Jacques Maritain Center : General Metaphysics / by John Rickaby, S.J.


(1) A SPECIAL aspect of substance is Personality, and this is too important an idea to be left without explanation. It is just one of those ideas before which an ordinary mind might feel helpless and despondent, having yet to learn a great lesson taught by exercise in philosophic studies, which is, calmly to take a notion and determine how much, so far as we can grasp its object, it includes. Thus only are we able to fix for ourselves the signification of a word, and secure that, in our meaning at all events, the term has no element of vagueness. Unless we acquire this power of precision, we may leave the subject of a discussion so indeterminate that no result can be reached. It was thus in reference to the ship sent annually by the Athenians to Delos; they disputed whether it was the same vessel as that in which Theseus sailed a thousand years before. The supposed facts of the case may be assumed to have been tolerably clear to all: what had been changed and what not, probably furnished no serious matter in the dispute; but having no fixed definition as to what they intended to mean by sameness in a ship, they wrangled without conclusion: whereas a succinct statement of the case, ought itself to have solved their difficulty about identity.

(2) All things which can naturally have a separate existence are substances, and every existing substance in nature must be individual. When an individual substance is complete in itself, forming an entire nature, and remaining intrinsically independent, incommunicable, or sui juris, it is called a suppositum or hypostasis, because to it are attributed all the activities and passivities of the thing. The maxim is, Actiones sunt suppositorum -- "Actions belong to their respective supposita." Thus man is a suppositum, and to his suppositum are attributed the slightest movement of a finger, and the slightest pain of a tooth. The man moves and the man suffers. Hypostasis, therefore, though it has other senses in other connexions, is defined in the present connexion, as any single substance which is of itself something complete, is not part of another thing, and cannot be regarded as a part. This of course is said in reference to a physical, intrinsic whole; for extrinsically different supposita may be united to form a whole by way of aggregation. That precisely which makes a substance to be a hypostasis is frequently called its subsistentia. Furthermore, the hypostasis or suppositum, if intelligent, is called a person -- a word which meant the "mask" (prosôpon) that marked out in the stage-player the character he was sustaining. The mask told who the wearer was, sacrificing facial expression to ruder and more easily perceptible ends, and to the necessities of an enormous theatre, and of a highly idealized form of drama. Boethius defines a person as the individual substance of rational nature. It is a notable fact that all the words here are positive, with the disputable exception of "individual," which, however, may easily be regarded in a positive light.

After we have explained in previous chapters substance, essence, and individuality, so little more remains to be said in order to give the meaning of the term "personality," that readers are apt to overlook the account unless it is spread over more pages than are really necessary or even helpful to clearness. We have the entire teaching in a nutshell, if, starting with the doctrine that a suppositum is a substance, complete as a substance, and complete also as some definite nature, which forms a whole in and by and for itself, we then add that a person is an intelligent suppositum. The highest organisms, vegetable or animal, are supposita; but in the mineral world, as also in lower forms of life, it is often impossible to assign the different supposita. A cup of water is a mere aggregate: perhaps the molecules are supposita: but any dispute that arises on this point belongs to the department which has to provide a theory of the constitution of material substances. We have here again another instance like what we have had before, in which General Metaphysics furnishes the general definition, but does not undertake to settle all its applications within the sphere of each special science.

Every person in the created order will be finite, but if we look back at the definition of personality, we shall find that finiteness is no part of its contents. A person must have indeed one substance distinct from any other substance, but it is nowhere proved that finiteness is essential to this distinct unity. Those who allow the unity and the infinity of God, and also allow that He is other than any of His creatures, should not pretend to a special difficulty on the score of his infinite Personality; any objection of theirs would probably have at its root the error of Spinoza -- omnis determinatio est negatio, "all determination is negation" -- the kindred error of the Scotists that personality is rather negative than positive, and the views of Hamilton and Mansel about limitation. From the mere analysis of the term we should not know whether personality did or did not exclude infinity: but reason can demonstrate that God is both infinite and personal, and this settles the question. Of course, as far as the bare words are concerned, we might have restricted the term "person " to finite natures, and have found another term to be applied to God alone: that would have been a convention permissible in itself, but not without its inconveniences. When we pass on beyond what reason can tell us of the Divine personality, we come across the revealed doctrine of three Persons in one God. Our definition still meets the requirements, but how it discharges its extended functions cannot be explained in this place.

Besides the Blessed Trinity, another revealed dogma has extended, without contradicting, our natural knowledge of personality; for in the Incarnate Word we are made aware of two distinct natures in the unity of Person. Whence some have concluded that personality is really distinct from the created nature of which it is the determinant; but other theologians see no necessity for such an extraordinary hypothesis. They believe that the Humanity of Christ is not of itself a person, not because of anything that it has lost, but because of something that it has gained. By virtue of its hypostatic union with the Son, it has been elevated to a higher rank without parting with any of its reality. The philosophic bearing of these opinions deserves notice because it shows that, while we labour to make our terms definite and sure as far as our knowledge carries us, we have to remember that for the most part it does not carry us to the comprehensive intelligence of objects in all their length, breadth, and depth. We have a natural knowledge of personality, true as far as it goes, but not exhaustive.

(3) In the last chapter, in the present, and in the next, as well as in other places, we have to single out Locke as one who leads the way in false doctrine; on the subject of personality his view is fatal to the Catholic dogma concerning the Incarnation, and would render moral retribution highly unsatisfactory in its arrangements.

Because Locke left scholastic subtleties alone, and took to questions more on the surface of things, he is sometimes praised as a very clear writer. The praise is not warranted on an estimate of his whole work, and in many passages he might stand as a warning example of an obscure involved style. His treatment of personality as that which is constituted by continuous consciousness, is an instance in point, about which subject a man with his mind clear could hardly have penned a complicated sentence like the following:{1} "That which seems to make the difficulty is this, that this consciousness being interrupted always by forgetfulness, there being no moment of our lives wherein we have the whole train of all our past actions before our eyes in one view; but even the best memories losing the sight of one part, whilst they are viewing another, and we sometimes, and that the greatest part of our lives, not reflecting on our past selves, being intent on our present thoughts, and in sound sleep having no thoughts at all, or at least none with that consciousness which marks our waking thoughts: I say, in all these cases, our consciousness being interrupted, and we losing the sight of our past selves, doubts are raised whether we are the same thinking thing -- i.e., the same substance or no, which, however reasonable or unreasonable, concerns not personal identity at all; the question being, what makes the same person? and not whether it be the same identical substance which always thinks in the same person, which in this case matters not at all: different substances by the same consciousness (where they do partake in it) being united into one person, as well as different bodies by the same life are united into one animal, whose identity is preserved in that change of substances by the unity of one continued life." This remarkable utterance may be taken as somewhat typical of the state of Locke's mind on the subject which he is undertaking to discuss. We must try to follow some of the meanderings of his famous twenty-seventh chapter.

He seems to have been moved by the reflexions that the parts of the human body are ever changing; that there might be rational animals, and therefore persons, with bodies quite unlike ours; and that absolutely souls might transmigrate from body to body. In view of these unfixities, he wants some stable test of identity in persons. He distinguishes three identities, those of substance, of man, and of person. The first he places in the extrinsic and unsatisfactory elements of time and place: "We cannot but conceive that each kind of substance must necessarily exclude any of the same kind out of the same place; else the notions of identity and diversity would be in vain, and there could be no such distinction of substance or anything else one from another. Could two bodies be in the same place at the same time, then these two parcels of matter must be one and the same; nay, all bodies must be one and the same, for all bodies may be in one place." After this inconclusive argument, he goes on to speak of his second kind of identity, that of man, which he places "in nothing but a participation of the same continued life by constantly fleeting particles of matter, in succession united to the same organized body." It is curious that "man" should thus be limited to matter as organized or vivified, when we remember that Locke was a philosopher who believed in a soul. But let us hasten on to his third kind of identity, with which we are specially concerned. Personal identity is continued consciousness: "for nothing but consciousness can unite remote existences into the same person; the identity of substance will not do it. So that self is not determined by identity or diversity of substance, which it cannot be sure of, but only by identity of consciousness. . . . Some consciousness always accompanies thinking, and it is that which makes every one to be what he calls himself: in this alone consists personal identity, that is the sameness of the rational being." With the courage to follow out his principles, he does not shrink from asserting that could the same consciousness be transferred from one thinking substance to another, these two would form one person; and that contrariwise one and the same spirit, losing old conditions of consciousness and gaining new, would form a plurality of persons. Locke carries his consistency into the region of rewards and punishments. "If the same Socrates waking and sleeping do not partake of the same consciousness, Socrates waking and sleeping is not the same person; and to punish Socrates waking for what sleeping Socrates thought and waking Socrates was never conscious of, would be no more right than to punish one twin for what the other twin did." Of course it is right not to punish Socrates waking for what Socrates sleeping did: but the reason is not the one assigned by Locke. Our philosopher ventures even to propound and meet a difficulty on the subject. Human law, he objects, rightly punishes a sober man for what he did in his drunkenness, though, on the principle just expounded, there may be two persons here. Yes, answers the objector to himself, because human law, not being able to discriminate when there are two persons here and when not, punishes for the criminal act which can be proved and disregards the unconsciousness of it, which cannot be proved. There are many ethical principles violated at this juncture. The author places the injurious acts done by the sleep- walker, whose state is not his own fault, in the same order with those done by the drunken man, whose state with its foreseen consequences is generally his own fault, proximately or remotely. Again, he uses probability against, instead of in favour of, the accused: saying that because unconsciousness of guilt cannot be proved, consclousncss can be presumed. But if we make our presumption from known facts, we may come to a fair conclusion as to whether a man was drunk or not, and then we may add our further piece of knowledge that a really drunken man has not, at the time of his action, a genuine consciousness of wrong-doing. Again, on Locke's principles a criminal who afterwards lost all memory of his deeds could not be condemned for a whole life of previous crime. An atrocious murderer, who in the interval between his capture and his trial had undergone a sickness which wiped out the recollection of the act from his own mind, would have to be released if he could prove his complete obliviscence. Or, perhaps, there is this subterfuge for Locke, and he is welcome to it. The criminal ought to believe his guilt on the testimony of others: thus once more it enters into his consciousness, and belongs to the culprit's personality. When Locke adds piously, "In the great day, wherein the secrets of hearts shall be laid open, it may be reasonable to think that no one will be made to answer for what he knows nothing of," our philosopher is quite safe in his conjecture, so far as it is expressed ; but if it implies that the Judge will ignore all things which men have no memory of when they die, simply because they have no memory of them, then the notion is very much astray. On the side of the offended man, "forgive and forget" is often a good maxim to follow; but on the side of the offender forgiveness obtained by means of his own forgetfulness is a doctrine that has not recommended itself even as a heresy.

Locke's teaching about personality may in the end be acknowledged to have these results: (a) it furnishes a definition which would suffice for Hume's theory of man as a series of conscious states without substance: (b) it steers clear of the awkward facts that if there were rational animals other than man, we should have either to extend the term man, or add to its definition as "rational animal:" and that if human souls did transmigrate, our definition of man's personality would have to accommodate this change. If it be asked whether we cannot further accord to Locke's definition that it gives what personality, as a term, might mean, we reply that the word has got its accepted signification too well fixed to allow an individual to change it at will. The most we can grant to Locke is that continued consciousness is one test of personality; we cannot grant that it is personality. If because of the intimate connexion of thought with personality we permitted Locke to turn thought into personality, how should we resist Cousin, who because personality is asserted specially in the will, says, La volonté c'est la personne; and again, Qu'est-ce que le moi? L'activité volontaire et libre. A long way the best plan is to keep to the theory that the person of man is the composite nature, body and soul, left in its completenes and sui juris; the soul being substantially unchangeable, though variable in its accidental states, the body being constantly changed as to its constituent particles, yet preserving a certain identity, describable only by reciting what are the facts of waste and repair in an organism. It is a great secret in the explanation of many puzzling terms to know, that the only way is concisely to declare the known facts which the word is meant to express. Thus we describe in what man's bodily identity consists so far as we can. A limb may be lost, and that mutilation may be followed by the loss of another limb; we hardly know the extent to which a body may be deprived of its parts; still so long as the man lives, we know that he is the same person, constituted by the union of the same soul and body. His integrity is gone, but not his personality.

From Locke's insistance on the connexion between unity of consciousness and unity of personality, though he carries it to an extreme which would logically require the assertion of two persons in Jesus Christ, we may borrow a warning against the impersonal intelligence, of which so much is made by many philosophers, of which they can give so little account, and of which their proof, if they attempt one, is so utterly unconvincing. The doctrine is quite to be rejected that a primeval intelligence, impersonal in itself, becomes personal only in finite intelligences such as our own. Probably in the natural condition of things, every finite intelligence is a sign of a single personality; but in the supernatural union of Christ's Humanity with the Person of the Word, the human intelligence foregoes the personality which would otherwise be proper to it, and is taken up by a higher personality in some way quite mysterious to us, and known at all to us, only because we have been told so by absolutely credible authority. Even so we do not come across that most unphilosophical invention of philosophers, "the impersonal intelligence:" for the human intelligence of Christ is personal with the personality of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. If it had not been thus assumed to a higher hypostasis, it would have had its own natural personality; in all cases it must be personal.

(4) Hume, as usual, carries Locke's expressions to greater extremes; denying the knowableness of any such substantial nature as that which his predecessor undoubtedly considered to underlie the phenomena of consciousness, and which he calls "the identity of man." The most outspoken utterances of Hume are to be found in the Appendix to his Treatise on Human Nature. There he plainly confesses the defectiveness of his theory; he owns that "all hopes vanish" when he tries to explain, on his principles, the bonds which unite the successive states of consciousness. Nevertheless he abides by his own philosophy, because "all our distinct perceptions are distinct existences, and the mind never perceives any real connexion among distinct existences." Hence, pleading "the privileges of a sceptic," there is nothing for him but to acknowledge himself at present beaten by "a difficulty too hard" for his understanding. Still he is a sceptic only in the etymological sense; he does not finally renounce the knowledge of the truth, he merely avows that for him truth is yet to seek. Perhaps even still, "upon mature refiexion," he may be so lucky as to "discover some hypothesis that will reconcile the contradictions." Meantime he can give this account of his own personality: "For my part when I enter into what I call myself, I always tumble upon some particular perception or other; I can never catch myself at any time without a perception, and can never observe anything but the perception. When my perceptions are removed for any time, as by sound sleep, so long am I insensible of myself, and may be truly said not to exist. . . . Setting aside some metaphysicians, I may venture to affirm of the rest of mankind that they are nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity and are in a perpetual flux and movement.

There is properly no simplicity in the mind at one time, nor identity in different." Thus personality is "a fiction of the imagination;" it is "the smooth passage of our thoughts along our resembling perceptions, that makes us ascribe to them an identity."{2}

It is not necessary to examine later developments of Hume; but there is one recent investigation which should be mentioned in connexion with the reduction of personality to conscious states. Because of the duality or even higher plurality, which can be produced apparently in consciousness by certain morbid conditions, some speak of a multiplicity of persons in one man: we must reject the phrase in its literal sense, because of the reasons already given. It is no wonder if with our complex conditions there are abnormal states, in which consciousness is said to testify to strange things. This alleged testimony, however, especially when the report is given on the mere memory of a past condition of disturbance, cannot be accepted with implicit trust, for the memory of a period of abnormal action may easily be distorted.


(1) It was undoubtedly Christianity which set men inquiring more carefully into the nature of personality, for the two prime mysteries of the Trinity and the Incarnation turned on this idea. The maxim, actiones sunt suppositorum, obtained for the latter of the two dogmas a great significance, which brought out the unity and, the dignifying influence of personality. Reid insists that a person must be taken as a monad, as a whole, and never as a part; and this is eminently true in estimating the worth of Christ's human actions. "All men, he says,{3} "place their personality in something that cannot be divided. . . . When a man loses his estate, his health, his strength, he is still the same person and has lost nothing of his personality. If he has a leg or an arm cut off, he is still the same person as before. . . . My personal identity, therefore, implies the continued existence of that indivisible thing which I call myself. Whatever this self may be, it is something which thinks, and deliberates, and resolves, and acts, and suffers. I am not thought, I am not action, I am not feeling; I am something that thinks, and acts, and suffers. My thoughts and actions and feelings change every moment -- they have no continued, but a successive existence; but the self or I to which they belong is permanent, and has the same relation to all the succeeding thoughts, actions, and feelings, which I call mine."

From these words some might gather that only the thinking principle in man is his person; indeed, we hear it said, "Man is a soul." But if we keep to our definition, and if we remember that the body is an essential constituent of human nature, we must include it also in the personality.

(2) The dignity of personality is explained by Schelling as consisting in "lordship." As Chalybäus{4} interprets him, "To be lord over one's existence constitutes the idea of personality -- to be lord over all existence constitutes the idea of absolute personality. The Deity is such from the beginning." So much truth as underlies these words has been given by us, when we described a person as sui juris: to the conscious personal Being its own existence is for itself, and whatsoever other existences serve its known ends, so far they also are for it, even though a Higher Lord may claim to be the absolutely ultimate centre of reference.

(3) Self-consciousness is no doubt closely connected with personality, and has a special power in making a thing exist for itself. Lotze, speaking of the very common theory that all things have souls, says that his own reasoning on the point "does not demand anything more than that there should belong to things, in some form or other, that existence as an object for itself which distinguishes all spiritual life from what is only an object for something else.{5} "Hence," he says, "we must believe that there are other persons like ourselves, but not that there are any mere things." Holding the monistic doctrine that there is only one Being, within this Being he allows only such objects to claim an existence of their own as can refer their states to a self. "It is so far as something is an object to itself, relates itself to itself, distinguishes itself from something else, that by this act of its own it detaches itself from the Infinite. . . . Whatever is in a condition to feel and assert itself as a self is entitled to be described as outside the all comprehensive Being." Dr. Martineau is not a follower of Lotze, but, in denying to mere things, and indeed to all objects that have not free-will, a real causality, he comes near to the German philosopher.{6} "All cosmic power is Will; and all cosmic Will is God's. The natural forces are numerically distinguished, only because they are assembled in different families of phenomena, but dynamically, they pass to and fro; they are subject to the same measure; they are substantially indifferenced; and the unity to which they converge is nothing else than His. He is the one cause in nature, acting in various modes, and to all else among physical things that has borrowed the name, we may give a free discharge. We cannot have these 'second causes' idle on our hands." The only "second cause" is personal, and created personality is thus contrasted with the physical universe.{7} "In the ultra-physical sphere, the whole tendency is precisely the reverse, viz., away from the original unity of power into differentiation and multiplicity, the end pursued by the will of the Creator is here to set up what is other than himself and yet akin, to mark off new centres of self-consciousness and causality, that have their separate history and build up a free personality like his own. We have seen how conceivable it is that, without prejudice to the Providential order of the world, he should realize this end, by simply parting with a portion of his power to a deputed agent, and abstaining so far from necessary law. Now this Divine move, this starting of minds and characters, making the universe alive with multiplied causality, is quite different from the transitory waves of physical change that skim their deep and lapse: it brings upon the stage, not an event, but an existence: not an existence merely, but an ordering and electing and creative existence, a thinking power which is not a mere phenomenon of the Supreme Mind, for that would not constitute a mind at all: how can a state of one conscious subject be another conscious subject? . . . Personality is not the largest, but it is the highest fact in the known cosmos." Our next chapter will discuss "second causes," and we shall see whether that title is to be denied to all impersonal objects.

(4) Some wonder that Catholic theologians insist so much on the personal character of the offence which is committed in sin against God, and they would lay more stress on the intrinsic inordinateness of acts. But if we take as the complement of actiones sunt suppositorum, the maxim, passiones sunt suppositorum, then we shall see the propriety of measuring sin especially by personal considerations. It is true that there must be intrinsic inordinateness in the sinful acts themselves; but given this, we gauge its full deformity only by looking at it on the personal side. We have not the complete idea of sin till we have grasped it as a crime committed by a personal agent against a personal superior. It has been by tracing the work of the actions of the Man Christ to His Divine Personality, that Catholic theologians have, by contrast, become so keenly alive to the personal element in sin. Moral worth is essentially something personal, even though in finite agents at least, the personal worth of the doer of a deed is not atraightway the worth of the deed, which has to be judged by its object and circumstances, but still the personal element has all that importance which we have declared it to have.

{1} Human Understanding, Bk. II. c. xxvii. Cf. Descartes. Med. iii. p. 74.

{2} Treatise I. iv. § 2. Mr. Spencer's views are given in his Psychology, Part VII. cc. xvi. and xvii. He is mostly concerned with distinguishing between the objective "vivid states" of consciousness, and subjective "faint states" and showing the intermediate position of a man's own body in relation to the two classes. "In some way or other there is attached to the faint aggregate a particular portion of the vivid aggregate, and this is unlike all the rest as being a portion always present, as having a special coherence among its components, as having known limits, as having comparatively restricted and well-known combinations, and especially as having in the faint aggregate the antecedents of its most conspicuous changes, which prove to be the means of setting up special changes in the rest of the vivid aggregate. This special part of the vivid aggregate, which I call my body, proves to be a part through which the rest of the vivid aggregate works changes in the faint, and through which the faint works certain changes in the vivid. And in consequence of its intermediate position, I find myself now regarding this body as belonging to the vivid aggregate, and now as belonging to the same whole as the faint aggregate, to which it is intimately related." These are fair specimens of the best things Mr. Spencer has left to say; after he has renounced all right to speak of a substance of body or of mind, and has left himself nothing to describe but two ultimately distinguished groups of faint and of vivid feelings, which have, as the mediator between them, the philosopher's own aggregate of feelings which he calls his body. It is only Hume continued. To account for the common opinion Mr. Spencer adds, "There is an illusion that at each moment the Ego is something more than the aggregate of feelings and ideas, actual or nascent, which then exists." (c. ix. § 220.)

{3} Intellectual Powers, Essay iii. c. iv. p. 345.

{4} History of Speculative Philosophy, p. 327.

{5} Metaphysics, Bk. I. c. vii. §§ 97, seq.

{6} A Study of Religion, Vol. II. p. 547.

{7} Id. pp. 364, 365.

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