Kant and the Fragmentation of Self: Role and Individual in “What is Enlightenment?”


John Donne, a seventeenth century English poet, once wrote:

“And new Philosophy calls all in doubt,
The Element of fire is quite put out;
The Sun is lost, and th’ earth, and no mans wit
Can well direct him, where to look for it.
And freely men confess, that this world’s spent,
When in the Planets, and the Firmament
They seek so many new; they see that this
Is crumbled out again to his Atoms.
‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone;
All just supply, and all Relation:
Prince, Subject, Father, Son, are things forgot,
For every man alone thinks he hath got
To be a Phoenix, and that there can be
None of that kind, of which he is, but he.” [1]

This poem resonates with certain common sentiments of our time. While it is always true that humanity is thrown into existence, we find ourselves thrown into a world of pieces: pieces which do not fit together. Even more, a world of pieces in which we are ourselves fractured but do not know what to do in such a state other than propose authenticity as an ethic. The bonds which once held all together (whatever they were) are burst apart: for everyone desires to be a Phoenix and rise from the ashes of their own self-incurred minority. The sense of a lack of coherence is often countered by a generally optimistic view of our modern, or “Enlightened,” age—often also met with a certain kind of optimism towards human nature. It is often said that we have surpassed all our predecessors: that we have left behind their superstition and the horrors they birthed towards an age of tolerance, knowledge, and progress. This is very much the view presented in Immanuel Kant’s essay, “What is enlightenment?” [2] In this essay, he argues that the project of enlightenment is where humanity’s “original vocation lies precisely.” [3] Enlightenment is defined by Kant as “the human being’s emergence from his self-incurred minority.” (Bondage) [4] That is to say, enlightenment is the use of one’s own reason and understanding without direction from another: it is the modern formulation of sapere aude (meaning, ‘dare to be wise’ or ‘dare to know’). [5] The emphasis upon daring is appropriate, since in Kant’s view the issue is not the mere capacity to use one’s reason per se but rather a “lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another.” [6] Enlightenment is not mere use of one’s reason; no, it is the exercise thereof independently from any other or, as Kant puts it, “without direction from another.” [7] This may be described as an exercise in a form of authenticity wherein one defines (and thereby distinguishes) themselves as an individual by their reason(ing). But what is the connection between these two contrary sentiments? The one expresses as sense of privation: of meaning and meaningfulness. The other expresses a sense of (what seems to be) courage: courage to find that meaning and meaningfulness for ourselves, apart from societal roles or structures. Why is it that we find ourselves commonly able to relate to the phrase, “‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone”? Perhaps in seeking to emerge out of self-incurred minority, and establishing an entire society that is predicated on such emergence, we have brought about a mode of existence which fractures the self.

Individual, Role, and Character

Before discussing Kant’s essay, we must first discuss the general relation of individual, role, and character: specifically, how they similarly and dissimilarly embody ideas, beliefs, and morals. Alasdair MacIntyre notes: “Both individuals and roles can, and do, like characters, embody moral beliefs, doctrines, and theories, but each does so in its own way.” [9] It is the difference of in the manner of embodiment that we are here concerned with in relating and distinguishing individual, role, and character.

What is mean by individual is fairly self-explanatory: by this I mean that which belongs to a given personal existent which distinguishes them from other personal existents. While this does include metaphysical components (i.e., such as Duns Scotus’ concept of haecceity for individuation) [8], here I am focused on the “more or less complex, more or less coherent, more or less explicit bodies of beliefs, sometimes moral belief,” which forms the background of their actions. [10] As well as “the chain of practical reasoning [which] is…the individual’s own,” the context of which “is that particular individual’s history of action, belief, experience, and interaction.” [11] The individual, correspondingly, embodies certain ideas and morals thereby giving them a mode of existence, as it were, which originates from and centers upon the self.

Roles similarly assume and embody ideas, beliefs, and morals. What is different about roles from individuals is the locus of the ideas, beliefs, and morals being embodied: they center upon the role itself as ideal and instantiated rather than the individual. The embodiment of ideas and morals with regard role has its origins external to the individual, namely, in the role itself. Role is necessarily societal since it performs a particular function towards a particular end; the individual is also necessarily social in the same way. The difference lies in the origin and primacy of place of the assumed ideas and morals. That these are capable of distinction and difference is evident from experience. MacIntyre gives the example of the Catholic priest: “by virtue of his role officiates at the mass, performs other rites and ceremonies and takes part in a variety of activities which embody or presuppose, implicitly or explicitly, the beliefs of Catholic Christianity. Yet a particular ordained individual who does all these things may have lost his faith and his own beliefs may be quite other than and at variance with those expressed in the actions presented by his role. [In this way,] the belief that he has in his mind and heart are one thing; the beliefs that his role expressed and presupposes are quite another.” [12]

Characters differ from both individuals and roles in that while individuals and roles embody certain ideas and morals, characters “are a very special type of social role which places a certain kind of moral constraint on the personality of those who inhabit them in a way in which other social roles do not.” [13] What distinguishes characters from both individuals and roles is not per se the moral constraint, but rather the certain kind wherein they “merge what usually is thought to belong to the individual man or woman and what is usually thought to belong to social roles.” [14] There is a fusion of role and individual such that the character becomes paradigmatic of the role to which it refers: “Characters…are, so to speak, the moral representations of their culture and they are so because of the way in which moral and metaphysical ideas and theories assume through them an embodied existence in the social world. Characters are masks worn by moral philosophies.” [15] But didn’t I say previously that individuals embody certain ideas and morals and thereby give them a certain mode of existence? The difference between the mode of existence in individual and character is found precisely in the absence or presence of role: an individual embodies ideas and morals without any reference, necessarily to sociality; a character embodies ideas and morals as an individual fused with their role to the point where there is little, if any, distinction between them.

Kant’s “What is enlightenment?”

Kant’s essay “What is enlightenment?” is a seminal text in modern philosophy: it presents the project of enlightenment as an emergence from self-incurred minority towards free use of one’s own reason without direction from another or interference from the state. But what are its implications for individuals, roles, and characters? Kant’s proposal of enlightenment requires freedom of the public use of one’s reason as opposed to private use: the former refers to “that which someone makes of it as a scholar before the entire public of the world of readers,” while the latter refers to “that which one many make of it in a certain civil post or office with which he is entrusted.” [16] Here there is an opposition between the public and private use of one’s reason, as evident from his examples. However, it is worth noting that his examples (especially, officer of the law and clergyman) are not merely roles but are characters: they involve a level of fusion between role and individual such that the ideas and morals embodied in and particular to the role is precisely what is embodied in and particular to the individual. Let’s focus on his example of the clergyman. The individual who is in the role of clergyman “is bound to deliver his discourse to the pupils in his catechism class and to his congregation in accordance with the creed of the church he serves, for we was employed by it on that condition.” This Kant considers to be a private use of one’s reason since “a congregation, however large a gathering it may be, is still only a domestic gathering; and with respect to it he, as a priest, is not and cannot be free, since he is carrying out another’s commission.” [17] Despite this, “as a scholar he has complete freedom and is even called upon to communicate to the public all his carefully examined and well-intentioned thoughts about what is erroneous in that creed and his suggestions for a better arrangement of the religious and ecclesiastical body.” [18] Here the clergy is reduced from character to a strained relation of individual and role. there is, even, a degree of legitimacy to present such a mode of existence as duplicitous, though Kant counters, “there is nothing in this that could be laid as a burden on his conscience…. [since] there is at least nothing contradictory to inner religion present in them.” [19]

A Fractured Self?

In regard to Kant’s understanding of the project o enlightenment, the question is not (in my opinion) how does this result in a fracturing of the self but rather how does it not? A whole self, which is opposed and contrary to a fractured one, is predicated upon a certain coherence in their existence. To be put in a role which requires them to act in a way contrary to who they are as individual destroys that sense of coherence. They are, at this point, torn between two embodied modes of existence: one according to their role, another according to their individual or another role they function according to. This incoherence of one’s existence means two things: first, the diminishing of characters; second, the fracturing of the self. While characters are still present in contemporary American society, there is a true sense in which certain modernizing projects tend towards the deconstruction of characters, such that an individual is always at some distance from their role, either due to the ruthless impersonality of legality or some other aspect of their role which requires of them something that they would otherwise object to.  This diminishment of characters amidst the various modes of being which an individual takes on, removes any thoroughgoing sense of coherence or cogence. The self is, here, at odds with itself because of the activities into which its is pressed. This accounts for this sense in our time that the self is fractured, that our society is fractured. The seeds of this fracturing were there, planted deep within the soil of his word’s meaning and the project of enlightenment, and now they have blossomed for us—into thorns and thistles.

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Works Cited

[1] John Donne, Complete English Poems (Rutland, VT: Everyman, 1994), 255-256.

[2] Immanuel Kant, “What is enlightenment?” in Practical Philosophy, ed. and trans. Mary J. Gregor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 11-22.

[3] Kant, “What is enlightenment?” in Practical Philosophy, ed. and trans. Gregor, 20.

[4] Ibid., 17.

[5] Note that the phrase originally comes from Horace’s Epodes and is cited by Kant in his essay. Ibid., 17.

[6] Ibid., 17.

[7] Ibid., 17.

[8] For an explanation of haecceity, see Thomas Williams, “John Duns Scotus,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016 Edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta. Accessed May 15, 2019. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2016/entries/duns-scotus/, 3.3; cf. Jeffrey Hause, “John Duns Scotus,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Accessed May 15, 2019. https://www.iep.utm.edu/scotus/, section 5.

[9] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 3rd Ed. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 28.

[10] MacIntyre, After Virtue, 3rd Ed., 28.

[11] Ibid., 28-29.

[12] Ibid., 29.

[13] Ibid., 27.

[14] Ibid., 28.

[15] Ibid., 28.

[16] Kant, “What is enlightenment?” in Practical Philosophy, ed. and trans. Gregor, 18.

[17] Ibid., 19.

[18] Ibid., 19.

[19] Ibid., 19.

Wisdom: Comparing Aristotle and Ecclesiastes

Aristotle’s Wisdom-Prudence Distinction and Qoheleth’s Use of Wisdom

I. Introduction

In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, two virtuous lives are presented, characterized by two distinct virtues: the contemplative and active lives. These two lives are respectively characterized by wisdom and prudence. While wisdom is defined as a virtue of the speculative intellect which allows one to perceive the truth of things, prudence is defined as a virtue of the practical intellect which allows one to act in accordance with right reason in particular situations. Aristotle’s relation between these two lives is heavily debated by contemporary philosophers: some think that the two lives are inherently opposed and that Aristotle gives emphasis to the contemplative life, others the active life. While I think that Aristotle’s account is itself one of reconciling these two virtuous lives, my thesis here is that Ecclesiastes’ (hereafter referred to by its Hebrew title: Qoheleth) understanding of wisdom (Hb. hokmah) presents us with a synthesis of the two intellectual virtues and provides a way forward in understanding how to reconcile the contemplative and active lives. My argument hinges on two points: first, that wisdom has a dual function in Qoheleth—it corresponds, loosely, with Aristotle’s wisdom and prudence distinction—and second, that the synthesis between these two virtues is predicated on the connection between ‘is’ and ‘ought’.

II. Aristotle on Wisdom and Prudence

Previously I stated the distinction in Aristotle between wisdom and prudence, the intellectual virtues which are characteristic of the contemplative and active lives, respectively. The difference between them, however, needs to be made more explicit in order to appreciate Qoheleth’s synthesis. Wisdom (Gk. sophia) in Aristotle is that virtue which is characteristic of seeing or perceiving the truth of things—for this reason it is often seen as the chief of the virtues, as in Plato’s Meno, and often characterizes the ideal of the philosopher. [1] Wisdom, then, is concerned with the universals or generals: things predicated of many or all. Aristotle says, “in contemplative thinking…thinking well or badly consists in the true and the false respectively,” because “wisdom is a science and intellectual grasp of the things most honorable by nature.” [2] Prudence (Gk. phronesis), however, is the virtue which is characteristic of knowing what action is in accordance with right reason and will, therefore, lead to the human telos in the utmost particular, namely, the situation. While prudence involves knowledge of the universals (implied by sight or vision towards the telos of human nature and judging actions accordingly – i.e., by right reason), its distinctive character lies in its capacity to evaluate the absolute particular in view of the end, and no merely any end but the end in accordance with human nature qua human nature. This is what distinguishes prudence from mere cunning. Since, “good deliberation simply is that which guides us toward the end simply,” but prudence “is what guides us correctly towards some particular end.” Thus, “prudence is characterized by the giving of commands: its end is what one ought or ought not to do.” [3]

III. Hokmah in Qoheleth

Hokmah (wisdom) in Qoheleth functions, I argue, in two ways: first, in seeing the truth of things; second, in prescribing both an end to be sought an offering itself (i.e., wisdom) as means to achieve that end. Since these two functions of hokmah loosely correlate to wisdom and prudence, respectively, there is, implicitly, a synthesis of these two. Let’s first look at the two ways hokmah functions.

A. Twofold Function of Hokmah

First, wisdom functions as perceiving the truth of things. This is clear in Qoheleth’s hebel insight, that is, the incongruity-inequity of human existence under the sun. He describes all as hebel (1:2) and demonstrates the absurdity which penetrates through human wisdom (1:12-18; 2:12-17), human activity and agency (2:18-26), human experience of justice and injustice among the righteous and the wicked (3:16-22; 4:1-3; 8:14-15), and seemingly every other aspect of human existence. In this, Qoheleth perceives the underlying quality of things whose acknowledgement is painful. This is why he says, “he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.” (1:18) Hokmah in this function, loosely, corresponds to Aristotle’s wisdom, since it involves a proper perception of reality according to its general and/or universal truths—in this case, hebel. The hebel insight of Qoheleth is an insight of wisdom, the perception of the cosmic effects of fallenness: “See, this alone I have found, that God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes.” (7:29)

Second, wisdom functions as perceiving proper actions towards the proper end of human nature: this is clear in his persistence insistence on the enjoyment of temporal goods and the fear of the Lord, despite the hebel of life under the sun. He repeatedly says, “I perceived that there is nothing better than for [mankind] to be joyful and to do good as long as they live” (3:12; cf. 3:22; 5:18-20; 8:15; 9:7-10; 12:13-14). Here the upmost particulars are considered and evaluated in light of the end (both in terms of final causality and final judgement) as either conducive towards or detracting from it. This is why Qoheleth speaks of doing good and fearing the Lord and keeping His commandments with virtual synonymy (cf. 3:16-17; 12:13-14). It is also important to note that this second function of wisdom depends on the first function: the proper knowledge of the truth of things contextualizes the particular considerations. The pervasiveness of incongruity-inequity, designated by the term hebel, properly contextualizes the worth of things and various activities.

B. The Is-Ought Connection

In this twofold function of hokmah, we see Qoheleth arriving at prescription from description—even, in spite of it. The description of hebel contextualizes the prescription of enjoyment and doing good; even so the empirical observation that everything has its season or time grounds the later assertion of divine judgement against evil (see 3:16-17). Contra Hume, Qoheleth understands that any predication of ‘ought’ necessarily derives from ‘is’ since it is only intelligible on the assumption of a connection with and contextualization by ‘is’. This is-ought connection is predicated on the two functions of hokmah, since it seems proper to the one to describe the truth of things and proper to the other to prescribe actions conducive to the end in the context of the real. As Aristotle says, “prudence is not concerned with the universals alone but must also be acquainted with the particulars: it is bound up with action, and action concerns the particulars.” [4]

IV. Reconciling the Contemplative and Active Lives

From this I think we can begin to see how the contemplative and active lives may be understood in such a way as tends towards a synthesis. In Qoheleth, wisdom is one thing; while I argue it functions in two different ways, it remains a singular. Aristotle makes the distinction between these two functions and calls each by a name: wisdom and prudence, respectively. However, these two go hand in hand, as even Aristotle admits. Now, if these two virtues go hand in hand, it is reasonable to assume there is some congruity between the lives that these virtues characterize. The contemplative life of continually seeking to know the true is still a form of activity. The active life of seeking the good corresponding to action and choice is only possible if the individual possesses both knowledge and moral virtue: both contextualize the end in view of choice and action. The difficulty to this is the presence of hebel: the incongruity and inequity experienced under the sun. However, the synthesis of the active and contemplative lives, ironically, results from the uniting of human experience: connecting ‘is’ with ‘ought’ and thereby bringing coherence despite the absurdity of life under the sun. This gives us as Christians and as human beings a way forward in properly understanding the relation between orthodoxy and orthopraxy: ‘is’ leads to ‘ought’; there is no naturalist fallacy. What we are, when we find ourselves (i.e., factual statements) are what contextualize our pursuit of the good. We must never assume the reality of our being does not bear hold on our telos or morality. We must attempt to live coherent lives: ones where in our being imago Dei is united with natural virtue, where our being en Christou is united with theological virtue.


[1] The task of the wise man is to order, this ordering is according to wisdom as per Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles I, c. 1; Aquinas, Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, I, lectio. 1-3

[2] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Robert C. Bartlett and Susan D. Collins (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 1139a27-29, 1141b3-5.

[3] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Bartlett and Collins, 1142b30-33, 1143a8-10.

[4] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Bartlett and Collins, 1141b15-17.

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