by Simon Smith
Conceived as a social reality, the self is a powerful philosophical tool. Understand the relation between self and other and we understand the nature of personhood. Understand that, and we have the antidote to many of the debilitating dualisms from which western thought has constructed itself. Antiquated oppositions – mind and body, subject and object, transcendence and immanence – may be realigned within a framework in which self and other are intimately reconnected. In order to deliver this antidote, however, the social self must walk a narrow path, one bordered on either side by those very oppositions and the ever-present threat of reduction to one or the other.
On one side, it seems, lies the lure of sociality itself. Too far in that direction and the self is lost amid the flux and flow of interpersonalities. That was Levinas’ famous challenge to Buber’s primal connection, succinctly expressed in the primary word I-Thou. The sheer ‘inclusivity’ of this, Levinas argued, fatally undermines the ontological security of both self and other, so defeats the possibility of real relation: without relata, there can be no relation; and without relation, the essence of personhood itself, morality, must be abandoned. The net result is liable to be some kind of behaviourism, or functionalism as it has become. We are, as Sartre saw, what we do, no more. Concede as much, however, and empirical thinkers will not be long in pressing home their advantage: materialist reduction awaits. With morality gone and nothing to account for but flux and flow, why speak of persons at all? Why speak in fact, of anything but the colliding forces that make up the physical universe?
So much for sociality. Of course, the other side of the path offers no better prospect. Step that way and we are on the road to retreat, back to ontological priority and Cartesian ego-isolationism. One might suppose that, since the laying of Descartes’ machine-dwelling ghost last century, there would be little threat from that quarter. The spirit of radical subjectivity is a restless one, however. Not only does it haunt every kind of realism, as the likes of Peter Byrne and William Alston have unwittingly made clear, it also finds new votaries among trans- and posthumanists – Oxford’s Nick Bostrom, for example – and neuroethicists. Even the most dedicated scholars of personhood, such as the noted Personalist, Juan Manuel Burgos, cannot escape its influence. Burgos’ Modern Ontological Personalism seeks to explicate the self in all its richness and complexity; but still it remains in thrall to the self-in-itself.
Evidently, what is needed here, if we are to keep our concept of persons on the straight and narrow, is a radical re-think of the terms in which philosophical anthropology may be conducted. For this, we turn to two thinkers not commonly associated: Austin Farrer and Ludwig Feuerbach. Serving the more facile needs of empiricists and realists, popular opinion of Farrer and Feuerbach has tended towards misconstruction and the rationalist’s propensity for all-too-easy pigeonholing. Thus, the former is usually designated a merely traditional thinker, an orthodox Anglican apologist; the latter meanwhile is a merely transitional figure, frequently sidelined in favour of more familiar purveyors of the hermeneutics of suspicion. Popular opinion is, of course, entirely wrong.
In fact, Farrer and Feuerbach had more in common than many commentators realise. Crucially, for our purposes, what they had in common was a visionary concept of the self, one that remains in the vanguard of philosophy and theology.
The key to this visionary concept is action; action in the full and proper sense, that is: action as essentially personal; acts owned and authored; acts intended, deliberately executed; acts that body forth those intentions and deliberations, that embody meaning. Such acts are, indeed, the primary manifestation of personhood. For action is ontologically basic; in Farrer’s Latin phrase, esse est operari: to be is to act, better still, to interact. Further, that locates the self in a world of objects and, most importantly, others; for action is inherently correlative: it requires at least two interagents.
Therein lies the vital clue, not only to what it means to be a person, but to how I become one. Personal action co-opts both self and other in the process of mutual self-construction. In short, personhood is interconstitutive, fully participative: personhood is creative participation in the becoming of another.
Just as it reconnects us, one to another, so personal action also supplies a much-coveted identity criterion. It preserves the self from dissolution, not by capitulating to demands for the prefabricated priority of a self in se, but simply by commissioning each of us as the agent of our own acts. Nota bene, the inference from intended act back to intending agent cannot be made logically ‘watertight’. Rather, it is presuppositional, supplies, that is, not necessary but adequate conditions for making sense of acts as intended, as meaningful.
Fully qualified (in every sense) by the logic of intending, personal action also carries the first condition of knowledge: concrete connection. Reconnecting knowing subjects with objects known overcomes the substantival disjunct at the heart of rationalist thought. In so doing, it converts empiricist demands for evidence into a pragmatic principle: reality known by the experiencable difference it makes to those who know it. Deny this and every act of explanation, including the one in which we are here engaged, is logically forfeit.
Ultimately, as both Farrer and Feuerbach show, realigning philosophy’s founding dualisms – subject/object, self/other – within a framework of personal action and explanation destabilises the classical metaphysics of the self. In its place, we find a new kind of metaphysics, an anti-metaphysical metaphysics which establishes persons and person-concepts as the logical, ontological, and epistemological bottom line, the key to measuring reality.