THE THREE MODALITIES OF BEING

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

I, you, he/she/it, the three persons of verbal conjugation, a staple of nearly every grammar class, be it modern (English), classical (Latin) or exotic (Klingon). But formal instruction is not required for a child to recognize that there is a fundamental difference between “I hit the ball” and “he hit the ball”. It is not merely a matter of designating the person doing the hitting. I is not just another he. Hitting a ball is not at all like watching someone else hit it.

In spite of this obvious insight, much of a child’s formal education consists of trying to convince that child that somehow this very basic experiential difference is really not a difference at all. It just “seems” different. According to the dominant mythology of our times, the I-experience is an illusion, the product of lazy thinking or ego-centricity.

In the orthodox lexicon of 21st century thought, the I is simply an accidental it. The self is nothing but another other. The vantage point on the world associated with me just happens to coincide with a particular it; but there are no preferred vantage points so the I-experience is a triviality at best, an illusion at worst.

In fact, however, there are three entirely distinct modalities of being; they are mutually substructural and cannot be further reduced. In fact, no modality can admit any element of either other modality; they are mutually exclusive aspects of being. Yet these three modalities are also complementary. It is impossible to provide a complete description of the world as is it is and as we experience it without including all three modalities in that description.

Let us begin with the modality commonly known as the “third person”. This modality is the “It” of Buber’s “I-It” dyad, the “En-soi” of Jean Paul Sartre’s ontology. It is the extensive realm we call space-time and it is indefinitely divisible. It is the domain of science: phenomena (experimental results) repeating themselves indefinitely given certain constant conditions (experimental controls). It is well modeled by the commutative, associative and distributive laws of mathematics.

But in this third personal modality, there is no present time. All moments are either past or future (excluding moments outside the light cone, of course). Object and events are local, finite, irreparably mortal.

The first person modality is radically different. In this modality, there is only present time. Past and future time may exist as structures of present time experience but they can never be experienced directly. In the first person modality, nothing comes into being…or ceases to be. Any origin or terminus is entirely outside of present time as present time originates with the emergence of each experiential subject and terminates with that subject’s demise.

Human beings are transfixed by fear of their own deaths. And every human being will die…in the third person modality, i.e. in the experience of others. But no one has ever experienced his own death (or birth for that matter)…and no one ever will. The first person modality is irreparably immortal.

Scientific method, which posits the reproducibility of results, is antithetical to first person experience. In this modality, nothing is every reproduced. No one ever enters the same river twice. Novelty is universal.

Likewise, nothing is commutative, associative or distributive in the arithmetic sense. The mathematical concept of equality itself has no meaning in this modality. There is no equality because there is no comparability. Novelty is substructural.

Experience in the first person modality is “structural” (Levy-Strauss). No element has any meaning or function in and of itself. All meaning and function are derived from an analysis of the whole. It is also holistic. While a first person event can be analyzed into its genetic components, it cannot be mapped on any timeline.

The first person modality is the modality of the “I” in Buber’s “I-Thou” dyad, the “Pour-soi” of Sartre’s cosmology.

Finally, we come to second person modality. While many people admit a fundamental disjunction between first and third person experience, fewer grant autonomous status to the second person modality. Sartre devoted 233 pages of Being and Nothingness to “Etre-pour-autres”, but he did not give this “Being-for-others” the same primary ontological status that he reserved for Being-in-itself and Being-for-itself.

In fact, however, Sartre got it wrong. Not only is the second person modality entirely distinct from and independent of the other two; it is ontologically (not temporarily) prior to those two.

In his most famous work, I and Thou, Martin Buber states, “In the beginning is the relation.” The phraseology is reminiscent the opening lines of the Gospel of John. Indeed, both John and Buber used the metaphor of “word” to describe relation. Buber, like John, is referring to a structural priority, not a temporal one.

In this sense, Buber is picking up on an idea as old as Western philosophy itself. The pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, Anaximander, shared Buber’s (and John’s) perspective. For him, the first and third person modalities sprung into being as part of a primal experience of mutual relatedness he called “reck”. This reck shatters the undifferentiated ground of being. Through reck, subjective presence and objective extension arise in tandem, distinct however from the second person modality. This reck is like a phase break in physics. Suddenly, undifferentiated being shatters into three mutually exclusive ontological fields.

In the second person modality, events in the second person do not resolve themselves into subject-object or affirmation-negation. In the terminology of 20th century philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, they are neither subject to extensive analysis (as in the third person modality) nor genetic analysis (as in the first person modality). Experience in the second person modality is irreparably eternal.

In the second person modality, there is a discovery of self beyond self. The isolated, solipsistic self is neither conscious of itself nor of the world. But when that self (Sartre’s pre-reflective consciousness) suddenly encounters itself in the look of another, at that moment it also becomes aware of itself as subjectivity and of the world as objectivity.

The three modalities of being arise simultaneously but the second person modality is logically prior to the other two. Without “the other” there is no experience of self or of world.

In the primal encounter, self encounters self…in another locus. The same pre-reflective consciousness underlies both terms of the dyad but now it is alienated from that itself by space and time. Now the same pre-reflective consciousness enjoys more than one spatio-temporal vantage on the objective world and no vantage is preferred or prior to any other.

In the language of Structuralism, each instance of pre-reflective consciousness is the same. The specific contents of individual experience are mere accidents of perspective and unconditioned free will. Therefore, existentially speaking, an identity relation exists among all the instances of pre-reflective consciousness, regardless of the particular spatio-temporal vantage of each. To encounter another is to encounter our self but from the outside-in. It is self looking back at self.

“Therefore, do not send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”