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Thinkers or Lovers: Anthropology for Persons


[R. J. Snell is our blogger for the month of March, and this is his first post. Dr. Snell is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Philosophy Program at Eastern University in St Davids, PA, where he also directs the Agora Institute for Civic Virtue and the Common Good. His most recent book (with Steven Cone) is Authentic Cosmopolitanism: Love, Sin, and Grace in the Christian University (Pickwick 2013). Forthcoming works include, The Perspective of Love: Natural Law in a New Mode (Pickwick 2014) and The Terrible Covenant of Sloth (Angelico Press).]

In a remarkable speech, J. Donald Monan, then-president of Boston College, summarizes the default position of much of Western reflection on the human as an “intellectualist view of man.” From Aristotle to Descartes, Plato to Leibniz, the assumption is that “Man is nous—man is mind” (Monan, 2008, 115).

Unsurprisingly, the anthropology of humans as primarily “thinking beings” shapes the way we conceive of activity and flourishing throughout the entire range of human endeavor. In religion, education, politics, the arts, and in the social and human sciences, we have imagined ourselves as thinkers, as governed primarily by ideas and worldviews and concepts, and so, too, our vision of flourishing, health, freedom and success has been appropriate to the “being which thinks”—the rational animal.

Monan wonders if perhaps we’ve misunderstood, noting that “in Jewish and Christian biblical tradition, the measure of a man or a woman was never to be found in the magnitude of one’s intellectual attainments.… The great Commandment is: Thou shall love the Lord thy God…” (Monan, 2008, 116). Consequently, Monan calls for a new reference point governing our aspirations. Not knowledge, but love.

That’s fine, of course, and thinkers as diverse as Augustine, Martin Heidegger, Charles Taylor, and James K. A . Smith might find much to support in such a claim, but still the claim is largely undifferentiated. We know full well that Aristotle’s account of the rational animal is spelled out into an account of the soul as vegetative, sensitive, and intellectual, and we know how he carves out an ethic, a politics, and even a logic from that explicit account of the soul. So, too, does Plato provide an image of the tripartite soul and from that anthropology explain an ethics and politics in keeping with the internal teleology of the soul. Augustine does something similar, as does Aquinas, Jonathan Edwards, Calvin and (even) Barth. Knowing what we are allows us to articulate how we should be, in ethics, family, sexual activity, mental and physical well-being, and so on.

Is “love” enough around which to re-habilitate the necessary edifice of human self-understanding and normativity with any level of exactness and perspicacity?

I’d suggest yes, if, and only if, an exploration of love reveals something (1) intelligible, (2) normative, (3) structural, (4) self-referentially consistent, and (5) defining of our anthropology. To put it another way, I’m not suggesting we examine love abstractly, but that we examine our own concrete selves and subjectivity as the access point, and in so doing will discover human nature and human norms, but in a way less guilty of reifying our identity into “thinkers,” and without the tendency to force our own selves into correspondence with any theory about human nature. At the same time, it seems right to me that the basic impulse of the Western tradition—which is to identify a basic isomorphism between the way we are (our natures) and the way we ought to be (teleology)—is valuable and true. Ethics not rooted in the way we actually are is either groundless or ideological or both; politics out of keeping with our nature is either false or violent or both; accounts of flourishing unmoored from human nature tend to be unserious or oppressive or both.

The task, then, is to discover human nature as it actually is, and as it actually is in our own concrete empirical selves, and to rehabilitate normative accounts of our well-being and flourishing. And to do so by an analysis of love, but an analysis which is concrete, intelligible, and differentiated.

Something of a steep task, I suspect.

Texts to Read:

Monan, J. Donald. (2008). Echoes of a University Presidency: Selected Speeches. Chestnut Hill, MA: Linden Lane Press at Boston College.

Snell, R. J. and Cone, Steven. (2013). Authentic Cosmopolitanism: Love, Sin, and Grace in the Christian University. Eugene, OR: Pickwick.



  1. Eric Johnson says:

    Quite a task indeed.
    I’ve moved over the past few years to a position that seeks to understand knowledge and love as dialectically related (I thought, following Augustine, Aquinas, and Edwards), and so to view models that prioritize one over the other as problematic. Is there a danger in replacing a knowledge-prioritization with a love-prioritization?

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