The Individuality of Human Persons: A Study in the Ethical Personalism of Max Scheler

By Crosby, John F. | The Review of Metaphysics, September 1998 | Go to article overview

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. … 

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