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Alain de Libera “When Did the Modern Subject Emerge?”

Libera, Alain de 2008. When Did the Modern Subject Emerge? American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 82(2):  181-220.

A fair assessment of late ancient and medieval views on the subject is essential for any reconstruction of a history of subjectivity with the subject. Such an assessment, I suggest, is best made in two steps: 1) a discussion of Heidegger’s account of the dominance of the subject in the modern age, and account that is based on the distinction between “subjecticity” or “subjectness” (Subiectität) and “subjectivity” (Subjektivität); 2) a study of the genealogy of Nietzsche’s alleged grammatische Gewöhnung. The two steps are intimately connected: the distinction between subjecticity and subjectivity and the “grammatical habit” constitute two major components of a conceptual scheme I call “mental attributivism”, whose rise and fall deserve a very thorough archaeological scrutiny if we are to understand what exactly happened to the “subject” in early modern philosophy. (186)

To begin with, let us focus on Heidegger’s account of what he calls the “emphatic positing of the subject in Modern Age.” The term Subiectität, which is rendered as “subjecticity” or “subjectness” in English translations, has a precise meaning: at first blush it points to the very quality of being a subjectum, ontologically speaking; that is, according to the meaning of the Greek hypokeimenon, which it translates, to the quality of being “that-which-lies-before, which, as ground, gathers everything onto itself.” (186)

[…] Heidegger does not limit himself to saying that with Descartes man is conceived as a subjectum; he pushes further by asserting that within Descartes’s metaphysics man “comes to play the role of the one and only subject proper.” (187)

Subjecticity thus becomes subjectivity: being is no longer merely created being (ens creatum); it is “certain being, indubitable, truly thought,” in a word: “representation” (ens certum, indubitatum, vere vogitatum, cogitatio). The Cartesian shift from subjecticity to subjectivity may be summed up in four major claims: “1) Man is subject in the sense of representing I-ness; 2) The beingness of beings is equivalent to representedness through and for the I-subject; 3) Truth means the same as secure conveyance of what is represented in the self-representing representation: truth is certitude; 4) Man is the measure of all beings in the sense of the presumption of the de-limitation of representing to self-securing certitude.” (Heidegger, Nihilism, 136-7) (188)

[…] from Descartes onwards up to Nietzsche himself one must consider “the subjecticity (not subjectivity) of the essence of man as the foundation for the objectivity of every subject (everything which is present).” (190)

The modern age is “the age of subjectness,” in which “every analysis of the situation is grounded, whether it knows it or not, in the metaphysics of subjectness.” The metaphysics of subjectness is not reducible to the ontology of “subjectivity” in the sense of “subjectivism.” To be a subject is “to be in the subject-object relation”; to be in that relation “is what constitutes the subjectness of the subject.” (190)

Let me first define what “subjecthood” is in traditional (that is, late ancient and medieval) philosophy. Inherence and predication are the two components of subjecthood. The notion of subjecthood links that of which there can be predicates, the so-called “logical subject,” and that in which there are accidents, the so-called “physical subject.” According to this distinction, Heidegger’s claim should be rephrased as follows: the modern subject emerged when this sub-jective pattern – the subjecthood of the physical subject, which is a substrate for accidents in a change, and at the same time, the subjecthood of the logical subject, which is a substrate for the predicates in a proposition – was extended to the human mind, to a mental subject, thus subjecthood becoming subjectivity. (194)

Let me define what I will hereafter call “mental attributivism.” By “mental attributivism” I understand any interpretation of the soul (or thought, or understanding, or mind) that contains or implies an assimilation of mental or psychic activities, operations, or dispositions to attributes or predicates of a subject defined as an “ego” or an “I”. (195)

The only Cartesian contribution to the emergence of the subject in its modern, “Cartesian,” sense – that is, the first-person relationship between thought and existence, not to say personal identity – is to accept the general axiom that we cannot conceive an act without a subject (that is, Nietzsche’s grammatische Gewöhnung) and to reject, as contrary to all linguistic usage and logic (contra omnem loquendi usum omnemque logicam), the idea that every subject should be material, when logicians and others commonly assert that some substances are spiritual, others corporeal. This is not enough to allow one to consider Descartes as the “father of modern subjectivity.” Descartes’s claim is that there are incorporeal substances – let us say incorporeal subjects. This claim is not primarily concerned with the idea that the thinking thing should be I as a subject – subject of thought, thinking subject. It is concerned with Hobbes’s thesis according to which the expressions “incorporeal substance” or “incorporeal subject” imply a contradiction – in other words, that to say that “x is an incorporeal substance” amounts to saying that “there is no x” […]. (200)

In the Explicatio mentis humanae Regius had argued that there could perfectly be a single subject for thought and extension, intended as two different modes of the same substance. To prove his thesis, he claimed that “there is no reason why the mind should not be a sort of attribute co-existing with extension in the same subject.” For Descartes, this was the second and apparently the last opportunity to deal with the question of subjecthood. To Regius’s claim Descartes responds that “attributes which constitute the natures of things,” as thought and extension do, “cannot be said [to be] present together in one and the same subject; for that would be equivalent to saying that one and the same subject has two different natures – a statement that implies a contradiction, at least when it is a question of a simple subject … rather than a composite one.” (201)

[…] some of Descartes’s most fundamental claims: 1) thought and extension are not two modes of the same substance; 2) they are essential or main or principal attributes of two different substances: mind and body; 3) two different modes can inhere in the same subject; 4) two essential or principal attributes cannot have the same subject; 5) each substance has only one essential or principal attribute; 6) there is no subject common both to thought and extension. (201)

Man is such [a composite] entity: “That which we regard as having at the same time both extension and thought is a composite entity, namely a man – an entity consisting of a soul and a body.” This was exactly the thesis that Descartes had expressed in the Sixth Meditation: Peter Strawson’s two-subjects theory. Man is not his soul. Man is not his mind. Man is a subject composed of two substances, mind and body, which are the simple subjects, substantially different, of principal or essential attributes that are in each case unique: thought and extension. (202)

Thus, there is no “Cartesian subject” in Descartes, both because the Cartesian theory of mind and thought lacks a concept of subject – this was the core of Hobbes’s criticism – and, paradoxically, because there are too many subjects in his philosophy: mind and body, the two substances whose composition constitutes the composite entity called “man.” (203)

In the description of the mens-notitia-amor triad (On the Trinity IX, v, 8) the doctrine of the circumincession of the Persons of the Trinity is evoked even more directly in order to conceptualize the mutual indwelling of mens and its acts: “The mind, love and knowledge … each is a substance in itself, and all are found mutually in all, or each two in each one, consequently all are in all … These three, therefore, are in a marvelous manner inseparable from one another; and yet each of them is a substance, and all together are one substance or essence, while the terms themselves express a mutual relationship.” This is exactly what the Aristotelian hypokeimenon pattern would not and could not allow. Yet in the Middle Ages, the two conflicting patterns – the perichoretic and the Aristotelian – merged into a single one, giving rise to the concept of a mental subject, mentally active, in a modern sense. (206)

Arguing against Augustine, the Peripatetics posited the existence of a potentia subjectiva in order to demonstrate the existence of “a subject of knowledge acts that are oriented toward objects.” According to [Peter] Olivi, this conjecture, which certainly would look to moderns lie a decisive step toward subjectivity, lacked what the Augustinian model was meant to supply: self-certainty, certitudo infallibilis sui esse […]. Indeed, it actually says nothing about the ego or the I; it makes it possible to posit that my acts have a subject, but it does not establish that I am that subject. (207)

In order to arrive at the self-certainty of the moderns, one would have to take one more step: assume that I can directly intuit that I myself am the subject of my acts. One should, in a word, go back to Augustine’s perichoretic conception of the soul and adapt the “peripatetic” language of subjecthood to it. […] that would precisely mark the beginnings of “subjectivity,” or at least one of the preconditions for those beginnings. I think that this is the step taken by Peter Olivi when he expressly makes the perception of my acts depend upon “my prior perception of myself as subject of those acts.” This leads him to formulate the theorem that “in the perception of my acts, the perception of the subject itself [that is to say, of me as the suppositum of my own acts] comes first according to the natural order of things” […]. (207)

According to Olivi, the subject is perceived first because “according to the natural order of things, the subject is perceived before the predicate is attributed to it as such […]” – a psycholinguistic fact. With this claim, the “subjectivation” of the mind is now complete in every dimension, including the assumption of the linguistic or logical form of predication, which is backed up by the introduction of the word ego into the analysis of linguistic communication. (208)

From a modern point of view, Olivi’s subject satisfies all the requirements set forth in ego-based psychology. It meets the requirement of a doer for every deed. Olivi’s theory states that if there is thinking, there must be something that thinks. But it also establishes that I am this something. There is a grammatical move, a logical move, and a theological move. (209)

[…] if the equivalence of hypostasis, suppositum, and individua substantia (a Thomistic commonplace) is granted, the principle that actions belong to subjects brings about everything required for a concept of person or personality. It makes possible the interpretation of man as subiectum which Heidegger considered to be the exclusive trademark of Cartesianism. Such a concept includes three main elements: subsistence, individuality, and rationality. They are combined by Thomas in the following way: every substance is a suppositum, every suppositum is an individual (an individual substance), but it is not the case that every individual (individual substance) which is a suppositum is a person: only the supposita having dominion over their own actions, which can act of themselves (that is, rational individuals) are persons. (210)

The core argument is the principle actions belong to singulars. Nothing can act or be acted upon but a singular. […] That is the reason why human beings are called persons. There can be no persons but subjects which can act of themselves, that is to say, which can both be considered and consider themselves as subjects-agents of their own actions. (211)

[…] the axiom actiones sunt suppositorum cannot be found in Aristotle. It is an adage formulated in the Middle Ages on the basis of the only genuine Aristotelian axiom, stated in Metaphysics, Book I, chap. 1 (981a16-17): “actions and generations are all concerned with the individual.” (213)

The obvious meaning of the principle (which is also mentioned in Politics, 1267b23-1269a29, esp. “for what is written must be universal [in nature], whereas actions are concerned with individuals”) is that actions and generations bear on individuals, or that what results from an action or a generation can only be an individual. In the statement that every action is of an individual, “of” must be read as an objective genitive, meaning “about,” peri, circa. (214)

The medieval adage, however, states just the opposite. Actiones sunt suppositorum means actions are “of” individuals in the sense of subjective genitive, which denotes “the person who makes or produces something or who has a feeling,” as in dicta Platonis, “the utterances of Plato,” or timores liberorum, “the fears of the children.” (214)

The Leibnizian suppositum is some one who has a biographical definition. I am not a thinking thing “outfitted with the quality of thinking.” I am not even the one thinking I am I. I am an I, this I, a singular I: a subject including a set of action-attributes that make him/her an individual episode in the (best possible) world story. Leibniz’s new conception of the “subject” does not merely consist in equating suppositum, substance, and individually subsisting being. It is also firmly grounded in a set of agency principles. One is the principle stating that “actions belong to the suppositum.” Another is the principle maintaining that subjects are denominated by their actions, acts or activities: subjectum denominatur a propria actione. This is Leibniz’s praxeological answer to the Hobbesian ontological principle according to which “an essence is that accident for which we give the thing – the subject – its name,” the scholastic Accidens denominat proprium subiectum. The third principle states what one could call “metaphysical attributivism”: Praedicatum inest subiecto. (218)

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