The Person: Subject and Community—The First of Three Installments of One of Wojtyla’s Most Important Essays

Reprinted by permission from Karol Wojtyla/John Paul II, Person and Community: Selected Essays, translated by Theresa Sandok, OSM, and available through Peter Lang Publishing

Karol Wojtyla

All of the reflections I shall be presenting here refer to and are rooted in my book The Acting Person. Based on the analyses in that book, I wish to reexamine the connection that exists between the subjectivity of the human person and the structure of human community. This problem was already outlined in The Acting Person, especially in the final section “Participation.” Here I wish to develop that outline somewhat, beginning with the concept of person, which itself was rather extensively discussed in the book. Many of the analyses presented in The Acting Person are closely connected with the problem of the subjectivity of the human person; one might even say that they all in some way contribute to an understanding and disclosure of this subjectivity. It would be difficult here to reproduce them in full. Certain sections could be compiled as an appendix to this essay. In addition, I should also mention a discussion that took place in connection with The Acting Person at a meeting of professors of philosophy. Taken as a whole, the papers from that discussion constitute an extensive contribution to Polish philosophical anthropology; it was also with this in mind that they were subsequently published in Analecta Cracoviensia.

The Problem of Subjectivity

The problem of the subjectivity of the human being is a problem of paramount philosophical importance today. Divergent tendencies contend with one another over it; their cognitive assumptions and orientations often give it a diametrically opposed form and meaning. The philosophy of consciousness would have us believe that it first discovered the human subject. The philosophy of being is prepared to demonstrate that quite the opposite is true, that in fact an analysis of pure consciousness leads inevitably to an annihilation of the subject. The need arises to find the actual point at which phenomenological analyses based on the assumptions of the philosophy of consciousness begin to work in favor of an enrichment of the realistic image of the person. The need also arises to authenticate the foundations of such a philosophy of person.

In addition, the problem of the subjectivity of the person—particularly in relation to human community—imposes itself today as one of the central ideological issues that lie at the very basis of human praxis, morality (and thus also ethics), culture, civilization, and politics. Philosophy comes into play here in its essential function: philosophy as an expression of basic understandings and ultimate justifications. The need for such understandings and justifications always accompanies humankind in its sojourn on earth, but this need becomes especially intense in certain moments of history, namely, in moments of great crisis and confrontation. The present age is such a moment. It is a time of great controversy about the human being, controversy about the very meaning of human existence, and thus about the nature and significance of the human being. This is not the first time that Christian philosophy has been faced with a materialistic interpretation, but it is the first time that such an interpretation has had so many means at its disposal and has expressed itself in so many currents. This aptly describes the situation in Poland today with respect to the whole political reality that has arisen out of Marxism, out of dialectical materialism, and strives to win minds over to this ideology.

We know that such situations in history have frequently led to a deeper reflection on Christian truth as a whole, as well as on particular aspects of it. That is also the case today. The truth about the human being, in turn, has a distinctly privileged place in this whole process. After nearly twenty years of ideological debate in Poland, it has become clear that at the center of this debate is not cosmology or philosophy of nature but philosophical anthropology and ethics: the great and fundamental controversy about the human being.

From the point of view of Christian philosophy, and theology as well, such a turn of events (which was reflected in the entire teaching of the Second Vatican Council, especially in the constitution Gaudium et spes) favors treating the topic of the human person from a variety of angles. (I have always to some extent taken this approach in my publications.) The present work also develops in accord with this principle.


1.1. The Experience of the Human Being

In the field of experience, the human being appears both as a particular suppositum and as a concrete self, in every instance unique and unrepeatable. This is an experience of the human being in two senses simultaneously, for the one having the experience is a human being and the one being experienced by the subject of this experience is also a human being. The human being is simultaneously its subject and object. Objectivity belongs to the essence of experience, for experience is always an experience of “something” or “somebody” (in this case, “somebody”). The tendency to retreat toward the “pure subjectivity” of experience is characteristic of the philosophy of consciousness, about which more will be said later. In reality, however, objectivity belongs to the essence of experience, and so the human being, who is the subject, is also given in experience in an objective way. Experience, so to speak, dispels the notion of “pure consciousness” from human knowledge, or rather it summons all that this notion has contributed to our knowledge of the human being to the dimensions of objective reality.

In experience, the human being is given to us as someone who exists and acts. I am such an existing and acting individual and so is everyone else. The experience of existing and acting is something that all human beings, both others and I, have in common; at the same time, all human beings, both others and I, are also the object of this experience. This occurs in different ways, because I experience my own self as existing and acting differently from how I experience others, and so does every other concrete self. Obviously, though, I must include both others and myself in the whole process of understanding the human being. I can proceed in this process either from others or from myself. Special attention to this self is particularly important for a full understanding of the subjectivity of the human being, because in no other object of the experience of the human being are the constitutive elements of this subjectivity given to me in such an immediate and evident way as in my own self.

When I construct an image of the person as subject on the basis of the experience of the human being, I draw especially upon the experience of my own self, but never in isolation from or in opposition to others. All analyses aimed at illuminating human subjectivity have their “categorial” limits. We can neither go beyond those limits nor completely free ourselves from them, for they are strictly connected with the objectivity of experience. As soon as we begin to accept the notion of “pure consciousness” or the “pure subject,” we abandon the very basis of the objectivity of the experience that allows us to understand and explain the subjectivity of the human being in a complete way—but then we are no longer interpreting the real subjectivity of the human being.

Nor are we interpreting it when we focus in a purely “phenomenal” or “symptomatic” way on individual functions or even on selective structural wholes within the human being, as do the different particular sciences that examine the human being in a variety of aspects. While it cannot be denied that through the use of this method these sciences gather more and more material for understanding the human person and human subjectivity, they themselves do not provide this understanding. On the other hand, because they do supply us with an ever increasing body of empirical knowledge about the human being, we must constantly renew (or, as it were, “reinterpret”) philosophically the essential content of our image of the human being as a person. This need also increases along with the whole wealth of phenomenological analyses, which, in the interests of the objectivity of experience, must in some way be transposed from the plane of consciousness and integrated into the full reality of the person. There can be no doubt that these analyses are especially valuable and fruitful for the entire process of understanding and explaining the subjectivity of the person.

This state of research on the human being, and in particular its rather well-defined and differentiated approach to the basic source of knowledge of the human being, that is, to the full and multidimensional experience of the human being, allows us to accept completely the ancient concept of suppositum and, at the same time, to understand it a new way. To say that the human being—I and every other human being—is given in experience as a suppositum is to say that the whole experience of the human being, which reveals the human being to us as someone who exists and acts, both allows and legitimately requires us to conceive the human being as the subject of that existence and activity. And this is precisely what is contained in the concept of suppositum. This concept serves to express the subjectivity of the human being in the metaphysical sense. By “metaphysical,” I mean not so much “beyond-the-phenomenal” as “through-the-phenomenal,” or “trans-phenomenal.” Through all the phenomena that in experience go to make up the whole human being as someone who exists and acts, we perceive—somehow we must perceive—the subject of that existence and activity. Or better, we perceive that the human being is—must be—that “subject.” Otherwise the whole existence and activity given to us in experience as the human being’s existence and activity (and, in the concrete case of my own self, as my existence and activity) could not be the human being’s (my) existence and activity. Metaphysical subjectivity, or the suppositum, as the transphenomenal and therefore fundamental expression of the experience of the human being, is also the guarantor of the identity of this human being in existence and activity.

By saying that the suppositum is the fundamental expression of the whole experience of the human being, I mean that this expression is in some sense an inviolable one: experience cannot be detached from it, and, at the same time, that it is open to everything that the experience of the human being, especially the experience of one’s own self, can bring to the understanding of the subjectivity of the person. While recognizing the special and distinct character of metaphysical knowledge, I am not willing to let it be divorced from the rest of human knowledge. After all, all knowledge is metaphysical at root, for it reaches to being; this cannot, however, obscure the significance of the particular aspects of being for understanding it in its full richness.

1.2. Operari Sequitur Esse

The discovery of the human suppositum, or human subjectivity in the metaphysical sense, also brings with it a basic understanding of the relation between existence and activity. This relation is expressed in the philosophical adage: operari sequitur esse. Although the adage sounds as though it were referring to a unilateral relation, namely, to the causal dependence of activity on existence, it also implies yet another relation between operari and esse. If operari results from esse, then operari is also—proceeding in the opposite direction—the most proper avenue to knowledge of that esse. This is, therefore, a gnosiological dependence. From human operari, then, we discover not only that the human being is its “subject,” but also who the human being is as the subject of his or her activity. Operari, taken as the total dynamism of the human being, enables us to arrive at a more precise and proper understanding of the subjectivity of the human being. By subjectivity here, I am no longer referring to just the suppositum as the subject in the metaphysical sense; I am also referring to everything that, based upon this suppositum, makes the human being an individual, personal subject.

The dynamism proper to the human being is complex and differentiated. Abstracting for the moment from other differentiations, we should note that the structural whole of human dynamism (operari in the broadest sense of the term) includes everything that in some sense merely happens in the human being, along with everything that the human being does. The latter—i.e., action—is a distinct form of human operari; the human being is revealed as a person mainly in and through action. A complete analysis of human dynamism would give us a complete picture of human subjectivity. By a complete analysis, I mean an analysis not only of actions but also of everything that happens in the human being on both the somatic and the psychic levels, or, more precisely, on both the somatic-reactive and the psychic-emotive levels—for there can be no doubt that human subjectivity reflects the complexity of human nature and is, therefore, in some sense multidimensional. A deeper analysis based on the relation operari sequitur esse and carried out always within the context of the human suppositum, or metaphysical subjectivity, would help reveal the nature of both the somatic and the psychic subjectivity of the human being; in other words, such an analysis would help show how human persons are subjects through their bodies and psyches. It would be difficult not at least to mention the enormous significance of the emotions for the development of a concrete human subjectivity, i.e., for the kind of subject that a concrete human being is, namely, both an individual and a person.

I shall, however, set aside that whole line of inquiry here, for I believe that the form of human operari that has the most basic and essential significance for grasping the subjectivity of the human being is action: conscious human activity, in which the freedom proper to the human person is simultaneously expressed and concretized. Thus, remaining always within the context of the suppositum (the suppositum humanum, of course), or subjectivity in the metaphysical and fundamental sense, we can arrive at a knowledge and explanation of subjectivity in the sense proper to the human being, namely, subjectivity in the personal sense. After all, metaphysical subjectivity in the sense of suppositum belongs to everything that in any way exists and acts; it belongs to different existing and acting beings according to an analogy of proportionality. We must, therefore, define more precisely the subjectivity proper to the human being, namely, personal subjectivity, taking as our basis the whole of human dynamism (operari), but especially the dynamism that may properly be called the activity of the human being as a person: the dynamism of action.

Beginning, then, with action, we cannot help but perceive that the personal subjectivity of the human being is a distinctive, rich structure, one that is brought to light by means of a comprehensive analysis of action. The human being as a person is constituted metaphysically as a being by the suppositum, and so from the very beginning the human being is someone who exists and acts, although fully human activity (actus humanus), or action, appears only at a certain stage of human development. This is a consequence of the complexity of human nature. The spiritual elements of cognition and consciousness, along with freedom and self-determination, gradually gain mastery over the somatic and rudimentary psychic dimensions of humanity. The individual’s whole development, in turn, tends clearly toward the emergence of the person and personal subjectivity in the human suppositum. In this way, somehow on the basis of this suppositum, the human self gradually both discloses itself and constitutes itself—and it discloses itself also by constituting itself.

The self constitutes itself through action, through the operari proper to the human being as a person. It also constitutes itself through its entire psychosomatic dynamism, through the whole sphere of operari that simply happens in the subject but that nevertheless also somehow shapes the subjectivity of the individual. Of course, the human self is able to constitute itself in this manner only be¬ cause it already is and has been constituted in an essential and fundamental way as a suppositum. The suppositum humanum must somehow manifest itself as a human self: metaphysical subjectivity must manifest itself as personal subjectivity.

This must is the strongest argument for the metaphysical conception of human nature. The human being is a person “by nature.” The subjectivity proper to a person also belongs to the human being “by nature.” The fact that the human suppositum, or metaphysical subjectivity, does not display the traits of personal subjectivity in certain cases (i.e., in cases of psychosomatic or purely psychological immaturity, in which either the normal human self has not developed or the self has developed in a distorted way) does not allow us to question the very foundations of this subjectivity, for they reside within the essentially human suppositum.

In what follows, I shall be considering the normally developed human self, for it is there that we find the authentic traits of the subjectivity proper to the person.

1.3. Consciousness and Lived Experience

In singling out action, or human operari, as the form of human dynamism that best enables us to know the human being as a personal subject, the first thing we should note is that this action is conscious activity. In attempting to understand the subjectivity of the person by means of action, we also need to become aware of the special significance consciousness has for this subjectivity. It must be conceded that this aspect was not developed in the Scholastic tradition, where actus humanus was subjected to a detailed analysis chiefly from the side of voluntarium. Voluntarium, of course, could only occur on the basis of understanding—mainly an understanding of goods and ends—since voluntas is simply appetitus intellectivus expressed in liberium arbitrium. Consciousness, however, is not the ordinary understanding that directs the will and activity. 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 gnosiologcal 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 suppositum humanum. Consciousness is not an independent subject, although by means of a certain abstraction, or rather exclusion, which in Husserlian terminology is called epoche, 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. And yet because this method is based on the exclusion (epoche) 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. It is impossible to grasp and objectify the relation between the suppositum humanum and the human self without taking into consideration consciousness and its function. The function of consciousness is not purely cognitive in the sense that this may be said of acts of human knowledge or even self-knowledge. While I can agree with Husserl that these acts are in consciousness, it is quite another thing to say that they are proper to consciousness and correspond genetically to its proper function. Consciousness, insofar as it undoubtedly reflects whatever is objectified cognitively by the human being, at the same time and above all endows this objectified content with the subjective dimension proper to the human being as a subject. Consciousness interiorizes all that the human being cognizes, including everything that the individual cognizes from within in acts of self-knowledge, and makes it all a content of the subject’s lived experience.

Being a subject (a suppositum) and experiencing oneself as a subject occur on two entirely different dimensions. Only in the latter do we come in contact with the actual reality of the human self. Consciousness plays a key and constitutive role in the formation of this latter dimension of personal human subjectivity. One could also say that the human suppositum becomes a human self and appears as one to itself because of consciousness. This in no way implies, however, that the human self is completely reducible to consciousness or self-consciousness. Rather, the self is constituted through the mediation of consciousness in the suppositum humanum within the context of the whole existence (esse) and activity (operari) proper to this suppositum. This should not be understood in the sense of individual acts or moments of consciousness, which, as we know, manifests itself as dynamic as well as discontinuous and oscillating (we need only consider periods of sleep), and also as connected with the subconscious in various ways.

Taking all of this into consideration, we still cannot fail to recognize that human beings are subjects—and even subjects completely in actu, so to speak—only when they experience themselves as subjects. And this presupposes consciousness. Clearly in such a view the very meaning of subject and subjectivity is not only enriched but also somewhat modified. The concept of subjectivity takes on a distinctive inwardness of activity and existence—an inwardness, but also an “in-selfness.” Human beings exist “in themselves,” and so their activities likewise have an “in-self,” or “non-transitive,” dimension. This in-selfness and inwardness of human activity and existence is simply a more precise—and no less philosophical—definition of what is contained virtually in the notion of suppositum humanum. To attain an image of the person as a concrete human self and, together with this, to arrive at the full meaning of personal human subjectivity, we must unravel this “virtualness” and explicate as fully as possible what is contained in the suppositum humanum. And that is precisely what an analysis of the human being from the perspective of consciousness and lived experience will help us do.

There are those who hold the view that by such an analysis we sever ourselves from metaphysical subjectivity and enter the realm of purely psychological subjectivity. This view ultimately appeals to the experience of the human being and to a manner of methodically examining that experience. It does not seem to me, however, that anything stands in the way of our analyzing the human being from the perspective of consciousness and lived experience so as better to understand the suppositum humanum, and especially this suppositum as a concrete and unrepeatable self, or person. After all, the reality of the person is not “extra phenomenal,” but only “trans-phenomenal.” In other words, we must deeply and comprehensively explore the “phenomenon” of the human being in order fully to understand and objectify the human being.

1.4. Efficacy and Self-Determination

Following these observations, we may now return to the form of human operari called action—conscious activity. Having considered the aspect of consciousness, which is essential for such activity, we are better prepared to understand the special connection between action and the personal subjectivity of the human being. Action, which in traditional terminology was called actus humanus, should really be called actus personae. The latter is a better name for action because of the element of efficacy that lies at the basis of action, for this is the efficacy of a person. A strict connection exists between a concrete human action and a particular self, a connection that has a causal and efficient character. Because of this connection, the action cannot be divorced from that self and attributed to someone else as its author. This connection is of a completely different kind from the one that occurs between the same human self and everything that merely happens in it. We attribute the action, the conscious activity, to this self as its likewise conscious author. Such efficacy involves the element of will, and therefore of freedom, which in turn, brings with it the element of moral responsibility. And this takes us right in to the essential dimension of the personal subjectivity of the human being.

This dimension will have to be analyzed in successive stages, for it contains—and in some sense continues to accumulate—such a wealth of specifically human reality that it is impossible to examine all of its essential elements at once. Although an analysis of moral responsibility takes us even more deeply into the problematic of the will and of the freedom proper to the human being as a person, and thus in a certain sense makes our view of them even sharper, an analysis of personal efficacy should come first.

The concept of efficacy, though certainly grounded in the experience of the human being, is imprecise here insofar as efficacy may refer to the dependence of an external effect on a cause—an effect outside the authoring subject. Activity itself in that case has a transitive character, which, of course, is often true of human activities. Through our activity we are the authors of many effects outside ourselves; through it we shape our surrounding reality. This type of causal dependence also appears in the concept of action, but there it is not the most basic type of causal dependence. For action, another type of causal dependence is more basic, namely, that which connects conscious human activity with the subject of that activity. Obviously this other type of causal dependence, which has an intransitive character, is accessible in each particular instance only to introspection, to inner experience. This may be why even our linguistic conventions tend to link the concept of action and this basic dimension of it less strongly than is true in reality. In order to get a full sense of the reality of this dimension, we must considerably supplement external experience with internal experience. This dimension, in turn, is of great importance for an insight into the personal subjectivity of the human being.

Once we have a full sense of the reality of the inner dimension of the human being, we see that the efficacy so clearly manifested in the experience of action is not just efficacy but also self-determination. In acting consciously, not only am I the agent of the action and of its transitive and intransitive effects, but I also determine myself. Self-determination is a deeper and more basic dimension of the efficacy of the human self through which the acting human being is revealed as a personal subject. Efficacy alone—the causal dependence of an action on the self—does not tell us the whole story about personal subjectivity. If it did, then this subjectivity could be understood by analogy to other subjects of existence and activity (other supposita) in the world, subjects to which we also attribute efficacy and the effects of this efficacy according to their respective natures and powers. Such efficacy comes from the subject (suppositum), but it does not go back into the subject or return to it somehow, and it does not refer in the first place to the subject itself. It also does not exhibit the unique subjective structure that is revealed by action and by the personal efficacy contained in action. In contrast, the efficacy that is also self-determination fully discloses the person as a subjective structure of self-governance and self-possession.

In human activity, or action, I turn toward a variety of ends, objects, and values. In turning toward those ends, objects, and values, however, I cannot help but also in my conscious activity turn toward myself as an end, for I cannot relate to different objects of activity and choose different values without thereby determining myself (thus becoming the primary object for myself as a subject) and my own value. The structure of human action is autoteleological in a special dimension. This is not merely the dimension of biological life and its respective instincts; it is also not merely the dimension of the elementary attraction and repulsion associated with various types of pleasure and pain. The self-determination contained in actions and in authentically human efficacy points to another dimension of autoteleology, one that is ultimately connected with the true and the good—the good in an unconditional and disinterested sense (bonum honestum). Human actions thus display a transcendence that is as if another name for the person. This transcendence is what brings to light the subjectivity proper to the human being. If this subjectivity is revealed through self-determination, it is because self-determination expresses the transcendent dimension of essentially human activity. This dimension stops at the person as a subject and cannot go beyond the person, for it finds its reason of being and its meaning primarily in the person. The efficacy of the person, therefore, ultimately brings to light the subjectivity proper to the person, and it does so every time it is exercised: in every action, choice, and decision, it somehow brings this subjectivity out of the dark and makes it a distinct “phenomenon” of human experience.

Here we are already touching upon other areas of the analysis. As I said before, we cannot do the whole analysis at once, but must develop it gradually and successively. At the same time, however, it is not easy in this analysis to separate the different areas and seal them off hermetically from one another. Before going on, then, let us dwell yet a moment on the structure of efficacy as self-determination. Through it, personal human subjectivity is not only disclosed to us cognitively but is also really constituted as a specific reality, one that is essentially different from all the other supposita we encounter in the surrounding world. This human suppositum, which is constituted and constitutes itself through acts of self-determination, is what we call a self, or an I. Of course, we say this primarily and properly of our own suppositum, but indirectly also of every other human suppositum.

I already mentioned earlier that the self is not reducible to consciousness alone, although it is constituted through consciousness. Consciousness, and especially self-consciousness, is an indispensable condition for the constitution of the human self. Nevertheless, the real constitution of this self within the framework of the human suppositum ultimately takes place as a result of acts of self-determination. In them, as I said before, the structure and profile of the self-possession and self-governance proper to a person are revealed. And they are revealed because in every act of self-determination this structure is somehow realized anew. It is in this realization of the structure of self-determination and self-governance that the person as a concrete human self is actually constituted. This also brings into clearer focus the intimate connection between the self and the suppositum. The self is nothing other than the concrete suppositum humanum, which, when given to itself by consciousness (self-consciousness) in the lived experience of action, is identical with the self-possession and self-governance that comes to light as a result of the dynamics of the personal efficacy that is self-determination.

The self, then, is not just self-consciousness, but it is also the self possession and self-governance proper to a concrete human suppositum. These latter aspects of the self are manifested primarily through action. Earlier I said that the self cannot be reduced to self-consciousness alone; now, however, I should add that the full dimension of the human self, which includes self-possession and self-governance, is conditioned by self-consciousness. This dimension is also the basis of the full relation of the self to the personal subjectivity that is proper to a human being. Such subjectivity, as I said before, is not only the subjectivity of being but also the subjectivity of lived experience. Consciousness plays a fundamental role in the constitution of such subjectivity through its special function of internalization (in The Acting Person, I called this the reflexive function of consciousness). Thanks to this function, the experience of the human being (primarily as a determinate self) discloses the “inwardness” and “in-selfness” proper to concrete human esse and operari. These are, as I said, meanings of the subject and subjectivity that the concept of suppositum itself does not yet bring to light.

This “inwardness” and “in-selfness,” as the full (experienced and lived) realization of the personal subjectivity of the human self, is both manifested and actualized in self-possession and self-governance, for I experience myself as a personal subject to the extent that I become aware that I possess myself and govern myself. The consciousness—or, more precisely, the self-consciousness—connected with action and with efficacy as self-determination conditions that lived experience. In this sense, we can say that both the concrete human self and the concrete personal human subjectivity corresponding to it are constituted though consciousness (with its help).

From the point of view of the person as a being that “exists and acts,” the person as a suppositum, I do not see any fundamental flaws or shortcomings in this analysis. After all, the lived experience of our personal subjectivity is simply the full actualization of all that is contained virtually in our metaphysical subjectivity (suppositum humanum). It is also both the full and fundamental revelation of our metaphysical subjectivity and the full and fundamental actualization and realization of our being in lived experience. This also seems to be a possible—and in some sense even the philosophically definitive—meaning of the ancient adage operari sequitur esse. The suppositum humanum and the human self are but two poles of one and the same experience of the human being.

1.5. Fulfillment and Transcendence

The picture of personal human subjectivity that unveils itself before us in experience would be incomplete if we failed to include the element of fulfillment. If action is the avenue to knowledge of the person (operari sequitur esse), then we must necessarily examine the expression “to fulfill an action.” This expression seems in a most basic way to refer not just to the reality of the action, the actus humanus, but also to the reality of the human being, the subject who fulfills the action. This is not an accidental expression. Properly understood, it signifies a tendency away from what is incomplete toward an appropriate fullness. An action as an actus humanus is this actual fullness in the order of operari. The person, however, is always included within the compass of the action’s fulfillment. The action as an actus humanus reveals the inwardness and in-selfness of the person and also activates the self-possession and self-governance proper to the structure of the person. In the light of this, we must ask: to what degree is the fulfillment of an action also the fulfillment of oneself, the fulfillment of the person who fulfills the action?

This is a very real problem. In some sense, it is even the most profound and basic of all the problems that must be addressed in an analysis of the personal subjectivity of the human being. In the dynamic structure of this subjectivity, the tendency toward the fulfillment of oneself, a tendency that lies at the root of all human operari, particularly actions, testifies simultaneously to contingency and autoteleology. The tendency toward the fulfillment of oneself shows that this self is somehow incomplete, and although the incompleteness and contingency of this being are not synonymous, the former may be reduced to the latter. This same tendency also points to autoteleology, because the aim of this being—a suppositum that experiences itself as incomplete—is the fulfillment of itself: self-fulfillment. The disclosure of this tendency completes our picture of the human self, which constitutes itself in its actions by means of consciousness and self-consciousness. In these actions, through the element of self-determination, the human self is revealed to itself not only as self-possession and self-governance, but also as a tendency toward self-fulfillment. This shows conclusively that the personal subjectivity of the human being is not a closed-in structure. Neither self-consciousness nor self-possession encloses the human self within itself as a subject. Quite the contrary. The whole “turning toward itself” that consciousness and self-consciousness work to bring about is ultimately a source of the most expansive openness of the subject toward reality. In the human being, in the human self as a personal subject, self-fulfillment and transcendence are inseparably connected. I already mentioned earlier that, to the modern mind, transcendence is as if another name for the person.

In philosophy, the term “transcendence” has many meanings. In metaphysics, it signifies being as a reality surpassing all categories, while at the same time constituting their foundation; it also signifies the true and the good as transcendentals on the same level as being. In philosophical anthropology, transcendence—in keeping with its etymology transscendere—likewise signifies a surpassing (a going-out-beyond or a rising-above), to the extent that this is verifiable in the comprehensive experience of the human being, to the extent that this is revealed in the dynamic totality of human existence and nativity, human esse and operari. The various manifestations of this transcendence ultimately converge in a single source, which constantly resounds within the human being as a subject, as a suppositum, and which in the final analysis testifies that the suppositum humanum is also of a spiritual nature. Transcendence is the spirituality of the human being revealing itself.

I do not intend here to present either a metaphysical analysis of this problem or a comprehensive treatment of the transcendence proper to the human person. I shall confine myself to discussing just one element of transcendence, namely, that which is revealed by the distinctive personal shape given to human actions by conscience. The profile of fulfillment, as strictly belonging to the personal subjectivity of the human being, is connected with this element of transcendence in an especially vivid way.

We often speak of moral subjectivity by analogy to psychological subjectivity when considering the aspects of consciousness and lived experience, but such distinctions must not be allowed to shatter the image of the basic unity of the personal subject. Personal subjectivity is the subjectivity that we experience as our own self in our own actions. This subjectivity is revealed to us in its true depth in the lived experience of moral value (good or evil), an experience always connected with the element of conscience in human actions.

Why does the element of conscience in action reveal the transcendence of the person? The answer to this question would require a whole series of analyses, which I attempted to carry out in The Acting Person. Here, however, I shall keep my response brief. In conscience, truth presents itself as the source of moral duty, or “categorical” duty (as Kant would say). Truth presents itself as a constitutive condition of the freedom proper to action, in which this freedom manifests itself as the self-determination of the person. To be free means not only to will, but also to choose and to decide, and this already suggests a transcendent subordination of the good to the true in action. Conscience, however, is the proper place of this subordination. The person’s authentic transcendence in action is realized in conscience, and the actus humanus takes shape as the willing and choosing of a “true good” thanks to conscience. Thus the element of conscience reveals both in action and in the efficient subject of action the transcendence of truth and freedom, for freedom is realized precisely through the willing and choosing of a true good.

“Do good and avoid evil” is the first principle of conscience as synderesis and also the elementary precept of all human praxis. To act in accord with this principle, I must in my conscience constantly go out beyond myself toward true good. This is the basic direction of the transcendence that is a property of the human person (proprium persona). Without this transcendence—without going out beyond myself and somehow rising above myself in the direction of truth and in the direction of a good willed and chosen in the light of truth—I as a person, I as a personal subject, in a sense am not myself. Consequently, when we analyze acts of knowledge, acts of will, or the world of values connected with them, we do not bring to light the personal property of the human being unless we bring to light the transcendence that resides in those acts, a transcendence they have by reason of their relation to the true and to the good as “true” (or as “befitting,” honestum), i.e., as willed and chosen on the basis of truth.

An analysis of conscience also reveals the strict connection between transcendence and fulfillment. At issue here is not only the role of conscience in the dynamics of fulfilling an action, but also the fulfillment of the self in that action. In fulfilling an action, I fulfill myself in it if the action is “good,” which means in accord with my conscience (assuming, of course, that this is a good conscience, a true conscience). By acting in this way, I myself become good and am good as a human being. The moral value reaches to the very depths of my ontic structure as a suppositum humanum. The opposite would be an action not in accord with my conscience, a morally evil action. I then become evil and am evil as a human being. In this case, the fulfillment of the action leads not to the fulfillment but to the unfulfillment of myself. The lived experience of the unfulfillment of myself corresponds to a negative moral value (which could also be called an anti-value, especially from the point of view of the judgment and verdict of conscience). Thus fulfillmerit of self and unfulfillment of self have two meanings: (I) a metaphysical meaning (I become and am good or evil as a human being) and (2) an experiential meaning (which is given in my awareness and lived experience of a moral value—good or evil). These two meanings really deserve a separate analysis, which I do not intend to present here. I wish, however, at least to draw attention to the special proximity of these two meanings. It serves as still another proof that the suppositurn humanum and the human self are but two poles of one and the same experience of the human being.

Obviously fulfilling oneself is not identical with fulfilling an action, but depends on the moral value of that action. I fulfill myself not by the fact that I fulfill an action, but by the fact that I become good when that action is morally good. We see, then, that the fulfillment of a person is related to transcendence, to the transcendent dimension of the action, a dimension objectified in conscience. I fulfill myself through good, whereas evil brings me unfulfillment. Obviously, too, self-fulfillment is a distinct structure of the personal subject, a structure that differs from both self-possession and self-determination. This structure is actualized in the action through its moral value—through good—of course, only in the dimension of that action per modum actus. The experience of morality also reveals ways in which moral value, good or evil, may become rooted and ingrained in the subject. In this regard, the ethics of Aristotle and later that of Thomas Aquinas, as well as modern-day character studies, speak of habits (de habitibus) and also of moral proficiencies, of virtues and vices. These all involve different forms of the fulfillment or the unfulfillment of the self. Both the one and the other speak of the human being, the human self, as a personal subject.

The essential point in all this is that fulfillment as a subjective reality, a reality given to us in the lived experience of conscience, but clearly not limited to or reducible to that experience, is distinctly connected with transcendence. I fulfill myself, I realize the autoteleology of my personal self, through the transcendent dimension of my operari. The transcendence of truth and goodness has a decisive influence on the formation of the human self, on its development within the whole reality of the personal subject, as an analysis of conscience and morality so clearly reveals. Such an analysis also deepens our view of the contingency of the human being. It does this both by showing how essential it is for us as human beings to strive for self-fulfillment and especially by showing how in this striving we find ourselves always between good and evil, between fulfillment and unfulfillment, and how persistently we must overcome the forces operating both from without and from within against self-fulfillment.

This even partial self-fulfillment brought about by the moral good of an action is accompanied by the element of peace and happiness so essential for experiences of conscience (whereas moral evil manifests itself in the experience of conscience accompanied by depression and despair). This suggests that transcendence is in some sense a common perspective for self-fulfillment and happiness. I shall not, however, examine this issue here; I merely wish to draw attention to it.

To be continued.


  • Pope John Paul II

    Pope John Paul II, sometimes called Blessed John Paul or John Paul the Great (18 May 1920 – 2 April 2005) was the head of the Catholic Church from 16 October 1978 to his death in 2005.

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