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

Editor’s note: In this second of three installments of his essay, “The Person: Subject and Community,” Karol Wojtyla/Pope John Paul II examines the many dimensions of the I-thou relationship as they pertain to human action, the formation of conscience, and authentic community.

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 (I-800-770-LANG).


2.1. The State of the Question

The conjunction of subject and community in the title of this essay on the person does not presuppose in advance how these two topics will be joined in the analysis. The course of the preceding discussion—in keeping with the plan I outlined at the beginning—points this analysis in the direction of the connection that occurs between the subjectivity of the human being as a person and the structure of human community. Now I intend to reexamine that connection in relation to my previous examination of it in The Acting Person.

First of all, then, I should point out that The Acting Person does not contain a theory of community, but deals only with the elementary condition under which existence and activity “together with others” promotes the self-fulfillment of the human being as a person, or at least does not obstruct it. One cannot, after all, deny the facts involved. These facts—negative facts known to us from the history of humankind and the history of human societies—should be kept in mind when considering the problem of the personal subject in community. This problem is also the focus of the last part of The Acting Person. Although I do not present a full-blown theory of community there, certain elements of this theory are already implicitly contained in it. One such element in particular is the concept of participation, which I understand in the last part of The Acting Person in two ways. First of all, I view it as a property of the person, a property that expresses itself in the ability of human beings to endow their own existence and activity with a personal (personalistic) dimension when they exist and act together with others. Secondly, I conceive participation in the Acting Person as a positive relation to the humanity of others, understanding humanity here not as the abstract idea of the human being, but—in keeping with the whole vision of the human being in that book—as the personal self, in each instance unique and unrepeatable. Humanity is not an abstraction or a generality, but has in each human being the particular “specific gravity” of a personal being (clearly this “specific gravity” does not derive in this case solely from the concept of the species). To participate in the humanity of another human being means to be vitally related to the other as a particular human being, and not just related to what makes the other (in abstracto) a human being. This is ultimately the basis for the whole distinctive character of the evangelical concept of neighbor.

The first meaning of participation refers not to this positive relation to another’s humanity, but to the property of the person by virtue of which human beings, while existing and acting together with others, are nevertheless capable of fulfilling themselves in this activity and existence. Such a formulation of the problem points to the irrevocable primacy of the personal subject in relation to community, a primacy in both the metaphysical (and hence factual) and the methodological sense. This means not only that people de facto exist and act together as a multiplicity of personal subjects, but also that we can say nothing essential about this coexistence and cooperation in the personalistic sense—we can say nothing essential about this multiplicity as a community—unless we proceed from the human being as a personal subject.

In my opinion, the whole problematic of alienation is ultimately reducible to this as well. Alienation has relevance not for the human being as an individual of the human species but for the human being as a personal subject. The human being as an individual of the species is a human being and remains a human being regardless of the system of interpersonal or social relations. The human being as a personal subject, on the other hand, can experience alienation, or a kind of “dehumanization,” in these relations. That is why in The Acting Person I treat participation primarily as a property by virtue of which human beings, while existing and acting together with others, that is, in various systems of interpersonal and social relations, are able to be themselves and to fulfill themselves. Participation is in a sense the antithesis of alienation. When I say in The Acting Person that participation is a distinctive property of the human being as a person, I mean that people tend toward participation, whereas they defend themselves against alienation, and that the basis for both participation and alienation is not people’s essence as members of the human species but their personal subjectivity.

In reflecting on community, therefore, we should not attach fundamental significance to the “material” fact that people live and act “together with others.” As a “material” fact, it still says nothing about community but speaks only of a multiplicity of beings, of acting subjects, who are people. The “material” fact of a number of people existing and acting together, or—as I put it in my analyses in The Acting Person—of the human being existing and acting together with others, is still not a community. By community I understand not this multiplicity of subjects itself, but always the specific unity of this multiplicity. This unity is accidental with respect to each subject individually and to all of them together. It arises as the relation or sum of relations existing between them. These relations can be investigated as an objective reality that qualifies everyone jointly and singly in a particular multiplicity of people. We then speak of a society (or, using other terminology, of social groups, etc.). Only the individual people—the personal subjects—who are the members of this society are substantial subjects (supposita), each of them separately, whereas the society itself is simply a set of relations, and therefore an accidental being. In the notion of society, however, this accidental being in some sense comes to the fore and becomes the basis for predication concerning the people, the persons, who belong to the society. We then speak of a person from the point of view of his or her social membership, e.g., a Pole, a Catholic, a member of the middle-class, a blue-collar worker.

This same relation or set of relations through which a particular multiplicity of people—of personal subjects—forms a social unity may be examined not so much as an objective reality that qualifies everyone jointly and singly in this multiplicity, but rather from the perspective of the consciousness and lived experience of all its members and also in some sense each of them. Only then do we arrive at the reality of community and detect its proper meaning. There clearly occurs—both from the factual (and thus also metaphysical) and from the methodological point of view—a strict connection, correspondence, and conformity between community and personal human subjectivity, understanding subjectivity here in the sense presented in the first part of this essay. By analyzing only the multiplicity of human supposita and the unity of objective interpersonal and social relations that corresponds to them, we obtain a somewhat different picture from the one we get when we focus on personal subjectivity, and thus on the consciousness and lived experience of interpersonal and social relations in a particular human multiplicity. Only the latter picture, it seems to me, corresponds to the concept of community.

We do in fact often use the terms community and society interchangeably. This is justifiable, even in the light of what was said above. At the same time, however, what was said above also gives us reason to distinguish them. A community is not simply a society, and a society is not simply a community. Even though the same elements may to a large extent go into the makeup of both realities, we apprehend them in different aspects, and this adds up to an important difference. In a sense, too, one could say that a society (a social group, etc.) is what it is by virtue of the community of its members. Com-munity, therefore, seems to be the more essential reality, at least from the point of view of the personal subjectivity of all the members of a given society or social group. From this it also becomes clear that the social relations in a given (one and the same) society can become a source of alienation in proportion to the disappearance of community, that is, in proportion to the disappearance of the relations, bonds, and social unity perceived and experienced by the individual subjects.

The concept of community, as can be inferred even from what was said above, has both a real and an ideal meaning: it signifies both a certain reality and an idea or principle. This meaning is ontological as well as axiological, and hence also normative. It would be impossible here to go into a full discussion of all these meanings of community; the most I can do is simply mention them. The preceding analysis of personal subjectivity can to a certain degree assist us in understanding and explicating these different meanings of community. Community is an essential reality for human coexistence and cooperation, and in another sense it serves as a fundamental norm for such coexistence and cooperation. Clearly, then, there must be a special value of community, one that I do not think should simply be identified with the common good. We discover this value by observing the co-existence and co-operation of people as if from the perspective of the personal subjectivity of each of them. The common good, on the other hand, seems to be an objectification of the axiological meaning of each society, social group, etc. The discovery of the value of community may be considered a direct argument in support of the thesis concerning the social nature of human beings.

And it is precisely in this context that we encounter the problem of the relation between community (the value of community) and the autoteleology of the human being. That people fulfill themselves in and through community with others seems beyond doubt. But does this mean that we can somehow reduce the self-fulfillment of the person to community, or autoteleology to the teleology of one or more communities? I shall attempt to address this issue below by outlining the two—seemingly mutually irreducible—profiles or dimensions of human community. One is the dimension of interhuman and interpersonal relations, which may be symbolized by the relationship I—thou. The other, which may be symbolized by the relationship we, seems to involve not so much interhuman as social relations. In both of these relationships, the aspect of personal human subjectivity analyzed earlier must not only be subjected to further analysis, but also be gradually and, so to speak, retrospectively verified.

2.2. I—Thou: The Interpersonal Dimension of Community

In this and the following section of the analysis, I could use the term profiles of community, but I think it would be better to speak of dimensions of community. In each of the relationships I plan to analyze, community is a different fact. In addition, however, to its factual structure (to which the term profile seems to refer), community has an axiological and normative meaning as well, and so each of these relationships also presents us with a different dimension of community. In my analysis, I will also attempt to bring to light and to some extent describe the dimension of I—thou relationships, and then do the same for we relationships. These relationships arise in the context of the facts of human coexistence and cooperation. They are part of our human experience and of our original (prescientific and even to some degree prereflective) understanding of this experience. We come into being, begin life, and go through a relatively long period of development in I—thou and we relationships, and yet, although our whole existence is immersed in these profiles of community during this time, we do not reflect upon the meaning or structure of community. Studies in developmental psychology can throw a great deal of light on this issue. There can be no doubt that I—thou and we relationships as experiential facts, as facts given in our experience, occur in each of us much earlier than any attempt—especially any methodological attempt—on our part to reflectively objectify these relationships.

While fully appreciating this fact, or rather this rich and very influential set of facts, I prefer to base my analysis on a later situation, one that will allow me to speak of a sufficiently developed stage of personal subjectivity.

After all, this analysis is concerned throughout not just with the suppositum humanum, but also with the human I, or self. It seems that only from the perspective of a sufficiently developed personal subjectivity can we conduct a full analysis of the I—thou and we relationships with respect to the communal reality contained in them. It also seems that the profiles and dimensions of community contained in these relationships, when analyzed at the stage of a sufficiently developed personal subjectivity, should operate retrospectively to explain these relationships at earlier stages, and not conversely. Let us, then, first consider the I—thou relationship, which is the one in which we primarily detect (to a certain degree in contrast to the we relationship) the interhuman, interpersonal dimension of community.

It is sometimes said that the I is in a sense constituted by the thou. This superb intellectual synopsis needs to be unraveled and developed, of course. In explicating it, we should not overlook the basic fact that this thou—like the I—is always a someone: the thou is some other I. And so in the very point of departure of the I—thou relationship we find a certain multiplicity of personal subjects. Although this is a minimal multiplicity (one + one), an analysis of the unity essential for the concept of community must be based on the assertion of this multiplicity. A thou is another I, one different from my own I. In thinking or speaking of a thou, I express a relation that somehow proceeds from me, but also returns to me. “Thou” is a term that expresses not only a separation, but also a connection. This term always contains a clear separation of one from many others. The separation need not necessarily be formal; it may be virtual. Nor does it have to comprise the “text” of the relation; it may belong to its “subtext.” Nevertheless, in thinking or speaking of a thou, I always have some sense that the concrete human being whom I thus describe is one of many whom I could so describe, that at other times or in other situations I also describe (and experience) various other people in the same way, and that I could describe each of them in this way. Potentially, therefore, the I—thou relationship is directed away from me toward all human beings, while actually it always connects me with some one person. If it actually connects me with many, then it is no longer a relation to a thou but a relation to a we, although it can easily be resolved into a number of relations to thou’s.

The particular reflexivity of this relation is also revealed here. The relation to a thou is in its essential structure always a relation to another, and yet, because one member of this relation is an I, the relation—in a way peculiar to itself—demonstrates the ability to return to the I from which it proceeded. I am not referring here to the function of a counter-relation, where the thou as an I would be related in the same way to me (to my I) as a thou, and I would then be a thou for the other. I am referring to the very same relation that proceeds from my I to the thou, for this relation has a complementary function, which consists in returning to the I from which it proceeded.

Of course, all of this has its full meaning only in the context of consciousness and lived experience, in the same context, therefore, in which both the I and the thou as another I are constituted; it does not, however, have this same full meaning with respect to the metaphysical category of relation. Throughout this part of the analysis, I am speaking about the lived experience of relations, which presupposes the I and the thou as separate personal subjectivities, and not merely about relations as accidents subjectified in separate supposita, although I am in no way questioning this basic reality. What is essential for the present analysis, however, is the I and the thou as fully constituted, separate, personal subjects, along with all that comprises the personal subjectivity of each of them.

When the relation directed from my I to a thou returns to the I from which it proceeded, the reflexivity of this relation (which need not yet be a mutual relation involving the counter-relation thou-I) contains the element of specifically constituting my I through its relation to the thou. It seems, however, that this element still does not give rise to community; rather, it has meaning for a fuller experience of myself, of my own I, and in some sense for the verification of myself “in the light of another self.” At the basis of this relation, there may also develop a process of the imitation of personal models, a process very important for education and self-education, and ultimately, therefore, for that self-fulfillment whose original dynamism is rooted in every personal subjectivity, as was mentioned earlier. Leaving aside that possibility, however, it must be acknowledged that, in the normal course of events, the thou assists me in more fully discovering and even confirming my own I: the thou contributes to my self-affirmation. In its basic form, the I—thou relationship, far from leading me away from my subjectivity, in some sense more firmly grounds me in it. The structure of the relation is to some degree a confirmation of the structure of the subject and of the subject’s priority with respect to the relation.

Even the unilateral relation of an I to a thou is already a real experience of an interpersonal relationship, although the full experience of such a relationship occurs only when the I—thou relationship has a reciprocal character: when a thou that for me becomes a specific other, and thus “also another human being,” simultaneously makes me its thou; when two people mutually become an I and a thou for each other and experience their relationship in this manner. Only then, it seems to me, do we observe the full character of the community proper to an interpersonal I—thou relationship. I wish to reemphasize, however, that even without such reciprocity the I—thou relationship is still a real experience of an interpersonal relationship. This experience can also serve as a basis for analyzing the participation that I described in The Acting Person as a participation in the very humanity of another human being. The thou relationship does not have to be reciprocal for such participation to occur. When the relationship is reciprocal, however, we can then say that it is precisely participation, and not something else, that forms the essential constituent of a community having an interhuman, interpersonal character.

I shall not go into an analysis of the individual forms and varieties of interpersonal I—thou relationships or the individual forms and varieties of community that develop within such relationships (and also through which such relationships develop, for community, as I have already said, is an essential element of such reciprocal relationships). Certain forms of interpersonal I—thou relationships, above all friendship and love, have, of course, been examined and explained many times and in many ways, and are always a favorite topic of reflection. In the present study, while omitting an analysis and description of thou relationships themselves, I wish to bring to light what is essential for the kind of community contained in them and do this from the point of view of the subjects themselves—or, more precisely, from the point of view of the mutuality of the subjects—of such concrete relationships of an I and a thou in their personal subjectivity. This will allow us to detect the element of a certain regularity that, in an analogous way, is common to all relationships in which two people are joined together as an I and a thou, regardless of the particular type of relationship it happens to be. I am concerned here with the interpersonal dimension of community proper to all I—thou relationships, regardless of their particular form. Hence this analysis embraces within its scope the I—thou of married or engaged couples, the I—thou of mother and child, and even the I—thou of two strangers who unexpectedly find themselves in such a relationship.

While leaving aside all the particular features of these relationships, there is one thing in this regard that needs to be recognized and emphasized. The human being—both the I and the thou—is not only an existing subject but also an acting subject, and in this acting the thou becomes at every step an object for the I. This objectivity, together with the whole relation, returns to the I by means of a special kind of interaction: the I becomes in a certain sense an object for itself in actions objectively directed toward a thou. This, of course, belongs somehow organically to the process of the distinctive way the I is constituted by the thou, which I already discussed. If the I, or self, is constituted by its actions (as was shown in the first part of this essay), and if the thou as another I, or self, is also constituted in the same way, then this is also the means by which the I—thou relationship, including the corresponding effects of this relationship in both of its subjects (the I and the thou) is constituted. The subject I experiences the relation to a thou in activity that has the thou as its object, and, of course, vice versa. Through this activity directed objectively toward the thou, the subject I not only experiences itself in relation to the thou, but also experiences itself in a new way in its own subjectivity. The objectivity of activity (action and interaction) serves to confirm the agent’s own subjectivity, if only because the object of this activity is itself a subject and represents a personal subjectivity proper to itself.

Confining ourselves to the I—thou relationship in what could be called its elementary form, without any particular qualifications concerning how the two persons are mutually related, except to say that in this relationship the I is a subject of activities directed objectively toward the thou and vice versa, we can now describe the basic dimension of interpersonal community. This dimension is both a fact and a demand: it has both a metaphysical and a normative (ethical) meaning, in keeping with what was said earlier concerning the concept of community. This dimension is reducible to treating and really experiencing “the other as oneself” (to use an expression taken directly from the Gospel). This whole analysis, in turn, directs us back to what was said in the last part of The Acting Person concerning the meaning of neighbor.

To specify more precisely what distinguishes the dimension of community proper to interpersonal I—thou relationships, it should be noted that these are the relationships in which human beings mutually reveal themselves to one another in their personal human subjectivity and in all that goes to make up this subjectivity. The thou stands before my self as a true and complete “other self,” which, like my own self, is characterized not only by self-determination, but also and above all by self-possession and self-governance. In this subjective structure, the thou as “another self” represents its own transcendence and its own tendency toward self-fulfillment. This whole structure of personal subjectivity proper to the I as a self and to the thou as another self is mutually revealed through the community proper to the I—thou relationship, since, by virtue of the mutuality of the I—thou relationship, I am simultaneously a thou for the I that is a thou for me. In this way, the I—thou relationship as a mutual relation of two subjects (supposita) not only takes on meaning but also truly becomes an authentic subjective community.

To say that such a community involves the mutual revelation of the partners in their personal human subjectivity is to point to the factual meaning of the community proper to an interpersonal I—thou relationship. We must not forget, however, that such a community has a normative meaning as well. From this point of view, we may say that, through the dimension of community proper to an interpersonal I—thou relationship, there ought to be a mutual self-revelation of persons: the partners ought to disclose themselves to each other in their personal subjectivity and in all that makes up this subjectivity. Through the I—thou relationship, they should reveal themselves to one another in their deepest structure of self possession and self-governance.

Above all, they should reveal themselves in their striving for self-fulfillment, which, culminating in acts of conscience, testifies to the transcendence proper to the human being as a person. In interpersonal I—thou relationships, the partners should not only unveil themselves before one another in the truth of their personal reality, but they should also accept and affirm one another in that truth. Such acceptance and affirmation is an expression of the moral (ethical) meaning of interpersonal community.

This meaning both shapes and—in another respect—verifies interpersonal community in its individual realizations and in the individual forms of these mutual relationships of a human I and thou, including those such as friendship and love. The more profound, integral, and intense the bond between the I and the thou in these mutual relationships, and the more it takes on the character of trust, a giving of oneself, and (to the extent possible in the relation of one person to another) a special kind of belonging, the greater the need for the mutual acceptance and affirmation of the I by the thou in its personal subjectivity, in the whole structure of self-possession and in full harmony with the personal transcendence that expresses itself in acts of conscience. In this way, within the context of the I—thou relationship, by the very nature of interpersonal community, the persons also become mutually responsible for one another. Such responsibility is a reflection of conscience and of the transcendence that for both the I and the thou constitutes the path to self-fulfillment and, at the same time, characterizes the proper, authentically personal dimension of community.

By “community” I understand “that which unites.” In the I—thou relationship, an authentic interpersonal community develops (regardless of its form or variety) if the I and the thou abide in a mutual affirmation of the transcendent value of the person (a value that may also be called dignity) and confirm this by their acts. Only such a relationship seems to deserve the name communio personarum.

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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