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

4.3 out of 5 stars 12 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


“This is an outstanding and important work of scholarship. I am confident What Is a Person? will be a landmark for the field; it will generate a good deal of contention, will be cited for many years to come, and will help influence the direction of social theory and the practice of sociology itself. Smith synthesizes a wide range of arguments, positions, theories, and assumptions in ways that are innovative, analytically powerful, and, finally, convincing. Yet the real originality of the book is in the structure of the larger argument, the cumulative weight of his critical but disciplined reading of this literature and, of course, the case he makes for a critical realist personalism as an alternative to various prevailing models. This is an extraordinary accomplishment.”
(James Davison Hunter, University of Virginia)

What Is a Person? boldly raises the fundamental questions about the understanding of the person in social science that many thinkers either want to ignore or are content to say mindless things about. I know of no better example of a social scientist employing the resources of philosophy to deepen, clarify, correct, and enrich his own field. It is lucidly organized, philosophically sophisticated, written in clear prose, and takes account of an astounding amount and variety of literature. For me, a philosopher rather than a social scientist, Smith’s way of typologizing and critiquing the main options in his field was extraordinarily illuminating. It’s a terrific contribution to a topic of fundamental importance.”--Nicholas Wolterstorff, Yale University (Nicholas Wolterstorff)

“Smith has addressed a crucial and unanswered question in social theory and philosophy and has done so from an entirely original angle. Although sociology in the United States has long abjured any systematic discussion of ontological issues, many sociologists now realize that they cannot move forward without addressing the questions Smith raises here. In addition to this ontological turn, sociologists have also shown increased interest in alternatives to neopositivist sociological orthodoxy. Given a century of philosophical underdevelopment in the discipline, an author like Smith and a book like this one are more important than ever. What Is a Person? is destined to be something of a classic.”--George Steinmetz, University of Michigan (George Steinmetz)

What is a Person? is a clear and comprehensive reconsideration of the meaning of human personhood as the central core of social structures. With breadth of intellect and balance of wisdom, Smith resets the frame of reflection for the most important discussions of the twenty-first century.” (William B. Hurlbut, Stanford University)

“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 is crucial reading for political scientists and sociologists, as well as theologians and philosophers.”—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

  • Hardcover: 544 pages
  • Publisher: University Of Chicago Press (September 15, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226765911
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226765914
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.3 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 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: #2,124,675 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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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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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
In chapter 1, “The Emergence of Personhood,” Christian Smith provides his readers with a clear explanation of (1) what he means by “emergence,” and (2) why he regards personhood as emergent. He emphasizes that a person is more than the sum of the attributes of a person. “By person,” he says (p. 61) “I mean a conscious, reflexive, embodied, self-transcending center of subjective experience, durable identity, moral commitment, and social communication who – as the efficient cause of his or her own responsible actions and interactions – exercises complex capacities for agency and intersubjectivity in order to develop and sustain his or her own incommunicable self in loving relationships with other personal selves and with the nonpersonal world” (p. 61). The constructive parts of Smith’s book elaborate upon each element in that definition. He says (p.20) that his purpose is primarily constructive and affirmative, even though he does engage in rather extensive criticisms of social scientists and philosophers who construct models of the human person that are either incomplete or incorrect. One of the strengths of the book is a very clear explanation of what he means by “emergence,” and how his concept of emergence informs his model of the human person.

Chapter 2 is an explanation of his “Key Theoretical Resources” -- critical realism, philosophical personalism and anti-scientistic phenomenology. He relies heavily on the critical realism of Roy Bhaskar and his disciples. He agrees with them that “the real” includes things that are neither “empirical” or “actual” (p. 93). A habit, for example, is real even though it is not empirically observable and is not always generating actual behavior. My habit of brushing my teeth remains real even when I am not actually brushing my teeth.
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