Situatedness and Separability

In the latest issue of Studies in Christian Ethics, I review of Marcia Pally’s book Commonwealth and Covenant: Economics, Politics, and Theologies of Relationality. The review can be read online at Sage Journals. It’s free at the moment, but will probably be behind a pay-wall later. Some excerpts from the review follow below.

Marcia Pally’s Commonwealth and Covenant raises a vital question that any serious engagement with modern ethical, economic and political problems has to deal with. But Pally’s framing of the question and the answer that she gives to it have serious defects. The question is how to overcome the excessive atomisation and individualism to which modern, liberal civilisation is so prone, without falling into the unjust sacrifice of individual persons to collective projects found in totalitarian reactions to liberalism. Pally frames the question in terms of ‘separability’ and ‘situatedness’— the separability of individual persons from the various larger cultural and political wholes to which they belong, and the situatedness of individuals in those greater wholes. Contemporary global society, she argues, suffers from too high a degree of separability, but a true solution to this problem cannot be found in a mere reaction towards more situatedness. Rather, what is needed is an ontology that recognises the mutual dependence of separability and situatedness: an ontology of ‘separability-amid-situatedness’ or ‘distinction-amid-relation’. In such an ontology, the distinction among unique individuals that separability implies is a necessary condition of the interpersonal relationships necessary for a truly flourishing unity of situatedness shared by them. Pally begins by giving a general description of an ontology which sees separability and situatedness as mutually dependent. She then examines certain classic thinkers who are often read as being advocates of only one of those two, including John Locke and Adam Smith (usually claimed for separability), and Edmund Burke and John Ruskin (usually claimed for situatedness), and tries to show that they were in fact advocating an ontology of mutual constitution. She then explores various ways of giving a theological grounding to such an ontology. […]

I find much to affirm in Pally’s argument. Indeed modernity does suffer from too much separability and the solution cannot consist in a mere reaction toward the other term of a simplistic binary. But the way in which Pally frames that binary prevents her from giving a precise enough account of the foundations of the modern excess of separability. It therefore prevents her from identifying a solution which could overcome that excess. One way of getting at the problem is to say that, in framing the problem in terms of separability vs. situatedness, Pally puts it too much in terms of mere ontology rather than of teleology or agathology. As Charles De Koninck argued in his writings on the common good in the 1940s, it is a typically modern error to frame questions of political ethics in terms of the ontology of persons and societies (what they are in themselves), rather than in terms of private and common goods (the ends in which persons find their perfection). If one takes the ontology of persons and societies as the basic consideration, then one is naturally led to ask: Which is more important, which should have priority in political decisions? When the question is put like that, it can naturally appear that there are only two answers: either (a) the liberal, individualist answer (which De Koninck called ‘personalism’) that the person as a substantially existing, conscious subject is more important, and society as a mere accidental unity is wholly ordered to individual persons; or (b) the totalitarian answer that some collective entity, conceived of as a kind of quasi-individual—whether that be the state or the nation or the race or the classless society of the future—is the all-important reality to which individual persons must be sacrificed. These answers will seldom be given as calls for entirely pure separability or situatedness—a mixture is practically unavoidable—but the individualistic answer will include elements of situatedness only for the sake of the separable individuals, whereas the totalitarian answer will include separability only for the sake of strengthening the collective.

But, as De Koninck showed, classical philosophers such as Aristotle, and patristic and medieval theologians such as Augustine and Aquinas, did not put the basic question of political ethics in terms of the being of persons and societies, but rather in terms of the private and common goods in which persons find their perfection. The basic question for them was thus not whether persons or societies are more important, but rather whether private goods or common goods are more important. They understood goods as things that complete or perfect persons. But goods can be private, in the sense that only one person can attain to them to the exclusion of others (such as material possessions), or they can be common in the sense that many can share in them without diminishing or dividing them (such as truth or justice). And of course they held that common goods have priority—especially ‘the’ common good that is definitive of a complete society. This is not a totalitarian position, since it is individual persons who are the beneficiaries of common goods. Common goods are really good for persons. But it is not an individualist or (in the sense De Koninck used the term) personalist position either, because persons experience common goods as more important than themselves, as causes to which they can dedicate their lives. […]

Pally explains that she chose the terms ‘separability’ and ‘situatedness’, rather than ‘individualism’ and ‘collectivism’, or ‘liberalism’ and ‘conservatism’, because they get more to ‘the primary conditions on which political and sociological notions are built’ (p. 3), and are ‘less burdened by philosophical or political partisanship’ (p. 4). But I would urge that using these categories as the most basic consideration in fact presupposes the ‘partisan’ philosophical position of Enlightenment liberalism in its quarrel with ancient philosophy—the true root of the modern excess of separability. The ubiquitous day-to-day practices of modern capitalism and pluralistic democracy are so closely connected to this root that it is indeed difficult at times to distinguish which is root and which is branch. But any attempt to overcome the excessive separability found in the latter without a precise analysis and firm rejection of the former is doomed to failure. […]

In the concluding section of the book, Pally looks at a number of examples of ‘covenantal communities’ in American history, and shows that the ones that proved sustainable had found a balance between separability and situatedness. Communities which suppressed individual initiative too much, or which lacked a strong common vision, tended to fall apart quickly. Significantly, the descriptions show that the strong common vision that the sustainable communities tended to have was usually a strong agreement about religion. That is, it was agreement about the end or goal of human life, and what leads to it. Or, to put it another way, it was agreement about those common goods which are greater than individual persons, and to which individuals ought to devote their lives. But Pally does not draw from these examples the conclusion one might expect: namely that the wider society in which political and economic deliberations take place ought to be founded on such agreement, and ordered to such goods. Rather, she ultimately agrees with the project of Enlightenment liberalism, that one can build a peaceful, happy society, without agreement on such ultimate matters. But no society that is liberal in that sense can truly be ordered to common goods. Hence every liberal society will inevitably drift towards further separability, with periodic reactions towards totalitarianism. Since Pally’s book does not recognise this, it cannot really contribute to a solution of the problem of excessive separability.

Header Image: Frank H. Mason, Railway Poster (detail).


7 thoughts on “Situatedness and Separability

  1. Thanks for writing this and placing it at Sancrucensis. For me it clarifies your point of view with regard to de Koninck and personalism; yet it does not really make me more inclined to accept it.

    We cannot return to the pre-Conciliar Church. This is not because of some tyranny that the post-Conciliar Church is hypocritically practicing mocking its vaunted defense of the dignity of the person (thesis entertained by the anti-Francis bloc, but more generally by the anti-conciliar bloc that denominates itself as Traditionalist).

    It is because of the nature of things.

    One cannot read St. Thomas (or read him well) as if Vatican II does not exist.

    But neither can one, for instance, read St. Thomas as if the sacramental teaching of Trent does not exist (for instance with regard to what Trent affirms about the sacrificial nature of the mass, doctrine which Trent does not invent, but certainly highlights and develops.

    And one cannot read St. Thomas and the Tradition without taking into account the affirmations of the First Vatican Council about Natural Theology and about Rationalism.

    But all that you will say is Thomist Doctrine. Yes it is, but
    in a certain sense we read St.Thomas through the Tridentine lens and through the lens of the clarifications made by the Church in the Nineteenth Century, and we must read him so, and reading him so helps us to read him as we ought to read him.

    This is not a matter of fetishizing Ecumenical Councils or anything else, but of thinking adequately about Tradition, Magisterium, and the Development of Doctrine. Or rather, it is about the Catholic sensus fidei, and about a Church which has the Holy Spirit as its Life Principle and is Pilgrim in the World.

    The Second Vatican Council has a personalist axis, but it also has an ecclesiological/sacramental/Christological axis.

    If one ignores the theological axis (for instance in the teaching of Dei Verbum on Revelation, Scripture, Tradition and Apostolic Succesion, and in the teaching of Lumen Gentium which, for strongly Biblical and ur-Traditional reasons affirms that the Church is Sacrament of Salvation, Pilgrim Church and the People of God but also in Sacrosanctum Concilium which is is the Church’s first ever document on Liturgy as liturgy, is a basin collecting the liturgical experience of the Church, is vastly important, and confirms and ongoing liturgical reform and mandates the reforms realized under Paul VI from which the Church has been drawing life more more than a half century–lex orandi lex credendi) one will misunderstand its personalist axis, mistaking it for mere liberalism and a mere accomodation to historical liberalism.

    Under the light of Conciliar theology conciliar personalism (especially Gaudium et Spes in its Christian anthropological core and Dignitatis Humanae in its doctrine on religion and on conscience) makes sense, so that taken as a whole and under the light of the sensus fidei, the teaching of Vatican II makes profound and unitary sense.

    I will not concede the term Traditionalists to the anti-Conciliar bloc, without doing so thematically and consciously: by Traditionalists we shall mean those who reject the Council out of a belief that it consists of a fundamental break with Tradition.

    Thes Traditionalists want for purely arbitrary reasons to put Vatican II in brackets.

    This becomes more evident to me as I experience that Traditionalists authors are not deeply familiar with the Council.

    If you ask them what the Council was all about they they will mumble about its “famous ambiguities.” They will build on false Manichean narratives about a Church that went belly up in defeat before the fatal onslaught of a sinister Modernist Conspiracy and has been teaching “pure naturalism” ever since some Year Zero after Pius XII. They will be incapable of accurately and fairly expressing what the Council actually teaches, something that is presupposed by a fair evaluation, positive or negative.

    Their view of the Council is a cliched, fundamentally inaccurate and superficial, based on journalism, on snippets of things and on ideology, in spite of its being expressed in reams and reams of literature.

    (Much the same can be said of the liberal reading of the Council, which is, the same reading the Traditionalist reading, founded on the same superficiality, with the liberals glorying in what the Trads reject as “opposed to Tradition”)

    The personalism embraced by the Council and articulated ever more luminously by the post-Conciliar popes is rooted in Conciliar doctrine. It rhymes not only with that doctrine but also with any adequate conceptions of the common good. It will help you to read Aristotle and Plato, St. Augustine and St. Thomas and to read them well.

    This personalism cannot be reduced to “the liberal, individualist” solution to a false binary between person and society (which as, Father Edmund tells us, is what de Koninck means by personalism).

    Father Edmund tells us that our ontology cannot be blind to teleology and agathology, but it is the same Christian theology that tells us that the Triune God One in Three Persons is the End of all things THAT ALSO TELLS US that persons, made in God’s image, are ends and not means.

    In our interpersonal dealings we are dealing with eschatology in the here and now. This is brought out in the deep teachings of John Paul II in his Theology of the Body.

    This sense of the dignity of the human person made in God’s image is in profound harmony with the Council’s reaffirmation of the Catholicity of Christ’s Church, universal sacrament of salvation.


    • I have never been “anti-conciliar.” I agree that there is a sense of “personalism” that is consistent with the primacy of the common good. But I disagree that “persons, made in God’s image, are ends and not means.” As Karol Wojtilla argues in Love and Responsibility, that Kantian principle has to be reformulated as persons _have_ ends.


      • 1. When I wrote that of the principle that people should be treated as ends not as means, I was thinking of Love and Responsibility, which speaks of the imperative of not using others, but of treating others as persons. So it is interesting that you should refer to Love and Responsibility. Though Wojtyla does reformulate the Kantian axiom so as to underline that persons have ends (something that Kantian agnosticism would in principle deny) and thereby makes a good point; I don’t think that I need to change my affirmation. I don’t have any special allegiance to Kant, and what I have said does not need to be purified of a Kantian point of view which is not mine. But I don’t think it is wrong to affirm that the personalist ethics of Wojtyla has learned from Kant in some sense.

        Man as a person HAS an end. He has an end in a sense in which non-personal beings do not have an end. HAVING an end is what makes him person. We could say that HAVING an end makes him an end, and makes it unethical and wrong to USE him. Kant tells us that man is an end, not a means, but He can’t tell us WHY. The formulation of Karol Wojtyla tells us why: the person cannot be used, because he is an end not a means, because he HAS an end.

        My edition of Love and Responsibility gives us the following footnote:
        “The person himself has or at least should have his end: By reformulating Kant’s practical imperative, Wojtyła does not intend to oppose Kant’s understanding of the human person as an end in himself. According to Kant, a person as a rational being possesses existence that is an end in itself, hence he cannot be used merely as a means. In a sense, this truth is confirmed by the Church’s recognition of man as the only being that is willed by God for its own sake (see Gaudium et Spes, 24). However, Kant disregards the teleological moment, which Wojtyła emphasizes in his reformulation of Kant’s practical imperative: the relation to another man does not merely depend on the fact of him being an end in himself, but also on him being ordained to ends outside of himself that are perfective of him (and of his freedom), and ultimately to God as his final end. Wojtyła’s formulation of the personalistic principle encompasses the ontological depth of man, his dignity as a creature called to beatific union with God.”

        Woktyla, Karol; Ignatik, Grzegorz. Love and Responsibility (Kindle Locations 5292-5300). Pauline Books and Media. Kindle Edition.

        2. I am not saying that you personally are anti-conciliar. What I am saying is that Conciliar doctrine gives a theological basis for the personalism (also Conciliar) that has been developed posteriorly in magisterial documents of John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis.

        This makes it something rather peculiar for a person to say that he is against personalism because de Koninck wrote an essay against the personalists, meaning by personalists, those who deny the teleological dimension of the person (such as Kant). Peculiar, but not necessarily wrong. The whole story must be told.

        The person in an end in himself not a means. I think that stands. (Notice that by saying person, I have not said human person, which qualifies.) The person is both an end and has an end.

        For this to make sense one has to understand person in terms of relationality.

        (There is an interesting interchange between your father and David L. Schindler on the role of relationality in defining the person and on the extent to which the Theology of the Body can be considered original with respect to the Boethian-Thomistic conception of the person and the Aristotelian understanding of the category of relation. I think David L. Schindler had the better of it, by not downplaying the role of relationality in defining the person.)

        Where I am in agreement with the project of de Koninck is simply in acknowledging that studying Plato, Aristotle, and Augustine helps us (by means of agathology and teleology) to resist a merely secular and closed concept of the person.


        • The agathology and teleology that one finds in Plato, Aristotle, Augustine and St. Thomas is strangely modern. It is true that there is an (oxymoronic) “scientific prejudice” against the teleological Fifth Way, according to which a stubbornly rational man such as Dembski gets crucified for arguing for Intelligent Design (I don’t think that his objections to evolution are particularly cogent, but his argument FOR Intelligent Design stands like a rock, something that was recognized by Christoph Schönborn, being the good Thomist that he is.). T

          Teleology is appearing in Contemporary physics teleology “at the back door”.
          But there at the back door one is realizing how central it really is. Steven Weinberg, who is on the one hand a committed atheist, admits, witnesses on the other hand feels the unstoppable yearning of the mind of the mathematical physicist for a Final Theory. and writes about it in quite mystical terms, citing John Donne. (The Benedictine Stanley Jaki reminds him soberly [through Gödel] that such a theory is NOT forthcoming.)

          But doesn’t that very yearning say something to us about teleology, that the mind cannot function without it, and if the mind cannot function without it, how can the universe function without it? The whole historical gambit of mathematical physics seems to be based on the wager that teleology is real, or, in other words, that the beautiful explanation is the better explanation. (cfr. Eugene Wigner on the Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in Science). The greatest physician-mathematicians of our time (men such as Edward Witten and Michael Atiyah) will tell you that their theorizing is driven by a faith in Beauty, a faith which is at its root based on teleology, The great priest-mathematician-physicisst-philosopher Michael Heller reminds us how the mathematics of evolving systems stands at the center of contemporary physics, and how Category Theory and Non-Commutative Geometry/Quantum Groups point us in the direction of a kind of Cosmic

          Personalism in which relation becomes the single decisive category, and space-time, at least as a static background, becomes secondary.
          Personalism and teleology are not opposed, but correlative; the idea of space-time as a static background seems tied to positivist ontological presuppositions, which seem less and less attractive from the point of view of cosmology, and in contemporary science the cosmological question becomes ever more central, ever more unavoidable.)

          In poetry and in the arts the teological sense is acutely present. Take a poet such as Gerard Manley Hopkins or a painter such as Vincent van Gogh and ask yourself if their sense of beauty/teleology/agathology is classical or modern? It is both. And to understand what is going on in poetry and the arts one needs something very much like the development of sacramental theology that the Vatican Council offers you. “Why do you call me good?” Our Lord asks. “Only One is good!”


      • Pope Francis has now changed the Catechism of the Catholic Church so that it will affirm that the Death Penalty is morally inadmissible. This is very much in accordance with the Christian (not Kantian) idea that persons must be treated as ends, thus not as means. This is in accord with my kind of integralism; but is it in accord with your kind of integrism?

        Various writers who might ally themselves with a certain kind of integralism–not my kind (Peter Kwasnieuwski, Michael Pakaluk, Edward Feser are already heaving charges of heterodoxy at Pope Francis for having done what he has done.)

        Pope Francis is showing himself to be my kind of integralist, because he respects the principle of the common good and recognizes the teleological dimension of the common good; it is precisely by recognizing this teleological dimension that the state must treat persons as an end and not as a means. This prohibits the scapegoating of persons. It prohibits the arrogation of a right to Lord it over life and death.

        But just as the person has a right to self-defense so does the body politic have as a quasi-personal reality according to which it may exercize self-defense. To use the analogy used by St. Thomas: just as the body may reject a member which attacks it, so may the body politic, the social body, reject a member that attacks it.

        But the common good is the good of each and of all. So the state may never trample on the dignity of the person, and may never treat persons as mere instruments or as a mere commodity. Thus the rejection of the Death Penalty. The Death Penalty arrogates a right that the state does not have.


      • God bless you, but the fact that YOU read Aquinas without taking into account Lateran III does not mean that WE can read Aquinas without taking into account Vatican II. Aquinas would have been the last person to read Aquinas without taking into account the Magisterium of the Church.


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