The Person as Absolute Particular1
Abstract: Kierkegaard’s notion of den Enkelte is situated in its Hegelian context as "self-equal and immediate." C.S. Peirce’s notion of the person as idiosyncratic idea is contrasted as "other-equal and mediate." An understanding of the person as "other-equal and immediate" is proposed.
That there might be an absolute universal does not immediately discomfort thought. Take for example the Thomistic notion of being itself as the universal agent of creation. Likewise that there should be an absolute individual is not intrinsically a problem for thought. Consider the Hegelian notion of the Absolute Individual that is the Divine Mind. But that there should be an absolute particular would appear to be a contradictio in adjecto. This was certainly Kierkegaard’s notion concerning the spiritual category of den Enkelte, the "single," the "particular" person who, in the extreme, existed on the far side of the universal (a place non-existent for reason) in passionate commitment to the absurd notion that the eternal begins in time. Kierkegaard’s thought was that the proper medium for den Enkelte was not thought but existence. The particular person cannot be absolute, and yet it absolutely is. For Kierkegaard den Enkelte, the single one, exists after having been subsumed by the universal, that is, after the moment of the individual—the moment wherein the particular is within the universal—precisely as that individual’s impossible predicate. In terms of the logical syllogism den Enkelte may be written as the predicate P in (U + P = I)/P. What is predicated of what is brought under the universal is what is brought under the universal not brought under the universal. Or in the terms of Kierkegaard’s existentialist subjectivity: what is predicated of the particular self is the particular self not the particular self, but in effect the (particular) God.2 As in Philosophical Fragments, so also in effect in his last entry in his Journal, on September 25, 1855, where Kierkegaard writes:
Like a man traveling around the whole world with the fixed idea of hearing a singer with a perfect tone, God sits in heaven and listens. And every time he hears praise from a person whom he has brought to the extremity of life-weariness, God says to himself: This is it. He says it as if he were making a discovery, but of course he was prepared, for he himself was present with the person and helped him insofar as God can give help for what only freedom can do. Only freedom can do it, but the surprising thing is to be able to express oneself by thanking God for it, as if it were God who did it. And in his joy over being able to do this, he is so happy that he will hear absolutely nothing about his having done it, but he gratefully attributes all to God and prays God that it may stay that way, that it is God who does it, for he has no faith in himself, but he does have faith in God.3
The particular as the predicate of the individual in Kierkegaard is not at all a simple rejection of Hegel’s notion of the individual. For Hegel the moment of individuality was the concrete recognition that the concept of a universal that was not the particular and the concept of a particular that was not the universal were false concepts of the abstract understanding. For Kierkegaard only the moment of existence is the concrete realization of the truth of individuality. Apart from existence the truth of individuality remains itself an abstraction of reason assimilating reason to the false understanding. Kierkegaard’s thinking out-Hegels Hegel. The task—no mean task—is to exist the reality of individuality. Kierkegaard writes in his Journal, on July 4, 1840,
After the system is complete and has reached the category of reality, the new doubt appears, the new contradiction, the last and the most profound: by what means does the metaphysical reality bind itself to historical reality . . .. This unity of the metaphysical and the accidental is already resident in self-consciousness, which is the point of departure for personality. I become conscious simultaneously in my eternal validity, in, so to speak, my divine necessity, and in my accidental finitude . . .. This latter aspect must not be overlooked or rejected; on the contrary, the true life of the individual is its apotheosis, which does not mean that this empty, contentless I steals, as it were, out of this finitude, in order to become volatilized and diffused in its heavenward emigration, but rather that the divine inhabits and finds its task in the finite.4
The unity of the metaphysical and the historical in self-consciousness, the absolute form of which is the Hegelian synthesis, is by no means a ground for complacency but rather the starting point for the task of personality, viz., for the deification of "this finitude." The I filled with the experience of its accidental nature is required to realize its divine necessity while and as it is clothed in finitude.
Hegel’s Absolute Idea may be succinctly understood historically as the synthesis of the Aristotelian notion of the divine mind’s contact with itself and the Augustinian notion of the divine mind’s contact with the world.5 The logical deep-structure of this synthesis is stated by Hegel in the Science of Logic:
In ordinary inference, the being of the finite appears as ground of the absolute; because the finite is, therefore the absolute is. But the truth is that the absolute is, because the finite is the inherently self-contradictory opposition, because it is not. In the former meaning, the inference runs thus: the being of the finite is the being of the absolute; but in the latter, thus: the non-being of the finite is the being of the absolute.6
The power of this argument is its simplicity, its sheer enkelhed. This argument from the nothingness of the finite to the being of the absolute enables Hegel to overturn with one blow all previous arguments for the existence of God, and, not least, to set aside the antinomies of Kant, as fundamentally mistaken in their taking as the starting point the being of the world. Hegel’s extraordinary argument instantiates the inference that sublates itself through the negative ground and, as vanished, grounds itself as "self-equal and immediate" (das sich selbst Gleiche und Unmittelbare).7 For Kierkegaard the new immediacy that is the faith "that can never be canceled in existence, since it is the highest, and by canceling it one becomes null and nichts"8—this new immediacy that is faith is the concrete form of the abstract self-equality and immediacy of the inference to the being of the absolute—realized by the existing individual whose esthetic-ethical immediacy has otherwise simply ceased to exist. Nor is Kierkegaard unaware that den Enkelte is itself a certain abstraction. He writes in Postscript:
In a certain sense, the subjective thinker speaks just as abstractly as the abstract thinker, because the latter speaks about humanity in general, subjectivity in general, the other about the one human being (unum noris, omnes if you know one, you know all). But this one human being is an existing human being, and the difficulty is not left out.9
Den Enkelte is humanity in particular, as Kierkegaard says, subjectivity in particular, the particular form of the Idea of God realized in and through the experience of the nothingness of finite existence, hence, itself an abstraction, indeed, as it were, an absolute induction (unum noris, omnes), but, qua absolute induction, itself in its very form calling attention to the difficulty that existence is for abstraction.10 That is, the subjective thinker’s speaking calls attention not to the difficulty that abstraction is for existence (it is no difficulty for the existing person who is not absent-mindedly forgetful of his or her existence), but rather to the difficulty that existence is for abstraction, the difficulty explicitly included in the form of the subjective thinker’s abstraction, that is, in the very form of the abstraction as the particular one, the single one, den Enkelte.
This is so because what is still operative in Kierkegaard’s notion of den Enkelte is the Cartesian reduction of humanity to the cogito, to the abstraction from the body, to the soul as finite mind at once the Idea (image & likeness) of God containing the Idea of God,11 the soul as finite self-reflective notion. The Cartesian I is effectively the I of a ‘mere man’ abstracted from the body and its world. For Descartes, this I, although finite, was not nothing.12 But for Hegel this I, qua finite, is nothing and as such vanishes in the infinite.13 The Kierkegaardian move to particular subjectivity is then not a move beyond the abstraction inherent in self-reflection, but rather the acknowledgment within the abstraction of the subjective thinker of the difficulty of existing the self-equality and immediacy of the divine idea. This difficulty is absent in Descartes whose immaterial finitude prescinds the nothingness of corporeal finitude. This difficulty is present in Kierkegaard following Hegel’s elevation of the Cartesian Idea of God to the position of the Infinite in the wake of Kant’s reduction of temporal-spatial substance to being purely phenomenal and at once the substance and limit of the finite consciousness. This is the context in which the refusal of its own nothingness on the part of the self of the natural man is the incomparable difficulty included in the abstraction of the subjective thinker.
The absolute particular—the particular predicated of the individual whose identity involves the nothingness of the particular qua particular—the incomparable difficulty for Kierkegaard’s subjective thinker—is not such a difficulty for the thinker whose subjectivity is ultimately a negative inference from the objective state of the world mediated by others as others. For C.S Peirce, the father of American pragmatism, the Absolute Idea of God is in fact the General Mind of God evolving in time and in continuity with the general mind of humanity, and, as he says in Some Consequences of Four Incapacities, the "individual man, since his separate existence is manifested only by ignorance and error, so far as he is anything apart from his fellows, and from what he and they are to be, is only a negation."14 Peirce assumes that the thinking of the child is initially without self-consciousness and that the latter only lately develops in the context of discovering that the judgments of others are better predictors than the child’s when it comes to what is true of the world independently of its contact with his or her body. In effect self-consciousness arises with the discovery that the testimony of others is a better predictor of truth and reality than the individual’s judgment in the absence of immediate contact. It is the discovery that the truth and reality of one’s own judgment compared to the general judgment of others is more likely than the latter to be erroneous. In Questions Concerning Certain Faculties Claimed for Man, Peirce contrasts individual self-consciousness with "the pure apperception" that "is the self-assertion of THE ego."15 But for Peirce for whom there can be no simple line of demarcation between the phenomenal and the noumenal—between appearance and substance—THE ego is in the process of realizing itself concretely in the evolutionary growth of the universe, while the concomitant tendency of the generality of human judgments to come more and more to agree upon what is the reality of the world explains in part what has so far been realized. The individual man is but a negation apart from the general judgment of his fellows, but, unlike its Hegelian analogue, in Peirce’s pragmatism the particular person or I is not absolutely but only relatively negated. Likewise the inference to the I is not one to self-equality and immediacy but to other-equality and mediacy. In Some Consequences of Four Incapacities, Peirce writes: "We have no power of Introspection, but all knowledge of the internal world is derived by hypothetical reasoning from our knowledge of external facts."16 The immortality of the I is assured to the individual insofar as the idea which he or she is is seen to be a part or limitation of the whole truth that it will in the long run not have been possible to ignore. The ultimate possibility of the person is not its being ignorant and erroneous, not its being apart from, but rather a part with, a participant, in the ultimate general agreement that will constitute reality, precisely its not being a "self." The whole tendency of the universe is toward the ideal final state—never however fully and finally to be realized—although gradually always more and more so—in which the habit-taking tendency will have brought all possibilities to a perfect particularity from which all that was merely a function of the vanity of the person, i.e., a function of the "self," will have been once and for all eliminated, while the particularity per se, the "idiosyncrasy" or true idea that the person is, will live forever.17
The pragmatism of Peirce inverts and subverts the anancistic order of the Hegelian eternally actualized unfolding of the divine mind.18 In Hegel Necessity precedes Freedom, Freedom recognizes its own Necessity. In Peirce there is the contradiction to Hegel in the form of the agapistic order of evolutionary cosmological growth. Freedom or Mind precedes Necessity or Nature. In pragmatism Nature recognizes and realizes its own Mind, its own Freedom.19 As Augustine would have understood it, Mind in American pragmatism is contemperated with Nature.20 The realization of its own Mind by Nature is then to be continued into the indefinite long run as the never finally perfect specification of the original possibility—a specification never simply to be, but, on the whole, forever more closely to be approximated. This never-ending approach to the full realization of "the Creator’s purpose" is the cosmological implication of the three categories of Peirce’s phenomenology, wherein what otherwise would be the moments of the Hegelian system are understood to be irreducible to one another, each—Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness—distinctly different from the others. In place of Hegel’s Aufhebung, in place of the abyss, instead of the negative mediation, there is in Peirce’s pragmatism what one might call Bewarhung, the affirmative mediation of the others, the preservation beyond death of the particular individual precisely insofar as he or she is not a self, but will have become, as he says, in Immortality in the Light of Synechism, "a spiritual consciousness," "one of the eternal verities, which is embodied in the universe as a whole . . . . and as an archetypal idea can never fail; and in the world to come is destined to a special spiritual embodiment."21
Now the question arises: Is there an understanding of the particular person that is entirely free of the limits of abstraction?22 Is there a completely concrete understanding of the person? Is there an understanding of the person beyond the Hegelian idea and the Peircean symbol? What might be such an understanding? It would be the essential and absolutely non-inevitable perfect specification of freedom no longer postponed. The other-equal and otherwise mediate person terminating in existence where essence is not an alternative to existence but where essence is, indeed, existence absolutely, absolutely particular or simple. It would be the beginning of existence transcending the relative middle. The beginning of existence as relative absolute. The relative absolute would be the person existing absolutely for the first time: the person existing in the form of the absolute simplicity of the beginning: the person thought essentially, i.e., as what is thought, as the thought of existence: die Person als Bestehengedanke.
In Kierkegaard the particular is at variance with the nothingness of its own particularity. In Peirce the particular is in accord with the not-nothingness of its being (nature) potentially at one with the totality of things (the eternal set of things), this totality of things the universe as "a great symbol of God’s purpose."23 In Peirce the other-equal and perfectly mediated reality of the person is never finally realized in matter. Indeed, its ideal truth is a spiritual existence that is essentially not material.24 But let the other-equal otherwise mediate person terminate in existence, rather than in idea. Then the actual existence of the person is the complete realization of its freedom. Then "all men are created equal" in actual fact, not merely in idea. Or, what is otherwise the idea (otherwise the abstraction) is existed absolutely in the form of an essentially concrete thinking for the first time the absolute otherness/particularity/simplicity itself of the person. Not the person existing the symbol, but for the first time the simplicity of the person beyond symbol: the particularity of the actual person: the person beyond that whose formal essence precludes matter: the person constituting essentially its material identity.
In A Guess at the Riddle Peirce writes: "there is no absolute third, for the third is of its own nature relative, and this is what we are always thinking, even when we aim at the first or second," "every state of the universe at a measurable point of time is this third."25 This third relates the Absolute First or nothing particular to the Absolute Second or everything particular. But now imagine the third absolutely abbreviated to "every state of the universe" at an immeasurable point of time: every state of the universe now the absolute third. In that case the phenomenology of consciousness will have become that of the object. If Peirce distinguished Firstness, Secondness, and Thirdness, then add to these a Fourthness, an Absolute Now, Fact or Identity, in effect, an Absolutely Unconditioned Break in the Continuum, in which the three Peircean categories are themselves the elements not of “one undivided feeling without parts,”26 but of “one undivided feeling” not without parts, no less undivided—the elements of the category of absolute quality—the object absolutely and immediately cognized as the now actual particular.27 That reality is identically the simplicity itself or singleness of the person. That everything particular—the terminus of the universe—is the person now other-equal and immediate.28
1 Presented at the Seventh International Conference on Persons held at the University of Memphis, Memphis, TN, August 2003.