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  • Hildebrand, Hypostasis, and the Irreducibility of Personal Existence
  • DT Sheffler

On one reading, twentieth-century Christian personalists such as Max Scheler, Dietrich von Hildebrand, or Edith Stein merely translate into Christian terms a set of modern concerns that arise apart from and are at odds with the historical Christian tradition. According to this reading, modern philosophy makes a fundamental break with previous thinking when it turns inward to examine the interior, personal dimension of existence. A person who favors this inward turn will see the Christian personalists as vainly attempting to salvage traditional Christian categories while trying to keep up with the times. For example, someone who favors twentieth-century existentialism or psychoanalysis may sympathize with a Christian personalist account of the interiority and irreplaceable uniqueness of each person but despise the larger religious framework of grace and salvation. Someone who favors traditional metaphysics, by contrast, may see these personalists as falling prey to modern errors when they should have kept the faith. Such a traditionalist may think, for example, that an emphasis on the personal is an infiltration into Christianity from secular political philosophies of individualism and that this has been thinly covered over with traditional Christian language.

Both perspectives, however, ignore the historical roots of personalism much further back in the history of philosophy than Descartes and Kant. Central to this history is the idea that each person uniquely realizes an incommunicable dimension of his existence, irreducible to the category of nature or essence. While we are in nature and while we are a nature, our nature as nature remains purely general, describing what we are in common with every other member of our species. As particular persons exercising our freedom and spiritual existence, however, each of us concretizes that purely general nature in a unique, personal way. For many centuries, Christians have called the dimension that concretizes nature ὑπόστασις: each ὑπόστασις is a distinct realization of a general nature. When this notion is first introduced into Christian discourse during the second half of the fourth century, the uniqueness of persons as opposed to the uniqueness of individual pebbles or horses does not come fully into focus. Nevertheless, a thick conception of [End Page 34] ὑπόστασις develops in order to speak precisely about Trinitarian and Christological theology, and this context gives it a distinctly personalist character, especially when it is translated into Latin as persona. In order to speak of God as three ὑποστάσεις or personae in one essence and to speak of Christ as one ὑπόστασις or persona in two natures, the category of ὑπόστασις must be irreducible to the category of nature. Along this irreducible dimension, persons are irreplaceable someones in relationship with other someones rather than merely somethings, specimens of a kind more or less interchangeable with any other such specimen.

The rootedness of this philosophical concept in specifically Trinitarian and Christological doctrine means that it should count as a properly Christian idea if anything does. Over the course of these controversies, the Fathers of the Church appropriate the old Greek philosophical word and infused it with an entirely new meaning.1 While this usage at first remains restricted to the purely theological realm, it slowly forces open a new passage in philosophical anthropology previously blocked in pre-Christian Greek thinking. In many ways, Christian philosophy does not make full use of this expansion until the twentieth century—perhaps encouraged in part by the change in emphasis that occurs in modern thought outside of Christian thinking—but we should see this development as the legitimate outgrowth of insights achieved centuries before.

We will begin with a passage from Transformation in Christ, characteristic of the Christian personalist movement, regarding what Dietrich von Hildebrand calls someone's "free personal center." According to Hildebrand, a person can stand back from the impulses that his nature delivers and either sanction those impulses or reject them. This ability reveals that being a person involves more than being a mere natural substance, enacting a life characteristic of one's kind. After examining this passage, we will turn to the historical development of ὑπόστασις as a new category in the Trinitarian and Christological controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries. While the ideas in Hildebrand certainly show a profound...


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