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The Problematic Primacy of Personhood: (Part 1) Do we need to go back to school with Max Scheler?

Posted by nouspraktikon on February 26, 2019

Max Scheler (1874-1928)

A man who could not decide whether he wanted to be a playboy or a philosopher is probably not the best advertisement for a new ethics of love.   Yet out of charity it should at least be noted that Max Scheler was considered by his contemporaries (and I concur) the most brilliant thinker of his country and generation.  This was no mean accomplishment since the “time and place” was a still vibrant and relatively free Germany at the outset of the twentieth century.  Even if you havn’t heard of Scheler, and there are many reasons why you probably havn’t, none the less there are serious grounds for reexamining the kind of problems Scheler grappled with.    Notably this included the question: “What do we mean by ‘a person’?”  Furthermore, according to our understanding of “what a person is” what impact does that have on the relationship between rights and obligations, between law and love?

I’m not saying that Scheler resolved these problems in a completely satisfactory way.  Indeed, his philosophy resembles a ruined cathedral, at one time complete from foundation to tower, where the builder suddenly changed his mind and tore everything down to the second story.  That foundation, which Scheler insisted was serviceable no matter what religion (or none) one professed, was what he called a “non-formal ethics of values. ” Admittedly, this “non-formal ethics of values”, is just the sort of jawbreaker that you might expect to emerge from the cerebral jungles of German scholarship.  Yet, rightly understood a non-formal ethics of values gives us a key to deal with many thorny problems where the post-modern world has come up against a conceptual dead end.

For example, whom should we consider the rightful inheritor of Christ’s spiritual mantle, the modern political left or the modern political right?  Weighty and irreconcilable claims to a moral, if not apostolic, succession are made on both sides of the aisle.   To oversimplify, which should we acknowledge as the true gospel of political ethics: the left’s advocacy of indiscriminate and unconditional love or the right’s advocacy of absolute rights and righteousness?  The catch phrase here is “to oversimplify” since without further analysis of these bald claims, they both seem to rest on valid premises.   Agreed, we need to be both righteous and loving, and until we come up against a crisis where decisive action is required one way or the other, it would seem that we can eat our cake and have it too.  But then what?  In order to resolve this issue, and many like it, we need greater sensitivity.  Not greater emotional sensitivity (although that might be a desirable consequence) but a greater intellectual sensitivity.  Through phenomenological investigation Max Scheler developed his understanding of the difference between formal ethics and a non-formal ethics of values.  We need not endorse his conclusions, but we can utilize some of his discoveries as tools for resolving the dilemmas of modernity post-modernity.  It all starts by reexamining what we mean by “the person” and “persons.”  Indeed, are persons important at all, or just illusory sparkles on the surface of a vast ocean of existence?

Donald Trump vs. Existentialism

Let’s begin with the person of the hour.  Love him or hate him, everyone agrees that Mr. Trump has shaken things up on a grand scale.  Even his supporters are divided over the extent to which he has succeeded in fulfilling his promises.  But nobody doubts that his presidency has been educational.  For good or for ill, many things have been brought to light which were hidden prior to the last few years.  Most of these revelations have been social and political, and concern the influence of elites and/or the frustration of the popular will.  Yet hiding in plain sight is possibly the most important revelation of all, a metaphysical revelation in the truest sense.  Trump, of all people, has reminded everyone on the planet about the primacy of personal.

Central to the modernist movement has been an insinuation that all history, human as well as cosmic, reflects the movement of vast impersonal forces, within which individuals have little significance except to appear on the stage of life as pathetic victims.  Negatively, this expresses itself through seemingly self-evident critiques of “great man” theories, to which the adjective “discredited” is always applied.  Positively, it manifested through much of the 20th century as existentialism, the idea that the most heroic thing a human being could do was to accept the futility of life and derive meaning through suffering.  Both these moments in the self-depreciation of human life have a certain plausibility.  After all, heaven forbid that we return to the kind of hero-worship depicted by Thomas Carlyle, which reflected the Victorian world’s trauma in the aftermath of the Napoleonic episode.  Likewise, the ubiquity of human suffering certainly justifies highlighting the limitations and frustrations of existence.

Yet, viewing the 20th century in hindsight, it appears that the devaluation of the person was as much a product of propaganda as intrinsic plausibility.  Indeed, it was the high-tide of that movement against theism and personalism which was birthed in the so-called Enlightenment and then picked up momentum among the ideologues of the 19th century.  Through it all, personalist world-views never lacked exponents, of whom Max Scheler was but one voice, yet the general atmosphere of thought weighed heavily in favor of the subordination spiritual life to inexorable forces: mechanical, biological, social and (here is where it gets dicey) psychological.  If we drift spiritually, we are apt to forget that we, both self and others, are persons.  That is precisely what “they” i.e. the adversaries of personalism, who are arguably not forces but persons-in-hiding themselves, want us to forget.

In that context, consider how an individual like Donald Trump might be threatening to adherents of the impersonalist world-view.  After all, he seems to be an atavism, a sport of nature, an exception to the uniformity of history.  Naturally he is hated by those who detest his policies, but he is even disparaged by those who would normally be considered fellow travelers.  The common line is that policies are supposed to be planned and enacted by teamwork, not by rogue agents.  Yet there he is, right or wrong, reminding us that an individual can divert the course of history, if not to order, at least to some extent.  This might be the furthest thing in the world from ethical individualism, yet it demonstrates, as nothing else could, the plausibility of a personalist world-view.

Apart from being playboys, Scheler and Trump would seem worlds apart.  The reflective thinker on the one hand, the impulsive actor on the other.  Yet the present moment in history is one of flux, one which gives lie to the myth of material forces proceeding on to a determined end.  The individual has returned with a vengeance, and this should lead us to renewed reflection on personalism in both ethics and metaphysics.

 

 

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