On a Philosophical Grammar

It seems like a good time to get back to a bit more detail on Alain de Libera’s “archaeology of the subject”, which I introduced a while back. Volume 1 is subtitled Naissance du sujet or “Birth of the Subject”. He begins with a series of questions asked by Vincent Descombes in a review of Paul Ricoeur’s Oneself as Another:

“1) What remarkable differences are there, from the point of view of use, between these words which we place too lazily in a single category of personal pronouns (and particularly here I, he, me, him, her, oneself)?

“2) What is the status of intentions to act? Are they first properties of the agent?

“3) Should we distinguish, as Ricoeur proposes, two concepts of identity, identity as sameness (idem) and identity as ipseity [“selfness”] (ipse)?

“4) What is this self that figures in the expression self-awareness?” (Archéologie du sujet vol. 1, p. 31).

The birth of the subject in the modern sense is what de Libera will investigate. He aims to show how “the Aristotelian ‘subject’ [hypokeimenon, or thing standing under] became the subject-agent of the moderns in becoming a kind of substrate for acts and operations” (p. 39). He quotes a famous passage from Nietzsche denouncing the “grammatical superstition” of the logicians who assume that wherever there is a predicate for an activity such as thinking, there must be something corresponding to a grammatical subject that performs it. Nietzsche says that a thought comes when it wants, not when I want.

De Libera asks, “How did the thinking subject, or if one prefers, man as subject and agent of thought, first enter into philosophy? And why?” (pp. 45-46). He points out the simple fact that a grammatical subject need not be an agent, as when we say “the boy’s timidity made him afraid”. He quotes Frédéric Nef to the effect that action is not a grammatical category. How then did “the subject” become bound up with agency?

He notes that something like this is already at play in Aquinas’ Disputed Questions on the Soul, when Aquinas develops the notion of a “subject of operation” related to sensibility, associating the subject of an action or passion with a power of the soul. How, de Libera asks, did we come to assume that every action requires “an agent that is a subject” and “a subject that is its agent” (p. 58)? (See also Not Power and Action.)

He will be looking for medieval roots of notions that most people, following Heidegger, consider to be innovations of Descartes. Meanwhile, de Libera recalls that Augustine had gone so far as to label it blasphemy to call the soul a “subject”. Knowledge and love, Augustine said, are not in the mind as in a subject.


It is extremely common to see references to “predication” as if it were a central concept of Aristotelian logic. We are so used to a grammatical interpretation in terms of relations between subjects and predicates that it is hard to disengage from that. However, historically it was Aristotelian logic that influenced ancient Greek accounts of grammar, not vice versa.

Modern logicians distinguish between a neutral proposition — which might be merely mentioned, rather than asserted — and the assertion of the proposition. Grammatical predication in itself does not imply any logical assertion, only a normatively neutral syntactic relation between sentence components. But “said of” in Aristotle always refers to some kind of meaningful assertion that has a normative character, not to grammatical predication.

Aristotle talks about what we might call kinds of “sayables” (“categories”). He famously says that we can only have truth or falsity when one kind of sayable is “said of” another. Mere words or phrases by themselves don’t assert anything, and hence cannot be true or false; for that we need what modern writers have referred to as a “complete thought”.

The ordinary meaning of “to categorize” in ancient Greek was “to accuse in a court of law”. Aristotle used it to talk about assertions. It didn’t originally connote a classification. The modern connotation of classification seems to stem from the accident that independent of what “category” meant in his usage, Aristotle famously developed a classification of “categories”.

Aristotle also talks about logical “judgment” (apophansis, a different word from practical judgment or phronesis). Husserl for instance transliterated this to German, and followed the traditional association of logical judgment with “predication”. But the ordinary Greek verb apophainein just means to show or make known. Aristotle’s usage suggests a kind of definite assertion or expressive clarification related to demonstration, which makes sense, because demonstrations work by interrelating logical judgments.

All of Aristotle’s words and phrases that get translated with connotations of “predication” actually have to do with normative logical assertion, not any connecting of a grammatical subject with a grammatical predicate. Nietzsche and others have complained about the metaphysical status foisted on grammatical subjects, implicitly blaming Aristotle, but all these connotations are of later date.

The great 20th century scholar of ancient and medieval logic and semantics L. M. de Rijk in his Aristotle: Semantics and Ontology (2002) argued at length that Aristotle’s logical “is” and “is not” should be understood as not as binary operators connecting subjects and predicates, but as unary operators of assertion and negation on whole propositions formed from pairs of terms. (See also Aristotelian Propositions.)

As in similar cases, by no means do I wish to suggest that all the work done on the basis of the common translation of “predication” is valueless; far from it. But I think we can get additional clarity by carefully distinguishing the views and modes of expression of Aristotle himself from those of later commentators and logicians, and I think Aristotle’s own more unique perspectives are far fresher and more interesting than even good traditional readings would allow.

Ideas Are Not Inert

In the British empiricist tradition, “ideas” are supposed to be inert contents of an active “mind”, and to be either identical with sensible contents or derived from sensory experience. They are supposed to have content that just “is what it is”, but is nonetheless sufficient to serve as a basis for our conclusions and motivations.

I want to argue instead that the only possible basis for our conclusions and motivations is other conclusions and motivations. As individuals we always start in the middle, with some already existing conclusions and motivations that were not necessarily individually ours to begin with. Language and culture and upbringing provide us with a stock of pre-existing conclusions and particularly shaped motivations.

Further, I don’t see ideas as inert. The notion that ideas are completely inert comes from an extreme polarization between active mind and passive idea that results from entirely subordinating this relation to the grammatical model of subject and predicate. Aristotle’s rather minimalist account of these matters effectively treats objects and ideas as having some activity of their own. For Aristotle, “we” do not hold a monopoly on activity. There is also activity in the world that is independent of us, and much of our activity is our particular reflection of the world’s activity. Indeed for Aristotle I take it to be thought rather than an assumed “thinker” that is primarily active.

Hegel has often been criticized for speaking as if “the Idea” had life of its own, independent of us humans. If one holds an empiricist view of ideas, this can only sound like nonsense, or some kind of animism. But with an Aristotelian view of thoughts as a kind of intrinsically active “contents”, that is not the case. If thoughts are intrinsically active, we need not posit a separate mental “subject” distinct from any actual thought or perception or content as the source of all activity, behind thought.

Plato compared the human soul to a city — a kind of unity to be sure, but a weak one consisting of a federated community and relatively specific “culture” of thoughts and perceptions, subject to varying degrees of coherence. Only under the influence of later theology did it come to be assumed that the soul must necessarily have the far stronger unity of a simple substance. A looser unity of the soul is very compatible with a view of thoughts and perceptions as multiple fibers of activity, from which the overall activity we attribute to the soul or mind is constituted.


Aristotle invented logic as a discipline, and in Prior Analytics developed a detailed theory of so-called syllogisms to codify deductive reasoning, which also marks the beginning of formalization in logic. Although there actually were interesting developments in the European middle ages with the theory of so-called supposition as a kind of semi-formal semantics, Kant famously said Aristotle had said all there was to say about logic, and this went undisputed until the time of Boole and De Morgan in the mid-19th century. Boole himself said he was only extending Aristotle’s theory.

The fundamental principle of syllogistic reasoning is best understood as a kind of function composition. Aristotle himself did not have the concept of a mathematical function, which we owe mainly to Leibniz, but he clearly used a concept of composition of things we can recognize as function-like. In the late 19th century, Frege pointed out that the logical meaning of grammatical predication in ordinary language can be considered as a kind of function application.

Aristotle’s syllogisms were expressed in natural language, but in order to focus attention on their form, he often substituted letters for concrete terms. The fundamental pattern is

(quantifier A) op B
(quantifier B) op C
Therefore, A op C

where each instance of “quantifier” is either “some” or “all”; each instance of “op” is either what Aristotle called “combination” or “separation”, conventionally represented in natural language by “is” or “is not”; and each letter is a type aka “universal” aka higher-order term. (In the middle ages and later, individuals were treated as a kind of singleton types with implicit universal quantification, so it is common to see examples like “Socrates is a human”, but Aristotle’s own concrete examples never included references to individuals.) Not all combinations of substitutions correspond to valid inferences, but Prior Analytics systematically described all the valid ones.

In traditional interpretations, Aristotle’s use of conventionalized natural language representations sometimes led to analyses of the “op” emphasizing grammatical relations between subjects and predicates. However, Aristotle did not concern himself with grammar, but with the more substantive meaning of (possibly negated) “said of” relations, which actually codify normative material inferences. His logic is thus a fascinating hybrid, in which each canonical proposition represents a normative judgment of a material-inferential relation between types, and then the representations are formally composed together.

The conclusion B of the first material inference, which is also the premise of the second, was traditionally called the “middle term”, the role of which in reasoning through its licensing of composition lies behind all of Hegel’s talk about mediation. The 20th century saw the development of category theory, which explains all mathematical reasoning and formal logic in terms of the composition of “morphisms” or “arrows” corresponding to primitive function- or inference-like things. Aside from many applications in computer science and physics, category theory has also been used to analyze grammar. The historical relation of Aristotle to the Greek grammarians goes in the same direction — Aristotle influenced the grammarians, not the other way around. (See also Searching for a Middle Term; Aristotelian Demonstration; Demonstrative “Science”?)