Rod Dreher talks to Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith about his new book What Is A Person?

What is a person? And why does it matter how we answer that question?

Every social science explanation has operating in the background some idea or other of what human persons are, what motivates them, what we can expect of them. Sometimes that is explicit, often it is implicit. And the different concepts of persons assumed by social scientists have important consequences in governing the questions asked, sensitizing concepts employed, evidence gathered, and explanations formulated. We cannot put the question of personhood in a “black box” and really get anywhere. Personhood always matters. By my account, a person is “a conscious, reflexive, embodied, self-transcending center of subjective experience, durable identity, moral commitment, and social communication who — as the efficient cause of his or her own responsible actions and interactions — exercises complex capacities for agency and inter-subjectivity in order to develop and sustain his or her own incommunicable self in loving relationships with other personal selves and with the non-personal world.”

Persons are thus centers with purpose. If that is true, then it has consequences for the doing of sociology, and in other ways for the doing of science broadly. Different views of human personhood will provide us with different scientific interests, different professional moral and ethical sensibilities, different theoretical paradigms of explanation, and, ultimately, different visions of what comprises a good human existence which science ought to serve. In this sense, science is never autonomous or separable from basic questions of human personal being, existence, and interest. Therefore, if we get our view of personhood wrong, we run the risk of using science to achieve problematic, even destructively bad things. Good science must finally be built upon a good understanding of human personhood.

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