Identity in Diversity

Updated: Feb 2

Pp. 49-54 Bosanquet, Bernard. The Value and Destiny of the Individual. The Gifford Lectures for 1912, Etc. Pp. xxxii. 331. Macmillan & Co.: London, 1913.

It is natural to assume for theoretical purposes that diversity of content coincides with diversity of form, and therefore that every finite mind is distinguished by the matter with which it is occupied, as well as possessed of an experience formally incommunicable. This simplification was strongly insisted on by Plato in the Republic, and as an ideal may perhaps be justified by the ultimate theory of membership in the universe. Every separate mind was to be distinguished by uniqueness of function or service no less than by formal selfhood; the ideal was for the individual to render a contribution to the whole, the content of which could not be precisely repeated in any other individual. And this ideal seems naturally to follow from the very conception of diversity in an orderly universe; but the application of it in the case of given finite minds must be much less simple than Plato’s State suggested.

Taking it, however, as if it were prima facie roughly true, that every different finite individual has a single and separate work or function in society, which corroborates, so to speak, the distinctness of his formal selfhood; we are still in presence of a thoroughgoing identity in diversity. The nature of a whole in which an identity is sub served by differences is a familiar topic; and the present writer has often pointed out that in membership of such a whole a thorough-going connection and adaptation of different minds is presupposed, which is wholly hidden from us by our tendency to construe minds as similar things, repeating one another like human bodies. If minds were visible, as bodies are, the writer has argued elsewhere, they would not look like similar repeated units, but rather each would appear as a member of a mechanism pointing beyond itself and unintelligible apart from others–one like a well, another like a piston, and a third, perhaps, like steam. Here, then, in the simplest conceivable case of coincidence between the material and the formal limitation of the self, we find thorough-going identity of diverse selves as parts of a single whole; and that in rational beings, with more or less thinking awareness of the whole to which they contribute. The extreme case of matter coincident with form would have been in the mechanical instinct, which we may perhaps ascribe to a working ant or bee, sufficing for its function, but devoid of all awareness of the whole to which its function is adapted, in short, of all self-transcendence. This we must not ascribe to any rational being, but obviously there are all grades of self-transcendence, from something analogous to blind instinct, up to a higher limit which we can hardly venture to fix.

But when we look at the facts of individual range and endowment, we find a more puzzling and complex state of things. Compared with the logical and certain lines of the social structure–and the same is true with any of the fabrics constituted by achievements of the human mind–the content possessed by individuals is in the highest degree arbitrary and contingent. As we said at the close of the preceding paragraph, so far from being coincident with a logically distinguishable function of factor of any structure, a finite mind may conjoin in itself an indefinite number of capacities, and may overlap, repeat, or comprehend, in any degree, the material experiences of other minds. Assuming that a single experience cannot have as its organ more than a single body–it is impossible to assume conversely that a single body cannot be organic to more than a single experience–there are certain practical or de facto limitations on the material range of that experience. Such is the fact that a single body cannot be in two places at once, or the difference of the sexes, or fluctuating physical disabilities like liability to fatigue to the shortness of life. But all this is not, so to speak, a matter of principle, but rather a variable fact. And within these limitations the comprehensiveness of content which goes to form a single mind may vary from what just suffices for a function like that of an ant, to a self which possesses the framework and very much of the detail of an entire society; which could, that is to say, but for bodily limitations, do the whole work of a large proportion of the social whole, and indeed, in spite of bodily limitations, in many cases does a very large share of it. There can be no doubt that it is often literally true that one man does the work, which it would take a dozen other men to do. His range overlaps and comprehends that of a possible dozen others, not merely in general awareness of the common plan and purpose, but in actual possession of the stuff of detailed capacity and activity.

And at our present standpoint, on the ground of identical content and not of formal exclusiveness, the proposition admitted above, that two or more bodies cannot be organic to a single center of experience, again seems only to state a matter of fact and of degree. A single thought and purpose, it is obvious, constantly is seen to animate a plurality of bodies, and although communication of experience, it would seem, is always indirect, yet how far in practice and by habitation the very quality of the experience in our body may be identified with that in another, so that a self may learn to rely on both experiences as equally its own, seems again a matter of degree. We learn to rely on others as on ourselves, not merely in faith and judgement, but in perception of sound and color, of heat and cold, of what is right and necessary in morals, of what is pleasant or unpleasant in society, in houses and furniture, in food and drink. I believe that there is no limit of principle, but only a fluctuating practical limit, to the unity of experience in different bodies, as there seems to be hardly any to the diversity of experience in one.

If this is so, we have made an important point. The immediate or formal diversity of finite centers is not all thoroughly sustained and reinforced by a coincident diversity of the matter of their experience, but, on the contrary, is in some degree reacted on and impaired by its identity. The convenience of the decentralization of finite experience, as it actually exists, will be touched upon below.

What we find, then, in the social fabric or, as was said above, in any of the great structures in which spiritual achievement takes shape, e.g. knowledge, fine art, historical continuity of the constitutional system of a country, forms a very curious commentary on our ordinary conception of the isolated and exclusive self. We find a building, whose lines and masses are plainly, though defectively, continuous and coherent, a solid erection, or, if we prefer another metaphor, a determinate organic structure. Now this structure is composed of, or, if we prefer, is the conjoint self-expression of, finite selves or minds, but the range of these several components respectively does not, as we are apt to assume, coincide with that of any objectively distinguishable features of the fabric. Their contents overlap in the most irregular and fluctuating way; the welds between them are everywhere, as their contributions fade indistinguishably into one another, and some of the beams, or branches, may be composed of thousands of coincident, or partially coincident, self-contents; some, and these perhaps more important, of only one or two. Thus limitations of every self-bear no relation to anything but its power; there is nothing, except the practical conditions of disability, to prevent any one self from expanding indefinitely over this content; nothing, again, to guarantee its self-maintenance at the range it has acquired. The continuous lines and articulated framework of the solid fabric–if Science is suspected of willful impersonality, take the growth of the Christian religion, or the development of Greek Tragedy to its maturity–are the certain, intelligible, and necessary thing; how far this or that finite self may extend along them is not a matter of principle, except that it is by this extension that the self enters upon the general life and its own individuality.

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