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).

Narrative Identity

Chapters 5 and 6 of Ricoeur’s Oneself as Another are concerned with the concept of narrative identity, developed in his earlier three-volume work Time and Narrative . We get at least the beginning of an answer to the doubts that occurred to me about a concept of identity based on reflexivity rather than sameness, when he applied it to Aristotle. I have not yet consulted the earlier work, but the treatment of narrative identity here itself seems a bit literary and elliptical. On the other hand, reading this I had the thought that literary theory was finally giving something back to philosophy, after so much borrowing in the other direction.

Narrative identity is intended to be a sort of Aristotelian mean between an identity of character — which according to Ricoeur follows the pattern of sameness — and an opposite pole he introduces, associated with what he calls self-constancy, which is to follow the pattern of reflexivity. Self-constancy is associated especially with keeping promises, and more generally with being reliable. This provides a more concrete model of what identity based on reflexivity is supposed to look like. Self-constancy involves success in a constant, self-directed effort. The self-directedness of the effort makes it clearly reflexive, in a temporally extended sense that seems much less problematic than an instantaneous reflexivity.

This notion of self-constancy reminds me of what we would get if we separated out Brandom’s ethical use of a responsibility or imperative to aim for consistency in one’s commitments, and directly gave it a more explicit temporal dimension that for Brandom arises mainly in a larger context. Narrative identity itself seems like the kind of thing that for Brandom is constructed writ large by Hegelian genealogy. (See also Time and Narrative; Narrated Time; Narrative Identity, Substance.)

Ascription of Actions

After the disappointing result from traditional analytic semantic approaches to action, Ricoeur turns to the pragmatics of action, and to applying Strawson’s notion of ascription to persons.

He discusses Aristotle’s distinctions of willing and unwilling actions and choice at some length. Unlike Donald Davidson, who only had a modern notion of (physical) cause to work with, Aristotle had a neutral concept of arche or “principle” that applies equally well to ethical and physical instances, like his broad notion of “cause” as a reason why. According to Ricoeur, Aristotle ascribes actions to a principle that is a “self”. Ricoeur also notes that Aristotle speaks of us as synaition (co-responsible for, or co-causing in Aristotle’s broader sense) our dispositions and character.

Aristotle himself did not actually use a word like “self” in this context, but attributed choice to “either intellect fused with desire, or desire fused with thinking, and such a source is a human being” (Nicomachean Ethics, Sachs translation, p. 104). Even the term “fused with” turns out to be an interpolation by the translator here — the Greek just has “intellect and desire”, and says nothing about how they are related. I agree there is a kind of reflexivity within the thought and desire involved here, but I’ve been taking it to be of the adverbial sort. I have so far used the term “self” either adverbially, or for a matter-of-fact emotional constitution inter-articulated with an intimate but anonymous transcendental but historical ethos. (Later note — in an earlier work, Ricoeur had proposed a notion of ethical Self as an aim, which I am now adding into my own view. Such an interpolation seems at least compatible with the broad spirit of Aristotle, despite its anachronistic character at a literal level.)

I’m awaiting further clarification of how Ricoeur’s ipse identity is supposed to work in a positive sense (through a sort of continuity of development?); how that would apply to the combination that is mentioned but not elaborated on by Aristotle; and whether the application of ipse identity — which I suspect would be warmly welcomed in a Thomistic context — is intended to be understood as historically Aristotelian, or as a post-Aristotelian original thought. The novel semantic category of ipse identity seems well suited to capture intuitions uniting self with responsibility, and potentially to solve some difficulties with which I have struggled. But so far, its application here is not fully explained. (For the beginning of a resolution, see Narrative Identity. For an actual resolution, see Self, Infinity.)

Turning to Strawson, Ricoeur argues that ascription of actions to persons is different from logical attribution of properties to objects, and that it implicitly involves the kind of reflexivity found in self-designating utterance. (I can grant the difference between ascription and attribution, but it is as yet unclear to me in what way he wants us to see that ascription necessarily involves reflexivity, since ascription does not involve self-designation.) He says we first ascribe actions to persons, and only then do we ask about their intentions. Motives, he says, are mainly relevant in hindsight when we ask about an action that has occurred. Also, the “who” behind an action is expected to have a definite answer, whereas motives depend on other motives, and so on indefinitely. The notion of an agent as the “who”, Ricoeur says, is this time successfully reached. Its actual meaning depends on the whole related network of the “what”, “why”, and “how” of the action.

Ricoeur nonetheless finds a difficulty in Strawson’s approach as well. The “who” again turns out to be subordinated to an ontology that reduces away its specificity — this time, an ontology of generalized “somethings”. Ricoeur had argued previously that the reflexivity of a self makes it not properly analyzable as a thing at all, because “things” are understood as having the simple idem kind of identity, but selves have the reflexive, ipse kind of identity. He makes the further point that ascription of an action to a self differs from ordinary description, in that it implies an attribution of responsibility.

He notes that for Aristotle, ascriptions of actions have ethical or juridical significance from the start. He also notes that ascription of an action implicitly involves a judgment that the action is within the agent’s power. Then, there are questions of how we assess responsibility for the whole chain of effects of an action, and how we apportion shared responsibility among multiple agents. He concludes that we still have work to do to understand the thinking initiation of actions, and that the framework of simple ascription of actions to selves is still too abstract to do the job.

Pragmatics of Utterance

The second chapter of Ricoeur’s Oneself as Another concerns speech acts in context. Here we begin to consider reflexive acts of self-designation. Like Brandom, Ricoeur emphasizes that saying is a form of doing. “I” is not an identifying reference, but more resembles terms like “here” and “now”. Linguistically, it is a performative associated with affirmation, promising, and similar actions.

Reflexivity applies to the utterance, rather than to the subject of the utterance. It “is not intrinsically bound up with a self in the strong sense of self-consciousness” (p. 47). Meanwhile, it is not utterances but speakers that refer to things, making reference an action rather than a property.

At a later stage, the performative “I” does after all get assimilated to an identifying reference tied to a body, but Ricoeur thinks it will be necessary to step outside the analysis of language and consider our status as incarnated beings to understand this.

Inferentialism vs Mentalism

Brandom’s “inferentialism” or emphasis on material inference effectively makes what I call ethical reason the most important thing in the constitution of subjectivity — not psychology, and not some putative immediate mental presence, or universal transparent representational medium, or supposedly perfect reflexivity.

This is not to deny that there is such a thing as immediacy; it is rather to specify that immediacy is not foundational, and has nothing to do with certainty. Immediacy has a very different role to play, in showing us the world’s “stubborn recalcitrance to mastery and agency” and providing occasions for learning. (See also Mind Without Mentalism; Psyche, Subjectivity.)