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The Human as Person in America

Wilfred M. McClay's Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007)
The Human as Person in America

Figures in the Carpet is a collection of essays by scholars from a variety of disciplines, brought together by the Pew Charitable Trust for a “unique project in collaborative scholarship” (p. ix) at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. Their deliberations together involved three collaborative workshops and two public programs over the course of three years. Not all the essays in this book are a direct result of these meetings, but all have been shaped at least indirectly by an attempt by the Pew Trust to conduct a “multidisciplinary inquiry into the nature and concept of ‘the human person’” (ibid).

Crucial to understanding this work is the concept of “person” employed in it. In a brief, but very fine, introductory essay, Wilfred McClay largely plays off the idea of “personality” against the more popular, post-modern and destructive notion of “self”. The language of “person” restores to the discussion of the concept a clarity and authority that allows discussion of both historical individuals and a collective notion of the human being that “self” with its interiority and psychological mysticism does not. Each of the authors tries to work with this framework in mind. As the editor puts it, “One thing seems clear, however: that is the need to rescue the idea of individual dignity from its captivity in the realms of individual psychology and postmodernist subjectivity, by returning it to the public realm, where it may be able to find a firmer footing and deeper roots” (p. 10).

The book is broken up into four sections. The first, “Foundations” contains two essays, one on human depravity by the inimitable George Marsden, one suggesting that American pragmatism, if rightly understood, can provide useful resources for developing the idea of “person”. The second section, “Figurations”—playing off the title of the book taken from Henry James’s short story ‘The Figure in the Carpet’—contains five essays on particular topics as found in distinct periods of American history. These range from a discussion of early New England “Material Piety” to a treatment of the virtual self. Section three, “Seekers”, critiques four modern authors (Philip Rieff, Wendell Berry, Ivan Illich, and Christopher Lasch) and their contributions to the discussion. Section four, entitled “Structures”, apparently seeks to be broadly institutionally minded, discussing a potpourri of subjects from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa and what it has to teach Americans to the relationship of Catholicism to abolition.

The book is uneven as collections of essays tend to be, though the collection as a whole not only contributes an important element to the language of this discussion, but also does what it claims: it attempts to be broad enough to consider personhood as a concept, while specific enough to help us in our thinking in a concrete fashion. Each essay is footnoted and is introduced by a one-two page summary, apparently by the editor, which describes the main argument of the piece and introduces its author. The book is indexed, though it contains no list of contributors.

This is a superb volume for discussion among graduate students and academics of all kinds.

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