“The Subject” in Medieval Times

According to Alain de Libera in the second half of Archéologie du sujet vol. 1, Thomas Aquinas was instrumental in developing a view of the soul that was neither Aristotelian nor Augustinian, and that paved the way for the modern concept of “the subject” as an agent, long before Descartes. De Libera says that Aquinas did this in part by introducing the different, very abstract Aristotelian notion of subject (hypokeimenon, “thing underlying”, with no connotations of mind or agency) into the Augustinian model of the soul as an image of the Christian Trinity, and simultaneously introducing the Augustinian biblical Word into an Aristotelian model of abstractive knowledge. Aquinas also drew indirectly on Plotinus, and directly on his teacher Albert the Great’s use of pseudo-Dionysius. In doing so, he effectively removed the stigma Augustine had placed on treating the human soul as a “subject”.

Aristotle had suggested that there is a kind of identity between thinking and what it thinks. It is perhaps not accidental that we use different senses of the same English word “thought” for both. These should not be equated with subject and object in the modern sense; they both occupy parts of a kind of middle ground between what we call subject and object.

According to de Libera, Plotinus developed a kind of identity between three terms (nous, noeisis, noeton — intellect, intellection, intelligible object). His intellect and intelligible object are already somewhat closer to what we call subject and object. In between, he placed an act of thinking or intellection that was to have a kind of identity with both the intellect and the intelligible object.

Plotinus’ notion of act is also quite different from that of Aristotle. Aristotle calls the first principle a kind of pure act that is not an action in the ordinary sense, and has nothing else behind it; for Plotinus, the first principle is a power, and every act is the act of a power. For Aristotle, the first principle is also an end only; for Plotinus, it is both the end and the origin of all things.

The persons of the Trinity are supposed to have a sort of mutual immanence to one another that is completely unlike the case of something underlying something else. De Libera notes that Plotinus and his student Porphyry already used a similar concept of mutual immanence in their discussions of intellect. Augustine ranked his reading of Plotinus as a formative experience second only to his conversion to Christianity.

From the Christian neoplatonist pseudo-Dionysius, Albert the Great drew the notion of a “whole of powers” that is different from either a universal whole or an integral whole.

De Libera notes that the classic formula of the Trinity in Greek — one ousia, three hypostases — was confusingly translated into Latin as “one essence, three substances” or as “one substance, three persons”. By substitution, the coexistence of these two translations yields the obviously self-contradictory formula, “one substance, three substances”, which graphically illustrates the equivocation in medieval usages of “substance”.

(In deference to common usage, I have continued to use “substance” for Aristotle’s ousia, even though I think it is a terrible translation. “Essence” is better, provided we recognize that Plato and Aristotle had views of essence that were not “essentialist” in the sense of treating essences of things as pre-given or as something to take for granted.)

De Libera speaks of the need to parenthesize modern notions of subject and object in order to understand Augustine’s opposition to treating actions and passions of the soul as attributes of a substance. Conversely, for better or worse, Aquinas’ legitimation of this way of viewing the soul brings us closer to modern views. (I think Aristotle would have shared Augustine’s opposition to this formulation, but for different reasons. I think Aristotle regarded the whole human being — and not the soul or the body taken separately — as a “substance”.)

Aquinas introduced emphasis on both what de Libera calls an Aristotelian structure of subject-powers-activities and a pseudo-Dionysian structure of essence-power-operation into a Latin-speaking theological context that had been mainly dominated by Augustine. What I would call this double infusion of additional neoplatonic elements is said by some to have resulted in a more dynamic and relational way of viewing things. (In agreement with Gwenaëlle Aubry, however, I think Aristotelian potentiality is very different from neoplatonic power, even though they use the same Greek word.) Combined with Aquinas’ serious embrace of a version of Aristotelian hylomorphism, this infusion led to a simultaneously more positive and more dynamic view of worldly existence than had been common in the Augustinian tradition, which also helped lay the seeds of modernity.

A broadly neoplatonic view of the world in terms of powers and operations-of-powers thus turns out to have been very important for the emergence of the modern subject-as-agent (as well as, I would argue, the rise of the specific modern notion of causality). De Libera notes that Heidegger ignored both neoplatonism and theology in his famous account of the rise of the modern subject. Meanwhile, Aquinas’ legitimation of the treatment of actions and passions as attributes of a soul-subject-substance — coupled with the interweaving of such attribution with imputations of responsibility — seems to have contributed to a stronger notion of a self as something with univocal identity and sharp edges.

“This Human”, Again

Stephen Ogden’s Averroes on Intellect (2022) is the first book-length treatment of this fascinating subject of medieval controversy that is centrally focused on an independent philosophical evaluation of the arguments of Averroes himself. Ogden develops a reading of Averroes in close relation both to the Aristotelian text and to the contrasting positions of Avicenna and Aquinas. Averroes, he says, deserves to be taken seriously both as a reader of Aristotle and as a philosopher in his own right. Averroes challenges us to question our assumptions as to what “intellect” might be.

Ultimately, Ogden suggests a sort of compromise between Averroes and Aquinas. This makes an interesting counterpoint to the interpretation of Deborah Black.

Like Black, Ogden highlights the common ground between Averroes and Aquinas. He develops the fact that unlike most earlier commentators on Aristotle, Averroes and Aquinas both explained actual and potential “intellect” in symmetrical ways that made them the same broad kind of being. They also both distinguished a third, “passive” intellect — said to be a kind of disposition of the human imagination — that others have often identified with the potential intellect.

Prior to Averroes, the most common type of reading made actual intellect a singular or universal cosmic or metaphysical principle, while treating potential intellect as something mortal and divided among many individuals. (While fascinating, this is to my mind anomalous with respect to the way Aristotle himself develops the relations between potentiality and actuality. I tend to think of these as only analytically distinguishable aspects, phases, or modes of the same real things.)

Averroes and Aquinas agree that both actual and potential “intellect” are immaterial things that are not dependent on the body. They both defend variants of what is termed “moderate realism” with respect to universals. In this kind of view, universals have reality independent of particulars, but they do not subsist in themselves as Plato thought. They are “abstracted” from human imagination by something called “intellect”.

On the other hand, Aquinas and Averroes approach the interpretation of “intellect” with very different concerns in mind. Ogden agrees with Deborah Black’s point that the role of intellect for Averroes lies in the constitution of intelligible objects. Further, for Averroes the universal singularity of “intellect” carries the whole burden of underwriting a non-Platonic reality of universals as universals.

For Aquinas on the other hand, I would say the primary role of intellect is to underwrite a metaphysically strong notion of personal identity. Aquinas uses a complex original theory of intelligible “species” to do most of the work of underwriting the reality of universals. This leaves him free to repurpose “intellect” as a basis of a philosophical argument for personal immortality that has no parallel in Averroes or Aristotle. Aquinas develops a nuanced account of how the soul exists in genuine union with the body, but each individual soul contains within it intellect that is separable from body. For Aquinas, the presence of intellect within the soul guarantees the immortality of the soul. Ogden mentions in passing Aquinas’ acceptance of Aristotle’s view that memory, however, is inseparable from the body.

Ogden agrees with Black that Averroes successfully explains the experience of human self-awareness in terms of imagination, without needing to appeal to intellect. But Ogden says that for Averroes, in a stricter sense it is indeed only the intellect as our perfective form that “understands”, so perhaps we should say that thought happens within us, rather than that we think.

He mentions that Bertrand Russell said that Descartes should have said “there is thought”, rather than “I think”. I would add that “I” am not a “thinking thing”, but an ethical being constituted by my commitments and practices of commitment.

“This Human Understands”

Imagination rather than intellect is actually the main locus of human consciousness for both Thomas Aquinas and the great Aristotelian commentator Averroes whom Aquinas famously criticized, according to medieval scholar Deborah Black.

“[W]ithin the Aristotelian framework which Aquinas and Averroes share, the psychological explanation and interpretation of intellectual consciousness is not itself a given, even if the experience of consciousness is. Consciousness of thinking may play a central role in Cartesian philosophy, and in the system of Averroes’s and Aquinas’s predecessor, Avicenna. But it has no such privileged status in the philosophies of Aristotle, Averroes, or Aquinas, in which the possible intellect ‘is actually nothing before it thinks,’ and is only able to think itself after it has been actualized by some other object”, she wrote in her 1993 essay “Consciousness and Self-Knowledge in Aquinas’s Critique of Averroes’s Psychology”.

The relation of so-called “intellect” (nous) to the human “soul” (psyche) in Aristotle has historically been a major point of contention. These words are used in subtly or extremely different ways by many authors. I strongly recommend holding off on any easy identification of either of them with what modern people think of as subjective mind or consciousness.

Aristotle seems to apply a variant of his fruitful pairing of potentiality and actuality in his rather minimalist account of intellect. These notions were developed in greater detail in the commentary tradition. To hazard an oversimplification, intellect in actuality was considered to be something immaterial that makes things intelligible, whereas intellect in potentiality was considered to be something with no form of its own that takes on intelligible forms.

The great Greek commentator Alexander of Aphrodisias identified the potential or “material” intellect with a part of the soul, which he considered to be inseparable from the body, and therefore mortal. The actual or “agent” intellect he identified with a divine principle that he also gave a cosmological role.

The brilliant Arabic commentator Averroes (Ibn Rushd) argued that both aspects of intellect were symmetrically unique immaterial principles, outside the soul but connected with it. He became convinced that all humans must share a common “material” (potential) intellect, which grounds the real existence of logical universals and intelligible forms, but gets its contents from human imagination, and would not exist if there were no rational animals.

Aquinas located both intellects within the human soul, while giving the latter the elevated, more neoplatonic metaphysical status of an “intellectual soul”, and strongly associating its intellectual character with personal immortality. Especially in later works, Aquinas polemicized sharply against Averroes, claiming that Averroes could not even consistently say that “this human understands”, because for Averroes in his Long Commentary on the De Anima, there is only one material intellect shared by all humans.

Deborah Black argues that the two phases of intellect in Aristotle work together to constitute objects and intelligible forms. This need not imply an experience of immediate self-awareness. For Aristotle, Averroes, and Aquinas, intellectual self-awareness emerges only indirectly.

Black points out that Aquinas typically uses words like “perceives” or “experiences” in talking about self-awareness, and seems to deliberately avoid words implying intellectual comprehension. She sees this as reflecting Aristotelian scruples, and notes the studied vagueness of Aquinas’ endorsement of Augustinian immediate self-awareness. In his refutation of Averroes, Aquinas does appeal to the experience of consciousness, but she notes that he does so initially to argue against Plato’s identification of human being solely with intellect, pointing out that the same person perceives herself both to understand and to sense. “This human understands” does not actually emphasize any deep reflexivity, only individuality.

Aquinas approves of the fact that for Averroes, intellect is in some way united with the body, but argues that because for Averroes that union occurs only through a working of intellect on the contents of imagination, the human individual for Averroes does not herself think. On the other hand, Black argues that Aquinas does not take into account the fact that although what Aquinas himself calls imagination is an entirely passive reception of images, the contents of imagination for Averroes have a much more active character. For Averroes, according to Black, it is the active character of the contents of imagination that manifests human self-awareness. Because Aquinas views imagination as entirely passive, he refuses to acknowledge any credibility to this at all, claiming that the contents of imagination Averroes appeals to are really nothing more than the equivalent of inert colors on an inert wall, and that this makes the human equivalent to a wall.

Averroes compares active intellect to light, and so-called “material” intellect to a transparent medium such as air. Aquinas makes it sound as though the material intellect for Averroes would be analogous to the eye, which would make the material intellect a sort of mind behind our minds. However, Black says Averroes always compared it to a transparent medium, not to the eye. She argues that neither of Averroes’ intellects is a mind or a knower or subject in the modern sense. In her 2004 essay “Models of the Mind: Metaphysical Presuppositions of the Averroist and Thomistic Accounts of Intellection”, she contends that for Averroes, far from being the mind behind our minds that would make us into mere puppets, the material intellect serves as a shared instrument for human agents who individually constitute themselves in imagination.

Averroes’ notion of intellect, Black suggests, is mainly concerned with the constitution of intelligible objects as universals from imaginative content. It does not act as a subject in the modern sense. She cites a number of passages from Aquinas indicating that he, too, often treated intellect as an instrument, rather than as our very essence. (See also Parts of the Soul; Aristotelian Subjectivity Revisited.)

Potential Intellect?

I like to imagine Aristotelian and Kantian judgment flowing together. Moreover, I like to think that for both of them, thought is first and foremost an open-ended, discursive process of interpretation, and ultimately value judgment.

Applying Spinoza’s notion of conatus to Kant, Longuenesse well captures the idea that the Kantian unity of apperception as an achieved state is only a constantly renewed aim. The difference between what she calls the “mere capacity to judge” in Kant and what Aristotle means by thought that “is not actively any of the things that are until it thinks” basically comes down to the difference between a Kantian capacity and an Aristotelian being-in-potentiality. These notions are clearly related both conceptually and historically, but I have recently dwelt quite a bit on various historical transformations of what I take to be the Aristotelian notion of potentiality.

The latter would consist in something like multiform, branching spaces of alternate conditionals, with gradients of difference and consequence, affecting the actualization of ends and constituting a metaphorical topography of relative densities of possibility in our actual world. A Kantian capacity — even one that defines us — is still in some sense a capability we discretely “have”, whereas an Aristotelian potentiality pertains to our being, but also at the same time to that of the world we inhabit.

Aristotelian “thought” — commonly translated “intellect” — has been quite variously interpreted, and often fused with notions of neoplatonic or Augustinian provenance. Aristotle’s own texts dealing with it are quite minimalist. The relatively most extensive one is in On the Soul. I would complement it with what he says about practical judgment and ethos in the Ethics, and about the pursuit of wisdom in book Alpha of the Metaphysics. I take it to refer not to a mind-entity, or an intuitive knowledge, or an engine of predetermined reasoning, but rather to a discursive potentiality, an engagement in thought and valuation and earnest search, and the ethical “spirit” that is the undying essence of a human being.

Aristotle on the Soul

“Since we consider knowledge to be something beautiful and honored, and one sort more so than another either on account of its precision or because it is about better and more wondrous things, on both accounts we should with good reason rank the inquiry about the soul among the primary studies. And it seems that acquaintance with it contributes greatly toward all truth and especially the truth about nature, since the soul is in some way the governing source of living things” (On the Soul I.1, Sachs trans., p. 47).

“But altogether in every way the soul is one of the most difficult things to get any assurance about” (ibid).

“But first, perhaps, it is necessary to decide in which general class it is, and what it is — I mean whether it is an independent thing and a this, or a quality or quantity or some other one of the distinct ways of attributing being to anything, and further whether it whether it belongs among things having being in potency or is rather some sort of being-at-work-staying-itself; for this makes no small difference. And one must also examine whether it is divisible or without parts, and whether all soul is of the same kind, or, if it is not of the same kind, whether souls differ as forms of one general class, or in their general classes. For those who now speak and inquire about the soul seem to consider only the human soul, but one must be on the lookout so that it does not escape notice whether there is one articulation of soul, just as of living thing, or a different one for each, as for horse, dog, human being, and god, while a living thing in general is either nothing at all or a later concern — as would similarly be in question if any other common name were applied.”

“Again, if there are not many souls but parts of one soul, one must consider whether one ought to inquire first about the soul as a whole or about the parts. But it is difficult even to distinguish, among these, which sorts are by nature different from one another, and whether one ought first to inquire about the parts or about the work they do: the thinking or the intellect, the sensing or the sense, and so on in the other cases. But if the work the parts do comes first, one might next be at a loss whether one ought to inquire about the objects of these, such as the thing sensed before the sense, and the thing thought before the intellect. But not only does it seem that knowing what something is would be useful for studying the causes of the things that follow from its thinghood (just as in mathematics, it is useful to know what straight and curved are and what a line and a plane are, for learning how many right angles the angles of a triangle are equal to), but it seems too, on the contrary, that those properties that follow contribute in great part to knowing what the thing is, for it is when we are able to give an account of what is evident about the properties, either all or most of them, that we will be able to speak most aptly about the thinghood of the thing. For in every demonstration the starting point is what something is, so it is clear that those definitions that do not lead to knowing the properties, nor even making them easy to guess at, are formulated in a merely logical way and are all empty.”

“And there is also an impasse about the attributes of the soul, whether all of them belong in common to it and to the thing that has the soul, or any of them belong to the soul alone. It is necessary to take this up, though it is not easy, but it does seem that with most of its attributes, the soul neither does anything nor has anything done to it without the body, as with being angry, being confident, desiring, and every sort of sensing, though thinking seems most of all to belong to the soul by itself; but if this is also some sort of imagination, it would not be possible for even this to be without the body. Now if any of the kinds of work the soul does or any of the things that happen to it happen to it alone, it would be possible for the soul to be separated; but if nothing belongs to it alone, it could not be separate, but in the same way that many things are properties of the straight line as straight, such as touching a sphere at a point, still no separated straight line will touch a bronze sphere in that way, since it is inseparable, if it is always with some sort of body.”

“But all the attributes of the soul seem also to be with a body — spiritedness, gentleness, fear, pity, boldness, and also joy, as well as loving and hating — for together with these the body undergoes something. This is revealed when strong and obvious experiences do not lead to the soul’s being provoked or frightened, while sometimes it is moved by small and obscure ones, when the body is in an excited state and bears itself in the way it does when it is angry. And this makes it still more clear: for when nothing frightening is happening there arise among the feelings of the soul those of one who is frightened. But if this is so, it is evident that the attributes of the soul have materiality in the very statements of them, so that their definitions would be of this sort: being angry is a certain motion of such-and-such a body or part or faculty, moved by this for the sake of that. So already on this account the study concerning the soul belongs to the one who studies nature, either all soul or at least this sort of soul.”

“But the one who studies nature and the logician would define each attribute of the soul differently, for instance what anger is. The one would say it is a craving for revenge, or some such thing, while the other would say it is a boiling of the blood and a heat around the heart. Of these, the one gives an account of the material, the other of the form and meaning. For the one is the articulation of the thing, but this has to be in a certain sort of material if it is to be at all. In the same way, while the meaning of a house is of this sort, a shelter that protects from damage by wind, rain, and the sun’s heat, another person will say that it is stones, bricks, and lumber, and yet another will say that the form is in these latter things for the sake of those former ones.”

“Which of these is the one who studies nature? Is it the one concerned with the material who ignores the meaning or the one concerned with the meaning alone? Or is it rather the one who is concerned with what arises out of both? Or is there not just one sort of person concerned with the attributes of material that are not separate nor even treated as separate, but the one who studies nature is concerned with all the work done by and things done to a certain kind of body or material” (pp. 48-51).

“But since people define the soul most of all by two distinct things, by motion with respect to place and by thinking, understanding, and perceiving, while thinking and understanding seem as though they are some sort of perceiving (for in both of these ways the soul discriminates and recognizes something about being), and the ancients even say that understanding and perceiving are the same — as Empedocles has said ‘wisdom grows for humans as a result of what is present around them’, and elsewhere ‘from this a changed understanding is constantly becoming present to them’, and Homer’s ‘such is the mind’ means the same thing as these, for they all assume that thinking is something bodily like perceiving, and that perceiving and understanding are of like by like, as we described in the chapters at the beginning (and yet they ought to have spoken at the same time about making mistakes as well, for this is more native to living things and the soul goes on for more time in this condition, and thus it would necessarily follow either, as some say, that everything that appears is true, or that a mistake is contact with what is unlike, since that is opposite to recognizing like by like, though it seems that the same mistake, or the same knowledge, concerns opposite things) — nevertheless it is clear that perceiving and understanding are not the same thing, since all animals share in the former, but few in the latter.”

“And neither is thinking the same as perceiving, for in thinking there is what is right and what is not right” (III.3, pp. 132-133).

“About the part of the soul by which the soul knows and understands, whether it is a separate part, or not separate the way a magnitude is but in its meaning, one must consider what distinguishing characteristic it has, and how thinking ever comes about…. [I]ntellect has no nature at all other than this, that it is a potency. Therefore the aspect of the soul that is called intellect (and I mean by intellect that by which the soul thinks things through and conceives that something is the case) is not actively any of the things that are until it thinks. This is why it is not reasonable that it be mixed with the body…. And it is well said that the soul is a place of forms, except that this is not the whole soul but the thinking soul, and it is not the forms in its being-at-work-staying-itself, but in potency.”

“The absence of attributes is not alike in the perceptive and thinking potencies; this is clear in its application to the sense organs and to perception. For the sense is unable to perceive anything from an excessive perceptible thing, neither any sound from loud sounds, nor to see or smell anything from strong colors and odors, but when the intellect thinks something exceedingly intelligible it is not less able to think the lesser things but even more able, since the perceptive potency is not present without a body, but the potency to think is separate from the body. And when the intellect has come to be each intelligible thing, as the knower is said to do when he is a knower in the active sense (and this happens when he is able to put his knowing to work on its own), the intellect is even then in a sense those objects in potency, but not in the same way it was before it learned and discovered them, and it is then able to think itself” (III.4, pp. 138-140).

“And it is itself intelligible in the same way its intelligible objects are, for in the case of things without material what thinks and what is thought are the same thing, for contemplative knowing and what is known in that way are the same thing (and one must consider the reason why this sort of thinking is not always happening); but among things having material, each of them is potentially something intelligible, so that there is no intellect present in them (since intellect is a potency to be such things without their material), but there is present in them something intelligible” (p. 142).

“Knowledge, in its being-at-work, is the same as the thing it knows, and while knowledge in potency comes first in time in any one knower, in the whole of things it does not take precedence even in time. This does not mean that at one time it thinks but at another time it does not think, but when separated it is just exactly what it is, and this alone is deathless and everlasting (though we have no memory, because this sort of intellect is not acted upon, while the sort that is acted upon is destructible), and without this nothing thinks” (III.5, pp. 142-143).

Proclus’ Elements

The later neoplatonist Proclus (412-485 CE) was head of the Platonic Academy in Athens, at a time when the Athenian Academy was somewhat notorious as the intellectual center of resistance to the spread of Christianity in the Roman Empire. Nonetheless, his work had a profound influence on the Arabic, Byzantine, and Latin traditions. He is usually cited as the main philosophical influence on the early Christian theologian pseudo-Dionysius, who was taken very seriously by Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas.

Proclus wrote extensive commentaries on Plato, as well as an influential commentary on book 1 of Euclid’s Elements of Geometry. Hegel called him the greatest dialectician of antiquity. Though I think Hegel by his own principles really should have given that title to Aristotle, Hegel was right to recognize Proclus as important.

Aquinas is credited with recognizing that the Latin Book of Causes — a translation of the Arabic Discourse on the Pure Good — was mostly derived from Proclus’ Elements of Theology. Aquinas treated Proclus himself with considerable respect. Dietrich of Freiberg made significant use of his work, and his student Berthold of Moosburg wrote a very long commentary interpreting the Elements of Theology in Christian terms. The Renaissance theologian Nicolas of Cusa and the maverick Giordano Bruno were much inspired by Proclus.

Along with Spinoza’s Ethics, Proclus’ Elements shares the peculiar distinction of being written in a style visibly influenced by Euclid’s Elements. Euclid’s work has often been cited as a sort of paradigm of demonstrative reasoning. Though Proclus, unlike Spinoza, did not work from explicit definitions and postulates and used a looser style of demonstration, his Elements consists of theorems and a sort of demonstrations.

Proclus defends the neoplatonic idea of a One that transcends being, but as Gwenaëlle Aubry and Laurent Lavaud point out in the introduction to the French collection Relire les Éléments de théologie de Proclus (2021), perhaps his most influential idea is that of a very strong continuity from the highest principles to the most mundane effects, which has been read as a strong assertion of immanence as well as transcendence. He is an important source for all the later theological traditions that want to argue for simultaneous immanence and transcendence.

Proclus very explicitly crystallizes what I have called the generalized “unmoved mover” model of causality in Plotinus. For Proclus, “higher” and “lower” causes cooperate in the constitution of worldly things, but the higher cause is always more of a cause than the lower cause. At the same time, he rejects Plotinus’ identification of matter with evil, while emphasizing all of Plotinus’ more positive affirmations of the goodness of manifestation and the beauty of the cosmos.

In a separate treatise On Providence, he develops a sort of epistemic analogue to the generalized unmoved mover theory. “Providence” (pronoia — literally, “forethought”) is a knowledge-like thing that is superior to knowledge in that it is supposed to be eternal and unextended, and to involve no separation of what we might call subject and object. Proclus develops a subtle and suggestive account of something metaphorically like implicit, unextended “seeds” of forms within the overflowing of the One that transcends all extended form. While the One does not “know” worldly things, it “pre-knows” their unextended “seeds”, within something like what Schelling later paradoxically called the identity of identity and nonidentity.

In the Elements, Proclus argues for an interdependence of being, life, and intellect. While one obvious reading of this would emphasize a foundational role of spiritual beings in Proclus’ metaphysics, I am intrigued that it can also be interpreted as a somewhat “deflationary” account of being, closer to Aristotle, and far removed from later notions of pure abstract existence. We can’t begin to have an account of being, without also having an account of life and intellect. With his endorsement of a One beyond “being”, Proclus had no need for a commitment to a notion of pure “being”.

Aristotelian Actualization

Having just concluded a series broadly on the actualization of freedom in Hegel, I’d like to say a few words on the Aristotelian roots of the important concept of actualization. A discussion of actualization is arguably the centerpiece of Aristotle’s diverse lecture notes related to first philosophy placed by the editor “after the physics”, which came to be traditionally called Metaphysics. From that discussion, actualization is clearly a process, and comes in degrees.

Aristotle also made the pregnant remark that while what he called soul is the “first actuality” or “activity” of the body (associated with its life), intelligence or reason (associated especially with language and ethics) is a kind of second actuality of a human being.

For all Aristotle’s praise of the soul, unlike Plato he did not treat it as an independent substance. It is only the hylomorphic unity of soul and body that gets this key designation. As I read him, things like soul and intellect are complex adverbial and ultimately normative characterizations expressing how we function and act in relation to ends. They are made into nouns only as a matter of convenience.

Aristotle distinguished stages of actualization. In a famous example, an unschooled youth has the potential to learn geometry. Someone who has already acquired an understanding of geometry has the potential to use it. This is an intermediate degree of actualization. In someone who is actively using such an understanding in work on a proof, there is said to be a higher degree of actualization.

This already suggests a kind of process of development that is not reducible to the model of simple organic growth (in which Aristotle was also quite interested). Rather, he approaches such developments in terms of his notion of dialectical inquiry or cumulative exploratory reasoning about concrete meanings in the absence of initial certainty, which in my view is the essential kernel from which Hegel’s very extensive original (and sometimes confusing) development of “dialectic” proceeded.

Commentators on Aristotle like Alexander of Aphrodisias (2nd century CE) and al-Farabi (10th century CE) further refined this notion of degrees of actualization, especially with regard to intelligence or reason. In the Latin tradition, this was taken up especially by the school of Albert the Great. These writers tended to hypostatize intellect as something transcendent or even divine to which the human soul could nonetheless become progressively “joined”, approximating something like the seamless hylomorphic unity of soul and body. But it is possible to put such claims of strong transcendence in brackets, while focusing on the detailed dialectical development of notions of progressive mixture, layers, and stages. These medieval notions of layered actualization seem to lead in a very different and more interesting direction than the tedious cliché of the “Great Chain of Being”.

Be that as it may, the essential point is that in Aristotle himself, actualization is discussed dialectically rather than in terms of organic growth. (See also Actuality; Second Nature; Parts of the Soul; Intelligence from Outside; Fortunes of Aristotle.)

Pseudo-Dionysius on the Soul

In the 13th century, Christian theologians worried in varying degrees about the way “the” Commentator, Averroes, tended to separate intellect from the individual human soul (see digression on this aspect of Averroes in What Is “I”?) — enough so that the reception of Aristotle into the Latin world was for a time threatened. Aquinas wrote a famous little treatise in 1270 On the Unity of the Intellect, mustering as many arguments as possible for a reading of Aristotle that avoided this separation, and gave each soul its own individual intellect. Due to the minimalist nature of Aristotle’s own account, the argument has continued to the present day. Both sides of the dispute have some textual basis on their side. Supported by Augustinian orthodoxy and the writings of Avicenna, the theologians generally argued for a strongly unified intellectual soul. Part of their concern seems to have been a clearly nonphilosophical one, having to do with moral justification of the possible eternal damnation of a human. More purely philosophical readers of Aristotle tended to be less worried about these matters.

The French Thomist scholar E. H. Wéber wrote a couple of fascinating books, L’Homme en Discussion a l’Université de Paris en 1270 (1970) and La Personne Humaine au XIIIe Siècle (1991), about the way Aquinas in this context also, rather unexpectedly, drew on the early Christian neoplatonic writings attributed to a fictitious Greek disciple of the apostle Paul called Dionysius the Areopagite.

Both Albert the Great and Aquinas made considerable use of pseudo-Dionysius in their theology. A bit like Augustine in this regard, pseudo-Dionysius had a strong neoplatonic notion of divine illumination in the soul. As with intellect in Averroes, this also comes from outside, but unlike anything in Averroes, it involves a direct relation between God and the soul. Wéber argued that this played a larger role in the thought of Aquinas than has been generally recognized, and it does seem to me that when Aquinas talks about the natural light of reason, it has something of the character of a divine illumination, quite different from the mainly linguistic, social, and ethical view of reason I find in Aristotle. This view of reason as divine illumination in the soul did not require any “separate” intellect, leaving Aquinas free to argue that both the active and the potential intellect were strictly parts of the individual soul.

Wéber recounts that Aquinas (like Albert) was initially only moderately concerned about the views of Averroes on the soul, but later took a stronger position, harshly condemning this aspect of Averroes’ thought. Politically speaking, it seems that Aristotle had to be separated from Averroes on this matter, in order to make Aristotle safe for Christianity at the time. Matters of theological diplomacy were an important practical part of the unity of truth in Aquinas. Whatever we think of this particular development, we should be grateful to Aquinas for his role in historically securing Latin acceptance of Aristotle. (See also Archaeology of the Subject; Intelligence from Outside; Parts of the Soul; God and the Soul; Fortunes of Aristotle; Errors of the Philosophers; Subject; Mind Without Mentalism. )

Unconscious Intellect?

If intellect in a broadly Aristotelian sense is at least partly nonpsychological and has a significant linguistic/cultural/social/historical aspect, how does the nonpsychological aspect relate to the psychological aspect?

Many 20th century authors, from Frege and Husserl to Lacan, sharply rejected the idea that thought should be approached primarily in psychological terms. Also, we should not consider the individual psyche to be like an island with unambiguous boundaries. Aristotle uses the single word ethos (the main subject matter of “ethics” in his view) both for individual acquired character and for culture. Character is a sort of micro-culture. Plato already famously compared the soul to a city.

Beatrice Longuenesse, who previously wrote a marvelous book on the Kantian transcendental deduction, recently suggested an unexpected connection between Kantian transcendental considerations and Freudian metapsychology. Meanwhile, at the end of the day, Kant ends up relatively closer to Aristotelian ethics than it would first appear. (Many scholars have debated the fine points of this, and Nancy Sherman wrote a whole book on it.) So what about an Aristotelian metapsychology?

Actually, it seems to me that Aristotle is more interested in metapsychology than in what we call psychology, and that his views on thought are better considered in this light. Frege and Husserl might part company with us here, but logically oriented criticisms of psychologism do not rule out all uses of metapsychology (or even psychology, for that matter).

Intelligence from Outside

I very much like Aristotle’s cryptic remark in De Anima about intellect coming to us “from outside”. Intellect is very far from purely belonging to the individual psyche. On other grounds, I think our very notions of self only emerge through social interaction, and not any sort of originary intuition.

In a certain sense, then, specifically human as distinct from animal intelligence is already artificial in the sense that its basis is not purely organic. It cannot be separated from our acquisition of language and culture.

Where there is still a difference between human intelligence and anything in a computational domain is in the normative, practical dimension of human reason, which does not seem to be susceptible to formalization. Practical judgment (phronesis) cannot be programmed. (See also What Is “I”?)