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Lecture 9 Absolute Idealism and the Value of the Individual Person

Lecture 9
Absolute Idealism and the Value of the Individual Person
THE depreciation of Personality from the idealistic point of view may be said to turn upon the consideration that although a higher form of Individuality than some with which we are acquainted it is yet an imperfect form and has proved itself to be such by the fact that a person is essentially a member of a society of other persons over against whom he has rights and to whom he has duties and therefore cannot possess the full and self-sufficing individuality which belongs only to the Absolute.

Now certainly the individuality which can be ascribed to a person among other persons is not the individuality which can be affirmed of the Absolute alone and it is not easy to suppose that anyone would dispute this. But the problem of the peculiar value which may be claimed for Personality as the only form in which Mind or Spirit is manifested within our experience as concrete reality is not disposed of by this consideration.

In studying the first series of Mr. Bosanquet's Gifford Lectures to which I have so often had occasion to refer and in which the view which I am now examining is set forth with great fulness and force it is I think difficult to resist the impression that the promise which it seemed to hold out of showing us what is that principium individuationis or ‘Principle of Individuality’ in virtue of which any one of us is considered to be an individual remains unfulfilled by an exposition which denies to that very Individuality a genuine right to be called Individuality at all because it is not that all-embracing and absolute self-sufficiency which no one ever supposed that it was and the limitation to which of the name ‘individual’ merely puts aside the question of the Individuality which we are accustomed to ascribe to persons. It is noticeable that the second series of Gifford Lectures in which Mr Bosanquet really discusses this latter question is entitled ‘The Value and Destiny of the Individual’ notwithstanding that in the preceding course the use of the term ‘individual’ in this sense has been described as ‘improper’ and ‘incorrect.’1 Thus I venture to think does the common sense of language assert itself.
In our ordinary way of speaking an individual person would be considered ‘concrete’ while Justice Love Religion though their names are invoked as designating things for which a man will dare to die—nay would despise himself if he feared to die for them—would be called ‘abstract’ because they stand for a virtue a passion a faith which can exist only as belonging to individual persons who behave or feel or think after a certain fashion Against an unthinking acquiescence in such language philosophers of the school of Mr. Bosanquet do well to protest. The tendency of it is clearly revealed in the popular notion that ‘concrete’ is a synonym for ‘material’ or ‘perceptible by the senses’ ‘abstract’ for ‘immaterial’ or ‘imperceptible.’ It encourages the prejudice that what the senses can apprehend is the sole genuine reality a prejudice which if not altogether incompatible with philosophy of any sort is at least irreconcilable with any that could allow validity to Religion.
But the protest against it takes as it seems to me a form open to serious criticism when it treats the nature of individual persons as adjectival2 not merely because apart from certain relations to other persons and things they would not be what they are (just as those other persons and things would not be what they are apart from certain relations to them) but because they it is said belong to the ultimate Reality as it does not belong to them; much as in the ordinary view musical taste or a fair complexion (to take the Aristotelian examples) may be characteristics of a certain man yet this relation cannot be reciprocated. Nay it is not only in respect to the ultimate or absolute Reality that Personality (or any kind of finite Individuality) is held by Mr. Bosanquet and those who think with him to be adjectival. When the scholar or the patriot or the martyr gives himself up to death in the service of learning or of his country or of his creed he confesses it may be said that that for which he is content to sacrifice his life is the substance of which his individual personality is but a transient expression and apart from which it has no significance. Can we speak of his personality as existing in its own right as it were even though what gives it all its worth and interest should perish? “Who dies if England lives?”3 Does not the question do not still more the deaths of the multitudes who without hesitation have died that England might live witness against the claim of the individual person to a substantiality to which the feelings and convictions the manners and ideals which distinguish one nation from another are but ‘adjectives’? Is not rather the reverse nearer to the truth?
Such is the case for the view that human Personality like every other form of finite Individuality is ‘adjectival.’ Unquestionably it must give pause to those who use language which might seem to ascribe to Personality a supreme value and dignity in abstraction from the interests the ideals and the objects of attention which give to it character and import. But it does not convince me that it affords a justification for using language so paradoxical in the opposite direction as that which treats of a self-conscious subject of experience as in the same class with what has no conceivable being except as an ‘adjective’ of something else.
We will therefore try to examine somewhat more closely this view of finite Personality as ‘adjectival.’ We shall find I think that it resolves finite Personality into two factors: one being the assemblage of characteristics which distinguish one person from another and each of which is in the traditional sense of the word a ‘universal’ which might belong equally well to several individuals; and a ‘thisness’ which is just the bare form of Individuality and may be regarded as itself a ‘universal’ inasmuch as any person may be (nay every person must be) in a particular context ‘this person.’ It may then be said with some plausibility: What is more abstract more empty than this latter? Any individual will fit it quite as well as any other. What more elusive and transitory? Like a shifting gleam of light it falls now on one now on another; from moment to moment from spot to spot we have a different ‘this’ before us.
On the other hand when we turn to the characteristics which do permanently or at least importantly distinguish one person from another as ‘thisness’ does not they are admittedly ‘universal’; singly nay even in combination they may belong to several individuals who might thus if not juxtaposed in time or space be ‘indiscernible’ by sense or thought.
Nevertheless I think it may be shown that this analysis of finite individual Personality is incomplete. When Mr. Bosanquet4 in speaking of the finite ‘individual’ which is often said to be ‘concrete’ in distinction from the ‘universal’ which is called ‘abstract’ describes it as ‘the given person or thing’ he surely does some injustice to those whom he is criticizing. We are not here concerned with things; I will therefore confine myself for the moment to persons without asking myself how far what is said of persons can be extended to things as well.
When we speak of ‘a person’ as concrete we are certainly thinking of much more than can be said to be ‘given’ in a particular experience of that person. We sometimes hear of some one presenting to his acquaintance ‘a mere mask.’ What is meant by such phrases is just this that in these instances it is only what is ‘given’ that we are allowed to know. But we might express this otherwise by saying that we had never come into contact with the real person. When we speak of individual persons as pre-eminently concrete realities we always suppose that there is much more included in their reality than what is ‘given’ in any particular experience of intercourse with them.5
Again although it is true that the characteristics which distinguish one person from another are taken by themselves or even as an aggregate ‘universal’—that is may be found in several distinct individual persons— yet the principle of unity according to which they are combined in an individual Personality is in each case unique and is not identifiable with nor except from defect of apprehension in the observer indiscernible from the principle according to which they are combined in any other. Nor do I think that the nature of this principle can be better distinguished from that of any principle which is in the proper sense ‘universal’ than by some such phraseology as that old Aristotelian one of ‘Subject’ and ‘Attribute’ which has so long commended itself to the reflective common-sense of mankind. So much would I believe be true even if one did not attach a higher value to the individual Personality in the scheme of things than Mr. Bosanquet and those who hold with him are disposed to attach to it and might most certainly be allowed without committing oneself to any assertion of such a permanence of individual persons as is claimed by believers in what is called ‘personal immortality.’
It may however be said—as it is by Mr. Bradley6—that when we consider the relation between souls and the thoughts which belong to them we find ourselves entangled in a “vicious circle” and ought to infer from this discovery that we are “in the realm of appearance” and therefore cannot ascribe ultimate reality to the things—souls in this case—of which we are speaking.
“For thought is a state of souls and therefore is made by them while upon its side the soul is a product of thought. The ‘thing’ existing in time and possessor of ‘states’ is made what it is by ideal construction. But this construction itself appears to depend on a psychical centre and to exist merely as its ‘state.’”
To deal adequately with this passage would involve an examination of the whole philosophy of Mr. Bradley such as it would be out of the question to undertake here. I will therefore grant what is here said of the ‘thing’ to be true although I doubt myself whether it would not be a better way of stating the facts which Mr. Bradley has in view to say that it is discovered by an act of constructive thought to be what it is a change of expression which would imply a good deal of difference in the interpretation of the facts in question. But it is sufficient for my present purpose to point out that the ‘psychical centre’ seems to fall outside the circle ‘vicious’ or otherwise which Mr. Bradley has indicated. For it is not that “thing existing in time and possessor of states” which he has to his own satisfaction shown to be a result of ‘ideal construction.’ Thought is a state of such a thing—called a soul—and this soul is a product of thought. Here is our vicious circle. How does the ‘psychical centre’ which is apparently distinguished from the ‘soul’ come in? If Mr. Bradley merely means to suggest that the ideal construction which constitutes the “thing with states” called a soul itself presupposes a soul why this variation of the phrase? May it not be that we have here in fact a covert admission of something which resists the alchemy of his dialectical method? The suspicion is encouraged by the admission which we elsewhere find that to Mr. Bradley there is something peculiarly mysterious and baffling in what he describes as the Absolute's division of itself into finite centres of experience outside of which he is disposed to doubt whether any experience falls.7
I am very far from suggesting that I have any explanation to give of the existence of individual persons or ‘finite centres of experience’ which would make it from Mr. Bradley's point of view less mysterious and baffling. Is there not however reason for wondering whether the fact of their existence and its inexplicability from that point of view does not cast doubt on the whole theory which ascribes reality in the proper sense to the One Absolute alone?
Thus in the end it is not only for the ‘Personal Idealist’ that Personality is found to resist analysis by the method which has sapped the claim of everything else to independent reality; the same thing has happened for his critics also. Only it is as in the old jest about Hume and Reid.8 Reid (it was said) shouts ‘You cannot help believing in an external world’ and then whispers ‘But you can give no reason for your belief.’ Hume shouts ‘You can give no adequate reason for retaining any belief in the external world’ then he adds in a whisper ‘But you cannot get rid of the belief.’ Put the personal idealist for Reid and Mr. Bradley or Mr. Bosanquet for Hume; for ‘the external world’ substitute ‘the substantial reality of the personal self;’ and all the rest may be left standing to serve our present purpose. Nor are these same opponents so far removed from one another as one might expect in their treatment of that other principle of unity in experience which we may call Reason between which and the principle of Personality a question of priority arose in the preceding Lecture. For Reason or Thought is not conceivable apart from a subject; and none is provided by either of the two schools which I have mentioned except finite persons. But these on the showing of either are inadequate to the unity of subject which seems to be demanded by the unity of Reason. Such an Absolute Idealist as Mr. Bradley or Mr. Bosanquet proclaims aloud this inadequacy which the Personal Idealist only admits by substituting under his breath for the identity in the content of Reason a mere similarity or a miraculously inexplicable coincidence.
What seems to be required is a whole-hearted recognition at once of the genuine unity of the content or (as I should prefer to say) of the object of Reason—of that which we may call the world of Ideas in the Platonic sense of that word—and also of the unity of each personal subject as a substantial element in the system of Reality and not merely an adjective qualifying it.9
The contention that the selfhood of finite persons must be considered as merely ‘adjectival’ is in the thought of those who maintain it closely bound up with insistence upon the ethical principle of self-realization by means of self-surrender which has received classical expression in the great saying of Jesus: “Whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel's the same shall find it” or as it is rendered in the Fourth Gospel: “He that loveth his life loseth it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal.”10 The principle that a man can only find his true self in the highest sense when in the service of some cause which he values more than he values his own separate individual personal self he is ready to sacrifice not only all that he possesses but all that he is—this principle it may be suggested is not really accepted with one's whole heart so long as anything is held back whether it be an ‘immortal soul’ or a metaphysical substantiality. This line of argument cannot but have a certain persuasiveness for those to whom the moral and religious ideals of Christendom are precious. They are apt to ask themselves whether by clinging to a belief in a future life for themselves or even to a philosophical theory which gives to their own personality a ‘substantive’ rank they are not after all convicting themselves of unwillingness to complete the renunciation of self which they profess and involving themselves in the guilt of Ananias and Sapphira.11
But I think that one may be too soon put out of countenance by this sort of consideration. We shall find it profitable to examine more closely the actual facts of such self-surrender as is supposed to commit those who approve it to a sacrifice of their hopes of personal immortality and of their faith in the substantive reality of their personal selves. Of ‘personal immortality’ I will say nothing at present; it will occupy our attention in my next and concluding Lecture. I will confine myself in this to the light thrown by the actual working of the ethical principle of self-realization by self-surrender upon that depreciation of the value of finite Personality as compared with the ideals inspiring such self-surrender which is sometimes associated with emphasis upon that principle.
Let us take as our instance the self-devotion of the patriot who gives his life for his country. It is probable that in the majority of cases the country for which he sacrifices himself represents itself to his imagination as a system of personal relations which is the familiar and beloved setting of his own personal experience; including no doubt not persons only; for the places and the houses in which he has lived the buildings which are haunted by the memories of his childhood his school or his university or the home of his early married life will be no small part of it; yet all as associated with parents and kinsfolk and teachers and friends and companions with wife and children and neighbours and colleagues the persons who belong to him and to whom he belongs.
One knows how often patriotic sentiment has been concentrated in loyal passion for a king who is an actual person for whom his soldiers and subjects are proud to fight and to die; and yet it is noteworthy that in a well-known song written for the very purpose of substituting for such loyalty to the head of the State an enthusiasm for the multitude of its citizens the appeal is made on the ground that so the object of our devotion will have become not less but more personal:
The people Lord the people!
Not thrones and crowns but men.12
Thus we see that while the strength of one form of devotion to the community lies in the undeniable personality of the monarch in contrast to what may seem to be the mere abstraction of a commonwealth in its rival the personality of the monarch is dropped out of sight and ‘the people’ as a number of actual human beings is put forward in contrast not with a single person but only with the outward material symbols of public authority. So far then I do not think that the facts of patriotic self-devotion can be said to support any depreciation of individual personality as compared with a ‘universal’ of which by sacrificing itself thereto it confesses itself to be no more than a transitory organ or vehicle. We rather find persons sacrificing themselves for other persons. This no doubt implies the reality of the unity within which these persons are mutually related and which itself consists in these mutual relations of persons; but it does not subordinate the individual personalities in the way and to the degree which certain theories seem to require.
But we may be asked what we should say of the sacrifice of his own life along with his nation's in a desperate cause by the member of a community so small and isolated that it might possibly be exterminated by massacre or famine where the dying patriot would rather his people perished from the face of the earth than denied their ancestral religion or repudiated their obligation to some other community? Is not the maintenance of something which would be called ‘abstract’ by those for whom the individual alone is fully concrete here preferred to that of any individual person or persons concerned? And yet do we not approve the preference and admire the self-sacrifice?
It is important at this point to avoid so far as possible a familiar misunderstanding. If we suggest that in such a case as that which has just been stated there must be taken into account the feeling of self-respect which the person sacrificing himself would know he could not hope to enjoy if he refused to share his people's doom or the approbation of his conduct by all who may come to know of it among mankind or even by
those pure eyes
And perfect witness of all-judging Jove13
we may be supposed to be falling into the old error of those whom their critics call the ‘psychological hedonists’ and to be placing the worth of conduct in the emotional gratification which it may excite notwithstanding that this very gratification presupposes an apprehension of that worth. For unless the conduct in question were thought to possess such worth the gratification could not arise and unless it really possessed it would not be justified.
Assuredly we must be careful not simply to set up against what seems to us an illegitimate abstraction from individual persons of universals such as the principles and causes for which men will die an equally illegitimate abstraction of individual persons from such principles and causes as impart to them dignity and purpose in life. But we may nevertheless be able to show reason for holding that individual Personality cannot satisfactorily be regarded merely as a vehicle or organ of these principles or causes or even of the life of a community highly organized enough to be capable of acting or suffering itself as a ‘person’ at law.
No doubt it may be said that those who hold the language which we are now censuring for an undue depreciation of individual Personality as being a mere vehicle or organ of a higher life are far from wishing to imply that individual Personality is a vehicle or organ which might be dispensed with altogether. They would not deny that it is an element even (if we will) a necessary element in the whole system of Reality. Indeed this may be allowed to be true of every form of existence.
But without forgetting the evidence on the other side of such memoranda of old experience as that which tells us that ‘there is no man who is indispensable’ we must I think if we are to be true to the facts acknowledge also that the value which we assign to our own personality and to that of others with whom we have in a genuine sense personal acquaintance is not that of something which can really be replaced by anything else of the same sort (even by one which we should not hesitate to describe as better or nobler) in the same sense in which a mere thing could be so replaced. It is upon this peculiarity in the value which may be claimed for persons who exist not only in but for themselves that Royce's doctrine of Individuality as the embodiment of a unique purpose is based; and without necessarily embracing this doctrine in its developed form we may admit the fact which it is intended to explain.
Nor need we hesitate to admit this fact as regards persons because one may not at once be certain that some things which are not persons nor even organisms—for example works of architecture sculptures or paintings—may not share this peculiar character. Yet it is difficult to be sure that they do share it apart from their association with individual persons. It is true that one may doubt not unreasonably the possibility of the exact reproduction of a great work of art in this kind by anyone but the original architect or painter. But if such an exact reproduction were to be achieved would not that which would be lacking to the reproduction be merely its association with the person of its designer an association which we should value just as we should value for a like association the autograph manuscript of a great poem or symphony though we should not suppose it to possess a higher artistic value as literature or as music than would belong to a copy made by another hand?
Whatever we may hold regarding things we may I think say of persons not only that we are unable to conceive those principles causes or communities for which persons sacrifice themselves as actually existing otherwise than as they are embodied in persons are carried out by persons or consist of persons but that we shall hardly fail to find ourselves profoundly dissatisfied if we are convinced that the object to which persons have sacrificed themselves is never and nowhere realized except as an aim unfulfilled in any personal life as real as that which has been surrendered in its service; that not only have the heroes of our race “died in faith not having received the promises”14 but these promises are never received and never can be received by any persons whatever.
In saying this I am not I think going beyond what has been very emphatically said by Green in a passage of his Prolegomena to Ethics15 to which Mr. Bosanquet has thought it desirable in his Value and Destiny of the Individual to supply a commentary which shall make it consistent with the depreciation of individual Personality characteristic of his own idealism. To do this he accepts an alternative suggested by Green himself to the continuance of the personal life in a society “which shares in and carries further every measure of perfection attained by men under the conditions of life that we know.” For such a continuance as this there is no room in Mr. Bosanquet's scheme; but when Green adds the words “or we may content ourselves with saying that the personal self-conscious being which comes from God is for ever continued in God” his commentator interprets this as an indication that in adding the reflection that “a capacity which is nothing except as personal cannot be realized in any impersonal modes of being” he may be understood to be insisting “not primarily that the goal of development should be our personality but that it shall be a personality; and the doctrine” he goes on “has nothing against its being more than a personality so long as in it all that constituted ourself can have fuller justice done to it than in our given self16 it ever could have.” In other words it may be the individual but in no intelligible sense personal Absolute of Mr. Bosanquet's own philosophy.17
I leave to my concluding Lecture the inquiry whether we should be satisfied in the last resort with the complete disappearance of any persons “not having received the promises” which had during their earthly pilgrimage sustained their spiritual life. I will not question the possibility of a devotion which is content wholly and for ever to go without what is given to others. And no doubt there is often in fact no very vivid imagination in the person who makes the sacrifice of those others’ enjoyment of what is given to them although when this enjoyment is imagined its probable or certain transiency and imperfection is apt to be forgotten. But it is unsatisfactory to think that we can only find what we count as the noblest satisfaction which we can have so long as its true nature is hidden from our eyes. We are reminded of the old familiar ‘paradox of hedonism’ that virtue can have no justification except as a means to pleasure but yet that it will fail to bring us pleasure if while practising it we keep this its true end steadily in view. Just so if we clearly apprehend that only in a personal life can the object for the sake of which we are called upon to surrender our personal life be an enjoyed reality while yet we know of no personal life in which it can be more than an ideal to be striven after without expectation of personal enjoyment we shall not indeed find that we can without violating our conscience refuse the surrender but we shall hardly escape a despairing confession that there yawns between the ideal and the real the ‘ought to be’ and the ‘is’ a gulf which the dogmas of Mr. Bosanquet's philosophy will not avail to bridge.
It was precisely in order by bridging this gulf to secure our moral convictions—not in order to supply a sanction for the Categorical Imperative whose “manifest authority”18 stands in need of none—that Kant postulated the existence of God. The actual experience in Religion of personal communion with God—apart from the existence of which as a fact of history there would indeed have been nothing to put this expedient into Kant's hand—affords as nothing else can do a ground for faith in the survival of those ideals for which we are called upon to sacrifice ourselves in the only fashion in which ideals can survive or live at all namely as included in a personal experience. Thus it is that the contribution which as I argued in my earlier course Religion makes to our conception of the supreme Reality is found to aid us in dealing with the problem which so deeply troubled the soul of Kant the problem of the discrepancy between what ought to be and what is—a problem which the later development of Absolute Idealism while effectively criticizing some of Kant's assumptions and showing that Practical and Theoretical Philosophy do not stand over against one another the one only concerned with one of these two great opposites and the other with the other has nevertheless failed to do more than restate in terms in some respects less open to objection than his.
It is noteworthy that an able American writer whom I quoted in a previous Lecture19 and who would be quite out of sympathy with the Theism which I am defending Professor Parker of Michigan suggests that we may find a justification of human failure and death in the supposition that they minister to the development of beings far higher than we. Such a supposition might on the hypothesis of an immanent teleology in Nature explain but could not console; since it is not suggested that there exist or might exist between us and these higher beings any such personal relations as in Religion we experience or think we experience with God and through God with all spirits human or unknown who like ourselves live and move and have their being in him. The writer I am quoting could only I feel convinced give to his speculation anything of the consolatory power which faith in God may possess by doing explicitly what he occasionally does implicitly and perhaps not quite intentionally—treating that is to say what he calls ‘Nature’ as in fact a worshipful Being entitled to the name of ‘God.’
We may then follow Green in holding that the doctrine of Personality in God which is suggested to us by religious experience sets the central fact of moral experience the fact of self-sacrifice in a new light. We shall be in agreement with Mr. Bosanquet and no doubt with Green himself in saying that in speaking of Personality in God we do not mean to deny that Personality in God must be more and other than it is in man; but we shall differ from Mr. Bosanquet (though I venture to doubt whether we shall not be nearer than he to what was in the mind of Green) in that we shall insist that Personality in God must mean at least the possibility of such a genuine personal intercourse between our souls and him as can find no place in the philosophy of the younger thinker.
So far we may go without raising the question whether we can suppose the individual human personality to survive the apparent cessation of its activities at death and the subsequent disappearance of the body which has been the sole organ and vehicle of those activities. The practical and historical importance of this question is nevertheless so great that although I do not pretend to have anything to say concerning it which is either new or interesting the present discussion would be felt by every-one to be incomplete without some consideration of it. To such a consideration I will pass in my next and concluding Lecture but I will before bringing the present Lecture to a close preface what I shall then say by a few remarks upon the spirit in which I should desire to approach it.
It is clear that in venturing upon ground haunted by the most sacred affections and hopes of multitudes of our fellow men one who speaks however unworthily from the place of such men as have preceded me on the foundation of Lord Gifford cannot but incur a grave responsibility. On the one hand he runs the risk of making sad the hearts of any who may honour him with their attention by disappointing the hope which they may have formed that he would be able to reassure them by arguments strong enough to dispel invading doubts of the reasonableness of a faith which they feel to be necessary if they are not to succumb under the weight of life's sorrows. On the other hand he is exposed to the temptation of forsaking the path of honest inquiry into truth in order to prophesy smooth things to himself and others. In these circumstances the best he can do is to speak as sincerely and as reverently as he can to pretend to no more or less certainty than it has been given him to attain; and in a matter where individual temperament and taste inevitably exercise so great an influence upon every man's opinion to put forward frankly and modestly that which he has himself found for what it is worth avoiding all needless offence to the feelings of others and claiming no peculiar or exceptional value for his own.
If this course be taken no mischief can be done but rather some good by throwing one's own thoughts upon this subject into the common stock. This is the least that can be expected from a professional student of the Philosophy of Religion and the most that if prudent he will profess himself competent to do.
In undertaking this task however I shall not attempt a general survey of the problem of human Immortality but shall endeavour to concentrate attention upon the hope of a life beyond death which springs from the religious experience of personal communion with the Eternal Being. I shall not altogether ignore other aspects of the question; but I shall only consider them so far as they reinforce on the one hand or as they weaken on the other the strictly religious hope which is alone germane to our present main inquiry.