2 Jan 2018

Bréhier (CBS) La théorie des incorporels dans l'ancien stoïcisme, Collected Brief Summaries

by Corry Shores

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[The following is summary. Bracketed commentary is my own. Proofreading is incomplete, which means typos are present. So consult the original text.]


Collected Brief Summaries of
Émile Bréhier
La théorie des incorporels dans l'ancien stoïcisme
The Stoics should be credited for bringing the notion of the “incorporeal” into currency in philosophical debates. Just before and after the Stoics, there were prominent philosophies that centralized reality in the intellectual and Ideal. The Stoics however thought reality was to be found primarily in corporeal bodies. But then they had to acknowledge the existence of non-corporeal entities, as for example the times and places in which bodies are found. To accommodate these exceptions, they invented the category of the “incorporeal”. We should keep in mind, however, that since our only source texts give just sparse and biased information about Stoic doctrines, it will not be easy to do them justice in our descriptions.

Chapitre premier:

De l’incorporel en général




[on incorporeality and causality]


The Stoics understood Platonic Ideas as being like geometrical definitions which set limits defining something, meaning that many individuals are generatable on that basis, all of which sharing some common formal structural feature. This view sees being as an incorporeal Ideal form which can serve as the cause of individuals, acting on bodies from the outside so to endow them with their formation. The Stoics held a view of causality and of being that goes directly against this Platonic sort of conception. Now, both views of cause and of being can be said to be matters of unity. The Platonic sort regards unity as what groups many individuals together under an Idea. The Stoic view sees unity as what gives coherence to an individual’s physical and temporal parts, and it is analogous to the vital force that gives unity to living things physically throughout their life. Being that is understood in this way is still like the Platonic Idea, in that it determines the thing’s limits, but it is different, in that these limits are the spatial boundaries that the thing grows toward but not beyond and the fixed set of latent capacities it will develop during its life. Thus a thing here is defined primarily by its principles of genesis. In an inanimate object it is called hexis, in plants, nature, and in animals, soul. This cause itself is something corporeal and is inherent to the corporeal thing it is the cause of. Corporeal things can act and undergo action, but incorporeal things cannot. This means that the Stoics regarded the soul as corporeal. They formulated syllogistic arguments against the incorporeality of the soul. There are three such arguments: {1} Since souls can resemble one another (as with child’s to parents’), and since incorporeal things are not matters of resemblance or non-resemblance, the soul is corporeal. {2} Since a body suffers when a soul does and vice versa, and since no incorporeal thing will suffer when a body does, the soul is corporeal. {3} Since the soul separates from the body, and since incorporeal things cannot separate from a body (as they never were a part of that body to begin with), the soul is corporeal. There are important principles underlying these arguments. The reason that incorporeals can be predicated neither of semblance nor non-semblance is because for the Stoics, properties are corporeal things, and semblance is a matter of sharing properties. Now, for Plato, a being’s property is the presence of an Idea in that being. But the Stoic notion of quality conceives it as being either something involved in a corporeal thing’s activity or as a final result of that activity. Thus properties under this Stoic conception make no appeal to an incorporeal Idea. Another important principle is that  the incorporeal has no causal efficacy on the corporeal. Although the Stoics consider the cause of beings as corporeal, that does not mean they make no place for the incorporeal. For, rather than placing the incorporeal on the side of the cause of beings, they instead place it on the side of the effects of beings.




[The two planes of being: deep, real corporeality and surface incorporeality (predicates)]

Only the beings that can act and be acted upon are real beings for the Stoics. These are the corporeal bodies. They are composed fundamentally of the element Fire, which under lesser degrees of tension constitutes Air, Water, and Earth. So the whole of the cosmos is fundamentally composed of Fire, and everything in the cosmos cyclically returns to a universal conflagration. As such, what we call bodies can also be understood as regions of the universal Fire-substrate that are unified according to principles of their elemental composition, namely, of their particular mixtures and internal arrangements  of elements (which again are no more than different tensions of the Fire substrate). When we say that one body acts upon another, we can also think of it as one organized region of the universal Fire interpenetrating with another region, creating a new mixture in that general region. So when we see one body interacting with another, we might want to think that the one body causes changes to the properties of the other one. But really, the one region of Fire has intermixed with another, and neither region changed the physical properties of the compositional Fire. It is still Fire at its various degrees of tension. What does change are the arrangements of the elemental parts, which correspond to alterations in the corporeal thing’s way of being (πώς ἔχον) and thus to a change in the thing’s predicates. So when a knife cuts flesh, the two interpenetrate to create a new mixture, and corresponding to the new arrangement within the flesh is a new predicate, “being cut”. [And to the knife’s new arrangement corresponds the predicate “cutting”.] So the action of bodies cause modifications not to other bodies but rather to their predicates. These predicates are entirely incorporeal and at best can additionally manifest in our minds when we conceive them. The Stoics were always sure to make the grammatical structures of their descriptions of corporeals and incorporeals match their physical differences: causes, which can only be corporeals, are always expressed with nouns, and effects, which can only be incorporeals, are always expressed with verbs in the form of predicates. This is the Stoics’ unique philosophical innovation, which, as we will see later, revolutionized logic. In sum, their innovation is that they fashioned the world into two planes: {1} There is the plane of real and profound being, in which there are corporeals (physical bodies) that act and are acted upon by other corporeals on account of physical forces driving their interaction. {2} There is the plane of surface [and unreal] being. It lies at the metaphysical limit of the corporeal plane, remaining directly related to the interactions of corporeals, but not existing as something physically real among those interacting bodies. Here facts (predicates) play at the surface of physical being.  These facts or predicates are the effects which are caused by the corporeal interactions. (In the case of the knife and flesh, the predicate, “being cut” is also “the fact of being cut.” So the action of the knife, in how it intermixes with the flesh, causes the fact-of-being-cut to arise upon the predicative/incorporeal “surface” of the flesh.) As such, the forces driving interaction on the deeper real plane are not exhausted by having produced effects on the incorporeal plane, since these effects are not matters of physical force.

Chapitre II:

Théorie des “exprimables”




[The Sayable as Predicate]


The primordial element in Stoic logic is the sayable (λεκτόνexprimable), which is something along the lines of {1} the rational organization of an active, physical situation, {2} the conceptual sense of the thought of that situation, and {3} the sense of a statement about that situation. The sayable should be understood also in terms of what is being affirmed, namely {a} that which is physically affirmed through the sayable’s actualization in a corporeal situation, {b} that which is conceptually affirmed by conceiving the rational impression that is organized in accordance with the sayable, and {c} that which is logically affirmed by asserting the utterance expressing the sayable. In all three cases, the sayable is what is being expressed by the corporeals involved (note: words and thoughts are corporeals). Thus the corporeal situation, the corporeal thought, and the uttered corporeal proposition “say” or “express” the sayable. The uttered proposition, however, does not signify the sayable. It signifies the thought. But what grants the meaning relationship of utterance signifying the thought about the real world situation is that they all say the same sayable. The way our mind forms the thought of the situation is by first having fragmentary and disorganized simple impressions, and then organizing them into a rational impression in accordance with the sayable that the rational impression will come to conceptually express. Now, there are complete sayables, where there is a subject and predicate, and incomplete sayables, which lack the subject. But rational impressions are always complete sayables. So there are sayables which are not rational impressions. There is a problem with how to understand propositional judgements under the Stoic conception. For the Stoics, there are no universals. But that means the subject cannot be thought of as being included in a general class indicated by the grammatical predicate. The Stoics solve this problem by understanding the predicate as the activity of bodies, articulated as a verb, and not as the property of bodies, articulated with a copula and adjective. So they would not say “a body is warm” but instead “a body is warming up”. Thus for the Stoics, the relation between subject and predicate is not that of essential or accidental predication but is rather the relation of an event to its subject.

[Note: the idea that the utterance “says” the sayable is not something explicitly stated in Bréhier’s text, and I may be misrepresenting his thinking. It seems rather that the utterance “says” nothing and simply means the thought, which in turn “says” the sayable. In this picture, the speaking of the utterance would still affirm the sayable predicate, but only through its indicative relation with the thought. See section 2.1.4. It is still not entirely clear to me, because there Bréhier interprets Sextus Empiricus as describing the sayable as needing vocal utterance to be said. Why can it not just be thought? One answer would be that the thought depends on linguistic or syntactical structures to be formed (like subject predication), and thus in that case the utterance in a sense would still somehow be involved in the saying of the sayable. I offer the interpretation that the utterance says the sayable without indicating it, because this to me seems the most consistent with Sextus and Bréhier. Otherwise, perhaps Bréhier is arguing that Sextus Empiricus is wrong and the sayable does not need to be vocally uttered in order to be said.]


Bréhier, Émile. 1962. La théorie des incorporels dans l'ancien stoïcisme. 3rd Edn. Paris: Vrin.

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