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What Is a Person?: Rethinking Humanity, Social Life, and the Moral Good from the Person Up

What Is a Person?: Rethinking Humanity, Social Life, and the Moral Good from the Person Up

by Christian Smith

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What is a person? This fundamental question is a perennial concern of philosophers and theologians. But, Christian Smith here argues, it also lies at the center of the social scientist’s quest to interpret and explain social life. In this ambitious book, Smith presents a new model for social theory that does justice to the best of our humanistic visions of


What is a person? This fundamental question is a perennial concern of philosophers and theologians. But, Christian Smith here argues, it also lies at the center of the social scientist’s quest to interpret and explain social life. In this ambitious book, Smith presents a new model for social theory that does justice to the best of our humanistic visions of people, life, and society.

Finding much current thinking on personhood to be confusing or misleading, Smith finds inspiration in critical realism and personalism. Drawing on these ideas, he constructs a theory of personhood that forges a middle path between the extremes of positivist science and relativism. Smith then builds on the work of Pierre Bourdieu, Anthony Giddens, and William Sewell to demonstrate the importance of personhood to our understanding of social structures. From there he broadens his scope to consider how we can know what is good in personal and social life and what sociology can tell us about human rights and dignity.

Innovative, critical, and constructive, What Is a Person? offers an inspiring vision of a social science committed to pursuing causal explanations, interpretive understanding, and general knowledge in the service of truth and the moral good.

Editorial Reviews

“Smith combines a meticulous command of sociological theory, philosophical analysis, and moral passion to argue against reductionist theories of human personhood and agency. . . . This book is crucial reading for political scientists and sociologists, as well as theologians and philosophers.”—Choice

Nicholas Wolterstorff
What Is a Person? boldly raises the fundamental questions about the understanding of the person in social science that many thinkers either want to ignore or are content to say mindless things about. I know of no better example of a social scientist employing the resources of philosophy to deepen, clarify, correct, and enrich his own field. It is lucidly organized, philosophically sophisticated, written in clear prose, and takes account of an astounding amount and variety of literature. For me, a philosopher rather than a social scientist, Smith’s way of typologizing and critiquing the main options in his field was extraordinarily illuminating. It’s a terrific contribution to a topic of fundamental importance.”—Nicholas Wolterstorff, Yale University
George Steinmetz
“Smith has addressed a crucial and unanswered question in social theory and philosophy and has done so from an entirely original angle. Although sociology in the United States has long abjured any systematic discussion of ontological issues, many sociologists now realize that they cannot move forward without addressing the questions Smith raises here. In addition to this ontological turn, sociologists have also shown increased interest in alternatives to neopositivist sociological orthodoxy. Given a century of philosophical underdevelopment in the discipline, an author like Smith and a book like this one are more important than ever. What Is a Person? is destined to be something of a classic.”—George Steinmetz, University of Michigan
James Davison Hunter
“This is an outstanding and important work of scholarship. I am confident What Is a Person? will be a landmark for the field; it will generate a good deal of contention, will be cited for many years to come, and will help influence the direction of social theory and the practice of sociology itself. Smith synthesizes a wide range of arguments, positions, theories, and assumptions in ways that are innovative, analytically powerful, and, finally, convincing. Yet the real originality of the book is in the structure of the larger argument, the cumulative weight of his critical but disciplined reading of this literature and, of course, the case he makes for a critical realist personalism as an alternative to various prevailing models. This is an extraordinary accomplishment.”
William B. Hurlbut
What is a Person? is a clear and comprehensive reconsideration of the meaning of human personhood as the central core of social structures. With breadth of intellect and balance of wisdom, Smith resets the frame of reflection for the most important discussions of the twenty-first century.”

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University of Chicago Press
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What Is a Person?

Rethinking Humanity, Social Life, and the Moral Good from the Person Up


Copyright © 2010 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-76591-4

Chapter One

The Emergence of Personhood

In this chapter I explain what the reality of human personhood is and how it is constituted. To do this, I first explain the crucial concept of emergence. Then I describe a set of human causal capacities that are emergent properties of the human bodies existing in their natural and social environments. Following that, I explain how those emergent properties interact to compose an emergently new, real, and central aspect of human being: personhood. I then define what I mean by person and elaborate some of the features and implications of my account.

Emergence against Reductionism

It is impossible to understand properly the world or ourselves as human beings without understanding the idea and reality of emergence. Emergence refers to the process of constituting a new entity with its own particular characteristics through the interactive combination of other, different entities that are necessary to create the new entity but that do not contain the characteristics present in the new entity. Emergence involves the following: First, two or more entities that exist at a "lower" level interact or combine. Second, that interaction or combination serves as the basis of some new, real entity that has existence at a "higher" level. Third, the existence of the new higher-level entity is fully dependent upon the two or more lower-level entities interacting or combining, as they could not exist without doing so. Fourth, the new, higher-level entity nevertheless possesses characteristic qualities (e.g., structures, qualities, capacities, textures, mechanisms) that cannot be reduced to those of the lower-level entities that gave rise to the new entity possessing them. When these four things happen, emergence has happened. The whole is more than the sum of its parts.

This may sound abstract and complicated, but emergence happens all the time in our everyday lives. The reality that we routinely live in is composed of many levels of emergent phenomena and properties. A simple example will help to get us started in seeing this. Among the elements in the periodic table on the wall of any chemistry classroom are hydrogen and oxygen. These two elements can exist separately as H and O and, when they do, possess certain characteristic properties. Both, for example, help to inflame fires. However, we also know that when two hydrogen molecules combine with one oxygen molecule, something new comes into existence: water, H2O. Water cannot exist apart from the hydrogen and oxygen that compose it, but is entirely dependent upon them simply to be. However, in their combination, the hydrogen and oxygen give rise to a truly new thing that is quite unlike either H or O, whether taken alone or as a sum of the separate parts H and O. Water, for example, has the characteristic of wetness, while hydrogen and oxygen do not. Water, furthermore, has the capacity to extinguish fires, while H and O feed fires. Water is the emergent reality brought about by a particular combination of hydrogen and oxygen. Water is very real and unique in its existence. It is composed of definite substances. But it is irreducible to that of which it is composed. Literally and truly something new has come into existence that is more than the sum of its parts. "The emphasis is not on the unfolding of something already in being but on the outspringing of something that has hitherto not been in being."

Emergence is also evident at the subatomic and atomic levels up to the molecular and chemical levels. Three quarks, which are fast moving points of energy, when related to one another by the force of gluons, compose protons and neutrons, depending on the combination of up quarks and down quarks. The interaction of protons and neutrons with electrons in particular ways through positive and negative electrical charges constitutes through emergence the existence of atoms. Atoms are characterized by particular structures and properties unique at the atomic level that are not existent in the mere sum total of their subatomic parts. It is from the relation or interaction of parts—not merely the parts themselves—that emergent properties have existence. From there, we know that different kinds of atoms combine through the interactive sharing of electrons to form molecules. As emergent entities existing at a new level, molecules also reflect particular characteristic structures and capacities, depending on their type—that is, upon the relationships of the parts that compose them—that are not directly reducible to the sum total characteristics of their parts. The formation of water molecules is one example. From this level, chemical substances emerge through various interactions of different molecules of elements. Furthermore, depending on the amount of energy present in these substances, the same chemical entities can take solid, liquid, or gaseous forms. Again, the distinctive qualities of solidness, liquidity, and gaseousness are not present in the atomic particles that compose the substances but are emergent properties from particular kinds of relationships among the particles. A reductionistic perspective would assert that things like gold and radon and silicon consist merely of so many protons, neutrons, and electrons of particular sorts. But by trying to understand entities by reducing them to their component parts existing at lower levels, reductionists miss what are often the most important qualities of things, their irreducible emergent properties. As Michael Polanyi observed, "You cannot derive a vocabulary from phonetics; you cannot derive the grammar of language from its vocabulary; a correct use of grammar does not account for good style; and a good style does not provide the content of a piece of prose.... It is impossible to represent the organizing principles of a higher level by the laws governing its isolated particulars."

My examples of emergence so far have operated at very low levels of reality. But emergence happens at every level of the real, including massive systems of regional and planetary force. Take hurricanes, for example. Water molecules in particular ocean regions are transformed into vapor by heat energy and move spatially upward in massive volumes of moist air, creating bands of cumulonimbus clouds, which are deflected by the Coriolis effect (generated by the earth's rotation) to form a whirling cylinder. This rising air is replaced below by new air rushing in from surrounding spaces, creating strong winds. Condensing water vapors in the rising moist air give off immense amounts of heat energy, fueling the system's power, which produces torrential rain, hail, and high winds. Thus, the simple molecular elements of air and water, interacting under particular conditions of heat energy and planetary motion, give rise at the meteorological level to the new, emergent reality we call the hurricane. The ontological system and causal powers of a hurricane exist as real at their own level, with great effect. An average single hurricane lasts ten days, extends at one time over hundreds of miles, produces more energy than a nuclear explosion, and produces winds of up to 50 miles per hour—enough, in some cases, to cripple the economies of entire countries. To a reductionist, hurricanes are nothing more than air and water vapor in particular energy states. But, as anyone who has ever lived through a hurricane knows, hurricanes are real weather-system entities possessing emergent properties that are irreducible to the sum total of their constituent parts. Reductionism misses the most important facts about hurricanes, because it is blind to emergence.

My examples of emergence so far are also all of a natural type. That is, the processes that give rise to their emergent properties inhere in the causal capacities of nature and the natural laws that govern them and so do not require intentional intervention by sentient agents to make them happen. Emergence can also happen by design, however, as the intended outcome of intentional intervention by purposeful actors. People can, for instance, arrange particular elements of matter together in ways that compose entirely new entities characterized by novel causal powers. The computer on which I am writing this sentence, for example, is just such an emergent entity. Viewed reductionistically, my computer is little more than a collection of small pieces of plastic, metal, silicon, other miscellaneous materials, and electrical energy. But through emergence, those pieces of material and energy give rise to another single entity with amazing capabilities: the computer. The emergent properties of my computer have existence not because they inhere in the component parts that compose them. They do so because those component materials are related to one another by careful design to work together as a single system in order to produce those properties. The visual, informational, and computational abilities of my computer are new realities, yet not present in the sum total of the inputs of which my computer is constituted. It is only through their systemic relationships that those amazing abilities have being. The novel reality takes existence not through the parts but through their relationships and interactions. Reality is thus significantly constituted through relationality, not merely composition.

Emergence also explains the reality of social structures and institutions. I examine how and why this happens in depth in chapter 6. But a simple illustration of an emergent social fact may be helpful. Consider any system of social inequality—say of racial segregation. Through the interactive relations over time of individual people (whom our model assumes are seeking security, status, and material advantage), certain categories of difference become culturally defined (e.g., skin color, continent of origin) by which categorical groups are distinguished (e.g., white, Indian, black). Through the exercise of symbolic and material exclusion and coercion, these come to enjoy different types and amounts of socially valued goods (e.g., access to productive capital, use of best facilities, access to higher education). This, then, brings into existence particular social structures of relations and difference that possess new causal capacities—to segregate, allocate, control, legitimate, socialize, and otherwise socially reproduce itself—that operate at the distinctively social (not individual) level through the ongoing interaction of all of the parts. Note that—contra the view of strong methodological individualism and atomism—those causal capacities are not present in the mere sum total of the parts and cannot be adequately explained by reducing the system to its component elements, because the social structure is a real emergent product of the relationality of parts and not simply the features of each part added up. In the end, such emergent social realities can possess immense powers of "downward causation" to influence the consciousness and actions of the individual people from which they emerge—often in ways that may not be consistent with the natural, rational, or even actual interests or desires of many of the people involved. This is because social systems and structures are emergent facts, existent above the individual or personal level, at the higher level of the social. Studying when, how, and why this operates is the central task of the discipline of sociology.

Examples of emergent realities of many types and at many levels could be multiplied. We could discuss living cells as singular emergent realities with new causal powers composed of but not reducible to the chemical and subcell constituents that compose them. We could note how particular kinds of cells combine to make specific bodily organs as new biological entities with their own causal abilities—the human eye, for instance. We could observe how from the systemic interaction of various organs and other tissues single bodily organisms—our own human bodies, for example—exist ontologically, endowed with their own causal capacities that are irreducible to the organic components of which the bodies consist. From bodies, human causal capacities are made real, such as language use, as I describe below, from which the reality of personhood emerges. At yet a higher level, from the ongoing interaction of human persons, social structures and institutions emerge, as I describe in chapter 6. Such examples of emergence rising through higher and higher levels of reality could be proliferated. The underlying point is that reality is not flat. And explanation is not always best achieved through reductionistic methods. Much that is real enjoys characteristic properties and capacities at one level and yet not explicable in terms of the characteristics and capacities present at the levels below and from which the higher-level realities above are composed. Through the relation or interaction of component parts, entirely new realities have existence.

To help understand the concept of emergence I have represented it in graphic form in figure . Such pictorial representations can help us grasp concepts about abstract realities that words may have difficulty conveying. At the same time, pictures like these risk oversimplifying and misleading as much as providing insight and understanding. For instance, the idea is presented as taking place in four phases, but in truth at least three of those phases often normally happen together, simultaneously and continually. For this reason I have called them analytic—as opposed to temporal—phases. Furthermore, as I explain next, the "levels" of the entities existing and emerging in the process represented in figure are not spatially distinct, as if emergent entities and properties exist at a higher altitude than the parts from which they emerge. No, the levels discussed are analytic levels, which, to make it more abstract, we might also call dimensions, with the entire process happening in what we might call multidimensional unified space. Moreover, the arrows running in a clockwise circle through the analytic phases could suggest that emergence operates as a recurrent cycle in which a completed phase 4 returns matters to their original state at the start of phase . But that, too, would be wrong. "Upward" emergence brings new entities into ontological being that possess capacities of maintenance and reproduction that keep them existing at their higher levels for long periods of time. No cycle needs to return to the beginning to complete a rotation. With such cautions in mind, figure offers an analytical breakdown of the emergence process: interactive parts at the lower level give rise to new, emergent entities at a higher level that entail new properties and capacities, including often the capacity to act with downward causation to transform the parts from which the emergent entity arose. The transformation of two-dimensional rectangles, triangles, and diamonds through emergence into the three-dimensional box is intended to signify the added complexity and powers of the reality that comes into being through emergence.

Before going any further, I must emphasize two crucial clarifications. First, to be plain from the start, the critical realist language of higher and lower should not be read literally as referencing spatial relations or evaluatively as judgments of better and worse. Higher is a metaphor highlighting "movements" of emergence through different strata of the real. This can be simplified by thinking in terms of an "upwardly moving" process, in keeping with established critical realist discourse. The truth, however, is something more like multiple dimensions of the same reality in space and time, with each level of reality nested, embedded, or constituted directly within each of the others, such that we might also or otherwise speak of multidimensional unified spaces. Second, it is crucial to remember that we are observing ontological emergence, not necessarily temporal development. In some cases, ontological emergence happens through temporal development. But in other cases it does not. Living organs, for instance, do not come chronologically before organisms—quite the opposite, actually; biologically, humans are organisms at the single cell stage well before they develop differentiated organs. Stated differently, in at least some cases, ontology (being) stands prior to ontogeny (the developmental life history of a particular organism), such that the actuality of the latter is fully dependent upon the reality of the former. Thus, emergent realities can begin to exist simultaneously with the lower-level parts out of which they are constituted. So, when I use phrases such as "gives rise" and "comes to exist," those may but do not necessarily denote a temporal or diachronic process happening between time1 and time2. Those always mean that the emergent is constituted as such—again, in multidimensional unified spaces, often with ontological synchronization—by the interaction of its parts.


Excerpted from What Is a Person? by CHRISTIAN SMITH Copyright © 2010 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Christian Smith is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Sociology, director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society, and director of the Center for Social Research at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author or coauthor of numerous books, including Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers and Moral, Believing Animals: Human Personhood and Culture.

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