Associative Synthesis

We have reached the heart of Husserl’s passive synthesis lectures, a long subdivision on associative synthesis. This is Husserl’s re-visioning of the classic notion of association that empirical psychology ultimately derived from Locke and Hume. For Husserl, it will provide the key to the constitution of subjectivity overall.

Rather than treating association in terms of a notion of psycho-physical causality, he wants to explain it as as a product of synthesis. As Husserl now reminds us, he has been implicitly working under the phenomenological reduction, which puts “in brackets” all questions of external existence and natural causality. He focuses on what to my Aristotelian eye look like questions of form and of a kind of teleology immanent to the subject matter.

Here he again refers to Kant’s discussion of synthesis in the Critique of Pure Reason (see Capacity to JudgeFigurative Synthesis). Husserl claims that he will go further than Kant in explicitly discussing synthesis of immanent contents of consciousness, as well as apprehensions of objects of external perception. For both Husserl and Kant, all this is closely bound up with the constitution of our experience of time. Memory and expectation will again play a key role.

“[T]he path is cleared from here toward a universal theory of the genesis of a pure subjectivity, and in particular, initially in relation to its lower level of pure passivity. Phenomenological eidetic [form-oriented] analyses of consciousness constituting a temporal objectlike formation already led to the beginnings of a lawful regularity of genesis prevailing in subjective life. We see very quickly that the phenomenology of association is, so to speak, a higher continuation of the doctrine of original time-constitution. Through association, the constitutive accomplishment is extended to all levels of apperception” (Analyses Concerning Passive and Active Synthesis, p. 163).

“The doctrine of the genesis of reproductions and of their formations is the doctrine of association in the first and more genuine sense. But inseparably connected to this, or rather, grounded upon this is a higher level of association and doctrine of association, namely, a doctrine of the genesis of expectations, and closely related to it, the genesis of apperceptions to which belong the horizons of actual and possible expectations. All in all, it concerns the genesis of the phenomena of expectation, that is, of those specific intentions that are anticipatory” (p. 164).

Association, as Husserl analyzes it, is constituted from memories of things similar to the present object. In turn, it is from particular associations that particular expectations are constituted. Now we see memory and expectation linked together in a larger process that is precisely one of association.

“But it is precisely the analysis of associative phenomena that draws our attention to the fact that consciousness must not necessarily be a consciousness of a single object for itself, and accordingly, we touch on a new problem here: how a consciousness of something particular and how a consciousness of explicit particulars becomes possible as a consciousness of a multiplicity and a consciousness of wholeness; namely, a comparative analysis also shows the opposing possibility of many [elements], indeed, a multiplicity being continually fused into a unity within one consciousness, [implicitly], such that consciousness is not a consciousness of a multiplicity, a consciousness that becomes aware of separated particulars in a unitary and yet separate manner” (p. 165).

Here he is leading up to the central role of the experience of time, simultaneity, and streaming in the constitution of subjectivity and in turn of external experience, already foreshadowed above.

“We realize, then, that it really concerns nothing else than clarifying the fundamental problem, the basic, essential conditions of the possibility of a subjectivity itself. What must belong to it so that a subjectivity can have the essential sense without which it could not be subjectivity, [namely,] the sense of an existing subjectivity being for itself, and precisely thereby of a subjectivity constituting itself as being for itself? Certainly, a complete phenomenology of reproductive awakening concerns and exhausts this problem only with respect to the one side, namely, with respect to the constitution of one’s past, or rather, the constitution of the self-having-been in endless immanent time. But we will see that the supplementary part, the other half of the problem, is the realm of the phenomenology of inductive, anticipatory association. Here we will make clear the essential conditions of the possibility of a subjectivity that can know itself as identically one, having its inherent endless future life” (p. 169).

“Awakening” seems to be Husserl’s preferred term for the activation of memory that is somehow relevant to what is present. This may relate to a distinction I have found obscure so far, between memory as “empty” intention and “intuitive” memory. My difficulty has been that no memory, insofar as it is of the past, concerns a present object, so it seems to me as though all memory then would be what he calls empty intention. But perhaps the “intuitive” memory is a memory of a past object insofar as it is related to an intuited present object.

“Clearly, what is presupposed is the synthesis that is continually accomplished in original time-consciousness. In the concretely full, streaming living present we have present, past, and future life already united in a certain mode of givenness. But this manner in which subjectivity becomes conscious of its past and future life along with its inherent intentional contents is an incomplete one. The aforementioned manner would be meaningless for the ego if there were no awakening, for the retentions are empty and even sink into the undifferentiated retentional background. Our consciousness of the protentional future is especially empty. On the other hand, there would be no progress at all without this beginning. In the ABCs of the constitution of all objectivity given to consciousness and of subjectivity as existing for itself, here is the ‘A’. It consists, we might say, in a universal, formal framework, in a synthetically constituted form in which all other possible syntheses must participate.”

As in Kant, the experience of time for Husserl is a synthetic construct that anchors things like identities of objects, as well as the overall shape of consciousness.

“Still many other types of syntheses are transcendental in the special sense, as apodictically [demonstrably] necessary for the genesis of a subjectivity (which is indeed only conceivable in genesis). As we said, these syntheses run their course together with the synthesis constituting the temporal form of all objects, and thus must co-relate to the temporal content, the temporally formed content of the object” (pp. 170-171).

“Since the spatial world is constituted through consciousness, since it can only be there for us as existing and can only be conceived at all by virtue of certain syntheses carried out in immanence, it is clear that the constitutive problems of the world presuppose the doctrine of the necessary, most general structures and the synthetic shapes of immanence that are possible in general” (p. 171).

Working under the phenomenological reduction, he is not concerned with the transcendent existence of external objects, but only with the more particular ways in which they are immanently determined or determinable as meanings for us.

“What is constituted universally through these syntheses is known under the rubric of coexistence and succession of all immanent objects in relation to one another” (p. 172).

The universality here has to do with the generality of the form of the experience of the flow of time.

“Accordingly, corresponding to every Now is a universal synthesis. Through this synthesis, a universal concrete present is constituted, a present into which all particulars that are set off from one another are integrated. Further, the fact that the Now streams in and through temporal orientations implies at the same time another universal synthesis in constituting life whereby we are conscious of the presents coursing as a sequential unity” (p. 173).

The integral Now and the streaming sequence of Nows are in effect the outermost frames in which all concrete experience is constituted as coherent.

“This is the most general and the most primary synthesis that necessarily connects all particular objects of which we become conscious…. But naturally, the synthesis of time-consciousness also contains (and already as a presupposition for possible coexistences and succession) that synthesis in which one object is constituted as identically one or (what amounts to the same thing) as enduringly one in streaming manifolds…. [T]ime-consciousness is the primordial place of the constitution of the unity of identity or of an objectlike formation, and then of the forms of connection of coexistence and succession of all objectlike formations” (ibid).

“But what gives unity to the particular object with respect to content, what makes up the differences between each of them with respect to content…, what makes division possible and the relation between parts in consciousness, and so forth — the analysis of time alone cannot tell us, for it abstracts precisely from content. Thus, it does not give us any idea of the necessary synthetic structures of the steaming present and of the unitary stream of the presents — which in some way concerns the particularity of content” (p. 174).

The implicit distinction between the constitution of identities of objects in the quotation before last, on the one hand, and that of their unities with respect to content in the quotation immediately above, on the other, is not yet clear to me. It makes sense that the general forms of time, coexistence, and succession do not tell us the whole story about particular concrete objects. I do not see, however, how it would be possible to constitute the identities of concrete objects — in Aristotelian terms, their surface status as “substances” in the sense of things persisting through change — without taking into account their content, or their deeper substantiality in the sense of “what it was to have been” the things in question. I expect that he will have more to say about the content in what follows, so hopefully this will be clarified.

The very idea of treating subjectivity as something constituted opens up a huge new territory that later authors like Foucault, Ricoeur, and de Libera have substantially developed, and in which I have been tremendously interested. The works that Husserl published in his lifetime seemed to me mainly to focus on the constitution of objects by a subjectivity that was somewhat taken for granted. That Husserl in fact went beyond this is important to recognize. (See also Passive Synthesis: Conclusion.)

Space of Reasons, Potential Intellect?

Having recently written a bit more about the “space of reasons”, it occurs to me that this makes a good model for the perplexing and commonly misunderstood notion of a “separate” potential intellect. I’ve suggested previously that the space of reasons belongs in the register of Aristotelian potentiality, and elsewhere argued that the controversial “separate” potential intellect was not supposed to be some cosmic mind pulling the strings of our minds, but rather more like a shared tool that we all use and help improve. This tentative identification brings things a bit more into focus.

Although scholastic discourse about separate intellect used metaphysical vocabulary, what was actually said by Averroes about separate potential intellect clearly places it inside of time, and in an intimate relation to all rational animals. It was said to function as a kind of thesaurus (literally, “treasury”) of universals abstracted from concrete forms in human imagination, but to be “nothing at all” apart from operations that result from human imagination. (See “This Human Understands”; “This Human”, Again; Averroes as Read by de Libera; Separate Substances?)

The Act of Thought

Volume 3 part 1 of Alain de Libera’s Archéologie du sujet carries subtitles translating to The Act of Thought for volume 3 overall, and The Double Revolution for part 1. The cast of major characters will include Averroes, Aquinas, and the Scottish philosopher of common sense Thomas Reid (1710-1796). This tome is packed with extremely interesting material. It also appears to me to intersect with the important work of Gwenaëlle Aubry on the historical transformation of Aristotelian potentiality and actuality into a neoplatonic notion of power and a more modern notion of action. At the time part 1 was published (2014), part 2 was supposed to be a few months away, and de Libera announced titles for volumes 4 through 7. Instead, he has since published three volumes of related lectures at the College de France.

“The philosophers pose all sorts of questions concerning thought. Who thinks? Am I the author of my thoughts? What is the place of thought? What is its theater or its scene? In what way are the thoughts that come from me or that I have mine? Am I the owner of my thought? In sum: is it necessary to say ‘I think’ with Descartes, or ‘it thinks’ with [Belgian new wave musician] Plastic Bertrand, [and philosophers like] Lichtenberg, Schelling, and Schlick? It seems natural to us to believe that the act of thinking takes place in us. ‘Takes place‘ says a lot. That which takes place is [emphasis added]. Being is having a place of being — in other words: it is having (a) reason for being. But what takes place also happens. What takes place in us happens in us, is produced, is effectuated, is accomplished in us. What takes places in us is in us, in whatever way that it has being. It certainly seems natural to believe that since the act of thinking takes place in us, it begins and is completed in us. In us, that is to say in our soul (if we are religious), in our spirit (if we know the French for Mind), or in some part of us (if we [participated in the May 1968 Paris uprising]).”

“There is nothing ‘natural’ in all this. All these beliefs are cultural, and historically constructed. They are assimilated philosophical theses, philosophemes neither proven as such nor a fortiori proven as historical constructs, philosophemes (learned theorems, technical injunctions, theoretical words of order) lived without justification as immediate givens of consciousness, as a flower of experience” (p. 13, my translation throughout).

De Libera refers to very strong assertions by Thomas Reid about the common-sense character of all this. Reid explicitly refers to the mind as a subject. It was philosophers, de Libera says, “who decided that this, or that which thinks, was the SUBJECT of an act, the act of thinking. It was philosophers who decided on this subjective basis that this ‘that’ or this ‘it’ could be known as the author or the actor. They did this partly against Aristotle, and partly in the name of Aristotle….”

“The philosophical construction accounts for a fact of experience: we sense ourselves as the principle, that is to say also as the beginning, the point of departure… of our actions, notably, and very particularly of our thought. But exactly in accounting for this fact, the philosopher encodes it, and never ceases throughout history to re-encode it, to complicate it, to invest in it and reinvest in it linguistically, conceptually, argumentatively.”

‘Denomination’ is one of the keys of this code” (p. 15). “According to Reid, to say that an agent x acts on a thing y is to say that a power or force exercised by x produces or has a tendency to produce a change in y. What is particularly interesting for an archaeology of the subject-agent of thought is that this schema does not apply to perception” (p. 17).

According to Reid, when we perceive objects, the objects don’t act on the mind, and the mind doesn’t act on the objects. To be perceived is an external denomination. According to de Libera, in the language of the Latin scholastics, causal denomination finds its main application in the domain of action. An action denominates its agent causally, and not formally or extrinsically. On the other hand, extrinsic denomination applies perfectly to the ontological and noetic analysis of the object of thought.

For most of the scholastics, as for most modern people, the being-thought of a stone is real in the human, but is not real in the stone. But de Libera points out that the great Thomist Cajetan says about thought in the passive sense what Reid says about perception — both the stone and the thinker are only extrinsically denominated by the being-thought of the stone.

As de Libera points out, Averroes and his Latin followers have been understood as arguing that thinking is an extrinsic denomination of the human. “It requires a solid engagement with [Aristotle’s work on the soul] and its Greek, Arabic, Jewish, and Latin interpretive tradition to understand what this means” (p. 22).

Church councils in the 14th and 16th centuries upheld the opposing views of Aquinas as doctrinally correct. According to de Libera, this opened two paths, one leading to Descartes and the “Cartesian subject”, and the other leading to what he calls a Leibnizian notion of subject as the “thing underlying actions”. He says there is also a third path, leading from Averroes to Brentano, who reintroduced the scholastic notion of intentionality in the late 19th century. In this sense, he says the middle ages were more modern than we realize, and modernity is more medieval than we realize.

De Libera notes that Foucault ultimately derived his philosophical use of the word “archaeology” from Kant. Such archaeology is concerned with very Kantian “conditions of possibility”.

Taking the modern notion of “subject” at its point of emergence demands that we look back to the scholastic subjectum and “being in a subject” — not for the pleasure of returning to the middle ages, but in order to understand Descartes in context. It was not actually Descartes who was responsible for the transition from what Heidegger called “subjectity” (simply being a thing standing under something else) to the mental “subjectivity” of an ego.

Incidentally, de Libera points out one of the first uses of the word “subjective” in a modern sense in Martin Schoock, an early Dutch critic of Descartes who objected that Descartes reduced thought to something “subjective”. He quotes Schoock as saying “The reason Descartes brags about is not reason understood in a general sense, but in a subjective sense, that is to say the reason he can consider in himself” (p. 30).

Here I would note that in an interesting little meditation on Averroes called Je phantasme (“I imagine”), de Libera’s former student Jean-Baptiste Brenet points out that general Latin use of the verb cogitare referred primarily to operations of what in Aristotelian terms was called “inner sense”, as distinct from intelligere, which was the standard word for the “thinking” attributed to “intellect”.

(Inner sense is the closest Aristotelian analogue to what Locke more abstractly called “consciousness”. At least in the Arabic commentary tradition, it seems to involve several distinct faculties that all have what Aristotle and the scholastics following him called “imagination” as their common root. These are said to include what animals use in place of reason to make meaningful discriminations such as the nearness of danger, which is not actually given in external sense. Descartes’ own usage of cogito (first person singular of cogitare) basically covers all forms of awareness. It is a commonly repeated “Aristotelian” dictum that nothing comes to be in intellect without first coming to be in sense perception, but de Libera in an earlier volume pointed out that a more accurately Aristotelian version would be that nothing comes to be in intellect without some basis in imagination, and nothing comes to be in imagination without some basis in sense perception.)

Formal and Transcendental Logic

One of Edmund Husserl’s works that I had not looked at before is Formal and Transcendental Logic (German ed. 1929). This will be a very shallow first impression.

Although he goes on to argue for the importance of a “transcendental” logic, Husserl is far from denigrating purely formal logic. He explores developments in 19th century mathematics that have some relation to logic, like Riemann’s theory of abstract multiplicities. Formal logic itself comprises both a theory of objects and a theory of forms of judgment; Husserl aims to give a deeper meaning to both. Ultimately, he wants to give a “radical” account of sense, or meaning as distinguished from reference. For Husserl, we get to objects only indirectly, through the long detour of examining sense.

Having previously severely criticized the “psychologistic” account of logic made popular by John Stuart Mill, here he is at some pains to establish the difference between transcendental and psychological views of subjectivity. Husserl often seems overly charitable to Descartes, but here he writes, “At once this Cartesian beginning, with the great but only partial discovery of transcendental subjectivity, is obscured by that most fateful and, up to this day, ineradicable error which has given us the ‘realism’ that finds in the idealisms of a Berkeley and a Hume its equally wrong counterparts. Even for Descartes, an absolute evidence makes sure of the ego (mens sive animus, substantia cogitans [mind or soul, thinking substance]) as a first, indubitably existing, bit of the world…. Even Descartes operates here with a naive apriori heritage…. Thus he misses the proper transcendental sense of the ego he has discovered…. Likewise he misses the properly transcendental sense of the questions that must be asked of experience and of scientific thinking and therefore, with absolute universality, of a logic itself.”

“This unclarity is a heritage latent in the pseudo-clarities that characterize all relapses of epistemology into natural naivete and, accordingly, in the pseudo-clear scientificalness of contemporary realism. It is an epistemology that, in league with a naively isolated logic, serves to prove to the scientist… that therefore he can properly dispense with epistemology, just as he has for centuries been getting along well enough without it anyway.”

“… A realism like that of Descartes, which believes that, in the ego to which transcendental self-examination leads back in the first instance, it has apprehended the real psyche of the human being… misses the actual problem” (pp. 227-228).

“For a radical grounding of logic, is not the whole real world called in question — not to show its actuality, but to bring out its possible and genuine sense and the range of this sense…?” (p. 229).

“The decisive point in this confusion… is the confounding of the ego with the reality of the I as a human psyche” (p. 230).

This last is an argument I have been concerned to make in a Kantian context. However one chooses to pin down the vocabulary (I have been generally using “ego” for the worldly psychological thing, and “I” as actually referring to a nonempirical, transcendental index of certain commitments), the distinction is decisive. Empirical subjectivity in the realm of psychology and transcendental subjectivity in the realm of meaning are extremely different things, even though we live in their interweaving. These days I’m inclined to identify the human expansively with that possible opening onto the transcendental of values — or “Spirit” in a Hegelian sense — rather than contractively with the “merely human” empirical psyche.

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).

Cause of Itself

Spinoza famously begins his Ethics with a definition of “cause of itself” (causa sui). This will become the hallmark of his “Substance”, of which he says there can be only one, and which he identifies with his own heterodox conception of God. Cause of itself would be that the essence of which involves existence.

In Hegel or Spinoza (French ed. 1979), Pierre Macherey writes that “First of all we can show, as Guéroult does, that the concept of causa sui does not really have an initial foundational value for Spinoza: it does not represent a kind of first truth, a principle in the Cartesian sense, from which the entire system can be developed, as if from the starting point of a germ of truth” (p. 16).

“Here we can begin to be astonished: does Hegel ignore that this aporia of beginning — which sets his Logic in motion, this impossibility of grounding the infinite process of knowledge in a first truth which in itself as principle or foundation — is also an essential lesson of Spinozism, the principal objection that he himself opposes to the philosophy of Descartes? In such a sense that it is only… ‘so to speak’, the geometric exposition of the Ethics ‘begins’ with definitions, which for that matter do not have an effective sense, except at the moment when they function in demonstrations or they really produce the effects of truth: Spinozist thinking precisely does not have this rigidity of a construction relying on a base and pushing its analytic to an end point, which would find itself thus limited between a beginning and an end” (p. 17).

For Hegel according to Macherey, “The causa sui is based on a substantial principle that ‘lacks the principle of the personality’. It thus constitutes a substance that cannot become subject, which fails in this active reflection of self, which would permit it to undertake its own liberation in its own process…. This is an arrested and dead spirit” (p. 18).

This is supposed to be the individuality and freedom denying “Oriental” attitude that Hegel with broad brush unfortunately really does attribute to Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, the Roman Empire, Catholicism, the pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides, and Spinoza, among others. This unfortunate over-the-top anti-anti-subjectivity theme of Hegel’s kept me from really appreciating his work for a long time.

On the other hand, the details of his argument about freedom and subjectivity as affirmative values actually make sense, even to the point of winning over an old sympathizer of French anti-Hegelianism like myself.

Fichte’s Ethics

Fichte’s System of Ethics (1798) has been called the most important work of moral philosophy between Kant and Hegel. Unavailable in English till 2005, it is apparently a source for some key themes in Hegel’s Phenomenology. It also shows the more nuanced side of Fichte that impressed Paul Ricoeur. Fichte was an unusually powerful speaker, reportedly electrifying audiences with his intensity and bold rhetorical strokes. His thought greatly influenced German Romanticism.

Fichte begins by asking, “how can something objective ever become something subjective; how can a being for itself ever become something represented (vorgestellt)?” (p. 7). He continues, “No one will ever explain how this remarkable transformation takes place without finding a point where the objective and the subjective are not at all distinct from one another…. The point in question is ‘I-hood’ [Ichheit], intelligence, reason, or whatever one wishes to call it.”

“This absolute identity of the subject and the object in the I can only be inferred; it cannot be demonstrated, so to speak, ‘immediately’, as a fact of actual consciousness. As soon as any actual consciousness occurs, even if it is only the consciousness of ourselves, the separation [between subject and object] ensues…. The entire mechanism of consciousness rests on the various aspects of this separation of what is subjective from what is objective, and, in turn, on the unification of the two” (ibid; brackets and emphasis in original).

Fichte revives an explicit appeal to “intellectual intuition” that Kant had proscribed and I find untenable, but carefully limits its scope, mainly using it for the existence of “the I”. Importantly, as the above quote shows, he does not claim to have a direct intuition of the identity of subject and object.

Next he asks, “how we ever come to take some of our representations to be the ground of a being” (p. 8), and answers, “I find myself to be acting efficaciously in the world of sense” (ibid).

This seems like a good pragmatist insight. Here and above, he asks questions about the status of representation and how it comes to be that anticipate aspects of Brandom’s work in this area.

“Insofar as I know anything at all I know that I am active” (p. 9). “I posit myself as active” (p. 10). Hegel criticized Fichte’s reliance on “positing” or postulation of various key notions.

Fichte goes on to specify that “I ascribe to myself a determinate activity, precisely this one and not another” (p. 11), and determinate activity implies resistance. “Wherever and whenever you see activity, you see resistance as well, for otherwise you see no activity” (p. 12). “[F]reedom can never be posited as able to do anything whatsoever about this situation, since otherwise freedom itself, along with all consciousness and all being, would fall away” (p. 13).

Throughout his career, while picking up and intensifying Kant’s occasional voluntarist rhetoric and even aiming to build a system around it, Fichte made things more interesting and complicated by emphasizing that objectivity always involves a resistance to free action. Fichte goes on to specify that activity involves a kind of agility — i.e., ways of acting successfully in spite of the the object’s or the world’s resistance. Here we find ourselves on the threshold at least of the territory more fully explored by Ricoeur in Freedom and Nature (see Ricoeurian Choice; Voluntary Action).

“I posit myself as free insofar as I explain a sensible acting, or being, as arising from my concept, which is then called the ‘concept of an end'” (p. 14). “[T]he concept of an end, as it is called, is not itself determined in turn by something objective but is determined absolutely by itself” (p. 15).

Freedom here is acting in accordance with concepts or ends. While Kant and Fichte both tended to identify this with a kind of exemption from the natural order, this second move is separable from the first. The need to treat freedom as an exemption presupposes a view of natural causality as completely rigid. But more fluid “tendencies” also exhibit the resistance that Fichte makes characteristic of objectivity.

He then claims in effect that the resistance we encounter in the world of sense is actually nothing but an appearance. “[N]othing is absolute but pure activity…. Nothing is purely true but my self-sufficiency” (p. 17). I think Hegel and Ricoeur would each in their own way regard formulations like this as one-sided, and as a step back from his previous acknowledgement of resistance to our action as a basic fact of life, but that is in part because Hegel and Ricoeur both in a sense vindicate appearance itself as being something more than mere appearance.

Fichte is not actually contradicting himself or going back on a promise here, but moving to a different level. I think his point is that objects as separate are ultimately always a matter of appearance. I would agree as far as strictly separate objects are concerned, but I see objectivity in the first instance as a resistant but non-rigid sea of non-separate relations, tendencies, and currents that is not just an appearance, and is only secondarily divided into separate objects that insofar as they are separate are just appearances.

He comes a bit closer to Hegel again when he says “it is the character of the I that the acting subject and that upon which it acts are one and the same” (p. 28; emphasis in original).

But a few pages later he concludes that “all willing is absolute” and that the will is “absolute indeterminability through anything outside itself” (p. 33). “As an absolute force with consciousness, the I tears itself away — away from the I as a given absolute, lacking force and consciousness” (p. 37). One of Hegel’s main concerns in the Phenomenology was to show the inadequacy and undesirability of this ideal of total “independence”. I take “absolute force” as a kind of poetic language in Fichte’s rhetorical style that I would not adopt.

He repeats Kant’s claim that the will has “the power of causality by means of mere concepts” (p. 41). I agree that concepts can have a kind of efficacy in the world, though I would not call it causality in the narrow modern sense. On the other hand, I think talk about will as if it were a separate power not encompassed by the union of feeling and reason is misguided. I don’t think there is any will-talk that doesn’t have a better analogue in feeling-and-reason talk. So the question of the will’s causality does not even come up for me.

“According to Kant, freedom is the power to begin a state [Zustand] (a being and subsistence) absolutely” (p. 41). I don’t consider formulations like this to be typical of Kant’s thought as a whole. It rhetorically recalls voluntarist views in the Latin medieval tradition that saw human freedom as a sort of microcosmic analogue of creation from nothing. The notion of literal creation from nothing, though it achieved wide circulation in the monotheistic traditions, is actually an extreme view in theology whose main use has been to support radically supernaturalist claims of all sorts that are entirely separable from the broader spiritual purport of the world’s religions. Scholars have pointed out that creation from nothing is not inherent to the Old Testament text, and only emerged as an interpretation in the Hellenistic period with figures like Philo of Alexandria. One of Kant’s great contributions was actually to have developed other ways of talking about freedom that do not presuppose any of this kind of strong supernaturalism. (I adhere to the view commonly attributed to Aristotle in the Latin tradition that nothing comes from nothing in any literal sense.) Fichte of course was not at all a supernaturalist like Philo; but like Kant and even more so, in relation to freedom he nonetheless used some of the same rhetorical strategies originally developed to “rationalize” supernaturalism. (And if nature already participates in divinity, supernaturalism is superfluous.)

Fichte improves things by specifying, “It is not the case that the state that is begun absolutely is simply connected to nothing at all, for a finite rational being thinks only by means of mediation and connections. The connection in question, however, is not a connection to another being, but to a thinking” (ibid).

Much as I welcome this emphasis on mediation and connections, it is important to mention that he earlier strongly relied on the claim of a limited kind of direct intellectual self-intuition (pp. 25ff). Fichte was honest enough to acknowledge that he did not have inferential grounds for his strong notion of “I-hood”. The texture of his thought is a unique hybrid of a sort of inferentialism about things in general with an intuitionism about self. The points at which he relies on intuition are the same places where he applies the bold rhetorical strokes for which he initially became famous and popular with the Romantics. But in the long run, it is his emphasis on mediation — both in the form of inference and in the form of resistance to our projects — that holds the greatest value.

In a somewhat Kantian style that seems both more abstract and more simple and direct than that of Kant himself, Fichte sets out to “deduce” first the principle of morality, then the reality and applicability of the principle. For Fichte, the single principle of morality is the “absolute autonomy of reason” (p. 60). Reason is finite, but depends on nothing outside itself. Consciousness is always limited and in that sense determined by the objects it “finds”, but in conscience there is a pure identity of subject and object. Here again we can see how Hegel was in part taking up Fichtean ways of speaking.

Unlike Hegel, though, for Fichte “Conscience never errs and cannot err, for it is the immediate consciousness of our pure, original I, over and above which there is no other kind of consciousness. Conscience is itself the judge of all convictions and acknowledges no higher judge above itself. It has final jurisdiction and is subject to no appeal. To want to go beyond conscience means to want to go beyond oneself and to separate oneself from oneself” (p. 165).

From this it seems clear that Fichte recognizes no standpoint higher than that of Conscience. He identifies morality with good will (p. 149). Hegel on the other hand regards mutual recognition as a higher standpoint than that of the autonomy of Conscience. Although Fichte briefly refers to the concept of mutual recognition he had developed in Foundations of Natural Right (1797), the System of Ethics revolves mainly around a version of Kantian autonomy: “the formal law of morals [Sitten] is…. do what you can now regard with conviction as a duty, and do it solely because you have convinced yourself that it is a duty” (p. 155).

Surprisingly, he says “all free actions are predestined through reason for all eternity” (p. 216), and claims to have reconciled freedom with predestination. This provides a noteworthy additional perspective on his earlier love-hate relation with Spinoza.

“The world must become for me what my body is. This goal is of course unreachable; but I am nevertheless supposed to draw constantly nearer to it,…. This process of drawing nearer to my final end is my finite end.”

“The fact that nature placed me at one point or another and that nature instead of me took the first step, as it were, on this path to infinity does not infringe upon my freedom” (pp. 217-218). This theme of “drawing nearer” and the “path to infinity” was sharply criticized by Hegel, but I rather like it.

I worry a bit when he says “The necessary goal of all virtuous people is therefore unanimous agreement [and] uniformity of acting” (p. 224). He did however also say that “anyone who acts on authority necessarily acts unconscionably” (p. 167; emphasis in original).

“I possess absolute freedom of thought… freedom before my own conscience…. [I]t is unconscionable for me to make the way in which I tend to the preservation of my body dependent on the opinions of others” (p. 225).

“What lies outside my body, and hence the entire sensible world, is a common good or possession” (ibid). “[I]n communal matters, I ought to act only in accordance with the presumptive general will” (p. 228). “I should… act in such a way that things have to become better. This is purely and simply a duty” (ibid). “As a means for bringing about the rational state, I have to take into account the present condition of the makeshift state” (ibid). In the case of unjust tyranny and oppression, “every honorable person could then in good conscience endeavor to overthrow this [makeshift] state entirely, but only if he has ascertained the common will” (ibid; emphasis in original).

“How then can one become aware of that upon which everyone agrees? This is not something one could learn simply by asking around; hence it must be possible to presuppose something that can be viewed as the creed of the community or as its symbol.”

“It is implicit in the concept of such a symbol or creed that it presents something not in a very precise or determinate manner, but only in a general way…. Moreover,… the symbol is supposed to be appropriate for everyone…. [T]he symbol does not consist in abstract propositions but rather in sensory presentations of the latter. The sensible presentation is merely the costume; what is properly symbolic is the concept. That precisely this presentation had to be chosen is something that was dictated by need… because they were not yet capable of distinguishing the costume that the concept had received by chance from the essence of the concept” (p. 230).

“[W]hat is most essential about every possible symbol or creed is expressed in the proposition, ‘there is something or other that is supersensible and elevated above all nature’…. What this supersensible something may be, the identity of this truly holy and sanctifying spirit, the character of the truly moral way of thinking: it is precisely concerning these points that the community seeks to determine and to unify itself more and more, by mutual interaction” (pp. 230-231).

Here we see some anticipation of Hegel’s account of religion in the Phenomenology.

“Not only am I permitted to have my own private conviction concerning the constitution of the state and the system of the church, I am even obliged by my conscience to develop this same conviction just as self-sufficiently and as broadly as I can.”

“Such development… is possible, however, only by means of reciprocal communication with others.” (p. 233).

Like Hegel, he makes mutual recognition a foundation of religion.

“The distinguishing and characteristic feature of the learned public is absolute freedom and independence of thinking” (p. 238). “Since scholarly inquiry is absolutely free, so must access to it be open to everyone” (p. 239).

“No earthly power has the right to issue commands regarding matters of conscience…. The state and the church must tolerate scholars” (ibid).

“All of a person’s efficacious acting within society has the following goal: all human beings are supposed to be in agreement; but the only matters that all human beings can agree on are those that are purely rational, for this is all they have in common” (p. 241).

“Kant has asserted that every human being is himself an end, and this assertion has received universal assent” (p. 244).

“The moral law, which extends to infinity, absolutely commands us to treat human beings as if they were forever capable of being perfected and remaining so, and this same law absolutely prohibits us from treating human beings in the opposite manner” (p. 229). Fichte argues at some length that this last point would be true no matter how dismal we might judge actual history to be.

Unfortunately, Fichte retained some of the prejudices of his time and place. He thought women should be subordinate to men, and his contribution to early German nationalism was not without a chauvinistic side.

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.

Time and Eternity in Hegel

H. S. Harris in Hegel’s Ladder I points out that Hegel took an unprecedented view of the relation between time and eternity in the Phenomenology. He argues that Hegel’s later advertisement of his logic as characterizing “the mind of God before creation” is extremely misleading with respect to Hegel’s actual views. According to Harris, detailed examination of texts suggests Hegel retained the novel view of time and eternity expressed in the Phenomenology.

Harris notes that from around 1801, Hegel came to agree with Reinhold and Bardili that logic should be “objective” in the sense of being neutral with respect to subject-object distinctions, even though he sharply rejected their formalism.  Logic for Hegel should not be subjective in the sense of Fichte’s Wissenschaftslehre or Schelling’s work before his break with Fichte.

“Hegel was able to make history subordinate in his speculative Logic precisely because he allowed it to be predominant in the lengthy formation of subjective consciousness for truly logical ‘objectivity’, which is the theme of the Phenomenology….  ‘The experience of consciousness’ is necessarily a psychological experience of the singular subject, since only singular subjects are ‘conscious’, but the ‘phenomenology of Spirit’ is the biography of God, the metaphysical substance who becomes ‘as much subject as substance’ when He is comprehended as ‘Spirit’.  The ‘experience of consciousness’ must happen in a single lifetime; the ‘phenomenology of Spirit’ cannot happen so.”

“We might remark that neither can become ‘Science’ except through the recollection in a singular consciousness of a historical process that is necessarily not confined (or confinable) within a single lifetime.  This is a way of saying that God cannot be ‘spirit’ without man being ‘spirit’ likewise — which is, of course, quite correct…. [N]ot the comprehension of ‘self’ but the comprehension of the whole social history of selfhood [is the topic of the Phenomenology]” (p. 11). 

Harris says the Phenomenology was Hegel’s “decisive divergence” (p. 13) from the whole tradition of intellectual intuition and cognitive immediacy.

“The implication is that ‘the eternal essence of God’ is not ‘outside of time’ in the way that God’s thought and action have traditionally been supposed to be.”

“We cannot mediate the problem of how logic is in time, unless we shift our attention from the ‘real philosophy’ that comes after logic (in every sense) to the ‘real philosophy’ that goes before ‘logic’, as a comprehension of the time in which it was shown finally that logic itself is as much in time as out of it and that it must come to be self-consciously ‘in’ time in order to be properly ‘out’ of it….  [F]rom Heraclitus and Parmenides to Kant and Fichte, no one has managed to formulate a consistent theory of human experience as a rational whole on any intuitive basis.  Instead of simply taking it for granted that eternity comprehends time, just as ‘possibility’ comprehends ‘actuality’, we must start from the other end and ask how time comprehends eternity.”

“There is no intuitive answer to this question” (p. 14).  The project of the Phenomenology “involves a total inversion of the intuitive assumption of all the ‘philosophers of experience’ before Hegel….  But the history of religion is more important to the argument than is the history of philosophy, in any case, because it is in religion that the natural assumption is inverted for the natural consciousness itself.  It is Hegel’s predominant concern with the actual experience of the natural (i.e., nonspeculative) consciousness that makes it hard for us to see and understand what happens to Descartes, and to the ‘philosophers of experience’ proper, in Hegel’s argument” (pp. 15-16).

Harris speaks of an “explicitly Fichtean self…. But his self makes no Fichtean assumptions, and has no absolute ‘intuitions’.  It merely observes; and what it learns, in the end, is precisely what the standpoint of philosophical ‘observation’ is and means. This observing consciousness leaves Fichte behind decisively when it leaves moral judgment to the valets and aligns itself with the Weltgeist [world Spirit] in its evaluation of all the experience it recollects.”

“This all-accepting and all-forgiving alignment with the Weltgeist is the logical standpoint, the eternal standpoint concretely established in time and now, at last, comprehensively understood” (p. 17).  What is shown is “Spirit’s eternity in time” (p. 18), but “The ‘hero’ is the finite consciousness — Jacob wrestling with the angel” (ibid).

Harris is here using the word “consciousness” in an equivocal way to refer to something that is far beyond what Hegel described as the standpoint of Consciousness.  It is already Spirit.  The standpoint of Consciousness is inseparable from assumptions of immediacy and of what philosophers from Locke to Schelling have called “intuition”, as some sort of immediate grasping.  Emphasizing some underlying continuity where something underwent a transformation is a common way of speaking, but I would rather identify the continuity with “us” rather than an abstracted property like consciousness.

Harris properly distinguishes between “natural consciousness” and “the philosophers of experience” who purport to speak on its behalf.  Hegel sharply rejects the philosophers of experience as propounding a bad notion of experience focused on immediacy, but he wants to entice common sense to become philosophical. 

The Fichtean self is already a difficult topic.  Fichte, in his better known early writings at least, propounded a very extreme “subject-centered” point of view, but he was a brilliant writer and serious philosopher who cannot be simply reduced to that.  His “self” is certainly not an empirical matter of fact, and seems constitutionally incompatible with petty egocentrism or self-seeking (certainly a far cry from the acute vulgarization of Max Stirner in The Ego and His Own), even though it seems like he had some bad ideas about German cultural superiority.  I think the Fichtean self not so much “has” intuitions as Harris suggests, but rather is itself an “absolute intuition” (the only one) for Fichte.  But Fichte also in his later writings formulated a notion of ethical mutual recognition.

Harris alludes to Hegel at a certain early point turning back from Schelling’s mystical intuitionism toward Fichtes’s practical philosophy.  Although I think this is historically accurate, if taken out of context or connected with stereotypes of Fichte, it could lead to serious misunderstanding. 

Harris himself does not make this mistake.  He clearly indicates that Hegel cannot be reduced to Fichtean subjectivism, as the young Marx and some others have done or precipitously claimed others had done. He goes on to discuss the fundamental role of “otherness” in Hegel’s thought, particularly in regard to constitution of self.  This is as far from an “absolute intuition” of self as could be.  But Fichte’s practical-ethical orientation and sharp mind tower above not only the woolly-minded forgotten Schellingian epigones who so irritated Hegel, but also the superficial dazzle of Schelling himself.  I would also note that to ground the social in concrete relations rather than abstract collectivity is in no way to reduce the social to actions of individuals.

Fichte was accused of atheism and drummed out of Jena for identifying God with the moral order. Now I can’t find the passage, but I think Harris somewhere says Hegel put God as the moral order historically in between God as law and God as love.

The explicit idea that the eternal is constituted in time that Harris highlights is, I think, original to Hegel. Others had denied the eternal, but I don’t recall anyone arguing that a genuine eternal originates in time. Harris relates this novel aspect of Hegel’s thought to his inversion of the Kantian priority of possibility over actuality. Aristotle of course also maintained that actuality comes first, but never explicitly suggested a temporal origin of the eternal.

I think a temporal constitution of the eternal — especially when connected with logic, as Harris suggests it was for Hegel — actually makes a lot of sense. After a temporal process of experience and learning that may involve reversals and twists and turns, it is possible to construct a static logical theory (not logical in Hegel’s sense, but in the formal sense) of all the lessons learned, but not before. What Hegel calls logic is a lot closer to the twists and turns of experience. Formal logic obviously has no temporal element, but the “logic” of experience and learning does. Formal logic comes “after” Hegelian logic. Hegelian logic can be read as an account of the constitution of formal logic, through the constitution of meaning.

The Future and the Past

Practical interpretation is simultaneously forward- and backward-looking, as Ricoeur, Brandom, and Pippin have emphasized. Not only is the future not predetermined; for practical purposes, neither is the meaning of the past. The present is not a point, but a zone in which an incompletely determined past and an incompletely determined future overlap and fuse. (See Narrated Time; Hegel’s Ethical Innovation; Hegel on Willing.)