Actuality, Existence

I have been using the English “actuality”, following old standard translations of Aristotle. As with any Aristotelian technical term, in interpreting its meaning I try to rely on what the Aristotelian texts say about it, and to avoid importing connotations associated with other uses of the English word used to translate it. Aristotle’s Greek term is energeia, a word he apparently invented himself from existing Greek roots. Joe Sachs translates it as “being at work”, which I think is good provided “being” is taken in the ordinary sense that we transitively say something “is” at work, rather than taking “being” as a noun. The word is formed from the noun ergon, which in its root sense means “work”; the prefix en, which corresponds to the preposition “in”; and the suffix eia, which makes the whole thing into a noun, like English “-ness” or “-ity”. So, in the most literal sense, energeia means something like “in-work-ness”.

Even the literal sense is a bit misleading, because Aristotle is very clear that the primary reference of energeia is not to a present state or a factual state of affairs, but to a primitive or ultimate end, understood as a kind of fullness or achievable perfection after its kind.

We are not used to thinking seriously about achievable perfection, but Aristotle’s fundamental intention regarding “perfection” is that it not be out of reach of finite beings. The “perfection” Aristotle has in mind is not a godlike attribute of unqualified or infinite perfection, but rather something like what modern ecology calls a “climax state” of an ecosystem (like the exceedingly rich environment of a rain forest).

Ecological succession involves a series of states that lead to other states, whereas a climax state leads back to itself, as in Aristotle’s other related coined word entelechy, which Sachs renders “being at work staying itself”, and is literally something like “in-end-having”. An ecosystem in a climax state is maximally resilient to perturbation; it is more able to recover its health when something throws it out of balance.

When Aristotle speaks of “substances” persisting through change, it is not a simple persistence of given properties that he has in mind, but rather something more like a stable (i.e., highly resilient, not unchanging) ecosystem. Stability in ecosystems and populations comes from biodiversity, which is a modern scientific analogue of Aristotelian “perfection”. Diversity provides a richer set of capabilities. With respect to human individuals, the analogue would be something like a “well-rounded” character. In ethics, we could speak of a well-rounded pursuit of ends, in contrast with a narrow or selfish one.

Thus the concept of “actuality” in Aristotle has to do with a kind of immanent teleology or interpretation of things based on ends and values, which for Aristotle takes the place of what later writers called “ontology”, as a supposed fundamental account of what exists.

Some contemporary analytic philosophers have spoken of “actualism” as an alternative to the possible worlds interpretation of modal logic. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, in this context “actuality” is simply equated with factual existence. Instead of making confusing claims about the reality of non-actual possible worlds, this approach locates alternate possibilities within the actual world instead of somehow alongside it. As far as it goes, I have some sympathy for this. But I want to resist some of the conclusions with which it is commonly associated, which follow from the very non-Aristotelian identification of actuality with mere factuality. (See also Redding on Morals and Modality.)

I said above that actuality in Aristotle’s sense refers to processes and states of actualization relative to ends and values, not just to present existence or the current factual state of affairs. Readers of Aristotle as diverse as Thomas Aquinas and Gwenaëlle Aubry are united in stressing the primacy of “in-act-ness” over mere factuality in the interpretation of “actuality”. Robert Pippin’s account of actuality in Hegel (see also here) in an ethical context spells out the consequences of this very nicely. I think Aristotle would endorse the views Pippin attributes to Hegel in this context.


Is it reasonable to call a philosopher who makes significant use of “essence” or similar terms an essentialist? I would say no. If you look at the Wikipedia article on essentialism for example, it appears to be a term of superficial classification that is used in a hostile or pejorative way. The definition given there is certainly nothing I would identify with.

I find essence to be a very useful concept. This Latin-derived term doesn’t exactly capture any single word used by Plato or Aristotle. Essence is what I call a way of being rather than a thing or property. It corresponds to the more abstract meanings of “form” and “substance”, and to what Aristotle called the “what it is” and “what it was to have been” of a thing. For both Plato and Aristotle it is an object of inquiry rather than something taken for granted. Aristotle’s notions of potentiality and actualization apply to it concepts of alternatives, development, and unanticipated change.

Aquinas’ introduction of a separate explicit concept of existence is a good example of how meanings change with context. For Aquinas, God in the act of creation gives being to possible essences. This implies that the essences are completely preformed, as Leibniz argued explicitly. Leibniz’s pre-established harmony has been viewed as deterministic, though Leibniz argued that it was not. In any case, Aquinas and Leibniz treat essences as discrete possibilities, whereas I read Aristotle as focusing on what is actualized or subject to a process of actualization. Essence as a discrete possibility is still arguably more sophisticated than what gets called “essentialism”, but it is much closer. (See also Platonic Truth; Form Revisited; Form as Value; Form, Substance.)

Aquinas on the Soul

Lately I’ve repeatedly mentioned Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), and I feel some additional due diligence is in order. Though I have browsed his major works, I am assuredly no Aquinas scholar, so I want to tread carefully. This is an exploration, and conclusions may be revised.

My currently interrupted arc treating Alain de Libera’s Archaeology of the Subject has brought to light some unfamiliar suggestions regarding Aquinas’ role in the formation of the modern concept of action as a central explanatory term. Act, action, and actuality are three distinct things in Aristotle, and they seem to be three different distinct things in Aquinas. We have to be careful that all these distinctions are not confused. So, I am embarking on a little detour to get a clearer sense of what they specifically mean in Aquinas.

The most famous theologian of the Catholic church, Aquinas is a very substantial figure whose work has given rise to diverse interpretations. His principal concern was what is called revealed theology, which properly speaking is outside my scope here, but he was perhaps best known (and initially controversial) for his philosophical theology, and for fusing discourses of theology and philosophy. Without ever losing sight of things he considered to be known by faith, he gave an unprecedented place to philosophical arguments in his theological works, and also developed a highly original purely philosophical theology, which he held to independently point in the same direction as his revealed theology.

Contrary to the myth that the Latin middle ages were dogmatically Aristotelian, the place of Aristotelian learning and the social status of philosophy in Aquinas’ lifetime were actually quite precarious, encountering widespread opposition from religious conservatives. Were it not for the conciliatory work of Aquinas and its eventual acceptance by the Church, conservatives might have succeeded in rolling back the great cultural advances that began in the 12th and 13th centuries with the influx of Arabic, Hebrew, and Greek learning into the hitherto rather barbarous world of Latin-speaking Europe. If I often sound critical of Aquinas and disagree with his extraordinarily original redeployment of some key Aristotelian terms, that should be taken in the context of this larger historical debt.

On the question of the soul, Thomist scholar Ralph McInerny explains in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy that Aquinas in questions 75 and 76 of the first part of Summa Theologica distinguishes between a substance and a “subsistent”. He also develops a concept of a being’s actus essendi or “act of existence”. Both of these details — which have no precedent in Aristotle — are new to me. This is the same part of Summa Theologica that de Libera was focusing on.

The human soul for Aquinas is not an independent spiritual substance as an angel would be; rather it is the subsistent substantial form and formal principle of an embodied human being. It makes the human what she is, but is not complete in itself. As a principle of a nature, it has no nature of its own, and is not a substance in its own right. Its nature is to be the formal element of a complete (embodied) substance.

According to McInerny, Aquinas stresses that “the soul exists in a living being as the substantial form of an animal”. Socrates as a human has all the vital activities of a living animal. For Aquinas none of these are distinctive activities of the soul itself, because they are involved with bodily functions. On the other hand, the intellect of Socrates is said by Aquinas to be a distinctive activity or “operation” of Socrates’ soul itself that involves no corporeal organ, and this operation is said to be able to exist independent of the body.

Aquinas acknowledges this to be an unnatural state, since the soul is not complete in itself. But he holds that it is enough to establish that the human soul has an operation that does not depend on a bodily organ, in order to show that the human soul is an incorporeal subsistent that can exist independent of the body. Souls of nonhuman animals have no nonbodily operation, and therefore are not immaterial subsistents. At the same time, the intellectual soul of a human is distinguished from an angel precisely because it is the substantial form of an animal.

Taking it as established that Socrates as an embodied human being is not the same as the soul of Socrates, Aquinas according to McInerny argues that Socrates and his soul nonetheless are both “subjects” of one identical activity or operation. Intellect is an activity of Socrates’ soul that is equally an activity of Socrates the complete human. Aquinas holds that for an animal with an intellectual operation, the intellectual soul and the animal (and vegetable) soul are one and the same.

McInerny summarizes, “In the case of other animals it is the animal itself, the living substance, that is the subject of the act of existence, and both soul and body have existence through the substance. Here in the human case, the soul is said to be the subject of the act of existence because it has its own operation.”

Rationality — or acting knowingly and willingly — “is the distinctive form that intelligence takes in human beings as animals. Rationality involves the back and forth of argument moving from one thing known to another, and advancing in knowledge by such movement. Thus, for Thomas, while angels and God can be said to be intelligent, they are not rational.”

“Reason does not distinguish us from animals; it distinguishes us as animals. So according to Aquinas, while it is true that the activities of intellect and will are not the actualities of any physical organs, they are nonetheless the activities of the living human animal. It is Socrates the animal who knows and wills, not his mind interacting with his body.”

If acting knowingly and willingly has the plain ordinary meaning it does in the discussions of responsibility in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, I could fully subscribe to each individual statement in the last two paragraphs. This has no fancy metaphysical prerequisites. But a premise about acting knowingly and willingly does not seem to me to justify a conclusion about the activities of knowing and willing as such. Nor do I think that knowing and willing is the proper activity of Aristotelian nous or “intellect”.

(I think even Averroes would agree that it is Socrates the animal who “knows and wills”, in the sense that those terms have in Aristotle’s ethics. I think he would like the distinction between intellect and the reason of the rational animal. But I think Averroes would go on to specify that knowing and willing and rationality attach to the animal by way of a development of the animal’s “imagination”. I would myself also emphasize the role of language and ethos.)

I am not sure about calling intellect an operation “of the soul itself”, or indeed an “operation” at all. But I truly have no idea what an “act of existence” would be in Aristotelian terms. Plotinus spoke of the natural act of a being as its good. But “act of existence” to my ear suggests something more like Spinoza’s conatus or effort to exist, which seems at least in part to have a Stoic heritage. Neither of these meanings seems applicable to God. But then, neither is it yet clear to me how the “act of existence” of a created being is related to Aquinas’ notion of the pure act of pure Being, which I have understood as conferring the existence of beings.

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”.

“The Subject” in Medieval Times

According to Alain de Libera in the second half of Archéologie du sujet vol. 1, Thomas Aquinas was instrumental in developing a view of the soul that was neither Aristotelian nor Augustinian, and that paved the way for the modern concept of “the subject” as an agent, long before Descartes. De Libera says that Aquinas did this in part by introducing the different, very abstract Aristotelian notion of subject (hypokeimenon, “thing underlying”, with no connotations of mind or agency) into the Augustinian model of the soul as an image of the Christian Trinity, and simultaneously introducing the Augustinian biblical Word into an Aristotelian model of abstractive knowledge. Aquinas also drew indirectly on Plotinus, and directly on his teacher Albert the Great’s use of pseudo-Dionysius. In doing so, he effectively removed the stigma Augustine had placed on treating the human soul as a “subject”.

Aristotle had suggested that there is a kind of identity between thinking and what it thinks. It is perhaps not accidental that we use different senses of the same English word “thought” for both. These should not be equated with subject and object in the modern sense; they both occupy parts of a kind of middle ground between what we call subject and object.

According to de Libera, Plotinus developed a kind of identity between three terms (nous, noeisis, noeton — intellect, intellection, intelligible object). His intellect and intelligible object are already somewhat closer to what we call subject and object. In between, he placed an act of thinking or intellection that was to have a kind of identity with both the intellect and the intelligible object.

Plotinus’ notion of act is also quite different from that of Aristotle. Aristotle calls the first principle a kind of pure act that is not an action in the ordinary sense, and has nothing else behind it; for Plotinus, the first principle is a power, and every act is the act of a power. For Aristotle, the first principle is also an end only; for Plotinus, it is both the end and the origin of all things.

The persons of the Trinity are supposed to have a sort of mutual immanence to one another that is completely unlike the case of something underlying something else. De Libera notes that Plotinus and his student Porphyry already used a similar concept of mutual immanence in their discussions of intellect. Augustine ranked his reading of Plotinus as a formative experience second only to his conversion to Christianity.

From the Christian neoplatonist pseudo-Dionysius, Albert the Great drew the notion of a “whole of powers” that is different from either a universal whole or an integral whole.

De Libera notes that the classic formula of the Trinity in Greek — one ousia, three hypostases — was confusingly translated into Latin as “one essence, three substances” or as “one substance, three persons”. By substitution, the coexistence of these two translations yields the obviously self-contradictory formula, “one substance, three substances”, which graphically illustrates the equivocation in medieval usages of “substance”.

(In deference to common usage, I have continued to use “substance” for Aristotle’s ousia, even though I think it is a terrible translation. “Essence” is better, provided we recognize that Plato and Aristotle had views of essence that were not “essentialist” in the sense of treating essences of things as pre-given or as something to take for granted.)

De Libera speaks of the need to parenthesize modern notions of subject and object in order to understand Augustine’s opposition to treating actions and passions of the soul as attributes of a substance. Conversely, for better or worse, Aquinas’ legitimation of this way of viewing the soul brings us closer to modern views. (I think Aristotle would have shared Augustine’s opposition to this formulation, but for different reasons. I think Aristotle regarded the whole human being — and not the soul or the body taken separately — as a “substance”.)

Aquinas introduced emphasis on both what de Libera calls an Aristotelian structure of subject-powers-activities and a pseudo-Dionysian structure of essence-power-operation into a Latin-speaking theological context that had been mainly dominated by Augustine. What I would call this double infusion of additional neoplatonic elements is said by some to have resulted in a more dynamic and relational way of viewing things. (In agreement with Gwenaëlle Aubry, however, I think Aristotelian potentiality is very different from neoplatonic power, even though they use the same Greek word.) Combined with Aquinas’ serious embrace of a version of Aristotelian hylomorphism, this infusion led to a simultaneously more positive and more dynamic view of worldly existence than had been common in the Augustinian tradition, which also helped lay the seeds of modernity.

A broadly neoplatonic view of the world in terms of powers and operations-of-powers thus turns out to have been very important for the emergence of the modern subject-as-agent (as well as, I would argue, the rise of the specific modern notion of causality). De Libera notes that Heidegger ignored both neoplatonism and theology in his famous account of the rise of the modern subject. Meanwhile, Aquinas’ legitimation of the treatment of actions and passions as attributes of a soul-subject-substance — coupled with the interweaving of such attribution with imputations of responsibility — seems to have contributed to a stronger notion of a self as something with univocal identity and sharp edges.

Origins of a Subject-Agent

How did the modern equation of subjecthood and agency come to be? How did the notion of “I” or ego come to be substantialized? An extremely influential argument of Heidegger makes this an innovation of Descartes. Alain de Libera argues that this is too hasty, and that the groundwork for this identification was actually laid in the later middle ages. I’m continuing a high-level treatment of de Libera’s extremely important archaeology of the subject (see also On a Philosophical Grammar).

Answering this question will involve an extended historical odyssey through complex interactions between Aristotelian and Augustinian views, and much more. De Libera sees Aquinas in his polemic against Averroes raising four interrelated questions of a more fundamental nature: Who thinks? What is the subject of thought? Who are we? What is man? The second of these seems to have been first asked by Averroes. The other three are largely attributable to Aquinas and his contemporaries, in their reactions to Averroes.

Several points of Aristotelian interpretation (What is substance? What is form? What is act? What is an efficient cause? What is the soul?) will be relevant to answering these, as will Augustine’s meditations on personhood and the nature of the Trinity. De Libera notes that John Locke — a major contributor to modern views on “the subject” — was deeply involved in debates on trinitarian theology. He also discusses Franz Brentano’s modern revival of the medieval notion of intentionality. The medieval version was closely bound up with a notion of “inexistence” or “existing in” of mental objects (forms separated from their matter) in the soul.

In the Categories, Aristotle gives substance the logical sense of something standing under something else. This influenced the Greek grammarians who formulated the notion of a grammatical subject. But in the Metaphysics, he treats this as only a starting point that is quickly superseded by an identification of substance with form or “what it was to have been” a thing, before moving into an account of substance as potentiality and actuality.

De Libera notes a historic division among readers of Aristotle’s treatise On the Soul between those who interpret the soul as an attribute of the body, and those who treat it as a substance in its own right. The latter position has different meanings, depending on whether substance is taken in the “standing under” sense or in the sense of form. De Libera will be particularly interested in the consequences of a further family of positions that make the non-obvious equation of human actions and passions with attributes of the soul.

He notes that “category” in Greek originally meant accusation, and relates this to Locke’s characterization of personhood as a “forensic” notion. We have here to do with subtle relations between attribution, inherence, and imputation with respect to actions and passions in relation to the soul. But what is an action? Must we explain an act in terms of a substantial subject’s power of efficient causation in a late scholastic sense that is far from Aristotle’s? (See also Expansive Agency; Brandomian Forgiveness.)

On a Philosophical Grammar

It seems like a good time to get back to a bit more detail on Alain de Libera’s “archaeology of the subject”, which I introduced a while back. Volume 1 is subtitled Naissance du sujet or “Birth of the Subject”. He begins with a series of questions asked by Vincent Descombes in a review of Paul Ricoeur’s Oneself as Another:

“1) What remarkable differences are there, from the point of view of use, between these words which we place too lazily in a single category of personal pronouns (and particularly here I, he, me, him, her, oneself)?

“2) What is the status of intentions to act? Are they first properties of the agent?

“3) Should we distinguish, as Ricoeur proposes, two concepts of identity, identity as sameness (idem) and identity as ipseity [“selfness”] (ipse)?

“4) What is this self that figures in the expression self-awareness?” (Archéologie du sujet vol. 1, p. 31).

The birth of the subject in the modern sense is what de Libera will investigate. He aims to show how “the Aristotelian ‘subject’ [hypokeimenon, or thing standing under] became the subject-agent of the moderns in becoming a kind of substrate for acts and operations” (p. 39). He quotes a famous passage from Nietzsche denouncing the “grammatical superstition” of the logicians who assume that wherever there is a predicate for an activity such as thinking, there must be something corresponding to a grammatical subject that performs it. Nietzsche says that a thought comes when it wants, not when I want.

De Libera asks, “How did the thinking subject, or if one prefers, man as subject and agent of thought, first enter into philosophy? And why?” (pp. 45-46). He points out the simple fact that a grammatical subject need not be an agent, as when we say “the boy’s timidity made him afraid”. He quotes Frédéric Nef to the effect that action is not a grammatical category. How then did “the subject” become bound up with agency?

He notes that something like this is already at play in Aquinas’ Disputed Questions on the Soul, when Aquinas develops the notion of a “subject of operation” related to sensibility, associating the subject of an action or passion with a power of the soul. How, de Libera asks, did we come to assume that every action requires “an agent that is a subject” and “a subject that is its agent” (p. 58)? (See also Not Power and Action.)

He will be looking for medieval roots of notions that most people, following Heidegger, consider to be innovations of Descartes. Meanwhile, de Libera recalls that Augustine had gone so far as to label it blasphemy to call the soul a “subject”. Knowledge and love, Augustine said, are not in the mind as in a subject.

Simple Substance?

I tremendously admire Leibniz, but have always been very puzzled by his notion of “substance”. Clearly it is different from that of Aristotle, which I still ought to develop more carefully, based on the hints in my various comments on Aristotle’s very distinctive approaches to “dialectic” and “being”. (See also Form, Substance.)

Leibniz compounds a criterion of simplicity — much emphasized in the neoplatonic and scholastic traditions — with his own very original notion of the complete concept of a thing, which is supposed to notionally encompass every possible detail of its description. He also emphasizes that every substance is “active”. Leibniz’ famous monads are identified by him with substances.

A substance is supposed to be simple. He explicitly says this means it has no parts. In part, he seems to have posited substances as a sort of spiritual atoms, with the idea that it is these that fundamentally make up the universe. The true atoms, Leibniz says, are fundamentally spiritual rather than material, though he also had great interest in science, and wanted to vindicate both mathematical and Aristotelian physics. Leibniz’ notion of spiritual atoms seems to combine traditional attributes of the scholastic “intellectual soul” (which, unlike anything in Aristotle, was explicitly said by its advocates to be a simple substance) with something like Berkeley’s thesis that what can truly be said to exist are just minds.

On the other hand, a substance is supposed to be the real correlate of a “complete” concept. The complete concept of a thing for Leibniz comprises absolutely everything that is, was, or will be true of the thing. This is related to his idea that predicates truly asserted of a grammatical subject must be somehow “contained” within the subject. Leibniz also famously claimed that all apparent interaction between substances is only an appearance. The details of apparent interaction are to be explained by the details contained within the complete concept of each thing. This is also related to his notions of pre-established harmony and possible worlds, according to which God implicitly coordinates all the details of all the complete concepts of things in a world, and makes judgments of what is good at the level of the infinite detail of entire worlds. One of Kant’s early writings was a defense of real interaction against Leibniz.

Finally, every monad is said by Leibniz to contain both a complete microcosm of the world as expressed from its distinctive point of view, and an infinite series of monads-within-monads within it. Every monad has or is a different point of view from every other, but they all reflect each other.

At least in most of his writings, Leibniz accordingly wanted to reduce all notions of relation to explanations in terms of substances. In late correspondence with the Jesuit theologian Bartholomew Des Bosses, he sketched an alternate view that accepted the reality of relations. But generally, Leibniz made the logically valid argument that it is far simpler to explain the universe in terms of each substance’s unique relation to God, rather than in terms of infinities of infinities of relations between relations. For Leibniz all those infinities of infinities are still present, but only in the mind of God, and in reflection in the interior of each monad.

Leibniz’ logically simpler account of relations seems like an extravagant theological fancy, but however we may regard that, and however much we may ultimately sympathize with Kant over Leibniz on the reality of interaction and relations, Leibniz had very advanced intuitions of logical-mathematical structure, and he is fundamentally right that from a formal point of view, extensional properties of things can all be interpreted in an “intensional” way. Intension in logic refers to internal content of a concept, and to necessary and sufficient conditions that constitute its formal definition. This is independent of whatever views we may have about minds. (See also Form as a Unique Thing.)

So, there is much of interest here, but I don’t see how these ultra-rich notional descriptions can be true of what are also supposed to be logical atoms with no parts. In general, I don’t see how having a rich description could be compatible with being logically atomic. I think the notion of logical atomicity is only arrived at through abstraction, and doesn’t apply to real things.

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.

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.