Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith asks, "What is a person?"
Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith recently spoke with Big Questions Online about his new book What Is A Person?
What is a person? And why does it matter how we answer that question?
Every social science explanation has operating in the background some idea or other of what human persons are, what motivates them, what we can expect of them. Sometimes that is explicit, often it is implicit. And the different concepts of persons assumed by social scientists have important consequences in governing the questions asked, sensitizing concepts employed, evidence gathered, and explanations formulated. We cannot put the question of personhood in a “black box” and really get anywhere. Personhood always matters. By my account, a person is “a conscious, reflexive, embodied, self-transcending center of subjective experience, durable identity, moral commitment, and social communication who — as the efficient cause of his or her own responsible actions and interactions — exercises complex capacities for agency and inter-subjectivity in order to develop and sustain his or her own incommunicable self in loving relationships with other personal selves and with the non-personal world.”
Persons are thus centers with purpose. If that is true, then it has consequences for the doing of sociology, and in other ways for the doing of science broadly. Different views of human personhood will provide us with different scientific interests, different professional moral and ethical sensibilities, different theoretical paradigms of explanation, and, ultimately, different visions of what comprises a good human existence which science ought to serve. In this sense, science is never autonomous or separable from basic questions of human personal being, existence, and interest. Therefore, if we get our view of personhood wrong, we run the risk of using science to achieve problematic, even destructively bad things. Good science must finally be built upon a good understanding of human personhood.
You argue that the standard sociological view of the human person isn’t sufficient, that sociologists generally do not capture the fullness of human experience with their methods. Indeed, you describe them as living with a kind of “schizophrenia” – believing strongly in a human rights and dignity, but at the same time denying any kind of grounding for those moral commitments. What are they missing?
Many, if not most, sociological theories operate with an emaciated view of the person running in the background, models that are grossly oversimplified. Persons are conceptualized as rational reward-maximizers or compliant norm-followers or essentially meaning-seekers or genetic-reproduction machines or whatever else. Often such views are one-dimensional and simplistic. They fail to even begin to portray the complexity and richness of human personal life. Meanwhile, sociologists going about living their own personal lives with often a very different view of humanity in mind. The science does not live up to the reality. I think this is often driven not by the needs of real science but by a kind of insecure scientism. The former is ultimately interested in knowing what is real and how it works, however complex that might turn out to be. The latter, especially in the social sciences, is often mostly concerned to imitate the science of an entirely different sphere of reality, such as physics, which never turns out well.
In your model, it is impossible to talk meaningfully about the human person without accounting for the role of love in the human personality. How does love (and its fruits, including altruism) fit into your idea of the human person?
As a critical realist, I believe that the nature of the object of study should determine how it is studied. We should not bring some a priori model of what “science” must be to what we study and impose it from the outside. So if it turns out that love, which we might define as self-expenditure for the genuine good of others, is an essential and irreducible part of human life — as my theory of the person suggests is indeed the case — then science simply must take love seriously. If it turns out that our theories and methods are not good at that, then that is our theories’ and methods’ fault, and certainly does not justify the ignoring of the centrality of love for understanding human social life, growth, and experience.
How does your theory of “critical realist personalism” avoid what you see as the particular errors of trying to understand human nature through either positivism or relativism?
Positivist empiricism is unable to make sense of human persons, since some of the most important things about personhood are not directly empirically observable and cannot be formulated as nomothetic covering laws of human life. Postmodern relativism equally gets personhood wrong by denying that human reality involves some characteristics, capacities, and tendencies that inhere in the nature of human being, which we rightly can call human nature. The postmodern tendency is to assume that humanity itself is ultimately constructed by language and discourse, and therefore fluid, variable, and infinitely open. By contrast, critical realism views reality as significantly given by the nature of things, stratified, complex, and often emergent. That means that such a thing as human nature can and does exist independent of our mental constructions of it, that it cannot be understood in reductionistic terms, and that science is about better understanding human ontology and the ways that complex human powers and capacities operate in various contexts to produce actions and social structures of importance.
You told a recent interviewer [Ken Myers] that “science itself relies on the person” in a way that no standard positivist/objectivist approach to science can make sense of. What does this mean?
The standard, received doctrines of scientism tell us that to conduct good science we need to strip ourselves of much of our human particularities, that we need to become “objective,” to set aside our personal ways of knowing, to somehow transcend the human condition of historical and cultural conditioning, of being situated, of being subjective knowers with interests and commitments, to discount ordinary ways of understanding. In fact, quite the opposite is true, as the great philosophy of science, Michael Polanyi has forcefully argued. The best of science relies precisely on human personal knowledge, on personal commitments to truth over, say, career success, on a deeply personal entering into investigations, of tacit or intuitive insights, creativity that cannot be systematized, on an appreciation for the beauty and patterning of reality. Good science never fully brackets persons or personhood as threatening to “objectivity” or “universalism.” Good science is always rooted in and grows out of profoundly personal engagements with, knowledge of, and love for the world and for truth.
What do you mean when you say that human personhood is irreducibly “emergent”?
Emergence says that reality exists and operates at multiple “levels” of being or complexity, each one of which is totally ontologically dependent upon the interactions of parts at lower levels, yet which through emergence possesses properties, characteristics, features, and capacities at its own level that do not exist at the lower levels. Essentially, new features of reality come into existence at “ascending” levels of reality that cannot be fully found and therefore explained with reference to the lower levels of reality which gave rise to them. Thus, reductionism fails. Personhood is emergent in this way. It depends entirely on the parts from which it emerges — bodies, brains, neural signals, material and social environments, and so on — but, once emergent, cannot be understood or explained through reductionistic accounts, such as reductive materialism. Personhood is, in this sense, sui generis. Certain views of science, again, may not like that kind of thinking or language. But that is the problem of those views of science, not a problem concerning what personhood actually is.
Finally, if we agree with you that personhood, and with it human dignity, emerge from the self’s relations within a social context, doesn’t that suggest that our culture’s heavy emphasis on persons as rights-bearing individuals (as distinct from responsibilities-carrying members of society) is artificial and potentially damaging to human dignity? If so, can social science play a role in helping us rebalance the social order in our pluralist liberal democracy?
Personhood is not entirely dependent upon social contexts. The social is only part of the picture, operating with top-down causation from a higher level upon the personal beings from which the social is given its reality, again through emergence. Personhood is most fundamentally grounded and arising from human bodies, their given ontological constituencies, capacities, and tendencies. In my book, I argue that one of the ineliminable properties or features of emergent personhood is dignity. That is not socially constructed by positive law or social contract. It is a sheer fact of human personhood. Since, according to critical realism, all human knowledge, including self-knowledge, is fallible, different cultures of course more or less well recognize and respect that natural dignity of personhood. Different theories thus can be more or less insightful and misleading about reality. The Western liberal tradition has been relatively strong on individual rights. But that has often come at the expense of an appreciation for the interdependent, powerfully social nature of human personhood in which the rights arising from human dignity are grounded. I hope that the conceptual model of human personhood more accurately describes the reality of human existence in a way that provides a strong rationale for dignity and rights, yet one that does not rely ultimately on a view of persons as autonomous individualism that can do little more than insist on the “negative liberties” of not being interfered with in their desires by other agents.
Saturday, June 11, 2011
Big Questions Online - Inside the "Black Box" of Personhood
Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith recently spoke with Big Questions Online about his new book What Is a Person?: Rethinking Humanity, Social Life, and the Moral Good from the Person Up. Sounds like an interesting book.