Bowne’s Idealistic Personalism, 3


Personal “Reason” and Impersonal “Understanding”

The Personal Absolute

Although the personalists share some ground with absolute idealists, the former’s conception of the absolute is, as we have noted, more than a mere superimposition upon that of the latter. It has, in Knudson’s words, lost its ‘blank negativity and its all-devouring unity’, it is no longer the ‘undetermined ground of the universe’. Knudson holds that Bradley and Bosanquet both tend to interpret Hegel in the light of Spinoza. Both explicitly deny personality as an attribute of the absolute. Instead, they designate the Absolute as ‘superpersonal’, but they thereby ‘lapse into an agnosticism akin to that of Herbert Spencer, for no definite meaning can be attached to the phrase’. [1]

The absolute can for Bowne be accepted only as personal, and this conclusion is based on the epistemological insights regarding the relation of personal reason and experience on the one hand and abstractive understanding on the other. Tracing the personal to the impersonal involves a ‘logical aberration’; ‘uncritically handled’, the law of sufficient reason leads us to seek to explain the explanation, losing us in the infinite regress. [2] Demanding causation, it ‘always shuts us up to barren tautology when impersonally taken’; it only repeats the problem. [3] In reality, the regress ends with intelligence; we cannot get behind it and understand it as ‘something welling up from impersonal depths behind it’:

[Block quotation:] When we look for something beneath intelligence, we merely leave the supreme and self-sufficient category of personality for the lower mechanical categories, which are possible only in and through intelligence. The law of the sufficient reason is a most excellent principle; but of itself it does not tell us what can be a sufficient reason. Reflection shows that only living intelligence can be a sufficient reason; and logic forbids us to ask a sufficient reason for a sufficient reason. [4]

Plainly, ‘intelligence’ is here personal intelligence, intelligence as inseparable from personality. The self ‘is not to be abstractly taken. It is the living self in the midst of its experiences, possessing, directing, controlling both itself and them’. [5] For Bowne as for all personalists, there is no impersonal reason at all: ‘Reason itself is a pure abstraction which is realized only in conscious spirits; and when we abstract from these all that constitutes them conscious persons there is nothing intelligible left’; impersonal reason can signify nothing but ‘a blind force which is not reason, but which is adjusted to the production of rational results. In this sense any machine has impersonal reason.’ [6]

The impersonalists’ conception of universal reason as the same in all, with the finite mind participating in it ‘as one of its phases or manifestations’, is dismissed as an ‘echo’ of scholastic realism. [7] The explanatory emptiness of the metaphysics of universalist abstractionism is revealed, and countered with the familiar speculative theist argument:

[Block quotation:] There is no system of things in general, or of unrelated general laws. There is only the actual system of reality; and the divine thought and activity which produce this actual system must be as manifold and special as the facts themselves. The simplicity of the class term does not remove the complexity and plurality of the individuals comprised under it; and for each of these special facts, there must be correspondingly special thoughts and acts [in the ‘divine thought and activity’]. [8]

Impersonal reason and abstraction yield the view of unity as ‘simplicity, or the opposite of complexity and variety’, which, as applied to the world-ground, reduces the divine being to ‘a rigid and lifeless stare’. This ‘brings thought to a standstill’ and ‘explains nothing’, it ‘contains no ground of differentiation and progress’. As we have seen, monism is accepted by Bowne, not in the sense of pantheism or materialism, but in the sense of the unity of the world-ground that it is imperative also for any proper theism to maintain. Interaction between independent things is impossible; its ultimate explanation is found only in a fundamental, unitary reality, which is the independent, infinite world-ground, the absolute. But such an absolute does not exclude freely posited, non-restrictive relations. The required  monism is a theistic monism, not one of bare simplicity and emptiness. It must not only coordinate the interaction of independent things and beings, it must also be able to explain and produce them: ‘the unity of the world-ground must contain some provision for manifoldness and complexity’. The only unity that can do this is that of the ‘free and conscious self’, the known and concrete unity of personal experience: ‘[F]ree intelligence by its originating activity can posit plurality distinct from its own unity, and by its self-consciousness can maintain its unity and identity over against the changing plurality. Here the one is manifold without being many. Here unity gives birth to plurality without destroying itself. Here the identical changes and yet abides.’ [9]

As with unity, so with unchangeability: this consists not in ‘an ontological rigidity of fixed monotony of being’, but – as Lotze had already said – in the ‘constancy and continuity of the law which rules its several states and changes’. As applied to God, it is ‘the divine nature which exists through all the divine acts as their law and source’. But this constancy and continuity ‘can be found only in personality’, in which it ‘does not consist in any rigid core of being, but rather in the extraordinary power of self-consciousness, whereby the being distinguishes itself from its states, and constitutes itself identical and abiding’. Changelessness can be understood only in terms of living experience; it is not ‘the rigidity of a logical category but the self-identity and self-equality of intelligence’. Like change too, it has to be interpreted ‘in the concrete…with reference to self-consciousness’. [10] And so also with omnipresence, eternity, omniscience, omnipotence. By taking categories and relations of thought abstractly, Bradley finds only contradictions, and his attempt at resolving them in the absolute fails as long as the absolute is impersonally understood as well. [11] The whole series of attributes of the world-ground is personalistically reinterpreted by Bowne, largely on the basis of the phenomenality of space and time as understood by personalism.

Bowne’s whole argument in favour of the personalistic conception of the absolute conjoins the now familiar criticism of the abuse of abstractive reason with this stronger insistence on and the new implications drawn from the phenomenality of space and time, which are central in his general metaphysics. It is this that in Bowne’s system provides the philosophical basis for the distinctive dynamism of personalism, in its view of the universe as well as of the absolute itself. All along, it is certainly, as Knudson held, with enthusiasm that Bowne makes use of and develops Lotze’s positions, and in the general analysis of experience he is also in line with other American idealists at the time, who did not, however, draw out and emphasize the distinctly personalistic implications.

With regard to the pan of the hen kai pan, Bowne of course denies that the infinite is ‘the quantitative all’. This too is an abstraction, ‘a mental product which represents nothing apart from our thought’. The infinity of the world-ground means simply that it is ‘the independent source of the finite and its limitation’. [12] The universe as a totality does not exist in space, but ‘only in the infinite consciousness and will’, in the absolute being who alone transcends space ‘in the sense of limitation’. The divine intelligence is the ‘place’ of the world, and from this spaceless place, space relations are established. For the finite being too, for whom experienced objects are spatially related and whose temporally structured experience is a mark of limitation, it is true that we do not act where we are, but are where we act – which fact is of course the experiential ground for the speculative conclusion regarding the analogous but unlimited reality in the absolute. Concrete presence is ‘a function of our dynamic relations’ and relative to the ‘dynamic range’ and power of the mind’s apprehending activity; it is not a question of filling an absolute, independent space. [13]

Nor is experience ‘in the present as a separate point of time, but rather the present is in experience’; ‘The person who can grasp only a few things has a small present; one who can grasp many things has a larger present; and one who can grasp all things has an all-embracing present or a changeless now.’ The absoloute person possesses the whole of his experience in immediacy of consciousness, in a state of complete self-possession and self-realization, ‘so as to be under no law of development and possessing no unrealized potentialities’. This alone is what omnipresence in space and time, as well as the transcendence of space and time, could mean. Regarding the absolute as subject to some ‘necessary and successive development’ means ‘speculative disaster’. [14]

Bowne insists, like Boström, that this does not imply any ‘rigid monotony of being’ but that it is to be thought of as ‘the perfect fullness of life, without temporal ebb or flow’. Just as other idealists of personality had objected to this, finding the alleged difference from Aristotle hard to discern or insufficient, so later American personalists moved in the direction of a metaphysical temporalism and even relapsed to the Schellingian position of a ground in God, which implied the idea of a developmental absolute. In this they went much further than the normal personalist alternative of attempting, like Pringle-Pattison, to conceive of an absolute that included both timelessness and temporal experience. If for Boström the spatiotemporal world was exclusively a phenomenon in the finite being’s experience, it was for other personalists a phenomenon or an ‘appearance’ for the absolute too, as it were. And there are many formulations that point in the direction of this position in Bowne as well. It is of course necessary for Bowne to preserve the dynamism of the life of the absolute itself, to maintain the proper, distinctive conception of the personal absolute in contradistinction to the mechanical or logical mechanism of naturalisistic and absolute idealistic impersonalism which, as Bowne sought to show, explains nothing. Dynamic existence is for him part of the concept of personality, and since Bowne insists that since God’s transcendence of time ‘means essentially his absolute self-possession and lack of our human limitations which grow out of our dependence’, it is possible, Bowne thinks, to save God’s ‘relations of sympathy with the world of finite spirits’. God is not fixed transcendence but part of the ‘cosmic movement’. For Bowne, ‘a staticably immovable and intellectually monotonous being’ is something quite different from ‘a self-sufficient, self-possessing, all-embracing intelligence, which, as such, is superior to our finite temporal limitations’. [15]

Obviously, there is a difference between the supreme intelligence as ‘an abstract logical mechanism or function of categories’ and Bowne’s concept in that the former subordinates personality to a higher rational order; not even personality in the meagre form of a mere static conscious gaze is necessarily a ‘function’ of categories. And for Bowne as for other early personalists, there is no sharp separation of the divine will from the divine nature. Yet his insistence on the supreme intelligence itself as at the same time ‘a Living Will’, as ‘a synthesis at once of knowledge and power’, [16] does not in itself differ from those of the more explicitly or strictly atemporalist personalists; they used the same language.

It is rather due to the fact that his general reinterpretation of the attributes of the absolute presupposes temporality as a kind of phenomenon for the absolute itself as well as for the finite beings that Bowne really begins to move toward a more fully dynamic idea of the personality of the absolute. Knudson states that it is because God ‘is a Person’ that he can initiate change while remaining super-temporal and uninvolved. This, Knudson explains, ‘is the mystery of personality’, and indeed ‘its most distinctive characteristic’. Through the concept of personality it is possible to understand the causal initiation of change in a different sense than, for instance, the teleological pull of the strictly timeless consciousness of Aristotle’s God. But what is according to Bowne the relation of God to this change? The answer is that in contradistinction to Boström, the changing world is experienced as such not only by the finite beings, but also directly by God. Since the subordination of the forms of intuition and of the categories to individualistically and voluntaristically conceived personality, and their inclusion in the living experience of such personality, must hold not only for finite persons but for the absolute world-ground, both time and timelessness are part of the experienced world of God. In Knudson’s words, ‘[t]he cosmic order may very possibly have for him, as it has for us, the temporal and spatial form’. [17]

In the next chapter, we will have the opportunity to return to this aspect of what could perhaps be called the question of the degree of dynamism of the personality of Bowne’s absolute, as we look at Bowne’s view of the relation between the personal absolute and the finite persons. For now, it is sufficient to understand Bowne’s more general arguments for the primacy of personality even as the absolute.

If we suppose with abstractionist impersonal rationalism that ideas precede personality, we must, Bowne writes, ask where they exist. If in time and space, they would ‘dissolve away in the dialectic of spatial and temporal existence’; the position is impossible on Bowne’s view of the phenomenality of space and time. If in consciousness, it would be ‘contrary to the hypothesis, which is that they are preconditions of consciousness’. They thus retreat, as the only remaining alternative, ‘into some kind of metaphysical nth dimension, where we cannot follow them because they mean nothing’. Furthermore, if we suppose the relations between these abstract ideas to be purely logical, the intellect to be ‘merely a set of logical relations’, and ‘the universe…a logical implication of ideas’, all the contents of the universe would be ‘as eternal as the ideas’. There would be ‘no room for change, but all their implications would rigidly coexist’. All the contents of finite minds would, as ‘implications of eternal ideas’, be ‘equally eternal’. Here, of course, also the moral and theological problems of pantheism become evident: ‘as error and evil are a manifest part’ of these supposed contents of the finite mind, ‘it follows that they likewise are necessary and eternal. Hence we should have to admit an element of unreason and evil in the eternal ideas themselves’. ‘There is no escape from this result as long as we look upon the intellect as a logical mechanism of ideas’, Bowne explains: ‘Only a living, active, personal intelligence can escape this fatalism and suicidal outcome of the impersonal reason. A purely logical and contemplative intellect that merely gazed upon the relations of ideas, without choice and initiative and active self-direction, would be absolutely useless in explaining the order of life. [18] The earliest personalist arguments are here merely repeated:

[Block quotation:] The essentially impersonal can never by any logical process other than verbal hocus-pocus, which is not logical after all, be made the sufficient reason for a personal development. But our existence does not really abut on, or spring out of, an impersonal background; it rather depends on the living will and purpose of the Creator. And its successive phases, so far as we may use temporal language, are but the form under which the Supreme Person produces and maintains the personal finite spirit. [19]

The world ‘is not merely an idea, it is also a deed. It is not merely a presentation to us which ends in itself, it is also a revelation of the cosmic activity of the Supreme Will.’ It is ‘a thought expressed in act’. The universe is ‘the divine thought finding realization through the divine will’. Freedom and uniformity or necessity coexist in the absolute being in the same personal manner as in ourselves. [20] Similar formulations could be found in mediaeval theists; but in view of the modern understanding of self-consciousness and phenomenal experience characteristically added by modern personalism, they acquire a different meaning in Bowne.

Interestingly, alongside the conceptions of the world-ground as impersonal reason, Bowne also turns against various typical forms of romantic philosophy. Most importantly, he explicitly rejects the imperfect theism of the later Schelling. In this explicitness at least he seems to be unique among the British and American personalists, and it connects him even more closely with the concerns of the post-Schellingian personalists in Europe: ‘The existence of the world in God means simply its continuous dependence on him. To find the world in God in any discriminable ontological form, such as Schelling’s “dark nature-ground”, would cancel his necessary unity. The experienced relation of active intelligence to its products is the only solution to this problem.’ [21]

Other romantic notions, some of which are quite irrationalistic, such as the idea of the world-ground as ‘pure will’ and as ‘unconscious intelligence’, Bowne dismisses, together with the notion of impersonal reason, as mere ‘empty phrases, obtained by unlawful abstraction’. These notions, it is important to understand, were normally derived directly from that side of the philosophy of the later Schelling which the personalists rejected. Schopenhauer’s pure will, without intellect or personality, is ‘nothing’: ‘Will itself, except as a function of a conscious and intelligent spirit, has no meaning’. Without ‘the conscious perception of ends and the conscious determination of the self according to those ends’, all that is left is ‘the conception of a blind and necessary force’. The same holds for the position of Eduard von Hartmann. All of these doctrines share a ‘notion of an impersonal spirit, which is the ground of all existence, and which comes to consciousness only in finite spirits’. It is all just ‘atheism under another name’; again, romantic pantheism turns out to be virtually or actually identical with naturalism: ‘What the atheist calls persistent force or the fundamental reality, is here called impersonal spirit; but the meaning is in both cases the same. Both alike understand by the terms that blind and necessary reality which underlies all phenomena, and which, in its necessary on-goings, brings to life and death.’ [22]

But even when it has established that the absolute must be active, metaphysics has only reached a most incomplete idea of God: an idea which, Bowne holds, pantheism, even atheism, might accept. Although Grubbe did not, or could not for chronological reasons consider the later romantic philosophical extravaganzas that Bowne took into account, both the argumentative progression and the substance of Bowne’s reasoning about the attributes of the absolute, gradually leading up to the full conception of its personality, are noticeably similar to what we find in him. Like Grubbe, Bowne first establishes the attributes ascertainable by the use of the ‘understanding’ and the ‘speculative intellect’ alone, which cannot  lead to ‘a properly religious conception, but only to the last term of metaphysical speculation’. This, Bowne echoes Jacobi, is where Aristotle ended; for him ‘God has a purely metaphysical function and significance’ and is not yet ‘the object of love and trust and worship’. In line with his discussion of Comte, Bowne shares the new personalist view that the human race originally had the full, religious conception, and that the metaphysical one is a later abstraction. The religious attributes, as Grubbe calls them, the attributes that ‘concern the divine character, or ethical nature’, cannot be deduced by pure speculation; we have to go beyond the understanding in accordance with what we saw in the previous chapter, appealing to experience and to faith in the ideal of the perfect being. Only in this way can we reach the full religious concept of the personal absolute. [23]

But having reached it, what Bowne calls ‘the antinomy of the theistic argument’ must still be addressed: the objection that personality is not attributable to the absolute and infinite. It seems as if ‘we are shut up on the one side to the belief in an intelligent, and hence personal, world-ground’ while at the same time ‘we are shut out on the other by the contradictory character of the conception’. We are shut up to the former since Bowne’s version of personalistic epistemology and metaphysics has already shown that the alternative conception, ‘the notion of impersonal existence’, is contradictory too. Conscious thought he had shown to be ‘the supreme condition of all existence’; he had shown that ‘[t]he universe of experience has no meaning or possibility apart from conscious intelligence as its abiding source or seat.’ The ‘speculative dogma that personality is second and not first’ had already been reversed, so that ‘living, personal intelligence’ had been established as ‘the only possible first’. It still seemed unclear however where these conclusions left us with regard to the conceptual contradictoriness of the theistic antinomy. In addition to his general conclusions regarding the nature of the world-ground, Bowne therefore also embarks on his own rendering of the Lotzean and other earlier personalist arguments specifically pertaining to this issue. As signifying ‘only self-knowledge’, ‘self-control’, and ‘self-direction’, personality, he first states, has ‘no implication of corporeality or dependent limitation’. Self-consciousness does not require finitude, the self does not need a not-self. Nor does God, as the developmental pantheists held, need the finite ‘in order to realize his own ethical potentialities and attain to a truly moral existence’. Pantheism ensues when the moral is thus made ‘subordinate to the metaphysical’ and ‘the proper absoluteness of God is denied’; it becomes ‘pronounced’ when ‘God apart from the world’ is conceived to be ‘as impossible as the world apart from God’. [24] Instead of making personality in God possible, the relativization of God rather cancels it. This is a considerably stricter theistic position than Pringle-Pattison’s. As for Illingworth, it is only the personalistic and theistic concept of the absolute with its partial transcendence that preserves the proper absoluteness of the absolute. [25] Pantheism is at once bogged down in relativism.

The objections against the personal conception are ‘largely verbal’, Bowne asserts, and many of them spring from a ‘literal anthropomorphism’. [26] But ‘Laying aside…all thought of corporeal form and limitation as being no factor of personality, we must really say that complete and perfect personality can be found only in the Infinite and Absolute Being’. Here Bowne’s formulations are not original at all or even more ‘exciting’, but merely restatements of Lotze’s. Only in this absolute being ‘can we find that complete and perfect selfhood and self-possession which are necessary to the fullness of personality’. We must beware lest we transfer onto the ‘Supreme Person’ the limitations, accidents and peculiarities of our ‘human personality’. The ‘notion of personality’ does not necessarily include them, but only ‘fullness of power, knowledge, and selfhood’ are ‘the essential factors of the conception’: [27]

[Block quotation:] A thought life so different from ours eludes any but the vaguest apprehension on our part. Its unchanging fullness yet without monotony, the structure of the absolute reason also which determines the eternal contents of the divine thought, the timeless and absolute self-possession – how mysterious all this is, how impenetrable to our profoundest reflection. We can see that these affirmations must be made, but we also see that in a sense they must always lie beyond us. Here we reach a point where the speculation of philosophy must give place to the worship and adoration of religion. [28]

This insistence on the radical difference harmonizes with the metaphysical considerations which led to the reaction among subsequent American personalists of calling for a termporalist conception of God and in that respect for a God more personal in the human sense – and to go so far as to abandon the whole concept of the absolute.

This, however, was not a return to Jacobi, but rather to that side of the later Schelling which the speculative theists rejected. With this move, the continuity in the development of personalism was broken, and we stand before a personalism of a distinctly neoteric, twentieth-century variety. For Bowne, enough of the characteristics of human personality were preserved in the divine for the personal absolute still to be a viable concept. In this as in other respects, Bowne seems to belong securely in what I regard as the original, European tradition of personalism.

[1] Knudson, The Philosophy of Personalism, 32, 64.

[2] Bowne, Theism, 168.

[3] Bowne, Personalism, 262.

[4] Ibid., 168-9.

[5] Ibid., 262.

[6] Bowne, Theism, 158-9.

[7] Ibid., 202.

[8] Ibid., 242-3.

[9] Ibid., 50-62, 173-5.

[10] Ibid., 178-9.

[11] Bowne, Personalism, 259-60.

[12] Bowne, Theism, 164.

[13] Bowne, Personalism, 141-3, 146.

[14] Ibid., 143-6, 148.

[15] Ibid., 149-50.

[16] Bowne, Theism, 289, 322.

[17] Knudson, The Philosophy of Personalism, 236.

[18] Bowne, Personalism, 255-7.

[19] Ibid., 265-6.

[20] Ibid., 108, 159-60, 205-6.

[21] Bowne, Theism, 203.

[22] Ibid., 157-8, 160.

[23] Ibid., 62, 248-50.

[24] Ibid., 150, 162, 164-7, 169, 287-8.

[25] For Bowne’s view of transcendence, see ibid., 209, 244-7. Again as for Illingworth, God’s self-limitation for the purpose of the relative independence of finite beings is in reality an expression of God’s absoluteness; Knudson, The Philosophy of Personalism, 64.

[26] Bowne, Personalism, 266.

[27] Ibid., 266-7; Bowne, Theism, 170-1.

[28] Bowne, Theism, 170-1.

2 Responses to “Bowne’s Idealistic Personalism, 3”

  1. 1 John Anngeister May 27, 2011 at 8:40 pm

    I’m so glad your post on BP Bowne scrolled up in my tag surf for philosophy today! I missed the first 2 posts in early May and just now spent some reading time your second post.

    I haven’t studied Bowne for years but own a nearly complete set of his books and much Knudson and Pringle-Pattison as well, and you are inspiring me to return to those volumes.

    Lately I’m re-reading Kant and XVIII cent, but while studying K’s Lectures on Philosophical Theology this week I have noticed again that he certainly does not make as much of the ‘form of the personal’ as he might – and as Bowne does. But your post helped me draw that line back to Bowne (I had forgotten how cogent he was), and I thank you very much.

  2. 2 Jan Olof Bengtsson May 28, 2011 at 10:47 am

    Thanks, I’m glad you appreciate my posts! Part 4, ‘Personal unity-in-diversity’, will follow shortly.

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