The Human Person as a Relational Being: Transdisciplinary Perspectives

Emmanuel Mounier, picture of the 1930s (unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons; background modified).

(from the Alphonsian Academy Blog)

In the second semester of 2024-2025, a group of professors and collaborators will offer a transdisciplinary course in the Alphonsian Academy entitled“La persona umana come essere relazionale. Prospettive transdisciplinari”. The course will be comprised of three parts: 1. Introduction 2. Selected Authors and Texts 3. Five Paradigms (personalist, phenomenological, psychological, sociological and theological). This is the second of a series of posts in which I will examine (in my own name, not in that of the research group) in a preliminary way each of these five paradigms…)

II. The Personalist Paradigm

In the first post of this series we examined how the meaning of the term “paradigm” has itself undergone significant “shifts”. From being a simple, identifiable pattern (as in a grammatical paradigm) a paradigm has come to refer to something like a comprehensive, prescriptive model for collective living (as in “the technocratic paradigm”). It is clear that such a move is potentially of enormous importance for ethics because it implies the moral evaluation of alternative, competing models of human interaction. In the planned transdisciplinary course, we will be examining five different paradigms of the human person as a relational being. Let us begin by taking an initial look at what we will call, perhaps rather imprecisely, “the personalist paradigm”.

It is not easy to have a precise idea of the personalist paradigm for the simple reason that we do not have a univocal idea of personalism. This is a kind of umbrella term in modern philosophy under which we find a whole range of different positions. It is important to note at the outset that, unlike phenomenology, sociology, psychology and theology, “personalism” is normally not considered a discipline. It is an –ism and not an –ology in the sense that it is best understood as a kind of cultural movement (a bit like modernism) rather than as a specific, theoretical position.

That said, what would be the defining characteristics of a “personalist paradigm” of the human person as a relational being? – understanding by this term a comprehensive model with a prescriptive dimension. Probably the most authoritative single voice on this issue is that of Emmanuel Mounier (1905-1950).

One way of understanding the position of Mounier on this issue is to think in terms of the historical evolution of theological and philosophical thought on the human person. In different ways at different points in history both theology and philosophy have fed into the development of “person” as a distinct category over against terms such as “citizen”, “individual”, “subject”, “human being”, etc. In modernity in general and in liberal political philosophy in particular, a new emphasis was placed on individual consciousness in construing the human person. Marx reacted to this tendency by emphasizing the collective, material nature of human life. What Mounier calls “personnalisme communautaire” can thus be understood as a reaction to the individualism and collectivism that had dominated modernity up to this point in time. His vision of the human person as a relational being is thus a counter-paradigm that rejects such reductive versions of human life. He proposes the use of the category “person”, with all its cultural and ethical heritage, precisely as a safeguard against these rival models. In his thought “person” can serve a prescriptive function in that it denotes a transcendent being, with an inalienable dignity, called to construct a just society in collaboration with others. This vision of the human person as inherently relational was a major element in the thinking of figures such as Jacques Maritain when he collaborated in the articulation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). Given the way in which human rights discourse has gradually made its way into Catholic Social Teaching (amid many unresolved theoretical and practical difficulties) it is not unreasonable to suggest that the personalist paradigm is currently the dominant one in the moral vision of the Church. As for the (numerous!) limitations and problematic aspects of this paradigm, we can put those on the agenda of the transdisciplinary course…

Fr. Martin McKeever, C.SS.R.

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