book review

The Roots of European Subjectivity

How did the "I" of common discourse, as it flourished on European soil, come to think of itself as a "subject", complete with an autonomous sphere, and even more as the substance par excellence, more knowable than any other and without which the existence of the world would not itself be knowable?

"It’s Descartes’ fault" would say Kant and Hegel. But the question is more complex than that; even Descartes himself did not talk about a "subject". To trace this obscure family tree, the researchers brought together by Olivier Boulnois in this book take up the story at the beginning, with Saint-Anselm of Canterbury in the 11th century and the philosophical world he inhabited composed of Greek concepts (essence, substance, accidens) reworked in Latin by the likes of Boetius and Saint Augustine.

The first surprise encountered by a reader of Saint Anselm (father of the so-called ontological proof of the existence of God) is that the subject does not exist. The I is clearly a substance (as are all individuals and not simply God) but conceptually resembles an essence rather than being simply a substrate on which are grafted accidents (Aristotle’s non-essential properties). In this way the subject as a set of properties is meaningless, explains Kristell Trego, in the face of the primacy of word and of action in determining what is this entity that is acting and thinking. The I is an intellectual construct which brings qualities or properties together rather than a framework to which they are attached. Will and thought are therefore as external to us as are our actions, and the "subject" that unites all of this is for the most part indeterminate. Even in the ethical realm this subject does not gain any consistence (as opposed to what Kant tried to establish); since it has no direct relation to the will it has no more control over it than it does over external acts. This conception can be can be traced back to the ancient Greek predilection for a fundamentally passive notion of the I.

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This inherited passivity finally recedes in the face of the scholastic debates around Averroes’ agent intellect and especially the (isolated and initially dead-end) discovery of the subjective experience as that which individualizes the agent intellect, by the Franciscan Pierre de Jean Olivi. Dietrich of Freiberg, a Dominican scholar, deepened this investigation by thinking of the (individual) agent intellect as an active substance of which a possible intellect is one of the accidents. This advance opened the way for a subjectivity conceived as ipseity or individual selfhood, the "selfness" of I, which can be seen as the original self-awareness or self-givenness of the subject, an active spontaneous representation of the subject to itself, pre-reflective, independent of any structure or representation. Here the status of subject-substrate has been definitively left behind. In the light of the thought of Dietrich, the German Dominican, Descartes’ intuition on the Cogito seems a little less ground-breaking, and his use of the notion of substance to designate the Ego of the cogito appears more coherent than as a reference directly back to the old aristotelian sense of the term.

These are just a few examples of the many fascinating developments this book recounts in Medieval and Renaissance thinking on the problems of self-awareness, self-knowledge, the evidence of "I think", on the relation between subjective experience and the divine principle (the mysticism of Meister Eckart), or on the notion of certainty.

As measured by these discoveries the Cartesian revolution could appear less remarkable, but that would simply be the result of the optical illusion produced by any investigation of the sources of ideas. A rereading of the Metaphysical Meditations in all their startling limpidity is enough to dispel any doubts about the grandeur of Descartes’ accomplishment and to be reminded of the grateful, enthusiastic nearly stupefied response with which the public received this work (for example the eloquent witness by Malebranche). Olivier Boulnois’ exploration of the birth of the modern subject ought to be taken as a tool for avoiding confusion on the meaning of terms employed by Descartes and not as an effort to diminish his genius.

Christophe Colera is the author of Individualité et subjectivité chez Nietzsche (2004).

English version by Timothy Carlson


July/August/September 08