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”.

Split Subject, Contradiction

The Žižekians, referencing Lacan, like to talk about a “split subject” that is noncoincident with itself. In broad terms, I think this is useful. What we call subjectivity is divided, and lacking in strong unity. (See also Pure Negativity?; Acts in Brandom and Žižek.) But it seems to me that if we try to speak carefully about this, we should not then go on using singular articles like “the” or “a”.

I tend to think subjectivity is not just fractured or un-whole, but also actually consists of a complex overlay of different things that we tend to blur together. In particular, it seems clear to me that a common-sense, biographical “self” whose relative unity over time is trackable by relation to the “same” physical body — or by Lockean continuity of memory — is not the same as what we might in a given moment view from a distance as an individualized ethos, or up close as a unity of apperception. This is, I believe, the same distinction that Brandom discusses in terms of sentience and sapience.

Ethos and unity of apperception, and their constituent values and conceptions — the very things that most properly say “I”, and play the functional role of an ethical “subject”, or of a subject of knowledge — are profoundly involved with language, social relations, and what Lacan in his earlier work called the Symbolic and the “Other”. These instances of sapience are pure forms whose identity can only be expressed in terms of sameness of form — nonempirical, but inseparable from a larger ethical world — and simultaneously intimate to us, but by no means strictly “ours”. (See also Self, Subject.)

Where I am still a bit torn is that I also feel that emotions — which I’ve been locating on the former, “self” side — are fundamental to subjectivity as a whole, but I have theoretically separated them from the main locus of transcendental ethical and epistemic subjectivity, even though they play an essential role in making it possible. One logical solution would be to say this just means subjectivity as a whole is more than just ethical and epistemic. Another would be to say that there is a separate kind of emotional subjectivity. I’m not entirely satisfied yet, because I think feeling combines these, but the noncoincidence of our factual selves with our ethical and epistemic being seems very important in understanding how we overcome empirical limitations.

The Žižekians will perhaps remind us that they were not talking about a split between self and subject, but about a split within the subject. I think we habitually overstate the degree of unity and identity we attribute to selves, subjects, and things in general, so I’m fine with that, too. They also want to expand this into a general “ontological” point, which I see as a semantic point.

Perhaps the Žižekians are more comfortable talking about “a” or “the” subject in part due to their doctrine of the ubiquity of contradiction. Todd McGowan in Emancipation After Hegel (2019) nicely distinguishes the Žižekian notion from the old confusion between contradiction and conflict or polarity — and from immediate self-contradiction — but still wants to maintain that the standard logical law of noncontradiction ultimately “refutes itself”, and that Hegel thought this as well. This argument combines a laudable awareness of some of the practical issues with identity, with a logically invalid use of the distinction between explicit and implicit self-contradiction.

Hegel meditated profoundly on the difficulties of applying logic to meaningful content and to real life. He strained language to the breaking point trying to express his conclusions.

On the frontiers of mathematical logic today, the so-called law of identity has been replaced by a requirement to specify identity criteria for each formally defined type, and identity in general has been weakened to isomorphism. (See also Form as a Unique Thing.)

Real-world applications of strong identity typically involve loose “extensional” reference to things assumed to be the same, and a lot of forgetting. The linchpin of old “identity thinking” was inattention to difficulties of formalization from ordinary language — basically an illegitimate moving back and forth between formal and informal domains, resulting in lots of homogenizing confusion of things that ought to be distinct. Weaker, “intensional” assertions about identity as specifiable sameness of form make it the exception rather than the rule. What come first conceptually are distinctions within the manifold, not pre-synthesized things already possessed of identity. Where things are not the same to begin with, contradiction — far from being omnipresent — is not even potentially at issue. (See also Self-Evidence?)

Meanwhile, Sellars and Brandom have revived material inference about meant realities in contrast to formal logic, which deals with purely syntactic relations between presumed extensional “things” with presumed identity. Things Kant and Hegel said about Understanding and Reason can be nicely understood in terms of the relation between syntactic inference about symbolic terms standing for formless extensional “things” and substantive, material inference about the actual form of meant realities. Especially in the reading of Hegel, not having the resource of this distinction available now seems positively crippling.

Finally, Aristotle, who originated the law of noncontradiction as a kind of ethical imperative, and stands in the background to all of Hegel’s discussions of logic, was himself rather cautious and tentative about applying identity to real things, and in his logic was also mainly concerned with (composition of) material inferences, which have more to do with the actual form of things .

Hegel never violated Aristotle’s imperative not to say opposite things about the same thing said in the same way. What he did was to constantly point out the gap between reality and traditional semi-formal logic applied to ordinary language — not to encourage us to reject logic, but rather to refine and sublimate it. (See also Aristotelian and Hegelian Dialectic.)

Aristotle and Brandom?

For the second time, I think I discovered a significant new insight into a major Aristotelian concept by thinking it through in Brandomian terms. When I began this effort, Aristotle and Brandom were just the two philosophers with whom I was most engaged, who seemed to me to share my overarching concern with the ethical import of reasons and things said, but it is growing to be something more.

(To some, this might seem a strange pairing. However, in spite of his own lack of direct engagement with Aristotle, Brandom has commented that a number of his best interlocutors (unnamed) were what he called neo-Aristotelians. Certainly, Hegel — the historic philosopher with whom Brandom has been most engaged — makes major use of Aristotle, and Brandom’s co-thinkers on Hegel, Robert Pippin and Terry Pinkard, have highlighted this.)

Earlier, I noted a kind of isomorphism between Aristotelian potentiality and Brandomian modally robust counterfactual inference, which then turned into a three-way correspondence with the structuralist concept of structure, and helped illuminate the old synchronic/diachronic issue associated with structuralism.

The other day, I noted a second isomorphism, between canonical Aristotelian proposition-forming combination and separation and Brandomian material consequence and material incompatibility. The result is that Aristotle’s canonical conception of logical truth seems very consistent with what Brandom recommends, in terms of using goodness of material inference to explain truth rather than using truth to explain inference.

Brandom has referred to this sort of interpretation as a recollective genealogy, grounded in Hegel’s way of retrospectively interpreting past philosophers in light of the present. Obviously there is a creative element to such an endeavor. The important and delicate point is that it not be an arbitrary imposition, but something that yields genuine insight that is both relevant to the present and honestly compatible with the best historiographic objectivity we can fallibly attain. In the two cases mentioned above, I think that has been achieved.

Going in the other direction, developing an Aristotelian interpretation of Brandom’s distinction between sentience and sapience has helped me to achieve full sympathy with this notion, and with several of Kant’s apparently dualistic moments as well.

Somewhat ambidextrously, it seems to me that Brandomian commitments, together with the sort of pattern of performance with respect to responsibility measured by Brandomian deontic scorekeeping, make up the ethical character or culture that Aristotle called ethos. (See also Ethos; Aristotelian Subjectivity; Brandomian Choice.)