Apperceptive Judgment

What Hegel calls “the concept” is not a simple content to be grasped, as if it were already completely formed as what it will turn out to be, and all of that in advance of and independent of the activity of judgment. Rather, it emerges out of the activity of judgment in the space of reasons. It also turns out to have an inherently normative character.

Pippin quotes Kant: “I find that a judgment is nothing other than the way to bring given cognitions to the objective unity of apperception…. I do not mean to say that these representations necessarily belong to one another in the empirical intuition, but rather that they belong to one another in virtue of the necessary unity of the apperception in the synthesis of intuitions” (Hegel’s Realm of Shadows, p. 102).

As a first approximation, “apperception” here means something like apprehension of intelligible meaning. For Kant, “the basic feature” of the “general or content-less logic as rules for valid judgings and inferrings” is that “judging is apperceptive” (p. 103).

The significance of this will become a bit clearer further below. Hegel will go further than Kant in construing apperception in a purely “logical” (as opposed to psychological) way.

“Kant was well aware that with this notion of apperceptive judging he was breaking with the rationalist (and Lockean) notion of reflection as inner perception, and as we shall see, Hegel’s language is everywhere carefully Kantian in this respect” (p. 112).

(Aristotle too carefully distinguished thought from inner sense, rather than identifying them in the style of Descartes and Locke.)

Pippin quotes Hegel: “It is one of the profoundest and truest insights to be found in the Critique of Pure Reason that the unity which constitutes the essence of the concept is recognized as the original synthetic unity of apperception, the unity of the ‘I think’, or of self-consciousness” (ibid).

This suggests a three-way mutual explication of the essence of the concept, unity of apperception, and self-consciousness. Self-consciousness for Hegel turns out to be not a separate substantive “subject” distinct from its “object”, but rather an essential adverbial property of self-reference that is intrinsic to the thinking of every concept (see The Ambiguity of “Self”).

From Hegel’s perspective “it is quite misleading for Kant to formulate the point by saying that the ‘I think’ must ‘accompany’ (begleiten) all my representations…. Representing objects is not representing objects, a claiming to be so, unless apperceptive…. And that has to mean, in a very peculiar sense that is important to Hegel and that will take some time to unpack, that such judgings are necessarily and inherently reflexive, and so at the very least are self-referential, even if such a reflected content is not substantive, does not refer to a subject’s focusing on her judging activity as if it were a second consciousness…. Virtually everything in the Logic of significance descends in one way or another from the proper understanding of this claim” (ibid).

Judgings as activities are “necessarily and inherently… self-referential”. The suggestion seems to be that apperception and self-consciousness consist in complex self-referential judgings, rather than anything resembling perceptive receptivity or simple consciousness. “Reflexivity” for Hegel is an elemental property of judgments as judgments, not a global property of consciousness. To assert the inherent self-referentiality of judging activity is quite different from asserting the sort of inherent reflexivity of consciousness that Descartes and Locke presuppose.

“[W]e have to be clear that this has nothing to do with inner perception or the mind observing itself” (p. 105).

“There must be some way of saying that the self-conscious dimension of thought and action is a matter of the way a claim is made or an action undertaken. To adopt the formulations used by Ryle in accounting for many similar phenomena, they are accomplished ‘self-consciously’, rather than accompanied by or even identical with another act of consciousness” (p. 106).

“There is a self-referential component in any judgment or action too (‘I think this, I act thus’), but it can be misleading to think that this is the same problem as ‘how does the first-person pronoun have sense, and thereby pick me uniquely out’. As we shall see, it is misleading because it suggests a punctuated moment of awareness” (p. 107).

“Finally, there is little doubt that Hegel realized that apperception was not a kind of consciousness” (ibid).

In support of this he quotes Hegel: “[I]n this original deed there is not yet the representation of the ‘I’…. [T]his objectifying deed, liberated from the opposition of consciousness [between subject and object], is closer to what may be taken simply as thinking as such. But this deed should no longer be called consciousness; for consciousness holds within itself the opposition of the ‘I’ and its intended object which is not to be found in that original deed” (ibid).

Apperception thus implicitly becomes the middle term of a syllogism: self-consciousness is apperception; apperception is not a kind of consciousness; therefore (contrary to what the formation of the word suggests) self-consciousness is not a kind of consciousness, but something “else”.

I take consciousness to be a form of presentation in what Aristotle called imagination, and self-consciousness to be the form of the self-referential character of judgment or apperception. Outside the context of the Logic (e.g., in the Phenomenology), self-consciousness has an inherently social or intersubjective dimension; in both the Phenomenology and the Logic it has a normative dimension. Human as opposed to purely animal experience is always a mixture of “consciousness” and “self-consciousness”.

“I know what I am doing not by identifying myself with the one acting, but by being the one acting. So how can such a Two also be One? We are in the middle of everything of significance in Hegel’s Logic, not to mention Fichte’s Wissenschaftslehre and Schelling’s early idealism…. This unusual identity is constitutive of ‘theoretical thought’ as such” (pp. 108-109).

“This too is important to state carefully. Hegel scholars often assume that Hegel inherits ‘identity philosophy’ from Schelling, and that it means ‘the identity of subject and object’. They then formulate various implausible versions of such an identity, such as that true reality is divine thought thinking itself, that objects are moments of this thought’s ‘intellectual intuition of itself’. But the Logic is not committed to anything remotely like this” (p. 109).

Rather, the identity Hegel is principally interested in is that “the thought (belief, assertion) of some content… is at the same time the thought of the reasons that are required for such an ‘answer'” (p. 110, emphasis added). This what it means to say that thought is inherently self-referential.

This helps to explain why it is true that “It is a condition of use of a concept that the use is subject to a norm of correct and incorrect use, and that norm is internal to the concept…. Such capacities as judgment and self-consciousness are called into play in a way that can be redeemed if challenged, for example” (p. 106).

Pippin elaborates, “being committed to the truth of a proposition, I am just thereby committed to the denial of everything inconsistent with it. The latter is not a separate inference I draw, on the basis of my first commitment. It is a dimension of the content of my first commitment. This is not to say I must be conscious of these implications and incompatibilities, but just that I could not be thinking of that content were I not able to be responsive to such considerations. This is all so just as someone’s believing something and her thought that it is something right to believe ‘are the same reality‘” (p. 112).

The idea that a proposition should be identified with the distinctions and entailments that it presupposes and that follow from it — rather than with a simple Boolean value of true or false, as in mainstream 20th century logic — has been developed with extraordinary thoroughness by Robert Brandom in Making It Explicit, which Richard Rorty credited with ushering in a new “Hegelian” stage of analytic philosophy.

“[N]o one could be said to ‘just’ assert, or just believe, or just act. Any such undertaking, if self-conscious, must be potentially responsive to the question of ‘Why?’; that is, to reasons. (An assertion is such a responsiveness; the latter is not a secondary or even distinct dimension of the former.)” (ibid).

This formulation that an assertion is such a responsiveness — which relies on the essential self-referentiality of judgment that Pippin is arguing for here — seems in a way more radical than the way Brandom puts it. For Brandom and Brandom’s Hegel, the concomittant commitments are material inferences, and there is a sort of Kantian imperative that we ought to show such responsiveness to everything with a material-inferential connection to our assertions. According to Pippin’s Hegel, the concommitant commitments are not inferences at all but integral to the true identity of the assertion, and we would not really have made an assertion at all if we did not show responsiveness to them. But they ultimately agree that we ought to show such responsiveness — that addressing the concomittant commitments of our assertions is not something we could legitimately choose to ignore — and that this has something to do with the very nature of assertion-making.

“And it is at least plausible to say that the greater the extent of such potential responsiveness (or said another way, the greater the self-understanding), the ‘freer’ the activity, the more I can be said to redeem the action as genuinely mine, back it, stand behind it. We thus have formulated what [Sebastian] Rödl rightly identifies as the heart of German Idealism, the principle ‘that self-consciousness, freedom and reason are one'” (pp. 113-114).

Statements like “self-consciousness, freedom and reason are one” used to give me no end of trouble, because I assumed they were meant to assert the sovereignty of a Subject (i.e., in this case that the Subject is self-conscious; the Subject has free will; and the Subject is the seat of reason). What I eventually realized through the closer study of Kant and Hegel is that I was assuming dictionary meanings of self-consciousness and freedom that are not applicable, and that Hegel and even Kant are much less “subject-centered” than common readings make them out to be. A strong concern for subjectivity need not be identified with the assumption of a sovereign Subject.

Because what Hegel means by “concept” is so fundamental to understanding the Logic and so far from the way it is commonly understood, Pippin repeats an earlier message in different words:

“[C]oncepts are determinate only by virtue of their roles in judgment, the ‘bringing to the objective unity of apperception’, in Kant’s definition” (p. 115).

“So a concept like ‘essence’, for example, can be said to be delimitable as just that concept by virtue of its possible uses in various contrasts to ‘appearance’ or by virtue of its negation (in the grand structure of the [Science of Logic]) of the concept ‘being’, or its role in distinguishing accidental from essential predicates. These are all roles in judgments (and are thereby tied to judgmental roles in inferences). Any of these uses, though, involves any such claim in a network of justifications, a normative order. The application of any such concept in judgment, since apperceptive, self-consciously applied, must be, just thereby, responsive to its possible misapplication, and the question of the general contours of its correct use implicates any one notion in the normative proprieties governing many others. Hence, as we shall see, the course of the ‘movement’ of the logic” (ibid).

“A proper understanding of the self’s relation to itself in thinking, the form of any conceiving and thereby any concept, and thereby any inferential relation, is also the core meaning of what Hegel calls the ‘infinity’ treated by speculative philosophy” (p. 118).

“This is yet again not an easy thought: some sort of self-relation that is not a two-place relation, but something like a circular structure, in which the self’s self-relation never terminates in a distinct object or determinate posit, but in so attending, returns to itself as a relating…. This is ‘infinity’ in the proper sense, Hegel tells us frequently, and… ‘Self-consciousness is thus the nearest example of the presence of infinity'” (p. 119).

I need to study this part of the Logic more closely. My current impression is that what Hegel calls the “good” infinite has something to do with what I would tentatively call relational structures with cyclic dependencies, and he thinks we can and do implicitly use something like this in life, without getting stuck in what could be a mathematically infinite cyclic traversal of the structure. (That something like this is at least conceivable is anecdotally supported by the existence of computable and hence in that sense “finite” implementations of infinitely extensible data structures.) The more usual notion of infinity — at root mathematical, a paradoxical “value greater than any definite value” — Hegel derides as “bad” infinity, regardless of whether it is potential or actual (which was a key distinction for Aristotle).

Hegel in effect seems to ask us to suspend the assumption that standard mathematical infinity is what infinity is, and to step back to the more general idea of the non-definite. Further, he identifies the contrasting term of finitude specifically with a non-relational view of things, as being whatever they are even in complete isolation from one another, so his condemnations of finitude are not at all condemnations of the view of things as finite in the sense of depending on other things. Pippin earlier even suggested that some kind of notion of things depending on other things for their intelligibility is the main source of the famous and difficult-to-understand “motion” in Hegelian logic.

“Discriminating what belongs together with what, what is connected to what in a temporal order, knowing that the successive perceptions of a house do not count as the perception of a succession in the world, requires an apperceptive unity; it does not just happen to consciousness” (p. 121).

“Without this ability to distinguish how things are from how they seem to me, there would be as many ‘I’s’ as associated seemings, and no unity of self-consciousness. Or, achieving the unity of self-consciousness is differentiating seeming from being” (p. 122).

Pippin returns to his larger argument about the Kantian basis of what Hegel is doing.

“The attempt has been to understand the Kantian claim about apperception as a logical, not psychological claim, and this goes some way toward understanding the link between this reflexive character of judging as the essence of intelligibility and ‘the intelligibles’. If it is possible to establish that certain a priori judgments have… objectivity, but without Kant’s limitation thesis, restricting that thesis to possible objects of sense experience (phenomena, not noumena), we will have a way into Hegel’s claim that logic can be understood as metaphysics. Our claim about Kant was that even for him, this relation to objects is not established by the imposition of subjective form onto received sensory material. Kant’s position is not ‘impositionist’ in this sense, and both he and Hegel are following the nonimpositionist, more Aristotelian (hylomorphic) line” (p. 125).

He includes several more quotes from Kant and one from Beatrice Longuenesse that offer hints in this more Aristotelian direction, then says, “We need only remember that for Hegel this is the core of Kant’s own position once we give up any notion of separable contributions from sensibility and understanding, and give up referring to pure forms of intuition as species-specific…. If we do, we get the careful statements about the identity within difference of concept and being in and for itself with which we began” (p. 126).

He returns to the more basic point that “There is no indication that Hegel thinks that being or God has an apperceptive discursive intellect and that we are manifestations of it. We are manifestations of the finitude of Verstand [understanding] and the possibility inherent in Verstand of the transcendence of such self-imposed finitude” (ibid).

In referring to “self-imposed” finitude, I think Pippin means the viewing of concepts as independent, isolated objects or fixed representations, rather than as pure moments in the traversal of the relational network of the space of reasons.

“[W]e need a kind of stereoscopic vision to keep in mind two aspects of this issue that Hegel keeps stressing…. The first is that conceiving is an activity and concepts are ‘moments’ of this activity. This is something stressed in a different way when Hegel tells us that concepts are not things, objects. The second is that… such activities are not actions, doings, and that Kant’s position, when properly understood (and so not as Kant understood it), should not be taken as a part of a two-step or impositionist account of such activity” (p. 127).

That activity is not reducible to punctual actions is a thesis I have been pursuing in an Aristotelian context.

“Hegel says that (Kant’s) objective or transcendental logic ‘replaces’… general metaphysics or ontology. Logic so construed also takes account of and replaces special metaphysics, the a priori doctrines of the soul, the world, and God” (p. 128).

Once again, Hegel’s “logical” alternative to rationalist metaphysics and psychology does not presuppose any fixed concepts. Pippin returns to this to avoid misunderstanding, because he has been emphasizing the non-psychological character of apperceptive judgment for Hegel.

“If we think, as some do, of Hegel’s Denkbestimmungen [thought determinations] as something like Fregean thoughts, objective in a Platonic sense, as abstract entities, then what I am quoting [to the effect that the “objective” part of Hegel’s logic is the true critique of such determinations] is very puzzling. Hegel certainly knows that Kant’s transcendental logic is in some sense or other a logic of subjectivity” (p. 129).

The distinction that is beginning to be made explicit here is between subjectivity in general and specifically psychological subjectivity. This will allow Hegel to develop a “subjective” logic that has nothing to do with psychology.

By analogy, Pippin notes that “Frege interpreters argue that there is no reason to go as far as the historical Frege did (a form of Platonism) to differentiate objective thought from mental episodes, private associations, etc.” (ibid).

“In a claim we shall have to return to and investigate, [Hegel] repeats often that the true critical question is not whether subjective forms of thought have any objective purchase, but whether the concepts of a logic ‘in and for themselves’ provide what they are supposed to provide: what is required for successful conceptual determination…. Kant did not sufficiently investigate what these pure concepts are; he did not pursue the question of their ‘nature’ and their very possibility” (p. 130).

Broadly speaking, the answer will be that concepts are not Platonic forms but get their meaning from their uses, as normatively evaluated in the space of reasons.

“Commentators are sometimes so eager to observe the spirit of this sort of critique of Kantian ‘subjectivism’ that they assume that the Logic is something like the ‘pure’ manifestation of the objective dependence and implication relations among ‘pure essentialities’, thoughts in the objective sense, logical entities that are in those relations in ways that have nothing to do with anyone ‘thinking them'” (p. 131).

The delicate point here is that we can take the activity of thinking into account by treating it as its own “subject”, rather than attributing it to a separate Subject.

“But the apperceptive or inherently reflexive determination of conceptual content… is no more external than the ‘I think’ is external to a content thought. Judgment and the consciousness of judgment are one act. No content represents anything except as thought/judged” (ibid).

Recalling the syllogism I constructed above from Hegel’s statements — which concluded that what he calls self-consciousness is not a kind of consciousness — I think Pippin should have said “self-consciousness” rather than “consciousness” in the above. “Self-consciousness” for Hegel is normative and non-psychological. What he calls “consciousness” (the aspect of immediacy and of presentation in the form of objects) does have a psychological character. In real life, we encounter mixtures of the two.

“The movement of pure thought is like the movement in a proof, on the assumption that the moves are inferences a thinker, on pain of contradiction, must make, and not merely formal-structural functions, as in a symbolic logic” (p. 132).

A proof involves not just a sequence of propositions but a sequence of judgments or assertions. Frege explained this difference in terms of an additional dimension of “assertoric force” alongside his Platonic view of concepts and propositions. For Pippin and Brandom, the consideration of assertoric force is where normativity enters into logic.

“[I]t is also question-begging to assume that anyone who makes the assertoric force inseparable from the logical structure of a unit of meaning (as Hegel unquestionably does) is thereby guilty of psychologism, or of relying on some ‘experiential’ standard of adequacy. Even Frege was willing to make the question of assertoric force a part of ‘logic’ in his own terms” (ibid).

Hegel takes assertoric force into account by treating it normatively rather than psychologically. Meanwhile, the movement of judging activity that is the bearer of Hegel’s notion of truth must also be distinct from the mere inspection of logical structure.

[O]bjects moving about [in Hegel’s Logic]… is a mystification. At any rate, I have no idea what it would be to ‘observe’ one thought-object developing into another. (We don’t observe what happens when one step in a proof ‘becomes’ another; the inference has to be drawn, and drawn for a reason.) Such an objectivism makes it almost impossible to understand what Hegel calls the Logic‘s inner ‘drive’…, and it especially does not take account of the claim that conceptual form is itself apperceptive, that ‘the truth is self-consciousness’ (pp. 133-134).

“Essentialities do not move or establish relations with other essentialities…. A proposition cannot be the bearer of truth, does not even represent any state of affairs, except as judged, and therewith the identity of the acts of thinking involve[s] a wide variety of other commitments at the same time…. (I mean such things as being committed to the denial of all judgments inconsistent with the one that one asserts as true, and this not as a second act of thought.) By contrast, the basic unit of intelligibility for Hegel is not an internally complex object, even if in relations with other objects, but as he says in many ways and many different times, a result, the accomplishment of the ‘active universal’, which activity is judging…. The mode of logical connection is inseparable from the mode of connecting. They are co-constituting” (pp. 134-135).

Objective “thoughts” in Hegel’s sense are not just pure Platonic essentialities but judgments that have a shareable meaning and that inherently invite normative evaluation.

“Said another way, a strong way of insisting that Hegel’s new ‘metaphysics’ is a logic, none of this has anything to do with what anything is made of, consists in, with the furniture of the universe. What we want to know… about these concepts is their ‘logic’, how they function with account-givings governed by the norms of explanatory satisfactoriness and truth” (p. 137).

“This means that any concept of thinking and of the content of thought involves normative proprieties, exclusions, and implications, without which any thinking a thought could not be the thinking and the thought that it is. These normative commitments are independent of what a thinker might herself be able to acknowledge, but they cannot be denied on being noticed, on pain of incoherence, of not thinking anything at all” (ibid).

Thus apperception — or what we might call “pure” as opposed to empirical subjectivity, which need not be tied to an assumed separate Subject, but only to some judging activity — for Hegel is purely “logical” (having to do with the determination of meaning). It is independent of anything psychological, and at the same time it is inherently normative.

Flying Man?

Back in 2019, I included the following in a tangent near the end of a longer post:

“The thrust of the famous cogito ergo sum was already anticipated in Augustine’s Confessions. A more detailed version was developed by Avicenna, in an argument known… as the “flying man”. He proposed a thought experiment, considering someone in counterfactual absolute sensory deprivation from birth, with the intent of asking whether awareness could be completely independent of sensibility. He argued that the person in absolute sensory deprivation would still be aware of her own existence, due to a pure immediate reflexive awareness intrinsic to the soul and independent of the body. This kind of claim would have been accepted by Plotinus, but rejected by Aristotle or Hegel. Medieval Augustinians, however, enthusiastically adopted many of Avicenna’s ideas.” Peter Adamson, a scholar of Islamic philosophy, has a nice short article on this.

What Descartes Proved

The Latin subtitle of Descartes’ Meditations advertises that they not merely assert but demonstrate the existence of God and an immortal soul. However, as noted in the Cambridge Descartes Lexicon, neither the word “immortality” nor “immortal” even appears in the body of the text. Descartes does convincingly argue that even in the very act of doubting everything, it is apparent that something is going on — that there is awareness or “thinking”, even on the extreme assumption that everything it thinks is mistaken.

“What then did I formerly believe myself to be? Undoubtedly I thought myself to be a man. But what is a man? Shall I say a rational animal? No, for then I should have to inquire what is ‘animal’, what ‘rational’; and thus from one question I should be drawn on into several others yet more difficult. I have not, at present, the leisure for any such subtle inquiries. Instead I prefer to meditate on the thoughts which of themselves spring up in my mind” (Descartes’ Philosophical Writings, trans. Norman Kemp Smith, pp. 203-204).

Descartes argues that bodily phenomena are not clearly “me”, but that I cannot separate myself from my awareness. “Thinking? Here I find what does belong to me: it alone cannot be separated from me. I am, I exist. This is certain. How often? As often as I think” (p. 205).

He makes a subtle transition from arguments about the indubitable existence of some awareness to arguments about something that has the awareness.

“What is a thinking thing? It is a thing that doubts, understands, affirms, denies, wills, abstains from willing, that also can be aware of images and sensations” (p. 206). Elsewhere he also includes love and hate. Using contemporary vocabulary, Gueroult calls this a thinking subject (Gueroult, Descartes, p. 40), a word Descartes himself does not use in this context. Descartes identifies it with his own view of the soul. Though Descartes thinks it is separable from the body and the world, he treats it as a concrete “me”.

This concrete me-thing is supposed to have some very strong properties. Descartes claims it is a substance — apparently in the sense of something underlying — and that we can know something is a substance without knowing it as a substance. Secondly, “Interior to the Cogito, consciousness [French conscience, which predated Cudworth and Locke’s English word] and consciousness of consciousness are identical” (Gueroult, p. 99, my translation, brackets and emphasis added). Thirdly, the Cartesian soul is supposed to have “infinite” free will.

On my reading, the earlier transition from the indubitability of the existence of some concrete awareness — which I take to be genuinely irrefutable — to the assumption of a “thing” that has the awareness, is only valid if the “thing” is strictly identified with the awareness itself. But if the “thing” is identical with the awareness we started with, then the transition to calling it a substance is not justified. Conversely, if “thing” does have strong enough meaning to justify calling it a substance, the transition from thinking to a thinking thing was unjustified.

The identity of consciousness and consciousness of consciousness seems to be a completely unproven and unprovable assumption — one that I think Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, and Ricoeur each convincingly suggest we should oppose. Gueroult quotes Descartes in a letter making the weaker claim that (contrary to what Locke would assert a bit later) the soul is capable of thinking of many things at once. If we accept this, that would make a simultaneity of consciousness and consciousness of consciousness possible in particular cases, but it still falls far short of establishing their identity.

Like many voluntarists, Descartes makes a leap from the much weaker claim that we make real choices, to the ultra-strong claim that our power of choice is completely unconditioned, and that divine omnipotence exempts it from the natural order altogether.

He argues at length that an omnipotent God is the necessary foundation of the razor-thin subjective certainty he discovered by introspection. The arguments about God are introduced as follows: “Those [ideas] which represent substances are without doubt something more, and contain in themselves, so to speak, more objective reality (that is to say participate by representation in a higher degree of being or perfection) than those which represent only modes or accidents; and again, the idea by which I apprehend a supreme God, eternal, infinite, immutable, omniscient, omnipotent, and the creator of all things which are on addition to Himself, has certainly in it more objective reality than those ideas by which finite substances are represented.”

“Now it is manifest by the natural light that there must be at least as much reality in the efficient and total cause. For whence can the effect draw its reality if not from its cause? How could this cause communicate to it this reality if it did not itself have it? And hence it follows… that what is more perfect, i.e. contains more reality, cannot proceed from what is less perfect” (pp. 219-220).

“By the name God I mean a substance that is infinite, immutable, independent, all-knowing, all-powerful, and by which I myself and everything else, if any such things there be, have been created. All those attributes are so great and so eminent, that the more attentively I consider them the less does it seem possible that they can have proceeded from myself alone; and thus, in the light of all that has been said, we have no option save to conclude that God exists” (p. 224).

Out of nowhere, we suddenly have an unexplained appeal to a fully formed late-scholastic distinction between substance, mode, and accident, and other scholastic reasoning about the superiority of causes to their effects. The implicit claim seems to be that these very particular historical formulations are universally given in intellectual intuition.

Descartes’ subsequent argument is literally that God is the efficient and total cause of everything, therefore He exists. Need I point out that only an existing being could be an efficient and total cause in the first place (assuming there is such a thing as a total cause)? And that the argument is therefore patently circular? Though still debatable, Anselm’s ontological proof and the various arguments of Aquinas were much more persuasive than this.

Plotinus, Augustine, and Avicenna all anticipated Descartes’ strong sense of interiority. What was relatively new in the metaphysics of Descartes was his narrow point about the otherwise empty certainty that “awareness exists”, but even that was partially anticipated by Avicenna’s “flying man” argument.

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.)