The second person

Augustine gave philosophical power to the first person perspective, and the development of the sorts of arguments he gave was crucial to Modern philosophy. To this day there are strong disagreements of great consequence over the account we should give of the first person. But notice that all the disputes are between the first and third person perspectives, and take for granted that these are the only two viewpoints to take seriously. For example, our idea that the objective and subjective is an exhaustive division rests on the implicit assumption either that there is (at most) only the first and third person perspectives, or that the second person is nothing but a third person modality (!!!try treating your wife like this!!!) Again, the modern alternatives between dualism and reductionism seem to rest on the belief that everything must either reduce to impersonal, third person existence or that the first person must be somehow real. These debates grew out of earlier ones that appeared to have the same limitation: either we had to be idealists (that is, the first person is the only reality) or we had to be materialists (third person).

This omission has left its mark everywhere in philosophy. To take one glaring example, philosophical discourse has been traditionally clumsy in its treatment of erotic love. Plato’s treatment of  it is certainly one of the best, but he ultimately makes it an instrumental stage that is supposed to lead to a subject’s vision of the beautiful in itself, that is, to a first and third person experience. Though he sees a link between eros and reproduction, he takes this as meaning the soul’s reproduction of itself, that is, as a first person reduplicating itself. But this is obviously no way to account for sexual reproduction, which is by definition co-operative.

So, what about the second person? Here are some possible accounts:

1.) Buber’s. Apologies to those who have been shouting “what about Buber?!?” since the first sentence of the post. Buber can be read as a philosophy of the primacy of the second person: God, on Buber’s account, is that being who can only ever be thou to us, and who we fail to understand so far as we give third person accounts. The second person is thus absolute, and the third person something that falls away from this, cf. “the word-pair ‘I-it’ can never be uttered with one’s whole being”.

2.)  The primacy of language account. Philosophies of language can be seen as at least indirect attempts to incorporate the second person. Meaning is only meaning within a group, and language has discourse between persons as an essential and constitutive aspect.

3.) Feminist accounts. Philosophers are as a rule male, analytical, and introverted and a discussion of other subjects leaves them stammering. A feminist critique of logic and supposedly objective discourse has real weight when we notice just how much of reality gets left off when we consider the uniformity of temperament among those entrusted to give an account of it.

Clumsiness in dealing with the reality of the interpersonal and co-operative, and a corresponding desire to admit only the individual and impersonal into the real is a typically male trait and we need to take non-typically male insights into account in order to avoid leaving out vast swaths of the universe. Feminists are just right that most philosophy is structurally male and needs to be extended, and the all but complete absence of the second person is a central piece of evidence for this. You’ll notice an all but complete lack of a philosophy about children too.

4.) An epistemology of faith. Faith is not just assent, but assent to the intelligence of another deemed in some position to know. Faith is thus essentially second-personal. It can exist only in a community of persons trusting each other. Absent a robust account of the second person, faith becomes “blind assent” since one implicitly assumes that the first person or third person is the only solid basis for evidence. After all, we either see it publicly and impersonally, and a posteriori (third person) or we see it by intuition, introspection, and a priori (first person). What else is there?

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1 Comment

  1. Maureen said,

    June 12, 2014 at 1:09 pm

    There are many material substrates given to account for a second essence. For as much as I have (not) read Buber but quickly sense that the Trinity could have been, (similar if you read Aquinas before the Bible in one way) an obstacle in reducing the potentiality and actuality to see that material and immaterial will is further willed by determination of that second; completely having knowledge of the observed sense. Buber’s motion indeed was completely comprised of a second position, even in the act and motion of incorporation of other people for good; yet the stability, energy and semantic I-Thou leave the actuality with no dimension.

    “The entelecheia is a continuous being-at-work (energeia) when something is doing its complete “work”. For this reason, the meanings of the two words converge, and they both depend upon the idea that every thing’s “thinghood” is a kind of work, or in other words a specific way of being in motion. All things that exist now, and not just potentially, are beings-at-work, and all of them have a tendency towards being-at-work in a particular way that would be their proper and “complete” way.”

    Just as energeia extends to entelecheia because it is the activity which makes a thing what it is, entelecheia extends to energeia because it is the end or perfection which has being only in, through, and during activity.”

    It may be difficult for some to find the similarities, as they do exist; as to the residual potency of man made vs concept and action of the will and the outcome can be entirely different.


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