The Curious Whiteheadian Proclivity In Scheler’s Account Of God And Persons, Part 1 (J. Edward Hackett)

The following is published in two parts.

Phenomenological Intuition and the Personal Sphere

Before explicating the underlying structure of Scheler’s panentheism, I wanted to take some time and explain what Scheler’s phenomenological method entails and how this phenomenological commitment, though never abandoned in spirit, opened up his initial efforts to characterize religious acts and religious experience more generally. Scheler’s phenomenology of religion is the basis from which his process conception of the Divine originated in his later Human Place in the Cosmos (1928). Hence, it is a necessary beginning.

Scheler’s term for the region of consciousness in which intuitional showing and givenness occur is “die Sphäre.” Throughout this essay, I will call this immanent space of consciousness, the very region of consciousness in which insight is gleaned, the personal sphere and I have used this term to refer to the activity of the person in Edgar Sheffield Brightman, too. For Scheler, the phenomenological project is against the Husserlian procedure of bracketing phenomena and letting phenomena show themselves. In this way, Scheler thought that phenomenology was an attitude (Einstellung), a standpoint from which one encounters and apprehends an essence given in the immanence of consciousness from start to finish. “Phenomenological experience is at the same time ‘immanent’ experience.”[1]

By contrast, Husserl regarded it as a method. As Manfred Frings explains that phenomena for Scheler, “are bracketed in intuition, not by it.”[2] Accordingly, phenomenology is the enlargement and purification of immediate intuition in immanent consciousness. The phenomenologist is, then, working out givenness in immanence of immediate intuition of a phenomenon in the personal sphere abstracted and demonstrated “in isolation from everything else.”[3] According to Scheler “only what is intuitively in an act of experiencing (even if this essence should point to a content beyond itself)…can belong to it.”[4] Likewise, the essences (Wesenschau) discerned through immediate intuition points to what’s real—the very essences that constitute all intentional acts. Let’s give an example where this led in Scheler’s early efforts.

Scheler’s ethical personalism is based on allowing the first initial grasp in intuitive apprehension of a phenomenon we enter into relation in the feeling acts of consciousness. “The actual seat of the entire value-cognition or value-intuition (Wert-Erschauung) comes to the fore in feeling [acts], in basically love and hate, as well as the interconnections of values.”[5] By contrast, such apprehension and discernment of the structure of being an act in Heidegger would always be mediated by an interpretive horizon. In Scheler, “all non-phenomenological experience is in principle an experience through or by means of symbols and, hence, a mediated experience that never gives things ‘themselves’.” He continues, “Only phenomenological experience is in principle non-symbolic and, hence, able to fulfill all possible symbols.”[6] For Scheler, material a priori ethics is prior to the interpretive lens through which Heidegger limited phenomenology. Scheler puts this contrast of phenomenology more directly,

…phenomenology is neither the name of a new science nor a substitute for the word philosophy; it is the name of an attitude of spiritual seeing in which one can see or experience something which otherwise remains hidden, namely, a realm of facts of a particular kind. I say attitude, not method. A method is a goal-directed procedure for thinking about facts…before they have been fixed by logic, and second, of a procedure of seeing… That which is seen and experienced is given only in the seeing and experiencing of the act itself, in its being acted out; it appears in that act and only in it.[7]

Instead, revealing the essential acts in intuitive apprehension activates and vibrates the personal sphere, the very ground of becoming in the whole person; this vibration of the essence, what Scheler will call its functionalization radiates outward into the very performance of the act. Fulfillment of the essence is, then, the very being-in-an-act that shoots outward bursting forth from the personal sphere. In that way, the whole person is revealed in what we might call life-in-spirit. More aptly put above, phenomenology describes the personal sphere of acts in which persons live out their very being in the execution of those acts.

For Scheler, in keeping with the example of his ethics, values are apprehended before thinking and acting. They are pre-rational and constitute the field of the personal sphere of every person. Thus, the phenomenological intuition distills very clearly the first real intuitive grasp and follows it through describing the fullness and range of these phenomenological structures as they are revealed in the immanence of consciousness in specific types of experience, not just the experience of values.[8]

Therefore, we are now in a position to understand Scheler could stretch this phenomenological procedure to reveal different immanent structures and contents of experience in religious experience. In the example of his ethics, then, his phenomenological ethics will develop the ordo amoris as the very site of the immanent whereas the religious acts will have a different structure altogether, yet even as early as 1913-1916 while writing and publishing different parts of what would become his magnum opus, Formalism in Ethics, he comments on how the various ordered rankings of intentional feeling acts and value correlates to those feelings opens up and thematizes the Holy as a specific form of givenness to be investigated. In other words, the reason I started to explicate the phenomenology of ethics in connection to the phenomenology of religious experience is the transition opened up by the givenness of the Holy,

…the act through which we originally apprehend the value of the holy is an act of a specific kind of love…in essence the act is directed towards persons, or toward something of the form of a personal being, no matter what content or what “conception” of personhood is implied. The self-value in the sphere of the values of the ‘holy’ is therefore, by essential necessity, a “value of the person.[9]

 When one reads Scheler, one may want to note a transition in the 1920s to more metaphysical and sociological concerns rather than phenomenology. In fact, the question “What is the person?” has all the trappings of the want to provide a metaphysical answer to not analyzing the personal sphere phenomenologically through description. Despite this transition into his later works, Scheler in my reading never abandons the phenomenological lens from his earlier efforts as we see in the passage above. The very manner in which people live out and fill out the values of the Holy imply a directedness to another person’s absolute uniqueness and being, and this is the experiential content of such givenness regardless of the metaphysical conception on hand about that experiential content.

However, we can also start to see the beginning space to speculate about those very conceptions that plague Scheler’s attention to more metaphysical matters in the 1920s to which On the Eternal of Man addresses being published in 1921. Phenomenology establishes the way into these concerns by describing these various essences revealed in immanent consciousness, carving up the way into concerns in sociology of knowledge, theories of community, and philosophical anthropology yet to come.

Religious Acts in the Personal Sphere

For Scheler religious acts are a type of intentionality just as intentional feeling acts always relate to a value-quality. Unlike them, however, religious acts do not take objects in the typical world as their correlate. A practical and theoretical consequence is, then, the experience of God and the becoming of that experience in the religious act are the same starting place for inquiring into the Divine. Our metaphysical concepts of God, then, begin in a type of experience/experiencing.

Moving back to the uniqueness of religious acts, one could also interpret that values are a different type of phenomenological givenness just as much as the Divine is for religious acts. I wish to leave aside that issue for the rest of this work. For now, religious acts differ from other types of experiences. As Scheler states, “we will confine ourselves in general to examining the religious act in mere elaborate detail” rather than a complete phenomenological account of religion.[10] These differences consist of three ways.

  • In transcending contingent objects in the world, religious acts can unify “all the meanings of entities of the world into one whole.”[11] In this way, the objects and aspects of the contingent world recede from view and let the Absolute permeate the field of immanent consciousness. This permeation is a rupture, a break in the continuity of the sensual world of objects. In fact, nothing in the horizon of the perceptual field can provide the sense or meaning discovered in religious acts. Thus, a phenomenology of religious experience must start here with this rupture of the personal sphere sense of contingency and the absolute uniqueness’s dearth of contingency.[12]
  • Next, in coming from the absolute, an extra-worldly source is now identified with the religious act, and the religious act only finds possible fulfillment in an extra-worldly source (possibly Divine) “which, in the experience of the act excludes the possibility of finite entities having such a function.”[13] The world and the ego are not where ideas of the Holy are found even as early as the Formalism, Scheler wrote that the “a priori value-idea of the divine has no foundation in the existence of a world and an ego,” and instead, Scheler is attempting to show that the idea of the divine phenomenologically does not presuppose any inductive or historical experience.[14] Inductive and historical frameworks may filter such ideas about the Divine, but the values or ideas of the Divine are first given to us in religious acts prior to these inductive and historical frameworks. For this reason, like William James, we must demarcate religious experience as a separate form of experiencing religious acts apart from all other experiences. By comparison, in Scheler’s ethics, the highest value of the person is given in the Holy values and spiritual feeling act of love. Such a value quality is not reducible to any other value experience despite my often enlarged sense of the term “moral” or “ethics” that include, as it were, Scheler’s belief in the absolute value of this person or that person, a givenness that for him always a new value quality quite different than other forms of experience.
  • Finally, religious acts are interpreted in their negative implications. According to Frings, religious acts have “no earthly foundation or goal even though they can be empirically motivated.”[15] In all honesty, I have some trouble with this claim given my Jamesian commitment to radical empiricism that all concepts have their origin in coordinating action and terminate in particular percepts. But let us for a minute suspend that criticism and continue with Scheler. What this pronouncement entails is that religious acts relate to a something, an ineffable source—in Jamesian terms, the “unseen order” so defined because James regarded much like Scheler the openness to which the content of the Holy could be. For Scheler, however, this participation in the ineffability of the extra-worldly source cuts all the way down into the immanent consciousness. Scheler will operationalize the manner in which the Holy becomes as the Ground of Being, and this account can be found in his last work, The Human Place in the Cosmos.  

Bridging the Gap between Phenomenology and Philosophical Anthropology

Bridging the gap between phenomenology and philosophical anthropology is not an easy transition—that is, the adoption of Catholic-based theism during his phenomenological period from about 1913- to the early 1920s. Peter Spader details how many biographers regrettably paint Scheler’s psychological life as unstable, and this psychological instability is a welcomed invitation into casting Scheler’s thought in light of his life.[16] Spader, like myself, regards this trend as oversimplifying the tensions inherent in Scheler’s thought. The details are complicated, so I will only repeat in brief what Spader explains in greater detail.

First, On the Eternal in Man details its position as supporting theism as late as Christmas 1922, and the new position against theism is given hints in his Problems of Sociology of Knowledge dated 1924. Scheler, Spader argues, never changed his ethics, but changed his metaphysical and religious beliefs.[17] The underlying moral phenomenology of personalist ethics will be the same regardless as to what speculative scaffolding upholds what we experience. Scheler spoke about this rupture and change of belief from classical theism to his new anthropology in the Third Preface of the Formalism in Ethics in 1926. “The ideas in this work remain unaffected by the change in my fundamental metaphysical position.” Scheler continues, “For it was never my intention to establish in this work a foundation of ethics on the basis of some kind of presupposition concerning the nature and existence and idea and will of God.”[18]

Despite Scheler’s pronouncement against the fact that metaphysics does not matter for ethics, the unaddressed question that Spader never addresses what happens to the underlying personalistic metaphysics if Scheler moves from a personalist conception of God to a panentheist? Can the new panentheist God still be foundational for value experience even if never Scheler intended at the end of his life. Certainly, there are reasons for why Scheler focused on classical theism in his earlier more Catholic period of his life. In order to answer that, we must go to Scheler’s changed position in The Human Place in the Cosmos, which is dated right around the time of the Third Preface in the Formalism in Ethics.

Regarding Scheler, let us take some brief cues from Eugene Kelly in his Introduction to The Human Place in the Cosmos. There are two points worth considering. First, ideation is the act of the mind to hold before itself the nature of all things we encounter in our experience of them, and The Human Place in the Cosmos makes exclusive use of the claim of ideation as we will see. Second, Kelly hints that this is the function of phenomenology in terms of what it becomes in this last work focuses on ideation, yet it has no metaphysical import. However, I differ with Kelly on this point since his definition of phenomenology is not concerned with metaphysics, even though there are metaphysical implications from occupying Scheler’s phenomenological attitude. For me, phenomenology always breaks into ontology.[19]

According to Kelly, “phenomenology is rather the grasping in mente, the cognition, of the meaning-elements we encounter in the world; it requires intuitive reflection upon the meaning-contents of terms in an effort to exhibit their essential relations with each other and their order of foundation.”[20] These cognitions are primordial, constitutive, and may well be what other phenomenologists have posited as intentionality. However, as soon as meaning-contents carried by things in the world are posited like the terms that are in his philosophical anthropology: life, spirit, person, then there are some taking for granted commitments that go unquestioned in primordial cognition, notwithstanding the intuition’s role in it. In other words, phenomenological neutrality of describing immediate intuition of immanent acts of consciousness is already ladened with ontological commitments, so to assert the lack of metaphysical import of phenomenology is ridiculous as it is erroneous.[21]

If you are new to philosophical anthropology, then let us visit, as it were, Scheler’s entrance into the question. The term finds its first real usage in Kant, though I find his version tedious. Let me define it in a way that can find synergy in Scheler and help us with our shared experience of the Divine in the personal sphere. Philosophical anthropology is an attempt to interpret the ontological structure of the human person in terms of the personal sphere and the relationality of the personal sphere with all other forms of beings. In this way, the personal sphere includes within it that the universe and any science, natural or social we have of the universe and ourselves. With reference to the social sciences, the social sciences assume that human persons are subject to causal laws discoverable by the sciences in the same way that the natural sciences study physical objects.

By contrast, Scheler’s philosophical anthropology does not render the human person as just another object subjected to causal laws in any scientific interpretation. Instead, those same scientific views take for granted the metaphysical and epistemological assumptions necessary to interpret the human person as a causal object among many other causal objects in the sciences. When this science-only approach is done, we lose sight of the personal sphere as the originating structure that gives rise to all interpretations of the human person. In phenomenology, this perspective is often called the natural attitude.

The natural attitude is not, as it were, problematic in and of itself. Indeed, all scientific inquiry must project and test hypotheses of the world and its objects as if they are in causal relationship to other objects. More plainly, I accept that at bottom all scientific inquiry must assume methodological naturalism, even if the scientist in question is not an ontological naturalist. Methodological naturalism occupies a standpoint in relation to nature and assumes that all relations are causal and can be experimented upon. Ontological naturalism, by contrast, is committed to the view that the only things that exist are entities in space-time.

Imagining and projecting this causal network of relationships onto everything uncritically obfuscates the manner in which the human being exists in relation to the world, however. For this reason, phenomenologists have always attempted to retrieve some originating original conception of human experience (A Brightmanian might use phrases like the Experient experiencing experience).[22] By purging experience of the natural attitude’s all inclusive third-personal (and therefore impersonal) viewpoint, Scheler describes the relationality of the personal sphere in its active first-personal sense.

Heidegger had his term Dasein; Husserl had his transcendental ego; and Scheler has the term person. Moreover, even if we were personalist idealists like other personalists like Brightman, a phenomenologically-based personalist idealism is committed to preserving the same sense and meaning of the person as the origin of meaning we find in Scheler’s thought. We realize meaning and value into language and action as persons.  Scheler makes this exact point when articulating the scope of the two fundamental ways in which persons become in his philosophical anthropology, “living beings are not only objects for outside observers but are also endowed with the mode of being-for-themselves, as well as with an inwardness through which they also are aware of themselves.”[23]

Scheler’s Three Conceptions of the Persons

Scheler starts his Human Place and the Cosmos with three conceptions of the human person. In each conception, then there may be an element of truth. However, these three interpretive trends only refer to the problem of the person in Europe and European civilization. In this way, we should remain open that there are other interpretive renderings of the person in other philosophical systems the world over (for example like Buddhist interpretations of life as “mind only” or as the natural state of being a spontaneous loving embodied creature). Scheler’s clustered categories are not as set and rigid as Scheler’s categories pretend. For him, they are irreconcilable and he is accurate that they are in constant tension with each other on a cultural level. These categories of the person are:

  •  The Created persons interpretation is a result of the Jewish-Christian tradition. Scheler does not mention Islam as contributing to this conception of the person even though it is an Abrahamic religion like the other two just mentioned.
  • The Rational persons interpretation is a result of Scheler painting with a large brush of our Ancient Greek tradition. Let me reproduce the entire passage,

…the human being is what he is through his possession of what is variably called “reason,” logos, phronesis, ratio, mens—“logos” meaning here the possession of speech as well as the ability to grasp the “what” [the essence] of each and every entity. Closely connected with this view is the theory that there is also a reason above the human being that underlies the whole universe and with which the human being alone is in a state of participation.[24]

In this passage, we participate in a rational universe. This ontological participation harmonizes with the larger sense or order and purpose in it. Thus, we can see how and why Scheler may find the participation of persons within purpose meaningful since his phenomenology discerns the ontological relations through which we apprehend our involvement from beginning in an experience all the way through to an experience’s end. 

  • The Naturalistic persons interpretation embodies a conception in which the human person “represents a late stage in the evolution of our planet.”[25] In this conception, persons are the product of energies and animal abilities we have inherited from our shared ancestral and evolutionary past. This naturalistic person view uncritically arrives at its ontological interpretation of the person from scientific categories up to and including evolutionary theories that define the human being as a toolmaker (homo faber) and nothing more.

J. Edward Hackett is an Instructor at Savannah State University. Specializing in ethical theory and phenomenology, he is the author of Persons and Value in Pragmatic Phenomenology (Vernon 2018), a work explicating the metaphysics of value in Scheler. Additionally, he is the co-editor of Phenomenology for the Twenty-First Century (Palgrave Macmillan 2016) and editor of House of Cards and Philosophy, and has published on pragmatism and Scheler’s phenomenology in such journals as Comparative and Continental Philosophy, Appraisal, Contemporary Pragmatism, Eidos, William James Studies, Phenomenology and Mind, Journal of Applied Hermeneutics, Process Studies, and Forum Philosophicum.


[1] Max Scheler, Formalism in Ethics and Non-Formal Ethics of Value: A New Attempt Toward the Foundation of an Ethical Personalism trans. R. Funk and M. Frings(Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2006), 51.

[2] Manfred S. Frings, The Mind of Max Scheler (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2001), 125.

[3] Scheler, Formalism, 50.

[4] Scheler, Formalism, 51.

[5] Scheler, Formalism, 68.

[6] Scheler, Formalism, 51.

[7] Scheler, Formalism, 138.

[8] I am ambivalent about the range of phenomenological experiences on this point. It would be naïve to dismiss his ordered value rankings as just another experience. In some ways, value experience establishes the possibility for all subsequent experiences. This insight turns on just exactly how primordial you think loving and hating feeling acts are to the person.

[9] Scheler, Formalism, 109. Italics belong to Scheler.

[10] Scheler, On the Eternal in Man (Transaction Publishers, ), 162.

[11] Frings, The Mind of Max Scheler, 130.

[12] This rupture could be the phenomenological origin of Thomas Aquinas’s distinction between contingency and necessity.

[13] Frings, The Mind of Max Scheler, 131.

[14] Scheler, Formalism, 293.

[15] Frings, The Mind of Max Scheler, 131.

[16] Peter Spader, Scheler’s Ethical Personalism: Its Logic, Development, and Promise (New York: Fordham University Press, 2002), 176-181. Particular mention is made of Fr. John Nota’s Max Scheler: The Man and His Work  and John Staude’s Max Scheler: An Intellectual Portrait.

[17] Spader, Scheler’s Ethical Personalism, 183.

[18] Scheler, Formalism, xxxvi.

[19] A phrase uttered by Ken Stikkers in our many conversations during the dissertation writing phase. This perspective remains in all my work. Phenomenology is a way into a metaphysics that preserves the relationality and process of ongoing experience. More novel to my growth in recent years is the additional interpretive claim that phenomenology is a narrow form of process philosophy. Alfred North Whitehead maintains that all actual occasion and entities have experience and while human beings have consciousness as a form of experience, not all experiences are ones in which the involved entities have consciousness.

[20] Eugene Kelly, “Introduction” in Max Scheler’s Human Place in the Cosmos trans. M. Frings (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University, 2009), x.

[21] This implication of phenomenology almost always turning into and breaking into an ontology was the subject of last year’s book I published on Scheler’s phenomenology of values. See my Persons and Values in Pragmatic Phenomenology: Explorations in Moral Metaphysics (Malagas, Spain: Vernon Press, 2018).

[22] I apologize for such a strange phrase in English. The phenomenologist is trying to capture the functional origin of meaning in experience by showing readers the ongoingness of undergoing experience and remaining and sustaining a descriptive vision for the first-personal viewpoint. Maybe that’s the better way of putting the same point: ongoingness of undergoing experience. However, the point is made it will involve an operative gerund and turn verbs into nouns to express the phenomenological conception of experience manifesting in time depending upon the type of experience being described.

[23] Max Scheler, The Human Place in the Cosmos trans. M. Frings (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2009), 7.

[24] Scheler, The Human Place in the Cosmos, 5.

[25] Scheler, The Human Place in the Cosmos, 5.

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