The Personalist Project

Karol Wojtyla's most important philosophical work, The Acting Person, is not easy to read. So when I picked it up again recently, I decided to use a book by Rocco Buttiglione, a former professor of ours and a close friend and collaborator of Wojtyla, as a guide to better understand it. That was a good decision. (Though sometimes I feel the need for a third book to help me understand Buttiglione!)

So far I am re-learning some things about the way in which Wojtyla approaches his topic (the human person). This approach is so fruitful and so central to the mission of the Personalist Project, that I thought I should highlight at least 3 characteristic features of it.

1. Learning from the classics, without getting stuck in them

The very first thing Wojtyla emphasizes (in the 2nd paragraph of the preface) is that his aim is not historical but properly philosophical. That is to say, he tries to come to grips, in a personal and direct way, with the reality of the human person as it is given in experience. One might think that this goes without saying. But unfortunately that is not the case. Contemporary philosophy often focusses more on the thought of previous thinkers, and on the secondary literature to which they have given rise, than on reality itself. One might call this trend, adapting a phrase from Steven A. Long, a "historicist inversion of philosophy." Rather then reading the great philosophers of the past in order to better understand the truth about reality, this type of "philosophy" gets bogged down in the texts themselves and rarely raises the question of truth.

Wojtyla's approach is deliberately and refreshingly different. From his preface to the english translation:

First of all, audacious though it may seem in the present day – in which philosophical thinking is not only nourished by, and based upon history, but in which to "philosophize" often means to reflect upon theories about theories – the present work cannot be seen otherwise than as a personal effort by the author to disentangle the intricacies of a crucial state of affairs and to clarify the basic elements of the problems involved.

2. Appeal to the reader to test and think and judge for himself

What Wojtyla does himself, he asks the reader to do as well. It is not enough to closely follow Wojtyla's train of thought and come to understand his meaning. He wants his readers to compare the results of his investigation and test them against their own experience and personal reflection. That is the only way in which they can evaluate, appropriate, and benefit from the insights contained in it.

Wojtyla knows, furthermore, that if his reflection on the human person is clear and true, others will be able to recognize themselves in it. They will find that their own lives and experiences are illumined by it. They will be led to a deeper understanding of themselves and their relationship to others.

Buttiglione puts the point very well by saying that "the confirmation which it brings to others" is, for Wojtyla, the "criterion of truth" of his philosophy. But let me quote the passage is in full:

By choosing the experience of the person as a point of departure, Wojtyla is able to work out a philosophy which is a reflection on experience and which finds its criterion of truth in the recognition and in the confirmation which it brings to the experience of the other, of the reader as of every human being. It is, therefore, neither a reflection on the history of philosophy (no matter how erudite) nor the attempt to force assent through abstract argumentation (no matter how logically rigorous) but, rather, an articulated discourse on the fundamental structure of the experience of life which solicits every person to reflect on his own self to confirm and to enrich the author's reflection. The philosopher limits himself to interpreting, to bringing into a higher degree of consciousness, what happens in common experience.

Again, this is what all philosophy should be like, but which it rarely is.

3. Phenomenological persuasion vs. logical argumentation

In that last quote, Buttiglione contrasts Wojtyla's approach with "the attempt to force assent through abstract argumentation." It is an important point, and one I had not fully grasped before.

There is indeed something about abstract, logical argumention, no matter how cogent, that leaves us—unique, real and living individuals—somehow humanly out of the picture. Such argumentation, even when we agree with it, is too far removed from the reality we live to reach us concretely. It is too objective to affect us personally. It aims at the intellect, not at the whole person.

Wojtyla's analysis of the person, by contrast, is deliberately phenomenological. It describes and analyzes common human experience. It derives its persuasive force, therefore, not from the objective logical strength of its arguments, but, from the accurate and insightful description of the experience we all share. It is persuasive, one might say, not just because it is rational, but primarly because it has real traction in our lives.

As again Buttiglione puts it: 

To demonstrate something is very different from describing it. The force of the conviction of [Wojtyla's philosophy] does not lie in the logical strength which compels assent but in the exactness of the description of the fundamental structures of experience which give rise, in anyone who has lived it, to the recognition that the thing is exactly as it is described. The assent arises in this case from the recognition that one's own experience of life is adequately expressed by the phenomenological description, and in such a way as to be at the same time judged and corrected.

And in a footnote he further explains why this method has the power to influence:

From the pedagogical point of view it is important to notice that the assent which is given to the truth on the basis of this recognition is an assent which engages the emotional energies of the person, while the purely intellectual assent does not have an equal capacity to affect existence by transforming it.

To sum up: We can learn a lot from Karol Wojtyla/John Paul II. Not just from what he teaches, but also from the way in which he thinks and communicates. The three points I describe above go a long way (not all the way) to explaining the enormous influence he exercised and continues to exercise on the Church of our time. It was not just a matter of "charisma" or of "stage presence", as is sometimes said, but rather of being deeply and reflectively in touch with contemporary human experience. This enabled him to reach thousands of people around the globe, and teach them how to properly interpret themselves and the meaning of their lives.

Comments (2)

richard sherlock

#1, Mar 21, 2012 1:45am


No question The Acting Person is hard. I had a great Ph.d. student at Fordham write a really brilliant dissertation on JPII's pre-papal moral theology including The Acting Person. He made a wonderful contribution because he grew up in a polish speaking household so he could read and translate brilliant work from JPII in polish. The assent to truth in his way is deeper than in Aquinas. Aquinas was a university prof. He's writing for left brained people like me, a wonderful, logical argument. JPII reads in a way like Augustine's Confessions his way to come to truth is much deeper and he starts where we are with our souls. That hits us harder because its harder to dismiss it like you can with a purely rational argument 

Jules van Schaijik

#2, Mar 21, 2012 7:42am

I agree that his approach is like that of Augustine. Buttiglione comments on that too. He says that Wojtyla uses phenomenology,

but also recovers, through it, the decisive contribution which the Augustinian current of tradition brings to the philosophy of man. Although he is not quoted a great deal, Augustine... is at least as much present as St. Thomas, and is often encountered when the attempt to 'go to the things themselves' finds its mark.

Both Aquinas and Augustine are timeless, of course. But in some way Augustine, with his emphasis on the interiority of the person, is particularly relevant to our time. 

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