The Andalusian Arab Ibn Rushd (1126-1198 CE), known to the Latins as Averroes, was the most highly regarded commentator on Aristotle in the medieval and Renaissance Latin- and Hebrew-speaking worlds. Many of Aristotle’s central works first became available in Latin due to the translation of commentaries by Averroes that included Aristotle’s full text. In the early 14th century, the pope directed that European universities should teach Aristotle from the commentaries of Averroes, except where the opinions of “the Commentator” contradicted Christian faith. The first printed editions of Aristotle in the Renaissance were actually editions of Averroes with the works of Aristotle embedded in them.

Averroes was an Islamic judge in the Maliki tradition, and also an important medical authority. He maintained that philosophy and Islam taught the same truth in different ways. In addition to commentaries on Aristotle and works on law and medicine, he wrote several works on religion, and a short commentary on Plato’s Republic. The voluntaristic Sunni theologian al-Ghazali had written an influential denunciation of philosophy, which Averroes famously refuted in his Incoherence of the Incoherence. For most of his life he enjoyed the patronage of the Almohad caliphate, which controlled southern Spain and northwest Africa, but the situation was tenuous. Further East, the the Islamic Golden Age’s marvelous flowering of all sorts of learning and popular interest in “ancient wisdom” had already passed, as religious conservatives acquired greater influence.

As a reader of Aristotle, Averroes contributed greatly to distinguishing Aristotle’s own thought from that of the neoplatonically influenced commentary tradition. Though he only had access to Arabic translations of Syriac translations of the Greek, he did an amazing job of close textual analysis, comparing different translations of the same work to get better insight. He still inherited al-Farabi’s over-emphasis on demonstrative “science”, underestimation of the place of dialectic in Aristotle’s thought, and privileging of theory over practical ethical judgment, but on countless other points promoted textually sound and interesting readings of Aristotle’s works.

I feel a little guilty for perpetuating the Western obsession with a very narrow if important strand of his thought, concerned with his unique views on the nature of “intellect”, but I don’t read Arabic and my Latin is very poor, so my acquaintance is mainly based on sources in modern European languages. I also find the whole debate about intellect fascinating in its own right. (See also “This Human Understands”; “This Human”, Again; Averroes as Read by de Libera; Fortunes of Aristotle; Errors of the Philosophers; 1277.)

“Western Metaphysics”?

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

Memory, History, Forgetting

I’ll be devoting several upcoming posts to Paul Ricoeur’s last big book Memory, History, Forgetting (French ed. 2000), to which I just added a reference in I-Thou, I-We. This work weaves fascinating discussions of memory and forgetting as well as more explicitly ethical considerations into the results of Ricoeur’s earlier Time and Narrative, to which I devoted an eight-part series, culminating in the post Narrated Time. Near the beginning, Augustine and Husserl’s more specific discussions of memory are incorporated and reflected upon. Husserl’s “egological” view is criticized after a sympathetic interpretation, and Ricoeur develops an important critique of Locke’s influential views on memory and personal identity. The middle of the book further develops Ricoeur’s thought on the writing of history. At the end, there is a long meditation on forgiveness.

Modernity, Voluntarism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Ricoeur on Historiography

The overarching objective of part 2 of the first volume of Ricoeur’s Time and Narrative is to show that it is indeed plausible to apply a literature-based notion of narrative to the writing of history. This has to be distinguished, however, from a naive notion of “narrative history”.

With his usual honesty, he dwells at length on two major trends in historiography that are typically understood to be completely opposed to a narrative approach — the French Annales school, and work derived from logical positivism. He then builds a case that in spite of everything, there is an essential narrative aspect to history, even if it is only indirect.

Ricoeur sagely observes that debates on historiography often end up in the same philosophical territory as the Latin medieval debates on nominalism and realism. He says he will apply the later Husserl’s concept of “questioning back”, concerned more with the genesis of meaning than with epistemology, to uncover the intentionality of historical knowledge.

The French Annales school is famous for emphasizing long periods in history rather than episodic events, and economics, “mentalities”, and cultural practices over the superficial drama of politics and actions of individuals. Even though he ultimately wants to push this meta-level interpretation in a different direction, Ricoeur dwells at length on his admiration for their achievements. I am myself quite sympathetic to an approach to history broadly of this sort.

From the seemingly unpromising ground of the approach to history that developed from the logical positivism of the Vienna Circle, he extracts the idea of what he calls, following Bachelard, an epistemological break between simple narrative and historical explanation. Historical explanation has goals of objective truth that do not apply to literature. Ricoeur says the break opened up by an emphasis on explanation is real and should be maintained, even if we end up deploying a very different kind of explanation from what those influenced by logical positivism had in mind.

He also discusses the work of Max Weber, Raymond Aron, and Hayden White.

Weber propounded a notion of what Ricoeur calls singular causal imputation in history that is worlds apart from the positivist “covering law” approach of Hempel, which looked for something analogous to mathematical-physical laws in sociology to explain history. Looking for the “adequate” cause of a singular development requires an extensive interpretive effort (Weber’s famous Verstehen method for the human sciences). Weber’s analysis of the relation between Protestantism and capitalism developed a large-scale singular causal chain that involved roles, attitudes, and institutions rather than individuals. Such imputations of cause for large-scale singular things must necessarily consider many dimensions, and many contingent developments. This reminds me of my own characterization of Aristotelian causality.

Raymond Aron famously applied to history what I would call the Kantian point that, as Ricoeur puts it, “Understanding — even the understanding of another person in everyday life — is never a direct intuition but always a reconstruction” (p. 97). No such thing as a historical reality exists ready-made. Historical explanation involves real work.

Ricoeur calls Hayden White’s Metahistory a “poetics” of historiography. White wrote at length about historical “explanation by emplotment”.

Ricoeur refers to the historian’s credo of objectivity as “a secret dream of emulating the cartographer or the diamond cutter” (p. 176) “[T]he facts dealt with in historical works, when they are taken one at a time, interlock with one another in the manner of geographical maps, if the same rules of projection and scale are respected, or, yet again, like the different facets of the same precious stone…. The final corollary is that, precisely because history has objectivity as a project, it can pose the limits of objectivity as a specific problem. This question is foreign to the innocence and naivete of the narrator” (ibid).

“[H]istory replaces the subject of action with entities that are anonymous, in the strict sense of the term…. This new history thus seems to lack characters. And without characters, it could not continue to be narrative…. It no longer seems to refer to the living present of a subjective consciousness…. [The] ‘times of history’, to use Braudel’s expression, seem to be without any apparent relation to the time of action…. [This heightens] the necessity for a new type of dialectic between historical inquiry and narrative competence” (p. 177).

However, criticism of the “covering law” model has already led to a “diversification of explanation that makes it less foreign to narrative understanding, without thereby denying the explanatory vocation” (p. 178). Meanwhile, “to narrate is already to explain…. [and] narrative is in no way bound to the confused and limited perspective of the agents and the eye-witnesses of the events” (ibid).

Ricoeur says that narrative cannot replace an explanatory approach to history. “This question must be unreservedly answered in the negative. A gap remains between narrative explanation and historical explanation, a gap that is inquiry as such. This gap prevents us from treating history… as a species of the genus ‘story'” (p. 179). History has its own explanatory procedures, its own “first order entities”, and its own time, or rather plurality of times.

He argues, however, that “the paradox of historical knowledge… transposes onto a higher level of complexity the paradox constitutive of the operation of narrative configuration” (p. 180). The first-order entities of history will turn out to be quasi-characters that “bear the indelible mark of concrete agents’ participatory belonging to the sphere of praxis and narrative” (p. 181). Weber’s notion of adequate singular causal imputation, he suggests, “constitutes the requisite mediation between the opposing poles of explanation and understanding” (ibid). The kind of contingency built into what Ricoeur now calls “historical causality” would prevent any historical determinism. Historical causality will mediate between narrative explanation and explanation by law.

Ricoeur thinks apparently non-narrative history nonetheless has an indirect narrativity. He tests this through an examination of several works of the Annales school, especially Braudel’s The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. He finds Braudel’s entire work to be organized by a “quasi-plot”. Braudel has “invented a new kind of plot” (p. 216) that “teaches us to unite structures, cycles, and events by joining together heterogeneous temporalities and contradictory chronicles” (ibid).

Ricoeur finds a kind of quasi-events at the level of long duration. “For me, the event is not necessarily something brief and nervous, like some sort of explosion. It is a variable of the plot…. For the historian, the event continually appears in the very midst of structures” (p. 217). Ricoeur argues that people and politics thus remain effectively important for Braudel and the other Annales historians, even though they overtly focus on structures. Looking to several treatments of the French revolution, Ricoeur concludes that their brilliant and convincing analyses of mentality and ideology do not eliminate the role of an event of taking power. “[A]ll change enters the field of history as a quasi-event” (p. 224; emphasis in original).

Earlier, while discussing the work of Raymond Aron, he says the historian in pursuing the work of explanation is concerned with a vast field of “what ifs”. In effect, this invokes something like Aristotelian potentiality, the importance of which Ricoeur has elsewhere explicitly recognized. I would definitely include the historical structures analyzed by the Annales school and others in my previous generalization that structuralist concepts of structure should be understood as defining fields of multiple potentiality, not some kind of univocal determination. Although deeper understanding requires a lengthy detour through the mode of potentiality, it never reduces away the ultimate dependence of potentiality on actuality. I see Ricoeur’s quasi-events as occurring on a plane of actuality correlative to the potentiality of structure. (See also Combining Time and Narrative).

Time and Narrative

My next project, occupying several posts, will concern Ricoeur’s Time and Narrative (3 vols; French ed. 1983-85). I previously commented on chapters in his Oneself as Another that used this work’s concept of narrative identity. Volume 1 contains discussions of Augustine’s treatment of time in the Confessions, which I always found to be one of the most intriguing things in Augustine; Aristotle’s concept from the Poetics that Ricoeur translates as “emplotment”, which turns out to be a derived use of the Greek mythos (myth); different kinds of mimesis or “imitation”, also in the Poetics; and narrative versus explanation in the writing of history. Volume 2 is concerned with the experience of time in literature, and volume 3 applies the results of volume 2 to the problems posed in volume 1, developing the philosophical consequences. Hayden White called this work the 20th century’s “most important synthesis of literary and historical theory”.

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.)

Nietzsche, Ethics, Historiography

Nietzsche famously criticized received notions of good and evil, and pointed out the inglorious role of “reactive” and resentful thinking about morals. To negatively frame our notions of goodness and virtue in terms of emotional reactions to bad things done by others is not an auspicious beginning for ethics. It results in a bad order of explanation that puts negative judgments of others before positive consideration of what is right.

Nietzsche pointed out that this occurs more often than we might think. A recurring emphasis on negative, blaming attitudes toward other people over affirmative values is unfortunately all too common not only in ordinary life and actually existing religious practice, but across what passes for the political spectrum. We ought to distance ourselves from this, and develop our values in positive rather than negative terms. We should aim to be good by what we do, not by contrasting ourselves with those other people. As an antidote to resentment, Nietzsche recommended we cultivate forgetfulness of wrongs done by others. I would add that we can have strong concern for justice without focusing on blame or revenge.

Like Aristotle, but without ever mentioning the connection, Nietzsche emphasized a certain sort of character development, and effectively advocated something close to Aristotle’s notion of magnanimity, or “great-souledness” as contrasted with small-mindedness. But in common with some modern interpretations of “virtue ethics”, Nietzsche tended to make whatever a presumably great-souled person might in fact do into a criterion, and consequently downplayed the role of the rational deliberation jointly emphasized by Aristotle and Kant.

Unfortunately, Nietzsche seems to have been so outraged by what he saw as widespread hypocrisy that he sometimes failed to take his own advice to avoid dwelling on the negative. This comes out in his tendency to make sweeping historical generalizations. Thus, he presented all religion in a negative light, and even went so far as to blame the “moralism” of Socrates and Plato for many later historical ills, while failing to note his own partial convergence with Aristotle.

Even at the peak of my youthful enthusiasm for Nietzsche, this negative judgment of Socrates and Plato always seemed wrong to me. Textual evidence just does not support the attribution of primarily “resentful” attitudes to either of them. On the contrary, Socrates and Plato began a completely unprecedented attempt to understand what is good in positive terms, and took great care to avoid prejudice in the process.

Partly as a consequence of his sweeping rejection of Socrates and Plato, Nietzsche looked for alternate heroes among the pre-Socratics, especially favoring Heraclitus. (In the 20th century, with different motivations, Heidegger expanded on Nietzsche’s valorization of the pre-Socratics over Plato and Aristotle, claiming that Heraclitus and Parmenides “had Being in sight” in ways that Plato and Aristotle did not. This seems to me like nonsense. As distinct from poetry and other artistic endeavors (which I value highly, but in a different way), philosophy is not about primordial vision or its recovery; it is about rational understanding and development toward an end, starting from wherever we actually find ourselves. While the pre-Socratics are important in a sort of prehistory of philosophy, the level of rational development they achieved was minimal. Extended rational development first bloomed with Plato, and then was taken to a yet higher level by Aristotle.)

Nietzsche also denied the reality or effective relevance of anything like Aristotelian potentiality, claiming that only what is actual is real. The semantic or expressive category of potentiality underwrites logical and linguistic modality, which among other things in turn underwrites the possibility of expressing objective judgments of “should”, as well as of causality, of which Nietzsche seems to have taken a Humean view. The general role of potentiality and modality is independent of all issues of the correctness or possibly prejudiced character of particular judgments.

Nietzsche’s denial of potentiality is thus related to a denial of any objective good and evil. It is akin to other views that attempt to explain values by facts. He thought mostly in terms of actually occurring valuations, and did distinguish better from worse ones, but mainly in terms of a kind of ad hominem argument from great-souledness or small-mindedness.

In my view, he should have been content to point out that many particular judgments are prejudiced or incorrect, and at any moment we have no sure way of knowing we accurately recognize which these are. Objectivity in ethics cannot be assumed as a starting point, but that does not mean there can never be any. Where it occurs, it is a relative status that is the product of a development. (See also Genealogy.)

Nietzsche’s poetic notion of the Eternal Return does in a way partly make up for his overly strong denial of any objective good or evil. The Eternal Return works especially as an ethical, selective thought that distinguishes purely affirmative valuations from others. I used to want to think this was enough to recover something objective that acts like a notion of good as affirmativeness, but that is contrary to what he says explicitly.