Four Layers of Being Human

This is my own expansion of Aristotle’s classic “rational/talking animal” definition. In common with other animals, we have an organically grounded “imagination” that is a basis for consciousness and emotion. Then we have an acquired emotional disposition or character that corresponds to what Plato called the “middle part” of the soul. This is influenced by all the other layers. Third, our assimilation of language and culture and our more deliberately adopted values and commitments together constitute our ethos, as a kind of deeper essence of who we are. Finally, our vehicle for growth and change is our participation with others in the space of reasons.

Averroes as Read by de Libera

Alain de Libera has played a major role in reviving interest in Averroes. In 1999 he published a French translation of the crucial book III of the famous (or infamous) Long Commentary on Aristotle on the Soul, which was the first rendering of this work into a modern language. He devotes an 80-page chapter of Archéologie du sujet volume 3 part 1 to reconstructing the more controversial parts of this long-misunderstood text. I’ve previously discussed the reading of Deborah Black in “This Human Understands”, and that of Stephen Ogden in “This Human”, Again.

The modern notion of a subject-agent, de Libera says, originated partly in opposition to Augustine and partly in opposition to Averroes. Though he was responsible for first introducing a notion of “subject” into Aristotelian discourse about the soul, Averroes did not introduce the “modern subject”. According to de Libera, the notion of the human as subject-agent of thought was developed first in opposition to Averroes, then in opposition to the Averroists, then by later Averroists responding to criticism.

“[F]or an Aristotelian as for a Plotinian, the intelligibles in act are not mental states, accidents or accidental forms of a mind posed as substrate and having before it things, themselves bearing qualities, but the intelligibles themselves as intellects in act” (p. 166; my translation throughout). I’ll try to shed some further light on this below.

De Libera cites Aristotle’s own statement that intellect and the intellected are one. He says Averroes’ Latin readers were misled by Michael Scot’s translation of intellectus (intellect as a faculty) for what should have been intellectum (the intelligible). The thesis of the unity of intellect commonly attributed to Averroes is really at its root a thesis of the unity of the intelligible, he says. Averroes primarily has in mind Plato’s problem of how teaching and learning — and shared apprehension and objectivity — are possible.

“The first concern of Averroes is to escape from Platonism” (p. 182). This means we still like forms, but we do not posit free-floating Forms. Aristotle’s alternative is a theory of “abstraction”. Intellect is said to “abstract” intelligibles as universals from the concrete particular contents of what is called imagination. De Libera says that Aristotle used both inductive and “geometric” notions of abstraction, but notes that the commentator Alexander of Aphrodisias particularly emphasized the “geometric” version, which is said to involve conceiving as separate from matter the forms that are nonetheless not separate from matter.

“The noetic problem inherited from Alexander by Averroes is above all that of the production of the intelligible in act: the intentio intellecta” (p. 184). “Intellect is not mind. Nor is it consciousness” (p. 185). The intentio intellecta is not the intentionality arising from the act of a transcendental Ego that Husserl spoke of.

“What is this problem? Not that which Thomas posed to the Averroists, and through them to Averroes: to account for the fact of experience that I think, but rather: to account for the fact that we think, or better, the fact that we think or are capable of thinking the same thing.”

“At issue here is neither the I, nor the human, nor the individual human, but indeed the I and the you” (p. 186). De Libera suggests the analogy of Fregean thought that “is independent of our activity of thought” (p. 187), and says that like Frege, Averroes “opposes thought, intellectio, to representation, cogitatio” (ibid).

The Greek commentator Themistius had suggested underwriting the unity of the intelligible by a unity of “intellect”.

“[T]he theory of the unity of the material intellect has the function of resolving, from a strict Aristotelian point of view, the Platonic question of the possibility of teaching and apprenticeship” (p. 189).

Averroes wants to say that the intelligible is both one and multiple. We can apprehend the very same thing, and yet do so separately. In the forms in our incarnate imaginations it is multiple, but in the immaterial “material intellect” it is one.

Averroes referred to both the imagined, represented, or “cogitated” forms in the soul and to the so-called material intellect with a word that was translated to Latin as subjectum or “subject”. His account of how the two “subjects” interact has become known in secondary literature as the “theory of the two subjects”. Though it was being applied to human imagination and thought, the notion of subject here was understood by his Latin readers as just the abstract one of something standing under something else.

De Libera says it is impossible to understand the theory of two subjects without paying attention to what Averroes says about two related movers. In a famous development in the Metaphysics, Aristotle himself progressively sublimated the “standing under” concept, ultimately replacing it with considerations of potentiality and actualization. De Libera says that in Averroes’ reflections on intellect, “subject” really means mover rather than substrate.

An Aristotelian mover is actually very different from the modern concept of an agent. De Libera quotes Aristotle to the effect that “movement, action, and passion reside in that which is moved” (p. 198).

Averroes, following Aristotle, develops an analogy between sense and intellect. De Libera analyzes Aristotle’s account of the case of sense in four points: 1) that which is potentially sensible exists independent of sense; 2) it only plays the role of mover in the sensitive faculty; 3) the sensible in act (or the sensed) and the sensing or the sense in act are numerically the same act, but differ in essence or quiddity; 4) the identity of the act of the sensible and the act of the sensing in the sensing serves as Aristotle’s explanation for how we sense that we are sensing, or how we have internal sense. In this “synergetic” account, sensation is not a pure passive reception, but rather at the same time is an actualization of a potentiality that we have, and indeed an actualization of us.

De Libera notes that the analogy Aristotle and Averroes both make between sense and intellect in this regard is already enough to invalidate all the readings of Averroes that make the human entirely passive in relation to thought. Intellect for Averroes is not a simple “Giver of Forms” like the transcendent intellect in Avicenna. According to de Libera, in sensation only the potentiality of the sensing functions as a subject of inherence or attribution. That which is potentially sensible does not sense. Similarly, in intellect the intentio intellecta has only one subject of inherence or attribution, which is the potentiality for intellection in the so-called material intellect. That which is potentially intelligible does not think. Nor are intelligibles “emanated” directly to the soul, any more than sensations are received in a purely passive way.

“The receiving intellect is not a sponge. It moves itself. Or better, it is moved. Its movement is a motion by final cause” (p. 212). The two movers in this case are the forms in imagination and the abstracting “active” intellect.

The human is not the subject of thought, but nonetheless she thinks, and thinks at will. Such is the thesis of Averroes” (p. 215). We think when we want. For Averroes, the agent and receptor of the intelligible in act are both eternal, separate substances, but the activities of these separate substances nevertheless take place in us, and are attributed to us. This should correct the misleading impression that for Averroes what the moderns call “the subject” is divided into a part that is mental but not thinking, and a part that is thinking but not mental. It is even further removed from the argument of Aquinas that Averroes makes the human into something like a wall, and into something passively thought by something else rather than something thinking.

Thought in the human is a habitus, or Aristotelian hexis. This is a “second actuality” or “second perfection”, a product of processes of actualization. Averroes makes significant use of the notion of the “acquired intellect” that may come to be immanent in the human, which was explicitly elaborated by al-Farabi using Aristotelian notions of potentiality and actualization. In this context de Libera speaks of production and re-production, actualization and re-actualization. It is by virtue of having this “acquired intellect” that the human has the ability to think when she wants.

The one who has thoughts thinks” (p. 219). “Active” and “material” intellects are two faculties or moments of one thing or process. We act by means of them, and according to de Libera this means that for Averroes, they constitute our form insofar as we are thinking. Averroes holds that Aristotle’s use of “soul” is equivocal with respect to whether or not it includes intellect; that only the animal and vegetable parts of the soul count as form and first perfection of the body; but that intellect nonetheless is our form when we are thinking.

Origins of a Subject-Agent

How did the modern equation of subjecthood and agency come to be? How did the notion of “I” or ego come to be substantialized? An extremely influential argument of Heidegger makes this an innovation of Descartes. Alain de Libera argues that this is too hasty, and that the groundwork for this identification was actually laid in the later middle ages. I’m continuing a high-level treatment of de Libera’s extremely important archaeology of the subject (see also On a Philosophical Grammar).

Answering this question will involve an extended historical odyssey through complex interactions between Aristotelian and Augustinian views, and much more. De Libera sees Aquinas in his polemic against Averroes raising four interrelated questions of a more fundamental nature: Who thinks? What is the subject of thought? Who are we? What is man? The second of these seems to have been first asked by Averroes. The other three are largely attributable to Aquinas and his contemporaries, in their reactions to Averroes.

Several points of Aristotelian interpretation (What is substance? What is form? What is act? What is an efficient cause? What is the soul?) will be relevant to answering these, as will Augustine’s meditations on personhood and the nature of the Trinity. De Libera notes that John Locke — a major contributor to modern views on “the subject” — was deeply involved in debates on trinitarian theology. He also discusses Franz Brentano’s modern revival of the medieval notion of intentionality. The medieval version was closely bound up with a notion of “inexistence” or “existing in” of mental objects (forms separated from their matter) in the soul.

In the Categories, Aristotle gives substance the logical sense of something standing under something else. This influenced the Greek grammarians who formulated the notion of a grammatical subject. But in the Metaphysics, he treats this as only a starting point that is quickly superseded by an identification of substance with form or “what it was to have been” a thing, before moving into an account of substance as potentiality and actuality.

De Libera notes a historic division among readers of Aristotle’s treatise On the Soul between those who interpret the soul as an attribute of the body, and those who treat it as a substance in its own right. The latter position has different meanings, depending on whether substance is taken in the “standing under” sense or in the sense of form. De Libera will be particularly interested in the consequences of a further family of positions that make the non-obvious equation of human actions and passions with attributes of the soul.

He notes that “category” in Greek originally meant accusation, and relates this to Locke’s characterization of personhood as a “forensic” notion. We have here to do with subtle relations between attribution, inherence, and imputation with respect to actions and passions in relation to the soul. But what is an action? Must we explain an act in terms of a substantial subject’s power of efficient causation in a late scholastic sense that is far from Aristotle’s? (See also Expansive Agency; Brandomian Forgiveness.)

Aristotelian Subjectivity Revisited

My previous article on this was a bit narrow, focused only on an Aristotelian analogue for the sort of “transcendental” subjectivity developed by Kant and Hegel. Of course, the whole field of “subjectivity” is much broader than that, and properly transcendental subjectivity has little to do with the empirical subjectivity that we have in mind when we call something “subjective”. Here I’d like to begin to round out the picture. (In the background, I’m also imagining what Aristotle might say in response to Hegel’s Phenomenology.)

It is in fact something of a truism that none of the Greeks had a modern concept of the human “subject”. The closest (still distant) analogue is what gets conventionally translated by the etymologically related term “substance” in Aristotle. The elementary notion of substance as a literally existing logical/syntactic substrate for properties –“something underlying something else” — from the Categories was influentially referred to by Heidegger as “subjectity” (intended to stand in constrast to “subjectivity“).

The explanatory role of a literal notion of substrate is raised again in the Metaphysics. Aristotle says the most obvious candidate for a substrate of things is matter. But then he goes on to deconstruct and ultimately discard the whole notion that the most important kind of explanation of things involves reference to a literal substrate. Form — identified with essence or definition, and “what it was to have been” a thing — is then developed as providing more fundamental explanation than any substrate; then form itself is given a deeper explanation in terms of actuality and potentiality.

But neither the elementary account of “something underlying” in the Categories nor the sophisticated discussion in the Metaphysics makes any reference at all to the sentience and agency that are equally fundamental to modern notions of a human “subject”.

Separate from all of this, Aristotle identifies humans as those animals that have language and the ability to reason, which he considers as depending on language. I have argued that the main resource for an implicit notion of transcendental subjectivity in Aristotle is actually his ethical writings. The treatise on the “soul” (psyche) deals with bodily growth, nutrition, movement, and reproduction; with sense perception and imagination; and also with thought, which he refers to as coming to the soul “from outside”. Related treatises address memory and dreams. Human emotions, on the other hand, he deals with not in the “psychological” treatises but rather in the Rhetoric. The context in which Aristotle treats emotion is thus social and communicative rather than inward-looking. He also treats a kind of emotional maturity as a prerequisite for ethical development. He has a refined and well-differentiated notion of situated agency and ethical responsibility, but lacks the obsession with identity shown by many later authors.

I want to suggest that the “whatness” of subjectivity-forms — whether empirical or transcendental — is far more interesting and practically relevant than the supposed abstract “existence” of subject or substrate entities. This is true regardless of whether we are dealing with empirical or transcendental subjectivity. In Heideggerian terms, I want to decouple subjectivity from presumptions of subjectity.

As regards the Aristotelian soul, in Naissance du Sujet (volume 1 of Archeologie du Sujet), Alain de Libera lists four recent analytic interpretations: 1) the psyche is identical to the body; 2) the psyche is an attribute of the body; 3) the body “constitutes” the psyche; 4) the psyche is an immaterial substance. Actually, none of these seems to me to adequately capture Aristotle’s hylomorphism, or notion of the complementarity of “form” and “matter” (neither of which individually means quite what it might seem to, either — see above links). I am also sympathetic to the reading that Aristotelian matter is a relative concept, so that something could be the material for something else that is in turn material for another thing. Something similar, I think, could be said of form.

The relation of soul to body is clearly presented as an instance of the relation of form to matter, though it seems that the relation of form to matter may be different in different cases. In any case I do not think the form/matter relation is intended as an instance of the substance/accident relation. (The notion of “substantial form” was an original development of the Latin medieval tradition, not found in Aristotle, and the bits I understand of the medieval debate on unity or multiplicity of substantial forms further complicate the picture. The key to this whole territory is to understand that there are very many highly distinct and sophisticated positions in the tradition on issues of this sort.)

A further complication involves the relation between “soul” and the “intellect” that “comes from without”, which has a long and fascinating history in the commentary tradition, extending from Alexander of Aphrodisias through the Arabic tradition to the Latin tradition of Albert the Great.

The great Arabic commentator Averroes was apparently the first to ask what is the “subject”, in the substrate sense, of human thought. He came up with the novel suggestion that individual human thought has two such “subjects”: one belonging to the soul that is involved with the body and perception, and one that is an immaterial source of concepts, belongs to the whole human community, gains content over time, and would cease to exist if there were no more humans.

Another intriguing complication in the historical Western tradition is the clear stance taken by Augustine that human mind, soul, or spirit should definitely not be taken as a subject in the substrate sense, e.g., for knowledge or love.