The Personalist Project

I've been preoccupied for the last couple of days with a lively discussion over at Ricochet about a talk by Fr. Barron that a member there linked.  I clicked and listened, expecting to like it.  I don't know very much about Fr. Barron, but practically everyone I know admires him, so I was ready to too.  I'd seen a few of his You Tube clips, which I found mostly sound and engaging, if not particularly deep.  He's plainly a thoughtful, sincere, orthodox Catholic priest with a gift for apologetics and a sympathetic openness to contemporary culture—which is ideal for the New Evangelization.  I was happy when I heard he'd been named Rector of Mundelein Seminary in Chicago.

But I thought this was a terrible talk—deplorable even—revealing and communicating serious blunders and confusions about modern philosophy and modernity as a whole, delivered with an air of special wisdom and erudition completely belied by the content.

Here it is. It starts about 13 minutes in.

I wish I had the time and leisure to offer a line by line critique.  But since I don't, here are a few quick points contra, which I'd be happy to take up in more depth if anyone wants me to.

1)  Events, including above all the Protestant Reformation and the "discovery" of the scientific method, are more the "cause" of the modern world than any single thinker, much less Descartes.

2) Descartes was not a subjectivist.  His methodological doubt was conducted in search of an indubitable starting point for knowledge, which he found in the cogito.  To say that Descartes sought to bring all claims against "the tribunal of subjective experience" is false to the point of libelous.  

3) Modernity is not to be confused with the heresy of modernism.  Modern philosophy is not all bad; nor did the medieval synthesis (great as it was) have all the answers to the questions of the modern world.  It's not for nothing that it broke up.

4) "Dualism" is not an unmixed evil.  It's not wrong to distinguish between body and soul.  They are different things, after all.

5) Considered as a philosophical proposition, the cogito is true.

Maybe the most egregious confusion of the talk was Fr. Barron's definition of subjectivism as "a privileging of the interior over the exterior."

Isn't "privileging of the interior over the exterior" something the Catholic Church does?  Isn't it something we ought to do?  Moreover, didn't Karol Wojtyla/Pope John Paul II, explicity identify the "turn toward subjectivity" as the central achievement of modern philosophy?  Didn't he propose that the excessively "cosmological" tendency of the Aristotelian tradition calls for correction and completion by a new emphasis on "the irreducible in man," that is, his interiority, his lived experience of himself as a self?

Take the following passage from his crucial essay, "Subjectivity and the Irreducible in Man."

But as the need increases to understand the human being as a unique and unrepeatable the need increases to understand the personal subjectivity of the human being—the category of lived experience takes on greater significance, and, in fact, key significance.

Wojtyla is here speaking about a felt need of modern man—a need not addressed in the medieval synthesis, because it hadn't yet come into being in the world.  John Crosby, in the essay we commissioned for this site, expresses it this way:

The men and women of our time are ever more aware of themselves as persons.  We experience as never before the incomparable worth of each person.  We are alive to our inviolability, that is, we know in a new way that none of us is ever rightly used and destroyed for the good of others.  We are more sensitive than our ancestors to all the forms of coercion that threaten our personhood.  We reject the ancient distinction between Greek and barbarian; we know that the birthright of a person belongs not to a select few but to every human being.  This awakening of human beings to personal existence is an epochal event, a sea-change in the way we understand ourselves.

Needless to say, (I hope!) Wojtyla doesn't see the modern emphasis on interiority and subjectivity as negating anything true in the tradition.  Rather, it complements the "cosmological" approach.  But, he goes on to say, in philosophical treatments of the person, "the irreducible", i.e., interiority, subjectivity, is not only a valid aspect of our study; it should have a certain priority.

...given the variety of circumstances of the real existence of human beings, we  must always leave the greater space in this cognitive effort for the irreducible; we must, as it were, give the irreducible the upper hand when thinking about the human being, both in theory and in practice.

If we want to understand the person rightly, we need to, as he puts it, "pause at the irreducible".

What does it mean to pause cognitively at lived experience?  This "pausing" should be understood in relation to the irreducible.  The traditions of philosophical anthropology would have us believe that we can, so to speak, pass right over this dimension, that we can cognitively omit it by means of an abstraction that provides us with a specific definition of the human being as a being, or, in other words, with a cosmological type of reduction (homo = animal rationale).  One might ask, however, whether in so defining the essence of the human being we do not in a sense leave out what is most human, since the humanum expresses and realizes itself as the personale.  If so, the the irreducible would suggest that we cannot come to know and understand the human being in a reductive way alone.  This is also what the contemporary philosophy of the subject seems to be telling the traditional philosophy of the object. [Emphasis in the original]

Thus far from rejecting modern philosophy, Wojtyla absorbs and assimilates its valid insights, and thereby develops the Christian humanism of the tradition into a new and richly fruitful Christian personalism.

I wish Fr. Barron could learn from Wojtyla to be as open and sympathetic to modern philosophy as he is to contemporary culture.  If he were, he would be a much deeper and more potent force in the New Evangelization.

Comments (9)

Daniel Romeyn Davis

#1, Sep 22, 2012 5:29pm

4) "Dualism" is not an unmixed evil.  It's not wrong to distinguish between body and soul.  They are different things, after all.



I agree wholly that it is not wrong to distinguish betwixt the two, of body and soul; however, it is very difficult to, in a meaningful way, talk about a uniquely soul experience as the two are so totally united in our lived human experience. They may be "different things," although in our experiences, I would assert that it is almost impossible to distinguish in our lives between purely sensual vs purely soul experience - all experience involves the whole of our person, which is a "mixture" of body and soul.

Let me clarify that I am not particularly fond of my own usage of the term mixture, however, it is a difficult thing to conceptualize as the two are mentally distinct, but wholly one, at least in my own lived experience - obviously one cannot validate a soul via empirical processes. I am not sure if this adds to any discussion about the comments made by Fr. Barron, I felt as if the importance of how we approach body-soul dualism must not be overlooked. 

Katie van Schaijik

#2, Sep 22, 2012 6:28pm

I agree that the body/soul problem is an extremely challenging one, difficult to talk about without blundering one way or another.  I also agree that there are ways of treating them "differently" that don't do justice to their mysterious unity.

Scott Johnston

#3, Sep 23, 2012 1:35am

Katie, at least regarding dualism, I believe you argue against something Fr. Barron did not mean.

In Catholic theology, and for sure in seminaries today, "dualism" always has a negative connotation. In contemporary Catholic theology, 'dualism' is not a neutral term simply referring to the two natures of the person (spiritual/material). It is, in fact, usually meant specifically to refer to a heresy. This is the heresy which sees the human person's two components--matter and spirit--as so utterly different that they cannot be truly united as one substance--as fundamentally one integral metaphysical being. Dualism, as I am sure Fr. Barron means (it's how I always heard it spoken of in my own seminary experience), is a conception of the human being wherein soul and body are not truly united. Rather, they exist in a sort of parallel; or, the soul controls the body (like a puppet master) but is not integrally one with it.

Dualism, as Fr. Barron speaks of it, would make the metaphysical reality of the human person impossible. A ghost in a machine is not a real human being.

This term has roots going back to ancient ideas of spirit being eqated with good, and matter evil.

Scott Johnston

#4, Sep 23, 2012 1:50am

So, dualism as Catholic seminaries treat of it, is always negative because it is a view which sees the integral union of soul and body in one person as impossible; any perception of oneness is merely an illusion and not real.

For more on this (it's a bit dated but still helpful), see the entry on dualism in the Old Catholic Encyclopedia (but please overlook the bothersome [but unfortunately typical of pre-conciliar presentations of St. Thomas' teaching] near-equating of Aristotelian metaphysics with the doctrine of Thomas).

This particular subject brings up the importance of reminding ourselves that the same terms can be used in different contemporary fields of study with somewhat different shades of meaning (or, rather, different customary emphases), as in the fields of philosophy and theology. The first definition of dualism in a Catholic encyclopedia, and in a philosophy encyclopedia, are probably different, though each also probably eventually includes the other's first definition further down in its own list.

If, in contemporary philosophy, dualism's first and most commonly used meaning does not necessarily have a negative connotation, then Catholic theology uses the term to mean something slightly different.

See also, here, for a simple, ancient definition.

Scott Johnston

#5, Sep 23, 2012 2:19am

For a little more info that has some relevance,


And, albigenses (Old Catholic Encyclopedia; again, old, but still helpful)

Dualism is also mentioned in a negative light, in the Catechism, no. 285.

Katie van Schaijik

#6, Sep 23, 2012 3:57am

Keep in mind, though, Scott, that he isn't speaking about theology; he's speaking about philosophy.  This is one of my general objections to the talk.  He (practically speaking) conflates "modernity" with the heresy of modernism and treats Descrates almost like a heretic and a villain, instead of taking him on his own (philosophical) terms.

Another thing I found odd and disconcerting, is that Descartes' mechanization of the body—an error central to Wojtyla's critique--wasn't mentioned.

Katie van Schaijik

#7, Sep 23, 2012 9:39am

Janice, Sep. 23 at 9:09am

What is there a difference in the term " subjectivism" and "subjectivity"?

Yes.  Just like there's a difference between feminism and femininity.

Subjectivism is basically the denial of objective truth, or the idea that my own subjective thoughts and impressions are the measure of truth.

I remember arguing in high school with a friend about the existence of God.  He kept saying, "It's true for you Katie."  If it has significance to me, if it makes sense in my life, then God exists.  For me.  (But not for him.)

Fr. Barron is right to say that subjectivism is a major hallmark of our day.  

But it's not well-described as a privileging of the interior over the exterior.  

Further, it's important to see (contra those who reject the modern interest in subjectivity as inevitably leading to subjectivism) that the "discovery" of personal subjectivity does not undermine a proper realism and objectivity.

On the contrary, Wojtyla points out, the prime thing we find in a philosophical consideration of personal subjectivity is that the person is made for truth.  Also, personal subjectivity is itself something real.

Katie van Schaijik

#8, Sep 23, 2012 9:46am

Here's another passage from that article of Wojtyla's:

After all, lived experience is also—and above all—a reality.  A legitimate method of disclosing this reality can only enrich and deepen the whole realism of the conception of the human being.  The personal profile of the human being then enters into the sphere of cognitive vision, and the composition of human nature, far from being blurred, is even more distinctly accentuated. 

When we examine our experience of ourselves "from within" we discover, he says, that we are "handed over to ourselves", that we are "self-determining", and that we live in relation to a world of truth and value.

Our decisions of conscience at each step reveal us as persons who fulfill ourselves by going beyond ourselves toward values accepted in truth and realized, therefore, with a deep sense of responsibility.

Katie van Schaijik

#9, Sep 23, 2012 9:49am

Janice, Sep. 23 at 9:09am

Are we a body/soul composite?  Or a body/soul mixture?

 I would say we are a union of body and soul.  Whether it's a union of two "substances" one material and one spiritual, or one substance composed of a material and a spiritual dimension is beyond my poor powers to say.

But I can say at least that it's a live debate in philosophy.

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