Logic for People

Leading programming language theorist Robert Harper refers to so-called constructive or intuitionistic logic as “logic as if people mattered”. There is a fascinating convergence of ideas here. In the early 20th century, Dutch mathematician L. E. J. Brouwer developed a philosophy of mathematics called intuitionism. He emphasized that mathematics is a human activity, and held that every proof step should involve actual evidence discernible to a human. By contrast, mathematical Platonists hold that mathematical objects exist independent of any thought; formalists hold that mathematics is a meaningless game based on following rules; and logicists argue that mathematics is reducible to formal logic.

For Brouwer, a mathematical theorem is true if and only if we have a proof of it that we can exhibit, and each step of that proof can also be exhibited. In the later 19th century, many new results about infinity — and infinities of infinities — had been proved by what came to be called “classical” means, using proof by contradiction and the law of excluded middle. But from the time of Euclid, mathematicians have always regarded reproducible constructions as a better kind of proof. The law of excluded middle is a provable theorem in any finite context. When the law of excluded middle applies, you can conclude that if something is not false it must be true, and vice versa. But it is not possible to construct any infinite object.

The only infinity we actually experience is what Aristotle called “potential” infinity. We can, say, count a star and another and another, and continue as long as you like, but no actually infinite number or magnitude or thing is ever available for inspection. Aristotle famously defended the law of excluded middle, but in practice only applied it to finite cases.

In mathematics there are conjectures that are not known to be true or false. Brouwer would say, they are neither true nor false, until they are proved or disproved in a humanly verifiable way.

The fascinating convergence is that Brouwer’s humanly verifiable proofs turn out also to exactly characterize the part of mathematics that is computable, in the sense in which computer scientists use that term. Notwithstanding lingering 20th century prejudices, intuitionistic math actually turns out to be a perfect fit for computer science. I use this in my day job.

I am especially intrigued by what is called intuitionistic type theory, developed by Swedish mathematician-philosopher Per Martin-Löf. This is offered simultaneously as a foundation for mathematics, a higher-order intuitionistic logic, and a programming language. One might say it is concerned with explaining ultimate bases for abstraction and generalization, without any presuppositions. One of its distinctive features is that it uses no axioms, only inference rules. Truth is something emergent, rather than something presupposed. Type theory has deep connections with category theory, another truly marvelous area of abstract mathematics, concerned with how different kinds of things map to one another.

What especially fascinates me about this work are its implications for what logic actually is. On the one hand, it puts math before mathematical logic– rather than after it, as in the classic early 20th century program of Russell and Whitehead — and on the other, it provides opportunities to reconnect with logic in the different and broader, less formal senses of Aristotle and Kant, as still having something to say to us today.

Homotopy type theory (HoTT) is a leading-edge development that combines intuitionistic type theory with homotopy theory, which explores higher-order paths through topological spaces. Here my ignorance is vast, but it seems tantalizingly close to a grand unification of constructive principles with Cantor’s infinities of infinities. My interest is especially in what it says about the notion of identity, basically vindicating Leibniz’ thesis that what is identical is equivalent to what is practically indistinguishable. This is reflected in mathematician Vladimir Voevodsky’s emblematic axiom of univalence, “equivalence is equivalent to equality”, which legitimizes much actual mathematical practice.

So anyway, Robert Harper is working on a variant of this that actually works computationally, and uses some kind of more specific mapping through n-dimensional cubes to make univalence into a provable theorem. At the cost of some mathematical elegance, this avoids the need for the univalence axiom, saving Martin-Löf’s goal to avoid depending on any axioms. But again — finally getting to the point of this post — in a 2018 lecture, Harper says his current interest is in a type theory that is in the first instance computational rather than formal, and semantic rather than syntactic. Most people treat intuitionistic type theory as a theory that is both formal and syntactic. Harper recommends that we avoid strictly equating constructible types with formal propositions, arguing that types are more primitive than propositions, and semantics is more primitive than syntax.

Harper disavows any deep philosophy, but I find this idea of starting from a type theory and then treating it as first of all informal and semantic rather than formal and syntactic to be highly provocative. In real life, we experience types as accessibly evidenced semantic distinctions before they become posited syntactic ones. Types are first of all implicit specifications of real behavior, in terms of distinctions and entailments between things that are more primitive than identities of things.

Pure Difference?

A common theme here is the conceptual priority of difference over identity. I think that identity is a derived concept, and not a primitive one (see also Aristotelian Identity).

The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995) in Difference and Repetition and other works argued that a pure notion of difference is by itself sufficient for a general account of things. In information theory, information is explained as expressing difference. In Saussurean structural linguistics, we are said to recognize spoken words by recognizing elementary differences between sounds. In both cases, the idea is that we get to meaning by distinguishing and relating.

Deleuze initially cites both of these notions of difference, but goes on to develop arguments grounded largely in Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, whom he uses to argue against Plato and Hegel. His very interesting early work Nietzsche and Philosophy was marred by a rather extreme polemic against Hegel, and in Difference and Repetition he announces a program of “anti-Platonism” that reproduces Nietzsche’s intemperate hostility to Plato. Nietzsche blamed Plato for what I regard as later developments. Neither Plato nor Aristotle made the kind of overly strong assertions about identity that became common later on.

In The Sophist and elsewhere, Plato had his characters speak of Same, Other, and the mixing of the two as equally primordial. Hegel took great pains to elaborate the notion of a “difference that makes a difference”. But Deleuze wants to argue that Plato and Hegel both illegitimately subordinate difference to identity. His alternative is to argue that what is truly fundamental is a primitive notion of difference that does not necessarily “make a difference”, and that come before any “making a difference”. (I prefer the thesis of Leibniz that indiscernibility of any difference is just what identity consists in.)

This is related to Deleuze’s very questionable use of Duns Scotus’ notion of the univocity of being, both in general and more particularly in his interpretation of Spinoza. For Deleuze, pure difference interprets Scotist univocal being.

I frankly have no idea what led to Deleuze’s valorization of Scotus. Deleuze is quite extreme in his opposition to any kind of representationalism, while Scotus made representability the defining criterion of his newly invented univocal being. It is hard to imagine views that are further apart. I can only speculate that Deleuze too hastily picked out Scotus because he wanted to implicitly oppose Thomist orthodoxy, and Scotus is a leading medieval figure outside the Thomist tradition.

For Deleuze, univocal being is pure difference without any identity. Difference that doesn’t make a difference seems to take over the functional role that identity has in theories that treat it as something underlying that exceeds any discernibility based on criteria. I don’t see why we need either of these.

I think Deleuze’s bête noir Hegel actually did a better job of articulating the priority of difference over identity. Hegel did this not by appealing to a putative monism of difference and nothing else, but by developing correlative notions of “difference that makes a difference”, and a kind of logical consequence or entailment that we attribute to real things as we interpret them, independent of and prior to any elaboration of logic in a formal sense.

In Hegel’s analysis as explicated by Brandom, any difference that makes a difference expresses a kind of “material” incompatibility of meaning that rules out some possible assertions. This is just what “making a difference” means. Meanwhile, all positive assertions can be more specifically analyzed as assertions of some consequence or entailment or other at the level of meaning (see Material Consequence). Every predication is analyzable as an assertion of consequence or entailment between subject and predicate, as Leibniz might remind us. It is always valid to interpret, e.g., “a cat is a mammal” as an inference rule for generating conclusions like if Garfield is a cat, then Garfield is a mammal.

What is missing from Deleuze’s account is anything like entailment, the idea of something following from something else. This notion of “following”, I am convinced, is prior to any notion of identity applicable to real things. Without presupposing any pre-existing identities of things, we can build up an account of the world based on the combination of differences that make a difference, on the one hand, and real-world entailments, on the other. Identity is then a result rather than an assumption. Meanings (and anything like identity) emerge from the interplay of practical real-world entailments and distinctions. It is their interplay that gives them definition in terms of one another.

Deleuze was a sort of ontological anarchist, who wanted being to be free of any pre-existing principles. While I agree that we can’t legitimately just assume such principles, I think this is very far from meaning that principles are irrelevant, or actually harmful. On the contrary, as Kant might remind us, principles are all-important. They aren’t just “given”. We have to do actual work to develop them. But if we have no principles — if nothing truly follows from anything else, or is ruled out by anything else — then we cannot meaningfully say anything at all.

Taking “Things” as True

The second standpoint examined by Hegel in the Phenomenology is Perception, or in the literal etymological sense of the German word for it, “true-taking”. This etymology has an intriguing but probably accidental resonance with the notion of taking things as thus-and-such that Brandom emphasizes in Kant. In Perception, emphasis is more on the things than on the taking.

Harris in his commentary associates Perception with the philosophy of healthy common sense. Even the peasant woman of the previous chapter “must follow the ‘leading’ of language at least one step beyond the naming of [things]. She identifies her cows not just by their names, but by their color-patterns; and she knows her apple trees from her plum trees or her neighbor’s peach, etc. Hers is a world not just of singular [things], but of perceptible types; but for her, the process of classification with its universal names is an instrumental shorthand for dealing with the ‘real things’ that can be identified and pointed to. She does not want to take the leading of language seriously, but only to get back to her life, and to get on with it” (Hegel’s Ladder I, p. 238).

Perception at least begins to take up the nuances of how things interrelate that are ignored by sense certainty. “Sense-Certainty is rich only in positive things to be certain of…. Only perception can say what is, because it names universal things that are perceived through the changing sequence and variety of their properties”(p. 239). “Perception is the being grasped together of the moments that unfold in perceiving as process…. The perceiving we are concerned with is a process in which the universal self takes itself to be a rational being, and the truth of its object to be a universal truth” (p. 238). By “universal self” he means an individual self taken as an instance of a rational self, not anything like a world soul.

Harris continues, “Our situation as philosophical observers is different in its ‘object’ from the perceiving consciousness. Our object has been logically determined for us, whereas the object of the perceiving consciousness simply ‘falls out of the world of Sense-Certainty’ for it… It knows that the object is a universal essence; but it does not know that ‘universality’ is an activity of the perceiving mind” (pp. 238-239).

We know that the ‘thing’ is a result of this process…. Our perceiving is the process, of which the object is the result. Perception… is an interpretation of sense-certainty in which the knowing consciousness is no longer concerned about the truth of the copula ‘is’, but about what is…. Sense-Certainty was already implicitly perception in its examples” (p. 239).

He quotes Hegel saying “Being is a universal in virtue of having mediation or the negative in it” (p. 240). As Harris says a bit later, “There is no nameable property of anything that is not part of a range of alternative properties. Some variations of properties are consistent with the thing continuing to count as the ‘same thing’ — and some are not” (ibid).

“[T]he singular property of ‘being salt’ is known to us as immediate sensation only when we taste it (and that is when the salt itself is necessarily dissolved back into the flux of sense-immediacy). Thus, in the white cube that is the ‘thing’ I perceive, the character of being salt is a not-this; it is not immediately sensed, but it is stably preserved for the sensation whenever I want to sense it…. It is a potentiality for sensation…. As this potentiality, this ‘otherness’ than what it is (the cubical whiteness etc.), it is a universal” (pp. 240-241).

(I am delighted to see Harris stressing the importance of potentiality in this crucial transition out of immediacy in Hegel. I don’t recall Hegel using the word “potentiality” much, but thought he ought to have.)

“What is ‘truly taken’ is an essence that is the negative ‘property’ which determines and holds together all the positive ones. But it is also truly taken as the positive property of filling a certain space. All of the properties cohere together in the space that the thing occupies…. ‘Thinghood’ as directly given for perceiving is the persisting spatial togetherness of many independent qualities…. The ‘thing’ is not just a loose collection of properties inhering somehow in the same identifiable region of space at the given time. It is a thing because of what it excludes; and its exclusiveness is what particularizes each of its properties” (p. 241).

“I know that I do not passively perceive what is true, in the way that I seem to apprehend the fact that ‘this is Lisa, and this is Ursel’ passively. My reflective capacities are involved. Perceiving is an activity of consciousness” (p. 245). “But it ought to be consistent” (p. 246).

“The attempt to claim that the manifold of sensation is simply subjective ignores its interpersonal objectivity. Every identifiable property is an objective essence…. Not just the oneness of the thing is objectively real, but its ‘difference’ from everything else” (p. 247).

“The essence of being a thing is to be ‘for another'” (p. 249). “Everything is specified by its difference from others” (p. 250). “The determinacy which is the ‘essential’ or ‘absolute’ character of a thing on its own account is essentially a relation to others (which negates the thing’s independence)” (p. 251).

Here we begin to see the limits of Perception. “The standpoint of Perception presupposes an absolute community of ‘things’. But the definition of ‘thinghood’ that the perceptual consciousness set up for itself contains no necessary reference from one thing to another for its being. The independent being of the thing is what makes it the ‘object’ that can be ‘truly taken’…. We have now seen that in any consistent formulation of the perceptual standpoint, this is logically impossible. It is the independence that is a sham” (p. 252).

“What is ‘essential’ and what is not ‘essential’ is a function of our supposedly external observation” (p. 253).

“Hegel… aims to show us that the naive empiricism which wants to conceive of perception causally (as analogous to mirror-reflection) cannot succeed.”

“We have already seen how we could not stand still at the concept of the ‘one thing’ with ‘many properties’. We had to admit that the multiplicity was founded in the ‘thing’, and not simply generated by the perceiving mind; and on the other hand, the ‘unity’ was an actively negative exclusion, which could not be simply contributed by the mind as it sorted the perceived ‘properties’ into things” (p. 254).

The standpoint of perception treats logic and philosophy as mere “game[s] with verbal counters” (p. 256). Its mistake is “to assume that ‘cognition’ is an activity that supervenes on an object that is already there; but actually it is the construction of ‘the object’ in a process of interpretation” (p. 257).

Ricoeur on Locke on Personal Identity

“John Locke is the inventor of the following three notions and the sequence that they form together: identity, consciousness, self…. Locke’s invention of consciousness will become the acknowledged or unacknowledged reference for theories of consciousness in Western philosophy” (Ricoeur, Memory, History, Forgetting, p. 102).  The English word “consciousness” was actually coined by Locke’s friend the Cambridge Platonist Ralph Cudworth in a work inspired by Plotinus, but it is Locke’s systematic use of it that was spread throughout the modern world by his famous Essay Concerning Human Understanding.  Ricoeur’s account significantly draws on that of Etienne Balibar in Identity and Difference: Locke’s Invention of Consciousness.

Chapter 27 of book 2 of Locke’s Essay, “Of Identity and Diversity”, lays out his unprecedented new theory of personal identity as grounded purely in a continuity of memory, rather than any underlying substance.  We tend to forget that Descartes’ cogito, as Ricoeur says, “is not a person….  It bursts forth in the lightning flash of an instant.  Always thinking does not imply remembering having thought.  Continual creation alone confers duration on it” (p. 103).  Ricoeur says that whereas Descartes had sought to conquer doubt with certainty, Locke sought to conquer diversity and difference with an unprecedented concept of pure reflexive identity.

“Proposing to define in new terms the principle of individuation… ‘so much inquired after’…, Locke takes as his first example an atom, ‘a continued body under one immutable superficies’, and reiterates his formula of self-identity: ‘For being at that instant what it is, and nothing else, it is the same, and so must continue as long as its existence is continued; for so long it will be the same, and no other’” (p. 104).

“It is consciousness that constitutes the difference between the idea of the same man and that of a self, also termed person…. The knowledge of this self-identity is consciousness” (ibid).  Locke is quoted saying “as far as this consciousness can be extended backwards to any past action or thought, so far reaches the identity of that person; it is the same self now as it was then; and it is by the same self with this present one that now reflects on it, that that action was done” (p. 105).  

Ricoeur continues, “Personal identity is a temporal identity.  It is here that the objection drawn from forgetting and from sleep, considered as interruptions of consciousness, suggests the invigorated return of the idea of substance: is not the continuity of a substance required to overcome the intermittence of consciousness? Locke replies bravely that, whatever may be the status of the substantial ground, consciousness alone ‘makes’ personal identity….  Identity and consciousness form a circle.  As Balibar observes, this circle is not a logical fallacy of the theory: it is Locke’s own invention, supported by the reduction of substance…. It is not the soul that makes the man but the same consciousness.  With regard to our inquiry, the matter has been decided: consciousness and memory are one and the same thing, irrespective of any substantial basis.  In short, in the matter of personal identity, sameness equals memory” (ibid).

The word “self” is used by Locke in both generic and singular senses, with “no discussion concerning the status of the nominalized pronoun….  Locke had decided to disconnect ideas from names.  Yet, ‘Person, as I take it, is the name for this self’” (p. 106). “The shift to a judicial vocabulary is not far off.  The transitional concept is that of ‘person’, the other ‘name for this self’…. What makes it a synonym for the self, despite its ‘forensic’ character?  The fact that it signifies that the self ‘reconciles’ and ‘appropriates’, that is to say, assigns, allocates to consciousness the ownership of its acts” (p. 107).

Locke thus not only completely rethought the notion of persons in terms of a pure logical identity in consciousness and an analogy with atoms in a void, but also formulated a radically new notion of ethical agency and responsibility, based on an analogy with the exclusive ownership associated with private property.  The ownership model of agency and responsibility leaves no room for more subtle considerations of “power to”.  Indeed, Ricoeur notes that Locke’s approach to politics is entirely grounded in “power over”.

From a purely logical standpoint, Locke successfully avoids many arguments against the putative total self-transparency of consciousness, by making its self-transparency a matter of definition rather than an empirical claim.  Locke’s position is internally consistent.  From a practical standpoint, however, any claim that total self-transparency actually applies to real life is, to say the least, fraught with difficulty.  Total self-transparency seems to me to be more extravagantly supernatural than the Latin medieval notion of a substantial intellectual soul that it replaced.  Also, real people are not atomic unities. From the point of view of more recent physical science, even atoms are not atomic unities. (See also Ego; Personhood; Meaning, Consciousness; Mind Without Mentalism; Aristotelian Identity; Narrative Identity, Substance; Ricoeur on Memory: Orientation; Ricoeur on Augustine on Memory.)


When I talk about beings, or us as beings, I mean this in a very ordinary, pre-philosophical way. It seems to me that to informally qualify as a “being”, something must have a degree of coherence; a degree of resilience or persistence in the face of change; and relations to other beings.

We might form a notion of something absolutely singular or self-contained, but it would not be a notion of a being. The classic notion of something absolutely singular was the One of Plotinus, which for him explicitly preceded all being. For Plotinus, we should only begin to talk about being when we have something that is “both one and many”.

If we speak of beings, it makes some sense to inquire about the being of beings. To me, though, this just means a higher-order consideration of the ordinary “being a being” of ordinary beings. It does not imply some very different “Being with a capital B” that gives being to all ordinary beings.

When Aristotle inquired about “being as being”, he reached two main conclusions. First, “being is said in many ways”. That is to say, being is not a univocal concept; it has multiple meanings. More profoundly, what we nonetheless informally call being itself is itself analogous to something that is nonunivocal rather than univocal. The non-self-containedness that seems to be characteristic of beings means that if we look closely, what we call individual beings do not have univocal identity, but rather are “identified” by a kind of family resemblance to themselves. Beings do not have sharp edges that would unambiguously separate an inside from an outside, and sometimes they change profoundly. Second, being a being nonetheless always involves being some way that is distinguishable from some other way. Calling something a being or saying it “is” in any sense thus expresses a kind of commitment on our part, and as Aristotle and Brandom would both remind us, the very nature of commitments implicitly commits us to abstain from or correct other incompatible commitments.

Being a being in whatever sense thus involves both a determinateness and an openness. Determinateness and openness in turn have to be understood in ways that permit their coexistence. (See also Equivocal Determination; Openness of Reason; Bounty of Nature.)

I want to say that everything important about being a being belongs in the register of “whatness”, or what was traditionally called essence. Contrary to the great arguments of Aquinas as well as to the 20th century mystique of existentialism, I don’t find value in an allegedly separate register of existence. Some people have argued that Aristotle did not have a proper concept of existence, as if this were a shortcoming. I find Aristotle’s direction of our attention to the “what” of being to be noninflationary in a quite salutary way. (See also Substance; Platonic Truth; Meant Realities.)

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.

Self, Infinity

Ricoeur’s idea of an ethical Self as an aim is an important new variant in the menagerie of nonequivalent concepts of self. Perhaps this one has been implicit for a while, but I had not clearly made this exact connection. I very much like Aristotelian ends and Brandom’s reading of Kantian unity of apperception as an ethical goal though, so it is a welcome addition. Now I suspect this is behind what Ricoeur later called ipse identity and narrative identity, which had been troubling me.

The same older work of Ricoeur’s also uses the term “infinite” for the relatively modest if still noteworthy kind of freedom that is indirectly apparent in ordinary language use and ordinary determination of concepts. I would probably still choose a different word to avoid other connotations, but have no objection to that meaning. Again though, a couple of later, less clear references to infinity that had troubled me could be explained by this.

Ricoeur on Recognition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oneself as Another

Paul Ricoeur’s major ethical work Oneself as Another (1992; French ed. 1990) is a real treasure trove. At top level, it is devoted to distinguishing between separate notions of personal identity and ethical/epistemic transcendental subjectivity, then developing the dialectical relation between them, along with the central importance of relations with others. That could equally well characterize a major aspect of the work I have been pursuing here.

In the introduction, he speaks first of a “primacy of reflective meditation over the immediate positing of the subject, as this is expressed in the first person singular” (p. 1). I think this perspective is shared by Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, and Brandom. Second, he points out the equivocal nature of identity, distinguishing between Latin ipse (self) and idem (same). Selfhood in Ricoeur’s sense — identity in the sense of ipse — “implies no assertion concerning some unchanging core of the personality” (p. 2). Third, he draws attention to a dialectic of self and other. “[T]he selfhood of oneself implies otherness to such an intimate degree that one cannot be thought of without the other” (p. 3). As a result, “autonomy of the self will appear… to be tightly bound up with solicitude for one’s neighbor and with justice for each individual” (p. 18; emphasis in original).

Such a detour by way of analysis “challenges the hypothesis of reflective simplicity without thereby giving in to the vertigo of the disintegration of the self” (p. 19). A “faith that knows itself to be without guarantee” (p. 25) is supported by a “trust greater than any suspicion” (p. 23). This perspective is thus distinguished both from the foundationalist ambitions of “philosophies of the subject” like those of Descartes, Fichte, and Husserl, and from Nietzschean skepticism. Ricoeur also anticipates Alain de Libera’s connection of his work to Michel Foucault’s late “hermeneutics of the subject”, citing the “magnificent title” of Foucault’s book Care of the Self.