Reason and the Subject of Philosophy

Written in Nov 2001

This short essay, written in 2001, traces the complex relationship between rationality and subjectivity in early 20th century philosophy. It touches on Kant, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Adorno, and suggests that if we introduce a new concept to the mix, we might be able to achieve a stabilized philosophy of the subject. The concept in question is the idea of "personhood."

Philosophie, die einmal überholt schien, erhält sich am Leben, weil der Augenblick ihrer Verwirklichung versäumt ward.

(Philosophy, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realize it was missed.)

(Theodor Adorno)

Truth kills, Nietzsche once advised philosophers, and he added: indeed, it kills itself.[1] We always knew that the voice of reason is, at best, a whisper in human affairs, but Nietzsche is the first philosopher to tell us that it is the voice of a suicidal subject. Is it only fin-de-siècle European pessimism (justified, we might add, from a later vantage point) or is Nietzsche expressing a deeper intuition about the destiny of philosophy as a discipline?

At the beginning of a new millennium, more than a hundred years after Nietzsche, we are still trying to overcome a crisis in Western philosophical thinking which has been articulated from Nietzsche to Wittgenstein, from Heidegger to Adorno. It seems that the end point of the trajectory of Western philosophy is not the absolute spirit, as Hegel once thought, but the person who philosophizes, and who now has to wonder whether she should call herself an artist rather than a philosopher.[2] This conclusion is not an anticipated or desired outcome, it is not the obvious end result of philosophy, but it has been reached because the traditional philosophical frames of references lose their credibility. The endpoint appears within the framework of traditional philosophical thinking as an impasse, because this thinking necessarily abstracts from the subject of thought. This becomes obvious, for example, in the question of rationality: The voice of reason, once considered to be univocal and strong enough to become the sole principle for the structuring of human society, has now revealed itself to be a chorus of voices, without a lead singer. But Nietzsche’s dictum implies more than a prediction of postmodern multiplicity. He looks at truth as if it were the subject of philosophy, driven by the desire to terminate itself. And desire becomes action if no attempt is made to listen to the message that it carries. Has traditional philosophical thinking, as we learned it from Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel, outlived its usefulness for us?


This paper proceeds from the assumption that the arguments against philosophy are already philosophical, and that it is a major task for philosophy to interpret its own history. I intend to show that philosophy is essentially driven by its own errors and shortcomings. The basis for my interpretation is a philosophy of language, informed by Wittgenstein and Peirce. I will focus on two themes, rationality and the theory of the subject, and examine how they relate to each other.

In the first part, I will describe the development within philosophical discourse that leads into the crisis, and then argue that the crisis is a result of the identification of the subject of philosophy with rationality. This identification can be avoided if one remembers that there is a difference between the philosophizing ego, or the “I” of the statement, and the subject of the enunciation, or the concrete person that engages in philosophical activity. Only if we keep this difference in mind can we avoid the trap in paradoxes like “I am lying.” The suggestion that truth turns against itself will become understandable as a tool to rescue the philosophizing subject from the grip of its identification with reason.

In the second part, I suggest that philosophy is ultimately the attempt to understand oneself better. Philosophies of mind which build on the immediacy of self-consciousness cannot escape from the circle of an identity-thinking, in which the real is always re-absorbed by a consciousness that posits itself as transparent self-awareness. This allows the abstraction from the concrete existence and the subjectivity of the thinker. I suggest that we can extract from the philosophical tradition a concept that avoids these impasses. The “I” is not a natural entity, but the outcome of a relationship. This relational understanding of the human being was traditionally articulated with the concept of the person, which has a long and difficult history. I will trace its Christian origin and the major stages of its development. The philosopher who articulates the defense of the person in its individuality most eloquently is Kierkegaard with his notion of existence. To him, self-consciousness is a paradox that can only be resolved if the subject accepts that it is created by something other than itself (God). Then it can give up its identification with reason without causing a self-contradiction. In opposition to Kierkegaard’s stance, I will argue that the relation which creates the person does not originate in God, but in the semiotic relationship inherent in language. The use of a name to refer to somebody separates him forever from any categorical distinction. Person thus refers to the unity of mind and body, which is created through language as the third element. The unity becomes personalized only through the naming function of language.

The Thinking Subject

Metaphysical thinking uses the totalizing method of the reductio ad absurdum in order to make synthetic statements a priori about reality – statements which are held to be true and which supposedly apply to everything which exists. How is it possible to justify philosophical statements about the whole of reality? The truth of a philosophical sentence is proven by demonstrating that its negation leads to a contradiction. For instance: “True knowledge about the world is possible.” The sentence, so the philosophers of metaphysics conclude, must be true because its negation – that true knowledge is not possible – contains a self-contradiction. If this method is accepted, then the correspondence theory of truth is our only serious choice: We could not deny the correspondence between being and thinking without self-contradiction. The error lies in the assumption that the logical deduction alone leads to knowledge of reality. Furthermore, the collapse of one alternative does not prove the truth of the other – it only excludes the first.

It is Kant’s achievement that he brought these inadequacies in metaphysical philosophy to light. According to him, statements that go beyond the realm of empirical experience (like the law of causality) are synthetic statements a priori, and they are only possible if there is a relation between subject and object that exists a priori, before any experience. Only if all knowledge is a construction of the transcendental subject (the subject insofar as it lies outside of the empirical – if it is not itself a fact of life, or an event) is an a priori mediation between subject and object possible. In other words: our receptive perception is based on an active construction.

The consequence of Kant’s approach is a departure from the correspondence theory of truth and an unbridgeable division between the noumenal and the phenomenal aspect of reality. We don’t know anything about the reality “behind” our perception, because we are necessarily caught in the process of perception, which is an integral part of the constitution of the subject. Furthermore, the transcendental subject in question is only the generalized structure of subjectivity, and not the concrete subject. For Kant, the subject is deeply split between an empirical (finite) subject, a transcendental subject (the condition for the possibility of perception) and a transcendent subject (the assumption that the subject must exist in reality.)

Kant becomes the destroyer of traditional metaphysics; he shows that the correspondence theory is based on the assumption of the intelligibility of reality that we don’t have to accept. After Kant, metaphysics becomes impossible; what is possible for Kant is a transcendental analysis of our categories of perception and thinking. Such an analysis is reductive; it asks for the condition of the possibility of true knowledge. Kant’s answer implies that a mediation between the structure of subjectivity and the structure of reality takes place, but transcendental analysis alone cannot make valid statements about this process. At this point Kant’s argument breaks down.

As a result of Kant’s intervention, philosophy becomes self-critical. From this point on, thinking begins to reflect on itself in order to become aware of its own limitations. The moment where the self-critique in Western philosophy becomes a self-contradiction occurs in the philosophy of Nietzsche. He questions the motives behind philosophical system-building and attacks the notion of rationality itself: in his eyes it is nothing but ideology. Under the impression of evolutionism, he argues that the mind is a tool in the service of survival and self-preservation. The ultimate teleology of its functioning is self-preservation and the will to power - not truth. His arguments against the autonomy of reason lead to a fundamental dilemma for philosophy. If rationality is explained as a tool for the self-preservation of humankind or an instrument for the control of nature, one basically takes a position that contradicts itself because this explanation has a higher degree than the knowledge which is generated as a function of the survival-process. If philosophy surrenders the concept of rationality, it surrenders itself.

Modern scientific research shows the many ways in which behavior is conditioned by external and internal forces. In spite of this evidence, we maintain the belief that we are “in control,” because if we would not, we would have to give up the idea of subject, and we would become an element in a chain of cause and effect that is without beginning and end and without direction. We disappear. The same paradox exists in relation to rationality. If the autonomy of reason is a fiction, what allows us to draw this conclusion? It is this dilemma that Nietzsche faces; and the metaphysical argument outlined above was designed to avoid this self-contradiction by declaring that the intelligibility of reality is the only available option that is congruent with the autonomy of reason.

How does Nietzsche find an exit from the circle of identity thinking? He introduces a third term into the duality of thought and being – fiction. In a note from 1888 he writes: Par­menides said, ‘one cannot think of what is not’; - we are at the other extreme, and say “what can be thought of must certainly be a fiction.”[3]

Nietzsche’s reference to Parmenides is a negative version of the sentence: Thinking and Being are the same. One cannot think of what is not. Nietzsche’s qualification, that we are at the other extreme, shows that in his opinion both statements mark the beginning and the end of a movement – as it is, this is the movement of Western philosophy. Hegel’s absolute idealism is the climax – from then on we rapidly move towards what can be thought of must certainly be a fiction. Nietzsche first expressed the thoughts that came to fruition in the postmodern condition which is nowadays fashionable.

What happened in between? When viewed from the end, the history of philosophy appears as a commentary on Parmenides’ statement. Parmenides wants the identity because he faces the rift of non-identity; he expresses a wish rather than a truth. The history of philosophy is the history of the pursuit of this desire. Philosophy would come to an end if the difference that maintains the desire is exhausted: if identity thinking constantly reabsorbs alterity, as in Hegel’s formula of the identity of identity and difference, or if thinking has become fully absorbed by the goals of survival and adaptation, if it has become pure positivism. There is a third option between absolute Idealism and positivism: the movement of Western philosophy comes to an end if we understand that “being,” “world,” or “subject” are the necessary correlates of thinking in concepts; they are meaning-effects produced by language. The development of philosophical systems can now be interpreted not in terms of the inherent logic of the thought-process, but as a defense against the fear of an unknown real.

Nietzsche’s introduction of fiction as the third term that results from the dialectic of thought and being indicates his wish to speak another language, to find an exit from the history of philosophy as he knew it. The introduction of this term is foundational, as we can see from a story we find in Nietzsche’s Götzendämmerung (Twilight of the Idols). The story describes the process that leads to the end of history; it is entitled How the True World Finally Became Fiction. The History of an Error:

1. The true world, attainable to the sage, the pious man and the man of virtue, - he lives in it, he is it. (The most ancient form of the idea was relatively clever, simple, convincing. It was a paraphrase of the proposition “I, Plato, am the truth.“)

2. The true world which is unattainable for the moment, is promised to the sage, to the pious man and to the man of virtue (”to the sinner who repents”). (Progress of the idea: it becomes more subtle, more insidious, more evasive, - it be­comes a woman, it becomes Christian.)

3. The true world is unattainable, it cannot be proved, it cannot promise anything; but even as a thought, alone, it is a comfort, an obligation, a com­mand. (At bottom this is still the old sun; but seen through mist and skepticism: the idea has become sublime, pale, northern, Königsbergian.[4])

4. The true world - is it unattainable? At all events it is unattained. And as unattained it is also unknown. Consequently it no longer comforts, nor saves, nor constrains: what could something unknown constrain us to? (The grey of dawn. Reason stretches itself and yawns for the first time. The cock-crow of positivism.)

5. The ”true world” - an idea that no longer serves any purpose, that no longer constrains one to anything, - a useless idea that has become quite superfluous, consequently an exploded idea: let us abolish it! (Bright daylight; breakfast; the return of common sense and of cheerfulness; Plato blushes for shame and all free-spirits kick up a shindy.)

6. We have suppressed the true world: what world survives? The apparent world perhaps? …Certainly not! In abolishing the true world we have also abolished the world of appearance!

(Noon; moment of the shortest shadows; end of the longest error; high-point of humanity; Incipit Zarathustra.)”[5]

The story is a reversed Genesis – it describes six steps in which the true world is transformed into fiction. Similarly, according to the Christian myth it took six days for God to create the world. History is fulfilled when the desire for philosophy is extinguished, when the world has become a fable again. Then we have left historical time and re-entered a different time: noon, a moment of mystical experience, where creation is complete. Nietzsche’s attempt to find another language, a language which is free from the oppositions thinking/being, true/false, or mythos/logos, leads to a moment of void, the moment of the shortest shadow, where the longest error ends. This moment ends history, but not in the Hegelian sense. It is an instance of destiny realized (for the history of philosophy), and it is the moment of the birth of the subject – Incipit Zarathustra.

Nietzsche, the clear-sighted prophet, knows long before anyone else that with the abolition of metaphysics we also have abolished the world of appearance, the world of facts, events, and things[6]. Positivism is also dead. Enlightenment is in a dialectical continuity with mythology, as Horkheimer and Adorno demonstrate in their book from 1947, entitled Dialectic of Enlightenment. In order to leave the dichotomy true world/world as appearance behind, Nietzsche totalizes fiction and liberates it from the opposition to truth. Fiction is the lie that is truth.[7] Our whole world is itself fictional, and for this reason the Christian account of Creation is superfluous. We no longer have the need for a myth of origin. This determines Nietzsche’s strategy. He shifts the discourse and fights philosophy and theology with fables. God is dead, and we have killed him.[8] The strategy is so effective because the discourse of philosophy (the discourse of truth) is itself a fable. Philosophy produces the fiction of being, of God, or of a pre-discursive reality, and then it dismantles it again. Enlightenment destroys the belief in God, but its momentum doesn’t stop there: it also destroys the concept of truth. Or in the words of Nietzsche again: Truth kills – indeed it kills itself.[9]

Where do we find ourselves after the last act of this philosophical tragedy is finished? What to do now that we have reached the end? The destruction of concepts like being, substance, rationality, subject, or God, leaves nobody unaffected. We live in a Heraklitean world that has no center, and the idea that it had one is the fiction that was destroyed. A seismic shift has occurred, our world has truly changed, and together with it we are now in a continuous flow; and interestingly enough it was a madman who intonated the Requiem aeternam deo first.[10]

What is left after the breakdown of all conceptual frames is the subject that attempts to philosophize. Not only does it still breathe, it continues to speak. If subject is one of those concepts that doesn’t survive the critique, then who, or what, speaks? The question indicates the fundamental split within us, where the speaking, self-conscious ego is located on one side of the chasm. It has no immediate knowledge of itself – the “I” of the statement does not coincide with the subject of the enunciation. The modern subject is characterized by a deep alienation from itself; it is radically exterior in relation to itself, and this realization completes the Newtonian revolution. Fichte first formulated in his response to Kant the idea that the subject is already a thing in itself, a Ding an sich. The claim of identity that is implied whenever I say “I” is false. The reality that constitutes the subject is largely unknown to the speaking ego; and this epistemological limit causes the split that is articulated in Freud’s notion of the unconscious. His system is influential because he demonstrates the contradictory and conflictual nature of human behavior, motivation and thinking with many empirical examples.

The strangeness in this conception of the human subject that is split in relation to itself becomes more acceptable if we remind ourselves of the mind-body problem. Already the body is otherness; certainly it does not define the subject. We don’t say that we are a body, but that we have it. Similarly, the immediacy of self-consciousness is based on a power-relation (I have thoughts, feelings, etc.), but what rules our thinking, our emotions, and our body, remains enigmatic for us. When we sleep, we are not aware of the fact that we sleep; when we awake, we are not aware of awakening. We just wake up, and then we can say: “I” – meaning this body – “have awakened.” But who (or what) is it that can say “I”? We don’t have the possibility to answer this question from the place of I-consciousness, because we don’t have an immediate knowledge of ourselves. There is an unknown and continually changing world not only out there, but also inside of us. This world affects us, as we experience it, for instance, in dreams, but its impact is far more wide-reaching than the glimpses we get from these occasional manifestations of the unconscious. We need to utilize the tools of modern logic, mathematics, and topology, not only introspection, in order to gain some more understanding of the nature of subjectivity. What we face is not only the empirical problem of gaining better knowledge of ourselves, but an epistemological problem: How can we know anything, if we have no Archimedean point that would guarantee the truth of our knowledge, like the Cartesian I am, or the idea that there is innate knowledge, or a foundation for knowledge in reality? The resulting doubt is fundamental and painful; a good example of it can be found in Wittgenstein’s last writings.[11]

The Real Subject: Existence in Relationships

If “I” am unknown to myself, naturally nature is even further away from being a certainty. The real is beyond our thinking, but we constantly forget this chasm. Nevertheless, we know something about it - there is no firm epistemological limit to what we can know - because it appears within consciousness as a reality that cannot be assimilated by the subject, for instance through mathematical objects and statements, or through the logical paradoxes. The idea of the real, itself, that something is, and not merely thought, is only possible due to the double negation of any thinking whatsoever: thinking negates itself in its very act by implying that there is a beyond of itself which it is not. The idea of the real is a negation of the emptiness of mere thought. Negativity is built into every concept: it is not only different from the object it represents,[12] but it also negates the difference between the various individual objects that it claims to represent. And subsequently, a subject is characterized by the same difference between the signifier and reality, except that in the case of a subject the difference is inherent – it is a radical difference to itself. Furthermore, subjects pose an individuation problem. We refer to them not by a universal, i.e. this bird, but by a name that refers to a unique individual. The “who” is different from the “what” – a subject is not identical with “what” it is. The name is inexhaustible through definitions. This difference implies that we find ourselves in a process of continuous change, whose dynamic cannot be subsumed under a general law, exactly because we don’t know what we are. The process of life is not deterministic, it is essentially open. Therefore, subject is not a descriptive term. It implies a normative claim:somebody is different from something, but the difference is not a matter of definition; rather, it demands recognition.

In the history of philosophical concepts, the difference between somebody and something is expressed with the term person. Boethius (480-524) introduced the concept with his famous definition that a “person” is anindividual substance of a rational nature (persona est naturae rationabilis individua substantia.[13]) To recall the history of this term will allow us to understand our concept of the person as the endpoint in a line of thinking that originates in Christian religiosity. Its central tenet is the recognition that the individual is a totality that must be treated as an end in itself, and therefore it is free, even in relation to reason.

Ancient philosophy does not have a philosophical notion of the person. In Plato’s philosophy, consciousness is essentially equated with reason - the philosopher is free, because his autonomy is based on the rule of reason. His desires are in harmony with his will, because the philosopher has generalized himself. (In the ironic version of Nietzsche: I, Plato, am the truth.) He is beyond the conflict in which the particularity of human desire clashes with the general good. Reason is the uniting bond between human beings; it distinguishes them from the animal realm. It is the universal, and as such it is also identical with the idea of the good.[14]

Plato’s view of the human being is caught up in the opposition between the particular and the universal. The particular is unimportant and irrelevant. Plato sacrifices his life to the ideas of truth and freedom, understood as self-determination. The human being is the particular destined to realize and express the rule of the universal and of reason.

This anthropology has some major problems. If the reasonable were self-evident, why is it that many people seem to do the opposite? Often, people knowingly act against their own best self-interest, against what would be good for them. St. Paul expressed this experience in the famous saying: I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.[15] In other words, to base consciousness on the idea of reason alone does not account for the experience of split and difference in oneself, which is sometimes felt as a deep sense of desperation or loneliness in relation to one’s life.

In modern philosophy, Kierkegaard, especially, emphasized the notion of individual existence in his attack on Hegel. He claims that subjectivity is truth.[16] The individual is beyond the conflict of particular versus universal, because it is not just a part of the overarching universal truth. The individual is itself a totality, in relation to which everything else is particular.

Kierkegaard’s philosophy of the subject is a Christian philosophy, in which the truth is identified with the person of Jesus Christ. (…the eternal, essential truth that has come into existence in time[17]) People turn away from the good not because they don’t know it, but because they prefer darkness to light[18] and this “sin” consists, according to the Jesus of the gospel of John, in the fact that they don’t believe in me.[19]

The articulation of the concept of person is a response to the religious belief that is at the root of Christianity. Truth is incarnated in a subject; its realization is understood as a personal act of faith in relation to this person, and not in relation to some over-individual and abstract insight.

Thus, the realization of truth is based on a decision and not on knowledge. This decision is seen as a conversion of the heart, and not as an act of reason. Christian faith defies reason; it is an absurdity to understanding for St. Paul. This view understands the person as an agency that is not completely determined by its nature, but it is essentially free. The word in the Christian tradition that symbolizes the element of freedom to determine one’s own destiny is the heart, and not the mind. The reasons of the heart are emotional, and Meister Eckhart even goes so far as to say that the heart is without reason, it is a cause without cause (grundloser Grund.) It is itself a first cause, an origin. The core of Christian ethics is an absolute respect for the other person.

In order to express the anthropological discovery that truth is incarnated in a human being, Christian theologians began to utilize the concept of person, which ultimately leads to our current notion of human rights. Personwas originally a term that described a role in a theater play. The persona is the actor’s mask. It then becomes generalized and designates the role one plays within society (and not the subject behind the role). Originally, it meant the mask itself. What is behind the mask is nature – persona is a secondary identity in relation to nature. In the Christian adaptation of the antique concept this relationship gets reversed. A person now designates a being that relates to its own nature as if it were a role. We don’t say about the human being that it is nature, but rather that it has a nature.

This change is the result of a process of reflection in early Christianity that lasted several hundred years. The objective was to resolve the Christological paradoxes: How can Christ be man and God? What does this mean for the understanding of God’s nature?

Jesus’ claim, that he is God,[20] forces the early Christian theologians to look for alternatives to a strict monotheism, without surrendering God’s unity. How can God be one, if one claims that Jesus is also God? It is in order to deal with those questions that theologians become philosophers: they utilize Plotin’s (205–270) neoplatonic philosophy and his concept of the emanation that connects a primordial Oneness through a process of internal differentiation to the world, like an activity that results from a power, or thoughts that proceed from the mind.[21]

One cannot think of God as One if he decides to create the world as separate from himself. But he must also be thought of as independent from the world, or the solution would be pantheistic; a claim that was made against Hegel’s philosophy. The answer to this problem is a theological model that sees God’s internal self-mediation as a necessary and eternal process. God was self-mediated Oneness, before the world existed. This idea of God as a self-mediating Oneness is very different from the Jewish monotheistic God, whose name cannot be pronounced. For Christian theology, God reveals himself due to the eternal life in him. The Christian God is conceptualized as an overflowing fullness, as opposed to the Jewish God whose concept is derived from the pure difference that is inherent in language. God is not of this world, and therefore his name can only be written, but not pronounced, because a signifier is not an image of the thing it represents. This law preserves the sacredness of God, and it effectively communicates the claim that he is radical Otherness.

The threefold differentiation within the one God required conceptual innovation. Greek theologians used the notion of Hypostasis (which literally means that which lies beneath as basis or foundation and designates something which can exist through itself) for the three parts of the unity. Western theologians, starting with Tertullian, argued that the differentiation couldn’t be understood spatially, but purely numerically. They began to use a linguistic model and started to speak of the three persons (first, second, and third) that together form the unity of one God.

What is important in this development of the concept is the shift in the relationship between nature and person: it is now the entity that has a nature – it is no longer seen as determined by its nature. This separation of the person from its nature is only possible if there is a multiplicity of persons – hence the Trinity.

The second problem, in response to which theologians forged the concept of person as we know it today, is the paradox that results from the claim that Jesus is simultaneously God and man. He is neither a mixed creature – half God and half man – as we encounter them occasionally in Greek mythology, nor a theophany - God disguised in a human form. How is the incarnation of God in man possible? The formula, which was adopted at the Council of Chalkedon (451), is that Jesus has two natures: divine and human. The unification of these two natures is achieved through the concept of person. It is one person, namely the son, who is already a part of the Trinitarian unity, who has, in addition to his divine nature, also a human nature. In this form, Jesus is the link between God and the world.

Boethius, although he was not a Christian, summarized and defined the concept of person for the next thousand years to come: persona est naturae rationabilis individua substantia[22] (Person is an individual substance of a rational nature.) Person means the unique form in which beings of a rational nature individualize themselves.

In the following centuries, the debate centered on the questions of what does nature (physis) mean in relation to person, and how is this relationship of having a nature (individuation) to be understood? The definition of Boethius is far-reaching but inadequate, because it is based on a metaphysic of substance. The struggle for a better understanding of person is the struggle for a relational understanding of the concept. If person is not a substance, but rather a modus of existence, the unique and individual realization of a particular substance, then existence and essence, or substance, becomes juxtaposed.[23] This approach excludes the traditional categorization of substances for human beings. Each person is always a class in itself; it is not a species that could be subsumed under a category. Person is not a descriptive term, it is, strictly speaking, something that requires its own name.

Thomas Aquinas solved this problem of individuation by stating that the categorical term person is somewhere between concept and name, or rather the name for an individuum vagum, a yet undetermined individual.“Person” is not a name of exclusion nor of intention, but the name of a reality.[24] Thomistic anthropology is a compromise between a substance - and process - oriented understanding of the person. For the human being, the soul is the substantial form of the body (anima forma corporis). This unity becomes actualized as a person, which is the relational term that denotates the unity of mind and body that is unique for each human being. Since the substantial form is also self-subsisting (subsistens in se,) the possibility for a resurrection of the flesh is given.

What differentiates the individual substances which we call persons from other individual substances is the fact that they have dominion over their actions. They are not only made to act through something else, Thomas says, but they act of themselves. (Non solum aguntur, sicut alia, sed per se agunt.[25]) Thomas distinguishes two ways to act for a person: [26] insofar as a person acts through itself it can be called a truly human act (actus humanus); and insofar as the person acts because it’s body is part of nature it can be called the act of a human being (actus hominis). Only the first type of action is self-determined, therefore free, and subject to ethical consideration. The split in the subject is obvious in this dual definition of action. The freedom of the will in the definition of Thomas is not a freedom of choice, because the object of will is the self-perfection of one’s own nature. The act of freedom consists in the affirmation of the nature that determines the person and manifests itself as a power, or, if we draw a bold analogy to Hegelian terminology, as desire.

It is important to note that scholastic thinking did not identify person with the “I” of consciousness, and not even with consciousness itself. A person’s identity is not constituted through the content of consciousness or through memory – this is a misconception that started with Locke. It is simply constituted through the signifier “I.” There is no vagueness in the reference when somebody says “I.”[27] It refers directly to the speaker, without requiring another determination or definition. This uniqueness implies an ultimate solitude, or, as Thomas would say, the experience of “I” is incommunicable.[28] If the self-reference of the “I” is always simply the speaker, its identity over time can only be constituted through the fact that it also has a body. Philosophies of mind which build on the immediacy of self-consciousness don’t offer satisfactory solutions, as we can see in the case of Descartes: he had to evoke a benevolent God in order to guarantee the identity and the continuity of self-consciousness over time, since there is nothing in the punctual experience of I think that allows for continuity over time. Descartes eliminates the function of memory through his method of radical doubt, and reintroduces it only after he has convinced himself that the Other (God) really exists.

The concept of the person expresses the inherent tension in the history of Western philosophical and theological thinking. It was developed within the context of a philosophy of nature and then modified in order to allow a theological reflection that attempted to express the Christian experience. But to the degree to which the concept person came to signify the experience of distance to one’s own nature, it could become separated from its religious roots and begin to function in a secularized context. Insofar as it limits the recourse to nature in the self-definition of the human being, it also marks a point of origin for ethics, because it implies that persons are responsible for themselves and their actions.

It is not astonishing that the attempt to create a new philosophical anthropology becomes an urgent task in the developing philosophical landscape after philosophy frees itself from theology. Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit has a principle of construction that conceptualizes the history of humankind as the process of the self-actualization of an absolute subject. The counterpart to Hegel is the existentialist Søren Kierkegaard, who translates Christian belief more faithfully into epistemology and anthropology. He is the first philosopher who considers the dynamics of “subjectivity” and its contradictions as a field for philosophical speculation. The central term he uses, to elaborate a philosophy of the subject, is the self.

Kierkegaard sees the human being as the locus where the dialectic between the finite and the infinite is decided. In order to bring these two dimensions into a relation to each other, he introduces a third element, which he calls the self. The self is this relationship, but it is characterized by a relative independence towards the terms that constitute it:

Man is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity, in short it is a synthesis. A synthesis is a relation between two factors. So regarded, man is not yet a self. In the relation between two, the relation is the third term as a negative unity, and the two relate themselves to the relation, and in the relation to the relation; such a relation is that between soul and body, when man is regarded as soul. If on the contrary the relation relates itself to its own self, the relation is then the positive third term, and this is the self. [29]

For Kierkegaard, the human self is a double relation. It consists of mutually exclusive elements: the finite and the infinite, mind and body, freedom and necessity. They cannot be related to each other unless a third term is introduced. Kierkegaard calls this third term the “negative unity,” since it represents only the lack of a relationship. The relation that is created through the introduction of the third term becomes a self for Kierkegaard when it – on a secondary level – relates to itself as well. He defines the human subject as a relation which relates itself to its own self, and in relating itself to its own self relates itself to another.[30] The self constitutes itself, as an active self-relation, in the relationship between mind and body, which becomes the material of its self-realization. The human subject expresses itself through the way in which it exists in the world (Heidegger’sDaseinsweise). As such, it is its own totality that supersedes abstract or philosophical notions of the universal, of being, or of God.[31]

Kierkegaard’s statement that subjectivity is truth grounds the concept of the person through the process of existence rather than through concepts like substance or being.

Here it is not forgotten, even for a single moment, that the subject is existing and that existing is a becoming and that truth as the identity of thought and being is therefore a chimera of abstraction and truly only a longing of creation, not because truth is not an identity, but because the knower is an existing person and thus truth cannot be an identity for him as long as he exists. [32]

He distinguishes thought, being, and existence. Although in reality there is an identity between those terms, they are functionally different for us: Man thinks and exists, and existence separates thought and being, holding them apart from one another in succession. Because we exist, being can only be a becoming for us, and the philosophers of being are chasing an empty abstraction.

In an existential understanding, computers can never be subjects. They can simulate almost every human behavior – and in many cases they vastly outperform their human “originals.” But those abilities do not make them subjects. They may be able to process enormous amounts of information in very complex operations, but they don’t relate to their thinking in the way humans do – they cannot, for instance, decide to switch themselves off, or commit suicide.[33] The ability of deductive reasoning remains secondary against the reality of existence.

The self is a finite totality, because it constantly faces its own negation through death. For Kierkegaard, the fact that it is not constituted through itself, but through another, is the reason that the self-relation is fundamentally characterized by despair. Human existence is unstable. In its utter dependency it wants to relate itself to the power that created it. This is another way of saying that the self is a synthesis of two factors which are not only opposites of each other, but totally heterogeneous. Taken by itself, the self is a disrelationship, therefore the fundamental despair.

For Kierkegaard, the power that ultimately constitutes the self is God. Only when it accepts its groundedness in the power that posited it can it truly become itself. The belief in God is a consequence of the acceptance that the subject has a self-conscious relation to itself. If the subject is created, it must, so the argument goes, be created by another subject. In this line of thinking, the existence of the subject requires that there be a personal God.

This argument can be reversed. The abolition of God leaves us at a loss in regards to self-consciousness, and leads to the abolition of the self-conscious subject,[34] or in Nietzsche’s words: with the elimination of the belief in a true world, the world of appearances also vanishes. And with the world of appearances, the subject vanishes. If there is no Other (God) who could recognize and choose the subject in its uniqueness, it will fall back into nature. Consciousness becomes a quality of certain living organisms, another fact of life, it has lost its sacredness, because nothing is sacred any more.

Kierkegaard’s position represents the other extreme in a development that started with the search for the universal, for the highest good, and ends with concepts like person or self, which represents a finite totality whose substance is relational. Kierkegaard’s theory of the subject is still idealistic; his self, although purely relational, is ultimately grounded in God. In this regard, Kierkegaard’s philosophy is still in line with the reasoning that we uncovered at the origin of the concept of the person. There is another way to solve the problem “what is the self?” The third term that creates a positive relationship between mind and body, between the finite and the infinite, is simply given through language, or through the representational relation that is inherent in the signifier. According to C. S. Peirce, a sign is anything that stands for something other than itself. Sign refers to the relationship between a signifier and what it stands for (the signified), but this relation is relative to the context in which it gets interpreted.[35] Since the signifier stands for something other than itself, it introduces negativity into the completeness of the real and establishes a relation between what exists and its absence. What we call “subject” is the effect that the signifier has on a particular body. Whenever this body tries to identify itself by saying “I,” it has to refer to a pre-existing context in order to fill this identification with meaning, since there is no innate meaning to the relation of signification itself. Whatever somebody says about himself, he borrows his meaning from others (and from the language he is born into). In this regard, personal identity is always composed of identifications with others. The person is not a relation that has become conscious of itself (how?), but it is created by signifiers, whose existence indicates the presence of other subjects, and who carry with them the desire of others. What we find at the core of the person, is only the emptiness of the signifier.

Against Kierkegaard, for whom the dimension of the infinite means something positive, (God, eternity, freedom, etc.) we now have to declare that the question of infinity arises only as a result of the emptiness of the signifying relation. Signifiers can refer to other signifiers, but this self-reference does not create more meaning. The uniqueness of the person, which also represents solitude, is always mediated through the identification with others, but this identification is never complete. What remains is a desire to unite, to merge the individual with the collective, but on the level of society we find the same absence of meaning. The only mode in which a closure of the emptiness of meaning can be achieved is fantasy. The passion for philosophy is, just like the scientific quest for more knowledge, based on a fantasy of closure, of fulfilled meaning.

Kierkegaard’s concept of the self is such a fantasy. It is a religious dream, characteristic for the 19th century emphasis on the individual. Marx unveiled it as a bourgeois ideology if seen in the context of historical materialism. Kierkegaard’s individual is a lonely figure; the rootedness in society is not part of its definition. Contemporary experience is different: today people are socialized into masses; and human sciences concern themselves with the prediction, the shaping, and the disciplining of behavior. The process of socialization has become a focus of political and economic interest, and, as a result, individual characters and biographies are formed according to the needs of society. What we tend to forget is the fact that the transformation of society into the social machinery of the market becomes a necessity for the reproduction of society in its given form. The culture industry knows how to reproduce and utilize our deepest fantasies. The flow of information is filtered in such a way that serious alternatives to the existing system never come into sight. The idea of democracy is endangered through a process that manufactures public opinions. This machinery works as long as it is veiled. People need the illusion of individualism, of unique subjectivity, in order to function as isolated individuals who are not aware of the degree to which they are integrated into the capitalistic totality of the market. In this respect, the idea of the uniqueness of the subject has become a marketing tool, a symbol for the cynicism that is inherent in the system: the way to the realization of this dream consists in getting rich.

We have reached a historical point where we realize that the search for meaning does not coincide with the quest for more knowledge, or the pursuit of rationality. The answers that we find in the search for more knowledge only produce more questions. The crisis in philosophy can be equated with the discovery of the lack of an ultimate meaning. We find ourselves in the remote corner of a universe that resembles a construction zone of gigantic proportions, and we are, most likely, not even alone in it. But all this knowledge is useless when we raise the question of the meaning of our own existence. Religions give us speculative answers, but they function as tools for civilization, because they try to convince us of the need for sacrifice and discipline in the hope of some future fulfillment. The individual person wants an answer to the enigma of its own existence; it is for this reason that the concept of the “person” was invented.


[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, Das Philosophenbuch, III, § 176.

[2] Nietzsche certainly has crossed this line already.

[3] Nietzsche, The Will to Power, translated by W. Kaufmann and R. Hollingdale: New York, Random House, 967, p. 291

[4] Kant was a native of Königsberg and lived there all his life.

[5] Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, in: Complete Works, Russell & Russell, New York, 1964, Vol. 16, p. 24

[6] Or in the words of Heidegger: We are moving already, if we look closely enough, in a world where there are no more things. Satz vom Grund. My translation.

[7] See: Nietzsche, Friedrich: Twilight of the Idols. Reason in Philosophy, #2.

[8] Nietzsche, Friedrich: Gay Science, #125

[9] Nietzsche, Das Philosophenbuch, III, 176

[10] What did we do when we unchained this earth from the sun? Whither does it now move? Whither do we move? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still an above and below? Do we not stray, as through infinite nothingness? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Does not night come on continually, darker and darker? Nietzsche, Friedrich: Gay Science, #125, “The Madman”.

[11] See Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty. Edited by Anscombe and von Wright.

[12] As in Magritte’s painting of a pipe, entitled “This is not a pipe.”

[13] Boethius: De Persona et Duabus Naturis, c 2.

[14] Parable of the Sun, Plato: Republic VI, 508f

[15] Romans 7, 15. This sentence can almost be used as a definition of the unconscious.

[16] Kiekegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Translated by H. and E. Hong, Princeton University Press, 1992. p. 213

[17] Kierkegaard, Postscript, p. 213

[18] John 3,19

[19] John 16,9

[20] John 10, 30 or John 14, 9

[21] The adaptation of Plotin’s neo-platonic view occurs at the first Council of Nicaea in 325.

[22] Boethius: De Persona et Duabus Naturis, c 2.

[23] Richard of St. Victor († 1173), for example, criticizes that a person can never be a substance as in Boethius’ definition, but can only be something from which substance can be predicated. He defines “person” as …something which exists through itself in the unique modus of rational existence” (“existens per se solum juxta singularem quamdam rationalis existentiae modum.) Richard of St. Victor, De Trinitate 4,24.

[24] Thomas, Summa Theologiae, I, q30, 4: We must therefore resolve that even in human affairs this name "person" is common by a community of idea, not as genus or species, but as a vague individual thing. The names of genera and species, as man or animal, are given to signify the common natures themselves, but not the intentions of those common natures, signified by the terms "genus" or "species." The vague individual thing, as "some man," signifies the common nature with the determinate mode of existence of singular things--that is, something self-subsisting, as distinct from others. But the name of a designated singular thing signifies that which distinguishes the determinate thing; as the name Socrates signifies this flesh and this bone. But there is this difference--that the term "some man" signifies the nature, or the individual on the part of its nature, with the mode of existence of singular things; while this name "person" is not given to signify the individual on the part of the nature, but the subsistent reality in that nature. Now this is common in idea to the divine persons, that each of them subsists distinctly from the others in the divine nature. Thus this name "person" is common in idea to the three divine persons.

[25] Thomas, Summa Theologiae, I, q29, 2

[26] Thomas, Summa Theologiae I, II, q, 1, 1c.

[27] One can imagine that somebody wakes up from a coma, and has forgotten everything about herself, even her name. She can then still ask: Who am I?

[28] Thomas, 2 Sent. 3, 1,2.

[29] Kierkegaard, Sickness unto Death, I A a.

[30] Kierkegaard, Sickness unto Death, I A a.

[31] No, the error lies mainly in this, that the univer­sal, which Hegelianism considers the truth (and the single individual to be the truth by being swallowed up in it), is an abstraction - the state, etc. He does not come to God, the subjective in the absolute sense, or to the truth - that ultimately the single individ­ual is really higher than the universal, namely, the single individual in his God-relationship. How fre­quently have I sworn that Hegel basically regards men paganly, as an animal race endowed with reason. In an animal race, the 'single individual' is always lower than the 'race'. The human race always has the remark­able character that, just because every individual is created in the image of God, the 'single individual' is higher than the 'race'. In: Kierkegaard: Journals and Papers. Edited by Howard and Edna Hong. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978. P. 426

[32] Kierkegaard, Postscript, p.196.

[33] Turing’s halting problem is proven to be unsolvable.

[34] See also: C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, New York, 1947

[35] Peirce calls this context the interpretant.