The Subject. Philosophical Foundations. Andy Blunden 2005/6
During the Dark Ages in Christian Europe which followed the collapse of the Roman Empire, the legacy of the Greeks was all but forgotten, kept alive only by Islamic scholars. St. Augustine (354-430) had integrated a kind of Stoicism into Christianity, but Aristotle was known only through Arabic translations and the commentaries of Islamic scholars, and he was generally known only as a logician. As Europe began to emerge into the light, the monks translated Aristotle’s works directly from Greek into Latin. This new access to the wisdom of antiquity, stimulated scholarship in different directions. Aristotle’s most illustrious scholar, St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), introduced Aristotlean metaphysics into Christian theology, though not without considerable modification. Aquinas’s version of Aristotle then became an established part of Church dogma.
In place of Aristotle’s natural philosophy, with an ‘unmoved mover’ at the base and at the apex, the polis existing for the sake of the good life for man, Aquinas had God at the top, angels at the next level, humans below that, and Nature at the bottom. Teleology was not something imminent in reality itself, an idea that would have been regarded as Pantheistic and therefore heretical, but manifested the intention of the Creator. Christianity also had problems integrating Divine creation into Aristotle’s naturalistic physics which was inherently timeless and eternal. No longer was the soul understood as the form and actuality of a certain kind of body, and common to all living things; the soul was immortal and separable from the body; an incorporeal soul was perceived and acted through the body, from which it had a separate existence.
The take-over job on Aristotle was accomplished however, on the basis of a world in which the centres of power were immensely remote from people’s lives; apart from a very limited amount of trade, only the monks travelled between the centres of learning and power in Europe, and learning was confined to isolated monasteries. These were conditions very different from the ancient polis in which Aristotle’s philosophy had flourished.
The Christian theology of the whole period from St. Augustine up to the time of Rene Descartes, is known as Scholasticism, taking its name from the head teachers of the theological schools (scholastici); their theology involved the deployment of argument in the service of revelation. Whereas the fathers of the Church had relied solely on revelation and faith, in becoming an established church, the scholastics sought to deploy reason as an instrument to support the propagation of the faith, rather than appealing to simply to the authority of the Church and the revealed truth of Scripture. Direct access to the literature of pre-Christian Greece was an important asset against the superior learning of the Islamic and Jewish worlds.
Aristotle was the premier treasure of Greek learning, and Aquinas was Aristotle’s foremost interpreter. Aquinas argued that despite apparent conflict, Reason and Faith must agree, because God is the author of all truth. And Reason proved to be a very powerful weapon when allied with absolute power in the service of the One True Church, especially when aided by judicious use of the thumb screw and rack.
God created the world, and human beings had no part in it, other than as sinners who needed to buy redemption to avoid an eternity burning in hell. God was represented on Earth by a Pope in far-away Rome and his local agents who received the Word through the Church hierarchy. This was a unitary, not a dualist world, reflected in the fact that Reason and Revelation, though distinct sources of knowledge, always had to lead to the same conclusion; the church dogma extended from how to gain entry through the gates of heaven to when to bring in the harvest and the cause of rainbows. Everything that happened in the world was an expression of His will, His design, His mind. The meaning and happiness of every child of God lay in the realization of the Divine purpose of the Creator.
Subjectum, as the Latin translation of Aristotle’s hypokeimenon, was the material substratum of any of God’s creations, the matter from which God fashioned his works. In the case of the greatest of those creations, His kingdoms and empires, it meant the subjects.
Aristotle’s exposition of the notion of substance was the authoritative work on the topic for mediŠval and renaissance scholars in Europe, interacting with one another in Latin through the Roman Church. As English emerged as a language capable of expressing abstract ideas, it borrowed words from the courtly and scholarly Latin language.
‘Subject’ entered the English language in the 14th century in the sense of someone under the dominion of or owing allegiance to a sovereign power, being subject to its laws, enjoying its protection. In this sense the subjects were the material foundation of kingdoms and of the power of their sovereigns; being a subject meant bearing attributes such as obligations. The use in English of ‘subject’ as an adjective as in ‘subject to taxation’ dates from the same period. Interestingly, the word ‘sovereign’ emerged at the same time and in connection with the word ‘subject’ and was synonymous with ‘suffering’.
Thus in the dominant mode of thinking at this time, in late mediŠval Britain, ‘subject’ was used in a passive sense. Although the subjects were the substance of the monarch’s power, they were subject to that power, its passive vehicle and material substratum, its ‘substance’. The word could be used to refer to subjection to all kinds of power or authority, and was later extended to refer to property as well as people.
The philosophical meaning of the Latin subjectum, derived from Aristotle, was adopted into philosophical and learned discourse as ‘subject’ at the same time, so in the 14th century, ‘subject’ operated in political and philosophical usage in ways which were consonant with one another. Although ‘subject’ described an individual, these individuals were passive components of the material substance and foundation of corporate powers. The word was used early on in the active transitive sense of subjecting someone, i.e., making someone a subject, but subject was still a passive entity.
By the 16th century, the usage of the word had broadened; as the bearer of attributes, the subject was something about which judgments could be made, poems could be written, sciences could be built up about them, murder plots could be made against them or rumours circulated about them.
When, in Measure for Measure (1603), Shakespeare says that “Thoughts are no subjects; Intents, but merely thoughts,” he meant that thoughts are not subjects, not that is, real, substantial things.
Throughout the mediŠval period, the three great Churches which between them monopolised intellectual and spiritual life from Western Europe to Persia, Christianity, Islam and Judaism, had a revolutionary opposition. These were the heretics, mystics, alchemists, astrologers and magicians who pored over ancient texts, experimented and observed, went into trances, speculated and prophesised, and circulated ideas which transgressed the boundaries of the established religious orders. Some were priests and some were canonised, some kept their speculations secret, some recanted, many died on the stake or on the rack. Spanning many centuries and many cultures their ideas were as diverse as can be imagined, but there were common threads to their heresy, around the nature of subjectivity.
The core idea was that the human mind could know God and could penetrate His mysteries. God created the world, and He created human beings so that we could contemplate His works. So a person could intervene in His creation and manipulate the world to his or her own ends. This entailed a dualist view of the world, with both good and evil, spiritual and material forces at work in the world.
The Hermetic texts and the Hebrew Kabbalah for centuries formed the basis for alchemy, astrology and natural magic, and from the twelfth century onwards, these documents formed the background to the thinking of Christian heretics in Europe.
The Corpus Hermeticum are the documents of the Hermetic tradition, dating from the religious sects of Hellenic Egypt in the early Christian era, though they were long mistakenly thought to have originated from the time of the Pharaohs.
The “thrice great” author of the Corpus Hermeticum was a dualist: “For all things must consist out of antithesis and contrariety; and this can otherwise not be. “ [CH X. ž10] and specifically “every living body doth consist of soul and matter.” [CH XI. ž10]
Using the Mind, it is possible to know God and His works: “And if thou knowest all these things at once – times, places, doings, qualities, and quantities; thou canst know God.” [CH XI. ž20] and “The Mind, then, is not separated off from God’s essentiality, but is united to it, as light to sun. This Mind in men is God, and for this cause some of mankind are gods ...” [CH XII. ž1]
The Kabbalah, the ancient Jewish texts dating back to before the time of Christ, contained a mixture of Neo-Platonist philosophy and unorthodox, dualist mystical ideas, concerned with discovering the source of evil, a search given added urgency by the murderous activity of the Crusaders, and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and their relentless persecution thereafter. If the Jews were God’s chosen people, how was it that suffering had been unleashed on the Jews?
The commentary of the Kabbalist Moishe Cordovera (1522-70) on the Zohar contains the following remarkable characterisation of God and subjectivity:
“The three first Sefiroth [attributes of God], to wit: the Crown, Wisdom and Intelligence, should be regarded as one and the same thing. The first represents knowledge or science, the second represents the knower, and the third represents the known. To explain this identity we must know that the knowledge of the Creator is not like the knowledge of the created, for with the latter knowledge is distinct from the knower, and bears upon objects which, in their turn, are distinct from the knower. This is designated by the following three terms: the thought, that which thinks, and the thing thought of. The Creator, on the other hand, is in Himself the knowledge, the knower and the known. In fact, His manner of knowing does not consist in applying His thought to things outside of Him, for it is by understanding and knowing Himself that He knows and perceives all that is.” [Pardes Rimonim, fol. 55a.]
Moishe Cordovera expounded the ten attributes of God (or the ideal person) by means of a series of triads in which a pair of opposites (male/female, etc) give forth a third, a form later developed in full by Hegel.
The Kabbala was a traditional text, but lay outside of the orthodox doctrines. The Zohar told that for example:
“there are on the skin that covers our body certain figures and lines which are the planets and stars of our body. All these signs have a hidden meaning and attract the attention of the wise who can read the face of man.” (Zohar, Part II, 76a.)
encouraging adepts to the study of palmistry, astrology and other forms of occultism, in order to gain access to hidden knowledge, secreted as hidden treasures by the Creator, for the adept to find and unlock.
The Gnostics counterposed the evil god of the Old Testament to a higher God revealed by Jesus Christ, regarding reality as the creation of a series of evil powers who wish to keep the human soul trapped in a physical body, and claimed a secret wisdom known only to a select group, necessary for escape from this world. Most of what we know about them is only what can be gleaned from the polemic thrown against them by the early Church Fathers from the second century onwards.
Let us turn to the ideas of the some of the Christian heretics and nonconformists.
John Scotus (Eriugena, 810-877), translated into Latin the writings of Dionysius the Areopagite. Dionysius was a student of Plotinus (204-270) who wrote under the persona of a convert of St Paul, a Pantheist who saw the scriptures as containing hidden messages from God. John Scotus adopted the pantheism of the author, formulating a combination of neo-Platonic mysticism and pantheism which he strove to reconcile with Aristotelean empiricism, Christian creationism and theism.
He rejected the doctrine of “double predestination,” that is that the soul went to either Heaven or Hell, holding instead that, not only all people, but all living creatures, would enjoy eternal bliss. He also rejected the doctrine of transubstantiation, holding that the Eucharist was merely metaphorical. Eriugena was officially denounced multiple times over the following centuries, but continued to exert influence on other monks and mystics, from Meister Eckhart to Hegel.
The Italian monk, Gioacchino da Fiore (1135-1202), was the founder of monastic order of San Giovanni, a mystic and esoteric writer. While working in Sicily where the Norman kings of tolerated the continued practice of the Muslim religion alongside their own Christian faith, he had a revelation, sending him on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, later joining the Cistercians. Gioacchino saw history as moving through three ages, the Age of the Father (Old Testament times), the Age of the Son (the Church) and a new “Age of the Spirit,” in which Christian and Muslim people would live in unity together and do away with the Church hierarchy.
Meister Eckhart (1260-1327) was a German Dominican preacher, theologian, and a gifted orator, cited as a precursor of Protestantism and the greatest German mystic. Eckhart’s sermons bordered on mysticism, quietism and pantheism, and he was frequently subject to investigation and Papal demands for repudiation. In the end it appears that he was quietly put to death after being forced to recant.
Eckhart held that while the Scriptures give knowledge of God, in order to be saved a person must attain this knowledge by their own understanding. God manifests Himself in His creatures. God speaks his word in all creatures, though only rational creatures can preserve it. While in the rest of creation he is unconscious, in the soul, God is conscious, and the soul is an image of God.
Nicolas of Cusa (1401-1464) was a follower of Meister Eckhart, a pantheist and a neo-Platonist. He held that knowledge was acquired by the unity of three activities: Fantasy, which unified the data from the different senses, Reason, which was bound by the principle of non-contradiction, and Intellect, which is a supra-rational kind of understanding, mystical intuition, and brings about the “unification of opposites.” Whereas opposites were unified “implicitly” in God, contradiction was explicit in reality, leading to multiplicity and conflict. This rejection of the law of non-contradiction put Nicholas at odds with the Scholastics, whom he described as an “Aristotelean Sect.” In astronomy, Nicholas speculated that the Earth moved around the Sun and that the stars contained other solar systems. His reasoning though, rested on the symbolism of numbers, combinations of letters, and speculation, rather than observation. Despite his reckless disregard for the teachings of the Scholastics, Nicholas was elected as a Cardinal and died an honoured member of the Church.
Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-94) at the age of 23, challenged all comers to debate 900 theses on religion, philosophy, natural philosophy and magic, and wrote his Oration on the Dignity of Man which has been called the “Manifesto of the Renaissance.” Pico combined neo-Platonism, Aristotelianism, Hermeticism and Kabbalah to compose a model of Renaissance humanism. According to Pico, God had created all the creatures: “However, when the work was finished, the Great Artisan desired that there be some creature to think on the plan of his great work.” So He created man as a universal creature with “no fixed place to live (i.e., ‘ecological niche’), no form that is peculiar to you.”
Martin Luther (1483-1546) remains the most famous critic of the Roman Church. His 95 theses took responsibility for faith away from the Church hierarchy and placed on to the shoulders of the faithful themselves, relying on the same direct, intuitive access to God which the mystics had cultivated.
One could go on. Nicolaus Copernicus, Giordano Bruno and Galilei Galileo put their lives on the line to make the world safe for modern science, free of repression and censorship by the Christian Church, and all the founders of modern science from Paracelsus to Kepler and Newton not to mention philosophers like Jacob Boehme, Fichte and Hegel allied themselves with this lineage of astrologers, magicians, mystics and heretics of the Middle Ages.
In the midst of a myriad of heresies and revelations, the issue between the ruling Scholastics and the heretical opposition was the nature of subjectivity, expressed on the whole in terms of the nature of God and the place of man in creation, the possibility of knowledge and whether reality was dualist or unitary:
The subjectivity of the pre-modern Europe is like that of a corporate subject, like what you would expect to find in a large, prestigious organisation, in this case one headed by God. Even dissenters rely on the existence of a rival power.
Rene Descartes (1596-1650) by no means put an end to the use of the “wisdom of the ancients” in the service of modern science, and nor, as we have seen, was he the inventor of mind-body dualism. But his new doctrine of substances, introduced in an effort to solve the problem of knowledge, initiated a significant linguistic turn.
What is new and striking in Descartes’ writing are (i) his repeated use of constructivist metaphors to describe science and philosophy, comparing his own task to reconstructing a house or a whole city or even the constitution of a state, along with (ii) a wholesale and explicit dismissal of all previous philosophy and even the observations of other natural philosophers, particularly Aristotle and the Scholastics, and, famously, even the evidence of his own senses, preferring instead (iii) the application of systematic doubt and (iv) introspection as a method of discovering the truth.
Descartes is able to use the constructivist metaphor because he sees knowledge as the product of the activity of the mind – knowledge is not discovered, or revealed or impressed upon the mind, but constructed. In order to sustain this approach he is led to a signally unconvincing line of argument which leads to the existence of God on the basis that Descartes could not imagine something more perfect than himself if it did not exist, and that God could not be a deceiving God, and would therefore not allow a person to be deceived by what appears distinctly and clearly before their mind. So the existence of an omniscient, benevolent God is integral to Descartes’ line of argument, but only in order to sustain the concept of a reasoning mind which is capable of producing reliable knowledge through it own resources.
The maxim “I think therefore I am” (cogito ergo sum) is the result of Descartes’ first application of doubt to everything: the only thing he can be sure of is that since he is thinking, he must exist, because something is thinking. By a long train of reasoning, Descartes arrives at the conviction that the material world is formed of a single substance with no space in between things (thus rejecting atomism, though he devised an ingenious concept of ‘vortexes’ which managed wave-particle dualism very well), with the property of extension in space, and mind, with the property of thought. These two substances were of a fundamentally different nature, and a special gland, the pineal gland, was necessary to connect mind and matter, in order to be able to explain how thought was able to form an adequate image of the material world.
Descartes dismissed without so much as a comment, Aristotle’s view of the soul as the form of a certain kind of body, a living body. Instead, Descartes unreflectively takes the soul as an entity, separable from the body, a substance in fact. He has no problem with the body as a kind of machine, since the soul is not a product or property of the body, the body simply being the material carrier of the soul.
The designation of mind as an entirely distinct substance is necessary in order to entirely dispose of empiricist conceptions of “reflection,” of the acquisition of ideas directly through the action of the senses. It is essential to Descartes that ideas are the product of the activity of reason, and thoughts are properties of the mind alone, as a distinct kind of substance.
Descartes was able for example, to calculate the trajectory of cannon balls using algebra, and he was, with some justice, convinced that no theory of “reflection” based on the action of the material world on the senses could explain this achievement, and held that an idea was something radically different from any material object or process.
The modern concept of subjectivity is hard to imagine without Descartes’ contribution. He is often blamed for dualism, but as we have seen, soul-matter dualism had been around for a long time. It is not the dualism which is new with Descartes but the specific form he gave to dualism and the concept of subjectivity which he elaborates on that basis. And we can use the word ‘subject’ here because subjectum was the term Descartes used for the individual cogito, the substance of thought. All ideas, representations and determinations were products of the action of thought and adhered to this subject, not to the material world, which was an entirely different substance and could not have thoughts as properties.
Descartes ‘proved’ the existence of God through a line of reasoning, albeit a pretty spurious reasoning, and once having established through Reason, the existence of God and that God was not a deceiver, he could then apply his Reason to any question at all. There is no recourse to revelation or faith here, nor any requirement that reason should arrive at the same conclusions as faith, as with the Scholastics. Thus, theology and philosophy, faith and reason, Church and State, split into two separate and mutually hostile forms of activity.
In fact, this was already the case; Descartes was only putting into a philosophical voice what was already taking place.
The emergence of modern society in early 17th century Europe was generating philosophical problems, and Scholastic dogmatism was acting as an unbearable constraint on the new forms of work and the resolution of the philosophical problems it was generating. “Cartesian dualism” was not Descartes’ creation; the mind-body problem emerged in bourgeois society before Descartes theorised it. Descartes transformed a dualism of soul and body (in which the soul was the business of the Church) into a mind-body problem, in which the mind was the business of a class of theorists, theorists who were willing to dismiss out of hand the whole way things had been done in the past and start afresh.
Descartes’ contemporaries, in Britain particularly, the Empiricists, were attempting to deal with the problem of consciousness, in the spirit of the new natural science, by regarding the human body as a material system interacting with other material systems in their environment, with consciousness as nothing other than an effect of that interaction. Bacon, Hobbes and Locke moved the boundary between the material world and consciousness back; consciousness was not consciousness of a material world, but of sensations, which were caused by the impact of the outside material world on the sense organs.
This did not solve the problem of consciousness, but only pushed it back “behind” sensation, so to speak, and what is more, led eventually to hopeless contradictions. The basic truth recognised by Aristotle that we sense, not the stimulation of the sense organs, but things outside the mind, remained. Equally, having the sense organs generate “thoughts,” still left unanswered the question of who it is that observes and experiences these thoughts (feelings, images, concepts). Thus the empiricists only avoided and postponed the problem of subjectivity, and did not solve it. They attempted, but failed to do away with subjectivity as a concept.
But the empiricists shared with Descartes the conception of the cognising agent as located in a human individual. Descartes introduced the term “subject” to denote this cognising agent, and it is to Descartes’ credit that he saw that the subject could not be understood as simply one material system interacting with other material systems, but was a distinct subjectum, in which all action and representation inhered.
It was the “individualism” of civil society, though merely embryonic by today’s standards, which gave modernity it’s particular character. Human society had always been made up of individuals, but these individuals had never seen themselves as cognitive agents, as original sources of knowledge and authority. Thus in coining the use of the term “subject” to mean the individual cognising agent, the “cogito” of cogito ergo sum, Descartes expressed the new spirit of individual freedom emerging in Renaissance Europe. Henceforth, in philosophical usage, the term “subject” would mean specifically the individual knowing human agent.
Note: The grammatical meaning of ‘subject’, as the subject of predicates, entered English usage in the early 17th century, at first still understood more as a logical relation than an ontological or grammatical one. In its logical/grammatical usage, the subject was already, not just the sufferer of attributes, but also potentially the do-er of the verb, and therefore potentially conceivable as the active side of the subject-object relation. However, this usage of the word, as cogito, remained confined to philosophical usage until the 19th century.
Niccolo Machiavelli (1439-1527) is surely the most outstanding voice of Renaissance subjectivity, but in so many respects Machiavelli more modern than the heretics of his time, and yet closer in many ways to Aristotle.
Machiavelli expressed the subjectivity of the city-states of the Italian peninsula whose form of life more resembled that of the ancient Greek polis, but with 2,000 years of European history behind them, and it is these cities, whether republics or principalities, that were the engine rooms of modernity.
It is clear that as for Aristotle, for Machiavelli, the good life for citizens of the state is the ultimate good, and this is the essence of his doctrine of virtue and justice. There is no higher good; certainly the rottenness of the Church of Rome had brought Christianity into disrepute, but there is no hint of heretical or Protestant theology in Machiavelli. Religion is at best an instrument for improving social cohesion.
Like Descartes, Machiavelli relies explicitly on constructivist metaphors and Descartes would agree with him when he says:
“as a general rule, ... it never or rarely happens that a republic or monarchy is well constituted, or its old institutions entirely reformed, unless it is done by only one individual; it is even necessary that he whose mind has conceived such a constitution should be alone in carrying it into effect. ...
“... although one man alone should organize a government, yet it will not endure long if the administration of it remains on the shoulders of a single individual; it is well, then, to confide this to the charge of many, for thus it will be sustained by the many. Therefore, as the organization of anything cannot be made by many, because the divergence of their opinions hinders them from agreeing as to what is best, yet, when once they do understand it, they will not readily agree to abandon it.” [Machiavelli, Discourses on Titus Livius, First Book, Chapter IX]
The centrality of the prince in Machiavelli’s writing implies that the relation between the individual and universal is different than with Aristotle; whereas for Aristotle, the individual was definitively a subordinate moment in the hierarchy of being below the polis, for Machiavelli, the individual and the universal are brought somewhat into equality, even identity. Although the city-state is the subject, it is contingent, and in order to be secure, it must also have personality. His world is populated not only by Venetians and Florentines, but also by Medicis, Sforzas and Borgias.
Machiavelli is not a philosopher and does not do us the service of spelling out in universal terms, his concept of subject, but we can sketch an outline of it on the basis of what he says about politics.
There are three components of subjectivity. (1) Human beings are natural, material beings, and “all men are bad and ever ready to display their vicious nature, whenever they may find occasion for it” and as is made abundantly clear, human behaviour is predictable, malleable and subject to natural law. (2) There is the state; the state is an entity distinct from any of the human matter of which it is ultimately composed and constitutes the highest good for human beings. (3) There is the prince, or more precisely, the ideal prince. A prince is a person, made of the same stuff as any person, who could be and ought to be the creator or leader of a state. A prince is not necessarily a hero, and may on the contrary turn out to be base and detestable, but he ought to be and may become a true prince, and it is that true prince which constitutes the ideal and the personification of the good of the state. A state that is well constituted offers the opportunity for any of its citizens to acquire the attributes of its founder or prince, whose personality is immortalised in the achievements of the state and the virtues of its citizens.
Like Aristotle, Machiavelli sees in the past a “Pantheon of godlike figures” (to use Hegel’s phrase) in contrast to Descartes, for whom the past contains only “the professions of alchemists, predictions of astrologers, impostures of magicians, or artifices and boasting of any of those who profess to know things of which they are ignorant.” [Discourse on Method]
But Machiavelli agrees with Descartes that the truth is something that is constructed by a person, a conception which is to be found neither in antiquity nor in the thinking of any of the earlier thinkers of the Renaissance. Hegel expressed this same idea:
“It is the absolute right of the Idea to step into existence in clear-cut laws and objective institutions, ... whether this right be actualised in the form of divine legislation and favour, or in the form of force and wrong. This right is the right of heroes to found states.” [Philosophy of Right, ž350]
Machiavelli wrote only shortly after the invention of the printing press, and he was one of the very first to write for a mass audience. Although his works are formally addressed to princes, their real audience are the citizens of a democratic republic, and by implication he invited not only princes but also citizens to understand that reality was something constructed by free persons, not given by God or the Pope.