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 But in the Metaphysics, he treats this as only a starting point that is quickly superseded by an identification of substance with form or “what it was to have been” a thing, before moving into an account of substance as potentiality and actuality.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

Wisdom and Responsibility

Among other works, the great early 20th century philosopher Edmund Husserl wrote his own Cartesian Meditations, an expanded version of lectures delivered in Paris in 1929. Husserl developed his own version of phenomenology, very different from Hegel’s, and his own version of transcendental subjectivity, very different from Kant’s. Throughout his career, he was concerned to criticize naive notions of objectivity. While disagreeing with a few of his fundamental principles, I enormously admire his nuanced development and intellectual honesty.

Husserl writes that “The aim of [Descartes’] Meditations is a complete reforming of philosophy into a science grounded on an absolute foundation” (Cartesian Meditations, p. 1). I think of philosophy as concerned with generalized, coherent interpretation of life and the world as an ongoing, never-finished project, rather than a completed rational “science”. But Husserl, with all his scruples about premature claims of objectivity, is famously provisional in most of his actual developments. As long as the ultimate “science” remains an aim and is not claimed as a present possession, we have not fallen into dogmatism. I think Husserl overall actually does better than Kant at avoiding overstated claims of “scientific” accomplishment.

According to Husserl, Descartes “gives rise to a philosophy turned toward the subject himself” (p. 2). I tend to worry more about illegitimate claims on behalf of a sovereign Subject than about premature claims to know about real objects, but both concerns are valid. “Philosophy — wisdom (sagesse) — is the philosopher’s quite personal affair. It must arise as his wisdom, as his self-acquired knowledge tending toward universality, a knowledge for which he can answer from the beginning, and at each step” (ibid).

The literal meaning of the Greek philosophia is “love of wisdom”. Some kind of wisdom, rather theoretical knowledge, was the main goal of ancient philosophy, from Plato and Aristotle through the Stoics, Epicureans, and Skeptics, all the way to the neoplatonists. An emphasis on wisdom as distinct from knowledge puts a “practical”, ultimately ethical dimension above all particular inquiries, whereas Latin scholastics focused on more technical debates about the truth of propositions, and early modern philosophy was permeated with ideals of pure science. I think it was really more the Kantian primacy of practical reason than the Cartesian cogito that initiated a partial turn back to the ethical concerns of the ancients. Some writers have suggested that claims for the revolutionary character of the cogito are more shaped by Kant’s interpretation and by the perception of Descartes as a precursor to Kant than by Descartes’ original.

Commentators have noted that ethical concerns are basically absent from Descartes’ Meditations. Kant and Husserl each in their own way reinfused broadly ethical concerns into Descartes’ preoccupations with the foundations of knowledge.

Husserl appeals to “the spirit that characterizes radicalness of philosophical self-responsibility” (p. 6). “Must not the demand for a philosophy aiming at the ultimate conceivable freedom from prejudice, shaping itself with actual autonomy according to ultimate evidences it has itself produced, and therefore absolutely self-responsible — must not this demand, instead of being excessive, be part of the fundamental sense of genuine philosophy?” (ibid).

This Husserlian appeal to autonomy, like Kant’s, ultimately still has to answer to the critiques of Hegel and Brandom (see In Itself, For Itself; Autonomy, Normativity; Self-Legislation?). Nonetheless, it is a high point in the development of the human spirit.

Flying Man?

Back in 2019, I included the following in a tangent near the end of a longer post:

“The thrust of the famous cogito ergo sum was already anticipated in Augustine’s Confessions. A more detailed version was developed by Avicenna, in an argument known… as the “flying man”. He proposed a thought experiment, considering someone in counterfactual absolute sensory deprivation from birth, with the intent of asking whether awareness could be completely independent of sensibility. He argued that the person in absolute sensory deprivation would still be aware of her own existence, due to a pure immediate reflexive awareness intrinsic to the soul and independent of the body. This kind of claim would have been accepted by Plotinus, but rejected by Aristotle or Hegel. Medieval Augustinians, however, enthusiastically adopted many of Avicenna’s ideas.” Peter Adamson, a scholar of Islamic philosophy, has a nice short article on this.

What Descartes Proved

The Latin subtitle of Descartes’ Meditations advertises that they not merely assert but demonstrate the existence of God and an immortal soul. However, as noted in the Cambridge Descartes Lexicon, neither the word “immortality” nor “immortal” even appears in the body of the text. Descartes does convincingly argue that even in the very act of doubting everything, it is apparent that something is going on — that there is awareness or “thinking”, even on the extreme assumption that everything it thinks is mistaken.

“What then did I formerly believe myself to be? Undoubtedly I thought myself to be a man. But what is a man? Shall I say a rational animal? No, for then I should have to inquire what is ‘animal’, what ‘rational’; and thus from one question I should be drawn on into several others yet more difficult. I have not, at present, the leisure for any such subtle inquiries. Instead I prefer to meditate on the thoughts which of themselves spring up in my mind” (Descartes’ Philosophical Writings, trans. Norman Kemp Smith, pp. 203-204).

Descartes argues that bodily phenomena are not clearly “me”, but that I cannot separate myself from my awareness. “Thinking? Here I find what does belong to me: it alone cannot be separated from me. I am, I exist. This is certain. How often? As often as I think” (p. 205).

He makes a subtle transition from arguments about the indubitable existence of some awareness to arguments about something that has the awareness.

“What is a thinking thing? It is a thing that doubts, understands, affirms, denies, wills, abstains from willing, that also can be aware of images and sensations” (p. 206). Elsewhere he also includes love and hate. Using contemporary vocabulary, Gueroult calls this a thinking subject (Gueroult, Descartes, p. 40), a word Descartes himself does not use in this context. Descartes identifies it with his own view of the soul. Though Descartes thinks it is separable from the body and the world, he treats it as a concrete “me”.

This concrete me-thing is supposed to have some very strong properties. Descartes claims it is a substance — apparently in the sense of something underlying — and that we can know something is a substance without knowing it as a substance. Secondly, “Interior to the Cogito, consciousness [French conscience, which predated Cudworth and Locke’s English word] and consciousness of consciousness are identical” (Gueroult, p. 99, my translation, brackets and emphasis added). Thirdly, the Cartesian soul is supposed to have “infinite” free will.

On my reading, the earlier transition from the indubitability of the existence of some concrete awareness — which I take to be genuinely irrefutable — to the assumption of a “thing” that has the awareness, is only valid if the “thing” is strictly identified with the awareness itself. But if the “thing” is identical with the awareness we started with, then the transition to calling it a substance is not justified. Conversely, if “thing” does have strong enough meaning to justify calling it a substance, the transition from thinking to a thinking thing was unjustified.

The identity of consciousness and consciousness of consciousness seems to be a completely unproven and unprovable assumption — one that I think Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, and Ricoeur each convincingly suggest we should oppose. Gueroult quotes Descartes in a letter making the weaker claim that (contrary to what Locke would assert a bit later) the soul is capable of thinking of many things at once. If we accept this, that would make a simultaneity of consciousness and consciousness of consciousness possible in particular cases, but it still falls far short of establishing their identity.

Like many voluntarists, Descartes makes a leap from the much weaker claim that we make real choices, to the ultra-strong claim that our power of choice is completely unconditioned, and that divine omnipotence exempts it from the natural order altogether.

He argues at length that an omnipotent God is the necessary foundation of the razor-thin subjective certainty he discovered by introspection. The arguments about God are introduced as follows: “Those [ideas] which represent substances are without doubt something more, and contain in themselves, so to speak, more objective reality (that is to say participate by representation in a higher degree of being or perfection) than those which represent only modes or accidents; and again, the idea by which I apprehend a supreme God, eternal, infinite, immutable, omniscient, omnipotent, and the creator of all things which are on addition to Himself, has certainly in it more objective reality than those ideas by which finite substances are represented.”

“Now it is manifest by the natural light that there must be at least as much reality in the efficient and total cause. For whence can the effect draw its reality if not from its cause? How could this cause communicate to it this reality if it did not itself have it? And hence it follows… that what is more perfect, i.e. contains more reality, cannot proceed from what is less perfect” (pp. 219-220).

“By the name God I mean a substance that is infinite, immutable, independent, all-knowing, all-powerful, and by which I myself and everything else, if any such things there be, have been created. All those attributes are so great and so eminent, that the more attentively I consider them the less does it seem possible that they can have proceeded from myself alone; and thus, in the light of all that has been said, we have no option save to conclude that God exists” (p. 224).

Out of nowhere, we suddenly have an unexplained appeal to a fully formed late-scholastic distinction between substance, mode, and accident, and other scholastic reasoning about the superiority of causes to their effects. The implicit claim seems to be that these very particular historical formulations are universally given in intellectual intuition.

Descartes’ subsequent argument is literally that God is the efficient and total cause of everything, therefore He exists. Need I point out that only an existing being could be an efficient and total cause in the first place (assuming there is such a thing as a total cause)? And that the argument is therefore patently circular? Though still debatable, Anselm’s ontological proof and the various arguments of Aquinas were much more persuasive than this.

Plotinus, Augustine, and Avicenna all anticipated Descartes’ strong sense of interiority. What was relatively new in the metaphysics of Descartes was his narrow point about the otherwise empty certainty that “awareness exists”, but even that was partially anticipated by Avicenna’s “flying man” argument.

Cartesian Metaphysics

For Descartes, according to Gueroult, “metaphysics” is the universal science or the system of science, and also a kind of introduction to more concrete studies. Here we are far from Aristotle and much closer, I think, to Duns Scotus. Without knowledge of God and oneself, Descartes says, it would never be possible to discover the principles of physics. Gueroult says that Descartes insists on an “incomprehensibility” of God that is neither unknowability nor irrationality but the “formal reason of the infinite” (Descartes selon l’order des raisons, p. 17). This again has a somewhat Scotist sound to my ear.

The infinitude of God puts God absolutely first, as the first truth that founds all others. Gueroult quotes Descartes saying, “It is a ‘blasphemy’ to say that the truth of something precedes God’s knowledge of it…, because the existence of God is the first and the most eternal of all the truths that can be, and the truth from which all the others proceed” (ibid; my translation).

Descartes says that God “freely creates” eternal truths. I have no idea what creation of eternal truths could even possibly mean, though such a notion seems to be at least implicit in the teaching of Duns Scotus. To be eternal is to have no before and after. Therefore, it seems to me, all eternal things must be co-eternal. This point of view accommodates part of Descartes’ thesis, insofar as if all eternal things are co-eternal, then an eternal truth would not “precede” God’s knowledge of it. In broadly neoplatonic terms, eternal truths could plausibly be regarded as aspects of the “nature” of God. I can also grasp the idea of truths following logically from the “nature” of God, but I suspect Descartes would either follow Scotus in arguing that God’s infinite power is not a “nature”, or follow Aquinas in arguing that God is pure existence and has no other “nature”. I don’t see how anything more specific can directly follow from either infinite power or pure existence.

For Descartes, though, God’s omnipotence “excludes the possibility of error” and “alone founds the objective validity of my intellectual faculty” (ibid). Descartes aims at “a total system of certain knowledge, at the same time metaphysical and scientific, … entirely immanent to mathematical certitude enveloped in the clear and distinct intellect, … in its requirement of absolute rigor. This totality of the system is in no way that of an encyclopedia of material knowledge effectively acquired, but the fundamental unity of the first principles from which follow all possible certain knowledge” (p. 18). Descartes’ doctrine is for him “a single block of certainty” (p. 19) that would be falsified by adding or removing any detail. All this seems way too strong to me.

Gueroult points out that Descartes wants to contrast an “order of reasons” with an “order of material”, as being more principled. However, unlike geometry, the total system of metaphysical reasoning for Descartes has “psychological” as well as logical requirements. Gueroult says it is for this reason that the Meditations best represent Descartes’ paradigm of rigorous analytic demonstration.

Granted that there is a clear “psychological” aspect to the Meditations, at this point I’m unsure what it means to relate that to the claimed rigor of the system. Moreover, adding a “psychological” dimension to what was said before about mathematical reasoning affects the very meaning of the claim of rigor. I think I understand what mathematical rigor is. I do not understand what “psychological” rigor would be in this context, but I suspect it may be wrapped up with what I would call extraordinary presumptions of absolute self-transparency and immediate reflexivity.

Gueroult on Descartes

Having been greatly impressed by Martial Gueroult’s two extant volumes on Spinoza’s Ethics, I wanted to challenge myself to get some sense of the detail of his magisterial Descartes selon l’order des raisons (1968). Sometimes called a “structuralist” in the history of philosophy, Gueroult systematically developed the fine grain of argument in Spinoza’s demonstrations, and here he does the same for Descartes’ Meditations.

Beginning with a distinction between understanding and explanation, Gueroult announces his intention to subordinate the former to the latter (p. 9). Here “understanding” is a sort of intuitive or imaginative grasp of the whole, whereas “explanation” develops the details in their interrelation. I am reminded of Paul Ricoeur’s great theme of the value of the “long detour”.

Gueroult says Descartes viewed “isolated thoughts” with a sort of horror. This is already interesting. I have long puzzled over Brandom’s treatment of Descartes as a proto-inferentialist, when Descartes has seemed to me on the contrary like an arch-representationalist who plucked “truths” out of thin air. Both Gueroult and Brandom take Descartes’ “method” very seriously. Brandom’s work previously set me on a path that led me to radically change my views of Kant and Hegel. Perhaps I’ll have to revise or modulate some of my judgments of Descartes as well.

For Gueroult, it is objective structures of argument that distinguish philosophy from poetry, spiritual or mystical elevation, general scientific theory, or mere metaphysical opinions. He says that even while “excommunicating” the history of philosophy, Descartes nonetheless formulated a good principle of reading, rejecting eclectic tendencies to pull out this or that idea from a great author, in favor of a systematic approach. Descartes is quoted saying the “precious fruit” must come from “the entire body of the work” (p. 11). This is an important complement to his one-sided insistence elsewhere on beginning with what is simple. However, Descartes is also quoted insisting that all conflicts of interpretation are due to shallow eclecticism and deficiency of method, and that wherever there is such a conflict, one side must certainly be wrong (pp. 13-14).

This insistence on univocal interpretation is one of my big issues with Descartes. It works well for things like geometry, but much less well for sorting out arguments about power or potentiality, for instance. Pushing univocal interpretation as far as it can go can be a very valuable exercise, but as soon as we leave pure mathematics, it also shows its limits. I think that while mathematical necessity can be understood as something we “ought” to recognize for a multitude of reasons, sound ethical judgment must in principle reach beyond what can be expressed with certainty by formal equations. Much as I admire a good mathematical development, I therefore think ethics is more fundamental for us humans than mathematics, and philosophy is more ethical than mathematical.

According to Gueroult, the seminal idea guiding all of Descartes’ work is that human knowledge has unavoidable limits due to the limits of thought, but within those limits it is capable of perfect certainty (p. 15). For Descartes, we do not know thought by things, but we know things by thought. As a matter of principle, we should doubt everything that does not come from the certainty of thought. We are thus offered a stark division between that which is supposed to be certain beyond question, and that which is vain and useless. I think this results both in a treatment of too many things as certain, and in a premature dismissal of aspects of human reality that are uncertain, but nonetheless have real value.

I agree that mathematical reasoning is capable of (hypothetical) certainty, but I contend that we humans live mainly on middle ground that is neither certainty nor mere vanity.

Descartes Revisited

Descartes is among my least favorite of those conventionally termed great philosophers. My treatment to date has been mainly limited to a few dismissive remarks. Here I’d like to add a few “historiographical” points of demarcation.

Insofar as there is general consensus among scholars, Descartes (1598-1650) first and foremost has claim to fame as a very influential promoter of something recognizably close to modern scientific method. He is often credited with the invention of analytic geometry, based on an early recognition of the systematic isomorphism between geometry and algebra. Galileo (1564-1642) had already taken up an approach to natural science based on mathematical analysis, which Descartes enthusiastically adopted. Descartes particularly promoted a methodology based on clear and distinct ideas, which he held to give certain knowledge. He advocated an orderly progression from the simple to the complex.

On a broad social level, Descartes is remembered for promoting the independence of scientific investigation, particularly from the doctrinal concerns of the Catholic Church. But he was also a religious thinker. While confessing in a private letter that he did not literally believe various details of received scripture, he was very engaged with proofs of the existence of God.

Numerous scholars have pointed out that outside the domains of mathematics and natural science, Descartes in many ways remained close to the Latin scholasticism of which he has been commonly regarded as the slayer. In Descartes and the Modern Mind (1952), for example, Albert Balz argued at length that the thought of Thomas Aquinas was an essential precursor to Descartes. I note that Augustine had already emphasized the importance of the interpretive role of reason, even in matters of faith. On Aquinas’ account, God gives us not only revelation, but also the natural light of reason. In Summa Contra Gentiles, Aquinas addressed questions of philosophy and theology entirely from the point of view of that “natural light”, while aiming to show that the natural light of reason independently leads to many of same truths he attributed to revelation. Descartes makes great use of a similar concept of the natural light of reason.

Both Descartes and Aquinas thought the natural light of reason, properly understood, gives us truths, full stop. I think it gives us invaluable criteria for judgment and interpretation, while always in principle leaving room for discussion about what conclusions should be drawn. I also think the “natural light” itself comes to us in degrees, and is never a simple or unproblematic possession.

A different strand of Latin scholastic thought tended to claim that all human knowledge originates in sensible images, while attributing such a view to Aristotle. (I think this is overly strong, and that Aristotle only meant to defend the pragmatic value of sensation against Platonic skepticism about all deliverances of sense.) Descartes famously argued that sensible images are not the only source of knowledge, and I think that is true, as far as it goes.

Here is where Descartes’ theses about clear and distinct ideas come into play. A methodological discipline based on examining whether our ideas are clear and distinct is an important source of human knowledge. Again, this much I can agree with, but I think clarity and distinctness are relative criteria and not absolutes. As relative criteria, they have been implicitly employed by most if not all serious thinkers. I take such evaluations to have been a major implicit concern of Platonic and Aristotelian dialectic, which in part aims to discern meanings that are more clear and distinct.

Descartes effectively claimed that clarity and distinctness are absolute, decidable properties of ideas. One of the broadly scholastic views he sharply criticized was that our best knowledge of sensible things is only “probable”. Descartes claimed that the results of his methodological analyses were certain, in the same way that mathematical conclusions follow with certainty from their premises. This goes well beyond the claim that there is practical value in such methodology.

Building on arguments of Augustine and Avicenna, he also famously gave great importance to the claim that immediate contents of the mind give evidence of unconditional certainty of the abstract existence of something. The very possibility that I could be deceived implies the abstract existence of an abstract something that could be deceived. Further, if something in any way appears to me to be such and such — even if I am wrong about all the details — independent of all the details, the barest fact of the appearance implies that some appearance generically “exists”.

The “I” that is in this way proven to exist and the appearance that is proven to exist are both extreme abstractions. Even Descartes did not claim that either of these existences by itself gives us any further knowledge. From this basis alone, I could still be entirely mistaken about the kind of being that I am, and about every detail of what appears to me to be the case. In spite of the famous Cartesian doubt, Descartes actually wanted to makes strong claims of certainty and to refute skepticism. Many readers have concluded, though, that he opened the door for a new, more global form of skepticism, because what he clearly establishes as certain seems so utterly lacking in content.

I would hasten to add that unreasonable, excessive skepticism about human knowledge is best refuted by successful achievements of goals in real-life situations. Only a hypocrite could claim to live in the world with no well-founded beliefs whatsoever. The ancient Skeptics were only “skeptical” about theoretical accounts of things, not about practical concerns of everyday life.

By setting the bar too high and aiming at absolute certainty, Descartes actually opened the door for more radically subjectivist views that no one in the ancient world would have taken seriously (and not just because ancient people were naive). At the same time, he was very impatient with “dialectic”, and tended to foreshorten discussions of meaning and interpretation, in favor of claims that certain contents are unequivocally clear and distinct. Thus the ultimate result of his thought oscillates unstably between extremes of “Cartesian” skepticism and dogmatism.

Another point on which Descartes has been very influential is his strong representationalism. For Descartes, strictly speaking we never have practical knowledge of things in the world, only knowledge about contents of our mental representations, insofar as they are clear and distinct. In particular, we only know bodies through our mental representations of them. Rather than consisting in an interpretive stance of a situated being in the world, the Cartesian cogito achieves its purely subjective certainty in a way that is supposed to be peculiarly “outside” the real world altogether.

Unlike the representationalism of Locke, which is grounded in a kind of empirical psychology, that of Descartes is closely bound up with an ontological mind/world dualism more radical than anything Plotinus, Augustine, or Avicenna ever contemplated. For Plotinus, Augustine, and Avicenna, the soul was a very special kind of “something” existing in the real world, even if for Plotinus and Augustine it was not a “subject” in the sense of something underlying something else. For Locke — the other great early modern promoter of representationalism — our mental worlds are ultimately contained within the natural world. For Descartes, there is the world and there is the soul, and never the twain shall meet. The soul has its own mental world where it seems to relate directly only to God, and human knowledge occurs only in that mental world.

It is due to this unprecedentedly radical mind/world dualism of Descartes, I think, that virtually no one — even among his admirers — wants to uphold his metaphysics. This is an extreme example of what Hegel called “alienation”.

Ricoeur on Recognition

Paul Ricoeur’s very last book The Course of Recognition (French ed. 2004) is a fascinating discussion of the history and variety of concepts of recognition in philosophy, from judgments of identification of things in general to Hegel’s ethical principle of mutual recognition. It is full of insightful remarks on the history of concepts of self, from Homer and Sophocles to Bergson and Husserl. I am myself especially interested in further progress that takes Hegel’s ethical principle as a starting point and is essentially unrelated to concerns of identification, but for its intended scope this is a fine study. Even recognition in the sense of identification turns out to be ramified in all sorts of interesting ways.

The introduction is devoted to a highly nuanced discussion of treatments of the word “recognition” in two large-scale French dictionaries that each included many literary citations, somewhat like the Oxford English Dictionary does. (Of course, as Ricoeur warned, lexicography does not directly translate into philosophy.) The 19th century Littré dictionary gave 23 distinct meanings for recognition, and attempted to show their interconnection in a “rule-based polysemy”. The 20th century Robert evinced a different theory of the interconnection of the different meanings. In both cases, a sort of lexicographical equivalent of the Thomistic doctrine of analogy seems to me to be at work, presenting the diverse meanings as unified after all, by means of a sort of ordered series.

The problem with such an emphasis on recovering unity through analogy is that it tends to reduce away the kind of non-univocity that Aristotle was so careful to point out. In the main body of the book, Ricoeur developed a similar ordered series from philosophical senses of recognition, attempting to connect the final ethical notion of mutual recognition back to purely cognitive or epistemic judgments of identity of things in general, using a discussion of what he calls self-recognition as a capable human being (via his notions of ipse identity and narrative identity of personal selves from Oneself as Another) as a sort of middle term to connect them. In the earlier book, narrative identity was itself supposed to be a sort of mean between the logical identity associated with sameness, on the one hand, and ethical notions of self-constancy and promise keeping that he developed there, on the other. (See also Solicitude.)

Although I think Ricoeur’s notions of self-constancy and promise-keeping are quite valuable and are indeed related to the ethical principle in mutual recognition, I would myself emphasize the difference between these concerns — which seem to pertain to the integrity of ethical beings — and concerns pertaining to the identification of individuals. One seems to address a kind of ethical substantiality associated with responsibility, whereas the other seems to address a kind of uniqueness. I don’t really see any mean between these, but rather an interweaving of strands that remain distinct. (But see Self, Infinity for a new insight on what Ricoeur was aiming at here.)

Nonetheless, the ramifications of the sense of “recognition” that starts from mere identification show how even a narrow concern with logical identity can be broadened in all sorts of unexpected ways. At the dictionary level, the ordered series progresses from recognition of sameness through various shadings of recognition of truth, then to various avowals and confessions, and finally to appreciation and gratitude.

The book’s main philosophical discussion moves from the technical role of an identity-related “synthesis of recognition” in Kant’s account of processes of synthesis, through the aforementioned discussion of notions of self, to an account of Hegelian mutual recognition as an alternative to Hobbes’ famous thesis of the state of nature as a war of all against all, and more positively in terms of Axel Honneth’s emphasis on an emergence of mutual recognition from an underlying “struggle” for recognition.

Ricoeur points out that even Descartes said judgments of identity are inseparable from judgments of difference. Augustine’s view of time as internal to the soul — in contrast to Aristotle, who associated time with a measure of externally perceptible change — is presented as a step toward modern forms of subjectivity, which Locke’s explicit association of personal identity with consciousness and continuity of memory is taken to successfully consummate, in spite of various paradoxes with which it is associated.

Historically this seems right, but to my surprise Ricoeur seems to have viewed it as progress toward a better understanding, whereas I see in early modernity an immense new confusion of subjectivity with selfhood that only began to be sorted out again with Kant and Hegel. “There is no doubt that we owe the decisive impulse in the direction of a what I propose calling hermeneutics of self to the Cartesian philosophy of the cogito and Locke’s theory of reflection” (p. 89; emphasis in original). I would agree as far as a decisive impulse in the direction of emphasis on self is concerned, but I think the confusion of subjectivity with selfhood has greatly impeded understanding of both. (See also Self, Subject.)

In this same context, Ricoeur speaks of Kant’s “effacement of ipseity in the treatment of moral autonomy” (p. 90). I would rather speak of his salutary separation of moral autonomy from notions of self. Moral autonomy is related to our integrity and substantiality as ethical beings — to what we really care about, specifically as made clear by how we show that care in our lives. Our ethical substance is actualized in the adverbial “how” of that care. Other biographical details that contribute to making us distinguishable from others are not really relevant to that.

I also think we love someone first of all in response to that “how” of their caring, and then because we love them for that, other details about them become dear to us.

Though broadly endorsing the ethical concept of mutual recognition, Ricoeur seems to have had a worry about its emphasis on reciprocity, related to his acceptance of Lévinas’ idea of an asymmetrical priority of the Other. I don’t understand this. Mutual recognition applies to relations between rational animals; it does not apply to the kind of relation to God that Lévinas often had in mind. It may well be appropriate to say that each participant should in various ways put consideration of the other before self, but in turn, the other should also do the same. An asymmetry in each direction is perfectly compatible with a symmetry between the directions.

Ricoeur did not live to see Brandom’s A Spirit of Trust, where the ethical concept of mutual recognition finally becomes a guiding criterion for judgment in general, and for the grounding of objectivity in general. I think he would have been highly intrigued by this landmark development. (See also Ricoeurian Ethics.)

Heidegger

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.)