Whitehead: Process, Events

The originally British mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947) was profoundly concerned with the inter-relatedness of things. His later “philosophy of organism” inspired a movement of so-called “process theology”.

Whitehead was one of the inventors of universal algebra, which extends algebraic principles to symbolic representations of things that are not numbers. He collaborated with Bertrand Russell on the famous Principia Mathematica (1910, 1912, 1913) , which sought to ground all of mathematics in the new mathematical logic, but was less attached than Russell to the goal of reducing math to logic.

He did work in electrodynamics and the theory of relativity, emphasizing a holistic approach and the nonlocal character of electromagnetic phenomena. Counter to the spirit of the time, he developed a philosophy of science that aimed to be faithful to our intuitions of the interconnectedness of nature. He characterized mathematics as the abstract study of patterns of connectedness. In Science and the Modern World (1926), rejecting the world views of Newton and Hume as understood by the logical empiricists, he developed alternatives to then-dominant atomistic causal reductionism and sensationalist empiricism. Eventually, he turned to what he and others called metaphysics.

His Process and Reality (1929) is a highly technical work that is full of interesting insights and remarks. It aims to present a logically coherent system that radicalizes the work of John Locke in particular, but also that of Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz. As with many systematic works, however, it doesn’t engage in depth with the work of other philosophers.

Whitehead’s radicalization involves, among other things, a systematic rejection of mind-body dualism; of representationalism; of metaphysical applications of the subject-predicate distinction; and of Locke’s distinction between “primary” (mathematical) and “secondary” (nonmathematical) qualities. Plato and Aristotle both get positive mention. Whitehead thoroughly repudiates the sensationalist direction in which Hume took Locke’s work; aims deliberately to be “pre-Kantian”; and seems to utterly ignore Hegel, though he gives positive mention to the “absolute idealist” F. H. Bradley.

He wants to promote a thoroughgoing causal realism and to avoid any subjectivism, while eventually taking subjective factors into account. He wants to reinterpret “stubborn fact” on a coherentist basis. He is impressed by the work of Bergson, and of the pragmatists William James and John Dewey.

For Whitehead, “experience” encompasses everything, but he gives this an unusual meaning. Experience need not involve consciousness, sensation, or thought. He stresses the realist side of Locke, and wants to apply some of Locke’s analysis of the combination of ideas to realities in general.

He says that the world consists fundamentally of “actual entities” or “actual occasions” or “concrescences”, which he compares to Descartes’ extended substances. However, he interprets Einstein’s theory of relativity as implying that substances mutually contain one another, a bit like the monads in Leibniz.

For Whitehead, every actual entity has a kind of self-determination, which is intended to explain both human freedom and quantum indeterminacy. On the other hand, he also says God is the source of novelty in the universe. Whitehead recognizes what he calls eternal objects, which he compares to Platonic ideas, and identifies with potentiality.

Compared to the Aristotelian notions of actuality and potentiality I have been developing here, his use of actuality and potentiality seems rather thin. Actuality is just factuality viewed in terms of the connections of things, and potentiality consisting in eternal objects amounts to a kind of abstract possibility. His notion of causality seems to be a relatively standard modern efficient causality, modified only by his emphasis on connections between things and his idea of the self-determination of actual entities. His philosophy of science aims to be value-free, although he allows a place for values in his metaphysics.

According to Whitehead, perception has two distinct modes — that of presentational immediacy, and that of causal efficacy. Humean sensationalism, as codified by early 20th century theories of “sense data”, tries to reduce everything to presentational immediacy, but it is our intuitions of causal efficacy that connect things together into the medium-sized wholes recognized by common sense. As far as it goes, I can only applaud this move away from presentational immediacy, though I have also tried to read Hume in a less reductionist way. (I also want to go further, beyond intuitions of efficient causality in the modern sense, to questions of the constitution of meaning and value that I think are more general.)

In his later works, he emphasizes a more comprehensive notion of feeling, which he sees as grounded in subjective valuations, glossed as having to do with how we take various eternal objects. Compared to the logical empiricism that dominated at the time, this is intriguing, but I want to take the more radically Aristotelian (and, I would argue, also Kantian) view that values or ends (which are themselves subjects of inquiry, not simply given) also ultimately drive the constitution of things we call objective. I also don’t see “metaphysics” as a separate domain that would support the consideration of values, over and above a “science” that would ostensibly be value-free.

Whitehead considered the scientific reductionism of his day to exemplify what he called the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness”. What I think he wanted to question by this was the idea that scientific abstractions are more real or more true than common-sense apprehensions of concrete things. I would phrase it a bit differently, but the outcome is the same. Abstractions can have great interpretive value, but they are things entirely produced by us that have value because they help us understand concrete things that are more independent of us.

Attempting to take into account the idea from quantum mechanics that reality is not only relational but also granular, he made what is to me the peculiar statement that “the ultimate metaphysical truth is atomism”. Whitehead is certainly not alone in this kind of usage; indeed, the standard modern physical notion of “atoms” allows them to have parts and internal structure. That concept is fine in itself, but “atom” is a terrible name for it, because “atom” literally means “without parts”. The word “atom” ought to denote something analogous to a point in geometry, lacking any internal features or properties whatsoever.

Be that as it may, Whitehead sees an analogy between the granularity of events in quantum mechanics and the “stream of consciousness” analyzed by William James. “Your acquaintance with reality grows literally by buds or drops of perception. Intellectually and on reflection you can divide these into components, but as immediately given, they come totally or not at all” (Process and Reality, p. 68). To me, this is an expression not of atomism but of a kind of irreducibility of medium-sized things.

Anyway, Whitehead’s “atomic” things are events. Larger events are composed of smaller events, but he wants to say there is such a thing as a minimal event, which still may have internal complexity, and to identify this with his notion of actual occasion or actual entity.

I like the identification of “entities” with occasions. For Whitehead, these are a sort of what I call “medium-sized” chunks of extension in space-time. Whitehead’s minimal events are nonpunctual.

Freed of its scholastic rigidifications, this is close to what the Aristotelian notion of “primary substance” was supposed to be. I think of the latter as a handle for a bundle of adverbial characterizations that has a kind of persistence — or better, resilience — in the face of change. Only as a bundle does it have this kind of resilience.

Although — consistent with the kind of grounding in scientific realism he is still aiming at — Whitehead emphasizes the extensional character of actual occasions, they implicitly incorporate a good deal of intensional (i.e., meaning-oriented, as distinguished from mathematical-physical) character as well. Following Brandom’s reading of Kant on the primacy of practical reason, I think it is better to explain extensional properties in terms of intensional ones, rather than vice versa. But I fully agree with Whitehead that “how an actual entity becomes constitutes what that actual entity is” (p. 23, emphasis in original), and I think Aristotle and Hegel would, too.

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Whitehead’s work was attractive to theologians especially because it offered an alternative to the traditional notion of an omnipotent God creating everything from nothing. Whitehead argued that the Christian Gospel emphasizes the “tenderness” of God, rather than dominion and power: “not… the ruling Caesar, or the ruthless moralist, or the unmoved mover. It dwells upon the tender elements in the world, which slowly and in quietness operate by love” (p. 343). “The purpose of God is the attainment of value in the world” (Whitehead, Religion in the Making, p. 100). God for Whitehead is a gentle persuader, not a ruler.

(I would not put unmoved moving in anywhere near the same bucket as ruling omnipotence. Unmoved moving in Aristotle is attraction or inspiration by a pure end, where all the motion occurs in the moved thing. It is not some kind of ruling force that drives things.)

Consciousness, Personhood

There is a common modern view that aims to explain who I am in terms of my consciousness. Locke, who popularized his friend the Cambridge Platonist Ralph Cudworth’s coinage of the new English word “consciousness”, already seems to have thought this way. Historically, a gradual increase in emphasis on the immediate awareness central to the thought of Descartes and Locke can be traced through Plotinus, Augustine, Avicenna, and the Latin scholastics. The curious thing is that consciousness is commonly supposed to be both a sort of universal transparent medium of experience and the locus of our personal self. I don’t think it is either of these.

I want to question the claim that there is any universal transparent medium of experience. It seems to me that the multitude of forms of awareness we experience is rooted more concretely in particular “contents”, rather than in a medium that allegedly contains them. In Lockean terms, particular kinds of awareness would be built into particular “ideas”. Ideas would no longer be inert representations as they are for Locke, but would have an active aspect of their own. In Aristotelian terms, I think the primary locus of human awareness is in our “imaginings” (see Imagination, Emotion, Opinion).

Personhood, I want to say, is neither psychological nor metaphysical but rather primarily ethical in nature. Who we are comes not from our consciousness but from our character and what we do. With respect to character, this is almost a tautology, but that is kind of the point.

Character is not inborn but acquired. It is Aristotelian ethos as particularly manifested in individuals. Ethos begins as a social acquisition of culture, but everyone completes it for themselves through the detail of their ethical practice.

The Act of Thought

Volume 3 part 1 of Alain de Libera’s Archéologie du sujet carries subtitles translating to The Act of Thought for volume 3 overall, and The Double Revolution for part 1. The cast of major characters will include Averroes, Aquinas, and the Scottish philosopher of common sense Thomas Reid (1710-1796). This tome is packed with extremely interesting material. It also appears to me to intersect with the important work of Gwenaëlle Aubry on the historical transformation of Aristotelian potentiality and actuality into a neoplatonic notion of power and a more modern notion of action. At the time part 1 was published (2014), part 2 was supposed to be a few months away, and de Libera announced titles for volumes 4 through 7. Instead, he has since published three volumes of related lectures at the College de France.

“The philosophers pose all sorts of questions concerning thought. Who thinks? Am I the author of my thoughts? What is the place of thought? What is its theater or its scene? In what way are the thoughts that come from me or that I have mine? Am I the owner of my thought? In sum: is it necessary to say ‘I think’ with Descartes, or ‘it thinks’ with [Belgian new wave musician] Plastic Bertrand, [and philosophers like] Lichtenberg, Schelling, and Schlick? It seems natural to us to believe that the act of thinking takes place in us. ‘Takes place‘ says a lot. That which takes place is [emphasis added]. Being is having a place of being — in other words: it is having (a) reason for being. But what takes place also happens. What takes place in us happens in us, is produced, is effectuated, is accomplished in us. What takes places in us is in us, in whatever way that it has being. It certainly seems natural to believe that since the act of thinking takes place in us, it begins and is completed in us. In us, that is to say in our soul (if we are religious), in our spirit (if we know the French for Mind), or in some part of us (if we [participated in the May 1968 Paris uprising]).”

“There is nothing ‘natural’ in all this. All these beliefs are cultural, and historically constructed. They are assimilated philosophical theses, philosophemes neither proven as such nor a fortiori proven as historical constructs, philosophemes (learned theorems, technical injunctions, theoretical words of order) lived without justification as immediate givens of consciousness, as a flower of experience” (p. 13, my translation throughout).

De Libera refers to very strong assertions by Thomas Reid about the common-sense character of all this. Reid explicitly refers to the mind as a subject. It was philosophers, de Libera says, “who decided that this, or that which thinks, was the SUBJECT of an act, the act of thinking. It was philosophers who decided on this subjective basis that this ‘that’ or this ‘it’ could be known as the author or the actor. They did this partly against Aristotle, and partly in the name of Aristotle….”

“The philosophical construction accounts for a fact of experience: we sense ourselves as the principle, that is to say also as the beginning, the point of departure… of our actions, notably, and very particularly of our thought. But exactly in accounting for this fact, the philosopher encodes it, and never ceases throughout history to re-encode it, to complicate it, to invest in it and reinvest in it linguistically, conceptually, argumentatively.”

‘Denomination’ is one of the keys of this code” (p. 15). “According to Reid, to say that an agent x acts on a thing y is to say that a power or force exercised by x produces or has a tendency to produce a change in y. What is particularly interesting for an archaeology of the subject-agent of thought is that this schema does not apply to perception” (p. 17).

According to Reid, when we perceive objects, the objects don’t act on the mind, and the mind doesn’t act on the objects. To be perceived is an external denomination. According to de Libera, in the language of the Latin scholastics, causal denomination finds its main application in the domain of action. An action denominates its agent causally, and not formally or extrinsically. On the other hand, extrinsic denomination applies perfectly to the ontological and noetic analysis of the object of thought.

For most of the scholastics, as for most modern people, the being-thought of a stone is real in the human, but is not real in the stone. But de Libera points out that the great Thomist Cajetan says about thought in the passive sense what Reid says about perception — both the stone and the thinker are only extrinsically denominated by the being-thought of the stone.

As de Libera points out, Averroes and his Latin followers have been understood as arguing that thinking is an extrinsic denomination of the human. “It requires a solid engagement with [Aristotle’s work on the soul] and its Greek, Arabic, Jewish, and Latin interpretive tradition to understand what this means” (p. 22).

Church councils in the 14th and 16th centuries upheld the opposing views of Aquinas as doctrinally correct. According to de Libera, this opened two paths, one leading to Descartes and the “Cartesian subject”, and the other leading to what he calls a Leibnizian notion of subject as the “thing underlying actions”. He says there is also a third path, leading from Averroes to Brentano, who reintroduced the scholastic notion of intentionality in the late 19th century. In this sense, he says the middle ages were more modern than we realize, and modernity is more medieval than we realize.

De Libera notes that Foucault ultimately derived his philosophical use of the word “archaeology” from Kant. Such archaeology is concerned with very Kantian “conditions of possibility”.

Taking the modern notion of “subject” at its point of emergence demands that we look back to the scholastic subjectum and “being in a subject” — not for the pleasure of returning to the middle ages, but in order to understand Descartes in context. It was not actually Descartes who was responsible for the transition from what Heidegger called “subjectity” (simply being a thing standing under something else) to the mental “subjectivity” of an ego.

Incidentally, de Libera points out one of the first uses of the word “subjective” in a modern sense in Martin Schoock, an early Dutch critic of Descartes who objected that Descartes reduced thought to something “subjective”. He quotes Schoock as saying “The reason Descartes brags about is not reason understood in a general sense, but in a subjective sense, that is to say the reason he can consider in himself” (p. 30).

Here I would note that in an interesting little meditation on Averroes called Je phantasme (“I imagine”), de Libera’s former student Jean-Baptiste Brenet points out that general Latin use of the verb cogitare referred primarily to operations of what in Aristotelian terms was called “inner sense”, as distinct from intelligere, which was the standard word for the “thinking” attributed to “intellect”.

(Inner sense is the closest Aristotelian analogue to what Locke more abstractly called “consciousness”. At least in the Arabic commentary tradition, it seems to involve several distinct faculties that all have what Aristotle and the scholastics following him called “imagination” as their common root. These are said to include what animals use in place of reason to make meaningful discriminations such as the nearness of danger, which is not actually given in external sense. Descartes’ own usage of cogito (first person singular of cogitare) basically covers all forms of awareness. It is a commonly repeated “Aristotelian” dictum that nothing comes to be in intellect without first coming to be in sense perception, but de Libera in an earlier volume pointed out that a more accurately Aristotelian version would be that nothing comes to be in intellect without some basis in imagination, and nothing comes to be in imagination without some basis in sense perception.)

Origins of a Subject-Agent

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consciousness in Locke and Hegel

It is not unreasonable to broadly associate the notion of consciousness invented and promoted by Locke with the “Consciousness” whose inadequacies are exposed across the development of Hegel’s Phenomenology. This is probably not clear from my very selective recent mention of Locke, which was focused on his novel approach to personal identity rather than his overall empiricist theory of knowledge, to which I have not done justice either. In addition, Hegel abstracts away Locke’s very prominent emphasis on what he called “ideas”, which are mental representations that Locke takes to be simply given to us in experience. Hegel is able to do this because what Locke calls ideas are supposed to transparently convey whatever they are supposed to represent.

In Hegel’s version, a naive standpoint of everyday “consciousness” is presented as understanding itself as confronting ready-made external objects. These, I take it, are among the things that are supposed to be transparently referred to by Locke’s simply given mental representations. The standpoint of Consciousness in Hegel is entirely superseded from the point of view of its self-understanding, but its practical import is substantially preserved, being refined rather than superseded. The identities and natures of things we interact with — even their qualities — are not simply given to us, but things we interact with do constrain us. That is the push-back of reality that we all genuinely engage with, despite our misapprehension of many subtleties.

One of Hegel’s major points is that any valid discussion of human freedom has to take acknowledgement of that push-back of reality as a starting point. This rules out any notion that we could act with complete arbitrariness, as if in a vacuum. One of Hegel’s other major points is that concrete human capabilities are grounded not in a vacuum, but in concrete potentials already implicit in the reality that also pushes back at us.

Locke’s famous (and in my opinion, broadly sound) polemic against innate ideas often overshadows his implicit reliance on a simple givenness of perceptual contents and other items in experience.

Ricoeur on Husserl on Memory

For Ricoeur in Memory, History, Forgetting, Husserl was simultaneously a source of valuable insights and the “apex” of a “school of inwardness” (p. 97) that threatened to make any social dimension of memory unintelligible.

On the positive side, Husserl clearly recognized that our experience of “now” is not just a point moving along a line, but involves a series of overlapping durations.  He is quoted saying “Since a new now is always entering on the scene, the now changes into a past; and as it does so the whole running-off continuity of pasts belonging to the preceding point moves ‘downwards’ uniformly into the depths of the past” (p. 34).  His other nice image for this was that the now is like a comet with a tail.  The metaphorical comet’s tail corresponds to what Husserl called “retention”, and what I have referred to as a kind of thickness of the present.  This is distinct from the “reproduction” that occurs after recollection or spontaneously.  At least at a first level of approximation, retention is a feature of perception, whereas reproduction involves a reconstruction in imagination.

“The reproach that can be legitimately made to Husserl, at this preliminary stage of his analysis, is to have enclosed the phenomenology of the present within perceived objectivity at the expense of affective and practical objectivity” (p. 33; emphasis added).

Reproductive memory for Husserl belongs to a broader family of intuitive “presentifications”.  Ricoeur suggests that experience of the temporal present for Husserl is inseparable from some form of presentification.

At a certain point in Husserl’s lectures on internal time-consciousness, Ricoeur says, Husserl’s gaze shifted from the constitution of memories with objective content to the constitution of the temporal flow itself within consciousness.  Ricoeur had applauded the earlier emphasis on objective content, and characterizes this shift to the temporal flow itself as a “retreat”.  Husserl is quoted speaking of “absolute subjectivity” in this context (p. 111).  

Ricoeur suggests that this paved the way for Husserl’s later “egological” moves that seemed to completely reverse his early motto “To the things themselves!”  The self-constitution of the internal time flow is associated with a solitary “I”.  “The primacy accorded in this way to the self-constitution of the temporal flow does not make immediately apparent the obstacles raised by this extreme subjectivism to the idea of the simultaneous constitution of individual memory and of collective memory” (p. 114).  

Ricoeur thus seems to suggest that the later Husserl’s theory of intersubjectivity, though containing valuable points of interest, ultimately fails — at least in Husserl’s own version that is tied to an egological foundation — to sufficiently shift the center of gravity back away from the egological dimension.  I think Ricoeur wants to say that an adequate account of subjectivity needs to take intersubjectivity into account from the beginning, and not treat it as an add-on.

According to Ricoeur, Husserl’s shift from “objective” to purely reflexive analysis of memories leads to a reduction of memory and memory’s directedness toward objects to purely internal retention, and the reduction of memory to retention results in a dubious “triumph of presence”.  

Turning to Husserl’s discussion of intersubjectivity in his Fifth Cartesian Meditation, which Ricoeur translated early in his career and on which he previously wrote a detailed study, he notes that Husserl speaks of the “reduction of transcendental experience to the sphere of ownness” (p. 118).  Ricoeur comments, “This forced passage by way of the sphere of ownness is essential to the interpretation of what follows” (ibid).  “[M]ust we begin with the idea of ownness, pass through the experience of the other, and finally proceed to a third operation, said to be the communalization of subjective experience?  Is this chain truly irreversible?  Is it not the speculative presupposition of transcendental idealism that imposes this irreversibility, rather than any constraint characteristic of phenomenological description?” (p. 119).

This methodological emphasis on “ownness” seems to be a result of the historical influence of Locke. “Plato… did not ask to whom the memory ‘happens’.  Aristotle, investigating the operation of recollection, did not inquire about the one who performs the task” (pp. 125-126).  Strawson in his analyses of ordinary language argued that “if a phenomenonon is self-ascribable, it is other-ascribable….  We cannot be doing the one without doing the other” (p. 127).  This sounds like something Brandom might also say.

For Ricoeur, the possibility of multiple ascription presupposes the possibility of suspension of ascription.  It is therefore incompatible with a Lockean insistence on the necessary priority of ownness.  He notes that Alfred Schutz developed a phenomenology that put the experience of others on an equal footing with the experience of self.

He closes this section with a suggestion that close relations with others form a sort of middle ground between the individual and the abstractly social.  (See also Ricoeur on Memory: Orientation; Ricoeur on Augustine on Memory; Ricoeur on Locke on Personal Identity; Husserlian and Existential Phenomenology; Phenomenological Reduction?; I-Thou, I-We.)

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.)

Memory, History, Forgetting

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

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.)

Aristotle, Empiricist?

In contrast with Plato, Aristotle made major contributions to early natural science, and was concerned mainly to interpret human experience of the world. I previously noted with some sympathy John Herman Randall Jr.’s argument that Italian Renaissance Aristotelianism played a much greater role in the development of early modern science than is commonly recognized. I cannot, however, follow Leibniz and Kant’s superficial association of British Empiricist philosophy with Aristotle.

Locke, Berkeley, and Hume were all much closer to Descartes than to Aristotle on key questions related to subjectivity. For all of them, immediate presence to the mind played a foundational role. (See also Empiricism; Aristotelian Subjectivity; Mind Without Mentalism.)

(Locke, Berkeley, and Hume all argued with rather more subtlety and sophistication than Descartes. Unlike Descartes, Locke and Hume did not treat the human soul as a substance, and all three of the great British Empiricists produced detailed accounts of aspects of human cognition that are of lasting value, potentially somewhat independent of the mentalist framework in which they were originally developed.)

Locke and Hume did extensively and systematically develop the notion — commonly attributed to Aristotle in the middle ages — that everything in intellect originates in sense perception. As far as Aristotle is concerned, this seems an overstatement.

Aristotle characteristically looked for multiple “causes”, or reasons why, for a given state of affairs. What I think he really meant to assert, in the brief passage in his treatise on the soul that is taken to support this typically empiricist position, was the more modest thesis that broadly speaking, sense perception provides the event-based occasions that drive occasions of thought. That does not mean that all the content (or form, as Aristotle would call it) of thought has its most direct source in sensation, although significant parts of it clearly do.

Consider something like language. Most concrete instances of language clearly have a sensible component, and those that don’t (such as when we silently talk to ourselves) arguably could not occur if they were not preceded by other instances that did have a sensible component. Without sensation, there could be no language. But that hardly means that linguistic meaning has its primary source in sensation. One could argue that sensation is always depended upon somehow even in considerations of meaning, but it does not seem to be the primary concern. Sensation by itself is a necessary — but not sufficient — basis for an adequate account of thought.