Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.02.48 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.02.48

Edward T. Jeremiah, The Emergence of Reflexivity in Greek Language and Thought: From Homer to Plato and Beyond. Philosophia antiqua, 129.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2012.  Pp. xvi, 300.  ISBN 9789004221956.  $151.00.  

Reviewed by Christopher Moore, Penn State University (


I enjoyed myself heartily reading this book about the evolving grammatical objects for self-directed actions. The author asks himself: whence arose the Greek reflexive pronouns? After all, PIE already had the middle reflexive, perfectly suited for commonly self-directed actions, such as washing. He answers himself: it came from a pattern of identifying surprisingly co-referential pronouns with the intensifier αὐτός, and having that mark eventually stick. It would be common to note that I knew some guy, and common as well to note that I knew how many sheep I had, but it would be rather less common to note that I was trying, just the other day, to know me. Not my thumos in particular, or my psyche, or my phrên: just plain old simple me. Indeed, this unfamiliar object of knowledge—the same as the “I” doing the knowing—might slip by unheard unless I appended, as a confirming “[sic],” an αὐτόν, a “-self.” With post-Homeric social and political change toward independence, privatization, and self-policing, people had increasing occasion to think about or act on themselves as unified agents, owners, and consciences. As they talked more frequently about themselves as “themselves,” Greek grammar codified this system of reflexivity. By the early fifth century a Greek could say that people in general should try to know themselves (γινώσκειν ἑωυτούς, Heracl. fr. 116 DK).

This grammaticization had pros and cons for philosophically-minded Greek speakers. On the upside, Greek speakers gained new ways to think about humanity. In the process of encoding the grammatical U-turn, Greek posited the person as a transcendental subject. Each of us is, or ought to consider ourselves to be, a “self” (ὁ αὐτός, the word nominalizing the reflexive used first in Aristotle and the Platonic Alcibiades I): not mere agglomerations of psychic organs, body parts, and tendencies; not even a subject-independent ψυχή; but a unity to be discovered, accounted for, and perfected. On the downside, Greek speakers had to face up to some new paradoxes. How can the active agent, the doer, and the passive recipient, the one which is done to, coincide? Can I be a single “me” simply by saying so, by interpellating myself? Does unification cause someone (me?) to be responsible for everything done under the aegis of the “I”?

Jeremiah believes that social changes caused language changes. He acknowledges, however, that the causal force might in fact have gone in the other direction. Getting this clear, he says, would require a cross-cultural survey. Indeed, it is hard to see how a history of Greek consciousness could give a precise account of causal direction, given the obvious feedback effects between new ways of talking and new social arrangements. Actually, Jeremiah appears only secondarily committed to his functionalist linguistics, the thesis that the way people actively use their language explains the way their language develops. His book has a broader hypothesis: there is a history of subjectivity; our attitudes have changed, over generations, about what sort of thing each of us is; and this development manifests itself in our common grammatical structures. Jeremiah wants to recuperate something of Snell’s idea that the Homeric hero thought about himself differently than the Athenian tragic hero did. Jeremiah does not want exactly to say that the archaic man had no sense of self; rather, according to Jeremiah, the archaic man lacked a purpose to refer often enough to an overall self in the surprising contexts (of cognition, control, monitoring, for example) in which later Greek used the heavily marked reflexive pronoun.

Jeremiah also wants to modify Christopher Gill’s claims about Greek ideas of the self. Gill distinguishes the “subjective-individualist” from the “objective-participant approach,” and judges the latter view—concerned with the public rationality at the heart of personal development—typical of the Classical philosophers. Jeremiah believes that he has shown that a burgeoning concern with interiorizing reflexivity means that the Greeks had, in fact, an underappreciated strand of the “subjective-individualist” attitude. But this belief needs to be tempered by an appreciation of the task to which philosophers put reflection and reflexivity. In the case of Socrates and Plato, as much as for Aristotle and Kant, talk of the ‘self’ as a direct object of one’s cognitive attitudes allowed and even urged appraisal of one’s reasons for action as much as it provided a definition of one’s palintropic nature. In other words, reflexivity and unification of the “self” may have had as much an outward-directed as an inward-directed force.

The remainder of this review identifies the main research topics of The Emergence of Reflexivity. It is worth pausing, however, to announce the book’s considerable formal successes. Jeremiah writes with a powerful, appealing, and rich prose-style. He discusses practically every interesting use of the reflexive through Plato (minus the historians and orators), supplying the reader with endless texts for analysis. He presents a wide range of disciplines—comparative and historical linguistics, moral psychology, contemporary philosophy, Greek philology—in a lucid and informative way. He has a knack for clear signposting, repeating his thesis in its full form in the Abstract, the Introduction, and the Conclusion, as well as in partial forms throughout the book. In summary, for its sensitivity to the historically-bound phenomenon of self-reference, its judicious selection of apposite texts, and enlivening discussion of canonical philosophical questions in a sharply informed communicative and cultural context, I anticipate returning often to this book (when, of course, not returning, as I ought, to myself!).

The “Introduction” (1-10) starts helpfully by setting out the close correspondence between Greek αὐτός and English “self.” We need not fret about translating too anachronistically. Both terms apparently developed in similar ways. It does leave one to wonder whether the modernity of ancient Greeks with robust reflexivity prefigures, or enables, or merely mirrors, the supposed modernity of our past several centuries. Fortunately, Jeremiah does not over-worry this theme. He states his main goal: to connect philosophy and grammar, through attention to the “reflexive meme,” against the background development of the Greek’s concrete ethical situation. He also states his main hypothesis: “a large shift in reflexive strategy will correlate with a shift in the idea of self.”

Chapter 1, “Thought and Language” (11-41), elaborates on Jeremiah’s neo-Snellian approach. The self is constructed through the use of reflexive cognitive attitudes. Jeremiah could have paid more attention to the details of those cognitive attitudes themselves. One wonders how much the attitude itself specifies its object, even if the object is not a reflexive one:

I know you
I recognize you
I think about you
I theorize about you

The cognitive attitude the speaker cites seems itself to modify, or construct, or at least constrain, the meaning of the “you.” Presumably this meaning could come to influence how the addressee thinks about himself or herself, irrespective of any use of the reflexive. Even within a single cognitive attitude, there are various sorts of thing that can be, for example, known.

I know you
I know your character
I know about you
I know who you really are

Thoughts about, and perhaps eventually the constitution of, personhood seems not to depend solely on reflexivity, but instead on our joint understanding of the kinds of things one might know, or think, or have some other epistemic, emotional, or social attitude about. None of this, to be sure, tells against the importance of thinking about reflexivity itself. “Greeks themselves are, by expanding their use of the pronominal reflexive, exploring new concepts of unexpected, emphatic reflexivity that also, in certain contexts, generate complex models of self-relation and express a subject marked by increased reflexive agency.”

Chapter 2, on Homer (43-66), provides a lens into a period before complex reflexives. The reflexive is a special case of emphasis. Autos is an exclusionary intensifier for external differentiation. It also delimits, for example, human agency from that for which the gods are partially responsible. Homer, in his relatively few uses of reflexives, uses them to pick out the body, not a unified self designated by ψυχή; at most he names a particular psychic organ as the verb’s proper object. I wonder how the development of autos and psuchê maps onto that of φίλος, another self-oriented word with a provocatively confusing history.

Chapter 3, “Early Lyric, Iambus and Elegy” (67-82), focuses on the period that “must have been the crucible for the complex reflexive.” Here, Jeremiah finds the first use of a reflexive pronoun referring to oneself “psychologically.” He translates Sappho’s fr. 26 LP: ἔμ᾽ αὔτᾳ τοῦτ᾽ ἔγων σύνοιδα as: “I know this with myself” or “I am conscious of this.” (Ch. 5, “Conscience and the reflexivisation of σύνοιδα” [127-137], is an excursus on Sappho’s idea of “knowing with oneself,” and thereby on the internal structure of a person who can play witness to her own attitudes and actions. One of the interpretative puzzles concerns the split between an ethical sense of “potential self- reproach” and a phenomenological sense of “self-awareness.”)

With Chapter 4, “The Presocratics” (83-125), Jeremiah enters philosophical terrain. Heraclitus represents the soul as intrinsically reflexive. Parmenides and Anaxagoras develop a new language for ontology: the being that is “in-itself.” Antiphon the Sophist thematizes the concept of self-maintenance and self-advantage. Democritus grounds moral obligations in shame before one’s inalienable self. Physicists and metaphysicians begin to theorize the self-moving or self-sufficient archê. Retrojected into this period are the reflexive-rife Sayings of the Seven Sages. A sensible three pages on the Delphic injunction to “know oneself” are weakened slightly by its reliance on Eliza Wilkins’ claim that the γνῶθι σαυτόν first meant “know your measure”; her evidence came largely from fourth- century sources and selective use of late-fifth century tragedy. Without that anachronism Jeremiah would not have been forced to claim that “Plato appears to radically reinterpret the dictum as know your soul”; it is possible that Heraclitus, and other contemporaries or even predecessors, could have initiated that reading (as Jeremiah even admits later in his analysis). Throughout this chapter Jeremiah aims to provide socio-economic background consistent with atomization of the population. A valuable comparison would have been with Richard Seaford’s Money and the Early Greek Mind, which treats a most ubiquitous experience—buying, earning, and saving— as a key source for abstracting one’s labor and effects, and thus oneself, from the world of the concrete particular. From this perspective, fungibility as much as reflexivity does the existential work.

Chapter 5, as already mentioned, discusses conscience. Chapter 6, “Tragedy and Comedy” (139-193), exceedingly rich in theme and example, has nevertheless a primary direction: both tragedians and comedians of the fifth century deployed the dramatic potential of self-reflexivity, usually to show the risks and consequences that such inner awareness and responsibility cause. Blame no longer rests only with others, gods, or fate; aesthetically-appealing narrative effects come from characters discovering and struggling with blame inside themselves.

The seventh chapter, on Plato (195-260), is in effect a study of the pervasiveness of reflexivity in the dialogues. Plato fans may love the fresh and synoptic approach, seeing metaphysical, ethical, dialogical, and psychological issues in a common frame; or they may find a little too much going on at once. I think I am in the first group. Anyway, Aristotle’s claim that for Socrates, the Delphic “know yourself” thrust him into all his puzzles and searches, does seem vindicated here.

The conclusion (261-268) observes provocatively that in Greek philosophy reflexive things get the highest ontological or value position: the self-justifying good, the self-affirming hypothesis, the in-itself in ontology, and self-knowledge/self-care/autonomy/doing the things of oneself

This book has been excellently edited and produced, and ends with a robust bibliography, index locorum, and subject and name index.

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