Neoplatonic Critique of Identity?

A common theme of much 20th century continental philosophy was criticism of presumed identities of people and things. Writers like Theodor Adorno and Michel Foucault, to name but two, systematically questioned the role of identity in our understanding of the world. Edmund Husserl had recommended suspending judgments of existence in favor of the concrete description of essences; starting especially from a historiographical point of view, Foucault recommended suspension of judgments of pre-existing unity in favor of a concrete description of differences.

Later neoplatonism like that of Proclus (412-485 CE) is commonly associated with an extreme “realist” multiplication of metaphysical entities that implicitly had their own presupposed identities. The positive side of this is a rich view of differentiation metaphysically underpinning the diversity of concrete being. But the neoplatonic technical term hypostasis is the etymological source of our verb “to hypostasize”, which basically means to attempt to artificially impose more unity on something than it really has.

But especially if we go back to Plotinus (204/5 – 270 CE), and also in later authors, there is a strong strand of what might be called “negative henology” in neoplatonism. Plotinus was the main originator of so-called negative theology in the West. Negative theology indirectly gives meaning to the notion of transcendence by pointing out how every definite description falls short of adequately characterizing God. Hen is Greek for “one”, so by analogy with negative theology, a negative henology would be an account of how everything falls short of the pure unity of the One — in other words, how things that we think of as pre-existing unities are less unified than we suppose.

Hand in hand with this perspective comes the recognition that unity has many degrees. There are a few strong unities and many weak ones, and many degrees in between. As Plotinus recognized, nothing real has the pure unity of the One. (See also Power of the One?Plotinus Against the Gnostics; Subjectivity in Plotinus.)

The Act of Thought

Volume 3 part 1 of Alain de Libera’s Archéologie du sujet carries subtitles translating to The Act of Thought for volume 3 overall, and The Double Revolution for part 1. The cast of major characters will include Averroes, Aquinas, and the Scottish philosopher of common sense Thomas Reid (1710-1796). This tome is packed with extremely interesting material. It also appears to me to intersect with the important work of Gwenaëlle Aubry on the historical transformation of Aristotelian potentiality and actuality into a neoplatonic notion of power and a more modern notion of action. At the time part 1 was published (2014), part 2 was supposed to be a few months away, and de Libera announced titles for volumes 4 through 7. Instead, he has since published three volumes of related lectures at the College de France.

“The philosophers pose all sorts of questions concerning thought. Who thinks? Am I the author of my thoughts? What is the place of thought? What is its theater or its scene? In what way are the thoughts that come from me or that I have mine? Am I the owner of my thought? In sum: is it necessary to say ‘I think’ with Descartes, or ‘it thinks’ with [Belgian new wave musician] Plastic Bertrand, [and philosophers like] Lichtenberg, Schelling, and Schlick? It seems natural to us to believe that the act of thinking takes place in us. ‘Takes place‘ says a lot. That which takes place is [emphasis added]. Being is having a place of being — in other words: it is having (a) reason for being. But what takes place also happens. What takes place in us happens in us, is produced, is effectuated, is accomplished in us. What takes places in us is in us, in whatever way that it has being. It certainly seems natural to believe that since the act of thinking takes place in us, it begins and is completed in us. In us, that is to say in our soul (if we are religious), in our spirit (if we know the French for Mind), or in some part of us (if we [participated in the May 1968 Paris uprising]).”

“There is nothing ‘natural’ in all this. All these beliefs are cultural, and historically constructed. They are assimilated philosophical theses, philosophemes neither proven as such nor a fortiori proven as historical constructs, philosophemes (learned theorems, technical injunctions, theoretical words of order) lived without justification as immediate givens of consciousness, as a flower of experience” (p. 13, my translation throughout).

De Libera refers to very strong assertions by Thomas Reid about the common-sense character of all this. Reid explicitly refers to the mind as a subject. It was philosophers, de Libera says, “who decided that this, or that which thinks, was the SUBJECT of an act, the act of thinking. It was philosophers who decided on this subjective basis that this ‘that’ or this ‘it’ could be known as the author or the actor. They did this partly against Aristotle, and partly in the name of Aristotle….”

“The philosophical construction accounts for a fact of experience: we sense ourselves as the principle, that is to say also as the beginning, the point of departure… of our actions, notably, and very particularly of our thought. But exactly in accounting for this fact, the philosopher encodes it, and never ceases throughout history to re-encode it, to complicate it, to invest in it and reinvest in it linguistically, conceptually, argumentatively.”

‘Denomination’ is one of the keys of this code” (p. 15). “According to Reid, to say that an agent x acts on a thing y is to say that a power or force exercised by x produces or has a tendency to produce a change in y. What is particularly interesting for an archaeology of the subject-agent of thought is that this schema does not apply to perception” (p. 17).

According to Reid, when we perceive objects, the objects don’t act on the mind, and the mind doesn’t act on the objects. To be perceived is an external denomination. According to de Libera, in the language of the Latin scholastics, causal denomination finds its main application in the domain of action. An action denominates its agent causally, and not formally or extrinsically. On the other hand, extrinsic denomination applies perfectly to the ontological and noetic analysis of the object of thought.

For most of the scholastics, as for most modern people, the being-thought of a stone is real in the human, but is not real in the stone. But de Libera points out that the great Thomist Cajetan says about thought in the passive sense what Reid says about perception — both the stone and the thinker are only extrinsically denominated by the being-thought of the stone.

As de Libera points out, Averroes and his Latin followers have been understood as arguing that thinking is an extrinsic denomination of the human. “It requires a solid engagement with [Aristotle’s work on the soul] and its Greek, Arabic, Jewish, and Latin interpretive tradition to understand what this means” (p. 22).

Church councils in the 14th and 16th centuries upheld the opposing views of Aquinas as doctrinally correct. According to de Libera, this opened two paths, one leading to Descartes and the “Cartesian subject”, and the other leading to what he calls a Leibnizian notion of subject as the “thing underlying actions”. He says there is also a third path, leading from Averroes to Brentano, who reintroduced the scholastic notion of intentionality in the late 19th century. In this sense, he says the middle ages were more modern than we realize, and modernity is more medieval than we realize.

De Libera notes that Foucault ultimately derived his philosophical use of the word “archaeology” from Kant. Such archaeology is concerned with very Kantian “conditions of possibility”.

Taking the modern notion of “subject” at its point of emergence demands that we look back to the scholastic subjectum and “being in a subject” — not for the pleasure of returning to the middle ages, but in order to understand Descartes in context. It was not actually Descartes who was responsible for the transition from what Heidegger called “subjectity” (simply being a thing standing under something else) to the mental “subjectivity” of an ego.

Incidentally, de Libera points out one of the first uses of the word “subjective” in a modern sense in Martin Schoock, an early Dutch critic of Descartes who objected that Descartes reduced thought to something “subjective”. He quotes Schoock as saying “The reason Descartes brags about is not reason understood in a general sense, but in a subjective sense, that is to say the reason he can consider in himself” (p. 30).

Here I would note that in an interesting little meditation on Averroes called Je phantasme (“I imagine”), de Libera’s former student Jean-Baptiste Brenet points out that general Latin use of the verb cogitare referred primarily to operations of what in Aristotelian terms was called “inner sense”, as distinct from intelligere, which was the standard word for the “thinking” attributed to “intellect”.

(Inner sense is the closest Aristotelian analogue to what Locke more abstractly called “consciousness”. At least in the Arabic commentary tradition, it seems to involve several distinct faculties that all have what Aristotle and the scholastics following him called “imagination” as their common root. These are said to include what animals use in place of reason to make meaningful discriminations such as the nearness of danger, which is not actually given in external sense. Descartes’ own usage of cogito (first person singular of cogitare) basically covers all forms of awareness. It is a commonly repeated “Aristotelian” dictum that nothing comes to be in intellect without first coming to be in sense perception, but de Libera in an earlier volume pointed out that a more accurately Aristotelian version would be that nothing comes to be in intellect without some basis in imagination, and nothing comes to be in imagination without some basis in sense perception.)

Disambiguating “Power”

As Aristotle might remind us, “power” is said in many ways. Each of these is different.

There is the power that Plato suggests as a distinguishing mark of being in the Sophist. There is the greater power he attributes to the Good more ancient than being. There is Aristotelian potentiality, which I normally prefer to distinguish from “power” altogether, but is referred to by the same Greek word. There is the related notion of power as capacity, of the sort developed by Paul Ricoeur. There is efficient causality, itself said in many ways. There is physical force. There is legal or political authority. There are repressive apparatuses. There is the positive, distributed social power involved in the formation of selves, discussed by Michel Foucault. There is the artistic and inventive power with which Nietzsche was especially concerned. There are claims of supernatural power beyond possible human understanding.

I haven’t yet found where in her French text Gwenaëlle Aubry clarifies how her identification of Aristotle’s god with pure act — involving neither Aristotelian potentiality nor Platonic power — goes together with her identification of the efficacy of the pure act with a final causality realized through “potentiality as tendency toward the end”. I think this has to do with the pure act’s role as an end or attractor, so that the potentiality in question belongs to the things it attracts, rather than to Aristotle’s god. Aristotle’s god for Aubry is what might be called an “inspiring” or attracting cause rather than a ruler and a driving cause.

It seems to me that in order to even be intelligible, a power of any kind must be understood as having definite characteristics related to its efficacy. I therefore think “infinite power” is devoid of sense. Even the “omnipotent” God of Leibniz who selects the best of all possible worlds at the moment of creation only selects an inherent, coherently realizable possibility that is also in accordance with non-arbitrary criteria of goodness. He does not create arbitrarily.

The Dreaded Humanist Debate

In 1960s France, there was a huge controversy among philosophers and others over so-called “humanism”. Rhetoric was excessive and overheated on both sides of the debate, promoting unhealthy and shallow polarization, but the topics dealt with were of great importance.

To begin to understand the various positions on this, it is necessary to realize that connotations of the word “humanism” in this context were quite different from what is usual in English. The third meaning listed in Google’s dictionary result, attributed to “some contemporary writers”, does at least have the virtue of expressing a position in philosophical anthropology, which is what was at issue in the French debate (in contrast both to Renaissance literary humanism and to explicitly nonreligious approaches to values).

Europe has an old tradition of self-identified Christian humanism. After the publication of Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts in the 1930s, non-Stalinist Marxists began talking about a Marxist humanism. In France after World War II, even the Stalinists wanted to claim the title of humanist. In his famous 1945 lecture “Existentialism is a Humanism”, the notoriously anti-religious and individualistic writer Jean-Paul Sartre surprised some people by placing his existentialism under a common “humanist” banner with Christians and Stalinists. What they all wanted to assert under the name of humanism was a particular view of what it is to be a human, emphasizing the centrality of free will and consciousness, and identifying humanness with being a Subject.

In the 1960s, these views were sharply criticized by people loosely associated with so-called “structuralism”, including Foucault, Althusser, and Lacan. The “structuralist” views denied strong claims of a unitary Subject of knowledge and action; rejected any unconditional free will; and took a deflationary approach to consciousness. Sartre and others launched vehement counter-attacks, and the debate degenerated into little better than name-calling on both sides.

In my youth, I was exposed first to views from the “humanist” side, and accepted them. Then I became aware of the “structuralist” alternative, and for a while became its zealous partisan.

In the Odyssey, Odysseus had to navigate between the twin hazards of Scylla and Charybdis. Since the millenium, I have emphasized a sort of middle way between “humanism” and “structuralism” — inspired especially by Aristotle and Brandom, and now with added support from Ricoeur.

Now I want to say, there is no Subject with a capital “S”, but I am highly interested in the details of subjectivity. There is no unconditional free will (and I even doubt the existence of a separate faculty of “will” distinct from reason and desire), but I am highly interested in voluntary action as discussed, e.g., by Aristotle and Ricoeur. I prefer to sharply distinguish apparently immediate “consciousness” from other-oriented, mediate, reflexive “self-consciousness”, putting most of the philosophical weight on the latter.

Narrative Identity, Substance

Narrative identity for Ricoeur is intended as a kind of mean between ordinary logical identity or sameness, which he calls idem identity, and a kind of mediated reflexivity, which he calls ipse identity. Ordinary logical identity is rigid and static, but worse than that, it is often taken for granted. On the cutting edge of its home ground of mathematics, however, it has become recognized that criteria for logical identity of each type of thing need to be explicitly defined. Logical identity then effectively reduces to isomorphism. Sameness effectively reduces to sameness of form, and Leibniz’s thesis of the indiscernability of indiscernability and identity is vindicated.

I have argued, however, that Aristotle’s notion of identity as applied to so-called “substance” not only implicitly anticipates this thesis of Leibniz, but also ultimately circumscribes it with a further processual dimension accommodating continuity through change over time. Independent of the considerations of narrative developed by Ricoeur but potentially interpretable in similar terms, the “identity” of a “substance” for Aristotle is already extended to continuity through change. This kind of situationally appropriate, delimited relaxation of identity criteria allows Aristotle to accommodate “realistic” nuances in the application of common-sense reasoning or material inference that cannot be justified by purely formal logic. Judgments of real-world “identity” are practical judgments, with all the usual caveats.

While Aristotle was very process-oriented, the processes with which he was concerned were short- and medium-term processes, generally not extending beyond the scope of a life. History for Aristotle is mainly an accumulation of accidents, and thus in Aristotle’s sense intelligible mainly in the register of materiality. To the extent that he thinks about history, he treats it in terms of delimited “histories” rather than an enveloping “History”.

Within that accumulation of accidents, however, we can potentially explicate other levels Aristotle left unexplored, like Ricoeur’s historical explanation or Foucault’s “archaeology”. Foucault developed a meta-level account aimed at articulating underlying forms implicit in something like Aristotle’s delimited accumulations of accidents, while I think that after the detour of historical explanation, Ricoeur ultimately wanted to cultivate signposts for an enveloping “History” as metaphors expressing a broader “meaning of life”. In a very general way, Ricoeur’s aim thus resembles Brandom’s “Hegelian genealogy”.

Ricoeur on Foucault

I still vividly recall the moment over 40 years ago when the sharp questioning of unities of all kinds in the preface and first chapter of Michel Foucault’s 1969 work The Archaeology of Knowledge very suddenly awoke me from erstwhile slumber in neoplatonic dreams about the One. Today I would say Foucault like many others was terribly wrong in his reading of Hegel, but I still look on that text as a sort of manifesto of historical method. As Aristotle too might remind us, distinctions are essential to intelligibility and understanding.

Just this year, the work of Paul Ricoeur has become very significant to me. Ricoeur expressed admiration for Foucault’s late work The Care of the Self, but in both volume 3 of Time and Narrative and his late work Memory, History, Forgetting, he criticized The Archaeology of Knowledge rather severely.

Ricoeur did not object to Foucault’s emphasis on discontinuities in (the field Foucault did not want to call) the history of ideas, but rather to Foucault’s closely related polemic against the subordination of such discontinuities to an encompassing continuity of historical “consciousness”, and to his further association of the idea of an encompassing continuity of consciousness with the would-be mastery of meaning by a putatively purely constitutive Subject. Ricoeur as much as Foucault objected to such notions of Mastery, but he still wanted to articulate a kind of narrative continuity of what he still wanted to call consciousness.

Ricoeur scholar Johann Michel in his book Ricoeur and the Post-Structuralists agrees that “the subject” for Ricoeur is far from purely constitutive, and “in reality, is not a subject in the substantialist sense” (p. 107). Rather, it is mediate, and only understandable via a long detour through cultural objectifications. As Ricoeur says, consciousness is “affected by the efficacity of history” (Time and Narrative vol. 3, p. 217). “We are only the agents of history insofar as we also suffer it” (ibid, p. 216). Ricoeur’s suffering-as-well-as-acting “subject” gives very different meaning to this highly ambiguous term from the kind of voluntaristic agency attributed to the Cogito by Descartes, and Ricoeur’s “consciousness” is very far from the notion of immediate “consciousness” classically formulated by Locke. I prefer to avoid confusion by using different vocabulary, but agree that the notions Ricoeur wanted to defend are quite different from those Foucault wanted to criticize.

This leaves the question of the relative priority of continuity and discontinuity. Foucault in his Archaeology phase advocated a method grounded in the conceptual priority of discontinuities of meaning, while Ricoeur wanted to give discontinuity an important subordinate role in an approach dedicated to recovering a continuity of consciousness. In my own current Aristotelian phase, I want to emphasize a view that is reconciling like Ricoeur’s, but still puts the accent on discontinuity like Foucault’s. My historiographical notes both tell stories and offer explanations somewhat in the way that Ricoeur advocated, and emphasize the differences and discontinuities favored by Foucault.

Ricoeur also seems to have been troubled by Foucault’s disinterest in what Ricoeur calls the “first-order entities” (p. 218) of history — actual communities, nations, civilizations, etc. (I would note that he is not using “first order” in the logical sense, which is a purely syntactic criterion; he just wants to suggest that these kinds of things are more methodologically primitive for historical inquiry.) I actually think apprehension of something like form comes before apprehension of any substantialized “things”, so my sympathy is more with Foucault on this point. Undoubtedly Ricoeur would say these have a narrative identity rather than a substantial one, which seems fine in itself, but I think any narrative identity must be a tentative result and not a methodological primitive.

Ultimately, I think Ricoeur was motivated by an ethical desire to put people first — a concern Foucault did not make clear he actually shared until The Care of the Self. Ricoeur would also agree, though, that historiography is not simply reducible to ethics, but has largely independent concerns of its own. He seems to have wanted to say that the history of ideas is fundamentally a history of people. I’m a pluralist, so I have no objection to this sort of account as one alternative, but I think people’s commitments tell us who they are more than who holds a commitment tells us about the commitment. I also think higher-order things come before first-order things, and that people are better thought of as singular higher-order trajectories of ways of being throughout a life than as first-order entities. Ricoeur, I believe, was reaching for something like this with his notion of narrative (as opposed to substantial) identity, which I would rather call something other than identity.

Archaeology of the Subject

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

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

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

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

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

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


Michel Foucault (1926-84) played a very great role in developing approaches to subjectivity as something that is constituted, rather than pre-existing or only one-sidedly constitutive. Despite some nontrivial issues with things he said at different times, this seems like a major contribution. In his later work, he also emphasized that people actively participate in the constitution of their own subjectivity. Foucault was not only a brilliant theorist, but often expressed his ideas in beautiful, sparkling prose.

I see his focus on the constitution of subjectivity itself as an invaluable and necessary complement to the notion of a constituting subjectivity, as exemplified by, e.g., Kantian synthesis.

Much of Foucault’s work tended to fit the common trope of a “hermeneutics of suspicion” — pointing out how liberal reforms actually implemented more efficient strategies of social control, and so on. Unlike most of the people who use this phrase, I think this sort of “suspicion” of usual assumptions can play an invaluable critical role. However, I agree it can also be taken too far.

For example, received truths may turn out to be mere prejudice, and the notion of truth itself may turn out to have been naively hypostasized in many instances. But it is going too far to say — as Foucault did on several occasions — that truth and knowledge as such are inevitably caught up in strategies of domination, or — as Nietzsche and Foucault both did — that there really is no Platonic truth. In matters like this, we need an Aristotelian mean that avoids both naivete and cynicism.

I always preferred to pay more attention to Foucault’s practical multiplication of articulable differences, distinctions, and discontinuities in his historiography than to his negative rhetoric about truth and knowledge in general. During his earlier “archaeological” period, which greatly impressed me in my youth, this multiplication of articulable differences was the positive side of his questioning of too-easy unities, identities, and continuities in history.

In his later work, he developed a distinctive theory of power in society, treating it as distributed everywhere at a micro level, rather than emanating from a central authority. On a practical level, this seems to me to contain valuable lessons, although it also seems to play on an ambiguity between power as capability and power as domination. (It is easy to see that power as capability is ubiquitous, and illuminating to think of how what are really modes of control may be actualized at a micro level. But capabilities and modes of control, while they are both distributed, are two different things that cannot be just identified or assumed to have the same distribution.)

He also pointed out how control can be effectuated through the very formation and self-formation of people and things, without the overt involvement of any sort of repression or repressive apparatus. This seems like another important insight.

Foucault was much influenced by the philosopher of science Georges Canguilhem’s investigations of the concept of normality in biology and medicine, which highlighted the importance of pathology for an understanding of normality. (It also appears that within the French context, the term “normativity” has strong connotations of mere empirical “normality” and conformity, in sharp contrast to its value-oriented significance in analytic philosophy and my own usage.) Foucault himself had a sort of fascination with what sociologists call deviance, and a bit of a morbid streak that I never liked.

The discursive regularities he analyzed in his earlier work represent a kind of empirical “normality” rather than an ethical normativity. Again, these are two entirely different concepts.

In Aristotelian terms, discursive regularities fall under the domain of “art” or technique, rather than that of ethos. Technique is the canonical example of an Aristotelian means or efficient cause (not to be confused with later notions of impulse, or a scholastic act of creation). As efficient causes, Foucaultian discursive regularities operate under the mode of actuality. (Ethical normativity, by contrast, involves derived ends considered under the mode of potentiality.)

Foucault’s “archaeological” method can be seen as a specialized historiographical application of what I have been calling Aristotelian semantics, concerned with fine distinctions in the ways things actually said might be meant, as well as of Aristotelian dialectic, concerned with making the practical consequences of those distinctions explicit. (See also Empirical-Transcendental Doublet; Archaeology of Knowledge; Ricoeur on Foucault; Genealogy; Immediacy, Presence.)

Archaeology of Knowledge

In the old days, my favorite text of Foucault was the beginning of the Archaeology of Knowledge (online here), revised from his “Réponse au Cercle d’épistémologie”, published summer 1968 (o pregnant time!) in Cahiers pour L’Analyse, the original of which is separately translated in Essential Works vol. 1. There is a nice summary of the original and its historical context here.

At this time, Foucault and Althusser were both working toward what has been called a rationalist philosophy of the Concept related to the work of Jean Cavaillés and Georges Canguilhem, in contrast to then popular existential/phenomenological philosophies of the Subject. (See Knox Peden, Spinoza Contra Phenomenology: French Rationalism from Cavaillés to Deleuze.)

The Epistemological Circle that Foucault was responding to was a group of Althusser’s students interested in the philosophy and history of science, as well as structural Marxism and Lacanian psychoanalysis, who had asked Foucault a series of methodological questions. Althusser was something like the dean of France’s most prestigious university. He had actually written his dissertation (which I have still not seen) on the Concept in Hegel. By this time he was in high anti-Hegelian mode, as was Foucault.

Foucault himself acknowledged considerable debt to his Hegelian mentor Jean Hyppolite, who translated the Phenomenology to French. Hyppolite read Hegel as focused more on discourse than on subjectivity. His 1952 Language and Existence, referred to by Foucault as “one of the great books of our time”, argued strongly for the importance of language in Hegel. (It was also very favorably reviewed by the young Deleuze.) Foucault had written a thesis on “The Constitution of a Historical Transcendental in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit” under Hyppolite in 1949.

There is more good historical background in James Muldoon, “Foucault’s Forgotten Hegelianism”. While I don’t endorse, e.g., Muldoon’s remarks on Hegel and free will, his suggestion that an identification with certain specifics of Hyppolite’s reading of Hegel — particularly the attribution of a strong “totalizing” impulse — contributed significantly to the anti-Hegelian turn of Foucault and others is quite interesting.

Though I don’t recall this from his translated works, Hyppolite apparently both saw a strong element of totalization in Hegel and strongly rejected it, while continuing to identify as a Hegelian. (Previously, in absence of more specific evidence I had surmised it was mainly a reaction against Alexandre Kojève’s reading that drove the French anti-Hegelian turn. Muldoon also says Hyppolite’s reading was initially welcomed as a contrast to Jean Wahl’s more phenomenologically oriented 1929 book on the unhappy consciousness, which apparently also contributed to French perceptions of Hegel as subject-centered.)

In any case, the Hegel whom Foucault, Althusser, Deleuze and others famously rejected in the 1960s was identified as the proponent of a totalizing historical teleology of the Subject. Each of the three components of this was independently strongly rejected — the subject-centeredness, the historical teleology, and the totalization. I still agree today that these are all serious errors that should be rejected.

However, Hegel read in a broadly Brandomian way is utterly untouched by this criticism. There is no historical teleology at all in what Brandom calls Hegelian genealogy (so a fortiori not a totalizing one), and there is no subject-centeredness in the analysis of conceptual content. Subjectivity is never invoked as an unexplained explainer. Brandom’s exposition of the Hegelian critique of Mastery offers us a Hegel utterly opposed to the kind of totalization attributed to him by Foucault, Althusser, and Deleuze.

Foucault presented a long list of forms of discontinuity that should be attended to in the history of ideas. Each of these could be analyzed in Brandomian/Hegelian terms as a determinate negation.

I agree with Foucault that it is very important not to take the simple continuity of a tradition for granted. In principle, such things need to be shown. However, I still think defeasible assertions about “traditions” and other such unities that should be questioned can play a useful role in historical discussion. (See also Ricoeur on Foucault; Structuralism; Structure, Potentiality; Difference; Identity, Isomorphism; Univocity; Historiography; Genealogy.)


Aside from the critique of immediacy, one of the things that initially attracted me to the first web draft of Spirit of Trust was the discussion of edelmütig (noble-spirited) and niederträchtig (denigrating) attitudes, now concentrated in chapter 15. Though moderately acquainted with earlier sections, I had not yet grasped much of this part of Hegel’s Phenomenology in the original, so it was all new to me. I then read the view Brandom attributed to Hegel as an interesting anticipation of Nietzsche‘s critique of ressentiment. The published version, however, has a significant negative mention of Nietzsche (along with Marx, Freud, and Foucault).

The sense, especially of Hegel’s contrasting pole, is superficially quite different from Nietzsche’s, stressing what Hegel and Brandom call “Forgiveness” and I call interpretive charity, whereas Nietzsche starts from what he takes to be a sort of ideal type of an ancient aristocrat, and notoriously portrays this character as in a sense more hard-hearted than sympathetic. I never liked that particular aspect of Nietzsche, or the way he assimilates Plato to later religious attitudes I see as quite different. But there is a huge literature dispelling all the crude stereotypes of the hard-hearted Nietzsche that are abetted by some of his surface rhetoric. And even if Nietzsche avoided the Christian-sounding word “forgiveness” in favor of something like active forgetting, the essence of the ressentiment he is concerned to reject is holding grudges. Not holding grudges seems a lot like forgiveness. And referentially, Niederträchtigkeit overall still seems to me to pick out about the same characters as ressentiment.

Brandom is especially concerned to pick out the reductive naturalism of a preoccupation with causes of behavior at the expense of considering reasons for it as niederträchtig. This is a much more specialized focus. But reductive naturalism does unfortunately still carry a lot of weight today, and it does characterize numerous elements of Hegel’s account of the valet’s attitude.

In a passing remark, Nietzsche, Marx, Freud, and Foucault are all said to share the niederträchtig attitude. Here I must part company. This sounds like the old “masters of suspicion” stereotype, which I have never considered well-founded. I don’t believe any of them intended to denigrate persons or to circumvent rational argument. They developed new forms of understanding (in the ordinary not the Hegelian sense). Especially in the case of Nietzsche, the great critic of ressentiment, and really for any such intellectual pioneer, the burden of proof for attributing Niederträchtigkeit should be quite high. (See Nietzsche, Ethics, Historiography; Interpretive Charity; Honesty, Kindness; Intellectual Virtue, Love; Robust Recognition.)

As much as I also want to defend the rights and place of reason more strongly than Nietzsche, Marx, Freud, or Foucault did, I don’t see any of them as wanting to simply replace explanation by reasons with explanation by causes the way Brandom says. (Spinoza in his account of human behavior and emotions seems to me closer to actually doing this, but still gets positive treatment in Tales of the Mighty Dead, as he should.)

Nietzsche, Marx, Freud, and Foucault challenged not Reason but rather the claims of what Hegel called Mastery, the nonrelation of which to Reason Brandom has done so much to make explicit. I don’t think any of them stand philosophically on the level of Aristotle or Hegel or Brandom, but they all had important things to say, deserving of far more than one-line dismissals. Marx and Freud did talk about causes, but they both also put a strong value on rationality. Nietzsche especially stresses what Aristotle would call character as a conditioning factor on reason. Foucault talks a lot about historical forms of rationality. Though analyzable in terms of determinate negation, his metaphorical “archaeology” was light-years away from an expressive recollection. But real history is not Whiggish, and at some point we need to address it.

I can recognize Brandom’s description of Whiggish recollective expressive genealogy in my own various attempts at intellectual autobiography. Brandom points out that Hegel’s lectures on philosophy of history, art, and religion also practice this kind of genealogy. (Bad histories of science do too, but I am not sure that is a recommendation.) I cannot guess what if any consequences Brandom sees for general historiography, or even the history of philosophy. But I think we also need to attempt unfiltered, non-Whiggish accounts.

He does clearly say that something that got filtered out in one Whiggish account may become relevant again in another. This would also suggest that attempting to work at the unfiltered level has some importance. (See also Mutual Recognition; Immediacy, Presence; Structuralism; Difference; Affirmation.)