It is the responsibility of every Christian to understand and actualize him/herself as an individual. One cannot properly serve God without understanding what it means to be, what a self actually is, biblically speaking; but we also have to “actualize” this information by putting it into practice. In other words, for all of our philosophizing, it does us no good if we cannot apply it to our lives. This is precisely why existentialism is the most necessary starting-place in philosophy, if I may be so bold; and we find the same emphasis in the Scriptures, when man is constantly “called out” of his context, his sin-saturated situation, to walk by faith. The primacy of individuality does not negate the call to community, but it is on the other side of the invitation’s divide that we come together; one cannot truly belong to the body without first having been separated from former binding ties.

One of the steps towards this necessary individualizing is recognizing the importance of facticity, in both a positive and negative sense: how it helps us make sense of God’s purposes, and how it can prevent us from obedience to Jesus Christ. 

What is facticity? Simply put, it is the concept of an individual’s context. It is the sum total of the facts about myself, the situation I find myself “in the middle of” when I engage in self-examination. These facts are my race, my gender, my age, my family situation, my particular point in the timeline of my ancestors and descendents. Facticity is the “factualness” of my existence in the world. I cannot change its facets, cannot alter them except through some kind of violence to my body or mind. 

We see facticity in the Scriptures when God approaches humans and speaks to them in their context. These details are always mentioned, sometimes to demonstrate God’s mercy, sometimes to show the faithfulness of the called. But they are unalterable realities in each case.

Facticity is heightened through the Incarnation. When God enters the world, He enters into a particular context, born to a certain family, taking on a particular occupation. Jesus was not a Chinese farmer or an American businessman, but a Jew living in the shadow of Rome’s occupation. It was as such that He lived and died. 

We see facticity, too, in our everyday lives. So much of our context simultaneously liberates and limits us. Many decisions — our birth parents, our initial geographical locations, where and how we are educated — are outside of our control. Even when we enter into the relatively wider freedoms of adulthood, we still find ourselves confined: our race and gender, for instance, may preclude us from certain privileges, or our intelligence may limit us from comprehending particularly difficult concepts in certain academic fields. 

It is worth noting that facticity is different from the concept of “intersectionality,” (1) which essentially reduces all socio-political interactions to degrees of oppression. Facticity is not inherently negative, as intersectionality is often perceived to be (and usually is): it is simply a “tallying up” of facts about myself that exist despite my decisions. 

With all of that said: what of it? Facticity at first seems to be a fancy way of pointing out the fairly obvious, and hardly seems like a concept worthy of stealing our time. However, a more detailed examination will evidence how facticity has some powerful theological and philosophical implications for the understanding and actualizing of the self. Particularly, we need to look at how facticity interacts with freedom, God’s sovereignty, and our obedience to him.

Facticity and Freedom. The first important lesson of facticity is a negative one: it exposes to me the limits of my freedom. Despite the abilities of the human spirit to exist beneath incredible psychological and spiritual pressure, the lengths to which people have gone to grow and gain new abilities, facticity stands as a guard against the autonomy which would have man become a little god. There are certain doors that remain slammed shut and locked against my endeavors, no matter how hard I strive. I, for example, would never succeed as a nuclear physicist; my brain is wired to tackle more linguistic, literary, and philosophical matters, and I struggle with material that is (to me) excessively technical, mathematical, or scientific. This is because of facticity, the genetic make-up of my psychology that I cannot escape. 

Of course, facticity must not be used to negate the power of choice. I always must choose: I have the responsibility to do so, before both God and people. What facticity does is establish the limits. There are not “boundless choices” in every moment, even if there are several, including those which I cannot properly perceive. 

Facticity and Sovereignty. The relation of facticity to God’s Divine purpose is closely tied to its relation with freedom: it is because of His sovereignty that my freedom is limited. We could even say that facticity is the “human” side to God’s sovereignty: we are in our particular context because He has so decreed it, always without explanation to us, for we are owed no answer from Heaven. All of Scripture, as said above, points to this contextualization of existence: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent His Son, born of a woman…”

Recognizing facticity, then, is recognizing His sovereignty. It helps me to see the context into which I have been placed as my context, in which God desires to use me for the furtherance of His kingdom. Rather than complaining and kicking against the limits of my existence, I accept them, even with gratitude, as the lines of demarcation which implicitly guide me through my life. Of course, in this sense, facticity is difficult to understand “in the moment.” One can never step outside his or her context, and can only review it from a healthy distance. What may seem like a limit established by my facticity at the time may simply be a missed opportunity which, if approached again, would yield different results. 

What should also be recognized is that facticity does not equal fatalism, and should not lead to a state of infinite resignation. The person who takes facticity as a resounding cosmic “no” to his or her endeavors has misread the limitations of context. Humility should flow from us when we realize that God, in His wisdom and unalterable purpose, has fashioned the boundaries of our lives; but we should not take this as a sign to avoid action.

Facticity and Obedience. With all of that said, there is a negative side to facticity: if a proper attitude towards it is not cultivated, it can become an excuse to avoid obedience, to justify compromise and spiritual laziness. It can even lead to a loss of passion for life itself, a lack of drive, and contentment with that loss and lack that sediments and becomes integral to one’s personality. 

Any good hermeneutics will demonstrate that all of the ethical demands of the Gospel are situated in a context. Of Paul’s thirteen letters, only two of them appear to be unprompted by a specific crisis with the believers to whom he was writing; in the Gospels, Jesus is always speaking to a particular audience, in a particular time and place. With all of that said, however, the moral imperatives of the New Testament are just as applicable to us as they were to the original readers because they are concerned with the kinds of people that God has called us to be, regardless of our circumstances. While the situation in which I am called to be patient, for instance, may be quite different from the situation of a first century believer in Thessaloniki, the characteristics of patience as a virtue will look remarkably similar because patience as an eternal quality of genuine faith has not shifted in its appearance or characteristics. 

Therefore, facticity can never be wielded as a weapon to obedience. In fact, the call of Christ specifically transcends facticity, as we see in the Gospels when He calls the disciples and they leave their careers, their families, and their hometowns to follow Him. I must consider my context when I am considering obedience, because ethics always interacts with the environment. But the environment is not a true barrier to obedience. God always calls me in my context, often out of my context, in order to transform it. He who is Eternally Unfactical became facticity itself, that we may transcend the facts our existence, that which is merely earthly, and walk in the Spirit, undetermined by anything but the Divine will. 


(1) This is not to say that there is no legitimacy to some ideas put forth by intersectionality. Societal oppression is a reality for many people. The Scriptures constantly address caring for those who are at a disadvantage. Intersectionality becomes problematic when it only wants to view a person in terms of how they are oppressed. It is, in that sense, a negative spin on facticity, and does not recognize the ability to obtain freedom despite one’s circumstances. Not everyone who argues for intersectionality takes this line of thinking, but it is a danger, and it does occur.

PC: Photo by Michael Emono on Unsplash

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.

Picture Credit

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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.