Monday, July 11, 2011

(Christian Smith on) What Is a Person?

Linda on the phone, in Ann Arbor
University of Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith is interviewed on the question "What Is a Person? at Big Questions Online.  Some years ago Smith wrote the phenomenally helpful Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. Smith gave us that wonderful idea he called Moral Therapeutic Deism to interpret American teens today.

In the Big Questions interview Smith defines a person. Are you ready for this? It's good, and do not accuse Smith of not being thorough! And take note: Smith's new book on human personhood is now must reading for anyone studying this very important and foundational issue which, as Smith and others know, shapes how one works as a scientist.

"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."

Such a defintion seems needed because human personhood is rich and complex. Smith thinks too many sociologists, especially of the secular-scientist mind, give simple definitions of personhood, perhaps out of fears rooted in their scientistic worldview. They may strongly believe in human rights and dignity, but lack a grounding for those moral commitments.
Smith thinks that "love," for example, "is an essential and irreducible part of human life." Smith defines "love" as: "self-expenditure for the genuine good of others." A "critical realist" position, as Smith himself holds to it, believes that the nature of the object of study determines how it is studied. This is how "science" should proceed. A pre-existing scientism tends to rule out things like love and religion. "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."
Avoiding both positivist empiricism and postmodern relativism, Smith says: "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."
Here's a few key points Smith makes:
  • To do "science" one must avoid the fallacy that scientists (or we) can achieve some absolute objective stance to a reality outside of us. Instead, we must take human personhood into account. Smith is here indebted to, among others, Michael Polanyi.
  • Human personhood is "irreducibly emergent." (No, this is not about the "emergent church.") That is, (and I'll quote the whole thing here because it's so important), "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."
Take note: Some very good scholars are calling Smith's book, What Is a Person?: Rethinking Humanity, Social Life, and the Moral Good from the Person, important. From the back cover:

 “This is an outstanding and important work of scholarship. I am confident What Is a Person? will be a landmark for the field; it will generate a good deal of contention, will be cited for many years to come, and will help influence the direction of social theory and the practice of sociology itself. Smith synthesizes a wide range of arguments, positions, theories, and assumptions in ways that are innovative, analytically powerful, and, finally, convincing. Yet the real originality of the book is in the structure of the larger argument, the cumulative weight of his critical but disciplined reading of this literature and, of course, the case he makes for a critical realist personalism as an alternative to various prevailing models. This is an extraordinary accomplishment.”—James Davison Hunter, University of Virginia

“What Is a Person? boldly raises the fundamental questions about the understanding of the person in social science that many thinkers either want to ignore or are content to say mindless things about. I know of no better example of a social scientist employing the resources of philosophy to deepen, clarify, correct, and enrich his own field. It is lucidly organized, philosophically sophisticated, written in clear prose, and takes account of an astounding amount and variety of literature. For me, a philosopher rather than a social scientist, Smith’s way of typologizing and critiquing the main options in his field was extraordinarily illuminating. It’s a terrific contribution to a topic of fundamental importance.”--Nicholas Wolterstorff, Yale University

"Smith has addressed a crucial and unanswered question in social theory and philosophy and has done so from an entirely original angle. Although sociology in the United States has long abjured any systematic discussion of ontological issues, many sociologists now realize that they cannot move forward without addressing the questions Smith raises here. In addition to this ontological turn, sociologists have also shown increased interest in alternatives to neopositivist sociological orthodoxy. Given a century of philosophical underdevelopment in the discipline, an author like Smith and a book like this one are more important than ever. What Is a Person? is destined to be something of a classic.”--George Steinmetz, University of Michigan

“What is a Person? is a clear and comprehensive reconsideration of the meaning of human personhood as the central core of social structures. With breadth of intellect and balance of wisdom, Smith resets the frame of reflection for the most important discussions of the twenty-first century.”—William B. Hurlbut, Stanford University

"Smith combines a meticulous command of sociological theory, philosophical analysis, and moral passion to argue against reductionist theories of human personhood and agency. . . . This book is crucial reading for political scientists and sociologists, as well as theologians and philosophers.”--Choice