Modernity Meets Tradition: The Philosophical Originality of Karol Wojtyla

Karol Wojtyla (now Pope John Paul II) has brought to the office of Peter the experience of student and worker, playwright and poet, philosopher, theologian, and professor. He exhibits a thoroughly contemporary understanding, rooted in a knowledge of the traditions of classical, medieval, and modern thought. That understanding is reflected in writings that range from dramas and poems through philosophical and theological works, to his letters and talks as teacher for the universal Church. He has acted out his conviction on stage and podium, in prayer and before the altar. In a bewildering variety of places he has met with people of every sort and condition.

It is characteristic of his thought, both as philosopher and as pontiff, to meet the challenge of the modern world directly and confidently. Thus, in his first encyclical, Redemptor hominis, in paying tribute to the Second Vatican Council, John Paul observes that “this [recent] inheritance has struck deep roots in the awareness of the Church in an utterly new way, quite unknown previously” (emphasis added). Speaking as a philosopher, Karol Wojtyla had already noticed one factor that continues to play a role in present-day consciousness. In an essay which he announced as a concluding supplement to The Acting Person, Wojtyla remarked upon the shift of consciousness that has occurred during modern times. In Redemptor hominis John Paul addresses the topic, “What modern man is afraid of.” And there he calls upon the Church neither wholly to endorse nor wholly to condemn modernity. What Christians must do is to search the ambiguity of modern life, and especially in its putative progressive technology, in order to sift out what is for man’s genuine good and what is not.

He is not reluctant to appropriate much of the vocabulary and many of the concepts of modernity and to modify them to his purpose. We might take, as an example, his use of the concept and language of rights (jus). There can be no doubt of the checkered origin of its modern sense, nurtured by the blood of the first of the modern total revolutions, the French Revolution. Nor can there be any doubt either about its frequent abuse in the service of an individualism that is at best indifferent and at worst hostile to the deepest hopes for man that are nourished by the Church. Nevertheless, the concept has its value. Thus, John Paul has used the term in ways that, while they maintain the papal teaching, differ from recent papal usage and emphasis. Moreover, the difference is not only in the manner of speaking; the usage also adds a new appreciation for the personal and subjective depth of human reality.

It is not surprising, perhaps, that the terminology has disconcerted some Catholics; and no doubt an indiscriminate and imprecise, unreflective and uncritical use might well contribute to undermining Catholic doctrine by inserting an excessive and irresponsible individualism into its teaching. John Paul’s remedy, however, is not simply to avoid the term. On the contrary, in Laborem exercens, he endorses the right to private property, traditionally defended by the social teaching of the Church, and he associates that right with the traditional concern for the common good. But he speaks there, too, of the rights of the worker as part of the wider range of rights pertaining to the human person. And in Centesimus annus he reaffirms the equally traditional right to a just wage. All of these rights stem from the dignity of work, both in its form as labor and as entrepreneurial activity. In Sollicitudo rei socialis John Paul upholds the right of economic initiative as well within the whole ambit of human rights.

These and other rights, he reminds us, have their source in the human person; they stem from the dignity of the human person, and precisely from the person as the subject of work. More than that, those who work for justice are part of what he calls elsewhere “a great movement for the defense of the human person.” He speaks of the right of association inherent in individuals, families, and other institutions, a right they hold prior to and distinct from their incorporation into a political state. In the apostolic exhortation Familiaris consortio/The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World (1981), he upholds the rights of children and the elderly, and the right of association among families.

In the apostolic exhortation Christifideles laici/The Lay Members of Christ’s Faithful People (1988), he reaffirms a list of rights: “the right to life and to integrity; the right to a house and to work; the right to a family and responsible parenthood; the right to participation in public and political life; the right to freedom of conscience and the practice of religion.” Most important of all, then, is the right that comes to each person simply by virtue of his or her humanity, the human right par excellence: “There exist rights which do not correspond to any work [a human being performs], but which flow from his essential dignity as a person.” This, then, is the human right formalissime. It is inherent in each human person by virtue of his rational nature and the image of God carried within. In his vigorous use of the term “right,” John Paul does not alter doctrine, but he deepens it by drawing attention to the personal and subjective dimension of the human situation.

To be sure, in harmony with the constant teaching of the Church, and in accord with his own realism of values—grounded in the oft-repeated convertibility of being, truth, and the good—John Paul never separates rights from corresponding obligations. Even in extolling God’s mercy, he is careful not to ignore God’s justice. While divine mercy “is not just a case of fulfilling a commandment or an obligation of an ethical nature,” neither does authentic forgiveness “cancel out the objective requirements of justice.”

In using the concept of rights in such extensive and bold ways, John Paul is nonetheless able to remain faithful to the substance of traditional Catholic teaching, just because he underscores the requirement of truthfulness. In The Acting Person and elsewhere, truthfulness is practical truth acting as the “normogenic” source of the obligation experienced in the conscience of the moral agent. And practical truthfulness is grounded in the convertibility of being, truth, and the good—a convertibi ity confirmed by traditional metaphysics. But, in addition, Wojtyla’s phenomenological emphasis—upon the ordinary lived experience of the concrete acting person, upon the experience of one’s efficacy and responsibility as an agent—gives a special authority to the concept of rights.

In keeping with his emphasis on rights properly understood, there is a less noticed but even more fundamental emphasis in his use of the term “subjectivity” and its allied forms. To be sure, an emphasis upon the inner life is no stranger to Christian spirituality, and Karol Wojtyla the philosopher, as well as John Paul II the Pope, fully embraces that traditional immanence of the human spirit. What is distinctive about his work, however, is his refashioning of the modern conceptions of experience, inwardness, and subjectivity, even while he also draws upon the traditional metaphysics of the subject (suppositum).

It is not as though experience has not been consulted from the dawning of human consciousness. Even the metaphysician, supposedly the most abstract of minds, nonetheless consults it. How could he not? The difference, however, does not lie in the fact that experience is consulted, but rather in how that consultation takes place. Indeed, the phenomenologist Husserl always attended to the how. And so, it is a matter of two different approaches to experience. The metaphysician consults experience as offering him evidence from which he can reason and infer. He then resolves the evidence into principles and causes which provide an explanation of the evidence. Wojtyla accepts such reasoning from evidence as essential, even if not wholly adequate, to an integral account of ethical action. But not just any metaphysics will do. Again and again, he insists that an existential metaphysics of actual being (esse actu) is required to situate the moral agent in the actual context of his acts. For such a metaphysics orients the analysis towards concrete actuality and grounds it in that actuality.

Having secured a realist basis for the whole acting person, Wojtyla as phenomenological realist goes on to consult experience from within, in order to take its measure in its own terms and not only according to its evidential value. Wojtyla’s consultation means to dwell within the actual subjective existence of that lived and living experience. Insofar as he employs a phenomenological consultation, then, Wojtyla does not approach experience merely evidentially. That is, he does not approach experience for the sake of its capacity to offer evidence for the formation of explanatory concepts. Among the sciences and disciplines, metaphysics is in a sense indifferent in its terms to all but the universal features of being. Unlike the special and more restricted sciences, metaphysics is, after all, the comprehensive science of being qua being.

The phenomenologist, on the other hand, consults experience in order to release concepts within experience as lived, as felt, as sensed. And so, the phenomenologist Wojtyla consults the living act of thoughtful experiential activity itself, in its own character, expressed in its own terms, and not in terms of all being. The concepts arrived at experientially must keep an intimate relationship with experience and must be more descriptive than explanatory, at least inasmuch as explanation is made in terms of more general principles, principles that hold for all being. Thus, for example, in Wojtyla’s phenomenology the concept of lived causation is not formed by the observation of various causative acts performed by oneself and other beings within the overall context of being. The concept of lived causation is formed phenomenologically within the actual living experience of one’s own personal agency, and takes shape as the concrete double task of personal integration and transcendence. Such an analysis must address each person’s concrete experience of his own agency. And this personal character gives to the analysis an intimacy that observation cannot and should not be expected to give.

This sense of inwardness and intimacy is a striking feature of the work of John Paul II. In Redemptor hominis, John Paul tells us that, in its “utterly new” self-consciousness, the Church, while she assuredly takes revelation as her supreme guide, must also take into account “the premises given by man’s own experience,” along with “his reason, and his sense of human dignity.” Great emphasis is laid upon the interiority of the work of the Holy Spirit, which in the words of Saint Augustine is “closer than my inmost being.” We are told that, while the journey of the pilgrim Church certainly has an external character, “the essential character of her pilgrimage is interior.”

The character of this intimacy and interiority is not to be understood in any merely isolated sense. This intimacy and interiority are expansive. For example, the Holy Spirit and Mary, by virtue of the intimacy associated with them, are said to expand the outreach of human life. Speaking metaphorically in Dominum et vivificantem, John Paul remarks that “In the communion of grace with the Trinity, man’s ‘living area’ is broadened and lifted up to the supernatural level of divine life.” And in the intimacy of Mary’s faith “first at the Annunciation and then fully at the foot of the Cross, an interior space was opened up within humanity which the eternal Father can fill ‘with every spiritual blessing.'”

In Dives in misericordia, what strikes John Paul in the dialogue of Israel with God is the people’s “special experience of the mercy of God,” an experience that formed “the content of intimacy with their Lord.” Commenting on the parable of the Prodigal Son, John Paul remarks that heartfelt joy arises in the father because “a fundamental good has been saved: the good of his son’s humanity. Although the son has squandered the inheritance, nevertheless his humanity is saved.” The divine Father draws the measure of His mercy to us from His fidelity to Himself; and by analogy, in the parable “the father’s fidelity to himself [as father] is totally concentrated upon the humanity of the lost son, upon his dignity.” Such love, John Paul tells us, “springs from the very essence of fatherhood.” And the mercy shown by the father in the parable is “the interior form of love that in the New Testament is called agape.”

The imagery and metaphors prevalent in John Paul’s writings are mostly drawn from the Christian tradition, whereas Karol Wojtyla’s theatrical images are often unprecedented. But in both, the deliberate, even methodical, linkage of imagery and metaphor with conceptual interpretation is meant to draw out the inner character of that lived experience which is part of the “utterly new” self-consciousness now in possession of the Church. I have already mentioned a shift of consciousness, a new mindset, that characterizes what is now more and more being called “modernity.” This shift in consciousness has implications for everything that engages human life, specifically for a new sense of interiority. This shift needs to be brought under the critical eye of both the philosopher and the theologian.

Because I take this shift to be central to the project of Karol Wojtyla/John Paul II, it will be useful to present at some length the description that Karol Wojtyla gave of this shift in 1976:

After Descartes, on the other hand, the aspect of consciousness eventually assumed a kind of absolutization, which in the contemporary era entered phenomenology by way of Husserl. The gnosiological attitude in philosophy has replaced the metaphysical attitude: being is constituted in and somehow through consciousness. The reality of the person, however, demands the restoration of the notion of conscious being, a being that is not constituted in and through consciousness but that instead somehow constitutes consciousness. This also applies to the reality of action as conscious activity.

While it may be granted that the person and action—or, to put it another way, my own existing and acting self—is constituted in consciousness to the extent that consciousness always reflects the existence (esse) and activity (operari) of that self, still the experience of the human being (and especially the experience of my own self) clearly reveals that consciousness is always subjectified in the self and that its roots are always the supposnum humanum. Consciousness is not an independent subject, although by means of a certain abstraction, or rather exclusion, which in Husserlian terminology is called epoché, consciousness could be treated as though it were a subject. This way of treating consciousness forms the basis of all transcendental philosophy, which investigates acts of cognition as intentional acts of consciousness, that is, as acts directed toward extra-subjective, objective contents (phenomena). As long as this type of analysis of consciousness retains the character of a cognitive method, it can and does bear excellent fruit [by providing descriptions of intentional objects]. And yet because this method is based on the exclusion (epoché) of consciousness from reality, from really existing being, it cannot be regarded as a philosophy of that reality, and it certainly cannot be regarded as a philosophy of the human being, the human person. At the same time, however, there can be no doubt that this method should be used extensively in the philosophy of the human being.

Consciousness is not an independent subject, but it does play a key role in understanding the personal subjectivity of the human being.

This capital text contrasts the role of being in traditional metaphysics with the role of consciousness in the predominant version of modern thought, and it succinctly makes three points: it describes the shift characteristic of modernity; it is critical of it; but it advocates greater use of its positive aspects.

Let me set forth what I understand the modern shift to be, in terms that are compatible with those of Karol Wojtyla/John Paul II, though not in his words. I hope to provide a broader context that will shed further light upon his understanding of the shift. I take the term “subject,” understood in the modern sense of “subjectivity,” to be a form of modern inwardness; that is, I take the modern sense of the term “subject” to be: “subject of thought, feeling, willing, etc.” This modern sense of “subject” stands in contrast to the term “subject” understood by traditional metaphysics; for traditional metaphysics understands the term “subject” to mean: “subject of being” (suppositum).

Now, “subject” in the modern sense of “subjectivity” was born of the process of modernization itself. Around the sixteenth century, nature came to be viewed more and more externally as an object set over against the mind, and scientific inquiry posited the ideal of a neutered objectivity. There can be no doubt that the nominalism of the late medieval period helped to shape the background to this shift, while the shift itself occurred under the hegemony of the science of mechanics, or rather of the philosophy of mechanism extrapolated from mechanics. No doubt, deeper and broader factors were at work as well, including social factors. Leading thinkers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries launched a sustained attack upon scholastic metaphysics, and particularly upon final causality and the web of ancient metaphysical principles. The whole building of medieval scholasticism was dismantled, leaving only its ruins. What is not so easily recognized is that the principal victim of that attack was not just the lumber of the scholastic framework (the causes), but the resident being that lived within the house. For traditional metaphysics claimed for each and every being (and not just for spiritual or mental being) an ontological interiority and depth. This ontological interiority and depth was understood to be brought about by the principles and causes that constituted each being. For each being contained within it: its intrinsic formal and/or material principles, its essential and existential constitutive principles, its finality, and the primordial Presence that remained in communicative continuity with each and every being. Indeed, each and every being was thought to be constituted by the intrinsic principles that flow from the originating creative communication of the manifest-yet-hidden God.

With the rejection of the scholastic principles, however, the interiority common to all being did not simply disappear; interiority took refuge in the human subject and in the form of human subjectivity. The interiority of being, already recognized and present in traditional metaphysics came to be excluded from the external world, which was then handed over to the ideal of a neutered objectivity. To repeat: More than final causality and metaphysical principles were thrown out by the leading thinkers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; the interior and ultimately mysterious depth claimed for the internal constitution of every being qua being was also dismissed. The short gain was in precision. But the human interiority, the human subject now understood as subjectivity, was turned back upon itself. Descartes’s inward journey to the ego cogito has served as the most famous emblem of this introspective turn, just because he so clearly wrote the conceptual signature of modernity. It is not surprising, then, that so many post-modern critics of modernity begin with a critique of Descartes.

Many consequences followed from the reign of mechanism and the turn to introspection. One of the most obvious was the definitive status given to a distinction that had been present in a less prominent way among some ancient schools of thought: the distinction between primary and secondary qualities. Objective status was given to primary qualities (dimensionality, size, etc.) and objective status was denied to secondary qualities (color, sound, etc.). The distinction may have begun among scientific enquirers as a methodological principle which permitted the clearing of the ground in favor of measurable quantities; but among philosophers and much of the educated public it quickly turned ontological. That is, the primacy given to the primary qualities seems to have been taken up initially in order to read nature more precisely and efficiently, in the hope that an increase in the knowledge of the forces of nature would bring with it utility and prosperity for mankind. The very success of the distinction so understood, however, led to the conviction that not only was nature susceptible of being read in that way, but nature itself is made up after the manner of a machine. It has been remarked that, as a result, all that was most familiar to the human being, most immediate and vital—the sensations of color and sound, of taste and smell, the vital indicators of our visible world—were pushed out of the really real into a never-never land. Thus, Descartes considered the sensory precepts and images to be an obscure sort of disturbance at the edges of the human mind; even the empiricists thought of them as wholly subjective.

Except for the modern materialists, who conceded all to matter, what was paramount for others was the fact that conscious interiority was not and could not be reduced to the status of a property of matter. The search for ultimate particles fueled the sciences along the path of classical physics and chemistry. Such reductive analysis could certainly resolve an exterior into a sort of interior, but the resultant interior turned out to consist only of smaller exteriors. A compound was resolved into its elements, and a system was reduced to its particular forces. Reality was handed over to a predefined exteriority, even as human subjectivity implicitly set the criteria for what was to be considered real.

By turning inward, then, the human subject turned toward itself, in order to establish itself as the basic resting and testing point from which all reality and worth is to be measured. Human consciousness pronounced itself to be subjectum fundamentum inconcussum and the guarantor of certitude. As the fundamental center of all meaning, value, and reality, the self assumed the role of issuing credit to reality, and it issued that credit in the currency of its own experience. In this modern sense, experience rose to the status of the privileged medium of exchange within the reign of consciousness. It became the “dollar” into which everything could be converted in the sphere of meaning and value. Or, to change the metaphor, it appointed itself to a sort of judicial bench with the power to determine what is to be admitted for serious consideration. And so knowledge was converted into meaning, the good into value, and reality into objectivity.

This is the critical nexus of the shift to modernity, for we are at the real birth (if not the initial conception) of the modern sense of experience and its absolute primacy. It is here that experience in the traditional evidential sense of “acquaintance with” (conveyed by the term empeiría) gives way to the term “experience” in the modern sense. Fortified with the medium of experience, an absolutized consciousness now takes to the field of the external world in order to impose its own order and values on everything external to consciousness and to translate everything countable into its coin. If the foregoing is true, then the shift to objectivity consists in the displacement of consciousness by one of its own strategies.

But this strategy of self-displacement nevertheless places itself at the center; and the self-displacement takes place in the very process by which consciousness drains the external world of all interiority, the “better” to understand and control it. At the level of perception, secondary qualities are made to retreat from the field, surrendering the constitution of objective reality exclusively to the primary qualities of measurable external relations. At the level of concepts, the philosophy of mechanism is left to define the limits and the character of the objectively real.

Whereas at first blush it seemed that consciousness had been driven from the objectively real world, in fact it had simply retreated into its own stronghold in order to co-opt the world of external objects through its demands for precision and for mathematically determinable external relations. This strategy proceeded from a consciousness that had already absolutized itself, at least implicitly. This, then, is the genesis of the modern sense of subject as subjectivity. We might say that subjectivity is the self-defense by which consciousness fends off a world either hostile to its inhabitation or at least without companionate room for it, even while consciousness subverts the integrity of that world by its imperious demands. The modern shift gave to the human subject an absolute status precisely in its character as consciousness; for human consciousness not only set its own terms but the terms for reality itself. This self-absolutism of modern consciousness leads Wojtyla to renounce intentionality as the hallmark of consciousness and to see in the primacy of intentionality the co-option of the world by idealism.

Now, the interiority of modern subjectivity is vastly different in character and motive from the ontological interiority that, as traditional metaphysics appreciates, is resident in all being as the heritage of every created being. For the causes and principles that constitute created being provide that being with an ultimately inexhaustible depth and mysterious interiority that is partly its own but that also proceeds from and leads back to its creative Source.

But, if the interiority of modern subjectivity is different in character and motive from that of the ontological interiority of the suppositum of traditional metaphysics, so too is modern interiority different from that religious interiority which has from ancient times continued to animate the life of Christian prayer, meditation, contemplation, and reflection. For the Christian journey inward is taken for the sake of a salvation that exceeds the self’s grasp; it begins not so much with flight from the world as with self-examination, self-purgation, and self-denial. By this ascesis it prepares, not to find in itself a refuge (whether Cartesian, Humean, or Kantian; rationalist, empiricist, or transcendental), but to place itself before the transcendent Source of whatever being, meaning, and value the human person possesses as a gift received.

Karol Wojtyla/John Paul II has identified the pivotal point in the modern shift: the claim to absolutism on the part of modern human consciousness. Nevertheless, he has sought to turn the modern experience of subjectivity and interiority to good account. He is convinced that in its emphasis on experience, modernity deserves some credit, though not in the exaggerated amount claimed for it by modern philosophers of consciousness. The latter have set it up as the bank which underwrites the value of all currency, sets the terms for all that is to be accredited, and claims the right to discount what does not fall within those terms. Once consciousness receives a realistic modification after the manner of Wojtyla’s project, however, the proper role of consciousness within the whole human person becomes visible.

Wojtyla performs the needed modification by relativizing consciousness. That is, he takes consciousness as an aspect, and with the help of a metaphysics of existential act he restores it to its role within the whole human person. The moral agent, then, is the whole human person as suppositum, who is situated both within the community of persons and within the universal community of being. This new sense of interiority, which originated in the beleaguered state of modern consciousness (interiority as human subjectivity) is thus brought to the service of a realist philosophy of the human person. This modified and combined sense of metaphysical and phenomenological interiority is the very concept of spirit that the modern world stands in need of, and that Hegel so brilliantly tried but failed to supply. To ignore the philosophical originality of Wojtyla is to misread his great achievement as Pastor of the world.


  • Kenneth L. Schmitz

    Kenneth L. Schmitz is professor emeritus of philosophy at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family.

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