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Karol Wojtyla and Martha Nussbaum on Human Essentials: Part II

In the first of these two posts, I very briefly sketched Martha Nussbaum’s capabilities project, focusing on her epistemology of person.  Here I will expand why Karol Wojtyla’s Person and Act can well support Nussbaum’s capabilities project.  As is Nussbaum, Wojtyla was an Aristotelian scholar; not just for this his project complements and supports hers, but in what follows some Aristotelian aspects of his thought will perhaps be evident.

Wojtyla begins by considering the “experience of the person”.  His is a phenomenological approach; an experience is not merely phenomenal, with the intellect then shaping the idea of “person”.  Rather, the experience itself is at once sensation and comprehension; in experience there is a sort of direct cognitive contact (832).

Significantly, Wojtyla grounds the experience of the person in one’s experience of oneself.  Our experience of ourselves is our basic experience of the person: “The experience of the person, the person that I am, obtains as long as that direct cognitive contact of which I am at once both subject and object” (832).

Our larger “experience of the person” is not limited to ourselves and includes all others with whom we are in contact.  Where we experience ourselves as both subject and object, we experience others as “objects of experience, that is, in direct cognitive contact” (832).  It might be tempting to consider these as separate experiences, one as of the person as object, the other as of the “I”.  Wojtyla argues that, while in some respects there is an incommensurability between these two experiences, but “one cannot deny their fundamental qualitative identity” (834).  The experience of oneself is not outside the scope of the experience of the person (835).  The experience of oneself is an once as interiority and as exteriority; we experience others only as exteriority, though each other has his or her own interiority, and in certain close relationships we can become quite aware of the interiority of others (836-837).

Based on this shared experience of ourselves and others, “every human experience is thus also a sort of comprehension of that which I am experiencing” (840).  Through this shared cognitive experience of ourselves and others, the intentional act is what reveals the person: “the act is a particular moment of the vision—or the experience—of the person” (840, emphasis in the original).  It is through the act that the person reveals him- or herself to us, whether the person revealed be ours or others; in Aristotelian terms, it is a property of the person to reveal herself through her intentional acts (840).

Wojtyla pointedly states that his project is not a study in ethics; typically, a study of ethics as regarding intentional human acts presupposes the person as an agent (841).  He proposes to reverse that; his is a “study of the act that reveals the person, a study of the person through the act” (841, emphasis in the original).  Such a study will permit us, in the most fitting manner, to “analyze the essence of the person and to understand it in the most complete way possible” (841).

What remains is to tie what has been said so far to Nussbaum’s project.  I suggest three ways in which this can be done.

We saw in the first post that Nussbaum’s project was to determine, through an internalist, empirical analysis, the essentials of what it means to be human.  Wojtyla’s project gives us just that: phenomenologically grounded, it is a study that reveals the essentials of the person from within human experience, through persons revealing themselves through their acts, “based on the entire continuity of empirical data” (832).

Nussbaum argued for “thick”, or direct, epistemic access; Wojtyla’s realist phenomenology claims just that sort of direct cognitive access to the essentials of the person.

Finally, one of Nussbaum’s goals was to bridge the alterity of the other, establishing a set of essentials that is held in common with all other humans, regardless how culturally different they may be; Wojtyla again provides a bridge to the other, in that our direct, objective, and cognitive experience of others is grounded by, and inextricably interwoven with, our direct cognitive experience of ourselves as both subject and object.  We reveal ourselves to ourselves and others through our acts, just as others reveal themselves to us and themselves through their acts.  This is not a collapse of the subject/object distinction; rather, it interweaves subject and object in our relationships both to ourselves and to others.

In summary, in my view Wojtyla’s study of the person, revealed through his acts, can provide a robust epistemological support to discover the human essentials on which Nussbaum’s capabilities project is grounded.

Martha Nussbaum, “Human Functioning and Social Justice: In Defense of Aristotelian Essentialism”, Political Theory, Vol. 20, No. 2 (May, 1992), pp. 202-246.

Karol Wojtyla, “Persona e atto” [“Person and Act”], from the anthology Metafisica della persona, G. Reale e T. Styczen, eds., Bompiani, Milano 2003.  Any English translations are my own.  The available English translation of this work is The Acting Person, which I do not reference.

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