The Individual as Elusive Quarry in the History of Philosophy | Steve Fuller
A response to Ljiljana Radenović's "A Post-Enlightnment Ethics of the Desert Fathers." Covidian Æsthetics. Guest Column #015 (24 July).
The following is a response to Ljiljana Radenović's “A Post-Enlightenment Ethics of the Desert Fathers.” Covidian Aesthetics. Guest Column #015 (24 July); republished in Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 10 (8): 11-16.
Ljiljana Radenović’s (2021) defense of the Desert Fathers of early Christianity as providing a basis for a ‘post-Enlightenment ethics’ is perhaps most provocative in terms of her framing of the argument, which is by way of a critique of modern ethics, as exemplified by Kant, and the recent (and, to her mind, inadequate) revival of Stoicism, ostensibly in the name of the sort of ethics she is seeking. Along the way, Radenović also finds fault with utilitarianism, but largely for what it shares with Kant—and Stoicism: namely, a focus on the individual. I agree that it makes a certain degree of sense to lump these seemingly disparate moral positions under this rubric. But perhaps the ‘individual’ is not quite what she takes it to be.
I shall argue that the individual is in fact a strategically ambiguous metaphysical concept, which has befuddled our understanding of not only ethics but also philosophy and science more generally through the centuries. What follows is my own search for the individual, an entity that Kant rendered alluring and elusive in equal measure.
The Kantian Individual as a Divided Settlement between the Stoic and the Epicurean
In teaching the history of philosophy, it is common to present Kant as the capstone or culmination of ‘early modern philosophy’, a euphemism for the start of the post-theological era in Western philosophy. Thus, we refer to Kant as having synthesized ‘rationalism’ and ‘empiricism’ in the Critique of Pure Reason. This is, however, less obvious if we see the first critique as complemented by the second, the Critique of Practical Reason. In that light, it becomes more clear that Kant is trying to settle a score with ancient philosophy; in particular, the difference between Stoics and Epicureans, whom he presents as offering alternative constitutions of the human being. For the Stoic, the mind is what transcends the body; for the Epicurean, the mind is what governs the body. In brief, Kant concedes ethics to the Stoics and epistemology to the Epicureans: any individual can (and ought to) legislate for all of humanity, even though we are ultimately stuck in our respective bodies.
Now, a curious—perhaps even absurd—notion of the ‘individual’ seems to be implied in Kant’s ‘resolution’ of the human being. This curiosity/absurdity has gradually dawned on the Western mind over the past 200+ years, reaching its height with Existentialism. But if we approach Kant more analytically, he appears to be very sharply dividing, in the ethical terms, the ‘individual’ who exerts agency from the ‘individual’ who bears consequences. Put epistemologically: the ‘individual’ who thinks for oneself and the ‘individual’ who behaves in response. Now, at first glance, all I’m doing here is rephrasing the philosophical commonplace that Kant was a ‘dualist,’ and demonstrating the incoherencies that make dualism such a bad philosophy. But if that’s all there is to it, then Kant was just metaphysically confused and has no claim to be the greatest philosopher of the modern era! To be sure, that charge has been laid on his doorstep from time to time. I think there is something deeper going on here, though. To get at it, we must go back to the Stoics.
It is possible that Stoicism’s most arresting feature in the ancient world was the different walks of life those who espoused it came from. To name some of the most famous: Cicero and Seneca were politicians and public intellectuals, Epictetus was a disabled person, born a slave, who then became a freelance teacher; Marcus Aurelius was a warrior emperor. In that sense, Stoicism was a ‘life philosophy’ that lived up to its name. Even Epicureanism did not approach this vogue until its revival in the European Renaissance. The widespread adoption of Stoicism also made it both the model, and the target, for Christianity as a ‘social’ religion, rather than a cult. It is already present in St Paul’s early marketing strategy of positioning Christians as similar to the Stoics, but with even less of a commitment to materialism. After all, the Stoics believed that spirit (pneuma) was the finest form of matter— and to be human was to be the finest matter of them all.
Needless to say, the Stoic conception of humanity played fast and loose with the version of Homo sapiens that was really only stabilized in the mid-eighteenth century by Linnaeus. Nevertheless, echoes of this protean Stoic notion of the human persist in, say, the world-historic journey undertaken by Hegel’s Geist or Teilhard de Chardin’s vision of the ‘hominization’ of the Earth, which corresponds to the divinization of the cosmos. At this so-called ‘Omega Point’, the face of Jesus will supposedly become clear for all to see. While most may find such Hegelian and Teilhardian imagery extravagant, its spirit lives on in what transhumanists these days call our ‘morphological freedom’, that is, our indefinite—but not unlimited—capacity for shapeshifting. When transhumanists describe this sort of freedom in terms of turning evolutionary forces to one’s advantage, they are thinking like Stoics. All of the aforesaid Stoics were preoccupied with power, understood—on a metaphysically grand scale—as a personalized form of cosmic energy. Whatever one thinks of this, it suggests that both the Stoics and their modern emulators operate with a more peculiar conception of the individual than either their supporters or critics might think.
When Stoics offered the maxim ‘live according to nature (physis),’ they didn’t mean by ‘nature’ Aristotle’s McDonaldized version still fancied by Thomists, which is basically a patchwork cosmos consisting of a plurality of fixed ‘natures’ (aka ‘species‘, ‘essences’); each conveniently prepackaged to correspond to what is presented to our properly attuned senses. Nature, for the Stoics, is something much more holistic and dynamic, more like the raw ingredients than the finished products on the metaphysical menu. Its modern imprint can be felt in Spinoza’s pantheism and in various Romantic appeals to a ‘world soul’, but also in the great nineteenth century sciences of electromagnetism and thermodynamics. In this metaphysical swirl, the ‘individual’ is a fleeting finite outpost of order, whose sense of purpose comes from trying to beat the odds against descent into chaos (aka ‘entropy’). Thus, the Stoics focused on the limits of our capacity to channel the cosmic energy. And while they believed that such limits are real, they also believed that they are not apparent to the senses. Even if we have a false understanding of the limits of our power, it does not follow that we have less power than we first thought. We might, in fact, have more.
In other words, pessimism is not required in the face of this fundamental ignorance— but courage is. Indeed, Stoics regard courage as the emotional expression of risk-taking, rendering them ‘rational gamblers’ who encounter whatever good or bad comes their way with an open mind: whatever happens, certain prospects disappear, while others come more sharply into view. (It is no accident the Stoics were pioneers in modal logic.) This openness to risk distinguished the Stoics most clearly from the Epicureans, their rivals in the metaphysics of chance, who held that ordinary experience already reveals the limits of one’s capacities—and that we only court pain by trying to exceed them. Thus, the ancient Epicureans did not strive to test themselves before the court of public opinion, as the Stoics did; rather, they favored retreating into what may be reasonably called a ‘self-satisfied’ private life. This difference in existential orientation—which I have respectively called ‘proactionary‘ (Stoic) and ‘precautionary’ (Epicurean)—reflects that the Epicureans had a much more distinctly embodied sense of the individual than the Stoics did (Fuller and Lipinska 2014: chaps. 1-2).
The Epicurean believes that our bodies are simply a temporary arrangement of atoms, but that arrangement is sufficiently real that we are stuck with them. So, the best we can do, is cope. The Stoic, in contrast, holds that even our bodies are up for negotiation, because while we are indeed material beings, there is no clear cut-point (kriterion) in nature between ‘bodies’. Matter is a continuum, in terms of which our own contribution is to provide the cut-point, wherein lies our ‘individuality’. But because nature is supreme, there is no guarantee that any cut-point will endure. It is ultimately drawing a line in the shifting sands, which perhaps explains the perennial popularity of Stoicism among people who normally dwell in contested spaces, such as politicians, warriors and—more recently—capitalists, as per Silicon Valley’s favorite pop philosopher, Ryan Holiday. It is in homage to the Stoics that modern epistemologists aspire to criteria of knowledge that are ‘indefeasible’: they are always expecting a fight. In this regard, withstanding the scrutiny of knowledge claims by colleagues is just on the ‘fine’ end of a spectrum, the other side of which involves such ‘coarse’ activities as securing territory and harnessing resources. Such is a materialist worldview (Stoicism) that does not define the individual in terms of the limits of a particular body.
The Downstream Effects of the Kantian Individual for the Natural and Social Sciences
There are several ways to go at this point, but since I want to return to the question of Christianity, I will only briefly indicate the legacy of Kant’s dialectic of Stoicism and Epicureanism for the development of the modern natural and social sciences.
Courtesy of Kant, many key philosophical debates in the natural sciences from at least 1800 to 1950 (and probably persisting to this day) were proxy battles between Stoics and Epicureans, which the respective labels of ‘instrumentalist’ and ‘realist’ only very roughly capture. In physics, the Stoics were represented by those who believed that a strong metaphysical sense of ‘energy’ (still used in ecology) was the ultimate basis of matter, and atoms only mathematical constructions of manipulative convenience (‘finite extensions of geometric points’). The Epicureans correspond to those who upheld the atomic basis of matter, which would seem to have prevailed, notwithstanding the subsequent search for ‘sub-atomic’ particles that display increasingly un-body-like properties. A similar story could be told in biology about Darwin’s triumph over Lamarck (especially once Mendel entered the picture): an atomistic conception of genes trumped a more labile conception of germ plasm modelled on memory processes. But here too, subsequent developments in biology (e.g. epigenetics) make one wonder whether the Epicureans have had the last laugh. In any case, a notable, indeed ironic, feature of these trajectories is that while the Epicurean always seems to win, it was a Stoic-like adversarial approach to inquiry— that is, testing hypotheses against nature through active experimentation—that achieved these results. After all, the Epicureans thought that they already knew as much as could be known, and so were never inclined to do science.
In the case of the social sciences, the difference between Stoic and Epicurean sensibilities can be seen in debates over the character of voting in democracies. The Stoic position, which harked back to classical Athens but found a modern champion in John Stuart Mill, favors open ballots because they effectively expose everyone to scrutiny. In this view, voting is about each person ‘taking a stand’ and everyone else drawing their own conclusions. In contrast, the Epicurean position, championed by Mill’s mentor Jeremy Bentham, prefers secret ballots as more likely to reveal people’s true preferences. While we naturally read Bentham today as displaying a concern for the protection of privacy, he also believed that only such a radically atomized approach to voting would minimize the interference effects of persuasion, which could lead people to misrepresent their true wants and needs. This, in turn, would impede the state’s ability to administer to them. In that sense, voting was for Bentham not only a form of political expression but also a data-gathering exercise, not so different from public opinion polling and market research. Once again, we see the Epicurean individual come into view—not a self-determining agent, but a patient who exhibits an amalgam of pleasures and pains in need of diagnosis and treatment. However, neither Bentham’s Epicurean individual nor Mill’s more Stoic one conforms to the image of the rational egoist, Homo oeconomicus, a phrase Mill himself coined in 1836 for the vision of the human presupposed by classical political economy—and which he then deployed to demonstrate its impoverished view of human motivation.
Here it is worth recalling that Bentham’s utility maximizer was the state, not the individuals under its charge who delivered their hedonic data in the ballot box. This helps explain why it is difficult to find the ‘rational egoist’ version of Homo oeconomicus that bothers Radenović so much in the history of philosophy (and social sciences) outside of textbooks. After Mill’s provocative introduction of Homo oeconomicus, a debate gradually gathered on the standing of this concept in the nascent ‘moral sciences’, as Mill himself called them. It reached a fever pitch in the late nineteenth century Methodenstreit, which bequeathed social science the ‘ideal type’. But until the rise of game theory in the postwar period, the habit among economists had been to treat utility maximization rather as Bentham did, namely, as the state’s way of regarding those under its charge—not as a feature of the agents’ own self-understanding. A good indicator of this is the general hostility that Austrian economics has expressed towards utilitarianism, even though both would seem to presuppose ‘methodological individualism’. Here we need to take seriously that the welfare state—and perhaps even state socialism more generally—are the natural descendants of Bentham’s way of looking at the world. As Kant might put it in a blunt moment, it is a worldview whereby Stoics would have everyone else behave like Epicureans —not that any self-respecting Stoic would wish this, of course! It literally amounts to policymakers playing with other people’s lives as if they were extensions of their own.
The Question of Jesus as Individual: Who Passes the Test Posed by the Transfiguration?
Up to this point, I have explored the two main components of Kant’s post-theological philosophical settlement—Stoicism and Epicureanism—mainly in terms of their contrasting conceptions of the individual. The Stoic individual is a physically indeterminate being that is compelled to act in order to achieve any, if only temporary, sense of closure. Self-ownership is always a project in the making. Happiness amounts to proportioning one’s actions and assessing their consequences in a way that retains a sense of composure even though the set-points (or goalposts) are bound to shift. The Epicurean individual is a physically determinate being whose pleasures and pains are knowable to them. Indeed, the individual should monitor their own hedonic states to achieve happiness, which is the ultimate condition of self-ownership: a ‘satisfying life’. But the Epicurean understands this achievement against the backdrop of a world outside oneself that cannot be known in a way that permits substantial control. Kant’s schizoid judgement about the prospects for knowledge of oneself vis-à-vis the world outside oneself speaks to the Epicurean individual, whereas the indefinite moral expansiveness (‘magnanimity’) of Kant’s categorical imperative speaks to the Stoic individual.
When Kant formulated the categorical imperative, he clearly had in mind Jesus’ Golden Rule: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’. Kant’s Jesus was someone who regarded everyone as moral equals by virtue of all having been created in the image and likeness of God. We differ only in our circumstances but not in our capacity to do the right thing in those circumstances (even if very often we fail to rise to the occasion). This is the Jesus of the ‘universal brotherhood’ who recommended engaging with strangers rather than circulating only among friends and family. It is also the ‘cosmopolitan’ Jesus, as Kant and the Stoics would say, whose level of concern for everyone is the same. Of course, Jesus was subject to a mixed, increasingly polarized reception: some loved what he said and how he treated them; others found him problematic in various ways. While he was clearly not oblivious to these diverse responses, he carried on with his mission, radicalizing his message to the point of claiming that any individual should sacrifice their own life if it would bring salvation to all. This greatly disturbs Jesus’ followers, soon after which the moment known in the Gospels as the ‘Transfiguration’ occurs, when Jesus is ‘revealed’ to be the Son of God on Mount Tabor.
I didn’t specify to whom the divinity of Jesus was revealed because that remains a sticky point within Christian theology. Clearly, it was revealed to Jesus’ followers, who up until that point had begun to have doubts about their teacher’s sanity. But was it also when Jesus himself discovered his divinity? This question bears on the subtle metaphysical difference between the human and the divine in Stoicism and Christianity, in terms of which Kant sides with the Stoics. I imagine that Kant understood the life of Jesus as a version of Bildung, an ascent to more comprehensive levels of identification with humanity—to the point that Jesus could identify with everyone, and thereby willingly lay down his life for them. When an individual becomes the ‘universal human’ in that sense, they become divine. Here I see Kant retracing the steps of the Stoics in regarding the divine as the perfect human. This is also arguably the metaphysical journey pursued by contemporary transhumanism—at least on some of its better days.
However, St Augustine, himself very conversant in the ancient life philosophies, believed that such a synchronization of Stoic and Christian themes risked losing the significance attached to Adam’s Fall, which for Christians is the starting point for any ascent that humanity might make towards divinity. Indeed, if Original Sin is accorded its appropriate weight in the human condition, this ‘ascent’ would mark a real return to God. Thus, Augustine reversed the polarities of the Stoic continuum.
Whereas the Stoics seemed to think of God as the ultimately cosmopolitan human, toward which we might strive by our own devices, Augustine countered that humans were the worst of deities, who in the end can only be redeemed by God. (On this point, Nietzsche was in full agreement—minus belief in the promise of salvation.) It followed that simply being ‘human’ in the ordinary animal sense is always already a debased state of being, with very little that is spiritually reliable. In Augustine’s day, this move was rhetorically effective in limiting the impact of freelancing Christians (aka ‘heretics’) on the Church’s consolidation of power. But again, Augustine’s strategy backfired once it was applied to the Church itself: that is, continued reliance on the Church was itself seen as part of humanity’s fallen condition; hence, the Protestant Reformation and the Scientific Revolution, both of which repurposed Augustine to license a radical reconstruction of ourselves and the world (Harrison 2007). Much more can be said about this side of the story and its relationship to the transhumanist project, which I won’t pursue here but have elsewhere (Fuller 2019).
Whatever else one might wish to say about Jesus as human or divine, there is no denying that he made a point in his ministry to encounter people from all walks of life as if to test himself against not only what they said, but also how they lived. This feature of Jesus has always made him a hard act to follow. He was neither a sage on a hill, requiring the efforts of others to reach him, nor simply a divine messenger bringing the good news to anyone willing to hear. Apposite here is Joseph Priestley’s sympathetic comparison of Socrates and Jesus (in which Jesus comes out ahead), written at the end of a life in many ways as proactive and provocative as theirs, when nearly everything was up for grabs. From this standpoint, the Transfiguration becomes the somewhat less-than-surprising outcome of a life that had been pursued as a self-legislated Turing Test. Jesus proved to himself—as well as to his followers—his divinity and, in so doing, his inviolate individuality: a high bar for individualism, indeed.
Raphael. Study of the heads and hands of two Apostles for The Transfiguration. ~1515. Black chalk touched with white on greyish paper. 499 x 364 mm. Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.
Fuller, Steve. (2019). Nietzschean Meditations: Untimely Thoughts at the Dawn of the Transhuman Era. Berne SZ: Schwabe.
Fuller, Steve and Lipinska, Veronika. (2014). The Proactionary Imperative: A Foundation for Transhumanism. London: Palgrave.
Harrison, Peter (2007). The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Radenovic, Ljiljana. (2021). “A Post-Enlightenment Ethics of the Desert Fathers.” Covidian Aesthetics. Guest Column #015 (24 July); republished in Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 10 (8): 11-16.
Steve Fuller is Auguste Comte Professor of Social Epistemology at the University of Warwick. The author of twenty-five books, his recent work has been concerned with our ‘post-truth condition’ and the future of humanity. Fuller tweets as @profstevefuller and his website is www.profstevefuller.net.