protestant natural-law theorists – including Grotius, Cumberland, Hobbes, Pufendorf, Thomasius, and Locke — secularized and naturalized the voluntarism of medieval Catholic theologians like Scotus and Occam, tracing the binding force of law from “the antecedent existence of a superior-subordinate relationship”.  For the theological voluntarists, Brandom says, such relations of subordination were not only matters of objective fact, but “in some sense the fundamental objective metaphysical structure of reality”, embodied in Arthur Lovejoy’s figure of a broadly neoplatonic “Great Chain of Being”.  The natural-law theorists explained relations of subordination among humans in terms of different theories of God’s dominion over humans.  Brandom notes that on the obedience model, the status of being a superior is itself a normatively significant status entailing a right to legislate and command, but having that status relative to other humans is reduced to a non-normative matter of presumed objective fact.  (We should not rely on presumption in such important matters, and all attempts to reduce normativity to something non-normative stand in opposition to the autonomy of ethical reason championed by Kant.)

Brandom says the natural-law theorists began to question the subordination-obedience model in two ways – first by attaching some normative criteria to the status of being a superior, and second by suggesting that the right of a human to command might depend on some kind of implicit consent or attitude of the affected subordinates.  I would emphasize that any such move is already a move away from voluntarism.  As Brandom says, the subordination-obedience model is incapable of being extended to explain a normative status of being entitled to command.  The invocation of the consent of subordinates, he says, is an “even more momentous” step forward.  It is distinctive of Brandomian modernity to take normative statuses to be instituted by attitudes of acknowledgement.  Ultimately, modernity for Brandom is thus related to the emergence of democratic politics.

Brandom says that for Hegel, the modern model of attitude-dependence of normative statuses expresses a genuine and important truth, but like the subordination-obedience model, it is ultimately one-sided.  Hegel’s own view will make room for both an objectivity and an attititude-dependence of norms and normative statuses, by deriving objectivity itself from a vast ensemble of processes of normative mutual recognition over time.  Brandom translates Hegel’s vocabulary of “independence” and “dependence” into authority and responsibility, and says that for Hegel, what self-conscious beings are “in themselves” depends on what they are “for themselves”, on what they take themselves to be, as well as on what others take them to be.  What is “in itself” or “for itself” is thus a matter of normative interpretation, rather than of metaphysics in the traditional sense.

All of this seems both fine and important.  Things begin to become much more problematic, however, when he briefly discusses the contrast between voluntarist and “intellectualist” views of the will in medieval Latin theology.  He ends up valorizing the voluntarism of Occam at the expense of the so-called intellectualism of Aquinas, on the ground that voluntarism can be taken as grounding normativity in attitudes attributed to God.  Even though he notes that Occam’s nominalism makes all universals – including normativity — the product of “brute arbitrariness”, while recognizing that for Aquinas normativity is always grounded in reasons, he is more impressed by the fact that in Aquinas, those reasons are traceable to objective statuses.  Brandom’s language suggests that any reliance whatseoever on attitudes — even if they are arbitrary and do not involve any kind of recognition of an other — is ethically preferable to reliance on objective statuses.  

I on the contrary much prefer Aquinas’ appeal to reasons – in spite of the fact that Aquinas ultimately relies on assumed objective statuses – to Occam’s appeal to arbitrariness, even though the latter can be argued to implicitly involve attitudes.  It is a rather common motif of shallow accounts of the prehistory of modern science to valorize Occam and nominalism generally as anticipating modern developments, while overlooking both the negative ethical consequences of voluntarism and the positive value of the ethically “intellectualist” emphasis on reason.

I want to put greater stress on the contrast between arbitrariness and reasons than on that between relying on assumed objective statuses and relying on attitudes.  Of course I agree that objective normative statuses should not be simply assumed.  But I see nothing at all progressive in arbitrariness glossed as the product of an arbitrary attitude.  The result is still arbitrariness.  So, I cannot at all agree that theological voluntarism is “the thin leading edge of the wedge of modernity”, if modernity is supposed to be anything good.  I think a transition to relying on attitudes for the constitution of normativity only becomes progressive when those attitudes are non-arbitrary.

The other odd thing in Brandom’s account is the complete absence of any mention of Plato and Aristotle.  Unlike most authors of the Enlightenment, Plato and Aristotle put no limits on the free use of reason.  They explicitly treated reason as bound up with normativity.  And even though they did not question existing distinctions of social status as much as we might, nothing in their ethics actually presupposes the subordination-obedience model.  Thus I locate the single greatest historical break with Plato and Aristotle’s invention of rational ethics, rather than with the Enlightenment’s appeal to attitudes.  

However one takes the ethical “intellectualism” of Aquinas, it combines Plato and Aristotle’s merger of normativity and reason with doctrinal concerns.  The assumptions about objective statuses that Brandom objects to belong to the doctrinal component of his synthesis rather than its Platonic-Aristotelian component.  If we are looking for historical antecedents of the ethically good aspects of modernity, we should look to Plato and Aristotle.

Voluntarism’s endorsement of arbitrariness over reasons is quite simply the short path to evil.  It is the bad attitude of the Master discussed by Hegel, raised to a sort of anti-philosophical principle.  Brandom is a great champion of the importance of reasons, and presents an exemplary reading of Mastery as an evolutionary dead end with no progressive role to play, so I think it would be more consistent for him to avoid any historical valorization of voluntarist positions.


Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) was a tremendously original, highly influential, and troublesome philosopher. What makes his work troublesome is not only conceptual difficulty and a deliberate practice of translating the familiar into the unfamiliar, but also his never clearly repudiated attempt to influence the Nazi movement in Germany. He seems to have been a cultural and linguistic chauvinist who rejected pseudo-biological racism, but nonetheless put hopes in an “inner truth and greatness” of National Socialism as an alternative to American and Soviet materialism. This identification puts a dark cloud over the interpretation of his writing, which was, however, generally very far removed from politics. The question is, how much it is possible to detach his work from a stance that seems worse than one of mere bad judgment.

A serious and innovative reader of Aristotle who also developed thought-provoking readings of Plato, Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche, Heidegger combined a sympathetic but critical take on Husserl’s phenomenology with an interest in the hermeneutics of Wilhem Dilthey. Widely read as an “existentialist”, he sharply repudiated Sartre’s appropriation of his work. In his later works, he approached philosophy as a kind of poetic meditation.

His most famous thesis was that Western thought largely lost its way from Plato onward, neglecting the question of the meaning of Being in favor of preoccupation with things. While he made good points about the preconceptions involved in our ordinary encounters with things, I think he too sharply rejected “ontic” engagement with empirical, factual concerns in favor of a purified ontology. He also promoted a valorization of what I would call the pre-philosophical thought of the pre-Socratics Heraclitus and Parmenides. I think Plato and especially Aristotle represented a gigantic leap forward from this.

Some of Heidegger’s very early work was on the medieval theologian Duns Scotus, who seems to have originated the standard notion of ontology later promoted by Wolff and others. In sharp contrast to the tradition stemming from Scotus, Heidegger argued that Being is not the most generic concept, and wanted to emphasize a “Being of beings” in contrast to their factual, empirical presentation. He did not follow the path of Aquinas in identifying pure Being with God, either, and Aquinas probably would have rejected his talk of the Being of beings.

I think his most important contribution was an emphasis on what he called “being-in-the-world” as a way of overcoming the dichotomy of subject and object. His associated critique of Cartesian subjectivity has been highly influential. In later works, he also recommended putting difference before identity, and relations before things. Although the way he expounded these notions was quite original, I prefer to emphasize their roots in Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel. (See also Being, Existence; Being, Consciousness; Beings; Phenomenological Reduction?; Memory, History, Forgetfulness — Conclusion.)