In Defence of the Personal Idealist Concept of the Finite Self, 1

In the writing of British idealists on the finite self, there was no terminological uniformity. The same conceptual issues were discussed under different terminologies. But it is important to keep in mind the conceptual differences between self, individual, subject, and person, which, I suggest, must be understood, even for purely philosophical purposes, partly in terms of the process of historical development and definition of these terms. [Here philosophers should draw on work in the field of conceptual history; see my notes on selected scholarship in these fields primarily in the Personalism but also in the Idealism categories in this blog (see the Contents page).]

Above all, we should keep in mind their conceptual complementarity, the way in which they supplement each other and describe different aspects of the same thing. But it is a fact that the British idealists often did use these different terms – in the sense of words – in a more vague and general manner for the same concept. Hence we find to this day an unnecessary confusion produced by an insufficient conceptual differentiation. The finite self was often used synonymously with the finite individual, the finite person, and the finite subject. Yet the conceptual complementarity is not only necessary for the full articulation and comprehension of the position of the personal idealists in a way they are not always in the case of their non-personal or impersonal idealist opponents. Properly defined, the terms can perhaps even to some extent in themselves be said to contribute to settling the philosophical disputes.

Bosanquet and Seth Pringle-Pattison [Hereinafter: Pringle-Pattison] debated the “finite individual”, a terminological preference that, as William Mander emphasizes in his analysis of their debate, [W. J. Mander, ‘Life and Finite Individuality: The Bosanquet/Pringle-Pattison Debate’, British Journal of the History of Philosophy, 13:1, 2005.] is explained by Bosanquet’s general definition of the individual. Maintaining both the etymological and Aristotelian meanings, the individual is for him that which is indivisibly one, and the primary substance. But this is strictly, “in the ultimate sense”, applicable only to the whole, the absolute. [Bernard Bosanquet, The Principle of Individuality and Value (1912), 72.] The true individual cannot be finite since the finite is that which is limited from outside. Yet the totality is for Bosanquet not really unlimited, but limited from within, as it were, as exclusively self-de-fining. When the term infinite is still used in this connection, it thus seems at the very least terminologically infelicitous inasmuch as, etymologically, unlimited and infinite mean the same thing.

The finite individual, as finitized from without, cannot really be accepted as a true individual at all. For Bosanquet, only the individual that is the absolute is ultimately real; the finite individual Bosanquet accepts as individual only in a secondary sense; it has only an “adjectival” mode of existence, it is an “adjective” of the real individual that is the totality. But here we may see merely the misleadingly reductive effects of the terminological preference, which leaves out some distinctive conceptual content of the supplementary terms.

The finite individual does not have to be a self, a subject, a person. If it is not, it is of course more easily reducible to an adjective, a property, a determination of the whole, and the adjectivity constituting its only significant identity, intelligibility and indeed mode of existence. Even the application of this analysis to the kind of finite individual that is also a self, a subject, and a person is certainly valid in itself as far as it goes, although it is incomplete and only one perspective among others that are equally necessary for its full comprehension. Pringle-Pattison says, for instance, that he accepts the adjectival theory inasmuch as its meaning is the “denial of unrelated reals”. [Andrew Seth Pringle-Pattison, The Idea of God in the Light of Recent Philosophy (1920 (1917)), 274.] It is obvious that any individual thing qualifies or characterizes the whole, and it is indeed true that any finite phenomenon can only be properly understood as a part of the whole, in the sense that it is a property, a quality of that whole, part of a scale of parts and partial wholes leading up to the totality. Here, as in the general progress of conscious experience and knowledge, any arrest in its continuously broadened and simultaneously deepened apprehension is certainly merely provisional and conventionally motivated for experientially and epistemologically “modal” purposes in Oakeshott’s sense. [Michael Oakeshott, Experience and Its Modes (1933).]

For this reason, if the basic understanding of the perspectival complementarity is accepted and preserved, and the “individual” perspective as this far discussed is included as one of many – this being of course fully coherent with the most basic assumptions of idealism in general – my impression is that the personal idealist position does not even require the rejection that we find in Pringle-Pattison of Bosanquet’s theory of judgement. In the latter, the totality is said to be the only logical subject: “Reality is such that at or in S it is P” does say more than “S is P”, even in the case where S, or P, is not only an individual but a self, a subject, and a person. Mander uses this as a summary description of Bosanquet’s position regarding his basic understanding of the ultimate nature of judgement; [Mander, op.cit.] but many complementary formulations of it are found in Bosanquet’s works. What I find important here, and in reality congruent with personal idealism, is the general idealist understanding expressed in Bosanquet’s formulation of the importance of the process of thought as the approximation of the totality. I am not making any claims about the details of Bosanquet’s specific understanding of judgement, induction, or indeed logic in general; this general understanding is better discussed, in line with Pringle-Pattison’s own earlier practice, in terms of “Hegelianism” in general. [See Andrew Seth Pringle-Pattison, Hegelianism and Personality (1887), published under the name Andrew Seth.]

The general understanding might become problematic, however, when, as in Bosanquet, all finite individuals are said to have their main being and value as mere qualifications of the whole. For then, in line with Bosanquet’s understanding of the totality in terms of individuality, the radical monistic tendency that follows from the definitional emphasis on indivisibility could bring with it contradictions familiar from earlier monist systems. The parts of the whole become merely apparent individuals, reduced to adjectives or properties in a way that makes this more than one perspective among others, that makes it an exclusive one which exhaustively defines them.

Bosanquet’s theory of judgement claims to reveal what judgement really is, but his exposition, regardless of the details of his logic, involves a far-reaching criticism of the non-idealist view in the context of a different understanding of the whole nature of thought. The latter in turn involves what could be called a general idealist conception of the apprehension of the reality or totality that is accepted by him as the logical subject. It is in such general idealistic terms that the singular judgement “S is P” is rightly seen as a superficial, immediate, and, in Hegel’s sense, “abstract” one compared with “reality is such that in S it is P” as a fuller, concrete judgement involving an understanding of “reality” that, in more strictly Hegelian accounts, is reached through a dialectical development.

But the whole point of this development could be distorted if the “being and value” of S, or P, is mainly as adjectives of reality as the whole – and this might be the case even where S, or P, is the kind of finite individual that is not also a self, a subject, a person. For the indivisibility might then begin to conflict with the differentiation within the absolute which Bosanquet must of course accept, as appearance in a distinct British idealist sense. If, as this view of the being and value suggests, the totality qua totality is not just always the only logical subject, if the partial independence, the initial, finite concreteness and the distinctive value, as it were, of the finite individual are denied, if the real dialectical process is slurred over, and if the final synthetic view that makes the judgement “reality is such that in S it is P” in the indicated full meaning important thus becomes tantamount to an emphasis on the indivisibility as being rather undifferentiated unity, the judgement seems in reality becomes another one. It appears it is then reduced to a mere empty propositional affirmation of reality being as it is, the affirmation that it is as it is – saying even less about S and P and exposing the general idealist position to familiar yet otherwise unwarranted criticisms. The incorrect ascent to the totality seems inevitably to deprive the descent to the particulars of its explanatory power.

This warrants Pringle-Pattison’s objections even before the supplementary conceptual meanings of selfhood, subjectivity and personality are brought in. The finite individual can certainly be properly understood as an individual; there is no contradiction in being limited from without and being indivisible. Such individuality is in no way by necessary implication the self-contained unit of strict pluralism. [Pringle-Pattison, The Idea of God, 256-60.] G. F. Stout agreed that the nature of a thing is “nothing” apart from its relatedness. But he also asserted the inverse truth that the relatedness of a thing is nothing apart from its nature. [Mander, op.cit., note 11.]

But here the alternative perspectives on finite individuality in general could, I suggest, be sufficient to refute the exclusivist claim. And the problem with Bosanquet’s position appears to be compounded when we bring in these fuller definitions of the self, the subject, and the person, which are what the personal idealists are primarily talking about, in contradistinction to Bosanquet, who, although his position too in reality presupposes them, seems not fully to admit or clearly identify their implications.

This leads us to another point on which I think Pringle-Pattison’s position and argument are in need of revision and supplementation. Both Bosanquet’s denial of the unity of the self as experienced and his affirmation of this incomplete self’s achievement of unity through the inclusion of broader contents of the universe seem confused simply because no proper distinction is made between the experiencer and the experienced. The unity of selfhood even as immediately experienced is, it seems to me, due to the unity of the experiencer, whereas no phenomenal contents of experience whatsoever, no matter how comprehensive, and quite regardless of its significance for the self in other respects, can, in principle, as phenomenal, allow the self to attain it.

Bosanquet’s view that the self owes its reality to the experienced phenomenal world and possesses itself in proportion to its incorporation seems to imply a simple identification of the self with this phenomenal world or the knowledge of it, clothed in a partly misleading redefinitional language of the self. If the implied, ultimate perspectivelessness is what accounts for the self, if apart from it the self can only be conceived in terms of abstraction, an empty form, or degrees of unreality, how is it that, as is also claimed by Mander, Bosanquet does not simply deny the self in the personal idealist sense, but merely reconceives its ultimate reality and value?

The finite self as described by the personal idealists is not what it is for Bosanquet, but it is more than the abstract quality of numerical identity. Moreover, it is possible to admit the validity of almost everything Bosanquet says – and Mander says Bosanqueet says – about its appropriation of the contents of the universe and its other possible ways of existing, if this is only reconceived in terms of the phenomenal contents of experience or the self’s knowledge, or the modes of existing of the self in relation to these things. The self could perhaps for some purposes and on some levels be said to identify itself with them, although the distinction between the identifier and that with which it identifies cannot be suspended. The phenomenal existence of the finite self should indeed, from the perspective of knowledge, morality, and other values, comprise many of the dimensions conceived by Bosanquet as parts of its proper identity. But in describing them, Bosanquet is clearly describing something different from selfhood and subjectivity in themselves as properly conceived on this level, or in the personal idealist sense.

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Jan Olof Bengtsson D.Phil. (Oxon.)


Arts & Humanities



For a Truly European Union

Carl Johan Ljungberg: Humanistisk förnyelse

All original writing © Jan Olof Bengtsson
"A Self-realized being cannot help benefiting the world. His very existence is the highest good."
Ramana Maharshi