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504 17 Existence before Substance The Idea of “Person” in Humanistic Inquiry Few terms call more urgently for a deep-historical archeology and for­ patient “desynonymization” (to use Coleridge’s term of art) from “subject,” self,” or “individual” than that of “person.” To embark on tracing the term’s genesis and progressive clarification is to encounter a vivid example of what John Henry Newman would subsequently conceptualize as the “development” of an idea—a process of progressive reflection and clarification that, taken as a whole, reveals the vitality of an intellectual tradition and through its many hermeneutic turns impresses on us the “antecedent probability” that the original idea had contained not merely potential meanings but a positive truth.1 The idea of personhood, or “Personëity,” constitutes the fulcrum of the later Coleridge’s at times obsessive rumination of the human being ’s unique constitution. To be human, he insists, is to recognize oneself as an embodied being with a “responsible Will,” capable of reflection and providentially alerted to its vertical rapport with the divine logos by the unique phenomenology of “conscience.” Well before he had immersed himself in the scholarship that would en1 . See Newman, Development of Christian Doctrine (1845), 33–40 (1878 ed.); in preparing for his “assertion of religion,” Coleridge remarks how an event’s “anterior probability … is part of its historic evidence and constitutes proof presumptive or evidence à priori” (OM, 16; italics mine). Existence before Substance 505 able him to argue the term’s centrality with the requisite detail, Coleridge already insists on the indispensability of “person” to moral philosophy, a discipline whose fortunes in the age of William Paley he understood to be acutely imperiled: The Contra-distinction of Person from Thing being the Ground and Condition of all Morality, a system like … Hobbes’s, which begins by confounding them, needs no confutation to a moral Being. A Slave is a Person perverted into a Thing: Slavery, therefore, is not so properly a deviation from Justice, as an absolute subversion of all Morality.2 As so often, it is the failure to maintain a distinction—not only that between person and thing but, just as importantly, that between a contingent “deviation” from and an “absolute subversion of” justice—which serves as Coleridge’s point of departure. Conversely, he is just as concerned about the usurpation of person by forms of animated life that do, in fact, not meet the relevant criteria: “Every Man is born with the faculty of Reason: and whatever is without it, be the Shape what it may, is not a Man or Person, but a Thing” (CF, 2:125). If terminological carelessness is evidence of an ethical lapse, Coleridge’s own temporary blindness to the way in which this pronouncement strips animals of all ethical standing arguably disconcerts. The apparent restriction of nonhuman life forms to the status of mere things, while obviously troubling in its own right, also hints at one of the more problematic aspects of Coleridge’s in many respects impressive theology. For his contention that “trees and animals are things” (CCS, 15) highlights a lingering anthropomorphism in his thinking whereby what is divine and transcendent remains forever indexed and restricted to the phenomenology of human interiority, and in particular the potentially erratic operations of conscience. Still, as late as 1825, Coleridge reiterates his contention that “Morality commences with, and begins in, the sacred distinction between Thing and Person: on this distinction all law human and divine is grounded: consequently, the Law of Justice” (AR, 327). Here again, Coleridge implies that our ethical being, our capacity 2. Essays on his Times, 3:235n; among Coleridge’s more forthright statements to the same effect is the following passage from The Friend: “The sacred principle, recognized by all Laws, human and divine, the principle indeed, which is the ground-work of all law and justice, that a person can never become a thing, nor be treated as such without wrong. But the distinction between person and thing consists herein, that the latter may rightfully be used altogether and merely, as a means; but the former must always be included in the end, and form a part of the final cause” (CF, 1:190; see also, CF, 1:191). Notably, Coleridge’s distinction reappears in the writings of Simone Weil, who notes “that a human being should be a thing is, from the point of view of logic, a contradiction; but when the impossible has become a reality, the contradiction is...


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