The Sovereignty of the Subject

Theological and Political Trajectories

Francis Oakley begins his essay “Christian Theology and the Newtonian Science” (1961) by situating himself between the poles of the Greek and the Renaissance “approaches to nature,” of which R. G. Collingwood had written in 1945 (54). This situation places Oakley and his readers in the space between a “view of nature as an intelligent organism,” and a view of nature as a “machine,” and it will be Oakley’s task therein to demonstrate how it is that this “change in philosophical approach” is what “made possible the development of the classical or Newtonian physical science” (54-55). Through a survey of the historical players and their thought, Oakley determines that the explosion of voluntarist theology after the condemnations of 1277 is chiefly responsible for this change. However, his emphasis on the theological neglects a prior historico-material basis that, upon consideration, will provide us with a critical vantage for discussing the political implications of such a theology (and its collapse).

The locus of this “development” is a shift in “theor[ies] of law,” a movement from an “immanent” principle of nature to an “imposed” one (57-58). The first theory is that of the Greeks, wherein the “material world” is “impregnated with reason”; the second is that of “Jewish monotheism,” wherein an all-powerful God orders the world from without (58). Citing Alfred North Whitehead, Oakley argues that these two theories were fused in Christian thought in a “somewhat uneasy compromise” that “is evident,” for instance, “in Aquinas” (59). For Aquinas, God is “omnipotent and transcendent,” but the “eternal law” is “immanent in the universe” (59). This theoretical compromise “continued to flourish in the seventeenth century ... but it did not recommend itself to the scientific virtuosi,” as seen in the thought of Descartes and Newton (59). Citing two key studies on the subject, the first by Edgar Zilsel (1942) and the second by Joseph Needham (1950), Oakley finds that neither presents a satisfactory explanation for why, in the seventeenth century, this widely accepted theological position fell out of favour. Zilsel provides a primarily political explanation, and Needham ruminates on the sociocultural dimension of the matter, but neither, according to Oakley, starts with the right question: “why, after so many centuries of almost total submersion in Greek ideas of immanent law, did the Semitic concept of imposed laws of nature burst into prominence in seventeenth century scientific thought?” (61). The failure of Zilsel and Needham to respond to this particular question is a “damaging imprecision” (61). Their “sociological approach” is not fitted for the task (61).

Descartes, Oakley argues, was “drawing on a theological rather than a political tradition” (61). It is this theological tradition, then, that requires attention, a tradition which “developed” from “the late thirteenth century onwards,” the tradition of “voluntarist natural law thinking” (62). Oakley sets about providing a “rough sketch,” starting with the condemnations of 1277. The “metaphysical necessitarianism of Aristotle and his Arabic commentators” was deemed to “endanger[] the freedom and omnipotence of the Semitic and Christian God” (62-63). Aquinas’s “quasi-immanentism,” though “hedged around with cautious qualifications ... had not been cautions enough” (63). Any hint of immanentist natural law had to be expunged. Far earlier than the seventeenth century, then, a profound change in the concept of nature had begun.

Duns Scotus (1270-1308) would emphasize the “divine will,” and William of Ockham (1287-1347) would put forward an “ethical voluntarism” that “ground[ed] natural law, and, indeed, all ethical values, on the will of God” (63, 64). This view was taken up by the nominalist philosophers Pierre d’Ailly (1350-1420), Jean Gerson (1361-1429), Robert Holcot (d. 1349), Gabriel Biel (d. 1495), Jacob Almain (d. 1515), John Major (d. 1540), and Alphonse de Castro (d. 1558) (64-65). Oakley points next to Francisco Suárez (1548-1617) who “cited all of them as supporters of the voluntarist theory,” and who was in turn influenced by them (65). Martin Luther (1483-1546) was “well acquainted with the works of d’Ailly and Biel,” and the reformers who followed him, Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531), Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560), and John Calvin (1509-1564), were either directly influenced by voluntarist theology (Zwingli and Melanchthon), or manifested voluntarist tendencies despite no direct voluntarist influence (Calvin) (65, 73). The Puritans Dudley Fenner (1558?-87), John Preston (1587-1628), Williams Ames (1576-1633), John Norton (1606-1663), and Samuel Willard (1640-1707) would all employ the language of voluntarism, as well as Anglican theologian Robert Sanderson (1587-1663), and Cambridge Platonist Nathaniel Culverwell (ca. 1615-ca. 1651) (66, 67, 74). The French theologian Edmond Richer (1559-1631), Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), German jurist Samuel von Pufendorf (1631-94), the philosophers Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and John Locke (1632-1704), the botanist Nehemiah Grew (1641-1712), and English jurist William Blackstone (1723-1780), all show the influence of voluntarist theology in their work (66-67). Even Nicolas Malebranche’s (1638-1715) occasionalist philosophy bears a striking resemblance to Ockham’s voluntarism (71). Descartes (1596-1650), then, is situated in the thick of a historical period overwhelmingly shaped by this theology.

The citing of this incredible roll call should serve to demonstrate two key points: just how profound and far-reaching the condemnations of 1277 and “post-1277 theology” would be on the intellectual landscape of Europe (68), and Descartes’s optimal historical position to develop philosophically the implications of such a historical moment and its attendant theology. Following this “sketch,” Oakley concludes that there is sufficient evidence to assert that the “remarkable coincidence between the views of fourteenth-century theologians and seventeenth-century scientists” demonstrates that they “were linked by an enduring theological tradition,” the “voluntarist conception of the natural law” (73). Oakley continues to claim that it would be this conception that Descartes, Robert Boyle (1627-1691), and Isaac Newton (1642-1726) would make “a commonplace of scientific thinking” (75). The mechanistic philosophy of the seventeenth century developed out of the voluntarist theology of the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries, which in turn developed out of its “nominalist origin” in the thirteenth century (76). Thus, in answer to his own question, Oakley concludes that the “prime mover in this process of adjustment” from the immanent to the imposed theory of natural law “was the renewed and disturbing pressure upon Greek modes of thought of the Semitic idea of an omnipotent Creator-God” (83). Descartes exemplifies this “adjustment.”

But before we, with Oakley, dismiss the “sociological” out of hand, we would be well served to consider some more recent scholarship, specifically in the domain of the political. In his essay “Citizen Subject” (2016) (first published in Jean-Luc Nancy’s Who Comes After the Subject? (1991), and reprinted in the introduction to his full-length work of the same name), Étienne Balibar delves into the modern heritage of the “subject” and the implications of this figure for political thought. Following Heidegger’s claim that Descartes is “the moment when the “sovereignty of the subject” is established (in philosophy), inaugurating the discourse of modernity,” Balibar proceeds to critique and nuance this position (1). Heidegger holds that in Descartes the subject is the “subjectum,” identified with that “which in Greek is called the hypokeimenon”—metaphysical substance (that which lies beneath) (1). This fusion of subject and substance has the “correlative effect of identifying, for all modern philosophy ... the foundation of being with the being of the subject of thought” (1). But this is a Heideggerian reading of Descartes, one that Balibar will show to be not entirely accurate.

As Balibar carefully demonstrates, Descartes “does not name the thinking substance or ‘thinking thing’ ‘subject’” (1). Rather, Descartes is concerned with “the ‘third substance’ constitutive of individuality,” which “allows the entire set of causal relations between (infinite) God and (finite) things, between ideas and bodies, between my soul and my (own) body, to be thought” (4). Substance, for Descartes, is “primarily a relational concept,” and is in no way “univocal” (4). It is what allows for the “unity of opposites,” of “thought and extension,” of man and God, which, “being distinct, should have no relation” (4). The linchpin of this entire “nexus” of relations is the “principle of the eminent causality”: God—a point to which Oakley would lend his support (4). Because of God, these distinct substances can stand “in a causal relation among themselves,” all having “their eminent cause, or rather the eminence of their cause, in God” (4). This plainly recalls the voluntarism discussed above. But even here, the “thinking thing” remains “substantial,” and is not reduced to “subjectum” (4). Such is a Kantian slip on Heidegger’s part, following in “the ‘invention’ of the transcendental subject” that takes place in the Critique of Pure Reason, which is simultaneously a “projection,” “distortion,” and “interpretation of Cartesianism” (5). Though there is more to be said of Kant’s reading, and Balibar’s discussion of it, what is important to our discussion here is that, in Descartes, the subject is not the “subjectum” but the “subjectus,” an “individual or a person submitted to the exercise of a power, whose model is, first of all, political, and whose concept is juridical” (7). The prevalence of jurists in Oakley’s roll call above would seem to corroborate the significance of this point; in fact, he makes the point explicit: “the voluntarist conception of natural law ... was conceived both with a juristic and a scientific sense” (80, my emphasis).

What this entails, then, is a closer relationship between the political and the theological than Oakley might like to admit. Certainly, Zilsel’s attribution of theological voluntarism to the rise of absolutism in politics is not an accurate reading, but to say that students of Descartes can disregard the sociological or political aspect of his thought is a baseless assertion. As Balibar shows, the development of the notion of the subject occurred simultaneously in theological and political thought. In the realm of politics, stretching all the way back to pagan Rome (that is, prior to voluntarist theology), the subject was conceived of as “subditus,” one who submits in “obedience” to the “sublimis” (9). This “principle” of obedience is “identical to itself along the whole length of the hierarchical chain, and attached in the last instance to its transcendental origin,” the excellent or “chosen” one, “which makes those who obey into the members of a single body” (9). It is precisely this structure that Descartes reproduces in his metaphysics. But, problematically, though he employs many “differentiations” in his hierarchical unity, nothing therein “approaches the idea of a freedom residing in obedience itself, resulting from this obedience.” Rather, “[i]n order to conceive of this idea, obedience must be transferred to the side of the soul, and the soul must cease to be thought of as natural” (9). Otherwise, the classical distinction between subiditus and servus (the slave, who does not willingly obey but is coerced) collapses.

This transfer was undertaken by Kant in 1781, and it would be realized politically six years later, in the French Revolution, wherein the freedom of the subject as citizen was violently asserted (or perhaps reclaimed). But at this very moment, with the logical apotheosis of the historical, hierarchically determined subject into the transcendental, enlightened subject, the “metaphysical apparatus” was pierced at its origin, the gradation of substances which Descartes maintained folding into the transcendental subjectum (4). The sovereignty of the king, the sovereignty of God, was replaced with the sovereignty of the people, installing the subject as his own “eminent cause” (4). So, then, we see that the Roman political hierarchy, which would become the absolutist European nation-state, was ideally suited to a union with the post-1277 voluntarist theology of which Oakley writes, that this union was in fact made possible by the “uneasy compromise” between the Greek and Jewish traditions that Christianity had already struck prior to the condemnations of 1277, and that it would be this political basis, and its historical development, that would ultimately threaten the theology erected on top of it. We see the Roman political apparatus theologized with its translation into Roman Christianity, then ontologized in Descartes, and finally, re-politicized in the Revolutionary period. And this re-politicization, partially attributable to Kant’s radical interpretation of Descartes’s project, and partially to widespread dissatisfaction with the prevailing political system, led to the metaphysical collapse of the original juridical framework grounding the whole system. The linear hierarchy became a reflexive one, the transcendental subject as subjectum unifying in himself the dimensions of the juridical, epistemological, ontological, and theological. Finally, then, through this inter-reading of Oakley and Balibar, we see that, with the rise of scientific thought in accordance with a voluntarist mode, a political revolution was soon to follow that would obliterate the metaphysics of voluntarism at the basis of such a science. The implications of this revolution are still being worked out, and to neglect the entanglement of the political and the theological therein would be a failure to recognize the full complexity, and historical rootedness, of our current political, philosophical, and theological situation.

Works Cited

Balibar, Étienne. “Citizen Subject.” e-flux journal, no. 77, 2016, journal/77/77371/citizen-subject/. Accessed 14 Sep. 2017.

Oakley, Francis. “Christian Theology and the Newtonian Science: The Rise of the Concept of the Laws of Nature.” 1961.

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