Personalism and Sociology: Understanding Relationships as Obligations

Yesterday  I sat down in my favorite spot at home and surrounded myself with books and articles and began to draft a new article on personalism and sociology, a topic I have already written about on BW&G. Why do I care about personalism? Every once in a while, it’s good to step back and reflect on our theoretical understanding of key concepts or objects of study. If we don’t, we are prone to making errors in our explanations.

An interview I conducted about halfway through my fieldwork for my book on Haitian immigrants, Faith Makes Us Live: Surviving and Thriving in the Haitian Diaspora, illustrates one such error I made about persons. Sitting in the suburbs of Montreal one afternoon, I interviewed Lucien Smarth, a Haitian priest who also had advanced degrees in sociology and anthropology. How would you reply to the Marxian critique that religion is the opiate of the masses, meaning that people flee to religion to alleviate their real suffering, which for Marx, was material deprivation, I asked him?

Smarth stated forcefully that although intellectuals separate out material things from spiritual things, for Haitians they are all related. As I quoted him in my book:

“For me, that’s what religion is in general. We feel our limits, we feel our weaknesses, we feel our inability to change things. And then we call on another force, a divine force, to give us more strength and greater capabilities. I find it completely legitimate that people turn towards religion to solve their problems. Because that’s what I take to be the meaning of religion. It’s the same here in Montreal as in Haiti: Haitians feel the same powerlessness in so many respects, and that is what makes them turn towards God…I also think that religion aims to make the earth become more and more, better and better, an image of heaven. So they [believers] have the task to make life down here more beautiful, so earth becomes more like the image of the beautiful life they await on the other side” (Faith Makes Us Live, p. 133).

One key idea of personalism is simple that the person is a whole. As Smarth pointed out to me, intellectuals tend to analyze separately the mind, body, and spirit, but he cautioned that such analytical abstractions do not correspond to how most people experience themselves in the world. People who pray a lot aren’t fleeing the world; the spiritual and material exist on a continuum rather than in separate spheres which don’t cross.

Similarly, yesterday I read an excellent article by Eugene deRobertis and John Iuculano entitled Metaphysics and Psychology: A Problem of the Personal,” in which they argue that behaviorism in psychology saw the mind as epiphenomenal–or a product of the material world–and much of today’s cognitive science sees the brain as computational. Both of those viewpoints portray a rather  mechanistic view of humans that leaves little room for persons as centers of meaning who act with purpose and responsibility. This mechanistic view of the person may tell us what a person does or even how she does it, but can tell us precious little about why a person does something.

To give another example, when I traveled to Port-de-Paix, Haiti, I met with a group of 15 people who participated in a rotating credit fund. Each month, each group member contributed $10 and the total amount went to one person to fund a small business venture. Such rotating credit groups rely on enforceable trust to ensure the money gets paid back. After 30 minutes of me asking questions about about how many members they had, how much money they collected, and how successful the small business ventures were, a Haitian seminarian sitting next to me said in English, “Why don’t you ask them what it means to them to be in this group?” I translated his question literally into Haitian Creole, not having any clue why I was asking that question or what they would say.

Suddenly the faces around the group lit up. “Oh, God is good!” shouted one lady in her 70s. “He always takes care of me!” Another added, “I know that if God helps me I can help others–I go out now and help my sick neighbors.” A third said, “I know now that I can help myself–I take better care of my house.” In other words, my fallacy was to analytically focus on the material benefits of the rotating credit group without even considering what their participation in this group meant to them.

As I have written before on BW&G, the person knows himself or herself as a relational being, a being distinct from yet profoundly shapes by other persons, and the person sees himself as shaped by the material environment and by unseen realities (like God). A person knows himself or herself not just as an abstract subjective being but as a person who acts; these actions may indeed be influenced by other persons, the environment, the supernatural, but the person acts. What is the meaning, the purpose of this life? One important meaning is to sustain relations with others, to act responsibly towards others.

As DeRobertis and Iuculcano write, “We will argue that the most basic level of human experience is the lived-experience of the self in its transcendent relatedness. It is a dynamic self-in-action within the world of day-to-day affairs. It is a unified structure because the self is co-constituted in-the-world-with-others, rather than a dualistic or otherwise fragmented self. The ultimate meaning of this co-constituted existence springs forth from the person’s responsibility laden relations. Hence, the most well-integrated (or least fragmented) level of human experience is the lived-experience of the self-in-responsible-relation-to-others or simply, the person” (Metaphysics and Psychology: A Problem of the Personal, p. 115).

Is there a value-free kind of behavior? DeRobertis and Iuculcano think not. Behavior entails responsibility. Even conditioned behavior doesn’t free the person from responsibility; if it did, that would be dehumanized behavior. DeRobertis and Iuculcano caution that  such dehumanized behavior should not be our theoretical model of the person, as it doesn’t correspond well to most people’s experience of reality. When behavior is seen as dehumanized, people express angst and dissatisfaction. As they state, “The real-life experience of living-out actions without a sense of agency, value, or responsibility more closely resembles a pathological mode of existence than an accurate description of human reality” (Metaphysics and Psychology: A Problem of the Personal, p. 114).

What I learned working with Haitians resembles what Susan Crawford Sullivan learned in her work among extremely poor single mothers living on government assistance: even the poorest people who you might think of as being most influenced by their environment experience themselves as responsible actors actors in the world. Sullivan’s book, “Living Faith: Everyday Religion and Mothers in Poverty,” portrays how extremely poor mothers expressed personal responsibility for their own failings while also acknowledging how other persons and institutions had failed them. Perhaps to deny their own responsibility for their failings would be to deny their freedom, which is central to their self-understanding. If people do not feel responsible for their own actions, where would their hope for a better future come from? If our lives were just products of the environment we are  raised in, why wouldn’t we just give up the struggle?

In my view, sociology does a better job of describing dehumanization than in describing reactions to it, reactions such as resilience, hope, struggle. Why? Perhaps as intellectuals we feel convicted by others’ sense of responsibility for their situation in the world. Perhaps we are utilitarians who want a world with all the good but none of the bad. Perhaps we are utopian Marxists who think that if we can re-order social structures and material wealth, then humanity will flourish.

Material wellbeing may indeed be one element of flourishing, but we have to get away from the tendency to reduce the human good ultimately to one thing. One kind of human good I am particularly interested in is relationships, and my reading on personalism has led me to see that relationships always entail responsibility and obligation to the other with whom we relate subjectively and objectively. In future posts, I hope to explore further how personal responsibility and obligations to others form part of human flourishing.


Why do Americans Celebrate Labor Day in September and Not May?

This post is part of a series on personhood.

When I first found out that Americans celebrated Labor in September while most of the rest of the world celebrated International Workers’ Day on May 1, I wondered: this just another case of the U.S. try to be different, even exceptional?

The simple answer is that the U.S. chooses not to celebrate Labor Day on May 1 because that is considered a socialist holiday, associated with strikes, rebellion, and in some minds, even Marxist revolution. That is not to say that people who celebrate labor in May are Marxist socialists and Americans who celebrate labor in September are not. Having spent many Mays and Septembers in different countries, the character of how labor is celebrated (at least now) seems remarkably similar–it’s another day off, a secular holiday, a time for vacation with family and friends. Here on BW&G, Amy Reynolds has written about the need to celebrate work and protect workers’ rights here in the US.

ref=dp_image_0.jpgI now understand that celebrating labor on different days is part of a long-standing debate about the meaning of human work and the rights of workers. As part of my renewed interest in the philosophy of personalism, which I have written about here at BW&G, I recently picked up a copy of a book written by Samuel Gregg, Director of Research for the Acton Institute, entitled Challenging the Modern World: Karol Wojytla/John Paul II and the Development of Catholic Social Teaching. When I picked up Gregg’s book, I was relieved to find that he condenses and synthesizes philosophy, anthropology and history into a very readable analysis of how Karol Wojytla and personalism have influenced the development of Catholic social doctrine.

Perhaps because I read the introduction to Gregg’s book on Labor Day 2012, Gregg’s argument that Wojytla’s personalist philosophy led him to draft the 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercens (On Human Work) really caught my attention. Another Patheos writer, Kathy Schiffer, also dedicated her Labor Day post to reflecting on how the first social encyclical, Pope Leo XII’s Rerum Novarum (published in 1891), still holds important lessons for the U.S. today.

When people think of Catholic social teaching the first thing that comes to their mind may be the call to charity or solidarity with the poor, as exemplified by Mother Teresa of Calcutta. However, Gregg contends that for Wojytla/John Paul II, a proper understanding of human work is central to all Catholic social teaching.


So what does John Paul II’s Laborem Exercens say about human work? I walked over to my bookshelf and picked up a pile of encyclicals that my mother gave me more than a decade ago which had belonged to her father. My grandfather, Manuel Suarez Carreno, was an avid reader of Catholic social teaching and tried to put them into practice in his homeland of Cuba by promoting agrarian reform to help small farmers, among other things.

As I flipped through the pile of encyclicals with my grandfather’s signature on them and lines filled with his underlining, I got teary-eyed. For my grandfather, debates about the meaning of human work were not just abstract philosophical discussions. Debates about work and the organization of the economy tore about Cuba in the early 1960s, leading my grandfather and millions of other Cubans into exile. For the leaders of the Cuban Revolution, the socialist organization of the economy was the only way forward. Private property was abolished, and all work was organized under the central Communist party.

Wojytla/John Paul II certainly understood the socialist organization of labor, as he lived in Communist Poland.  One critique of work under socialism, perhaps most eloquently laid out by Friedrich Hayek in The Road to Serfdom, is that workers under socialism have little choice in what work they do. In Laborem Exercens, hence, John Paul II insists that a worker “is a person, a conscious and free subject, that is to say, a subject that decides about himself.”

Why is that assertion significant? For many, what is real about work is its objective dimension. Recall that for Karl Marx, the ultimate reality of the world is material. Through work, according to Marx, man produces himself because he produces something, an object. But for Wojytla/John Paul II, work doesn’t only produce something, or an object. Rather, in a very real way, work produces somebody, work produces the person himself or herself. 

How so? “As a person works, he performs various actions belonging to the work process; independently of their objective content, these actions must all serve to realize his humanity, to fulfill a calling to be a person that is his by reason of his very humanity.” (John Paul II, Laborem Exercens) For Wojytla/John Paul II, the value of work is not in the market value of what is produced, rather, “the value of human work is not primarily the kind of work being done but the fact that the one who is doing it is a person. The sources of the dignity of work are to be sought primarily in the subjective dimension, not the objective one.”

However, Wojytla/John Paul II is not a pure idealist who thinks that the only reality is consciousness or spiritual. In other words, Wojytla/John Paul II is not saying that work has no objective value; he is saying that work has both an objective and a subjective value.

To further explain, Gregg writes, “John Paul’s development of Catholic social teaching is characterized by a deepening of its moral-anthropological dimension. The result is an increased focus upon man as a free and creative subject capable of self-realization as that which he ought to be”  (Gregg, Challenging the Modern World, p. 7).

Does all of this sound too abstract to apply to your life? One way reading Catholic social teaching has influenced me is by reminding me that I should think of the subject, the human person, I am interacting with at all times. In the US economy, much work is done in the service sector. Are those client-service interactions impersonal and dehumanizing? Sometimes, but they don’t have to be. If you recall that the the person working for you is a person, perhaps you can find a way to engage them in conversation. Yesterday, after a long conversation with a very helpful salesperson at Best Buy, I asked him “Are you Cuban from Miami?” I don’t know how intuition works, but in this case, I was right on. He replied, “Yes, I am! How did you know? You just made my day!” I told him that something about him reminded me of all my Cuban relatives and friends in Miami.

In this instance, as in many others, we can do our work, or be the recipients of someone else’s work, in a way that is human–by both engaging in the objective problem and by engaging the subjectivity of the person in front of us. Of course Labor Day or May Day exists to remind us that we also need to think about macro-economic policies affecting work, but let’s not forget the subjective value of work and the subjective value of every worker.  Try engaging the acting person at work; you might make someone’s day.


The Acting Person is both Free and Social

Part 3 in a Series on Personhood

My previous posts examined the concept of the person as distinct from the individual, and the philosophical field known as personalism. This post takes up more directly the question: What difference does our understanding of the person make for social science research?


Although numerous authors have contributed to the personalist tradition, here I focus on writings by the Polish phenomenologist Karol Wojytla, and his concept of human action as participation. Who was Karol Wojtyla? He was an actor, a playwright, a Catholic priest, political dissident, bishop of Krakow and Cardinal. Clearly, he is most known for being Pope John Paul II who led the Catholic Church from 1978 until his passing in 2005.

I have vague memories of when Wojtyla was elected to the papacy in my young childhood, and much more vivid memories of when he was shot in 1981. However, I only started paying attention to his writings nearly twenty years into his papacy, in 1998, when he visited my mother’s homeland of Cuba. His speeches and homilies during that trip intrigued me because, as a graduate student in sociology at the time, they drew on the personalist tradition to critique both Cuban-style Marxist collectivism and unrestrained liberal capitalism.


My journey in getting to know the life and work of John Paul II lead me to read two biographies of him, many of his encyclicals, and several of his books, namely Love and Responsibility and The Theology of the Body. In 2002, I saw Pope John Paul II from a crowd of literally millions of people who gathered in Toronto for World Youth Day 2002. I’ll never forget the tone and emphasis he gave to one emphatic statement, “Do not be afraid!” Living under communism in Poland, Pope John Paul II knew fear in himself and others, and he knew that the living the truth requires courage, especially in the face of the moral relativism of the West and the totalitarian collectivitism of the East.

In 2004, I saw Pope John Paul II much closer when I visited Rome. As he rode around St. Peter’s square in his Popemobile, I inched up toward the fence and his eyes fell directly on mine. His gaze is hard to describe—it was like he penetrated right into my heart, right into my being, in a very brief and silent but nonetheless moving encounter.

During that same trip to Rome in 2004, just as I snapped a photograph of John Paul II riding towards me on the Popemobile, the wind blew off his white zucchetto (skull cap).  My photograph shows John Paul II’s hand on his head, his zucchetto floating in the air, and a bright light like a halo shining on his head.  Amused by the picture, I mailed a copy of it to the pope along with a personal note. To my amazement, I received a reply in the mail less than three weeks later. John Paul II’s personal secretary, Cardinal Dziwisz, specifically responded to the one prayer request I mentioned and signed the card by hand. Although the Pope’s signature on the card was computer printed, I still think he saw the picture I sent, read my note and saw my name, giving a personal touch to our encounters.

Recently, I have begun to read John Paul II’s work The Acting Person. Through his work as an actor, a professor of ethics, and a pastor of local churches and finally the universal Catholic Church, John Paul II grappled with a fundamental tension of modernity: how can the autonomous, rational individual so celebrated by the Enlightenment be reconciled with the social nature of the person? Is social action nothing other than role playing (a la Erving Goffman)? Are social relations only good to the extent that they serve an individual’s needs? Must individuals deny their own good in the name of social solidarity?

Early sociological theorists grappled with similar questions. How can social life be integrative and not anomic, Emile Durkheim asked? How do political and religious figures establish legitimate forms of authority without which social life would become chaotic, Max Weber pondered?

More generally, contemporary social theory has struggled to reconcile ideological commitments to individual autonomy, choice and agency with the reality that, as sociologists, the vocation proper to our discipline is to show how our choices and our even our consciousness are shaped by communities—and not just those we communities we choose but also those to which we belong by birth (like sex and class) or ascription (like race).

In The Acting Person, Wojtyla argues that  personal freedom and the social nature of the person can be reconciled through personalistic actions which he terms participation. Participation consists of actions that correspond to both individual freedom and the social nature of the person. The chart below describes personalistic action, or participation, by contrasting it with actions Wojtyla says would not be participation.

Characteristics of ParticipationCharacteristics of Actions that are Not Participation
Participation presumes a relational ontology: humans are social by nature. By acting together with others we exercise our capacity for personhood.An individualist ontology presumes that individuals interact with others solely to fulfill one’s individual desires or good.
Participation is oriented toward both one’s own good and the common good, not competition between the two, and thus fulfills the human person.Actions done with others that constitute moral evil are not participation because they do not fulfill the person.
Participation consists of freely chosen actions with others. Participation may be influenced by group belonging or even by the desire for group belonging, but such social influences and social belongings per se do not deny personal freedom and personal choice. Even if one’s choice is affected by others, actions are participation when they integrate oneself with others.Performing an act with others is not automatically the same as fulfilling oneself in an action. Coerced actions, such as many actions required in totalitarian states, are not participation because they are not freely chosen.
Participation is inter-subjective, participating in the humanity of the other, and not only objective.Group membership is not participation if group interactions remain only at the objective level.


Wojtyla leaves us with a key question: what types of external situations and internal dispositions lead to this participation or personalistic action? Studying the interplay between social context and individuals is a central goal of sociology, and in future posts, I will write about my work on liturgical practices as a constitutive-ends practice, that is, an expression of the relational nature of persons, not just a group activity that increases individual happiness or one’s social standing.


What is Personalism? A Rectification of Individualism and Collectivism

Part 2 in a Series on Personhood.


As a graduate student in sociology looking for a middle way between liberal individualism and authoritarian collectivism, I first encountered what I now know forms part of a philosophical tradition called personalism when I read philosopher Jacques Maritain’s book Integral Humanism.

Just as Max Weber feared that increased rationalization would lead to disenchantment with the world, I started studying sociology because I cared about social inequalities and social injustices, but the more educated I became the more disenchanted I also became with modernity’s failure to live up to its promises of equality and progress for all.

Where could I turn to find new ideas that might renew my conviction that by knowing the world we could better the world? When Pope John Paul II visited Cuba in 1998, I read numerous summaries of his speeches where he critiqued both liberal individualism that reigns in the U.S. and much of Western Europe and the authoritarian collectivism of Cuba (and of his native Poland during most of his life). I was intrigued by the philosophy that could critique both the idea that economic prosperity is the final ends of individuals and societies and, at the same time, coherently argue against a collectivist system that denies private property, stifles free speech, and suppresses freedom of religion.

When I sat down to study Catholic social doctrine for the first time, what intrigued me was that the works I read started with basic questions such as: what is the good of human persons? What types of development uphold human dignity? Much of neoliberal economics seemed to be based on very utilitarian questions: what economic system will produce the greatest amount of goods and wealth? In achieving that goal of creating greater wealth, it seemed like almost any means could be accepted as long as the goal of generating utility was achieved by individuals unencumbered by others in their actions.

In contrast, collectivism, such as that practiced in communist countries, upholds the good of the group–also normally defined in material terms–over the good of individuals. Although some the goals of social solidarity may be laudable, I found the means of denying individual dissent, disallowing free expression, and the general coercion and manipulation rampant in communist systems to be an affront to human dignity.

In 2000, as I was headed to France for research on my dissertation, I ran into an eminent (and now emeritus) Professor of Politics at Princeton University, Paul Sigmund, who was on his way to Rome to visit his mother-in-law Lindy Boggs, a former Congresswoman who was then the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican. I had gotten to know Paul a bit through various conferences at Princeton, and his work on religion, politics and democratization in Latin America fascinated me. When I told him I had started reading Catholic social teaching because I was disenchanted with liberalism and collectivism, he immediately said, “You need to read Jacques Maritain.”

Over the next few hours on the plane, Paul told me about Maritain’s biography and ideas. Maritain was part of a generation of European intellectuals who, like me at that time, were disenchanted by the failures of both liberalism and collectivism. Maritain developed a new political philosophy that both defended the dignity of persons and also sought the common good based on free participation in collective works. Maritain’s ideas were extremely influential in the the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the formation of Christian Democratic parties in Europe and Latin America, and in 20th century Catholic social teaching. I later found out that my grandfather and his brothers read and applied Maritain’s ideas to politics in Cuba to challenge Fulgencio Batista’s liberal authoritarianism, but they lost out to Fidel Castro’s collectivist and atheist totalitariansim.

In preparation for an upcoming presentation on personalism and sociology, I read the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on personalism and discovered Maritain is named as a leading figure of the European personalist school of philosophy. Kevin Schmeising’s article “A History of Personalism” also traces Maritain’s influence on European personalism. Through Peter Maurin, a Frenchman most known for his collaboration with Dorothy Day in the US, Maritain’s ideas greatly influenced American personalism as well.

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, personalism is a term that refers to at least 20 different philosophers and other scholars who, in general, defend the inviolability of the person, stress the fundamental relationally of persons, see the person as a subject and object of free action, and emphasize the person is a center of meaning and value. Schmeising emphasizes the theological influences and religious backgrounds of many personalists (including many converts from atheism to Catholicism such as Maritain and Edith Stein). Perhaps because of the metaphysical training of many personalists, personalists argue for the importance of both body and spirit to understanding the person, thus opens them up to the reality of transcendence.

Personalism contrasts with Marxist materialism and other forms of collectivism in which the individual is subsumed to the communal and the individual has no inherent worth. Personalism, by contrast, argues that a person can never be simply the means to another end, but each person must be treated as an end in and of himself. Liberal individualism too often conflates utility and value, but personalism also rejects the utilitarian idea that a person’s utility is the same as his value. Another way of stating that a person’s worth is not reducible to the profit she or he makes is expressed when Schmeising quotes Maurin as saying “the foundation of the economy should be the ‘person, not profit.'” (p. 23)

To the extent that our economic system is flawed, Schmeising states that Maurin and other personalists would argue that we can’t fix our economic problems on by re-organizing economic structure, but we must also re-organize the economy around spiritual or human values as well. In this sense, Schmeising identifies Nobel laureate Amartya Sen’s work on human development as being influenced by personalists insights.

So, as I asked in my last post, what is the difference between an individual and a person? Every human person is an individual in the sense that he or she is a member of the human race, a particular being. But a person has a dignity, an irreplacibility, and a uniqueness that grow out of his or her dignity. As stated in the Stanford Encyclopedia entry:

“The major distinction is that an individual represents a single unit in a homogenous set, interchangeable with any other member of the set, whereas a person is characterized by his uniqueness and irreplaceability.”

This uniqueness cannot be changed with another, cannot be used by another, and has infinite value. Perhaps the most striking summary of personalism, as stated in the Stanford Encyclopedia entry, is:

“The person alone is ‘somebody’ rather than merely ‘something’, and this sets him apart from every other entity in the visible world.”

This idea, articulated by great thinkers like Jacques Maritain, captured the attention of great reformers like Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, and many others. After first discovering this idea more than a decade ago, I still struggle to articulate personalism and live by its principles it in my own life. But yet, the ethical principle of personalism can be boiled down to clear and simple statements without losing its profundity. For example, as I read about personalism recently, my 9-year old nephew sitting next to me inquired what had me so intrigued.

I told him, “I’m reading about a philosophy which says that each person is unique and should not be used as an object for someone else’s good,” and he replied, “That sounds right to me!”

In future posts, I will elaborate more on how personalism influences social theory and research, so stay tuned. In the meantime, my reading of the history of personalism has shown me that not only Maritain, but others I have written about on these pages, such as Edith Stein and Amartya Sen, also have been influenced by personalism, so I invite you to read my posts on Stein and Sen if you have not already.