“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.

“This Human Understands”

Imagination rather than intellect is actually the main locus of human consciousness for both Thomas Aquinas and the great Aristotelian commentator Averroes whom Aquinas famously criticized, according to medieval scholar Deborah Black.

“[W]ithin the Aristotelian framework which Aquinas and Averroes share, the psychological explanation and interpretation of intellectual consciousness is not itself a given, even if the experience of consciousness is. Consciousness of thinking may play a central role in Cartesian philosophy, and in the system of Averroes’s and Aquinas’s predecessor, Avicenna. But it has no such privileged status in the philosophies of Aristotle, Averroes, or Aquinas, in which the possible intellect ‘is actually nothing before it thinks,’ and is only able to think itself after it has been actualized by some other object”, she wrote in her 1993 essay “Consciousness and Self-Knowledge in Aquinas’s Critique of Averroes’s Psychology”.

The relation of so-called “intellect” (nous) to the human “soul” (psyche) in Aristotle has historically been a major point of contention. These words are used in subtly or extremely different ways by many authors. I strongly recommend holding off on any easy identification of either of them with what modern people think of as subjective mind or consciousness.

Aristotle seems to apply a variant of his fruitful pairing of potentiality and actuality in his rather minimalist account of intellect. These notions were developed in greater detail in the commentary tradition. To hazard an oversimplification, intellect in actuality was considered to be something immaterial that makes things intelligible, whereas intellect in potentiality was considered to be something with no form of its own that takes on intelligible forms.

The great Greek commentator Alexander of Aphrodisias identified the potential or “material” intellect with a part of the soul, which he considered to be inseparable from the body, and therefore mortal. The actual or “agent” intellect he identified with a divine principle that he also gave a cosmological role.

The brilliant Arabic commentator Averroes (Ibn Rushd) argued that both aspects of intellect were symmetrically unique immaterial principles, outside the soul but connected with it. He became convinced that all humans must share a common “material” (potential) intellect, which grounds the real existence of logical universals and intelligible forms, but gets its contents from human imagination, and would not exist if there were no rational animals.

Aquinas located both intellects within the human soul, while giving the latter the elevated, more neoplatonic metaphysical status of an “intellectual soul”, and strongly associating its intellectual character with personal immortality. Especially in later works, Aquinas polemicized sharply against Averroes, claiming that Averroes could not even consistently say that “this human understands”, because for Averroes in his Long Commentary on the De Anima, there is only one material intellect shared by all humans.

Deborah Black argues that the two phases of intellect in Aristotle work together to constitute objects and intelligible forms. This need not imply an experience of immediate self-awareness. For Aristotle, Averroes, and Aquinas, intellectual self-awareness emerges only indirectly.

Black points out that Aquinas typically uses words like “perceives” or “experiences” in talking about self-awareness, and seems to deliberately avoid words implying intellectual comprehension. She sees this as reflecting Aristotelian scruples, and notes the studied vagueness of Aquinas’ endorsement of Augustinian immediate self-awareness. In his refutation of Averroes, Aquinas does appeal to the experience of consciousness, but she notes that he does so initially to argue against Plato’s identification of human being solely with intellect, pointing out that the same person perceives herself both to understand and to sense. “This human understands” does not actually emphasize any deep reflexivity, only individuality.

Aquinas approves of the fact that for Averroes, intellect is in some way united with the body, but argues that because for Averroes that union occurs only through a working of intellect on the contents of imagination, the human individual for Averroes does not herself think. On the other hand, Black argues that Aquinas does not take into account the fact that although what Aquinas himself calls imagination is an entirely passive reception of images, the contents of imagination for Averroes have a much more active character. For Averroes, according to Black, it is the active character of the contents of imagination that manifests human self-awareness. Because Aquinas views imagination as entirely passive, he refuses to acknowledge any credibility to this at all, claiming that the contents of imagination Averroes appeals to are really nothing more than the equivalent of inert colors on an inert wall, and that this makes the human equivalent to a wall.

Averroes compares active intellect to light, and so-called “material” intellect to a transparent medium such as air. Aquinas makes it sound as though the material intellect for Averroes would be analogous to the eye, which would make the material intellect a sort of mind behind our minds. However, Black says Averroes always compared it to a transparent medium, not to the eye. She argues that neither of Averroes’ intellects is a mind or a knower or subject in the modern sense. In her 2004 essay “Models of the Mind: Metaphysical Presuppositions of the Averroist and Thomistic Accounts of Intellection”, she contends that for Averroes, far from being the mind behind our minds that would make us into mere puppets, the material intellect serves as a shared instrument for human agents who individually constitute themselves in imagination.

Averroes’ notion of intellect, Black suggests, is mainly concerned with the constitution of intelligible objects as universals from imaginative content. It does not act as a subject in the modern sense. She cites a number of passages from Aquinas indicating that he, too, often treated intellect as an instrument, rather than as our very essence. (See also Parts of the Soul; Aristotelian Subjectivity Revisited.)

Ideas Are Not Inert

In the British empiricist tradition, “ideas” are supposed to be inert contents of an active “mind”, and to be either identical with sensible contents or derived from sensory experience. They are supposed to have content that just “is what it is”, but is nonetheless sufficient to serve as a basis for our conclusions and motivations.

I want to argue instead that the only possible basis for our conclusions and motivations is other conclusions and motivations. As individuals we always start in the middle, with some already existing conclusions and motivations that were not necessarily individually ours to begin with. Language and culture and upbringing provide us with a stock of pre-existing conclusions and particularly shaped motivations.

Further, I don’t see ideas as inert. The notion that ideas are completely inert comes from an extreme polarization between active mind and passive idea that results from entirely subordinating this relation to the grammatical model of subject and predicate. Aristotle’s rather minimalist account of these matters effectively treats objects and ideas as having some activity of their own. For Aristotle, “we” do not hold a monopoly on activity. There is also activity in the world that is independent of us, and much of our activity is our particular reflection of the world’s activity. Indeed for Aristotle I take it to be thought rather than an assumed “thinker” that is primarily active.

Hegel has often been criticized for speaking as if “the Idea” had life of its own, independent of us humans. If one holds an empiricist view of ideas, this can only sound like nonsense, or some kind of animism. But with an Aristotelian view of thoughts as a kind of intrinsically active “contents”, that is not the case. If thoughts are intrinsically active, we need not posit a separate mental “subject” distinct from any actual thought or perception or content as the source of all activity, behind thought.

Plato compared the human soul to a city — a kind of unity to be sure, but a weak one consisting of a federated community and relatively specific “culture” of thoughts and perceptions, subject to varying degrees of coherence. Only under the influence of later theology did it come to be assumed that the soul must necessarily have the far stronger unity of a simple substance. A looser unity of the soul is very compatible with a view of thoughts and perceptions as multiple fibers of activity, from which the overall activity we attribute to the soul or mind is constituted.

Aristotle on the Soul

“Since we consider knowledge to be something beautiful and honored, and one sort more so than another either on account of its precision or because it is about better and more wondrous things, on both accounts we should with good reason rank the inquiry about the soul among the primary studies. And it seems that acquaintance with it contributes greatly toward all truth and especially the truth about nature, since the soul is in some way the governing source of living things” (On the Soul I.1, Sachs trans., p. 47).

“But altogether in every way the soul is one of the most difficult things to get any assurance about” (ibid).

“But first, perhaps, it is necessary to decide in which general class it is, and what it is — I mean whether it is an independent thing and a this, or a quality or quantity or some other one of the distinct ways of attributing being to anything, and further whether it whether it belongs among things having being in potency or is rather some sort of being-at-work-staying-itself; for this makes no small difference. And one must also examine whether it is divisible or without parts, and whether all soul is of the same kind, or, if it is not of the same kind, whether souls differ as forms of one general class, or in their general classes. For those who now speak and inquire about the soul seem to consider only the human soul, but one must be on the lookout so that it does not escape notice whether there is one articulation of soul, just as of living thing, or a different one for each, as for horse, dog, human being, and god, while a living thing in general is either nothing at all or a later concern — as would similarly be in question if any other common name were applied.”

“Again, if there are not many souls but parts of one soul, one must consider whether one ought to inquire first about the soul as a whole or about the parts. But it is difficult even to distinguish, among these, which sorts are by nature different from one another, and whether one ought first to inquire about the parts or about the work they do: the thinking or the intellect, the sensing or the sense, and so on in the other cases. But if the work the parts do comes first, one might next be at a loss whether one ought to inquire about the objects of these, such as the thing sensed before the sense, and the thing thought before the intellect. But not only does it seem that knowing what something is would be useful for studying the causes of the things that follow from its thinghood (just as in mathematics, it is useful to know what straight and curved are and what a line and a plane are, for learning how many right angles the angles of a triangle are equal to), but it seems too, on the contrary, that those properties that follow contribute in great part to knowing what the thing is, for it is when we are able to give an account of what is evident about the properties, either all or most of them, that we will be able to speak most aptly about the thinghood of the thing. For in every demonstration the starting point is what something is, so it is clear that those definitions that do not lead to knowing the properties, nor even making them easy to guess at, are formulated in a merely logical way and are all empty.”

“And there is also an impasse about the attributes of the soul, whether all of them belong in common to it and to the thing that has the soul, or any of them belong to the soul alone. It is necessary to take this up, though it is not easy, but it does seem that with most of its attributes, the soul neither does anything nor has anything done to it without the body, as with being angry, being confident, desiring, and every sort of sensing, though thinking seems most of all to belong to the soul by itself; but if this is also some sort of imagination, it would not be possible for even this to be without the body. Now if any of the kinds of work the soul does or any of the things that happen to it happen to it alone, it would be possible for the soul to be separated; but if nothing belongs to it alone, it could not be separate, but in the same way that many things are properties of the straight line as straight, such as touching a sphere at a point, still no separated straight line will touch a bronze sphere in that way, since it is inseparable, if it is always with some sort of body.”

“But all the attributes of the soul seem also to be with a body — spiritedness, gentleness, fear, pity, boldness, and also joy, as well as loving and hating — for together with these the body undergoes something. This is revealed when strong and obvious experiences do not lead to the soul’s being provoked or frightened, while sometimes it is moved by small and obscure ones, when the body is in an excited state and bears itself in the way it does when it is angry. And this makes it still more clear: for when nothing frightening is happening there arise among the feelings of the soul those of one who is frightened. But if this is so, it is evident that the attributes of the soul have materiality in the very statements of them, so that their definitions would be of this sort: being angry is a certain motion of such-and-such a body or part or faculty, moved by this for the sake of that. So already on this account the study concerning the soul belongs to the one who studies nature, either all soul or at least this sort of soul.”

“But the one who studies nature and the logician would define each attribute of the soul differently, for instance what anger is. The one would say it is a craving for revenge, or some such thing, while the other would say it is a boiling of the blood and a heat around the heart. Of these, the one gives an account of the material, the other of the form and meaning. For the one is the articulation of the thing, but this has to be in a certain sort of material if it is to be at all. In the same way, while the meaning of a house is of this sort, a shelter that protects from damage by wind, rain, and the sun’s heat, another person will say that it is stones, bricks, and lumber, and yet another will say that the form is in these latter things for the sake of those former ones.”

“Which of these is the one who studies nature? Is it the one concerned with the material who ignores the meaning or the one concerned with the meaning alone? Or is it rather the one who is concerned with what arises out of both? Or is there not just one sort of person concerned with the attributes of material that are not separate nor even treated as separate, but the one who studies nature is concerned with all the work done by and things done to a certain kind of body or material” (pp. 48-51).

“But since people define the soul most of all by two distinct things, by motion with respect to place and by thinking, understanding, and perceiving, while thinking and understanding seem as though they are some sort of perceiving (for in both of these ways the soul discriminates and recognizes something about being), and the ancients even say that understanding and perceiving are the same — as Empedocles has said ‘wisdom grows for humans as a result of what is present around them’, and elsewhere ‘from this a changed understanding is constantly becoming present to them’, and Homer’s ‘such is the mind’ means the same thing as these, for they all assume that thinking is something bodily like perceiving, and that perceiving and understanding are of like by like, as we described in the chapters at the beginning (and yet they ought to have spoken at the same time about making mistakes as well, for this is more native to living things and the soul goes on for more time in this condition, and thus it would necessarily follow either, as some say, that everything that appears is true, or that a mistake is contact with what is unlike, since that is opposite to recognizing like by like, though it seems that the same mistake, or the same knowledge, concerns opposite things) — nevertheless it is clear that perceiving and understanding are not the same thing, since all animals share in the former, but few in the latter.”

“And neither is thinking the same as perceiving, for in thinking there is what is right and what is not right” (III.3, pp. 132-133).

“About the part of the soul by which the soul knows and understands, whether it is a separate part, or not separate the way a magnitude is but in its meaning, one must consider what distinguishing characteristic it has, and how thinking ever comes about…. [I]ntellect has no nature at all other than this, that it is a potency. Therefore the aspect of the soul that is called intellect (and I mean by intellect that by which the soul thinks things through and conceives that something is the case) is not actively any of the things that are until it thinks. This is why it is not reasonable that it be mixed with the body…. And it is well said that the soul is a place of forms, except that this is not the whole soul but the thinking soul, and it is not the forms in its being-at-work-staying-itself, but in potency.”

“The absence of attributes is not alike in the perceptive and thinking potencies; this is clear in its application to the sense organs and to perception. For the sense is unable to perceive anything from an excessive perceptible thing, neither any sound from loud sounds, nor to see or smell anything from strong colors and odors, but when the intellect thinks something exceedingly intelligible it is not less able to think the lesser things but even more able, since the perceptive potency is not present without a body, but the potency to think is separate from the body. And when the intellect has come to be each intelligible thing, as the knower is said to do when he is a knower in the active sense (and this happens when he is able to put his knowing to work on its own), the intellect is even then in a sense those objects in potency, but not in the same way it was before it learned and discovered them, and it is then able to think itself” (III.4, pp. 138-140).

“And it is itself intelligible in the same way its intelligible objects are, for in the case of things without material what thinks and what is thought are the same thing, for contemplative knowing and what is known in that way are the same thing (and one must consider the reason why this sort of thinking is not always happening); but among things having material, each of them is potentially something intelligible, so that there is no intellect present in them (since intellect is a potency to be such things without their material), but there is present in them something intelligible” (p. 142).

“Knowledge, in its being-at-work, is the same as the thing it knows, and while knowledge in potency comes first in time in any one knower, in the whole of things it does not take precedence even in time. This does not mean that at one time it thinks but at another time it does not think, but when separated it is just exactly what it is, and this alone is deathless and everlasting (though we have no memory, because this sort of intellect is not acted upon, while the sort that is acted upon is destructible), and without this nothing thinks” (III.5, pp. 142-143).

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.

Being and Representation

In L’Être et représentation (1999), Olivier Boulnois documents the emergence of “metaphysics” in its distinctively non-Aristotelian modern sense among various 13th century authors, including Roger Bacon, Henry of Ghent, and Siger of Brabant, leading to its decisive formulation by the Franciscan theologian John Duns Scotus in the 14th century. Avicenna had already claimed that metaphysics is about “being in general”, whereas Aristotle himself had emphasized that “being is said in many ways”, which implies that there is no “being in general”.

Boulnois suggests that the 13th century authors just mentioned paved the way for Scotus’ innovations by already treating being as a concept. We are so used to that, that it is hard for us to grasp what Aristotle means in suggesting that “being in general” is not a proper concept at all.

Scotus argued against Aristotle that there is a unifying, logically minimal criterion of being, and it is representability. To be representable is to be “not nothing”. Unicorns and other imaginary creatures are representable, whereas Aristotle would not have called them beings. Scotus’ concept of representation seems to be purely logical; to have a representation of something is not necessarily to have understanding of it. For Scotus, God and creatures are equally representable, even though creatures, as finite, can be properly understood by the human mind and God, as infinite, cannot. Whereas Aristotle never speaks of an infinite being — only of a perfect one — Scotus’ generic concept of being is very explicitly indifferent to distinctions between finite and infinite.

It is one thing to acknowledge representation as a logical concept among others, and quite another to give it the kind of special first place status that Scotus does in his ontology, and that Locke does in his epistemology.

Boulnois says it is with Scotus that metaphysics became linked to what Kant later called ontotheology. While separating metaphysics as the account of being from theology as the separate account of God, Scotus also made God indifferently one of the objects of metaphysics, along with all the other beings. The combination of these changes actually brought metaphysics closer to revealed theology, and helped it to be perceived as the safe handmaiden of the later Latin tradition, rather than as independent philosophical theology that some found threatening.

If one speaks of a subject of representation, it could be — in a sense of “subject” closer to that of Aristotle — that in which something stands for something, or it could be — in a modern sense — the one who represents. “In the context of representation, the soul is not the content of its thought, but rather has a representation, distinct from itself” (Boulnois, op. cit., p. 152, my translation).

It seems that for both Scotus and Locke, the mind has representations. The soul in Aristotle is thoughts and feelings and capabilities, not something standing behind them. (See also Repraesentatio; Ontology; Being, Existence.)

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).