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 modern “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).

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”.

“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”.

Aristotelian Subjectivity Revisited

My previous article on this was a bit narrow, focused only on an Aristotelian analogue for the sort of “transcendental” subjectivity developed by Kant and Hegel. Of course, the whole field of “subjectivity” is much broader than that, and properly transcendental subjectivity has little to do with the empirical subjectivity that we have in mind when we call something “subjective”. Here I’d like to begin to round out the picture. (In the background, I’m also imagining what Aristotle might say in response to Hegel’s Phenomenology.)

It is in fact something of a truism that none of the Greeks had a modern concept of the human “subject”. The closest (still distant) analogue is what gets conventionally translated by the etymologically related term “substance” in Aristotle. The elementary notion of substance as a literally existing logical/syntactic substrate for properties –“something underlying something else” — from the Categories was influentially referred to by Heidegger as “subjectity” (intended to stand in constrast to “subjectivity“).

The explanatory role of a literal notion of substrate is raised again in the Metaphysics. Aristotle says the most obvious candidate for a substrate of things is matter. But then he goes on to deconstruct and ultimately discard the whole notion that the most important kind of explanation of things involves reference to a literal substrate. Form — identified with essence or definition, and “what it was to have been” a thing — is then developed as providing more fundamental explanation than any substrate; then form itself is given a deeper explanation in terms of actuality and potentiality.

But neither the elementary account of “something underlying” in the Categories nor the sophisticated discussion in the Metaphysics makes any reference at all to the sentience and agency that are equally fundamental to modern notions of a human “subject”.

Separate from all of this, Aristotle identifies humans as those animals that have language and the ability to reason, which he considers as depending on language. I have argued that the main resource for an implicit notion of transcendental subjectivity in Aristotle is actually his ethical writings. The treatise on the “soul” (psyche) deals with bodily growth, nutrition, movement, and reproduction; with sense perception and imagination; and also with thought, which he refers to as coming to the soul “from outside”. Related treatises address memory and dreams. Human emotions, on the other hand, he deals with not in the “psychological” treatises but rather in the Rhetoric. The context in which Aristotle treats emotion is thus social and communicative rather than inward-looking. He also treats a kind of emotional maturity as a prerequisite for ethical development. He has a refined and well-differentiated notion of situated agency and ethical responsibility, but lacks the obsession with identity shown by many later authors.

I want to suggest that the “whatness” of subjectivity-forms — whether empirical or transcendental — is far more interesting and practically relevant than the supposed abstract “existence” of subject or substrate entities. This is true regardless of whether we are dealing with empirical or transcendental subjectivity. In Heideggerian terms, I want to decouple subjectivity from presumptions of subjectity.

As regards the Aristotelian soul, in Naissance du Sujet (volume 1 of Archeologie du Sujet), Alain de Libera lists four recent analytic interpretations: 1) the psyche is identical to the body; 2) the psyche is an attribute of the body; 3) the body “constitutes” the psyche; 4) the psyche is an immaterial substance. Actually, none of these seems to me to adequately capture Aristotle’s hylomorphism, or notion of the complementarity of “form” and “matter” (neither of which individually means quite what it might seem to, either — see above links). I am also sympathetic to the reading that Aristotelian matter is a relative concept, so that something could be the material for something else that is in turn material for another thing. Something similar, I think, could be said of form.

The relation of soul to body is clearly presented as an instance of the relation of form to matter, though it seems that the relation of form to matter may be different in different cases. In any case I do not think the form/matter relation is intended as an instance of the substance/accident relation. (The notion of “substantial form” was an original development of the Latin medieval tradition, not found in Aristotle, and the bits I understand of the medieval debate on unity or multiplicity of substantial forms further complicate the picture. The key to this whole territory is to understand that there are very many highly distinct and sophisticated positions in the tradition on issues of this sort.)

A further complication involves the relation between “soul” and the “intellect” that “comes from without”, which has a long and fascinating history in the commentary tradition, extending from Alexander of Aphrodisias through the Arabic tradition to the Latin tradition of Albert the Great.

The great Arabic commentator Averroes was apparently the first to ask what is the “subject”, in the substrate sense, of human thought. He came up with the novel suggestion that individual human thought has two such “subjects”: one belonging to the soul that is involved with the body and perception, and one that is an immaterial source of concepts, belongs to the whole human community, gains content over time, and would cease to exist if there were no more humans.

Another intriguing complication in the historical Western tradition is the clear stance taken by Augustine that human mind, soul, or spirit should definitely not be taken as a subject in the substrate sense, e.g., for knowledge or love.

Ricoeur on Husserl on Memory

For Ricoeur in Memory, History, Forgetting, Husserl was simultaneously a source of valuable insights and the “apex” of a “school of inwardness” (p. 97) that threatened to make any social dimension of memory unintelligible.

On the positive side, Husserl clearly recognized that our experience of “now” is not just a point moving along a line, but involves a series of overlapping durations.  He is quoted saying “Since a new now is always entering on the scene, the now changes into a past; and as it does so the whole running-off continuity of pasts belonging to the preceding point moves ‘downwards’ uniformly into the depths of the past” (p. 34).  His other nice image for this was that the now is like a comet with a tail.  The metaphorical comet’s tail corresponds to what Husserl called “retention”, and what I have referred to as a kind of thickness of the present.  This is distinct from the “reproduction” that occurs after recollection or spontaneously.  At least at a first level of approximation, retention is a feature of perception, whereas reproduction involves a reconstruction in imagination.

“The reproach that can be legitimately made to Husserl, at this preliminary stage of his analysis, is to have enclosed the phenomenology of the present within perceived objectivity at the expense of affective and practical objectivity” (p. 33; emphasis added).

Reproductive memory for Husserl belongs to a broader family of intuitive “presentifications”.  Ricoeur suggests that experience of the temporal present for Husserl is inseparable from some form of presentification.

At a certain point in Husserl’s lectures on internal time-consciousness, Ricoeur says, Husserl’s gaze shifted from the constitution of memories with objective content to the constitution of the temporal flow itself within consciousness.  Ricoeur had applauded the earlier emphasis on objective content, and characterizes this shift to the temporal flow itself as a “retreat”.  Husserl is quoted speaking of “absolute subjectivity” in this context (p. 111).  

Ricoeur suggests that this paved the way for Husserl’s later “egological” moves that seemed to completely reverse his early motto “To the things themselves!”  The self-constitution of the internal time flow is associated with a solitary “I”.  “The primacy accorded in this way to the self-constitution of the temporal flow does not make immediately apparent the obstacles raised by this extreme subjectivism to the idea of the simultaneous constitution of individual memory and of collective memory” (p. 114).  

Ricoeur thus seems to suggest that the later Husserl’s theory of intersubjectivity, though containing valuable points of interest, ultimately fails — at least in Husserl’s own version that is tied to an egological foundation — to sufficiently shift the center of gravity back away from the egological dimension.  I think Ricoeur wants to say that an adequate account of subjectivity needs to take intersubjectivity into account from the beginning, and not treat it as an add-on.

According to Ricoeur, Husserl’s shift from “objective” to purely reflexive analysis of memories leads to a reduction of memory and memory’s directedness toward objects to purely internal retention, and the reduction of memory to retention results in a dubious “triumph of presence”.  

Turning to Husserl’s discussion of intersubjectivity in his Fifth Cartesian Meditation, which Ricoeur translated early in his career and on which he previously wrote a detailed study, he notes that Husserl speaks of the “reduction of transcendental experience to the sphere of ownness” (p. 118).  Ricoeur comments, “This forced passage by way of the sphere of ownness is essential to the interpretation of what follows” (ibid).  “[M]ust we begin with the idea of ownness, pass through the experience of the other, and finally proceed to a third operation, said to be the communalization of subjective experience?  Is this chain truly irreversible?  Is it not the speculative presupposition of transcendental idealism that imposes this irreversibility, rather than any constraint characteristic of phenomenological description?” (p. 119).

This methodological emphasis on “ownness” seems to be a result of the historical influence of Locke. “Plato… did not ask to whom the memory ‘happens’.  Aristotle, investigating the operation of recollection, did not inquire about the one who performs the task” (pp. 125-126).  Strawson in his analyses of ordinary language argued that “if a phenomenonon is self-ascribable, it is other-ascribable….  We cannot be doing the one without doing the other” (p. 127).  This sounds like something Brandom might also say.

For Ricoeur, the possibility of multiple ascription presupposes the possibility of suspension of ascription.  It is therefore incompatible with a Lockean insistence on the necessary priority of ownness.  He notes that Alfred Schutz developed a phenomenology that put the experience of others on an equal footing with the experience of self.

He closes this section with a suggestion that close relations with others form a sort of middle ground between the individual and the abstractly social.  (See also Ricoeur on Memory: Orientation; Ricoeur on Augustine on Memory; Ricoeur on Locke on Personal Identity; Husserlian and Existential Phenomenology; Phenomenological Reduction?; I-Thou, I-We.)

Ricoeur on Memory: Orientation

The first part of Memory, History, Forgetting is devoted to the phenomenology of memory.  Husserl’s notion of intentionality – summarized by the dictum that all consciousness is consciousness of something, which Ricoeur here calls “object oriented” and interprets as putting the what before the who – is suggested as a starting point.  “If one wishes to avoid being stymied by a fruitless aporia, then one must hold in abeyance the question of attributing to someone… the act of remembering and begin with the question ‘What?’” (p. 3).  

He notes that Plato bequeathed to posterity an approach to memory (and also imagination) centered on talking about a kind of presence of an absent thing.  Aristotle is credited with clarifying the distinction between this kind of memory and the kind of doing involved in the effort to remember something.  “Memories, by turns found and sought, are… situated at the crossroads of pragmatics and semantics” (p. 4).  It is the pragmatics of recollection that will eventually provide an appropriate transition to the who of memory, but there will also be a difficulty with an inherent potential for a kind of abuse of active recollection, foreshadowed by Plato’s worries about the manipulative discourse of the Sophist.

It will be important to distinguish memory from imagination as having different kinds of objects, and especially to avoid a too-easy assimilation of memories to images (which he elsewhere applies to imagination as well).  Memory is supposed to be concerned with a real past, and although images do seem to play a role in our experience of memory, Ricoeur suggests it will be a secondary one.

He urges that we consider memory first from the point of view of capacities and their “happy” realization, before questions of pathology and error.  “To put it bluntly, we have nothing better than memory to signify that something has taken place” (p. 21).  He also thinks it is possible to at least “sketch a splintered, but not radically dispersed, phenomenology in which the relation to time remains the ultimate and sole guideline” (p. 22).  

There is a problem of the interconnection between preverbal experience and “the work of language that ineluctably places phenomenology on the path of interpretation, hence of hermeneutics” (p. 24).  There is also an extensive problem of the relation between action and representation.  

Memories are essentially plural, and come in varying degrees of distinctness.  We remember diverse kinds of things in diverse ways — singular events, states of affairs, abstract generalities, and facts.  We have practical know-how that closely resembles an acquired habit, and other memory that apparently has no relation to habit.  There is a contrast between memory as evocation and memory as search.  He recalls Bergson’s notion of a dynamic scheme as a kind of direction of effort for the reconstruction of something.  From Husserl, there is a distinction between retention and reproduction.  There is another polarity between reflexivity and worldliness.  From Bergson, there is another distinction between “pure memory” and a secondary “memory-image”.

Ultimately, memory involves a search for truth, an aim of faithfulness.  It will have to be shown how this is related to its practical dimension, concerned with memory’s uses and abuses.  

What Ricoeur terms the abuses of memory include the Renaissance “art of memory” celebrated by Frances Yates, which connected artificial techniques of memorization with magic and Hermetic secrets.   We will “retreat from the magic of memory in the direction of a pedagogy of memory” (p. 67).  Natural memory, too, as Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx pointed out, can be blocked, manipulated, or abusively controlled.  The phenomena associated with ideology are a part of this.  Communities attempt to obligate us to remember things in certain ways, and to forget certain things.

Ricoeur would like to avoid both the radical subjectivism of “methodological individualism” and an immediate sociological holism of a Durkheimian sort.  In this context, he again pleads for a deferral of the question of the “actual subject of the operations of memory” (p. 93).