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Thursday, April 09, 2009

kant, the inevitable


Kant starts from two places in the Critique of Practical Reason. The first beginning is with the good Will – that most un-Socratic of moral entry points. The only thing that is unreservedly good is the good will. And then we start again. This time, we start with this existence (Wesen) endowed with Reason. This existence is introduced to us, firstly, under no name at all. This makes me think of the many names that I could list for this existence - “man”, “human”, “character”, “subject” , ‘agent”, “actor”, “self”, “soul”, “person”, etc. – each of which is endlessly involved in the discourses of the human sciences, each of which – unlike, say, the pieces of a chess game – is ascribed no fixed amount of power by some canon of rules, but rather is preferred and gains its power according to the state of the human sciences at any one time – which is to say that the rules, here, are further back. If an introduction is a way of putting together a name and a face, then we aren’t really introduced to the rational creature, here, at all. It is a feint, using a satiric tone made familiar from writers like Voltaire.

But what we can gather is that whatever name we eventually attach to this creature, and whatever it is made of – Carbon based, silicon based - what makes it happy is not the major question confronting the practical reason. However, it is, as it were, the question that dogs the creature, much in the way Faust is followed by a black dog at the beginning of the poem.

It is in Kant that the relationship between the culture of happiness and the collapse of the human limit – seen from the inside – comes into Hi Def focus.

In fact, from my perspective - an old man in a dry month, being read to by a boy, waiting for raain - Kant is engaged in trying to reconstruct the human limit here.

Of the names I’ve listed above, one name seems of central importance: person. A nineteenth century Kantian, Adolf Trendelenburg, wrote a much quoted article, “The History of the Word Person”, which poses the question: where did this word person come from? He starts off by showing how important the word was, quoting Kant’s Foundation of the Metaphysic of Ethics: “In opposition to the concept of the thing, Kant says in the Foundation of the Metaphysics of Ethics (1785): ‘a rational being (Wesen – existence) will be named a person, because its nature already exhibits it as an end in itself, that is, as something that may not simply be used as a means, and in so far as this is holds, limits the exercise of arbitrary force against it, and makes it an object of respect.” (Kant-Studien, 1908, 2).

He then goes back to multiple ancient sources for person. The first is persona, the mask. What is odd about this is that the mask doesn’t have a brain. It would seem eminentlyto be a thing, a Sache. He gives us one etymology of person that emphasizes something else about the mask: “Ona in Latin means full – “so designates persona per se one, the fullness out of itself, as to the person of Christ is designated the fullness, the pluroma.”

Trendelenburg points out the use of the Greek equivalent, prosopon, in Stoic writing to mean playing a role – but in the sense of the role nature, or Tyche, has thrust upon a person. Epictetus, for instance, writes that if nature has thrust lameness upon you, then you are to “play” lameness. All the world’s a stage.

Another field in which the persona unfolds a meaning is in law. At first, in Roman Law, persona was a mass noun, referencing all humans – as opposed to beasts. However, in the Institutes of Justinian, this collectivity was modified. Slaves were defined, like beasts, as aprosopon – non-persons. Finally, much later on, in Leibnitz’s use of person (which occurs in his legal writings), it again takes on the meaning of the human vs. the beast.

Looking at this from the perspective of both the question of nudity and the question of the personhood of beasts – which we took up in our post about Bernardina’s essay – the word person encodes an interesting manifold of binaries. Especially noticeable is the opposition between face and body, and the parallel opposition between human and beast. Ah, the civil wars in a word.

3 comments:

P.M.Lawrence said...

"At first, in Roman Law, persona was a mass noun, referencing all humans – as opposed to beasts".

Actually, at first it was an individual's mask, signifying a physical or metaphorical appearance. It is one of the few words of Etruscan we know, meaning a mask of the sort that was used dramatically in funeral rituals etc., from whence the Romans got it.

roger said...

Mr. Lawrence, Trendelenberg is well aware of the mask reference, and I've reflected that in the post. "The first is persona, the mask. What is odd about this is that the mask doesn’t have a brain. It would seem eminently to be a thing, a Sache. He gives us one etymology of person that emphasizes something else about the mask: “Ona in Latin means full – “so designates persona per se one, the fullness out of itself, as to the person of Christ is designated the fullness, the pluroma.” So you should take "first", when referring to its appearance in Roman law, to mean first appearance in Roman law.

P.M.Lawrence said...

Well, I myself would still take that usage as relating to individuals, i.e. not a mass noun for a collectivity. Think of someone acting in persona propria, etc.