“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.

Subjectivity in Plotinus

Plotin: Traité 53 (2004) is Gwenaëlle Aubry’s contribution to the French series Les écrits de Plotin. It is a translation of and commentary on the treatise Porphyry placed at the very beginning of the Enneads when he edited his teacher’s works. In this essay Plotinus broaches the question who “We” are.

Aubry translates the title of Plotinus’ essay as “What Is the Animal? What Is the Man?”. (The classic English translation by Stephen MacKenna called it “The Animate and the Man”.) But she says “The real question of treatise 53 is not that of man, but rather of the subject…. [T]here appears something like a subject in the modern sense of the term, that is to say a reflexive consciousness, capable of asking itself about its operations and its identity” (p. 17, my translation throughout).

Plotinus develops his unique view of soul (psyche) as in effect a sort of unmoved mover. “We”, it will turn out, are for him neither the pure soul nor a union of soul and body. Aubry says here that for Plotinus the subject is not a substance and has no identity. It is rather a “pure power of identification” (p. 18).

It was precisely the classical identification of subject with substance that led Augustine — who was deeply impressed by Plotinus — to insist that the mind is not a “subject”.

“Finally, the theme of the immaculacy of the separated soul is another way of underlining the responsibility of the “We”: it is on us, ultimately, that the ethical decision depends, understood as a choice of identification with that which exceeds us or with that which hinders us, with what founds us or with what weakens us — with the divine or with the animal in us” (p. 18).

“The itinerary of treatise 53 is nothing other, finally, than the passage from the me to the self. What the treatise proposes to its readers, what it proposes to ‘us’, is not to discover our identity — for identity we do not have. It is not to define our essence — for the essence is not ‘us’, but the self — it is to identify ourselves with another object than that with which we spontaneously confuse ourselves” (ibid).

For Plotinus, a mere conversion to interiority is not sufficient to disclose the self, Aubry says. That just gives us a sensible, empirical “me”, a subject of passions. “The whole effort of the treatise… is to redirect consciousness away from that immediate and fascinating object, to orient it toward the impassible and separated soul in which essential identity resides. Thus, the work of definition imposed by the Delphic precept [know thyself] is inseparable from an ethical work: the self cannot be determined except at the price of a renunciation of its first object of identification” (p. 20, brackets added).

She quotes Plotinus asking, “that which investigates, which examines and poses these questions, what could it be?” (p. 23).

“At this point, the treatise takes up a new orientation, engages itself on a radically unexplored path: for the subject in the classical sense of the term — substance, the subject of attribution — is substituted in effect, by the detour of a phrase, a modern subject, possessed of consciousness and reflexivity. The Plotinian project here distinguishes itself radically as much from that of the De Anima [of Aristotle] as from that of the First Alcibiades [of Plato]. It is no longer only to examine the various faculties to distinguish among them which are common to the soul and the body, and which are proper to the soul alone. It is no longer only to decide whether man is the soul, the body, or the mixture of soul and body. It’s about, writes Plotinus, asking oneself about the very thing that does the investigation: the philosophizing subject takes itself as the object of investigation. The conversion is no longer only to interiority, but to consciousness: and that consciousness takes the form of an immediate reflexivity” (ibid, brackets added).

Plotinus seems to have been the first to claim this sort of immediate reflexivity of consciousness. As Aubry goes on to note, for both Plato and Aristotle, reflexivity only comes through the mediation of another. “The other is not only another self, but it is through the other, insofar as the other is at the same time like me and other than me, that I have access to myself…. The access to interiority requires a detour, either by way of exteriority, or by otherness” (p. 25).

Hegel and Paul Ricoeur, I would note, have each in their own way again taken up Plato and Aristotle’s emphasis on mediation and the need for a detour. But even though Plotinus claims an immediate reflexivity, he does not claim that it is or has an identity.

For Plotinus, according to Aubry, “the we is neither the incarnate, empirical me, nor the separated essential self; it is the passage from the one to the other” (p. 27). In the related essay “A Me Without Identity? The Plotinian We” in Le moi et l’interiorite (2008), she writes, “Returning into itself, thus, [the ‘We’] does not know itself as a unity, nor in its identity with itself, but as a mixture of two terms, where neither is, properly speaking, ‘itself'” (p. 108).

Power of the One?

Gwenaëlle Aubry calls Aristotle’s god of pure act is “a god without power, but nonetheless not a weak god” (Dieu san la puissance, p. 9, my translation). Pure act has an efficacy in the world that is not that of efficient causality, but rather that of the final causality that is the efficacy of the Aristotelian Good. She intriguingly connects this efficacy with the potentiality in things that is Aristotle’s very different meaning for the same word as “power”.

She builds a contrasting account of how for Plotinus the One — identified with the Platonic Good — is the “power of all”, that is to say the power behind all that is. To be “the power behind all that is” is not to be omnipotent in the sense of Philo and later theologians, but it is still very different from being pure act. Here the first principle of all things is a power, whereas the first principle for Aristotle according to Aubry is a pure end that is not involved with power at all, but is rather an attractor for potentialities. Plotinus wants the end of all things to be a power at the origin of all things.

“Power of” is very different from “power over”, and in Plato and Plotinus it is the Good that is the ultimate power. But according to Aubry, treating the first principle as a power at all set the stage for views that put power first in the order of explanation, ahead of the good.

In Genèse du dieu souverain she says that Augustine explicitly put divine omnipotence before divine goodness in his account of God. We have moved from “the Good is the power of all” to “the Almighty is good”.

Although Leibniz claims most theologians agree with him that God wills things because they are good, and that things are not just good because God wills them so, Aubry claims that affirming omnipotence means putting power first in the order of explanation.

Regardless of even saintly intentions, putting power first in the order of explanation is an inauspicious move for ethics.


As Aristotle might remind us, “love” is said in many ways. Moreover, there are at least four separate Greek words with distinct but overlapping meanings that we translate by “love” — eros, agape, philia, and storge.

Eros most commonly emphasizes passion, sensuality, and attraction. Classical authors often associated it with a kind of mania leading lovers to extreme behavior. Modern authors have generalized it to include desire of all sorts, and Freud in his later work treated it as a sort of life force. Plato in the Symposium and Plotinus in his works on Beauty and Intelligible Beauty saw eros as capable of being sublimated into an uplifting kind of love for ideal or spiritual things. Aristotle poetically gave it a cosmic role, saying that the stars are moved by eros for their apparent axis of rotation. The latter, as cosmic “unmoved mover”, “unmovingly moves” things in this way, by being the object of their eros. (Unmoved moving also has another, purely descriptive sense that is not relevant here; see Moved, Unmoved.)

Agape is the main word for love in the Greek New Testament, emphasizing compassion and charity. It is applied to God’s love for the world, and in the injunction to love our neighbors as ourselves. It is about this kind of love that Augustine said “love, and do as you will”.

Philia is applied by Aristotle to a wide range of ethical and social contexts — a feeling of affection and sympathy between friends, lovers, families, members of a community, people engaged in some common activity. In the Rhetoric, he defines it as wanting what we think is good for someone, not for our own sake but for theirs, and being inclined to act on that insofar as we are capable. It involves an implicit norm of reciprocity in a broad “proportional” sense that applies even when there is some asymmetry in the underlying relationship. Aristotle argues that although a kind of self-sufficiency is also a virtue, doing for others is a greater good. Moreover, he says that the philos (friend or loved one) is for us like another self. This is the Aristotelian root of Hegel’s ethics of mutual recognition. Also, philosophy is philia for wisdom.

According to Wikipedia, storge is familial or domestic love. Modern authors have associated it with long-term commitment and a kind of unconditional support, and with romantic love that has origins in friendship rather than manic attraction.


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

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

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

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

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

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

Moved, Unmoved

Aristotle distinguished “moved movers” from “unmoved movers”. The most famous examples of unmoved movers come from his accounts of astronomical phenomena. I’ve previously noted that in a lesser-known text, he also reached the perhaps surprising conclusion that there is an unmoved mover involved in the movements of an animal’s leg joint. This additional case suggests a vast generalization of the concept of an unmoved mover.

In both the biological and the astronomical case, an unmoved mover is associated with the geometrical form of an axis of rotation. Putting to one side considerations of the special perfection of circular motions, I’d like to focus on the characterization of a mathematical description of a motion as an “unmoved mover”. In this same sense, modern mathematical-physical laws arguably qualify as Aristotelian unmoved movers.

On a yet broader level, I would propose that Aristotelian form and ends are kinds of things that can function as unmoved movers, and means of realization can also contextually do so, whereas material conditions function exclusively as moved movers. (Something can be effectively operative in a process without itself being moved or changed, or it may also itself be moved or changed. In functional programming, for instance, it is actually possible to completely define all computational work to be done using static constructs, pushing any use of non-static constructs down to a purely instrumental compiled-execution level.)

In a more “metaphysical” way, Plotinus anticipated such a generalization, e.g., in his essay on “The Impassivity of the Unembodied”. Going in a very different overall direction from Aristotle, he effectively made unmoved-moving into a kind of paradigm for all causality. On a poetic level, perhaps the ultimate guide to thinking in terms of unmoved moving is the work of Lao Tzu.

The Kantian transcendental acts like a generalized unmoved mover, but the historical-linguistic-social character of Hegelian Geist makes it a moved mover on the side of form and ends.

The One?

Whether or not there is a One, it and the Others are and are not — and appear and do not appear to be — all manner of things in all manner of ways, both in relation to themselves and to each other.

Such was the cryptic conclusion of Plato’s dialogue Parmenides. The Parmenides provides the most extensive and technical example of Plato’s concept of dialectical argument, which revolved around thorough exploration of both sides of binary alternatives. Some early Platonists and a number of modern readers thought it was mainly a logical exercise.

Plotinus followed the lead of the neo-Pythagoreans in treating the One far less equivocally, as the main theological principle. He explicitly identified it with the Good from Plato’s Republic, and made it the source of all things. In the wake of Plotinus, later neoplatonists read the Parmenides as a theological treatise.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s 1945 Phenomenology of Perception argued that Plotinus was misguided, and really there is no One. Foucault’s 1969 Archaeology of Knowledge was devoted to questioning presumed unities of all sorts. Other pluralists from Aristotle to William James have made broadly similar arguments.

Talk about whether there “is” a One gets tricky. Plotinus associated Being only with his second principle of intellect (nous), not with the One. The 20th century theologian Paul Tillich gave a nod to this when he suggested that to attribute to God the same existence we attribute to objects in the world should be considered blasphemy. In the middle ages Thomas Aquinas went somewhat in the opposite direction, identifying God with pure Being, and therefore he felt no need for a One above being. But the pure Being Aquinas spoke of was a new and innovative concept that is not the same as any worldly existence, so perhaps the two could be reconciled after all.

“The One” has historically been said in many ways. Usually it does not refer to any sort of entity, but rather to a sort of cosmic fusion in which all things participate; or, more properly, to a pure Platonic form of such fusion, perhaps even the form of something slightly anticipating Kantian unity of apperception. Sometimes on the other hand it seems to be beyond form altogether. Plotinus himself largely invented negative theology, and at one point even said the One was just a conventional name for the utterly ineffable. (See also One, Many; Identity, Isomorphism; Univocity; Theology.)


As a very young man, I was deeply invested in a holistic, minimally unworldly reading of Plotinus. At the time, I was impressed by his view of Intellect (nous) as a sort of synoptic rational intuition or vision. I liked his (actually Aristotelian) view that the good of any being is its natural act, which leaves it to us to determine what that actually is. I read the One as the All viewed sub specie aeternitatis (“under the form of eternity”, in Spinoza’s later phrase). I was fascinated by so-called “emanation” or “procession”, which obscurely suggested a sort of rational unfolding into detail from a more purely holistic starting point.

Plotinus was a 3rd century CE Alexandrian Greek who founded the so-called “neoplatonic” school that came to dominate philosophy and theology in late antiquity. He combined Platonic, Aristotelian, and various religious influences. His work The Enneads was a major inspiration to the greatest early Catholic thinker Augustine, and part of it was later translated to Arabic and Latin under the misleading title Theology of Aristotle. Plotinus associated the Good of Plato’s Republic with the One of Plato’s Parmenides.

Too briefly, one might say that for Plotinus and the neoplatonists generally, the One unfolds into the One-Many of Intellect, which unfolds into the Many-One of Soul, which unfolds into the Many of nature, and then it all re-folds back into itself, forming a big eternally repeating M.C. Escher loop. To say it in a more Aristotelian way, in that loop, what would be an Aristotelian unmoved mover and “first” cause that is really an end — along with everything it attracts — gets folded back into itself, making it literally also the beginning and the complete cause of everything, unlike anything in Aristotle. (As a youth who enjoyed mixing things up, I liked to imagine that the big Escher loop was also Nietzsche’s eternal return.)

Soul for Plotinus has no inherent dependency on the body — all the dependency at least ought to run in the other direction. Soul “There” seems to have connotations of simple immediate enjoyment of the intelligible realm, but “Here” is agitated and disturbed. He suggested a model of meditative discipline in which higher principles should detach themselves from immersive involvement in the layer beneath, but function as unmoved movers for it, leaving the lower layer to function autonomously except for the unmoved-mover influence of the higher layer.

He made an interesting suggestion that each Platonic form in a way includes all the others.

Neoplatonism is finally getting better treatment from scholars these days. 19th and 20th century summary accounts often reflected little acquaintance with texts, and were full of hostile stereotypes. Even the name is now considered misleading. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on the web is a decent starting point, though it anachronistically talks about “Consciousness”. (In fact, that English term was coined by Cambridge Platonist Ralph Cudworth in the 17th century for use in his translations of Plotinus. But in my opinion, the word has far too many modern connotations to be a good choice for historical scholarship. While such anachronism is expected in Hegelian/Brandomian recollective genealogy, that is because such genealogy serves different purposes from historical scholarship.)

The single most impressive study I’ve seen in English is Kevin Corrigan’s Plotinus’ Theory of Matter-Evil and the Question of Substance: Plato, Aristotle, and Alexander of Aphrodisias, which addresses a broader scope than the title suggests, while tackling Plotinus’ most apparently objectionable thesis head-on. (While Plotinus idiosyncratically identified Alexander’s abstract prime matter with evil due to its complete lack of form, he strongly defended the goodness of the manifestation of the physical world that includes ordinary matter against the Gnostics.) Corrigan’s book is especially interesting because it highlights an abundance of implicit dialogue with Aristotle and Alexander — unnoticed by previous scholars — in Plotinus’ texts that contributes substantially to the Plotinian synthesis.

In French, there is a very good treatment of the differences between Aristotle and Plotinus from an Aristotelian point of view: Gwenaëlle Aubry’s Dieu sans la puissance: dunamis et energeia chez Aristote et Plotin. (Neither Plotinus nor Aristotle sees any temporal origin of the world or beginning of time. The key difference is that Aristotle’s “First” cause is also not supposed to be any kind of eternal origin either. It is purely that which everything ultimately aims at, a “final cause”. For Plotinus, by contrast, the One is simultaneously that which everything aims at and the eternal origin of everything.) Aubry takes as a starting point Aristotle’s notion that the “First” cause is just pure actuality, with no admixture of the power Plato talks about, let alone the Stoic-inflected omnipotence averred by Plotinus (or the even stronger unconditional counterfactual omnipotence claimed by Philo of Alexandria and later theological voluntarists).

Nowadays my sympathies are entirely on the Aristotelian side, but Plotinus is still an important figure worthy of serious attention — in his own right; as a reader of Aristotle; and as an important influence on later neoplatonically inflected Aristotelianisms as well as later Platonisms. (See also Power of the One?)

Alienation, Second Nature

In chapter 14 of Spirit of Trust, Brandom points out a distinction developed by Hegel in the Spirit chapter of the Phenomenology between “actual” and “pure” consciousness. These turn out to correspond closely to practical and theoretical culture, respectively. Here it is important to note that “consciousness” is therefore a very different thing from the “consciousness” of the Consciousness chapter, where we began with a putatively immediate awareness and discovered that even then, every apparent immediacy eventually revealed itself as mediated.

Acculturation, and therefore the “consciousness” of the later chapter basically is a form of mediation. We are no longer making any pretense of beginning with the putatively immediate. Culture is very thick, and a long journey. More superficially, it includes all our attitudes.

In chapter 13, Brandom had quoted Hegel saying it is through culture that the individual acquires actuality. The “individual” here is not the atomistic psychological individual beloved of the Enlightenment, externally confronting objects and others, but a participant in Geist with some much more interesting topology. True individuality for Hegel is not given but emergent. Its borders are much wider, and not topologically closed. Atomic psychological individuals are a hallucination of the modern illness Hegel called Mastery. (Hegel explicitly says the pure “I”, by contrast — conceived after Kant as having no content of its own, but as a mere index of the unity of a transcendental unity of apperception — depends on language for its existence. Brandom reminds us that language is the medium of recognition, the sea in which normative fish swim; and that things said, in being public, acquire a significance that runs beyond what the speaker intended. The purely linguistic “I” becomes the focus of commitment and responsibility, which depend on linguistic articulation.)

In the same passage Hegel also speaks of Spirit as alienation from our natural being. Reading those words I sort of cringe, but in fact Hegel is not talking about anything like Gnostic or Plotinian alienation. The word has that heritage, but Hegel uses it in the same breath with actualization. This alienation is supposed to be a good thing. It is de-immediatization, which is just the other side of the coin of mediation. Hegel is here using an originally negatively connotated Gnostic and Plotinian word for what is for him a positively connotated Aristotelian concept of actualization, which Brandom associates with expression and making explicit. Mediation is in this passage allegorized by Hegel as, in effect, becoming strange (alien) to our putative atomistic psychological selves.

Spirit as alienation should not be read as any repudiation of nature. As Terry Pinkard points out in Hegel’s Naturalism, Hegel is in fact a naturalist, but of the expansive, Aristotelian sort, explicitly antireductionist. The difference with 2oth century naturalisms is that it allows for the emergence of increasingly higher forms of Geist and Hegelian “freedom” over a natural basis. In Aristotelian terms, 20th century naturalism only addresses “first” nature, the more primitive one. Aristotelian and Hegelian naturalism also recognize second nature that includes culture. Even though in other contexts there will still be talk of overcoming alienation, at least one meaning of “alienation” is just the move to second nature.