The Possibility of a Post-modern Metaphysics of the Human Person: The Thomistic-Phenomenology of Karol Wojty³a /Pope John Paul II
It has become commonplace to talk about “The End of Metaphysics,” and “Religion after Metaphysics,” to express a sense of relief over the liberation of religion and philosophy from an oppressive and extrinsic concept. Religious thought “after metaphysics,” according to this sentiment, should not be beholden to or be dependent on ontology. Arguments for this sentiment have become more refined since Hume called for books on metaphysics to be committed to the flames. Given this sensibility, is it possible to construct a Post-modern metaphysics of the human person? It will be argued in this paper that Karol Wojtyﾳa has done just that in his philosophical anthropology. While much of recent philosophy has insisted that we cannot get to the truth of things, Wojtyﾳa has argued that we can get to metaphysics and the truth of reality through anthropology. This paper will first focus on how Wojtyﾳa arrives at the metaphysics of the human person through the phenomenology of experience. Second, is Wojtyﾳa a phenomenologist or a Thomist, or both? Third, how does Wojtyla develop and example his Post-modern metaphysics of the human person in the Papal Encyclicals?
The Metaphysics of the Human Person through the Phenomenology of Experience
The starting point of Wojtyﾳa’s philosophical anthropology is concrete human experience. This experience that man has of himself “is the richest and apparently the most complex of all experiences accessible to him.”1 This is because even experiences that are external to himself include, and are associated with, himself, for it is he who is experiencing that which is external to himself. In any experience, a man has to face himself in a cognitive relation with himself. This relation is continuous in a sense that it will be disrupted, renewed and reestablished according to when the consciousness is active or stops, e.g. when a person sleeps. This relation is uninterrupted in the sense that man is always his own company and picks up where he leaves off, even if the experiences are dull or vivid. Wojtyﾳa focuses on this culminating totality of experience that is composed of a multiplicity of experiences.
This unity of experience is important for Wojtyﾳa because phenomenology overlooks the unitary nature of experience. Phenomenology does not capture the unity of diverse experiences but rather sees them as single events that are unique and unrepeatable. While phenomenologists’ initial analysis of empirical moments is correct, the sequence leading up to the unitary “experience of man” reveals a more complete picture of a person emerging from the total experience that has been present in all of these moments. This unitary experience cannot be found existing in any one moment of experience.
Wojtyﾳa appeals to common experience by inviting the experiences of others, every human person and the reader to confirm his reflections. His philosophical originality is his attempt to correct the one-sidedness in the philosophical approaches to the person that has existed since Descartes. This one-sidedness comes from approaching the person primarily through knowledge and cognition. As Wojtyﾳa explains in his preface:
Since Descartes, knowledge about man and his world has been identified with the cognitive function. . . . And yet, in reality, does man reveal himself in thinking or, rather, in the actual enacting of his existence — in observing, interpreting, speculating, or reasoning . . . or in the confrontation itself when he has to take an active stand upon issues requiring vital decisions and having vital consequences and repercussions? In fact, it is in reversing the post-Cartesian attitude toward man that we undertake our study: by approaching him through action.2
Wojtyﾳa reverses “I think, therefore I am,” to, “I act, therefore revealing the concrete totality of who I am.” It will be through the special moment of action that Wojtyﾳa “exfoliates” the person. This disclosure will not be done on the level of consciousness alone but will include the aspect of consciousness. The person is not constituted in consciousness but action, as the moment of disclosure of the person is manifested through consciousness.
Wojtyﾳa makes a critical shift and reversal in the traditional conceptions of action. He achieves a significant conceptual innovation here. It has always been correctly observed that action as conceived is only attributable to a person, and that it presupposes the person as well. This has been true in ethics as well as in other disciplines. But Wojtyﾳa intends to reverse this relation. He does not want the person to be presupposed. Rather, “action reveals the person, and we look at the person through his action…Action gives us the best insight into the inherent essence of the person and allows us to understand the person most fully.”3 It is through the moment of action that the totality of the constituted person is revealed. For Wojtyﾳa, his specific use of action is a dramatic shift from what has been traditionally conceived. In spite of this innovation, Wojtyﾳa is not abandoning its metaphysical origins. He clearly states that the disclosure of the person through action is an “ontological interpretation of the person through action as the action. By ‘ontological interpretation’ we mean an interpretation that shows what the reality of the person is.”4 Instead of the presupposed person, his use of action reveals the person, and this is his starting point. Action is the most adequate starting point to begin understanding the dynamic nature of the human person.
Wojtyﾳa writes that, foundationally, “The whole of The Acting Person is grounded on the premise that operari sequitur esse: the act of personal existence has its direct consequences in the activity of the person (i.e., in action). And so action, in turn, is the basis for disclosing and understanding the person.”5 In their scholastic conception, activity and action follow from and depend on the act of existence. Wojtyﾳa, however, innovatively takes this in its epistemological sense through its reversal.6 If action depends on its being, then it is through action or operari that we discover its being. It is through operari that the subjectivity and whole dynamism of the person are disclosed. It is through this phenomenon of experienced reality, “man acts or I act,” that this lived experience will disclose the integral whole of the human person. Wojtyﾳa takes the concept of action and extends it beyond its traditional understanding. But he first wants to make it clear in The Acting Person where this concept comes from. His interpretation of action is “found in the philosophies of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas. The interpretation is realistic and objectivistic as well as metaphysical.”7 This traditional conception locates the person as the source of action. What Wojtyﾳa wants to do is to “bring into full view precisely that which is only assumed in the classical conception of the ‘human act.’”8
Wojtyﾳa credits metaphysics as the intellectual soil in which all domains of knowledge have their roots.9 Every investigation of the human person must begin with a proper foundation that metaphysics supplies. Wojtyﾳa credits his concept of the human act (actus humanus) to Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics, having derived it from the latter’s dynamic conception of being.10 It is this metaphysics that provides the conception and language that accounts for the dynamism inherent in being, especially the concept of action as the actualization and fulfillment of potentiality. Wojtyﾳa argues that there is currently no such conception or language that can account for the dynamic essence of change.11 It is only through the metaphysical account of potency and act that we can understand and describe the dynamism occurring in any being.
In the metaphysical structure of a being as a person, Wojtyﾳa borrows the full range of Thomistic terminology, e.g., actus-potentia, actus secundus, actus humanus et hominis, agere et pati, actus voluntarius, actus personae, operari sequitur esse, and praxis sequitar theoriam. It is the full range of the metaphysics of the person as developed by Thomas.12 This goes beyond the one-sided Boethian definition of a person with a rational nature. Wojtyﾳa’s anthropology now includes a range of actions of varying order.
From a metaphysical point of view, the human person is a substantial being because this concept allows a person to be the causative subject and efficient cause of actions and values.13 This person is self-determining, independent and non-transferable. The person is a substantial being because as a dynamic subject, the person is constituted of human acts through which the inner dynamism and the totality of the person, including self-consciousness, is revealed. This metaphysical dimension of a substantial being provides the causation of the person’s own subjectivity. Wojtyﾳa gives priority to the person as an ontologically self-contained entity over the phenomenological description of a person as a self-conscious self.14 Priority is given to the person’s beingness. “However we analyze the structure, conditions, and source of action we cannot bypass its ultimate ontological foundation…It is in the subject as a being that every dynamic structure is rooted, every acting and happening. It is given as a real, actually existing, being, the man-being that actually exists and hence also ‘really’ acts.”15 Wojtyﾳa uses the Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysical category of substance to dynamically interpret the subjectivity of the person.16
Woznicki has pointed out that Wojtyﾳa, while accepting the entire metaphysics of the person as developed by Thomas, also goes beyond it.17 Wojtyﾳa’s modification includes placing more emphasis on experience than on beingness. But his interpretation of this experience is done more metaphysically because a phenomenological view of experience is narrower and limited to events and happenings. By adopting Thomas’ composition of body and soul metaphysically, the classical theory of act-potency through experience reveals a self-determined person who possesses self-cognition. This allows for the person to reveal and manifest his beingness through his actions. This in a way reveals Wojtyﾳa’s intricate relationship between phenomenology and his metaphysics. The relationship between phenomenology and metaphysics will be discussed next. Nevertheless for Wojtyﾳa, there is a possibility of reaching into ontology by starting out from the phenomenology of the person or the concrete reality of the person. Phenomenology provides an access, which begins from experience, that could enhance our understanding of the truth of being. This would be an example of Wojtyﾳa, in his own words, bringing about “some sort of translation from one philosophical language to another one.”18 It is also important to note that because Wojtyﾳa takes Thomas’ ethics and anthropology as his point of departure, he cannot avoid Thomas’ fundamental ontology as well.
Wojtyﾳa’s Methodology and Anthropology – Phenomenologist or Thomist?
There is much debate about whether Wojtyﾳa is a Thomist , a Phenomenologist, or a synthesis of both. I will not enter that debate here.19 There are, however, clear statements made by Wojtyﾳa himself that clarify his general orientation. Three brief comments are in order here.
Firstly, Wojtyﾳa does make it explicit at the conclusion of his second dissertation, Evaluation of the Possibility of Constructing a Christian Ethics on the Principles of Max Scheler’s System that,
A Christian thinker, and specifically a theologian, although availing himself in his writings of the phenomenological experience, cannot, however, be a phenomenologist. Consistent phenomenology will reveal to him, ethical values as appearing in the experience of a person ‘on occasion’ of acting. However, it will always be the task of a theologian-ethician to scrutinize the ethical value of human actions themselves, in the light of objective principles.20
So while Wojtyﾳa finds phenomenology to be a method useful for arriving at the metaphysical and ontological foundations of the person, his philosophical anthropology is not strictly phenomenological. While phenomenology is crucial in disclosing the various dimensions of human experience, it would drift into forms of solipsism if it were not grounded “in a general theory of things-as-they-are that was resolutely realistic and that could defend the capacity of human beings to get at the truth of things.”21
Phenomenology needs metaphysics because “phenomena themselves can visualize a thing clearly enough, but they are incapable of a sufficient explanation of themselves.”22 He also writes regarding The Acting Person, that, “Any attempt at combining these two philosophies is out of question, especially with respect to merging the philosophy of being with a philosophy of consciousness, as one that reduces all reality to the subject-consciousness and its contents. In The Acting Person, such a melding is completely out of question.”23 This, however, seems to be Wojtyﾳa’s early view. It seems to have softened later, as indicated by his later statements regarding the place of phenomenology in his thought.
Secondly, Wojtyﾳa, later in his softened and more nuanced view of phenomenology shows an appreciation for both systems, even if he has critiqued them, and at times quite severely. He describes his own methodology with a greater appreciation for phenomenology:
Although I arrived at the concept of the ‘human act’ within the framework of a phenomenological inquiry of Husserlian orientation it has to be pointed out that it coincides with the notion of ‘actus humanus’ as elaborated by Thomas Aquinas. Actus humanus’ follows from the nature of the acting person, from man understood as subject and author of his action. Indubitably the most valuable element in Thomas’ concept of ‘actus humanus,’ is that it expresses the d namism of a concrete being, man in its specific complete determination drawn from the total man. That specific dynamism finds further elaboration in Thomas’ studies of ‘voluntarium’, for, dynamism, proper to the activity of man (agere humanum), and to the human act (in German it is expressed best through die menschliche Tat) finds its roots in the will. St. Thomas analyzes the nature, structure, and actualization of the will very much in detail.24
Thirdly, it appears that allegiance to either system was not a priority to Wojtyﾳa and we find him arriving at a more nuanced synthesis of both systems. Perhaps a more accurate description would be a Hegelian Aufgehoben (sublation)of both systems that negates inadequate aspects and transcends them in a new synthesis that preserves the previously adequate into a higher unity in a dialectical process. Wojtyﾳa was deeply familiar with both systems and his higher interest was to develop a richer theory of the person in order to better inform his ethics.25 It was more important to find the appropriate tools to uncover the deepest layers of the human person. In doing so, he would also have to “purify” and update both philosophical systems to be up to the task. In this sense, the consensus of scholarship seems to correctly approximate that of a synthesis (through a sublation) of both systems, modified and updated in order to grasp the complete, concrete totality of the person. Galkowski’s summary of this synthesis would be representative of this view:
In his considerations the Author employs a two-fold concept of the person: metaphysical and phenomenological. This distinction is not made in order that one or the other would be negated, but in order that we may grasp in full the reality of the person. The person, from the metaphysical point of view is the subject of existence and activity; however from the phenomenological point of view [person] is a synthesis of efficacy (the power to bring something about) and subjectivity (suppositum). . . . Thanks to it Wojtyﾳa builds a theory of man which is modified in relation to the Thomistic theory, more developed and richer.26
Wojtyﾳa himself writes implicitly about this synthesis: “I wrote on the contribution which Scheler’s phenomenological type of ethical system can make to the development of moral theology. This research benefited me greatly. My previous Aristotelian-Thomistic formation was enriched by the phenomenological method.”27
Buttiglione also notes that, in this synthesis, Wojtyﾳa takes all the contents of Thomistic anthropology “but aligned with a different methodology.” It is not a crude combining of two philosophical systems but a critically nuanced one. For Wojtyﾳa, “It is not a question of demonstrating phenomenologically that man is a person, but seeing with the aid of phenomenology in which way man is a person, in which way the metaphysical structures proper to his being are reflected in his consciousness.”28 Wojtyﾳa also critically uses the philosophy of being and consciousness “without blurring distinctions and generating an equivocal syncretism.”29 Schmitz, however, inverts this interpretation to suggest that it is through the conception of action that the two systems find their fullest expression:
It is in the acting person that the acts of phenomenological interpretation and the acts of metaphysical explanation meet in their concrete and efficacious source. So that by acting, the human person outreaches both explanation and interpretation. For it is the concrete human person who, in acting, takes up the task of integration and transcendence and thereby becomes the human agent who engages with others in the community of being.30
This discussion on methodology finds an echo is his encyclical Fides et ratio. He argues in the encyclical that philosophy has its own methodology and legitimate autonomy apart from theology. But philosophy’s autonomy does not make it self-sufficient.31 It is revelation that complements the inherent weakness in human reason, confirming the principle that grace does not destroy nature but perfects it. Wojtyﾳa stands as the quintessential exponent of this position. He borrows philosophical tools such as phenomenology but perfects its inherent weaknesses by the complement of critical theology and a modified Thomistic metaphysics.
Buttiglione has noted that while the other popes that came before John Paul II were expressions of a constituted Christianity where values were largely inherited, John Paul II comes into a cultural situation where “values were largely destroyed and could only be discovered again because they were true.”33 Buttiglione argues that John Paul II is post-modern in at least three ways. First, he encountered the annihilation of values in the post-modern philosophy and poetry of 20th century Central Europe, the very thinkers that are being rediscovered as the prophets of post-modern culture. Second, in a different post-modern sense, his attack on Marxism and liberal secularism was not because they were potentialities worth considering but precisely because they had failed. Third, post-modern society begins with the end of immanence. This immanent outlook was the signature of modern society where God is not transcendent but immanent in us. Marxism represents the last expression of this belief, and with its collapse, man is again alone. This man is “de-centered’ and de-constructed” according to Derrida, and Lyotard, with no grand narrative to give him or her meaning or an identity. It is out of this post-modern experience and outlook that Wojtyﾳa reconstructs and refines his philosophical and theological anthropology in order to preserve the dignity of the human person.
Wojtyﾳa argues that it is through a proper understanding of the human person that we can arrive at a post-modern metaphysics of the human person. It is especially in his encyclicals as Pope John Paul II that we see this possibility developed and exampled, a development that owes its foundations in his earlier philosophical anthropology. In particular, it is the metaphysics of the human person, seen theologically and philosophically that grounds, protects and preserves human freedom, morality and the capacity for apprehending truth.
In Veritatis splendor, Wojtyﾳa makes the argument that the injustice of political economics and problems of corruption are at their foundations, “properly ‘cultural,’ linked to particular ways of looking at mankind, society and the world. Indeed, at the heart of the issue of culture we find the moral sense, which is in turn rooted and fulfilled in the religious sense.”34 This is because it is only in God as the “Supreme Good” and the “unshakable foundation and essential condition of morality” that the genuine complex problems of society can be overcome. It is only when morality is situated in the “truth of God” and the “truth of man” that the “authentic freedom of the person” can be secured.35 In both the personal and societal dimensions, Wojtyﾳa argues repeatedly in this and other encyclicals that persons can order their lives according to the dialectic of freedom and objective moral truths.
Two issues are critically important here. The first is the nature of human freedom. Without a firm and correct understanding of human freedom, convictions about morality would be partial. If freedom becomes exalted to an absolute, subjective freedom would itself become the source of values and moral judgment without regard to other persons or the common good. The second critical issue is the nature of moral truth and the possibility of discerning and apprehending that truth. If a person’s capacity to know the truth is limited and merely conditioned, confident appeals to the very sources that promote the dignity of persons and the common good are suspicious. If persons are not capable of attaining truth, what remains is the will to power alone. The purpose of Veritatis splendor is to “reflect on the whole of the Church’s moral teaching” especially in confronting ideas both from within and without that challenge foundational anthropological and ethical presuppositions. Wojtyﾳa contends that at the “root of these presuppositions is the more or less obvious influence of currents of thought which end by detaching human freedom from its essential and constitutive relationship to truth.”36
How does Wojtyﾳa’s philosophical anthropology allow for the confident apprehension of moral truth and the subsequent understanding of proper human freedom? Wojtyﾳa, in the encyclicals, repeatedly makes a link between truth and freedom that warrants a closer examination. In short, authentic freedom depends on, and needs to be governed by, truth. This truth lies in our anthropology, humanity, and nature that directs us, as expressed in natural moral law. Our freedom to act must be governed by our respect for the truth of things, or objective truth, especially the truth about human nature, the truth about our place in the world, and the truth about our relation to God. Without this orientation to the truth, our freedom becomes arbitrary and subjective. And what is the nature of this truth? Ratzinger, in commenting on the nature of truth in Wojtyﾳa’s encyclicals defines truth as that which “orders our conduct, [and] lies in our very humanity. Our essence, our ‘nature,’ which comes from the Creator, is the truth which directs us. That we ourselves carry our truth in us, that our essence (our “nature”) is our truth is expressed by the term natural moral law (‘natural law’).”37
Wojtyﾳa is fond of quoting John 8:32, “The truth will set you free,” to show the relationship between truth and freedom. Freedom is a function of truth, as it is the truth of the person and the truth of Biblical revelation that posit the capacity for freedom. Additionally, freedom cannot reach its own end without the help of truth because it is objective truth that guides freedom away from arbitrary, subjective ends. While truth is an objective fact, it is through our subjective experience that we find confirmation in our free adherence towards objective truths. A person’s freedom is a freedom in search of the truth that in turn protects and preserves her freedom. What unites freedom and truth? It is responsibility, for it “is not sufficient, on this point, to say ‘I am free.’ It is necessary to say rather ‘I am responsible.’…Responsibility is the necessary culmination and fulfillment of freedom.”38 Wojtyﾳa would approve of Lord Acton’s maxim that freedom is “not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought,” and Polanyi’s contention that “the freedom of the subjective person to do as he pleases is overruled by the freedom of the responsible person to act as he must.”39 Taken together, freedom is “the condition for the exercise of the responsibility of man toward the truth.”40
Wojtyﾳa argues in Centesimus annus that “freedom attains its full development only by accepting the truth. In a world without truth, freedom loses its foundation and man is exposed to the violence of passion and to manipulation, both open and hidden.”41 The message of Veritatis splendor is that only in truth does a person’s freedom become truly human and responsible, that subsequently and directly affects the character of the common good in all its societal manifestations.
Already in The Acting Person, Wojtyﾳa had considered the intimate relationship between freedom and truth. The concept of efficacy introduces the element of the will, an element that presupposes freedom and moral responsibility. Efficacy, along with self-determination, introduces the “moral moment” and “becoming” of the acting person. Efficacy now needs to be directed towards a frame of reference, the reference of truth. Without this reference to truth, blind emotivity can take over and self-teleology risks being unfulfilled. According to Wojtyﾳa, “Freedom is expressed by efficacy, and efficacy leads to responsibility, which in turn reveals the dependence of freedom on truth; but this relation of freedom to truth constitutes the real significance of the conscience as the decisive factor for the transcendence of the person in his actions.”42 He asks rhetorically, “Is it not freedom, obligation, and responsibility which allows us to see that not only truthfulness but also the person’s surrender to truth in judging as well as in acting constitute the real and concrete fabric of the personal life of man?”43
In The Acting Person, the structure of self-determination reveals the will making decisions in the conscience, and, according to Wojtyﾳa, this dynamic presupposes an objective reference to truth. This reference to truth is a vertical transcendence that goes beyond the horizontal limit of the subject. The conscience reveals the transcendence of freedom and truth that comes from willing and choosing a true good that results in the realization of true freedom. This truth that conscience appeals to fulfills the potentiality of the person. This presupposes that the conscience is somehow primordially prepared and shaped by truth as its inner principle and decision in order to provide the condition and ability to direct the will towards the proper object of truth as its fulfillment and completion. Moral conduct would be incomprehensible without this reference to truth. Truth that is recognized and evaluated in the conscience conditions the performance of action as well as fulfilling the person in the action. In Veritatis splendor, Wojtyﾳa continues this line of thinking and specifies in greater detail what are the content and relationship of this freedom, truth and conscience.
Wojtyﾳa exposes some contemporary, distorted conceptions of freedom. When there is a loss of a sense of transcendence as a frame of reference, individual consciences are accorded the “status of a supreme tribunal of moral judgment which hands down categorical and infallible decisions about good and evil.”44 Witho