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Marion Bourbon, Penser l’individu. Genèse stoïcienne de la subjectivité

Turnhout, Brepols, 2019 (Philosophie hellénistique et romaine IX), 424 p., ISBN 978-2-503-58443-0, E-ISBN 978-2-503-58444-7
Christopher Gill
p. 291-293
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Marion Bourbon, Penser l’individu : Genèse stoïcienne de la subjectivité, Turnhout, Brepols, 2019 (Philosophie hellénistique et romaine IX), 424 p., ISBN 978-2-503-58443-0, E-ISBN 978-2-503-58444-7.

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1This book has several very positive qualities; but its project raises certain important questions, which are not wholly addressed by the book itself. First, and most fundamentally: what is the subject? The title cites two notions: individuality and subjectivity, both of which are quite complex. The first idea, ‘individuality’, can denote ‘unique personal identity’ (as distinct from the identity of any other person); and Stoic versions of this idea play a prominent role at certain stages of this study. However, much of the book seems to have a broader, and rather different, concept in view, namely, ‘individuation humaine’, that is, the capacity or property that distinguishes human beings as such from other animals. Implicitly at least, this is a capacity belonging to human beings viewed as distinct entities or agents, rather than as members of groups or participants in relationships, though this point is not accentuated in the book. In fact, to judge from the main topics of discussion, this capacity is largely conceived as that of psychological agency, for decision, will and deliberate action. This capacity is closely linked with (though not exclusively defined by) subjectivity, understood in rather broad terms as self-reflexiveness, self-management, or self-relationship more generally. Thus, overall, the book’s subject is that of Stoic ideas on this complex of ideas, though presented as an account of ‘individu singulier qu’est le sujet humain’ (on the back cover and often elsewhere).

2A second question raised by the book is this. The ideas just noted, along with cognate ones such as ‘self’, ‘person’ (and their analogues in other languages) have figured prominently in modern European theory, with thinkers including Descartes, Kant, Nietzsche, Sartre, and Foucault, shaping the modern understanding of them. More recently, there has been active scholarly debate, involving, among others, Sorabji and myself, about how far these modern ideas have ancient equivalents. Bourbon refers, rather glancingly, to the modern history of these ideas and the scholarly debate about their relevance to antiquity. However, in general, she seems confident that these ideas can be applied, unproblematically, to Stoic thought, and, indeed that we can find there the ‘genesis’ of these ideas, though this last claim is not explained very fully, except by highlighting what she sees as the relevant Stoic ideas. I am less confident than she is on this point; but, in any case, I think the book would have benefited from fuller reflection on this question and its implications for critical interpretation of the evidence considered.

3How is the argument organised? The book is subdivided into four parts, of which the first two, I think, carry the main weight of her case. The first part is directed at the ‘physics’ of Stoic thinking on individuality. Certainly, the Stoic conception of nature and their general physicalism are significant for making sense of their psychology and their distinctive ideas in this area. However, the main focus here is on an idea, that of something being ‘uniquely’ or ‘distinctively’ qualified (idios poion), that figures in Stoic logical analysis of categories, rather than physics. Our evidence on this topic derives mainly from reports of a debate between Stoics and Academic sceptics about identity and growth, which turns on what it means to say that something is ‘the same’ as itself or other things. Bourbon refers, quite often, to this idea throughout the book, and cites the prevalence of this idea to support her general claim that individuality, in the sense of unique personal identity, plays a particularly prominent role in Stoic thought. However, as far as I can tell, this theme plays an important role only in the rather localised ancient debate about growth and sameness. It does not acquire the prominent place that ‘personal identity’ has sometimes done in modern Western philosophy, with theorists of different kinds taking up competing positions.

4The second part of the book, building on the first, argues that the Stoic concept of individuality is conceived in subjective terms. In maintaining this view, Bourbon focuses on the role of reflexive ideas (self-knowledge or self-perception) in the Stoic theory of development as ‘appropriation’ (oikeiosis). She also examines the idea of ‘assent’ to ‘impressions’ in Stoic psychology, presenting this notion as one which expresses the concept of the individual as a distinctively subjective agent. A further major theme is Epictetus’ usage (unusual in Stoic terms) of the notion of prohairesis. This too is taken as an indication of individual subjectivity; however, the dominant theme here is not so much self-awareness but that of a whole-hearted or unified response and the idea that one’s choices also imply choice of a way of life, and commitment to that life. In these senses, it is claimed, the Epictetan conception of prohairesis constitutes a subjective expression of individuality. In addition, the Stoic (including Epictetan) use of the idea of daimon is presented as compatible with a focus on individual subjectivity in the sense that the daimon bridges human and divine spheres and is attached to people as individuals.

5In the third part of the book, attention shifts to Stoic writings in Latin, especially Seneca, placed in the context of Roman thought more generally, particularly that of Cicero. However, the concepts explored, and the claims made, are similar to those in the second part. The key terms discussed are conscientia and voluntas. The main connotations underlined are (in the case of conscientia), self-awareness, inner (mental) space, and the treatment of another person as one’s mirror or reflection. In the case of voluntas, in Seneca, as with prohairesis in Epictetus, the stress falls on the idea of ‘willing’ as expressing whole-hearted commitment.

6In the fourth part, the topic is the significance of the terms persona and prosopa. Here, one might have expected a close study of the four-personae theory in Cicero, De Officiis Book 1, with special attention to the second (individual) persona (a topic briefly covered earlier in the book). However, Bourbon’s interest is broader, falling on the deployment of these terms in general, in Cicero, Seneca and Epictetus. Also, the ideas reviewed are those of role-playing (including internal role-playing) and the idea of the mind as an inner theatre. These features are seen as indications of subjectivity (awareness of oneself in various guises) and also of self-creation (making yourself play this or that role).

7How convincing, overall, is this study; I take the positive points first. The book brings together virtually all the evidence that is important for addressing the question of the relevance of the ideas of subjectivity and individuality to Stoic thought, as presented in Greek and Roman sources in different periods. It also discusses clearly and carefully the various topics that represent the strongest support for this project, including the idea of ‘uniquely qualified’ (idios poion), and terms for self-consciousness, willing and choosing, and roles. All the texts referred to are discussed lucidly, indeed elegantly, are well-documented, illustrated by French translations (with Greek and Latin as needed), and with up-to-date references especially to French and English scholarship. The layout and organisation are clear; the book is supported by a full bibliography and several indexes. The volume as a whole is attractively printed and its presentation reflects well on the author, series editors and publisher.

8My main reservations are those stated at the start of this review. The key terms (individuality, subjectivity) are complex or ambiguous in meaning. However, Bourbon never acknowledges this point, and seems to assume that they are unproblematically self-evident in their significance. Also, she cites, at different stages, divergent features as indicators of these ideas: she combines ideas about unique individuality with expressions of psychological agency that are characteristic of human beings as such. Ideas about psychological cohesion and unified (whole-hearted) ‘willing’ are coupled with ideas about internal division and complex mental role-playing. Broadly put, the book contains most of the themes one might associate with psychological agency in Stoic theory, but presented as being about ‘subjective individuality’.

9There is also the problem, highlighted earlier, that the key terms are modern ones, and, indeed, ones that have played an important role in modern European thought and are highly contested. Also, the question of their relevance to ancient, including Stoic, thought has been debated in previous scholarship. While not ignoring these points, she does not, on the other hand, incorporate an awareness of them into her analysis, although I think this could have enabled more acute critical reading of the texts. This point also has implications for her claim that Stoic psychology provided the context for the ‘genesis’ of the ideas of individuality and subjectivity – are the ancient and modern ideas really the same? Further, that claim is itself rather unexplored. What broader features of Stoicism (as distinct from other Hellenistic and Roman or earlier Greek thought) made this theory uniquely or especially suitable as the seedbed of these modern notions? And can such claims be adequately explained without at least some reference to the social and economic context of the philosophical ideas?

10In short, my reservations centre on broader conceptual questions raised by the project rather than the detailed discussion, taken in its own terms. However, I hope that the author will explore such questions in future work, using this comprehensive and well-organised study as a basis for further reflection.

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Christopher Gill, « Marion Bourbon, Penser l’individu. Genèse stoïcienne de la subjectivité »Philosophie antique, 21 | 2021, 291-293.

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Christopher Gill, « Marion Bourbon, Penser l’individu. Genèse stoïcienne de la subjectivité »Philosophie antique [En ligne], 21 | 2021, mis en ligne le 30 avril 2021, consulté le 16 juin 2024. URL : http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/philosant/4210 ; DOI : https://0-doi-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/10.4000/philosant.4210

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Christopher Gill

University of Exeter

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