Understanding the Person

Essays on the Personalism of Karol Wojtyła

by Grzegorz Hołub (Author)
Monographs 196 Pages

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Man in Wojtyła’s Realist Approach to Philosophy
  • On the Threshold of Personalist Thinking
  • Concluding Remarks
  • Introduction
  • Wojtyła on Experience: A Preliminary Approach
  • Unity of Experience
  • Human Experience: A Rival Naturalistic Approach
  • Human Experience: Phenomenological vs Phenomenalistic Approach
  • Concluding Remarks
  • Introduction
  • Initial Dilemmas
  • Descartes and His Thinking about the Human Being
  • Karol Wojtyła’s Understanding of Man
  • The Person and the Nature: Two Integrated Faces of Human Existence
  • Concluding Remarks
  • Old Notions in Contemporary Philosophy
  • Wojtyła and Metaphysics
  • Personhood and Suppositum
  • Critical Look at the Project and Its Further Developments
  • Concluding Remarks
  • Introduction
  • Thinking on the Subject
  • The Cartesian Subject under Siege
  • Wojtyła on the Human Subject
  • Subject and Interiority: Comparing the Two Approaches
  • Looking for a Common Platform
  • Concluding Remarks
  • The Person and Consciousness
  • Against the Idealistic Approach to Consciousness
  • The Boethian Definition of the Person and Its Inadequacy
  • The “Physiognomy” of Consciousness and Personhood
  • Further Clarifications and Final Conclusions
  • Concluding Remarks
  • Persons, Emotions, and Reason
  • Consciousness under the Influence of Emotions
  • Consciousness Overwhelmed by Emotions
  • Self-Knowledge in Its Operations
  • Self-Knowledge as the Guardian of Consciousness
  • Concluding Remarks
  • Introduction
  • Causation in the Ethical Thinking of Scheler and Kant
  • Personal Causation in Ethics: Critical Look
  • Acting Person and Efficacy
  • Final Look at Efficacy
  • Concluding Remarks
  • Persons and Dialogue
  • Persons in the Philosophy of Dialogue
  • The Social Face of the Person in Wojtyła’s Thought
  • Dialogue Creating the Person
  • Concluding Remarks
  • Chapter Introduction
  • Wojtyła’s Thinking about Dignity
  • Some Further Clarifications on Dignity of the Person
  • Concluding Remarks
  • Index of Names

←12 | 13→ CHAPTER I:



Karol Wojtyła’s interest concerning “who the human being is” has a long story. It is deeply rooted in his curriculum and education. We can point to some important moments of his intellectual and character formation, which affected this issue. Firstly, the years when he was a student of classical gymnasium and later, just before the Second World War, when he undertook studies of Polish literature at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow. Secondly, the time during the War, when Wojtyła was developing his humanistic interest by a participation in an underground theatre, where he was fascinated with the power of words being able to penetrate the deepest spheres of human life. Finally, a discovery of his priestly vocation was very much about getting to know better who the human being is and how to assist him on his way to self-fulfilment.

However, a systematic and theoretical approach to the search on the human being is associated with Wojtyła’s scholarly activities. His studies at the University of Angelicum in Rome constitute an important step in his leaning on the human spiritual condition. His PhD thesis in theology, later published as a book,1 reveals the meaning and role of human interiority both in an aspect of human-divine relationship and in an underscoring of the complexity of the human being himself. Later, Wojtyła’s interest in philosophy was fully associated with inquiring about the human being both in the realm of ethics and in the philosophical anthropology. In this long process we can perceive a kind of evolution as to how the human being is understood, conceived and presented by Wojtyła. This is a shift from a philosophy of the human being into a philosophy of the human person. Showing this conceptual transition is the aim of this chapter. In doing so ←13 | 14→ we will be basically (but not exlusively) interested in the early works of Karol Wojtyła which reveal with a progressing intensity his consciousness of the human person.

Man in Wojtyła’s Realist Approach to Philosophy

A whole approach of Karol Wojtyła to philosophy, at whatever stage of its development, can be called realist. Roughly speaking, in his position he tries to avoid two extremes: on the one hand, an idealist stance associated with some modern schools of German and French philosophy; on the other, a monistic materialism represented in his time by the Marxist philosophy. In a serious of lectures, which Wojtyła was delivering to university students gathered in a Polish version of the Newman chaplaincy, starting from 1949, he makes his epistemological and metaphysical position clear.2 His anti-idealistic attitude is manifested straightforwardly in such pronouncements, “our mind attains to extra-mental realities and is capable of grasping their essence,” or “our cognition discovers a plurality of beings (pluralism) in that reality, not multiple manifestations of some single being (monism).”3 His anti-materialistic approach comes to the fore when Wojtyła declares as follows, “it would be wrong to claim that the total and proper object of our cognition is matter. That object is simply being or, rather, beings in their whole richness and diversity.”4

Wojtyła elaborates on a realist epistemological stance. He is not the kind of rationalistic philosopher rejecting or attenuating a role of experience. Nevertheless, accepting validity of the latter he stresses the essential role of the human reason in any process of cognition. When, associating his position with cognitive realism, he points out that “our cognition attains to reality, it touches it in the entire rich complex of its manifestations that directly thrust themselves upon our cognition.”5 Thus, manifestations-phenomena ←14 | 15→ are given to us as factors that in a sense impose themselves on us. However, the human subject is not enclosed in mere phenomena but possesses a cognitive ability to ‘go further’ and reach the very being. In this move we can easily perceive not only a continuation of the pre-modern approach to cognition but more importantly an anti-Kantian epistemological stance. Wojtyła, as a Thomist, directly acknowledges that we human beings can indeed grasp the being (thing-in-itself) and that being is a proper reference point of our human reason.

Although in the whole process of cognition the human reason plays an important role, the cognition is not concentrated on the subject but rather on the object; in a sense it revolves around the object; it is the object-centred undertaking. This is interestingly shown by Wojtyła when he provides us with a short description of how such cognitive process proceeds. He describes that in the following way, “a kind of ‘pulling in’ of the object into the subject takes place in the act of cognition, an assimilation of the object; in the act of desire and aspiration, we have rather an ‘attracting’ by the object towards which the subject in some way goes out. Cognition is directed to the thing itself, to the object.”6 Such a complex process of cognition is possible because of the participation of both sensory and metal powers in their mutual cooperation; in describing this process Wojtyła relies completely on the Thomistic philosophical tradition.7 Of course, the subject can also be made into an object of cognition but the former in its cognitive activities is not ‘imprisoned’ in itself and naturally goes out to outer beings. What is a balance between the scope of inner and outer cognition is not resolved in the philosophy of early Wojtyła. Later on, when he has developed his personalist position more maturely, his important claim would be that whenever the subject gets to know an outer object, he also gets to know himself.

The human being who is able to perform such advanced cognitive operations must be constituted by adequate structures, which are usually at the centre of attention of metaphysics. Fundamental tenets of Wojtyła’s theory of the human being are of Aristotelian and Thomistic origin. The human ←15 | 16→ being is composed of matter and form, which are understood correspondingly as body and soul, and in comparison to the Platonic tradition, are very strictly intertwined. Thanks to that, our cognition is simultaneously sensual and mental, and more generally – any other human undertaking engages our bodily and mental spheres. However, Wojtyła – in accordance with the Thomistic tradition – goes deeper and shows that at the beginning of all activities is the soul, which should be considered as the principle of causality. He claims that “the soul is that first cause of all human acts, experiences, and manifestations of life, we also by this accept that they all come from it, flowing from it, as from a source and leading to it as their proper and first cause.”8

Wojtyła assumes, on the one hand, that the soul is not a semi-autonomous subject, which will be later a recurring topic in his fully-fledged philosophy of the human person. On the other hand, he stresses that the human soul is not a mere derivative of matter and its processes. He puts it this way, “the fundamental element, giving life to man, constituting the first source and principle of all his acts, does not allow itself to be entirely reduced to animating energies or powers residing in the matter of the human organism itself, nor can it be entirely identified with them.”9 Although the soul is the principle of the whole human existence, including its material dimension, it possesses its spiritual character. Wojtyła stresses that perspective by claiming that “in the final analysis, the human soul shows itself as a spiritual being, as a dynamic structure and thus as if the source of a specific concentration of cognitive (reason) and appetitive (will) spiritual energy.”10 This is entirely congruous with the hylomorphic conception of the human being and the Polish philosopher openly acknowledges it.11

There are also other elements in the thought of Wojtyła which are important for his early understanding of the human being. The philosopher points out, in the way typical for the realist tradition, that human nature is the essence of the human being inasmuch as that essence is understood as the ←16 | 17→ basis for his entire activity.12 Because those activities are very complex, they reveal that human nature should be conceived very broadly. Hence, this nature cannot be understood as the sole nature of the thinking subject nor as an exclusive nature of the physical body. Human nature is given in potency and only through activities manifests itself and in consequence the human being becomes more himself, in a sense advances in a self-fulfilment. Moreover, as many Aristotelians and Thomists, Wojtyła stresses the fact that in becoming itself is contained the fundamental good.

In general, the Polish thinker understands the good as that “which evokes appetition, which stirs it to activity.”13 Thus, the good is an end to which all human endeavours tend. To become itself, the human being needs many goods because of the multi-faceted character of his nature. Wojtyła expresses this classical thesis in this way,

various kinds of goods become the telic end of his aspirations and activities to the extent that they contribute to man’s becoming more perfect in one or another respect. Some goods, for example perfect his organism by augmenting his powers, while others perfect his intellect by broadening his knowledge. Among all these goods only moral good perfects the very humanity of man: through the moral good a man becomes simply a better man, he becomes better as a man – he actualizes the potency slumbering within him to become a better man.14

On the Threshold of Personalist Thinking

The understanding of the human being in the Aristotelian and Thomistic thought has been associated with the concept of the person for a long time. Since Boethius and Thomas Aquinas similar philosophical categories are referred both to the human being and to the human person. For example, such metaphysical concepts as substance, substantial form or rational nature are used to characterize both the human being and the person. Wojtyła in his early writings goes along the same path. He perceives the human person as a proper subject of metaphysics because he wants to ←17 | 18→ stand for its integral picture and avoids a reduction of its being to other realities: on the one hand, to society (Marxism), on the other hand, to some human faculties as consciousness (Descartes). At that time Wojtyła repeats the Thomistic approach to the person, which is evident when he declares, “what is peculiar to the human person, however, is that this person has a rational nature only because of a spiritual soul, which is the substantial form of the body. This fact is of basic importance for understanding the whole uniqueness of the human person, as well as for explaining the structure of the human person.”15

However, in this early period of Wojtyła’s philosophizing there is a growing consciousness that the approach to the person must be modified and enriched. The person cannot be only understood as one of the members of the human family; it is reasonable to claim that the personal reality is deeper, richer, and more complex. This kind of realization is revealed when our philosopher tries to explain what the person is at the beginning of his book Love and Responsibility. He claims that “the term ‘person’ has been coined to signify that a man cannot be wholly contained within the concept ‘individual member of the species,’ but that there is something more to him, a particular richness and perfection in the manner of his being, which can only be brought out by the use of the word ‘person.’”16 Wojtyła’s approach to discovery of that ‘more’ in the human being started many years before he proposed his own original concept of the person and it is good to accentuate these important moments.

Karol Wojtyła’s scholarly career started when he worked on his PhD thesis on the theological and mystical thought of St John of the Cross. Following this great saint, he inquired into how the Christian faith is given ←18 | 19→ in a subjective experience while not loosing its objective content. Rocco Buttiglione points out that at that time Wojtyła studied a ‘phenomenology of mystical experience’ and that phenomenology – as proposed by St John of the Cross – led to an irreducible centre of the person showing its self-transcendence.17 Thus, Wojtyła’s investigative attitude to the human being was formed not so much by a structural consideration of whom or what he is but by practical and existential insight into an inner and dynamic sphere of human existence.

A further step is done when Karol Wojtyła embarks on the ethical thought of Max Scheler. He tries to determine whether the project of phenomenological ethics elaborated by the German philosopher was adequate to explain Christian ethics. Although Wojtyła’s conclusions are negative, it is good to ponder on some remarks made by him in the course of his critical discussion with and evaluation of Scheler’s proposals. The Polish philosopher considers Scheler’s approach to values and to the person as being dominated too much by emotions. As a result, the person appears only as a “unity of experiences” and there is a difficulty with grasping how such a person undertakes his actions and particularly ethical acts. According to Wojtyła, in Scheler’s position the person is conceived as too weak a reality, which is exacerbated by a rejection of the thesis that the person is a substantial being. We do not know how such a person is the author of his undertakings, that is, there is a problem with understanding his operativity.18

However, Karol Wojtyła does not reject the phenomenological method of the German philosopher. He considers it useful as far as it can bring with it a great help in investigating ethical facts, which for the Polish philosopher are part of inner human experience.19 In this way, the appreciation of human ←19 | 20→ experience and Wojtyła’s turn to subjectivity seem to constitute new avenues in approaching the personal reality. In his book Love and Responsibility the philosopher, while dealing with the person, employs straightforwardly such categories as “a specific inner self,” ‘an inner life,”20 which seem to be borrowed from St Augustine’s philosophy.21 Nevertheless, they are not intended to replace Thomistic categories but to enrich them. A strong signal that this is the case is provided when Wojtyła declares, “a person is an objective entity, which as a definite subject has the closest contacts with the whole (external) world and is most intimately involved with it precisely because of its inwardness, its interior life.”22 Thus, in this brief definition besides categories stemming from the Aristotelian and Thomistic philosophy (e.g. ‘an objective entity’), there are new categories (inwardness, interior life), which, in order to be properly explored and understood, need more than tools provided by the metaphysical thinking. In this way, Wojtyła opens up a space for a fully-fledged phenomenological investigation. Showing how these two philosophical approaches to the person can be reconciled and used for the sake of its better understanding will be a task of further analyses carried out by Karol Wojtyła.

Beside Thomistic, phenomenological, and Augustinian borrowings, Wojtyła draws on the thought of a further philosopher who plays an important role for him, namely Immanuel Kant. Although reference to his thought is done mostly within ethical investigations, it also reveals its anthropological profile. Wojtyła undertakes Kant’s second imperative and formulates his own version in a following way, “whenever a person is the object of your activity, remember that you may not treat that person as only the means to an end, as an instrument, but must allow for the fact that he or she, too, has or at least should have, distinct personal ends.”23 The person according to this formula is always to be treated as an end and never only as a means. This signals that the person is an entity, which has not only axiologically and ethically a high position among other entities, but its metaphysical and anthropological importance is also high. In Wojtyła’s understanding ←20 | 21→ of the person its goodness (axiological subjectivity) is strictly associated with its existence (metaphysical subjectivity); he never separates these two subjectivities. In general terms it means for the philosopher that what is an existing entity possesses at the same time a value (later we will elaborate on a relationship between good and value in Wojtyłas’s approach). This presupposition will play an important role when we will be analysing the topic of personal dignity.

Moreover, due to his adherence to the Thomistic philosophy, the Polish philosopher takes into account the understanding of the subject, which seems to differ from that employed by Kant. The latter is a refinement of the Cartesian concept and is primarily associated with the thinking center of the person. In the second imperative,24 the German philosopher uses the terminology of “humanity” and “person,” which suggests a broader reference; but that is only seeming and not real. There are following reasons for that assertion. For Kant, while talking about predispositions, there are in the human nature three spheres: animality, humanity and personality. Only humanity (in the person) possesses the objective absolute worth; it is not indeed animality,25 or we can just say the body. Thus, the latter seems not to be a proper part of the worthwhile subject, and consequently the scope of the subject itself is clearly narrower. The Wojtylian subject in turn encompasses all that belongs to the human life, including its bodily constitution.26 It goes well beyond a thinking subject or the subject who is primarily inclosed to the human interiority (in our further analyses we will shed more light on this important issue).


ISBN (Book)
Publication date
2021 (June)
the human person Karol Wojtyła personalism Thomistic and phenomenological anthropology continental philosophy
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2021. 196 pp.

Biographical notes

Grzegorz Hołub (Author)

Grzegorz Hołub is professor of philosophy at the Department of Philosophy of the Pontifical University of John Paul II in Kraków, Poland. His area of research includes ethics, bioethics and the philosophy of the human person.


Title: Understanding the Person