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What Is a Person?: Rethinking Humanity, Social Life, and the Moral Good from the Person Up Paperback – September 15, 2010

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Editorial Reviews

Review

"Smith combines a meticulous command of sociological theory, philosophical analysis, and moral passion to argue against reductionist theories of human personhood and agency.... This book will become required reading." (Choice)"

About the Author

Christian Smith is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Sociology, director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society, and director of the Center for Social Research at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author or coauthor of numerous books, including Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers and Moral, Believing Animals: Human Personhood and Culture.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 528 pages
  • Publisher: University Of Chicago Press (November 30, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226765946
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226765945
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.3 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #868,981 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Christian Smith is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society, and the Center for Social Research at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of many books, including What is a Person?: Rethinking Humanity, Social Life, and the Moral Good from the Person Up (Chicago 201); Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Do Not Give Away More Money (OUP 2008); Soul Searching: the Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (OUP 2005), Winner of the 2005 "Distinguished Book Award" from Christianity Today; and Moral, Believing Animals: Human Personhood and Culture (OUP 2003).

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

32 of 33 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on February 17, 2011
Format: Hardcover
A few years ago, Mary Douglas and Steven Ney brought to our attention the seriousness of the problem of "missing persons" in the social sciences (Missing Persons: A Critique of the Personhood in the Social Sciences (Wildavsky Forum)). In the introduction to their professedly polemical essay, they argued that "[t]he social sciences are an apparatus for seeing, and we must mark the areas that have been occluded by the equipment." While their focus was on the problems posed by impoverished conceptions of personhood such as Homo Economicus, numerous other equally-questionable though unarticulated assumptions about personhood are smuggled into every social-scientific account.

Smith's ambitious project unmasks some of these hidden assumptions about the person that underlie dominant sociological perspectives. Yet it is primarily a constructive project: it attempts to offer a plausible philosophical account of personhood that can sustain the relevance of social scientific endeavor in a way that also accounts for the social scientist as more than merely a social category or node in a network. It is an attempt to overcome the wide disjuncture between what much of our research claims and assumes about the world and what we are, as persons, who undertake such research to begin with.

His approach tackles the "big" and usually-sidestepped question of "what are we as human beings?" and responds with an emergentist account of personhood.
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful By George Lundskow on June 3, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
As a Sociology Professor myself, I plan on teaching this book this coming fall in my religion course. It follows a small, but in my view, correct trend in the social sciences and humanities, to take spiritual questions seriously. Rather than summarize the book or deliver a "peer" review, I would say instead that the book should appeal to anyone who thinks, or suspects, that natural science can offer only limited insight on religion, mind, and emotions. We have far more and different ways of knowing than the logic of the experiment, or as I call it, the slice and dice methodologies. People are more complex and dynamic than that. Similar books, whose authors also see problems in the sciences (both natural and social sciences) when it comes to religion, would be Landscapes of the Soul by Douglas Porpora, To Have or to Be? by Erich Fromm, and several by Huston Smith. This book also challenges the crude reductionism of people like Rodney Stark (a sociologist), who reduces everything past and present, including religion, to rational choice. If you believe that being human involves more than rational choices and genetic compulsion, this book should prove interesting, even compelling. Lastly, I'm not sure what Peter Fuchs really wants to say about the book in his review, because much of it doesn't make sense, whether he read the book or not.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Michael Bess on November 4, 2011
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This truly extraordinary book will assuredly become an influential classic to which scholars and students in the humanities and social sciences will return again and again over coming decades. It is an extremely ambitious study of human identity, drawing on theoretical and empirical materials from a broad array of disciplines ranging across the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities -- and it succeeds brilliantly in offering a lucid and persuasive synthesis. Smith anchors his concept of human personhood in the phenomenon of emergence, but his argument is ultimately framed in much broader terms, linking personal identity to a sustained analysis of structure and agency in social theory, and to still broader questions about the relation of fact and value, culminating with the concepts of The Good and human dignity.
The book is written extremely clearly, though the topic is unavoidably a complex and demanding one. Its argument is heavily philosophical in nature, while addressing major current debates in social theory and the humanities. Smith's erudition is amazing, but he wears it lightly, writing with verve and conviction. This book will reward the careful reader with a richness and breadth of vision that are downright exhilarating.
It is one of the very best books I have read in the past twenty years.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Margarita Mooney on August 9, 2011
Format: Hardcover
What common assumptions about human personhood underlie common concepts in sociology, such as power, structure, culture, and agency? Questions such as these always ran through my head as a graduate student in sociology, and now as a sociology professor, I find myself wanting to challenge students to answer these questions. In "What is a Person", the eminent sociologist Chris Smith has done a great service by forcefully arguing that ontology, not just epistemology, should be at the center of social theory. In other words, sociology should contribute to a better understanding of what it is to be human, and in order to do so, we have to first ask ourselves "What is a Person?"
Chapter 1 is a tour de force of all the theoretical tools later explored in the book and provides many reasons for readers to go on with the rest. The first few sections of Chapter 2 on critical realism and personalism will introduce readers to important concepts that, if applied, would make social theory and practice stronger. I particularly like Chapter 3's discussion of "strong" versus "weak" social constructionism. I re-read that section every time I want to respond to a relativist or post-modernist. I intend to use long sections of this book in an undergraduate social theory course this year, and with time, I hope to understand and be able to explain more fully Chris Smith's numerous groundbreaking arguments found in this book.

By Margarita Mooney
Assistant Professor of Sociology
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
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