Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

The Development, Logic, and Legacy of Reflexive Concepts in Greek Philosophy

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

The Development, Logic, and Legacy of Reflexive Concepts in Greek Philosophy

Article excerpt


Ever since the ancient theorization of soul as a self-mover,1 reflexive concepts and philosophy have shared a history of intimacy. In many ways, this seminal relationship has only deepened with time. The following passage from Nancy's The Creation of the World exemplifies its scope in contemporary thought. Here philosophy itself receives a rich reflexive characterization:

. . . philosophy unveils the problematic order of an autoconstitution that must appropriate itself (that is to say, auto-constitute itself) through the mediation of its own temporal and genealogical difference along which the auto- alters itself primordially as much as it identifies itself.2

Such language is especially popular in the continental tradition, and no more so than in the various incarnations of idealism. Hegel's Absolute Spirit, for example, exhibits a convoluted reflexivity which has been influenced by the Eleatic and Platonic conception of the divine:

It [Absolute Spirit] is the inner being of the world, that which essentially is, and is per se; it assumes objective, determinate form, and enters into relations with itself-it is externality (otherness), and exists for self; yet, in this determination, and in its otherness, it is still one with itself-it is self-contained and self-complete, in itself and for itself at once.3

The question I wish to consider in this essay is the origin of this way of speaking. When and for what purposes does reflexive language enter the philosophical lexicon and become a key component of its discourse, and why do philosophers lean so heavily on reflexive concepts?4 My argument will limit itself to literal reflexive concepts, in other words concepts articulated via the use of reflexive pronouns, and proposes that the formation of reflexive ideas is primarily shaped by two philosophical goals: firstly, the attempt to think totalities, and secondly, the search for foundational principles, whether they be ontological, epistemological, or ethical. Reflexivity appears to be a general structural tendency of foundational principles and totalities. If this is true, then it can be shown that some of the contemporary philosophical systems which claim to either deconstruct or replace the hierarchies of traditional metaphysics do so mostly in a superficial sense.5 The essential skeleton of ancient thought is conserved, and with it the conceptual magnetism foundational ideas display for reflexivity. This argument highlights a crucial continuity between ancient and modern philosophy, while at the same time locating an important difference. Though reflexivity is important for both as a primary ontological process, ancient philosophy treasures self-identification, but modern philosophy self-differentiation, as the foremost operation of being. Finally, I suggest that the reflexivity of philosophical "beginnings" (archai) reflects the human being as a reflexive subject.

Against the two more modern examples with which I began let me posit the following well-known passage from Plato's Phaedo, which sets an ancient, even archetypal precedent for this type of reflexive talk. Here Socrates depicts philosophy as that which teaches and encourages the soul to withdraw from the corporeal, "to collect and gather itself to itself, and trust nothing other than itself and whatever entity, itself in relation to itself, it thinks itself in relation to itself."6 The multiplication and layering of reflexive ideas is as conspicuous in this passage as it was in the examples from Nancy and Hegel. Envisaged is a self-involved soul whose proper objects of thought are self-relating entities or things-in-themselves. This vision initiates what will in time become the definitive connection between the subject and reflex - ivity that determines the way in which we think about the subject today.


Plato's exploitation of the Greek phrase auto kath' auto, a combination of the Greek intensive pronoun auto ("itself") and the reflexive prepositional phrase kath' auto ("by/in itself") marks the emergence of the ontological category of the thing-in-itself in intellectual history, and is one of the first technical reflexive concepts to establish itself as a core element of philosophical discourse. …

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