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Five UST Professors Present at De Nicola Fall Ethics Conference: ‘Dust of the Earth: On Persons’

In early November, Drs. Chris Wolfe, Randall Smith and Tom Harmon gave presentations at the De Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture fall conference, “Dust of the Earth: On Persons,” at University of Notre Dame. Smith and Harmon have presented at this conference many times over the years with Wolfe also presenting last year.

The conference featured more than 140 presentations exploring the ethical, legal and social concept of personhood: persons with disabilities, artificial intelligence, divine persons and the Trinity, the role of personalism in the thought of John Paul II, philosophy, theology, political theory, law, history, economics, and the social sciences, as well as the natural sciences, literature, and the arts.

Dr. Chris Wolfe, UST’s associate professor of Political Science, gave a talk on “Corporate Personhood Criteria.”

“It is an investigation of the idea of personhood applying some earlier research I published in an article titled 'An Artificial Being: John Marshall and Corporate Personhood’ in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy,” Wolfe said.

Dr.  Randall Smith,  professor of Theology, gave a talk on "Persons and the Metaphysics of Being-in-Relation." 

Smith’s paper proposal summarizes his talk.

One reason many people in the modern world make the claim that human beings are by nature “social” and “relational” and have obligations to care for others is that we no longer distinguish different kinds of things with different “natures.” When this happens, persons become another type of thing — a single, unitary object in the world. 

We know, for example, that human beings are made of atoms, just the way a table or a tree are, so in this sense, human beings are also essentially objects. And so it would seem that they could have no inherent claim on me or my actions any more than any other object. 

I see a cup in front of me; it is hard for me to understand how it could make any “claim” on me, unless I decided I wanted to use it. And so too, it would seem, with human beings. They are sitting or standing around me, but I have no obligations to them unless I choose to interact with them, or, to put this more crassly (but perhaps more honestly) unless I need them for something like I needed the cup. I am an object in the world among other objects. I interact with them at my will, by choice.

We sometimes think of persons as “subjects,” having “subjectivity,” but the way our “subjectivity” is currently understood, as something purely “mental” and “internal,” this rarely results in persons considering themselves more related to things outside their minds rather than less. Given the modern epistemological turn, we question whether anything even exists outside my mind, let alone whether I have any obligation to it.

In this paper, I will argue that this view of human persons and human individuality was made possible by a sadly attenuated understanding of substance that emerged in modernity. Thinkers like Aristotle and Aquinas understood “substance” to be an active nature imbedded in a network of relations resulting from its acting and being acted on. This fundamentally “relational” view of substance was gradually distorted, however, after Descartes, who defined substance as “that which exists by itself, that which needs nothing else but itself to exist.” When it was pointed out to him that strictly speaking this can apply only to God, Descartes quickly modified the definition to read: “that which needs nothing else save God to exist.” 

Substances, then, on this view, although they are related vertically to God, remain horizontally independent of other creatures. They are self-contained and self-sufficient. A thing’s relations to other things remain at the level of accidents. They are not essential; they are incidental. In humans, such relations to other creatures are subject to human choice. But at a thing’s core, every substance is a radically autonomous, self-enclosed monad, unrelated and self-sufficient.

For Thomas Aquinas, by contrast, substances are always active, self-communicating beings.  Thus, a thing cannot be what it is without being related in some way. To-be-a-substance and to-be-related are distinct but inseparable aspects of every real being. The structure of every being is thus indissolubly dyadic: it exists both in-itself and toward others.

My claim is that a notion of personhood based on this more classical, “relational” metaphysics would provide a more accurate picture of what the distinctive form of human being as being-in-the-world involves.  We are not merely “objects,” nor are we purely “subjects” stuck within our own mental “subjectivity.” We are relational beings, and relational in more profound ways than other beings that do not share our embodied rationality and intentionality. 

Smith also chaired Tom Harmon’s session.

Dr. Tom Harmon, professor and Scanlan Foundation Chair in Theology, and associate director of Catholic Studies, gave a talk on “Humility, Embodiedness, and the Spirits of the Cloud: Patristic Resources for Digital Living.” 

Read Harmon’s presentation abstract:

Marshall McLuhan calls the situation of the human person living under the conditions of electronic media “dis-carnate,” and worries that electronic media will be “Lucifer’s moment,” for “he is the greatest electrical engineer.” Demons seem to be having a moment in the popular consciousness right now under the conditions of social media as the environment flips into digital conditions, which seem to validate McLuhan’s worries. Just like always, the “air” seems to be infested with demonic influences that are perceptible even to those who don’t usually concern themselves with the supernatural. For a variety of historical and intellectual reasons, we are not best equipped to counter the malign influence of the spirits of the air, so it is natural to look for help among those who thought the deepest and the best about the topic: the Fathers of the Church.

This paper will describe the current situation and then point to both resources and strategies from Patristic Christianity in resisting the dis-carnate effects of electric media and the manipulations of spirits of the air of all kinds. It turns out that our constitution from “dust (humus) of the earth” may be our main weapon and defense against malign spiritual powers: The body and the sacraments, and the humility they require, can help us live genuinely human lives. Digital technology can even help point us back to dusty but genuinely human ways of life, especially if we have learned about the scope and contours of the struggle from the Church Fathers.

Also presenting at the conference were M.F. A. in Creative Writing Professor James Matthew Wilson, and his co-founder of the M.F.A. in Creative Writing program, Associate Professor Joshua Hren. They were joined by Jane Scharl (Intercollegiate Studies Institute) who will be a future speaker in the M.F.A. Summer Literary Series in Houston, and Paul Pastor, a distinguished poet and editor who is also a candidate in the M.F.A. in Creative Writing Program.. Dorian Speed, also an MFA candidate, presented a paper entitled, “Charlotte Mason and the Joyful Personhood of Children.”