The Acting Person in Purgatory: A Note for Readers of the English Text

By Taylor, Jameson | Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

The Acting Person in Purgatory: A Note for Readers of the English Text


Taylor, Jameson, Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture


THERE IS AN OLD JOKE that then-Cardinal Karol Wojtyla wrote The Acting Person foreknowing that as pope he would be able to assign the book as required reading for Polish seminarians in purgatory. (1) The English version of the text, the joke continues, is for seminarians stranded in even lower realms of purgatory. But if The Acting Person is being read in the afterlife, it remains generally unknown among Earth-bound philosophers, particularly English speakers. This neglect can be attributed to several causes, one of which is that Karol Wojtyla was elected pope shortly before The Acting Person was published. This circumstance alone is enough to lead non-Christian philosophers to presume with George H. Williams that The Acting Person is a "programmatically Christian book" with a "hidden agenda." (2) From the opposite end of the spectrum, Thomists are skeptical of Wojtyla's phenomenological inclinations even as phenomenologists suspect that underneath it all Wojtyla's phenomenology is rooted in Scholasticism. (3) More deadly than any of these sins is the charge that The Acting Person is a fatally flawed translation almost not worth reading. Given that most native English speakers are not going to read the original in Polish (not that that would settle the case, as I explain below), The Acting Person is stuck in limbo. What follows is both an apology for the English text and an indication of its limitations as a philosophical work.

Whether read in the original Polish (1969), or its 1979 English version, The Acting Person is difficult to understand. (4) Part of the problem lies in Wojtyla's attempt to bring together two disparate modes of thinking--namely, traditional metaphysics and phenomenology. From a Thomistic perspective, Wojtyla's philosophy is frustrating because he does not "demonstrate" his assertions using traditional logical methods. From a phenomenological perspective, his philosophy is frustrating because it sets limits to and supplements phenomenology by incorporating metaphysical realities inaccessible to subjective experience.

Adding to the difficulty is Wojtyla's use of both traditional terms (suppositum, nature, rational nature, participation) and modern terms (praxis, alienation, self-determination, solidarity) in new ways, as well as his creation of new categories--in particular, the category of "lived experience"--to explicate the unique reality of the acting person. (5) Given the novelty of Wojtyla's project, such innovation is to be expected. But it is fair to ask why Wojtyla so often neglects to define these terms or locate his use of them within a scholarly context. As Tadeusz Styczen comments, Wojtyla "had a generally 'unfootnoted' way of doing philosophy--rather 'like a peasant.'" (6) While the result is often original, it is also sometimes confusing. (7)

In Wojtyla's defense, The Acting Person is an attempt to articulate precisely what is an irreducible experience. As such, Wojtyla's phenomenological method would betray itself if it relied on traditional modes of definition and argumentation. The irreducible can only be experienced, not explained, albeit philosophy can lead the reader to the entryway of this experience. Remarks A. Wilder regarding Wojtyla's approach: "Everything depends on one's simple apprehension of the relevant essential natures. ... This too creates difficulties for the reader, but it is also a mark of the phenomenological integrity of the author of these texts." (8)

Another reason The Acting Person seems "too sketchy," as Wojtyla puts it, is because the work is intended to serve as an outline for future research (AP, viii). Wojtyla's aim is to point the way toward further discussion and debate, not to lay down a final teaching. (9) As he states in the concluding sentence of The Acting Person, the work has only ended the discussion "for the time being" (AP, 357). (10) Perhaps for this very reason, much of the scholarship on The Acting Person tends to digress from the actual text. …

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