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Keywords:

  • collectivism;
  • critical personalist realism;
  • humanism;
  • individualism;
  • personalism;
  • social theory;
  • theoretical pluralism

Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The Charitable Hermeneutics of the Critical Realist Personalism
  4. Humanism and Personalism
  5. Theoretical Pluralism and the Social Sciences
  6. References
  7. Biography

Christian Smith's What Is a Person? calls for a normative turn in sociology—the grounding of sociology in a theory of human nature. While offering a systematic account of a thick view of personhood—what it should look like, how it can be applied, and why it is needed—the book proposes a critical realist personalism as the best metatheoretical direction for sociology. The author of this essay agrees with the main questions and direction of Smith's project. However, by historicizing the origins and sociological implications of personalist moral theory, the author problematizes the personalism that is one of the foundations of Smith's project. She contrasts personalism with humanism, suggesting that the latter might possess both the normative robustness and comparative potential needed for contemporary sociological theory and practice. She ends her response to Smith's book by raising questions about the relationship between critical realist personalism and theoretical pluralism.

For anyone acquainted with Christian Smith's earlier work, especially his book Moral, Believing Animals (2003), the philosophical and ethical focus of his latest book does not come as a surprise. If Moral, Believing Animals opened the door for a thicker view of human personhood in sociology, What Is a Person? (2010) stands as a systematic account of what that view of personhood is, how it can be applied, and why it is needed.

Smith's book emerges at the intersection of two concerns—one over the absence of a thoughtful sociological approach to the normative and analytic questions about human nature, and another about the late modern cultural moment that questions the “very notion of a coherent self or person” and is “unclear about what a person essentially is or might be whose dignity might be worth preserving” (Smith 2010, 5). Smith opens the book by considering the disconnect between the flat analytic interpretations offered in social sciences and the rich normative assumptions which underlie them. Sociologists, he explains, overwhelmingly depict humans as “governed by external social influences, competing socially for material resources, strategically manipulating public presentations of self, struggling with rivals for power and status, cobbling identities through fluid assemblies of scripted roles” (Smith 2010, 3). Smith does not argue that such views are false. Rather, the problem is that they assume a particular view of the human being but rarely admit or articulate it, despite the fact that precisely such a view of human nature underwrites sociological analysis and interpretation through and through. The absence of reflexivity about the notions of human nature, according to Smith, helps hide the powerful influence of “the model of naturalistic positivistic empiricism,” which “demands that the social sciences emulate the natural sciences” (Smith 2010, 4). As a result, contemporary social sciences provide sophisticated explanations of social structures without accounting for their origins or, we should add, their moral content.

Another problem Smith identifies in contemporary sociological thought and practice is the disjunction between the social-scientific interpretations of human action and the sociologist's own beliefs and action in the social world. The same people who are skeptics or relativists in their sociological work display strong convictions and commitments in their own life—to “human rights, social justice, equality, tolerance, and human emancipation”—convictions that can stem only from a powerful moral belief about the “innate, inalienable dignity and value of human persons” (Smith 2010, 3). Against this “intellectual and moral tension, even schizophrenia” (Smith 2010, 3) that is characteristic of sophisticated theories of social structure that lack a reflection on the nature of human persons, Smith proposes a kind of normative turn in sociology. He argues (correctly, in my view) that social scientists “ought to want to embrace a position that is deliberately considered and believed for good reasons” (Smith 2010, 8). What Smith undertakes is a project of grounding sociological structuralism in a theory of human nature, “a theoretical model of the ontology of the nature of human being” (Smith 2010, 10).

Smith maintains that, even though human beings “have an identifiable nature … rooted in the natural world” that “gives rise to capacities to construct variable meanings and identities,” all such complexities can be acknowledged and interpreted using a sophisticated theoretical approach—what Smith introduces as critical realist personalism. This theoretical proposition has three major intellectual sources: critical realism, personalism, and antinaturalistic phenomenological epistemology. I focus here on personalism, as it is the one aspect of Smith's (meta)theory that I explore below.

The Charitable Hermeneutics of the Critical Realist Personalism

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The Charitable Hermeneutics of the Critical Realist Personalism
  4. Humanism and Personalism
  5. Theoretical Pluralism and the Social Sciences
  6. References
  7. Biography

The philosophical tradition of personalism is a theory of human nature that posits at its center the notion of a person as “a conscious, reflexive, embodied, self-transcending center of subjective experience, durable identity, moral commitment, and social communication who … exercises complex capacities for agency and intersubjectivity in order to develop his or her own incommunicable self in loving relationships with other personal selves and with the nonpersonal world” (Smith 2010, 61). This notion of the person is defined by both agency and relationality, and is organized by an idea of the irreducible dignity of the human person. As such, it is important for social sciences analytically and normatively, standing as a productive response to postmodern thought and late modern cultural developments, and providing an alternative to the extremes of sociological theorizing. In Smith's own words, personalism “claims more for and about humans” than other models so common in social sciences (Smith 2010, 102). While the latter models point to the individual as rational, self-interested, and exchange-making creatures, personalism affirms the notion of human personhood as fundamentally relational, self-transcending, and moral.

For sociologists such as myself, standing in the context of religious studies and thus sufficiently corrupted by the humanities, Smith's book accomplishes at least two important things. First, it does the hard work of reflection about, and critique of, the long-standing normative problems of contemporary sociology; second, it proposes a constructive, learned, and nuanced way forward. For sociologists embedded in the professional world of social sciences, whose work does not often expose them to the interdisciplinary conversations wherein normative and analytic questions are raised together in a reflexive manner, Smith's book is important for several other reasons as well. First, it is a reminder that an understanding of human action and institutions—what humans do and why, what human institutions are about and why—is an inescapably and irreducibly normative endeavor. Second, Smith's book highlights a phenomenon that is at the heart of the sociological enterprise: the intrinsic link between the organization of social order and the understanding of human nature. Smith brings into conversation, on the one hand, social theory and sociological practices and, on the other hand, the insights from moral philosophy, ethics, and theology. He points out that philosophical literacy and ethical considerations, which were constitutive of the work of early sociologists, remain vital for the discipline if its practitioners are to be reflexive, philosophically grounded, and normatively coherent in their work.

One feature of Smith's book that can be easily overlooked and needs to be highlighted is its tone. Although the book critiques many problems in social theory, it has no resemblance to projects such as Stephen Cole's edited volume What Is Wrong with Sociology? (2001). Unlike the latter volume, Smith's book should be welcomed because it does not convey a narrative of decline. It reflects what I would call a Taylorian sensibility in understanding the present condition of social theorizing, showing deep philosophical awareness about the problems of the discipline but remaining nonetheless hopeful about its possibilities. Smith's book thus carries a strong view of the limitations of human knowledge (and of sociological practice) and acknowledges the increasing pluralism and complexity of social reality with modernity. Yet, the book also affirms a positive view of the human person and of our capacity for understanding and interpreting the reality of human action and social life.

Similarly, when considering other theoretical points of view such as social constructionism or network structuralism, the book is critical but not dismissive. It gives credit to the perspectives with which it disagrees, and speaks of the compatibility and indispensability of these other theories for critical realist personalism. Such an approach, Smith would argue, stems from critical realism, because the latter contains “a fallibilist theory of human knowledge”—the awareness “that our knowledge is always incomplete, endemically subject to error, and never certain” (Smith 2010, 304). The result is an epistemological stance of humility accompanied by charitable hermeneutics—one of the important reasons why Smith's book is not only a work of critique but also of affirmation.

As it is clear from my discussion thus far, I agree with much of Smith's project, especially with its main thrust—the need to ground social scientific thinking about human action in a theory of human nature, and the importance of doing so in a reflexive manner. And, it is precisely this imperative of reflexivity in social theorizing that informs several questions I want to raise about Smith's book, questions about the possibilities and limitations of personalism as a philosophical (and theological) source of Smith's theory and about the place of critical realist personalism in social theory in general. The first question emerges from a historicized view of personalism; the second from a desire to better understand Smith's take on the place of theoretical pluralism in social sciences. My questions, in other words, are not envisioned as a critique of Smith's project but as a way to explore the impact that the project could possibly have beyond the confines of the North American academy.

The first question I raise has to do with personalism and its relation to individualism. Smith explains that critical realist personalism is a powerful theory of human nature because it provides a nuanced, balanced theoretical approach to the question of agency. Thanks to philosophical personalism, Smith suggests, it is possible to affirm the notion of the person at the center of a moral theory without sliding into individualism. Even more, we are told, personalism is posited against individualism: it emphasizes the irreducible dignity and uniqueness of each person, but also the capacity of each person for intersubjectivity and for moral commitment to others' personal selves and non-personal world.

However, while positing “naturally and powerfully capacitated agents” against Durkheim's notion that persons are “indeterminate material that the social factor molds and transforms” (Smith 2010, 303), the personalist position, it seems to me, can easily move toward an emphasis on the agentic aspect of personhood. To suggest this in no way diminishes one of the most important features of the personalist view—the fact that personalist philosophers think of agency and intersubjectivity as equally central, and, more importantly, as inseparable and mutually defined elements of personhood. Personalists understand our agentic capacities as shaped by the person's relationships to others. This view is what made personalism such a powerful political idea that could be used as a tool for the critique of liberal individualism and communist collectivisms alike. We can trace both of these uses in the theological ideas and papal documents of Karol Wojtyla/Pope John Paul II.

While acknowledging that personalists strive to emphasize both agency and relationality and while remaining mindful that such a point of view has been expressed in several concrete political programs (the Solidarność movement in Poland being one such case), I do want to suggest that the proximity between personalism and individualism merits our attention. It is tempting to root this proximity in the development of “economic personalism,” which claims to have its source in Christian personalist ideas. However, such a move is also problematic: economic personalism actually does not stand for the traditional personalist theory but represents its radical reinterpretation in the form of semilibertarian economics. Smith thus rightly suggests that economic personalism, and the movement it inspires, is at odds with the content and direction of personalist thinking (Smith 2010, 102).

This being said, there are other important reasons why we ought to probe the relationship between personalism and individualism, reasons that are ultimately historical in character. The personalist thinkers themselves have invested, and continue to invest, a lot of work and energy to distinguish the two. Personalists “insist that persons are not ‘individuals,’ when the latter is understood as discrete, self-contained, autonomous, self-existent selves” (Smith 2010, 67). For personalists, we are told, “persons” are not isolated individuals but “originally, constitutively, and inescapably social, interactive, and communicative in [both] origin and being” (Smith 2010, 67; emphasis mine).

Put succinctly, from the start, personalist thinkers had to work very, very hard to position themselves against individualism, to clarify the differences between personalism and individualism, between a person and an individual. They do so, of course, because the difference between the two is the focal point of their moral theory, but they also do it because this difference is a vulnerable point of that theory. So too is the case with sociologists who trace the influence of personalism in social sciences. This past summer, for example, one panel at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association was dedicated to two questions: “What is the difference between an individual and a person? And what are the implications of this for social theory?” The continuing importance of the person-individual question indicates that the proximity between personalism and individualism remains a challenge for personalist theorists, especially in the context of modern Western societies. Here, individualism is often synonymous with autonomy, agency is (to use Talal Asad's words) defined through “the romance of resistance” and freedom is taken to imply primarily the individual's capacity to resist, rather than to inhabit, the external norms given by and through one's belonging to some community.1

The difficulty of defining the notion of the “person” as both different than and critical of the concept of the “individual” does not result from capaciousness of the personalist view of the person since that feature would allow for the idea of personhood to be interpreted in many different ways, including in the direction of economic personalism. Rather, the difficulty of defining the notion of the “person” as both different than and critical of the concept of the “individual” is due to the fact that most personalist theories remain organized around the “I”—whether to emphasize its unique, irreducible dignity or to show how this “I” is emerging in relationships with others. And, it is precisely this default organization around the “I” that brings unintended consequences.

What do I mean by this? Let me take an example I know best, the personalist ideas of John Paul II. As I mentioned earlier, Pope John Paul II used his personalist theology in powerful ways to critique the collectivism of communist regimes and to reject the individualism of Western societies, their emphasis on voluntarism, and their radical consumerist affirmation of the free market. While personalist moral theology provided the arsenal of the pope's critique of both collectivisms and individualisms, only its first part was fully embraced in the intellectual and political arena. In Poland during the 1980s, for example, the pope's personalist ideas were taken up by the Catholic clergy to condemn and fight the communist regime; they were also welcomed by the secular leftist intellectuals and activists who recognized in this personalist theology the same humanistic impulse found in secular critiques of the ideology and institutions of the Polish communist state.

The pope's personalist critique of individualism and capitalism, however, had a very different fate. Consider the context of contemporary Poland, where the ideals and networks of social solidarity are largely broken, except perhaps for nationalism. Today's Poland exemplifies Durkheim's notion that societies driven by interest and contractual relationships of economic exchange suffer from moral vacuums. Yet only a few would think to apply John Paul II's personalist ideas to critique the downfalls of neoliberal post-communist society in the Polish context. To be sure, at least one part of the explanation for the differences in these uses of John Paul II's personalist thinking could be found in the very nature of the communist regime—a regime so straightforwardly totalitarian in character and thus easy to dispute precisely from a personalist position. But the nature of totalitarian communism does not change the important question standing before us: why is personalism not as effective for the critique of radical individualisms as it is for the critique of collectivisms?

It seems to me that in order to appreciate the various meanings of personalism and to understand the potential and the limits of personalist moral theory, we should not focus only on its intellectual content, but we should also be interested in its historicization. For this purpose, it would be helpful to develop a constructive, historically and sociologically comparative analysis of the ways in which personalism has been interpreted and employed as a source of critique in different contexts. It would, for instance, be quite useful to ask to what extent the Catholic Church in America and post-communist Europe employs John Paul II's personalist ideas to critique current social, economic, and political developments, in the contexts of late-modern global capitalism.

The historicization of personalist moral theory, I suspect, would show some of its limits, the understanding of which bear on both social theory and sociological practice. More specifically, when it comes to sociology, the historical lives of personalism would introduce at least a twofold dilemma. First, can personalism, despite its promise, help us move away from the problems of methodological individualism? Second, is personalism able to deliver us from the perennial sociological puzzles that emerge from the categories of “individual” and “society,” categories that have been constitutive of sociology as a discipline from its beginning?

The historicization of personalism and the accompanying inquiry into the relationship between personalism and individualism gain additional value when we turn our attention to the particular historical and cultural location in which personalism emerged. Personalism as a moral theory of human nature arose in a Western Christian intellectual and cultural context, building first and foremost on the legacies of Christianity, and responding to the challenges of political ideologies that emerged in the West. The emphasis I am making on the particular origins and political voice of personalism is not meant to relativize or dismiss the usefulness of personalist ideas for social theory. I call attention to the particularity of the personalist view of human nature because, just like Christian Smith, I think that the concepts we use ought to be developed and employed in a reflexive manner. And, from this perspective it seems relevant to ask what repercussions the cultural origins of personalist theories of human nature might have for sociological theory. This line of inquiry does not imply that the main objective of Smith's book—the attempt to deliberately and reflexively define the normative framework of sociological thinking about human nature—is any less needed or desirable. As anthropologist Michael Carrithers points out, “the very perception of diversity” depends “on its being a diversity of something” (as quoted in Smith 2010, 11). The diversity of human experience, thus, does not mean that there is no nature that human beings share. Most importantly perhaps, those social theorists who concur with Charles Taylor's important insight that strong commitments need strong sources will also agree with Smith's call for affirming a theory of human nature at the heart of sociological endeavor. They will see this as a project relevant for the American sociology and beyond.

Put differently, I share Christian Smith's main questions and intentions as well as the direction of his project. And precisely because of so many points of agreement, I want to propose that it is important to identify a discourse about human nature that most of us can recognize as real and most of us already share regardless of our particular cultural and historical location. So, I wonder: if the personalist idea(l)s are mostly foreign to the non-Western, non-Christian contexts, would the notion of “humanism” be more useful for what we are after?

Humanism and Personalism

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The Charitable Hermeneutics of the Critical Realist Personalism
  4. Humanism and Personalism
  5. Theoretical Pluralism and the Social Sciences
  6. References
  7. Biography

Humanism, to be sure, is as difficult to define as personalism. The term embraces a range of ideas: ancient Greek philosophy and a variety of Renaissance humanisms, the Enlightenment and liberal humanisms, Christian humanism and Confucian humanism, and communist and socialist humanisms. The term gets even more complicated when we consider its evaluation within a larger critique of the Western project of modernity. Some critics rejected “humanism” for its obsession with agency and power and the concomitant inability to rid itself of its metaphysical origins. Other thinkers who critiqued humanism within the larger context of Western modernity pointed out the ways in which its universality and rationality actually affirmed the particularistic notion of the “human” and resulted in the denial of difference and, ultimately, in fascism. For those concerned with the relationship between human and non-human life, the problem with humanism is its confidence in the ability to bring about progress, which gave rise to suffering and the endangerment of non-human and human life alike. Critiques of humanism thus include a range of philosophical orientations—from Jean-Paul Sartre's (antihumanist) existentialist humanism to Theodor Adorno's negative dialectics and Michel Foucault's antihumanism. Notwithstanding these complexities and various critiques of humanism, and while keeping in mind that personalist thinkers belong in the humanist tradition of thought, I would like to suggest that the notion and ideals of humanism emerge as a viable normative ground for a thick sociological view of the human persons.

Drawing on the critical insights of the ethicist William Schweiker, I emphasize two elements of humanism. First, as Schweiker suggests, different types and versions of humanism share the idea that what we think is morally good and right is bound to the human flourishing of individuals and communities (Schweiker 2003). Second, the idea of dignity or sanctity of human beings is constitutive of most humanistic thought. These notions and ideals of humanism have long been explored and articulated in nuanced ways in a variety of religious traditions. In Abrahamic traditions, for example, scholars identify “religious humanisms” that explore the idea of humanity before God and what constitutes the inalienable worth of human life—the sanctity of human life “understood in the religious and moral context of the human-Divine relationship” and the notion of moral responsibility toward other God's creatures (Schweiker, Jung, and Johnson 2006, 11). Humanistic concerns also emerge as very central for other religious and ethical systems such as Confucianism or Buddhism. Last but not least, while personalism is generally grounded in some type of human-divine relationship, humanism appears within and often even founds many secular philosophies. Humanism, in other words, resonates in a wider range of cultural contexts than personalism, and certainly beyond the context of Western Christianity. It can be traced across religious and cultural boundaries in religious and secular modes of thinking and practice.

All of that raises several interesting questions. First, would humanism—understood as a commitment to sanctity and/or dignity of human persons, their flourishing within human communities, and with regard to the non-human world—be able to do the normative work of grounding contemporary sociological theory and practice in a robust moral theory of human nature? Second, would humanism be more conducive than personalism for such project if the latter were envisioned as needed for the social sciences in general, and not just for the North American or Western sociologies? Third, if personalism is so deeply embedded in Western (Christian) intellectual and social histories, would humanism not be a better normative framework for social scientific enterprises that need to be not only normatively grounded but also meaningful in a comparative sense?

Theoretical Pluralism and the Social Sciences

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The Charitable Hermeneutics of the Critical Realist Personalism
  4. Humanism and Personalism
  5. Theoretical Pluralism and the Social Sciences
  6. References
  7. Biography

The final larger question I want to put forward has to do with the epistemological stance affirmed by critical realism, which, on one reading, not only allows but also encourages the active engagement of a range of sociological theories. Smith's considerations of other theories, I proposed earlier, are shaped by a clear stance of epistemological humility and reflect charitable hermeneutics.

Smith writes, for example, that “network structuralism deserves continued exploration and increased investment” (Smith 2010, 272); he says that critical realist personalism and network structuralism “could mutually benefit from an ongoing conversation about theoretical assumptions concerning the nature … the motives, or persons” (Smith 2010, 272). However, Smith also states elsewhere that the critical realist personalist project is a superior alternative. He writes that, so far as he can see, “the one and only viable methateoretical framework that underwrites and links good social science and robustly humanistic morality and politics is critical realism” (Smith 2010, 489). To get “sociology right,” Smith maintains, we need a metatheory that will tell us what good sociology is and what its relationship is to the problem of the good life, good society, and good world. Such metatheory is not to be found in postmodern deconstructionism, or positivist empiricism, or hermeneutical interpretativism, but in critical realist personalism.

These statements merit some discussion. First, from the critical realist personalist perspective, is there a place for theoretical pluralism in social theorizing? That is to say, if we are to sign on to the critical realist personalist project, should we think of it as a replacement for other theoretical possibilities, or as a metatheory that embraces and directs all other theories? Second, if critical realist personalism affirms a theory of human nature, can it learn from other theories of human nature? Does personalism need other theories, if for no other reason than as a resource of self-critique? Finally, if, from the critical realist personalist point of view, the goal of theory is to “accurately represent reality with words” and to know “what is actually real about human being” (Smith 2010, 11), what is he or she to do with other perspectives? I am especially interested in those approaches that do not affirm theory as a representation of what is real but are a deeply critical endeavor that ought to, in Wendy Brown's words, “make the meanings slide” (Brown 2001, 41). Can such theoretical directions be useful for a critical realist personalist and, if so, how? Most importantly, perhaps, what is a critical realist personalist to do with theory that is driven by normative concerns and is therefore meant to help us, as Saba Mahmood writes, “push against received assumptions and categories, through which a number of unwieldy problems have been domesticated to customary habits of thought and praxis” (Mahmood 2005, 196)?

Footnotes
  1. 1

    For this view of agency—more specifically, the view of “secular agency”—as “the romance of resistance,” see Asad 2003 and Mahmood 2005.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The Charitable Hermeneutics of the Critical Realist Personalism
  4. Humanism and Personalism
  5. Theoretical Pluralism and the Social Sciences
  6. References
  7. Biography
  • Asad, Talal 2003 Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.
  • Brown, Wendy 2001 Politics out of History. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
  • Cole, Stephen , ed. 2001 What's Wrong with Sociology? New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers.
  • Mahmood, Saba 2005 The Politics of Piety. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
  • Schweiker, William 2003Theological Ethics and the Question of Humanism.” The Journal of Religion 83.4 (October): 539561.
  • Schweiker, William , Kevin Jung , and Michael A. Johnson , eds. 2006 Humanity Before God: Contemporary Faces of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Ethics. Minneapolis, Minn.: Augsburg Books.
  • Smith, Christian 2003 Moral, Believing Animals: Human Personhood and Culture. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Smith, Christian 2010 What is a Person?: Rethinking Humanity, Social Life, and the Moral Good from the Person Up. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Biography

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The Charitable Hermeneutics of the Critical Realist Personalism
  4. Humanism and Personalism
  5. Theoretical Pluralism and the Social Sciences
  6. References
  7. Biography
  • Slavica Jakelić is an Assistant Professor of Humanities and Social Thought at The Honors College of Valparaiso University, and an Associate Fellow, Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, University of Virginia.