The Human in Siger of Brabant

Those whom modern scholars called Averroists were supposed to be unoriginal, dogmatic followers of Averroes. This turns out to be as inaccurate as the supposition that the Latin scholastics as a whole were unoriginal, dogmatic followers of Aristotle.

At issue here is what it is to be human, and in particular how the difficult Aristotelian concept of “intellect” relates to human beings. There were not just two but a wide variety of nuanced and well-argued positions on this.

Among the so-called Averroists, Siger of Brabant (1240-1280) is the best known name, but no full book has yet been devoted to his work. According to Alain de Libera, in his later works Siger developed original responses to Thomas Aquinas’ famous critique of Averroes.

Siger argued against Aquinas that the act of thought is not purely immanent but simultaneously immanent and transitive. That is to say, for Siger it is immanent in the human, but transitive in the separate intellect. While affirming a “separate” intellect, Siger emphasized against Aquinas that the total act of thinking is attributable to the whole human, and not just to the human’s intellective soul. Intellect is an “intrinsic operation” in the human that in a way does, and in a way does not, make it the “substantial form” and perfection of a material body. According to Siger, Aquinas’ claim that the intellective soul unequivocally is the substantial form of the body cannot be reconciled with Aquinas’ other claim that intellect as a power of the intellective soul is entirely independent of the body. Siger adopts Albert and Thomas’ term “intellective soul”, but for Siger only the animal and vegetative soul are united with the body in being. Intellective soul is naturally united with the body in operation but not in being, whereas Aquinas says they are united in being.

According to de Libera, Siger in his Questions on the Book of Causes argues that the form of the human is not simple, but is rather a composite comprising an intellect that “comes from outside” (in Aristotle’s phrase), and a vegetative and sensitive substance that is “educed from the power of matter” (de Libera, Archéologie du sujet vol. 3 part 1, p. 411, my translation). Intellect is said by Siger to be a “form subsistent in itself”. It is not a “substantial form” in the proper sense, which would imply that it was inherent in the human body. It is not in the body “as in a subject”. However, intellect has need of the human body (specifically, the phantasms of the imagination) as an object, and intellect is in turn attributable to the human as a whole, though it is not reducible to the biological organism. Intellect for Siger is neither the inherent form of the human nor a separate, external mover of the human, but a separate form with an operation that is intrinsic to the whole human, in which it participates by composition.

De Libera remarks in passing that the act of thought owes more to intelligible objects than to “intellect”. I would suggest that it is through language and culture and ethical practice that Aristotelian intellect “comes to us from outside”. We talking, encultured animals then acquire a spiritual essence that comes to be intrinsic to us, through our ethical practice, in which acquired intellect and animal imagination cooperate.

According to de Libera, for Siger “The ‘intelligent whole’ is composed of many psychic parts, which are not of the same nature, or of the same origin, or of the same ontological status” (p. 362).

Siger objects that Aquinas’ notion of intellect as united with the body in being “makes the act of thought a perfection of matter” (ibid). This makes the body intellect’s “subject of inherence”. But at the same time, applying Thomas’ own axiom that nothing is accomplished by a power separated from itself, Siger reproaches Thomas for being unable to account for “the integrality of the known” (p. 378), and specifically the knowledge of material things.

For Aquinas, establishing that there is an operation proper to the soul is essential to the possibility of the soul’s existence independent of the body, and thus to his philosophical argument for personal immortality. But Siger argues that in making intellect an operation proper (i.e., uniquely attributable) to the soul, Aquinas implicitly negates its attributability to the whole human. Intellection for Siger is “an operation common to the human composite as an integral whole” (p. 377). In other words, I think with my whole being, not just my “mind”.

De Libera concludes that Siger does preserve the possibility of personal immortality, which was a principal concern of Averroes’ critics. However, he finds that the texts do not support the claims of some recent scholars that Siger in his later works abandoned “Averroism” in favor of Thomism.

The phrase “form subsistent in itself”, according to de Libera, does not have the same meaning for Siger that it does for Thomas. Albert the Great had analyzed three logical possibilities for an “intermediate” kind of form that is neither fully separate nor inseparable from matter. According to de Libera, Siger’s work is consistent with this. Siger aimed at a mean between a Platonist excess of separation between form and matter, and what he perceived as a Thomist excess of union with respect to so-called substantial forms. De Libera does find, however, that Siger, like other authors, is too anxious to simplify the issues at stake, and that he goes too far in identifying the position of Aquinas with that of Alexander of Aphrodisias, who was regarded as having a “materialist” view of the human soul. He also says Siger goes too far in reducing Aquinas’ notion of form to the simple analogy of a stamp in wax.

De Libera meanwhile also raises doubts about Aquinas’ insistence on the absence of any intermediary between the intellective soul and the body. He notes that in a very different context, the Franciscan Augustinian Peter Olivi argued that the intellective soul is united with the body via the intermediary of the sensitive soul. Olivi’s position was rejected by the Council of Vienna in 1312.

De Libera accepts the notion of “substantial form” as genuinely Aristotelian, but appears to endorse the argument of Bernardo Carlos Bazán that Aquinas’ notion of intellective soul gives it a privileged ontological status that makes it more than a substantial form. According to Bazán, Aquinas’ anthropology from the very start goes beyond the Aristotelian hylomorphism that Thomas generally endorses. The form of a human in Aquinas — unlike anything in Aristotle — is such that it could not be the result of any natural generative process, but could only be created by God. Siger comes across as closer to Aristotle.

De Libera notes that in the wake of the English theologian Thomas Wylton (1288-1322), later so-called Averroists “invested massively” in a distinction between an inherent form and an assisting form, and regarded human intellect as an “assisting form”. (See also “This Human Understands”; “This Human”, Again; Averroes as Read by de Libera.)


Hegel’s main word for culture (Bildung) has strong connotations of activity. More literally it refers to a process of education of one’s whole character and self-consciousness that necessarily involves an active engagement, a sort of training of our active capacities, linked to what people these days might call personal growth. It thus needs to be distinguished from culture in the sense of passively assimilated custom or belief.

In Harris’ summary, “Man’s true nature can only be regained by alienation from its natural state. This is how God’s will gets done and I get saved. My actuality and power depends on my self-educative effort. I put aside my natural self in order to be the self God knows. Quantitative differences in natural endowment do not matter” (Hegel’s Ladder II, p. 259).

“In his discussion of the Condition of Right Hegel remarked on the irrationality of the distribution of natural gifts to the rational personalities who enjoy formal freedom and equality in the Stoic view…. In the spiritual perspective of Culture, this irrationality and divine caprice is completely transcended, because the given nature of the individual counts for nothing…. It is by alienating oneself from nature, including one’s own nature, that one can establish one’s real status as a soul in God’s eternal world” (p. 260).

“The equality of the blessed (when we give it an actual interpretation in this world) becomes the objectively implicit presence of Reason” (ibid). “Faith sees the whole social order as established by God’s Will…. But, in reality, the general effort of everyone to do God’s will on earth is what produces the stable order of society” (p. 261).

“Hegel was convinced of the importance of the Reformation; and the formation of the national state, with the movement from feudal monarchy to popular sovereignty, is the main focus of interest in the present section. But we do not need to accept any of his particular historical views. Obviously he had to do the Science of Experience in terms of the history he knew. To interpret it in terms of what we know is only to test it appropriately” (p. 262).

“One thing that Hegel is not doing is the psychoanalysis of society. It does not belong to the phenomenology of spirit to talk about what is really hidden from view” (p. 275). “Most of those who charge Hegel with a priorism, or with forcing the facts into the straightjacket of his theories, are logically bound to read him the way they do, because they are themselves children of the Enlightenment, and they cannot conceive any relation between concept and fact except that of estranged ‘application'” (p. 276).

“Language is the means by which the surrender of all personal self-will to a universal actual self is achieved. For the self is its language. Speaking is an absolutely transient motion which passes away at once. But the meaning of what is said is absolutely abiding” (pp. 283-284).

It is in this context of the constitution of self through linguistic practice that Hegel discusses the prevalence of flattery in the aristocratic society of early modern absolute monarchy, and how it is inverted into the “Contemptuous Consciousness” depicted in Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew. Next he will diagnose an untenable pretentiousness in a common critique of religion associated with the Enlightenment.

Culture and the Freudian Ego

Part 2 of book 2 of Ricoeur’s Freud and Philosophy is concerned with psychoanalytic interpretation of culture, and with Freud’s “second topography” of id, ego, and superego. Ricoeur says the first topography gave rise to a theory of culture, which in turn gave rise to the second topography, but that Freud will only achieve a unified view of culture with his late theory of the so-called death instinct. Culture will become a “battle ground” between Eros and death. At this point, Ricoeur says, psychoanalysis will turn “from science to philosophy, perhaps even to mythology” (p. 157).

Psychoanalysis is very different from transcendental reflection. “[W]hat is first for analysis is never first in reflection; the primary is not a ground. Hence we must not ask psychoanalysis to resolve questions as to root origins, either in the order of reality or in the order of value” (p. 154).

“The first topography remained tied to an economics of instinct, with instinct as the one basic concept; the division of the topography into three systems [unconscious, preconscious, conscious] was made in relation to the libido alone. The second topography is an economics of a new type: here the libido is subject to something other than itself [that manifests as culture], to a demand for renunciation that creates a new economic situation” (p. 156).

“The interpretation of culture will be the great detour that will reveal the dream model in its universal significance. Dreams will prove to be something quite other than a mere curiosity of nocturnal life or a means of getting at neurotic conflicts…. [T]hey reveal all that is nocturnal in man, the nocturnal of his waking life as well as of his sleep…. In and through man desires advance masked…. The entire drama of dreams is thus found to be generalized to the dimensions of a universal poetics…. ‘Idols as the daydreams of mankind’ — such might be the subtitle of the hermeneutics of culture” (p. 162).

Freud ends up with a “history of desire and authority. What matters in this history is the way authority affects desire” (p. 179). Beneath this and through this, Ricoeur says, a more fundamental “debate between the pleasure-unpleasure principle and the reality principle” (p. 180) will come to be presented much more clearly.

“The question of the ego, i.e. of domination, is completely different [from that of consciousness]…. The ego finds itself threatened, and in order to defend itself must dominate the situation…. [The ego is a] ‘poor creature’ menaced by three masters, reality, the libido, and conscience” (p. 182). “The value of all the psychoanalytic investigations concerning the moral phenomenon stems from the fact that man’s relation to obligation is first described in a situation of weakness, of nondomination” (p. 183).

“[W]e cannot go very far in describing the functions of the superego without appealing to the history of their constitution” (p. 184). “Will such an analysis be rejected because it views conscience not as a primal given but as something to be deciphered through the screen of the clinical? The advantage of the Freudian ‘prejudice’ is that it begins without taking anything for granted: by treating moral reality as an a posteriori reality, constituted and sedimented, Freud’s analysis avoids the laziness that is part of any appeal to the a priori” (p. 185). “Thought that begins by rejecting the primordial givenness of the ethical ego has the advantage of placing the whole focus of attention on the process of the internalization of the external” (p. 186). “[P]sychoanalysis, having made a dogmatic beginning, renders its own explanation increasingly problematic in proportion as it puts it to use” (p. 187).

Ricoeur on Freud

Paul Ricoeur’s Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation is based on 1961 lectures given at Yale. It takes up “the problem left unresolved at the end of my Symbolism of Evil, namely the relationship between a hermeneutics of symbols and a philosophy of concrete reflection” (p. xii). The phrasing suggests that he at this time viewed hermeneutics as a “regional” endeavor and not yet as a general philosophical approach, but the current work goes a long way toward generalizing it.

In respect to Freud, it is both a critique and a positive engagement, philosophical rather than psychological. He will read Freud as a “monument of our culture”. Psychoanalysis, says Ricoeur, is an interpretation of culture, but he reads it as conflicting with every other interpretation. This work will inquire into the nature of psychoanalytic interpretation, the self-understanding that emerges from it, and “what self is it which thus comes to self-understanding” (ibid).

Ricoeur says that language is the meeting ground of contemporary philosophical concerns. Sixty years later, this is still largely true. “The present study in no way pretends to offer the comprehensive philosophy of language we are waiting for. I doubt moreover that such a philosophy could be elaborated by any one man. A modern Leibniz with the ambition and capacity to achieve it would have to be an accomplished mathematician, a universal exegete, a critic versed in several of the arts, and a good psychoanalyst.. While we are awaiting that philosopher of integral language, perhaps it is possible for us to explore some of the key connections” (p. 4). Since then, I think Brandom has made phenomenal strides toward that comprehensive account.

Psychoanalysis should be “a leading participant in any general discussion about language…. The fluctuation in Freud’s writings between medical investigation and a theory of culture bears witness to the scope of the Freudian project” (ibid). Though Ricoeur limits his focus to the works of Freud himself, right at this time Jacques Lacan was becoming very famous in France for promoting a strongly language-centered reading of Freud.