The Individuality of Human Persons: A Study in the Ethical Personalism of Max Scheler
Crosby, John F., The Review of Metaphysics
In his deep and significant study of the thought of Max Scheler, Hans Urs yon Balthasar writes that "the realm of the personal was Scheler`s innermost concern, more important to him than anything else, the sanctuary of his thought.(1) This is why Scheler again and again aligned himself with personalism in philosophy, as we can see from the introduction to his major work, Formalism in Ethics:
The most essential and important proposition that my present investigations would ground and communicate as perfectly as possible is the proposition that the final meaning and value of the whole universe is ultimately to be measured exclusively against the pure being (and not the effectiveness) and the possible perfect being-good, the richest fullness and the most perfect development, and the purest beauty and inner harmony of persons, in whom at times all forces of the world concentrate themselves and soar upward.(2)
We want to enter into the sanctuary of Scheler's thought by picking out a central theme of his personalism. He himself refers to it in the following:
At no point does the ethical personalism to which our investigation has led us reveal its distinctiveness from other present ethical currents to a greater degree than in the position that it allocates to the becoming and being of the spiritual individuality of the person as the bearer of moral value.(3)
This is what we propose to examine here: Scheler's understanding of the radical individuality of persons and in particular of the ethical significance of personal individuality.(4)
The Antagonists of Scheler. We must first know against whom Scheler is turning in his discussions on personal individuality. I quote again von Balthasar:
The basic situation of Scheler results very simply from the twofold negation in which he was involved: the `no' which he spoke to the declining Lebensphilosophie [of Bergson and Nietzsche], the insufficiency of which showed the urgent need to recognize a positive `spirit' that is independent from `life'; and the `no' which he spoke to the old idealism, which was still influential.(5)
It is precisely this latter adversary, German Idealism, that puts the individuality of the person in question. Scheler sees in Kant's characterization of the person as Vernunftperson a depersonalizing Logonomie. He means that Kant and his followers tend to conceive of the Vernunftperson as something superindividual. When they relate the Vernunftperson to individual human persons they think of it as one and the same thing existing in all persons. Thus the individuality of human persons becomes a problem in just the way it is a problem for Averroes, whom Scheler repeatedly invokes as an intellectual antecedent of Kant and the German Idealists. As a result these thinkers are driven to offering purely extrinsic explanations of the principle of personal individuation; they say that individuality results from some relation to space and time, or they say that it results from a relation to a body or to the experiences of the person or to the sequence of the person's acts. In each case the principle of individuation remains extrinsic to the person. We shall see how Scheler argues for a radically intrinsic principle.
Of course, Scheler does not stop with Kant; he finds the same Logonomie in Fichte and Hegel, of whom he says that "the person becomes in the end an indifferent thoroughfare [gleichgueltige Durchgangsstelle] for an impersonal rational activity."(6) He even finds a similar dissolution of personal individuality in Schopenhauer; despite the fact that Reason gives way to Will in Schopenhauer, individuals are still sacrificed to a superindividual principle:
According to him, it is fellow-feeling [Mitgefuehl] which reveals the unity of being underlying the multiplicity of selves. It is this which destroys the illusion to which we are otherwise enslaved, whereby each of us considers himself as having an independent reality.(7)
In other words, before experiencing fellow-feeling, I experience myself as different from you; in fellow-feeling I come to recognize that we are ultimately not two but one. It is thus that the illusion of my (and your) personal individuality is unmasked.
We need not concern ourselves with the accuracy of Scheler's interpretation of Kant and of German Idealism. His self-understanding of his polemical situation suffices for our task of understanding him.
There are other antagonists that Scheler has in mind when he affirms the individuality of persons. Consider, for instance, his sharp polemic against most theories of the equality of all human beings. He suspects that these theories rest on the assumption of a superindividual humanity which, once it has been individuated in an extrinsic way, becomes the individual human beings who are equal to each other. They are equal because of the "indwelling" in each of the same super-individual humanity. When he objects to theses asserting the equality of human beings, it is usually this underlying metaphysics that is the real target of his objection.
Personal Individuality. What exactly does Scheler understand by "individuality?" If we let ourselves be sensitized by Jorge Gracia's important work on individuality to the many meanings of individuality,(8) we can discern in Scheler at least these two meanings. (a) Sometimes he refers to a certain antithesis to "general" or "universal," as when he protests against the dissolution of the person into some general nomos; in this case individuality is simply equivalent to concreteness (and comes very close to Gracia's "non-instantiability"). (b) In other places, he refers to a certain antithesis to other beings, as when he protests against the various pantheistic attempts to dissolve individual persons into God. In this case, individuality means standing in oneself in such a way that a being is set off against everything else (Gracia's "distinction"). We will have occasion below to make a further distinction within this aspect of individuality.
Whereas Gracia thinks that only concreteness or non-instantiability s a true note of individuality, Scheler would also recognize distinction from other beings as a note of individuality. Most emphatically he would recognize it as a note of personal individuals. These two notes of individuality, though not explicitly discriminated by Scheler, would represent for him two interrelated aspects of the Urphaenomen of personal individuality.
Scheler finds a particular strength of individuality in human persons, which he explains like this: each person has an essence all his own, that is, an essence that could not possibly be repeated in a second person.(9) It is of course true that "human nature" is not restricted to one human being but is found in a certain sense in every human being, but this is in sharp contrast to the personal essence of a given person that cannot be repeated again in any other person. Scheler deliberately breaks with the Greek idea that essence is always only something general or universal. More than once in his major ethical work, Formalism in Ethics, he says provocatively "essence has nothing to do with generality."(10) Scheler seems to mean that there is not only essence in the sense of a universal, and not only the universal essence concretized or instantiated in many individuals, but that there is also the radically individual essence, unutterable in general terms, where the talk of instantiating a universal essence has no meaning,(11) There is an essence in each person of which one cannot say that the person has it or shares in it, but of which one must say that the person is it. Of course, this is not said in the same sense in which God is said to be His essence; it is said only by way of affirming the unique unity formed by concrete essence and individual precisely in the case of persons. This is at least part of the reason why Scheler repeatedly emphasizes the positivity of personal individuality. He means that this individuality is not simply a "contraction" of something general or of something superindividual; it is based on a positive content that is unrepeatable in any other individual.
It goes without saying that the individual personal essence, which for Scheler stands at the center of the individuality of a person, has nothing to do with logical constructions such as "the last soldier killed in the Civil War" or "the eldest son of Smith." In such cases, recently introduced into this discussion, we have indeed a kind of essence that can be instantiated by only one person, but it is not any special strength of individual being which explains the unique instantiability. In fact, we can find this one-time instantiability among non-personal beings whose individuality is as poor as could be, as for example in "the first copy of the Times printed today." The first copy is a mere instance of today's Times, and in fact just as much a mere instance as any other copy; it is fully replaceable by any other copy. The one-time instantiability of "the first copy" or of "the three hundred and twenty-third copy" seems to derive from an intention of the mind that picks out one thing; it does not seem to derive from any inherent strength of individual being. With persons, however, it is just this inherent strength of individual being which prevents multiple instantiations; indeed, so great is the individuality of persons that it is unutterable (individuum est ineffabile), that is, it cannot be translated into general terms. General terms, however, entirely suffice to give expression to the one-time instantiables, which are therefore entirely utterable.
Notice how the two aspects of individuality distinguished above flow together in Scheler's discussion of personal individuality. The unrepeatable essence of a person forms a contrast to every general or universal essence, and it serves to distinguish one person from all other persons.(12)
Scheler develops his account of personal individuality by saying that the human person is more or less individual according to the level of his being with which we are dealing.(13) Scheler sees the person as much less individual in certain social roles, as in being a mother, a German, a professor, or in holding some office, as in being a judge. After all, many different persons can play these social roles; everyone who does so shares in something general. Scheler distinguishes in every human being between what he calls "social person" and "intimate person," and he says that I can experience myself as intimate person only by prescinding from all such roles, which constitute the social person in me. Only in experiencing myself as intimate person do I experience deeply my personal individuality.(14) In this connection Scheler also mentions other generalities under which a human being can "fall." Thus in one place he speaks of our "common bondage to similar instincts, passions, and necessities of life.(15) These are for him so many "layers" surrounding the individual personal center. We have to prescind from these relatively general aspects of a human being in order to attain to the fully individual person.
Scheler goes farther. He says that even the traits or qualities of a person, which are much closer to the person than the just-mentioned social roles, still have something of this relative generality. This is why one cannot think of a person as being simply a composition of all of his qualities or properties. One would miss that which is most individual in the person. Thus Scheler says that:
the love which has moral value is not …
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Publication information: Article title: The Individuality of Human Persons: A Study in the Ethical Personalism of Max Scheler. Contributors: Crosby, John F. - Author. Journal title: The Review of Metaphysics. Volume: 52. Issue: 205 Publication date: September 1998. Page number: 21. © 2009 Philosophy Education Society, Inc. COPYRIGHT 1998 Gale Group.
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