The Quest for Identity

Volume 1 of Alain de Libera’s archaeology of the subject was subtitled (in French) Birth of the Subject (2007). Volume 2’s subtitle translates as The Quest for Identity (2008). Here he will ask, What is it that constitutes the “Me”?

In the hands of the scholastics and early moderns, the subject acquires the personal status of an agent, accountable for her thoughts as well as her actions. De Libera speaks of a “double parasitic relation” of the subject and the person, from whence issued the modern concept of a personal subject. In early modern inquiries into the permanence of the individual “me”, the subject seems to be effaced before the Self and the Person. It persists nonetheless, he says, under the mask of the person.

A series of unexpected itineraries will range from the theology of sacraments to early modern philosophical satire. Historic concerns with puzzles of personal identity will be reviewed together with the scholastic ontology of action and the notion of “extrinsic denomination”. He aims to consider “events in thought” — not a being or a single truth or a determinism that could follow a chronological order, but what he calls a traversal of possible itineraries.

He will ask how the subject — described in an anonymous 1680 French compendium of metaphysics as a simple receptor that de Libera, recalling Aquinas’ brutal critique of Averroes, likens to a wall’s relation to colors on it — became the all-purpose concept of psychology and ethics, of politics and of right, of linguistics and literary criticism? How did a term that had nothing to do with personhood become the modern name of the person? He aims to address these questions via a cross-section of different temporal rhythms, seeking in a nonlinear way to understand an event of thought he calls the “chiasm of agency”, or the installation of the “I” as subject-agent of thought.

He notes that Heidegger and Brentano both highlighted the fact that in scholastic philosophy, “subject” and “object” had close to the opposite of their modern meanings, and this will complicate the inquiry. The development will be much more intricate than a simple reversal.

He begins with two questions asked by Shaftesbury in 1711, in what de Libera calls an ironic arbitration between Descartes and Locke: “But in what Subject that thought resides, and how that Subject is continu’d one and the same, so as to answer constantly to the supposed Train of Thoughts or Reflections, which seem to run so harmoniously thro’ a long Course of Life, with the same relation still to one single and self-same Person; this is not a Matter so easily or hastily decided, by those who are nice Self-Examiners, or Searchers after Truth and Certainty.” (Shaftesbury, quoted in vol. 2, p. 18, footnote).

Shaftesbury mocks the cogito ergo sum of Descartes, reducing it to the tautology “if I am, I am”. According to de Libera, Shaftesbury thinks the real questions are: “What is it that constitutes the We or the I? Is the I of the present instant the same as that of every instant before or after?” (p. 19, my translation throughout).

“In a few lines, Shaftesbury passes… from the scholastic universe of the subject understood as subject of thought… to the universe of the We and the I…, and implicitly to the Lockean response — consciousness, the Self-in-consciousness — and to [Locke’s] criterion of memory. But the latter is no less problematic than the former” (ibid).

As de Libera generalizes, “The archaeology of the subject is in large measure the archaeology of the person” (p. 22). Trinitarian theology and the so-called “mind-body problem” are only disjoint for us. They were not for the later scholastics. How do we even understand statements like those of the Renaissance Thomist Thomas Cajetan (1469-1534) that “the soul as long as it is in the body exists as a semi-nature [but] separated from the body, it exists as a semi-person” (p. 23)? This will take patient archaeological investigation.

Declining to engage in metaphysical debate, Shaftesbury had opted for a moral solution: “I take my Being upon Trust…. This to me appears sufficient Ground for a Moralist. Nor do I ask more, when I undertake to prove the reality of Virtue and Morals” (quoted, p. 20).

De Libera asks, “In a word: why is it necessary for us to posit a subject in addition to ‘ourselves’ to account for the fact that we are what we are, think what we think, and do what we do?… What is it that constrains us to make our acts or our thoughts the attributes of a subject?” (p. 24).

He acknowledges at the very beginning that this second volume did not follow the plan announced in volume 1. I confess that in the main body of this one, I often felt lost in the trees, so to speak, and no longer able to see the proverbial forest. Volume 3 resumes the thread of the main argument, and I will devote more space to summarizing it.

The remainder of volume 2 first addresses some recent English-speaking philosophers on personal identity, notably P. F. Strawson and Amelia Rorty. It goes on to discuss at length the debates occasioned by John Locke’s innovative attempt to explain personal identity in terms of a continuity of directly experienced consciousness, elementary self-awareness, and memory that does not depend on any postulated underlying substantial soul. I’m not a Locke scholar, but I noticed that the explicit wording of some of the arguments seemed to appeal to a sameness of consciousness as opposed to the criterion of continuity I would have expected, as when Locke seemed to be willing to grant the counterintuitive consequence that Socrates dreaming and Socrates awake could be two different “persons”. The difference between waking and dreaming could also be approached as a relative discontinuity, however.

In accordance with de Libera’s interest in the historic “soul-body problem”, there is a lengthy coverage of debates as to whether Siamese twins are single persons or two persons sharing one body. He then goes back in time to medieval debates on whether a two-headed baby should baptized with one name or two.

There is some additional coverage of Locke’s “forensic” approach to identity, which puts moral culpability for actions in first place, over psychological or metaphysical considerations. Some of Locke’s critics argued that notwithstanding Locke’s intentions, he actually weakened moral responsibility, as when he granted explicitly that Socrates waking is not responsible for the thoughts of Socrates dreaming. Both sides of the discussion assumed what Brandom calls a “contractive” notion of responsibility (see also Expansive Agency; Brandomian Forgiveness).

Finally, de Libera discusses the history of the concept of “external” or “extrinsic” denomination — basically, ways in which “accidental” properties are taken to refer to things. This is distinguished from both “formal” and “causal” denomination. In the case of my seeing of a wall, according to many medieval and early modern authors, the wall does not act on me in any way, so the wall would be only denominated externally or extrinsically. Many also held that I do not act on the wall in any way in seeing it either, so I would also be only denominated externally or extrinsically. In this context, de Libera discusses the Scottish philosopher of common sense Thomas Reid (1710-1796), as well as the work of Samuel Clark (1675-1729) and various critics and followers of Descartes. He then goes back to Cajetan.

In conclusion, de Libera speaks of a “chiasm of denomination” that is closely bound up with what he previously called the “chiasm of agency”. He sees a veritable revolution in the treatment of thought contents as something other than external or extrinsic denominations of persons. At the beginning of volume 3, he finally relates all this discussion of denomination back to the medieval controversy over the views of Averroes on intellect and imagination.

“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.

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.)

On a Philosophical Grammar

It seems like a good time to get back to a bit more detail on Alain de Libera’s “archaeology of the subject”, which I introduced a while back. Volume 1 is subtitled Naissance du sujet or “Birth of the Subject”. He begins with a series of questions asked by Vincent Descombes in a review of Paul Ricoeur’s Oneself as Another:

“1) What remarkable differences are there, from the point of view of use, between these words which we place too lazily in a single category of personal pronouns (and particularly here I, he, me, him, her, oneself)?

“2) What is the status of intentions to act? Are they first properties of the agent?

“3) Should we distinguish, as Ricoeur proposes, two concepts of identity, identity as sameness (idem) and identity as ipseity [“selfness”] (ipse)?

“4) What is this self that figures in the expression self-awareness?” (Archéologie du sujet vol. 1, p. 31).

The birth of the subject in the modern sense is what de Libera will investigate. He aims to show how “the Aristotelian ‘subject’ [hypokeimenon, or thing standing under] became the subject-agent of the moderns in becoming a kind of substrate for acts and operations” (p. 39). He quotes a famous passage from Nietzsche denouncing the “grammatical superstition” of the logicians who assume that wherever there is a predicate for an activity such as thinking, there must be something corresponding to a grammatical subject that performs it. Nietzsche says that a thought comes when it wants, not when I want.

De Libera asks, “How did the thinking subject, or if one prefers, man as subject and agent of thought, first enter into philosophy? And why?” (pp. 45-46). He points out the simple fact that a grammatical subject need not be an agent, as when we say “the boy’s timidity made him afraid”. He quotes Frédéric Nef to the effect that action is not a grammatical category. How then did “the subject” become bound up with agency?

He notes that something like this is already at play in Aquinas’ Disputed Questions on the Soul, when Aquinas develops the notion of a “subject of operation” related to sensibility, associating the subject of an action or passion with a power of the soul. How, de Libera asks, did we come to assume that every action requires “an agent that is a subject” and “a subject that is its agent” (p. 58)? (See also Not Power and Action.)

He will be looking for medieval roots of notions that most people, following Heidegger, consider to be innovations of Descartes. Meanwhile, de Libera recalls that Augustine had gone so far as to label it blasphemy to call the soul a “subject”. Knowledge and love, Augustine said, are not in the mind as in a subject.

“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.

Individuality, Community

The last sections of Hegel’s “Reason” chapter begin to introduce a notion of community, still starting from the point of view of the individual. Here he wants to suggest a broad developmental arc from the simplicity of what he calls “True Spirit” — in which personal identity is experienced as coming directly from one’s place in a traditional, “natural” face-to-face community — through the emergence of individual freedom, which he sees occurring in a necessarily “alienated” way that also tends to undermine ethical values — to Hegel’s anticipated recovery of ethical values in a future community based on something like love of one’s neighbor, that also gives the individual her due. In the course of it he discusses the limits of “law-giving Reason” and “law-testing Reason”, with Kant and Fichte in mind. Sophocles’ Antigone is used to illustrate a conflict between perspectives of family loyalty and formally instituted law.

H. S. Harris in his commentary says that from the naive perspective of True Spirit, “Individual self-consciousness just knows what is right. The laws are there” (Hegel’s Ladder II, p. 113). “These laws are ‘laws of nature’. They need no warrant” (p. 112). He characterizes this as another return to the immediacy-based logic of Sense Certainty. It will be “the determination to fulfill Apollo’s command [know thyself] that brings to pass the downfall of the Ethical Substance…. [But the] climax of the effort to ‘know ourselves’ in one another individually is the recognition that we must forgive one another for the inevitability of our failure to act with universal unselfishness” (p. 115).

“It is a logical fact that we cannot go immediately from the universal to the singular. We can only produce formal universals (non-contradictions)…. So we are left with a logical form (non-contradiction) as the form of law” (p. 116).

The “internal dialectic of justice is much more important than the fact that different standards of justice are justifiable in terms of their abstract rationality” (p. 120).

“Hegel made clear that it is the speculative sense of identity that matters. The stability and harmony of the Substance we have lost is ‘identical’ with that which we are just now in the process of regaining. Neither Antigone nor Jesus is formally a Kantian. But the piety of both requires us to ‘respect humanity as an end'” (p. 117).

“Our own law-testing procedure is a moment in the greater cycle of logical comprehension; and it has always known itself to be that. It is not formal in the sense in which Stoicism is formal; we saw at the beginning why error and ignorance are necessary in the comprehensive cycle. Those who complain that ‘dialectic and absoluteness are ultimately at loggerheads’, or that Hegel seeks to ‘close the gates of truth’, are merely expressing the Skeptic’s absolute knowledge regarding the folly of Stoic pretensions. It is precisely the justification of their own critical reason that Hegel wants to offer” (p. 121).

“[Hegel’s] criticism of Law-Testing Reason… is meant to bring home to us the fact that a long historical experience is required for the laying down of the substantial foundation that gives law-testing the sort of range and validity it can and does have” (ibid).

A feeling of spiritual “identity” with the goddess Athena motivated the Athenian to be willing to die for his city. Harris thinks this qualifies as a supra-personal motivation, but argues against those who attribute a notion of other-than-individual “consciousness” to Hegel. Rather, “certain experiences of a deeper or higher identity that every individual has, or can have, reveal the true meaning of what it is to be rational (or human)” (p. 127).

“We ought not to permit any reduction of the rhetoric of ‘Spirit’ to the rhetoric of ‘humanism’ because humanity has… two necessary sides, and it is the ‘human animal’ side that is naturally fundamental. For the human animal to go to the death in a struggle is (functionally) irrational; but that is not necessarily the case for a ‘human spirit'” (p. 128).

On the other hand, Hegelian Spirit also has nothing in it of what Hegel called the “bad infinite” or of the Sublime, which Kant associated with seemingly infinite (and definitely more-than-human) power.

“Whether we look outside or inside ourselves, the bad infinite, or the ‘more-than-individual’, is no suitable object of religious reverence. We must maintain Hegel’s ‘spiritual’ terminology because his language clarifies the religious language of tradition in a rational way. Those who use it become functionally liberated from the bad infinite or Sublime; for even as ‘believers’ they are bound to agree with Thomas Aquinas that what they are talking about is not rationally comprehensible in its ‘sublime’ aspect; and they will be morally rational in the sense that they will not try to impose their religious faith on others by the use of force (which would contradict its spiritual essence)” (p. 129).

“All that Hegel, the observer, does is talk to us about the ways in which our poets and prophets have spoken, and to show us several necessary truths that we are not usually conscious of. First, he proves that the way they spoke was necessary for the advent of morally autonomous Reason; and then he makes us see how these modes of speech form a pattern that forces us to admit that all rational speech (not just that of the poets and prophets) is the utterance of a different ‘self’ than the one who is fighting a losing battle to stay alive encased in a human skin. We all know this perfectly well. But never, until Hegel wrote, did we know how to put our rational and our natural knowledge together without speaking in ways that are not humanly interpretable and testable. A critic who accuses Hegel of speaking not as the poets and prophets speak, but in some peculiar philosophically prophetic way of his own, is committing the ultimate rational injustice of obscuring his supreme achievement. [The influential critic Charles] Taylor’s theory of a ‘self-positing Spirit’ that is somehow ‘transcendent’ is itself ‘the sin against Hegel’s Spirit'” (p. 131).

“The chapter on Reason closes into a perfect circle. It begins and ends in ‘Observation’; and the Observing Reason that goes forward is comprehensive. It does not just observe Nature as an external or found ‘objectivity’; it observes the Ethical Substance — the total unity or identity of Nature and Spirit as a harmony that has made itself. It is the Ethical Substance, seen clearly as the source of self-conscious individual Reason, that becomes the subject of the new experience.”

“True Spirit is the self-realizing consciousness that takes its own self-making to be the direct expression of nature. What True Spirit lacks is the awareness that Spirit must make itself in the radical sense of expressing a freedom that is opposed to Nature. True Spirit does not know that it must ‘create itself from nothing’.”

“This ‘nothing’ is the speculative observing consciousness” (p. 134).

“On the side of Consciousness, all pretense of a ‘difference’ between itself and its object can now be dropped…. When ‘difference’ is reborn (as it immediately will be) it is because the Object itself (the Sache selbst as a communal self-consciousness) cannot maintain itself as a living object… without an essential differentiation…. But at the moment [consciousness] has come to self-expressive identity with the Sache selbst that it merely observes” (p. 135).

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.


If what we are in the most comprehensive sense is the aimed-at realization of an ethos within the context of an organic life, then even though who we distinctively are is mainly a matter of ethos, the aimed-at ethical “self” will not be just a currently actualized ethos or unity of apperception, but a fully rounded practical being involved in all sorts of doings, which will also continue to be a work in progress as long as we live. Such a “self” will not have a strict logical identity, but rather something like what Ricoeur called narrative identity. (See also The Ambiguity of “Self”; Two Kinds of Character; Personhood; Self, Infinity; Narrated Time; Hegel’s Ethical Innovation; Hegel on Willing.)


We intuitively grasp a kind of unity of each human person, but have no special, privileged mode of knowledge of persons as individuals. Common sense tends to be rather dogmatic, and glosses over many distinctions in such matters. Plato compared the soul to a city, a sort of community of thoughts and desires — a kind of unity to be sure, but a relatively weak one. In Kantian terms, human persons seem to be distinguished from everything else by somehow being the nexus of combination of otherwise very distinct empirical and transcendental domains.

Considerations of change over time further complicate the picture, but may also provide a kind of guiding thread. A factual “me” is mainly a retrospective construction. A normative “I” on the other hand has both retrospective and prospective aspects. Brandom’s and Pippin’s readings of Hegel emphasize that we should think of agency and acts as always comprising both a partially constituted, retrospectively constructed past and a yet-to-be-determined future. Ricoeur has developed a temporally extended, retrospective and prospective notion of self as an ethical aim or promise rather than an existing actuality. Such an aim or promise, it seems to me, can have a much stronger unity than we could legitimately claim as an existing actuality.

Rather than conflating the empirical and transcendental, as in the Latin medieval notion of an “intellectual soul” — or inflating a notion of empirical self to fill the whole space of subjectivity, in the common modern way — we can tie the unification of empirical and transcendental elements to that prospective aim or promise, without asserting it in the present. (See also Empirical-Transcendental Doublet?; Two Kinds of Character; Narrated Time; Hegel’s Ethical Innovation; Hegel on Willing.)