'What Is a Person?' A Meditation on the Grand Existential Question

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We've previously explored three different disciplines' perspectives on what it means to be human and a neuroscientist's search for the self. But what, exactly, is a person? That's exactly what sociologist Christian Smith examines in What Is a Person?: Rethinking Humanity, Social Life, and the Moral Good from the Person Up -- a fascinating and ambitious meditation on the grand existential question, the answer to which determines our view of our selves, our expectations of others, and our conception of what makes a good society, arguing that much of contemporary theory and thought on personhood is incomplete, short-sighted, misguided even.

Equal parts critical and constructive, Smith confronts the basic paradox of the social sciences -- their preoccupation with describing and analyzing human activities, cultures, and social structures but falling short on the core understanding of the human condition -- and tackles the four fundamental flaws of social science in defining personhood.

Impoverished is he who can predict economic trends but who does not well understand his own self. --Christian Smith

(Economic bonus: Amazon has a deal on the Kindle edition, currently available for $4.95 -- a sixth of the analog version.)

The first disconnect Smith addresses is that of social science theories, despite their interesting and illuminating propositions about social life, failing to fully represent our actual dimensions as human beings.

When we look at the models of the human operative in, say, exchange theory, social control theory, rational choice, functionalism, network theory, evolutionary theory, sociobiology, or sociological Marxism, we may recognize certain aspects of our lives in them. Otherwise the theories would feel completely alien and implausible to us. But I suspect that few of us recognize in those theories what we understand to be most important about our own selves as people. Something about them fails to capture our deep subjective experience as persons, crucial dimensions of the richness of our own lived lives, what thinkers in previous ages might have called our 'souls' or 'hearts.' --Christian Smith

The second disjoint deals with the gap between the social sciences' depiction of human beings and the moral and political beliefs that many social scientists embrace as individuals, yet few of their theories actually reflect those beliefs.

Much theory portrays humans as essentially governed by external social influences, competing socially for material resources, strategically manipulating public presentations of the self, struggling with rivals for power and status, cobbling identities through fluid assemblies of scripted roles, rationalizing actions with post hoc discursive justifications, and otherwise behaving, thinking, and feeling in ways that are commonly predictable by variable attributes and categories according to which their lives can be broken down, measured, and statistically modeled. --Christian Smith

Smith's third focal point explores sociologists' preoccupation with conceptualizing social structures at the expense of understanding what actually gave rise to them, or how the nature of individual personhood affects them.

Much of sociology simply takes social structures for granted and focuses instead on how they shape human outcomes.... A good theory of the origins of social structures needs to be rooted in a larger theory about the nature of human persons. --Christian Smith

Lastly, Smith takes on what's perhaps the greatest gap of all -- our modern uncertainties about the human self and person as we grapple with concepts like humanoid robotics, synthetic biology, and other technology-driven facets of mankind's evolution.

In the wake of the postmodernist critique from the humanities in the face of the rapidly growing power of biotechnology and genetic engineering in the natural sciences, many people today stand uncertain about the meaning or lucidity of the very notion of a coherent self or person, unclear about what a person essentially is or might be whose dignity might be worth preserving, as technological capabilities to reconfigure the human expand. --Christian Smith

But my favorite part has to be Smith's nod to remix culture as applied to intellectual inquiry and the sciences, demonstrating the power of the idea-mashup in the style of the Medieval florilegium.

There is nothing new under the sun. And so the case I build contains no particularly novel ideas.... I mostly weave together certain perspectives and insights that others have already expressed. --Christian Smith

Above all, Smith debunks the idea that science, morality, politics, and philosophy are separate matters that don't, and needn't, intersect -- a byproduct of the ill-conceived model demanding the social sciences emulate the natural sciences. What Is a Person? is thus a compelling case for cross-disciplinary curiosity.

H/T my mind on books.

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This post also appears on Brain Pickings, an Atlantic partner site.

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Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings. She writes for Wired UK and GOOD, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.

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