The properly personal as opposed to the fully rational

One paradox of human existence is that while all persons are rational, what is properly personal is opposed to what is rational. The quickest way to see this is through the “test of fidelity” farces, that is, those stories in which a man won’t believe that a woman loves him until he puts her fidelity to the test. The story arises with the Greeks and serves as the central scene in Don Quixote (the inn scene in which there is an inquiry into whether Quixote is mad) and the plot of Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte. To explain the test-of -fidelity plot is to show its absurdity – everyone can tell from a mile away that the story will end badly since this is fidelity is not the sort of thing that can be uncovered in this way. To think that those things that belong to the properly personal sphere of existence can be treated as objects to be put to the test and proportioned to our rational power is absurd, shortsighted, and morally repugnant, and so the personal sphere of existence stands as a stark critique of what is rational in the fullest sense of the term, that is, the desire to know for oneself on the basis of evidence seen by oneself, and to believe no further than the evidence allows.

But it is not just a matter of opposing the properly personal to what is most fully rational – for the two are not merely divided from each other as though the former were a mere exception to the extent of reason. Both the personal and the rational make claims to being what is most meaningful and important in human life. Clifford’s axiom is the briefest way of putting the claim of reason; the Cosi Fan Tutte plot is the sharpest way of showing the claims of the personal.

The dichotomy is large and it is difficult to try to harmonize all the facts that arise out of it. Some notes:

-The absurdity of the nerd derives from this opposition: a radiant and high-octane knowing power yoked to a complete tone-deafness to the sphere of personal existence. In this sense, all “education of the nerd” plots are variations on the critique of reason.

-PZ Meyers once claimed that dating was nothing other than science applied to human relationships. This was hilariously funny. The jokes about letting other labs replicate your results almost write themselves.

-Yes, I’m aware that there is a sense in which reason rests on the sort of trust that characterizes our relationships in the personal sphere. Still, all evidence claims and even metaphysical arguments remain outside this sphere of personal existence.

– As soon as the personal sphere is identified as a perfection, it is at once difficult and obvious to understand the opposition between the god of faith and of the philosophers. On the one hand, of course those who are dedicated to the life of reason were all too prone to blindness of personal reality; but at the same time, once one identifies this sphere of reality as a true perfection, how can he insist on the aloofness or distance of God (who deserves no worship, etc.) even considered according to reason? Is the God of the philosophers simply a divine nerd?

-This opposition is part of the reason for the division of knowledge into science and the humanities.

-The opposition serves as both explanation and critique of pornography. Sexual activity essentially mediates love, and mere observation of objects is repugnant to loving them as persons.



  1. Xan said,

    October 22, 2011 at 3:32 pm

    So you’re saying that the “properly personal sphere of existence” is unintelligible as such (to our intellect)?

  2. October 22, 2011 at 8:08 pm

    Unintelligible is too broad a term – that’s anything we can form an idea of, or anything coherent in any way. Here I’m talking about personal things with respect to another standard, sc. the ideas of the rational or objective or evidential laid out above. The personal is not given publicly, it is free, and it is singular, all of which make it impossible to reduce to the first thing we call knowledge or science.

    Now there is certainly a sense in which what is personal is knowable, and even most knowable and most worth knowing. I oppose the personal and the rational not because they are contradictory but because the one cannot be reduced to the other, and because success at knowing one does not translate into success at knowing the other. While I call them both “knowing” I don’t think this means that we can call knowledge of the personal a “rational discourse”. Something else is going on. St. Thomas hints at this other mode throughout his work (a reference to “connatural knowledge” for example, and parts of his doctrine of prudence, and his cryptic remark that poetry is a sort of logic) but all of this is not gathered together into a mode of knowing opposed to the properly rational.

    • Xan said,

      October 25, 2011 at 4:16 am

      Thanks for the response.

      I didn’t think that you wanted to say that the personal was unintelligible, but some of the things you said (e.g., what is personal not being able to be proportioned to our rational power) seemed like they could imply that.

      As far as perfection applies to the personal, I think you have to make a distinction in perfection here, since the kind of personal relations we have here on earth with each other are not absolute perfections, but only perfections for us in this state of life. That is why Aristotle says we need them because we are not self-sufficient. For same reason, that they are not absolute perfections, there is not marriage in heaven.

  3. PatrickH said,

    October 24, 2011 at 3:20 am

    You’ve appeared over at Feser’s recently, fouling his comments, and it is disturbing to see you doing the same thing at this extremely intelligent blog. I hope Dr Chastek bans you forthwith. Trolls have corrupted Feser’s comments section, rendering it almost unreadable. Please don’t repeat the ugliness here.

    • October 24, 2011 at 3:56 am

      The comment mentioned above was obscene and irrelevant. Something about Christ and the Neanderthals. It was deleted.

  4. Crude said,

    October 24, 2011 at 3:25 am

    Patrick, he pretty much hits every religious blog he can, and these comments aren’t even original – lots of copy/paste.

    I doubt he even knows what this blog is about.

  5. PatrickH said,

    October 24, 2011 at 4:47 am

    Thank you. Now if only Ed Feser would do some cleanup at his place, some interesting discussions might be able to happen. You can imagine my shock when someone over there responded to a comment from that individual, calling him “tof”, the same initials Michael Flynn sometimes uses to identify himself. Then I read the ‘tof’ comment. Imagine my shock. I thought Flynn had gone mad. Then I saw the full name. Imagine my relief.

  6. outofsleep said,

    October 24, 2011 at 9:39 am

    Is the opening section of “King Lear” another example of a “test of fidelity”?

  7. Kristor said,

    October 27, 2011 at 12:42 pm

    PatrickH: You are so right about the trolls in the combox over at Feser’s site. I can hardly bear to go there anymore, the poison fog wafts so dense. It’s like having a screamer in the nave of a great cathedral during Mass (this is not uncommon in great cathedrals): ruins the whole shooting match for everyone except those so pure they stand in no need of the rite in the first place.

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