Subjectification and Objectification

As I have mentioned, an essay of mine has appeared in a remarkably interesting volume on the philosophy and theology of the soul. The best essay in the collection is, however, probably not mine, but rather William Desmond’s “Soul Music and Soul-less Selving.” Not that I agree with everything that Desmond says, but his piece is strange, subtle, wonderful, and productive of thought somewhat in the manner of a Platonic dialogue.

One question that Desmond raises has to do with Cartesian dualism: What comes first in the Cartesian rejection of a hylomorphic understanding of the soul: subjectification or objectification? He takes the one of the driving forces behind modern philosophy to be a certain impatience with indeterminacy and equivocity:

[I]f the soul has lost its meaning for many (Cavell speaks of “soul-blindness”), there are diverse factors involved in this. I think that certainly attention must be paid to the ambition to univocally determine all being that has expanded in modernity into a project claiming to be on a par with the whole. I want to suggest that there is more to soul than can be made the object of such univocal determination. […] Moreover, the project of determination passes seamlessly with a project of self-determination, and hence the huge presence of the language of self coexists with a view where there is nothing so absent as self. (pp. 354-355)

This would seem to put objectification first, but then Desmond swings back the other way:

Relative to the project of determination and determinability: I am thinking of the objectification of being, wherein all that is is determined to be an object of scientific investigation and possible technological exploitation. The qualitative textures of things do not count in this project of universal quantification, this mathesis universalis. Of course, if things are massively objectified, this goes with the huge subjectification of the human being, the self as it will come to be known. Which comes first: the subjectification or the objectification? Since objectification is a project of the subject, there is a sense in which the subjectification is prior, even though this may not appear so at the outset. We make things objective, but changes in ourselves then set in motion other changes, not only to things other to us, but also in how we relate to ourselves, how we understand ourselves. One of these changes has to do with the de-souling of nature as other to us (following the objectification), and with this the creeping soul-lessness of the ensuing self (following the subjectification). (p.355)

Certainly, it “does not appear so” the great success and prestige of the modern intellectual project certainly has to do with the power that comes from the objectification of nature in the “new science” that Bacon wanted, but that Descartes was actually able to begin. Nevertheless, in Descartes himself it is not so easy to see what comes first. Desmond goes on to speak more particularly of Descartes:

res cogitans is then identified with spiritual substance, set off by an ontological gulf from the res extensa, the neutral wax-like stuff of the world around us. The term “res” carries the objectification: “thing,” but with the implication of a determinability that fixes itself and nothing but itself. I mean this not only as an objectification and determination but also as a certain univocalization. It is as a consequence of univocal determin- ability that we find ourselves fixed in dualism; for to be the one thing it is, the res must incontrovertibly be not the other things, and between the one and the other there opens a gulf of difference, in the end not intermediated or open to intermediation. The res extensa seems to open up the vista of objectified neutralized thereness; and it seems also to define by necessary complement the res cogitans, the subjectivity for whom or for which this neutralized other is there at all. But this subjectivity itself undergoes a reification in being determined as thinking thing. It is in this determination, identified with the soul, that the soul begins to be lost.

Desmond’s account reminds me of the illuminating comparison that Maritain makes between the way Descartes thinks that human thought works and the way angelic thought actually works in Three Reformers:

It remains— and this is what concerns us— that the Cartesian ideas come from God, like angelic ideas, not from objects. Thus the human soul is not only subsistent as the ancients taught, causing the body to exist with its own existence; it has, without the body, received direct from God all the operative perfection which can befit it. There is the destruction of the very reason of its union with the body, or rather, there is its inversion. For if the body and the senses are not the necessary means of the acquisition of its ideas for that soul, and consequently the instrument by which it rises to its own perfection, which is the life of the intelligence and the contemplation of truth, then, as the body must be for the soul and not the soul for the body, the body and senses can be there for nothing but to provide the soul— which needs only itself and God in order to think,— with means for the practical subjugation of the earth and all material nature, and this reduces the soul’s good to the domination of the physical universe. This universe, the whole of which has not the value of one spirit, will make it pay dear for this deordination. This angel is iron-gloved, and extends its sovereign action over the corporeal world by the innumerable arms of Machinery! Poor angel turning the grindstone, enslaved to the law of matter, and soon fainting under the terrible wheels of the elemental machine which has got out of order. (pp. 63-63)

3 thoughts on “Subjectification and Objectification

  1. Three Books: Lonergan’s Insight, Przywara’s Analogia Entis, and Gilson’s Thomist Realism (there is also an interesting review in an old Thomist quarterly which discusses the first of these in relation to the last).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Dear Pater Edmund,

    I am indebted to you once again, for this present entry to your weblog, and your referrals to The Resounding Soul, as well as Maritain’s Three Reformers Alas, given my present pecuniary situation, I will have for the time being to forgo the pleasures of the first, or to purchase the second (although I am grateful to you for providing me with its text in a form which, while irksome, is at least both legible and freely available).

    At present, I am undertaking a self-tuition of, among other matters, theology and philosophy; in short, I am taking my first, feeble steps on a path which you have long since traversed. Thus, I dare say that you will look upon any questions on my part with the patient indulgence of an adult towards a backward toddler. Nonetheless, I must ask the following:

    Is perhaps one difficulty of modern philosophy its tendency, after Descartes, to view the human being as a dichotomy of body and soul, rather than the ancient biblical, patristic, and philosophical view that human beings are a tri-unity of body, soul, and spirit? Just askin’.

    And, wishing you the best on this Feast of the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple, I am

    Very truly yours,

    Bernard Brandt


    • Interesting question about a tripartite anthropology that distinguishes between spirit and soul. Henri de Lubac was certainly of your opinion, but I don’t actually find his argument convincing. As so often with de Lubac, I think that he makes things more complicated than they really are.


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