Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Is personhood real or just a social construction?

In Chapter 3 of his book, God Revised, Rev. Galen Guengerich discusses the nature of existence. In philosophy this is called ontology, the study of being. There are two approaches to this question that I like best, linear and reductive, and systemic.

We can come to know things by breaking things down into their component parts or observing how they behave over time. This approach has made science very successful and works well too for mechanics.

The systemic approach is to conceptualize things as interacting in a system and the mantra of systems thinkers is "the whole is greater than the sum of the parts." UUs acknowledge system thinking in their seventh principle respecting the interdependent web.

As we observe and reflect on life from both a reductive and linear view, and from a systems view we realize that there is no such thing as "a person" but rather a manifestation of relationships. If we reflect on our own experience we realize that there are thousands of sides to our individual personality because we are one person with our parents, another with our spouse, another with our children, another with our co-workers, with our neighbors, with our friends, with various authority figures we encounter, etc. Each "other" and each situation brings out a little different side of our personality and with each we have a different identity. Every person who "knows" us has a different identity story about us as we do about them and so who is the "real" me? Rev. Guengerich writes in his book, God Revised, referring to Walt Whitman, "Whitman's central insight is that the self exists in a system where everyone is who they are by virtue of their relationships to everyone and everything else." p. 57

Rev. Guengerich writes:

The essence of the individual, according to Whitman, is made up of all the relationships he or she represents. If teased all the way out in space and back in time, these relationships ultimately include everything whatsoever. Some of these relationships appear trivial - unless we consider that everything had to happen precisely as it did for us to be here today, just as we are. It turns out that the story of Galen Guengerich, the cosmos, began not on September 3, 1957, or even nine months earlier than that, but in the beginning." p.58

Rev. Guengerich writes a few pages later in his book, God Revised, "The present builds a bridge from what is past to what is possible.

The question before us is how to construct the bridge and whether religion forms a part of it? As I will discuss in upcoming chapters, religious faith and practice at their best can help liberate us from the limitations of the past and help us construct a more promising future. Religion is about transformation - about making good on our desire to become better people and make our world a better place." p. 61

The focus has been shifted from the individual to relationships. Identity, what we call the self, is, as we have seen, a social construction, it does not exist other than as a witness to our body, our thoughts, our emotions, our behavior, our social status. What is this witness? Where does it come from? Perhaps it is the witness that has inherent worth and dignity and not the body and its ego.


  1. It is an interesting idea about the witness that watches our bodies grow, our thoughts change, our feelings shift, our personality change, our social status rise and fall, our multiple identities circulate and then dissipate.

    It seems that some people have a more highly developed witness that others and they experience more agency in developing preferences, focus and choices. If the "inherent worth and dignity" of a person resides in the witness and the witness is made up of mindfulness, self awareness, and agency how can Unitarian Universalism and our worship and practices enhance the witness?

  2. Linda McCullough Moore wrote in her story, On My Way Now, in the April, 2014 issue of The Sun:

    "My parents got married. I wish I could somehow get inside their marriage and take the things apart and spread the pieces out across the table, to have some idea of what help it together in the first place." p.21

  3. Wonderful article. I have often felt and thought this stuff but never had the words for it. Reminds me of George Herbert Mead's idea of the looking glass self. Who would we know who we were if we did not see ourselves in the eyes of other people? As the bumper sticker says, "People don't think of you as often as you think of them thinking of you."


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