Volume 3, Issue 2, Spring 2013
Selected Papers on The Philosophy of Dietrich von Hildebrand
Universalism, Particularism, and Subjectivity—Dietrich von Hildebrand’s Concept of Eigenleben and Modern Moral Philosophy
Modern philosophers tend to regard morality as intrinsically universalist, embracing universal norms that apply formally to each moral agent qua moral agent, independent of particularities such as familial relationships or membership in a specific community. At the same time, however, most of us think (and certainly act as if) those particularist properties play a significant and legitimate role in our moral lives. Accordingly, determining the proper relationship of these two spheres of the moral life is of great importance, but a fully successful resolution of this tension remains lacking. I believe Dietrich von Hildebrand’s work on love, and specifically his development of the idea of Eigenleben (Subjectivity) in The Nature of Love, offers a fruitful way forward. In this paper I begin by laying out some of the chief features of the universalist character of modern moral theory in both Kantianism and consequentialism. I then articulate some of the ways in which von Hildebrand’s understanding of Eigenleben offers us genuine insights towards articulating a substantive account of the proper relationship of the universal demands of morality and the particularist demands of my own life. Specifically, von Hildebrand’s critique of extreme altruism shows that moral agents cannot be properly understood according to merely formal properties like rationality, because each person’s particular Eigenleben is the only real grounds for moral agency. Von Hildebrand develops a critique of depersonalized universalism similar to Bernard Williams’s later criticisms of Kantian moral thought, while offering a positive account that is in many ways more compelling. Ultimately, von Hildebrand allows us to see that a genuine Subjectivity is the necessary ground for the possibility of love, including and especially the love of God, which serves as the basis for a genuine morality based on objective values. Building on this insight we can begin to articulate an account of the moral life grounded in answering the call of God that can do justice to both our universalist and particularist intuitions.