Catholic Culture News
Catholic Culture News

To know as we are known: Maritain on human subjectivity

By Thomas V. Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Nov 13, 2015

For several years, I’ve been a student of Jacques Maritain’s philosophy of art. I treasure books like The Responsibility of the Artist and Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry. Maritain is known for a lot more than his aesthetics, though; and to get a sense of his contributions in other areas of philosophy, I recently picked up a used copy of Challenges and Renewals, an old Maritain reader published in 1966 (now out of print).

Under the heading of Maritain’s theory of knowledge comes an excerpt from Existence and the Existent, titled “The Human Subjectivity.” In Thomistic philosophy, we have a universe of subjects: everything that exists is, beyond what we call essence (what it is, the thing’s intelligible nature) and subsistence (that it is, its act of existence), a subject—that which is, that which has this essence and exercises existence.

The depths of subjectivity can never be fully plumbed. Part of the reason for this is that we, though subjects to ourselves, know everything outside ourselves not as subjects but as objects. Subjectivity as subjectivity is not subject (so to speak) to conceptualization, so that even in understanding conceptually that a thing or person is a subject, we make an object of it.

We may know a thing’s essence, but the essence is not the thing itself; it exists only in the mind. We know things “only in such-and-such of the intelligible aspects, or rather inspects, and perspectives in which they are rendered present to the mind and which we shall never get through discovering in them.”

Maritain indeed recognizes that there are ways to know subjectivity as subjectivity; the three he lists are practical knowledge (particularly the moral conscience, which knows “by the inner inclinations of the subject”), poetic knowledge, and mystical knowledge. However, none of these is a mode of conceptual knowledge, and therefore they fall outside the realm of philosophy, which inescapably “proceeds by concepts.”

“Subjectivity,” says Maritain, “marks the frontier which separates the world of philosophy from the world of religion.” When philosophy discovers God as the cause of all things, it “objectizes” Him even as it proclaims His transcendence. Philosophy can and ought to recognize that if its knowledge does not circumscribe a blade of grass, a fortiori the Deity. But even with this necessary humility, it cannot know Him as subject; that is, it cannot enable man to enter into a personal relationship with Him:

It is something to know that God is a transcendent and sovereign Self; but it is something else again to enter oneself and with all one’s baggage—one’s own existence and flesh and blood—into the vital relationship in which created subjectivity is brought face to face with this transcendent subjectivity and, trembling and loving, looks to it for salvation. This is the business of religion.

The only way for created subjectivity to know uncreated subjectivity as subject is for uncreated subjectivity to communicate something of “the mystery of its personal life.” This is why religion includes various forms of revelation. When God reveals Himself to us in concepts He Himself has chosen, we still objectize Him (even in faith we see “through a glass, darkly”), and yet we are enabled to know Him through the “connaturality of love” until all concepts fall away and “we know truly as we are known.”

Going back to more mundane experience, the relationship of a subject to things outside itself involves a significant problem: the problem of one’s own significance. Maritain frames it with a quotation from M. Somerset Maugham:

To myself I am the most important person in the world; though I do not forget that, not even taking into consideration so grand a conception as the Absolute, but from the standpoint of common sense, I am of no consequence whatever. It would have made small difference to the universe if I had never existed.

Capable as I am only of knowing myself as subject and all other persons as objects, I inevitably see myself as the center of the universe. I may recognize objectively that others have greater problems, responsibilities or virtues than myself, but they pale in significance compared with mine because they are incidental to me as a subject. And yet common sense tells me that I am relatively insignificant, certainly no more important than any other person.

How can these two perspectives be anything but mutually exclusive? Maritain expresses a dilemma which is universal, but has surely become more agonizing since the dawn of a modernity increasingly torn between intense subjective individualism and a growing sense of man’s individual and collective insignificance:

If I abandon myself to the perspective of subjectivity, I absorb everything into myself, and, sacrificing everything to my uniqueness, I am riveted to the absolute of selfishness and pride. If I abandon myself to the perspective of objectivity, I am absorbed into everything, and, dissolving into the world, I am false to my uniqueness and resign my destiny.

I will quote the rest of the passage in its entirety because Maritain’s solution is so profound (italics mine):

It is only from above that the antimony can be resolved. If God exists, then not I, but He is the center; and this time not in relation to a certain particular perspective, like that in which each created subjectivity is the center of the universe it knows, but speaking absolutely, and as transcendent subjectivity to which all subjectivities are referred. At such time I can know both that I am without importance and that my destiny is of the highest importance…Because, loving the divine Subject more than myself, it is for Him that I love myself, it is to do as He wishes that I wish above all else to accomplish my destiny; and because, unimportant as I am in the world, I am important to Him; not only I, but all the other subjectivities whose loveableness is revealed in Him and for Him and which are henceforward, together with me, a we, called to rejoice in His life.

I have discussed the problem that arises because I as subject see everyone else as an object. The last point of Maritain’s I want to mention regards the problem that arises because others likewise see me only as an object. Quite simply, it means that nobody really knows me or understands me. Not only my subjectivity itself but the meaning of any acts that flow from it remain unknown to and inevitably misjudged by others. Maritain writes:

To see oneself in the eyes of one’s neighbor (here M. Sartre is right) is to be severed from oneself and wounded in one’s identity. It is to be always unjustly known—whether the he whom they see condemns the I, or whether, as occurs more rarely, the “he” does honor to the “I.”

The solution to this problem is the same. God alone, who created me, has no need to objectize me; He knows the full depth of my subjectivity, which I myself do not even know: “The more I know of my subjectivity, the more it remains obscure to me. If I were not known to God, no one would know me….There could be no justice for me anywhere.”

In the larger context, as the reference to Sartre indicates, Maritain has been engaged in a critique of existentialism, which here reaches its sharpest point. “If man is not known to God, and if he has the profound experience of his personal existence and his subjectivity,” there can be no justice for me and therefore no hope; I will be utterly lonely and desolate—I will long for annihilation.

Conversely, to know that I am known by God is not just to be assured of receiving justice; it is to experience a great mercy. It is to be, at long last, understood.

Thomas V. Mirus is Director of Podcasts for, hosts The Catholic Culture Podcast, and co-hosts Criteria: The Catholic Film Podcast. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Bernadette - Nov. 14, 2015 9:11 PM ET USA

    To put it simply, and unphilosophically, :) man is known and loved by God. I am known and loved by God. And that is all that really matters. To the world, I am nothing and unknown. I am an object. To God, I am His subject, one whom He knows through and through, whom He created out of Love. And, that is all that matters.