Substance and Subject

This is part 2 of my walk-through of the Preface to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. We’ve reached the point where he says “In my view, which must be justified by the exposition of the system itself, everything hangs on grasping and expressing the true not just as substance but just as much as subject” (Pinkard trans., p. 12).

I’ve previously written two posts (Substance Also Subject; Subject and Substance, Again) that try to bring this aspect of Hegel as close as possible to the deeper sense that Aristotle gives to “substance” in the Metaphysics. I still think this fits well with Hegel’s larger perspective, but here I want to deal with the text as it stands.

Just two sentences after the one quoted above, there is an unmistakable reference to Spinoza’s controversial view that God is the only substance there is. Spinoza defines substance as “what is in itself and is conceived through itself, i.e., that whose concept does not require the concept of another thing, from which it must be formed” (Ethics book 1 definition 3; Collected Works, Curley trans., vol. 1 p. 408). The sentences in which Hegel literally speaks of substance in the Preface appear to be consistent with this. In general, Hegel most often speaks of “substance” as something whose main attributes are self-containedness and immediate identity with itself. This is very far indeed from the Metaphysics-based notion of substance I have been concerned to develop here. But as we will see, Hegel makes up for this in other ways.

A “subject” for Hegel is always a conscious or self-conscious being. But consciousness for Hegel always comes paired with an object. Self-consciousness eventually overcomes the duality of consciousness and object, but it is constituted in irreducible relation with other rational beings.

So when Hegel says “substance is also subject”, it is a paradoxical expression saying that what is self-contained “also” has irreducible relations to objects or other beings. Language is here strained to the breaking point. Perhaps he wants to imply that the very thing that the Schellingians claimed was entirely self-contained is in reality essentially embedded in otherness.

Overall, Hegel stresses irreducible relations far more than self-containedness. In the opening quote, he just told us that in his discourse, we should not expect to find a “substance” that is only substance and nothing more. In Hegel, even the absolute is never “just” absolute. Everything for Hegel is more than it “just” is.

When he speaks of ethical substance or spiritual substance, what he seems to really want to convey is just that these have an aspect of self-containedness or simple immediacy, not that they are strictly reducible to it.

“The true is not an original unity as such, or, not an immediate unity as such. It is the coming-to-be of itself, the circle that presupposes its end as its goal and has its end for its beginning, and which is actual only through this accomplishment and its end” (pp. 12-13).

The circular relation here is importantly different from that by which Plotinus strictly identifies the end of all things with the origin of all things (for him, the One is both of these). In Hegel, the circle explicitly involves actualization of the end via coming-to-be, which escapes strict identity, whereas in Plotinus the circle is supposed to be eternal and to figuratively represent a simple identity. Directly contrary to Hegel, Plotinus would tell us that the true is both an original unity and an immediate unity.

Hegel expands his previous statement as follows:

“However much the form is said to be the same as the essence, still it is for that very reason a bald misunderstanding to suppose that cognition can be content with the in-itself, or, the essence, but can do without the form — that the absolute principle, or absolute intuition, can make do without working out the former or without the development of the latter. Precisely because the form is as essential to the essence as the essence is to itself, the essence must not be grasped as mere essence, which is to say, as immediate substance or as the pure self-intuition of the divine. Rather, it must likewise be grasped as form in the entire richness of the developed form, and only thereby is it grasped and expressed as the actual.”

“The true is the whole. However, the whole is only the essence completing itself through its own development. This much can be said of the absolute: It is essentially a result, and only at the end is it what it is in truth. Its nature consists just in this: to be actual, to be subject, or, to be the becoming-of-itself. As contradictory as it might seem, namely, that the absolute is to be comprehended essentially as a result, even a little reflection will put this mere semblance of contradiction in its rightful place. The beginning, the principle, or, the absolute as it is at first, or, as it is immediately expressed, is only the universal. But just as my saying ‘all animals’ can hardly count as an expression of zoology, it is likewise obvious that the words, ‘absolute’, ‘divine’, ‘eternal’, and so on, do not express what is contained in them; — and it is only such words which in fact express intuition as the immediate. Whatever is more than such a word, even the mere transition to a proposition, is a becoming-other which must be redeemed, or, it is a mediation” (p. 13).

“Hence, reason is misunderstood if reflection is excluded from the truth and is not taken to be a positive moment of the absolute. Reflection is what makes truth into the result, but it is likewise what sublates the opposition between the result and its coming-to-be” (p. 14).

As with “substance”, Hegel gives essence a much more restrictive meaning than I have been developing here. On the other hand, he has a lively Aristotelian notion of form that is quite unusual among modern writers.

To pay attention to mediation is to “be at home in otherness”. Here I think we are much closer to Aristotle again, perhaps in spite of what I find to be the awkward earlier words about substance and subject. Hegel seems to confirm this by explicitly comparing what he has just said to the larger scheme of Aristotelian teleology, just as I had hoped before (see Aristotle on Explanation; Nature, Ends, Normativity; Hegel’s Preface). Now that the ground is clear, I’ll apply this to the earlier point about Kant and Aristotle in a future post.

“What has just been said can also be expressed by saying that reason is purposive doing. Both the exaltation of a nature supposedly above and beyond thinking, and especially the banishment of external purposiveness have brought the form of purpose completely into disrepute. Yet, in the sense in which Aristotle also determines nature as purposive doing, purpose is the immediate, the motionless, which is self-moving, or, is subject…. For that reason, the result is the same as the beginning because the beginning is purpose — that is, the actual is the same as its concept only because the immediate, as purpose, has the self, or, pure actuality, within itself. The purpose which has been worked out, or, existing actuality, is movement and unfolded coming-to-be” (ibid).

As an added bonus, he puts an explicit caveat on the previous talk about the subject. What really matters is the actuality of the concept as self-moving, not the putative fixed point of the subject. I like this vocabulary much better.

“The subject is accepted as a fixed point on which the predicates are attached for their support through a movement belonging to what it is that can be said to know this subject and which itself is also not to be viewed as belonging to the point itself, but it is solely through this movement that the content would be portrayed as the subject. Because of the way this movement is constituted, it cannot belong to the point, but after the point has been presupposed, this movement cannot be constituted in any other way, and it can only be external. Thus, not only is the former anticipation that the absolute is subject not the actuality of the concept, but it even makes that actuality impossible, for it posits the concept as a point wholly at rest, whereas the concept is self-movement” (p. 15).

Not only does he emphasize the movement of the concept, but he even mentions the content being “portrayed” as the subject. (See also Ideas Are Not Inert.)

A “Mind-Soul Problem”?

Still slowly making my way through volume 3 part 1 of Alain de Libera’s Archéologie du sujet, I’ve passed through a section in which he raises the question of a “mind-soul problem”. In the wake of Descartes’ mind/body dualism, many modern authors have spoken of a “mind-body problem”, and proposed materialist or spiritualist alternatives to the dualism of Descartes. Hardly anyone in modern times has addressed a “mind-soul problem”.

My own usage of “soul” is intended purely as a translation of what Aristotle called psyche. I usually avoid “mind”, which has a heritage going back to Augustine’s mens, but has come to be widely used both for everything in the sphere of conscious awareness and for the object studied by modern psychology. Modern philosophers may speak of a philosophy of mind, but what is mind, really? In French and German, the word for spirit takes the place of the English “mind”.

The medieval term “intellect” (a translation of Aristotle’s nous) has much more specific connotations than any of these, though it might be argued that the role Aquinas gave it relative to underwriting the soul’s immortality played an important role in the emergence of modern notions of mind or spirit as something assumed to be a relatively uniform singular thing. Mind in Augustine does seem to have a kind of simplicity also, though Augustine’s soul/body dualism was very different from Aquinas’ combination of Aristotelian hylomorphism with his own non-Aristotelian metaphysical notion of intellectual soul.

De Libera points out that numerous medieval authors discussed the contrast between intellectio (thought, concerned with universals) and cogitatio (the soul’s awareness, concerned with particulars and grounded in what was called imagination). I like to read the discourse about intellect as pointing toward what Kant would later call transcendental considerations, whereas cogitation would belong to the empirical domain.

The common translation of Descartes’ cogito as “I think” confusingly crosses this boundary. The “I” part has also been questioned by various authors, but clearly Descartes was talking about a concrete awareness informed by many particulars, although he gave it a privileged metaphysical status. Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding was certainly also concerned with concrete, empirical awareness, but when he had it translated to Latin, the Latin for “intellect” was used to render “understanding”.

As de Libera says, the “mind-soul problem” is concerned with questions like whether the being that has awareness of sensation is the same as the being that thinks. I imagine that there is a kind of sharing, overlap, and community between the two, but not an identity. Many ancient cultures East and West saw distinctions in this area, where most of the Latin Scholastics and Western modernity insisted on an overarching strong unity or formal uniformity of the “intellectual soul” or mind.

And again, what is thinking?

Speaking in the common way, “I think” that thinking is something more profound than the action of an ego. It’s not at all clear to me that it is entirely “mine”; I tend to think the contrary. And I think there is a big element of receptivity in the apprehension of reality. I don’t mean that anything is just handed to us ready-made, but I think it is equally wrong to say that we make it all. What’s interesting to me is the region in between. Thinking has an active component, but it is not simply an “action”. Models for action include creation from nothing and mechanical impulse; neither of these seems to me like a good analogy for thought. Activity is much wider than action.

Aquinas on the Act of Thought

In a few very dense pages, Alain de Libera summarizes a number of key theses extracted from the works of Thomas Aquinas pertaining to the act of thought (see also “The Subject” In Medieval Times; Origins of a Subject-Agent). According to de Libera, these principles — which represented a significant departure from Augustine’s insistence that the human soul should not be viewed as a “subject” in the sense of something standing under something else — attained a wide currency in Latin scholasticism. They laid the groundwork for the modern notion of “the subject” as active mind and ego.

“Thought is an action (actio) or an operation (operatio) called ‘intellectual’ (intellectualis) or ‘intelligible’ (intelligibilis) because it is the deed of intellect and treats of the intelligible, and unites these two dimensions in its proper actuality. Intellectual has two senses: subjective and causal. Contemplation, also called theoretical thought, the knowledge of the intelligible, is intellectual because it takes place in the intellect itself, which is to say that, relative to the body, it is atopical or utopical [without place], because the intellect itself is not located in the body; the other actions called intellectual are so in a causal sense; they are called such because they are directed or imposed, that is to say commanded, by the intellect and executed by means of a bodily instrument — with respect to which, in distinction from the act of thought — they are localizable and localized: this is the case, for example, with walking and riding, two actions called imposed.”

“…There are two kinds of actions: one remains internal to the agent, begins and ends in it (it is called: manens [remaining] or consistens [consisting] or quiescens in agente [resting in the agent]); the other is exercised on another thing or an exterior matter (it is called: exiens [coming out] or progrediens [moving forward] or tendens [tending] or transiens in alterum [passing into another] or in materiam exteriorem [into the matter of exteriors]). This duality prolongs the Aristotelian distinction between immanent action and transitive action…. The distinction, massively utilized to theorize the difference between the psychic (where immanent causality reigns) and the physical (where the transitive reigns), is also applied within the physical sphere, notably to light….”

“…Only that which is in act acts (Nihil agit nisi secundum quod est actu). This fundamental thesis, which lays the foundation of the articulation between actio and actus [action and act], introduces itself in diverse other formulations, such as: Omne agens agit, inquantum actu est [every agent acts, insofar as it actually is], or Unumquodque agit secundum quod est actu [each one acts according to what it actually is]. We will call it ‘the principle of the actuality of the agent’.”

“Numerous principles arise from this or assume its validity. This is the case with [the principle that] that by which something first operates is the form of the operator; the principle of the subjection of action in the power of the agent… and the subjective principle of action [actions belong to something standing under them]” (Archéologie du sujet vol. 3 part 1, pp. 53-56, my translation). De Libera goes on to mention additional principles such as “attribution of action to the principal agent” (pp. 56-57); “action is a function of the being of the agent” (p. 57); “determination of action by the nature of the agent” (ibid); “determination of action by act” (ibid); and “actuality is a determination of the act of an agent” (ibid).

The bottom line of all of this seems to be that thought is the action of an agent. Neither Aristotle nor Augustine treated thought in this way or had this kind of view of action and agency, but a long medieval and modern heritage makes it seem like common sense to many people. Aristotle spoke of intellect as coming to us “from outside”. He was certainly very interested in practical doings, in process, and in being-at-work, but did not reduce these to the discrete “actions” of discrete “agents”. Activity, I want to say, is something different and broader than this. (See also Not Power and Action; Aristotelian Actualization; Aristotelian Subjectivity Revisited).

The Quest for Identity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Subject and Substance, Again

In the area I have been exploring most recently, we are rather far from the notions of subject and substance that I think Hegel worked back to in the course of asserting that “substance is also subject”, as if this were something new and unheard of.

It was unheard of in the context of relatively standard modern notions of substance and subject. But it is trivially true that “substance” (ousia) in the logical sense of Aristotle’s Categories (as distinct from the much deeper and more interesting sense developed in the Metaphysics) is a “subject” in the Aristotelian sense of “thing standing under”.

It is also true, I think, that substance in the deeper Aristotelian sense is the kind of thing that what I call the human essence or ethical being is, and the latter, I want to contentiously claim, actually deserves to be called a truer form of “subject” than the more standard modern notion of a psychological or spiritual subject-agent.

I’m very aware that I haven’t adequately explained what I mean by human essence, even if I gesture at something by equating it with ethical being. It is important to recognize that most 20th century philosophers rejected the very idea of a human essence. In the course of rejecting it, they made a lot of valuable criticism of notions of human essence that were too easy or had overly specific, arbitrary implications. But essence in general in the best Platonic sense ought to be taken as an open question. And by human, I just mean all of us animals that participate in meaningful language, as Aristotle said.

In having meaningful dialogue at all, we implicitly acknowledge some sort of ethics and standards of reasonableness, even if they are underdeveloped or poorly practiced). We become a “who” through participation in language and the elementary practices of mutual recognition that are entailed by such participation.

Hegel talks about “ethical substance” as the basis of traditional culture. Its “substantial” character is both a strength and a shortcoming. It is unalienated, but ultimately limited by the fact that it just “is what it is”. In his view, this kind of life comes to be eclipsed by modern individualism with its focus on the subject-agent ego, which (to simplify greatly) in turn can potentially be eclipsed or overcome by mutual recognition and “substance that is also subject”. (See also Substance and Subject.)

“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.

Wisdom and Responsibility

Among other works, the great early 20th century philosopher Edmund Husserl wrote his own Cartesian Meditations, an expanded version of lectures delivered in Paris in 1929. Husserl developed his own version of phenomenology, very different from Hegel’s, and his own version of transcendental subjectivity, very different from Kant’s. Throughout his career, he was concerned to criticize naive notions of objectivity. While disagreeing with a few of his fundamental principles, I enormously admire his nuanced development and intellectual honesty.

Husserl writes that “The aim of [Descartes’] Meditations is a complete reforming of philosophy into a science grounded on an absolute foundation” (Cartesian Meditations, p. 1). I think of philosophy as concerned with generalized, coherent interpretation of life and the world as an ongoing, never-finished project, rather than a completed rational “science”. But Husserl, with all his scruples about premature claims of objectivity, is famously provisional in most of his actual developments. As long as the ultimate “science” remains an aim and is not claimed as a present possession, we have not fallen into dogmatism. I think Husserl overall actually does better than Kant at avoiding overstated claims of “scientific” accomplishment.

According to Husserl, Descartes “gives rise to a philosophy turned toward the subject himself” (p. 2). I tend to worry more about illegitimate claims on behalf of a sovereign Subject than about premature claims to know about real objects, but both concerns are valid. “Philosophy — wisdom (sagesse) — is the philosopher’s quite personal affair. It must arise as his wisdom, as his self-acquired knowledge tending toward universality, a knowledge for which he can answer from the beginning, and at each step” (ibid).

The literal meaning of the Greek philosophia is “love of wisdom”. Some kind of wisdom, rather theoretical knowledge, was the main goal of ancient philosophy, from Plato and Aristotle through the Stoics, Epicureans, and Skeptics, all the way to the neoplatonists. An emphasis on wisdom as distinct from knowledge puts a “practical”, ultimately ethical dimension above all particular inquiries, whereas Latin scholastics focused on more technical debates about the truth of propositions, and early modern philosophy was permeated with ideals of pure science. I think it was really more the Kantian primacy of practical reason than the Cartesian cogito that initiated a partial turn back to the ethical concerns of the ancients. Some writers have suggested that claims for the revolutionary character of the cogito are more shaped by Kant’s interpretation and by the perception of Descartes as a precursor to Kant than by Descartes’ original.

Commentators have noted that ethical concerns are basically absent from Descartes’ Meditations. Kant and Husserl each in their own way reinfused broadly ethical concerns into Descartes’ preoccupations with the foundations of knowledge.

Husserl appeals to “the spirit that characterizes radicalness of philosophical self-responsibility” (p. 6). “Must not the demand for a philosophy aiming at the ultimate conceivable freedom from prejudice, shaping itself with actual autonomy according to ultimate evidences it has itself produced, and therefore absolutely self-responsible — must not this demand, instead of being excessive, be part of the fundamental sense of genuine philosophy?” (ibid).

This Husserlian appeal to autonomy, like Kant’s, ultimately still has to answer to the critiques of Hegel and Brandom (see In Itself, For Itself; Autonomy, Normativity; Self-Legislation?). Nonetheless, it is a high point in the development of the human spirit.

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.)

Fichte’s Evolution

Fichte was constantly revising the presentation of his core Wissenschaftslehre or “teaching of science”. He was very dissatisfied with the rushed writing of the 1794-95 Foundations of the Entire Wissenschaftslehre, translated as The Science of Knowledge, which was the only one published during his lifetime. The 1796-99 Wissenschaftslehre nova methodo, now translated as Foundations of Transcendental Philosophy, does seem more accessible and has many points of interest, but in broad outline carries forward the main theses of his earlier work. His 1804 lectures on the other hand, now translated as The Science of Knowing, contain major innovations.

The goal of both of the earlier works seems to be to elaborate a consistent philosophy based on radical “subject-centeredness”. The second introduction to the 1796-99 work develops a vivid polar contrast between “idealism” (which he says grounds everything in the subject) and “dogmatism” (which he says unsuccessfully attempts to ground everything in being or reality). “Idealism begins with the representing subject; dogmatism begins with the thing” (p. 93).

Kant had famously criticized dogmatic versions of realism with rather broad strokes, but called himself both a transcendental idealist and an empirical realist. Whatever one’s opinion of the Kantian “thing in itself” that would exist in spite of our failure to grasp it, it was clearly part of his concern to retain a notion of objective reality while rejecting its dogmatic use. Normally we contrast idealism with realism, and a critical attitude with dogmatism. By the clever rhetorical device of mixing up these two polarities, Fichte implies that all philosophically “realist” concerns are dogmatic. At this point, Fichte was a radical subjectivist (even though he was never a vulgar subjectivist, since his “subject” was always a subject of reason). In the same work, he further confirms this by talking in an unqualified way about the subject’s “absolute freedom”. He rejects the modest assertion of an unknown thing-in-itself, but claims to have an infallible intellectual intuition of the “I”. “Self-reverting activity and the I are one and the same” (p. 112). “All consciousness is accompanied by an immediate self-consciousness, which is called ‘intellectual intuition’, and this immediate self-consciousness must be presupposed if one is to think at all” (pp. 119-120).

I’m now looking for the first time at his 1804 lectures. Here he significantly modifies aspects of his stance. There is much less emphasis on the I. Instead, “the essence of philosophy would consist in this: to trace all multiplicity (which presses upon us in the usual view of life) back to absolute oneness” (p. 23). “[A]bsolute oneness can no more reside in being than in its correlative consciousness; it can as little be posited in the thing as in the representation of the thing. Rather, it resides in the principle, which we have just discovered, of the absolute oneness and indivisibility of both, which is equally, as we have seen, the principle of their disjunction. We will name this principle pure knowing, knowing in itself, and, thus, completely objectless knowing…. It is distinct from consciousness, which posits a being and is therefore only a half. This is Kant’s discovery, and is what makes him the founder of Transcendental Philosophy. Like Kantian philosophy, the science of knowing… does not posit the absolute in the thing, as previously, or in subjective knowing — which is simply impossible, because whoever reflects on this second term already has the first — but in the oneness of both” (pp. 25-26). “[F]or this kind of philosophy the difference between being and thinking, as valid in itself, totally disappears” (p. 30).

So he seems to have moved from a highly asymmetric view of subject and object to a much more symmetrical one. Unfortunately, the idea of reducing the Many to the One, even if he handles it in less cavalier fashion than Schelling, still leads to what Hegel called the “night in which all cows are black”.