Sunday, July 29, 2012

Subjectivity and the Irreducible in the Human Person

Karol Wojtyla


Selected  Essays

Translated by Theresa Sandok, OSM


Peter Lang


Subjectivity and the Irreducible in
the Human Being
The problem of the subjectivity of the human being seems today to be the focal point of a variety of concerns. It would be difficult to explain in just a few words exactly why and how this situation has arisen. No doubt it owes its emergence to numerous causes, not all of which should be sought in the realm of philosophy or science. Nevertheless, philosophy—especially philosophical anthropology and ethics—is a privileged place when it comes to clarifying and objectifying this problem. And this is precisely where the heart of the issue lies. Today more than ever before we feel the need—and also see a greater possibility—of objectifying the problem of the subjectivity of the human being.

In this regard, contemporary thought seems to have more or less set aside the old antinomies that arose primarily in the area of the theory of knowledge (epistemology) and that formed an as though inviolable line of demarcation between the basic orientations in philosophy. The antinomy of subjectivism vs. objectivism, along with the underlying antinomy of idealism vs. realism, created conditions that discouraged dealing with human subjectivity—for fear that this would lead inevitably to subjec­tivism. These fears, which existed among thinkers who subscribed to realism and epistemological objectivism, were in some sense warranted by the subjectivistic and idealistic character—or at least overtones—of analyses conducted within the realm of "pure consciousness." This only served to strengthen the line of demarcation in philosophy and the op­position between the "objective" view of the human being, which was also an ontological view (the human being as a being), and the "subjec­tive" view, which seemed inevitably to sever the human being from this reality.
Today we are seeing a breakdown of that line of demarcation—and for some of the same reasons that gave rise to it in the first place. By "some of the same reasons" I mean that this is also happening as a result of phenomenological analyses conducted in the realm of "pure conscious­ness" using Husserl's epoché: bracketing the existence, or reality, of the conscious subject. I am convinced that the line of demarcation between the subjectivistic (idealistic) and objectivistic (realistic) views in anthropology and ethics must break down and is in fact breaking down on the basis of the experience of the human being. This experience auto­matically frees us from pure consciousness as the subject conceived and assumed a priori and leads us to the full concrete existence of the human being, to the reality of the conscious subject. With all the phenomenologi­cal analyses in the realm of that assumed subject (pure consciousness) now at our disposal, we can no longer go on treating the human being exclusively as an objective being, but we must also somehow treat the human being as a subject in the dimension in which the specifically human subjectivity of the human being is determined by consciousness.

And that dimension would seem to be none other than personal sub­jectivity.

This matter requires a fuller examination, in the course of which we must consider the question of the irreducible in the human being—the question of that which is original and essentially human, that which ac­counts for the human being's complete uniqueness in the world.

Traditional Aristotelian anthropology was based, as we know, on the definition o anthropos zoon noetikon, homo est animal rationale. This definition fulfills Aristotle's requirements for defining the species (human being) through its proximate genus (living being) and the feature that distinguishes the given species in that genus (endowed with reason). At the same time, however, the definition is constructed in such a way that it excludes—when taken simply and directly—the possibility of accentuating the irreducible in the human being. It implies—at least at first glance—a belief in the reducibility of the human being to the world. The reason for maintaining such reducibility has always been the need to un­derstand the human being. This type of understanding could be defined as cosmological.

The usefulness of the Aristotelian definition is unquestionable. It be­came the dominant view in metaphysical anthropology and spawned a variety of particular sciences, which likewise understood the human being as an animal with the distinguishing feature of reason. The whole scientific tradition concerning the composition of human nature, the spiritual-material compositum humanum—a tradition that came down from the Greeks through the Scholastics to Descartes—moved within the framework of this definition and, consequently, within the context of the belief that the essentially human is basically reducible to the world. It cannot be denied that vast regions of experience and scientific knowledge based on that experience reflect this belief and work to confirm it.

On the other hand, a belief in the primordial uniqueness of the human being, and thus in the basic irreducibility of the human being to the natural world, seems just as old as the need for reduction expressed in Aristotle's definition. This belief stands at the basis of understanding the human being as a person, which has an equally long tenure in the history of philosophy; it also accounts today for the growing emphasis on the person as a subject and for the numerous efforts aimed at interpreting the

personal subjectivity of the human being.1

In the philosophical and scientific tradition that grew out of the defini­tion homo est animal rationale, the human being was mainly an object, one of the objects in the world to which the human being visibly and physically belongs. Objectivity in this sense was connected with the general assumption of the reducibility of the human being. Subjectivity, on the other hand, is, as it were, a term proclaiming that the human being's proper essence cannot be totally reduced to and explained by the proximate genus and specific difference. Subjectivity is, then, a kind of synonym for the irreducible in the human being. If there is an opposition here, it is not between objectivism and subjectivism, but only between two philosophical (as well as everyday and practical) methods of treating the human being: as an object and as a subject. At the same time, we must not forget that the subjectivity of the human person is also something objective.2

I should also emphasize that the method of treating the human being as an object does not result directly from the Aristotelian definition itself, nor does it belong to the metaphysical conception of the human being in the Aristotelian tradition. As we know, the objectivity of the conception of the human being as a being itself required the postulate that the human being is 1) a separate suppositum (a subject of existence and action) and 2) a person (persona). Still, the traditional view of the human being as a person, which understood the person in terms of the Boethian definition as rationalis naturae individua substantia, expressed the individuality of the human being as a substantial being with a rational (spiritual) nature, rather than the uniqueness of the subjectivity essential to the human being as a person. Thus the Boethian definition mainly marked out the "metaphysical terrain"—the dimension of being—in which personal human subjectivity is realized, creating, in a sense, a condition for "build­ing upon" this terrain on the basis of experience.



The category to which we must go in order to do this "building" seems to be that of lived experience. This is a category foreign to Aristotle's metaphysics. The Aristotelian categories that may appear relatively closest to lived experience—those of agere and pate—cannot be identified with it. These categories serve to describe the dynamism of a being, and they also do a good job of differentiating what merely happens in the human being from what the human being does.3 But when the dynamic reality of the human being is interpreted in Aristotelian categories, there is in each case (including in the case of agere and pate) an aspect not directly apprehended by such a metaphysical interpretation or reduction, namely, the aspect of lived experience as the irreducible, as the element that defies reduction. From the point of view of the meta-physical structure of being and acting, and thus also from the point of view of the dynamism of the human being understood meta-physically, the apprehension of this element may seem unnecessary. Even without it, we obtain an adequate under­standing of the human being and of the fact that the human being acts and that things happen in the human being. Such an understanding formed the basis of the entire edifice of anthropology and ethics for many cen­turies.

But as the need increases to understand the human being as a unique and unrepeatable person, especially in terms of the whole dynamism of action and inner happenings proper to the human being—in other words, as 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. For then the issue is not just the metaphysical objectification of the human being as an acting subject, as the agent of acts, but the revelation of the person as a subject experiencing its acts and inner happenings, and with them its own subjectivity. From the mo­ment the need to interpret the acting human being (I'home agissant) is expressed, the category of lived experience must have a place in anthropol­ogy and ethics—and even somehow be at the center of their respective interpretations.4

One might immediately ask whether, by giving lived experience such a key function in the interpretation of the human being as a personal subject, we are not inevitably condemned to subjectivism. Without going into a detailed response, I would simply say that, so long as in this in­terpretation we maintain a firm enough connection with the integral ex­perience of the human being, not only are we not doomed to subjectivism, but we will also safeguard the authentic personal subjectivity of the human being in the realistic interpretation of human existence.
In order to interpret the human being in the context of lived experience, the aspect of consciousness must be introduced into the analysis of human existence. The human being is then given to us not merely as a being defined according to species, but as a concrete self, a self-experiencing subject. Our own subjective being and the existence proper to it (that of a suppositum) appear to us in experience precisely as a self-experiencing subject. If we pause here, this being discloses the structures that determine it as a concrete self. The disclosure of these structures constituting the human self need in no way signify a break with reduction and the species definition of the human being—rather, it signifies the kind of methodological operation that may be described as pausing at the irreducible. We should pause in the process of reduction, which leads us in the direction of understanding the human being in the world (a cosmological type of understanding), in order to understand the human being inwardly. This latter type of understanding may be called personalistic. The personalistic type of understanding the human being is not the antinomy of the cosmological type but its complement. As I mentioned earlier, the definition of the person formulated by Boethius only marks out the "metaphysical ter­rain" for interpreting the personal subjectivity of the human being. 
The experience of the human being cannot be derived by way of cos­mological reduction; we must pause at the irreducible, at that which is unique and unrepeatable in each human being, by virtue of which he or she is not just a particular human being—an individual of a certain species—but a personal subject. Only then do we get a true and complete picture of the human being. We cannot complete this picture through reduction alone; we also cannot remain within the framework of the ir­reducible alone (for then we would be unable to get beyond the pure self). The one must be cognitively supplemented with the other. Never­theless, 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. For the irreducible also refers to everything in the human being that is invisible and wholly internal and whereby each human being, myself in­cluded, is an "eyewitness" of his or her own self—of his or her own humanity and person.

My lived experience discloses not only my actions but also my inner happenings in their profoundest dependence on my own self. It also dis­closes my whole personal structure of self-determination, in which I dis­cover my self as that through which I possess myself and govern myself—or, at any rate, should possess myself and govern myself. The dynamic structure of self-determination reveals to me that I am given to myself and assigned to myself. This is precisely how I appear to myself in my acts and in my inner decisions of conscience: as permanently as­signed to myself, as having continually to affirm and monitor myself, and thus, in a sense, as having continually to "achieve" this dynamic structure of my self, a structure that is given to me as self-possession and self-governance. At the same time, this is a completely internal and totally immanent structure. It is a real endowment of the personal subject; in a sense, it is this subject. In my lived experience of self-possession and self-governance, I experience that I am a person and that I am a subject.

These structures of self-possession and self-governance, which are es­sential to every personal self and shape the personal subjectivity of every human being, are experienced by each of us in the lived experience of moral value—good and evil. And perhaps this reality is often revealed to us more intensely when it is threatened by evil than when—at least for the moment—nothing threatens it. In any case, experience teaches that the morale is very deeply rooted in the humanum, or, more precisely, in what should be defined as the personals. Morality defines the personalistic dimension of the human being in a fundamental way; it is subjectified in this dimension and can also be properly understood only in it. At the same time, however, the morale is a basic expression of the transcendence proper to the personal self. 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.
This topic has been the subject of many penetrating analyses, some already completed and others ongoing. While not continuing those analyses here, I wish only to state that, when it comes to understanding the human being, the whole rich and complex reality of lived experience is not so much an element or aspect as a dimension in its own right. And this is the dimension at which we must necessarily pause if the subjective structure—including the subjective personal structure—of the human being is to be fully delineated.

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 species 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 personals. If so, then 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.

But that is not all. The irreducible signifies that which is essentially incapable of reduction, that which cannot be reduced but can only be disclosed or revealed. Lived experience essentially defies reduction. This does not mean, however, that it eludes our knowledge; it only means that we must arrive at the knowledge of it differently, namely, by a method or means of analysis that merely reveals and discloses its essence. The method of phenomenological analysis allows us to pause at lived ex­perience as the irreducible. This method is not just a descriptive cataloging of individual phenomena (in the Kantian sense, i.e., phenomena as sense-perceptible contents). When we pause at the lived experience of the ir­reducible, we attempt to permeate cognitively the whole essence of this experience. We thus apprehend both the essentially subjective structure of lived experience and its structural relation to the subjectivity of the human being. Phenomenological analysis thus contributes to trans-phenomenal understanding; it also contributes to a disclosure of the rich­ness proper to human existence in the whole complex compositum humanum.

Such a disclosure—the deepest possible disclosure—would seem to be an indispensable means for coming to know the human being as a personal subject. At the same time, this personal human subjectivity is a deter­minate reality: it is a reality when we strive to understand it within the objective totality that goes by the name human being. The same applies to the whole character of this method of understanding. 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 the sphere of cognitive vision, and the composition of human nature, far from being blurred, is even more distinctly accentuated. The thinker seeking the ultimate philosophical truth about the human being no longer moves in a "purely metaphysical terrain," but finds elements in abundance testifying to both the materiality and the spirituality of the human being, elements that bring both of these aspects into sharper relief. These elements then form the building blocks for further philosophical construction.

But certain questions always remain: Are these two types of understanding the human being—the cosmological and the personalitic—ultimately mutually exclusive? Where, if at all, do reduction and the disclosure of the irreducible in the human being converge? How is the philosophy of the subject to disclose the objectivity of the human being in the personal subjectivity of this being? These seem to be the questions that today determine the perspective for thinking about the human being, the perspective for con­temporary anthropology and ethics. They are essential and burning ques­tions. Anthropology and ethics must be pursued today within this challenging but promising perspective.

1.   One such effort is my book Osoba i czyn [Person and Action] (Krakow: Polskie Tow. Teologiczne, 1969; rev. ed. 1985). [English edition: The Acting Per­son, trans. Andrzej Potocki, ed. Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka (Boston: Reidel, 1979).] Another even more relevant work in this regard is my essay "The Person: Subject and Community" 219-261 below.
2.   See the section entitled "Subjectivity and Subjectivism" in The Acting Person 56-59.
3.   My work The Acting Person is in large measure constructed upon this basis.
4.   One can observe this by comparing my book The Acting Person with Mieczyslaw A. Krapiec's book I—Man: An Outline of Philosophical Anthropology, trans. Marie Lescoe, Andrew Woznicki, Theresa Sandok et al. (New Britain: Mariel, 1983).

Karol WoJtyla, "Podmiotowosci I 'to, co nieredukowalne' w eflowieku," Ethos 1.2-3 (1988): 21-28. A paper sent to an international conference in Paris (13-14 June 1975).

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