The Individual As Ego

Updated: Apr 22

Gentile, Giovanni. “Chapter VII.” In The Theory of Mind as Pure Act, 89–95. London: Macmillan and Co. St Martin's Street, 1922.

The concept that the individual is the real positive, when we reflect on it, is seen to be absurd. It is absurd, notwithstanding that it imposes itself on thought as the only true reality which thought can find for its own support, because it is posited for the subject without being posited by the subject. This is a contradiction in terms which every one who pays attention to the meaning of the words “posited for the subject” must admit.

“Posited for the subject” simply means object. When we deny that the positive individual depends in any way on the subject, and affirm that the subject must presuppose this object in order to get its insertion into the real, we despoil or try our best to despoil the positive individual of every element in it which can bear witness to the action of the subject. We aim at purifying and strengthening its individuality when we withdraw it from every form of universality which the subject’s thinking confers on it. The subject assumes it as matter which has its own independent elaboration. But there must be a limit to this subtraction and purification, beyond which the individual would cease to be the spring-board which enables the subject to leap from the pure ideas which imprison it in the sphere of subjectivity, and to communicate with the real. And this limit, it is obvious, is that within which the object is a term of consciousness, something relative to the ego and beyond which it ceases to be object for the subject. To despoil the object of this absolute relation, by which it is bound to the subject, is to destroy any value it can have as an object. So that the positive individual cannot be conceived otherwise than as relative to the subject.

To-day, and indeed ever since Kant, there has been much insistence on the value of the intuition as a necessary antecedent of thought and as the path by which thought enters into relation with reality. Aristotle was equally insistent on the necessity of sensation,—which is the same as the intuition of the moderns,—as an immediate presence of the object, not the consequence of a subjective act, and therefore not in consequence of a proportion and symmetry between itself and the object which the subject has generated. But this intuition or sensation, by eliminating from the relation between the two terms of knowing, subject and object, everything that can be thought of as secondary and derived from the action of the subject, cannot destroy the relation itself, cannot posit a pure object confronting the subject, absolutely external to the subject, fantastically conceived as originally belonging to it. The object with absolutely no relation to the subject is nonsense. The originality and the immediacy of intuition, therefore, cannot rob the individual of the truly original and immanent relativity it has to the subject.

Now what does relation mean? To say that two terms are related implies that they are different but also affirms that there is identity. Two terms different and absolutely different could only be thought of in such a way that in thinking the one we should not be thinking the other. The thought of the one would absolutely exclude the other. Such pure difference could only hold, therefore, between two terms which are unrelatable; so that if terms are in relation, however different they are, at least in thinking one we think the other. The concept of one even contains in some form the other.

In the intuition, then, the subject is indeed different from the object, but not to the extent that there is nothing whatever of the subject in the object. That is to say, the object is inconceivable apart from something which belongs to it in virtue of its being intuition, by which it is in relation to the subject. Accordingly the relation of object and subject through which the object is posited for the subject, necessarily implies the concept of the object as posited by the subject. And so the concept of the positive as that which is not posited by the subject is clearly shown to be intrinsically contradictory.

On the other hand, this does not release us from the necessity grounded in reason of integrating the universal in thought, whence the particular gets its meaning, with what is positive in the individual. We have only shown that when we oppose the individual to the universal we make the universal synonymous with the subjective. If, then, we separate from the individual everything subjective, including the positing by the subject for the subject, and suppose the positivity something outside the subject altogether, then we are also outside the intuition itself and can only get back by suppressing that “outside of subjectivity” in which we have supposed the essence of individuality to consist. And all the attempts which, under the guise of nominalism, have been made to retain this meaning of individuality have failed and will always fail.

But are we in any better case? Have we, if we cannot attain the individual which we oppose to the universal, succeeded in securing the universal which we want to integrate? Or are we merely vexing ourselves in pursuing an empty shadow? Is the individual we require in order to endow the universal with the substantiality of effective reality an illusive appearance ever disappearing behind us?

This is the point to which we must now give careful attention, and we shall see that it is not a case of running forward or of turning back, but of stopping and embracing the true individual which is in us.

The universal is the predicate with which in the judgment the subject is invested. Every cognitive act is an a priori synthesis, and the universal is one of the terms of that synthesis. Even the intuition is, as we have seen, unintelligible except as a necessary relation. And this relation is an a priori synthesis between the ideal element whereby the subject illumines for itself the term intuited, and the subject of the judgment made explicit, which is the term intuited. So, then, the true universal, or the category, is the universal which can only work by being predicated of the subject; the individual is the subject which can only work by being the subject of predication. The category, then (as Kant proved), is a function of the subject of knowledge, of the actual subject itself; and the individual is the content of the intuition by which the subject of knowledge issues from itself. But is it possible to fix the subject of knowledge, the category, the universality? Fixing a category means defining it, thinking it. But the category thought is the category made subject of a judgement and therefore no longer predicated, no longer the subject’s act. No one before Kant had ever given thought to the category, though we all use it, and many even after Kant still fail to render a clear account of it. We are still accustomed to take the category in its primitive, Aristotelian meaning, as the most universal predicate which itself can never be subject. It may be the category of “being” which can take as this most universal concept. Can this “being” be thought, or let us say simply can it be fixed by thinking, in the position of a universal which does not function as subject? But fixing it means saying to oneself: “Being is being.” That is, we affirm “being” by duplicating it internally into a “being” which is subject and a “being” which is predicate. And then in regard to the “being” which is subject, and which alone can really be said to be fixed, it is not universal at all, but absolutely particular and definitely individual. So that if everything is “being” (meaning that “universal” comprises all things under it), “being” is not everything, since it only itself by distinguishing itself from every other possible object of thought, as the unique being. And precisely the same applies to substance, or cause, or relation, or any similar object of thought on which we would confer the value of a category. The category, so to say, is a category only so long as we do not stare it straight in the face. If we do, it is individualized at once, punctuated, posited as a unique quid, and itself requires light from a predicate to which it must be referred. And then it is no longer a category.

What has been said of the category or pure universal clearly applies a fortiori to every universal, in so far as it functions as such, and so assumes the office of category. Each of the Platonic ideas, highest archetypes of single natural things, in order to be thought of must be individualized. For if this horse is horse (universal), the horse (universal) itself is horse; and if following Plato in the manner shown in the Phaedrus we transport ourselves on the wings of fancy to the heaven where the real horse is to be seen, that horse the sight of which will render possible here below the single mortal horse, it is clear that the real horse in heaven is only seen by affirming it, that is, by making it the subject of a judgment, precisely in the same way as in the case of any sorry nag we meet here on earth and stop to look at. So the celestial horse is unique in its incommunicable nature, and in itself, omnimodo determinata, it can neither be intuited nor apprehended in thought without using terms which encircle it with the light of a predicate which universalizes it. We must say, for example, “The horse is” and then “being” is the category and horse the individual.

We may conclude, then, that the universal has, even when interpreted in the most complete form by the nominalists, the need of being particularized in the individual. When, then, there is no individual and it is still to seek, the universal posits itself as individual, if by no other way, then by confronting itself with itself so making itself at one and the same time individual and universal. And the effort, therefore, to integrate the universal as pure universal which it is believed is necessary, is vain, because the universal as pure universal is never found.

We can now say that the individual and the universal in their antagonism to one another are two abstractions. Think the individual and in thinking it you universalize it. Think the universal and in thinking it you individualize it. So that the inquiry concerning the concept of the individual has always been orientated towards an abstraction, for it starts from an abstraction, namely, the concept of the universal as idea to be realized or as category to be individualized. In treating the two terms between which thought moves,—the individual which has to be brought under the category, the category which has to interpenetrate the individual,—no account whatever has been taken of the thought itself, in which the two terms are immanent. From the universal which can be thought of but does not think, and from the individual which can be intuited but does not intuit, we must turn to the concreteness of thought in act, which is a unity of universal and particular, of concept and intuition; and we shall find that the positive is attained at last, and clear of contradiction.

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