The Use of Phenomenology in the Writings of St. John Paul the Great

Reading Time: 24 minutes

Joshua Orsi, The Catholic University of America

“Phenomenology is primarily a style of thought, a relationship of the mind with reality, whose essential and constitutive features it aims to grasp, avoiding prejudice and schematisms.  I mean that it is, as it were, an attitude to intellectual charity to the human being and the world, and for the believer, to God, the beginning and end of all things.”[1]


            Pope St. John Paul II delivered the approximately[2] one-hundred-thirty lectures comprising his “Theology of the Body” during his Wednesday catechetical lectures over a period from late 1979 to late 1984.  This monumental body of work stands as arguably the greatest personal achievement of his long and active pontificate and forms, along with his pre-papal writings on the subject, one of the most valuable contributions to ethics in the twentieth century.  As a young priest, the then-Karol Wojtyla[3] had written his doctoral thesis under the supervision of Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, the foremost “strict observance Thomists” of the pre-Conciliar era, but his writing departed notably, though not definitively, from the dry, syllogistic style of many of his contemporaries in Catholic philosophy.  Instead, inspired by his time at the University of Lublin, Wojtyla embraced an existentialist[4] approach to philosophy, beginning his work with an open reflection on the nature of human experience and only later turning to metaphysical and theological sources to complete his arguments.  The “Theology of the Body”[5] is a prime example of this phenomenological method in action, the first of which we will explore in dialogue with Wojtyla’s influences, including Max Scheler and Edith Stein (the latter of whom he formally canonized in 1998, after twenty years as Pope).

The Limits of Phenomenology

            At the beginning of our reflections, however, we must acknowledge the difficulty in properly parsing John Paul II’s work.  The Theology of the Body is five hundred pages of dense philosophical and theological writing and covers topics as diverse as Ancient Near Eastern love poetry and the use of condoms, often in the same context.  More troublingly, the Pope is not what we might call a “pure phenomenologist”; he rarely bothers to keep his analysis of experience and perception clear of metaphysical and epistemological ruminations, which must be cleared away before an exploration of his phenomenological thought can begin.  Because of this, it would be prudent to discuss the Holy Father’s approach to phenomenology in the first place, particularly in contrast with one of his most significant influences, Max Scheler, on whose philosophy Wojtyla wrote his doctoral thesis[6].

            One of Scheler’s chief contributions to philosophy is his multivolume Der Formalismus in der Ethik und die materiale Wertethik[7], published from 1913-16, which played an integral role in Wojtyla’s Scheler.  At its heart is a scathing critique of the ethical systems promoted by Hobbes, Hume, and eventually Kant, which Scheler understands as presupposing a false dualism in which the human person is from the first opposed to and at odds with the material world.  His reasoning is laid out clearly on page sixty-seven of Formalism, where he states the following concerning the “modern” worldview of these thinkers (especially Kant): “This ‘attitude’ I can only describe as a basic hostility toward or distrust of the given as such, a fear of the given as ‘chaos’…“that world there outside me, that nature there within me.  Nature is what is…to be ‘controlled’; it is the ‘hostile,’ the ‘chaos,’ etc.”  Scheler sums up this view as “hatred for the world,” which demands that reality be “organized” and “controlled,” and he contrasts this with his phenomenological understanding, which “attitude” he describes as “love of the world, of trust in and loving devotion to the world.”

            Two important points should be drawn from the above quotations.  In the first place, Scheler’s phenomenology maintains that the early modern philosophers erred in establishing a dichotomy between the world and the self.  Specifically, they made metaphysical claims that conformed to their preconceived philosophical systems rather than appealing to the universal facts of experience, which resulted in an implicit hostility in their understanding of “the Other.”  Owing to this error and subsequent hostility, early modern thinkers characterized the relationship between the self and the world as one of domination as opposed to stewardship and – Scheler’s choice of words here is striking – love and devotion.  A phenomenological approach cannot see the world, as it is given to us directly in experience, as anything less than benign.[8]  Indeed, as Scheler notes, it is more than benign; it is truly lovable. 

            I want to expand on Scheler’s argument and attempt to provide an account for precisely why the world appears lovable.  Without muddying our feet in metaphysics, we can echo Aristotle in saying that “the soul is, fundamentally, everything that is.”[9]  In this profound reflection of reality, we feel an intrinsic “drawing out” into the world, what Schillebeeckx and Schoonenberg called “the immense longing” or “call for the infinite.”[10]  There is thus a strange tension between personal consciousness, which is by its very nature limited, and its own desire for the unlimited.  The mind (without intending the term in any metaphysical sense) feels the Void, the Lack, and tries to fill it with this primal desire.  This desire, which is by no means artificial, being endemic to the human condition (as a thought experiment, try envisioning perfect happiness, a primal desire, without an appeal to infinity), comes to us as a sort of “echo of Love”: we love or desire as the result of having been Loved and Desired in the first place; there is in our very consciousness the encounter with the Divine, and for this reason, perceiving the world as the work of divinity, we see it too as loveable, for it is already Loved.  In other words, the world comes to us as gift.  This is implicit in the very axioms of phenomenology – that the world is “given to” us, that it “unveils” itself for us.  It is for this reason that Scheler can say that we ought to “love” and “devote” ourselves to this world, to this great Gift.

            I have tried to couch the preceding paragraphs in as phenomenologically palatable terms as possible, but they certainly could be criticized on the grounds of being “too metaphysical.”  And this, ultimately, is where Wojtyla breaks with Scheler – the latter wants to restrict himself to “pure phenomenology,” whereas the former wants to “throw out a bridge across the abyss” and get on with the business of concrete reality.  Scheler restrains himself from making metaphysical or epistemological claims – for example, he says that the human person “must never be considered a thing or a substance (…) The person is, rather, the immediately co-experienced unity of experiencing.”[11]  I regard this as a betrayal of the very principles of phenomenology: any honest evaluation of the data, such as that which phenomenology purports to perform, is intrinsically bound up with and must, eventually, result in metaphysical and epistemological claims.  The very process of rational evaluation presupposes both things to be rationally evaluated and the ability to know those rationally evaluated things, i.e., cognition itself necessitates metaphysics and epistemology.  The phenomenologist can certainly postpone making metaphysical and epistemological claims via the epoché, but he or she cannot forget that it is just a postponing, and that phenomenology is not an end in itself but really is “fundamental ontology.”  Scheler’s unwillingness to commit to making metaphysical claims dooms his theory: what exactly is this “unity of experiencing” and what exactly does it experience, if it is not ultimately metaphysical?

            Let me make something quite clear that will be of the absolute essence for understanding John Paul II’s interpretation of phenomenology: at least with regard to finite creatures, the objective and the subjective cannot be separated.  It is impossible to be subjective without also being, in another aspect, objective.  One cannot divorce metaphysics from phenomenology.  This is intrinsic to the very term: logos is the “unveiling” of the “phenomenon,” which must have its basis in concrete reality.

            Wojtyla apparently agreed with my assessment.  In his final take on Scheler’s theory, he writes “Scheler’s ethical system is not suitable (…) There is no doubt that Scheler’s insufficient objectivism springs from his phenomenological principles. (…) In order to grasp ethical value in its real and objective position, one would have to proceed from…meta-phenomenological and even meta-physical premises.”[12]  A few pages later, he doubles down on his critique: “The whole difficulty is the result of the phenomenological premises of the system and we must assign the blame to those principles.”[13]  Rephrasing our conclusions in the above paragraph, we might say that phenomenology (at least how Wojtyla and I see it) is the study of the real; it is fundamentally incomplete without an appeal to “the real.”  Thus, while phenomenology is undoubtedly very useful in dispelling the premature sophistry of the skeptics, it must remain only a starting point.  It would be unwise for the theologian, in his opinion, to “forego the great advantages which the phenomenological method offers his work. (…) The phenomenological method plays only a secondary assisting role. (…) The Christian thinker, especially the theologian, who makes use of phenomenological experience in his work, cannot be a Phenomenologist.”[14]

            The preceding several pages, and especially this last paragraph, should make Wojtyla’s position on the use of phenomenology, both its benefits and its limitations, exceedingly clear.  We are now equipped for an exposition and analysis of his use of the phenomenological method as Pope John Paul II, particularly in the first chapter of the Theology of the Body, “Christ Appeals to the Beginning,” comprising the first twenty-three meditations.

A Brief Excursus on Human Nature

            However, we cannot yet proceed to this analysis, at least not before outlining how the Holy Father understands the nature of the human person.  We saw earlier that Scheler interpreted the category of personhood in purely phenomenological terms, as a “unity of experiencing,” instead of as a metaphysical substance.  Wojtyla broke with him on that account, believing such a restrictive phenomenology to be self-defeating.  Even so, in his reflections as Pope, he understands the human person in primarily phenomenological terms.  Much of that understanding, however, is implicit in the text, so I think it best to elaborate the Holy Father’s personalism before proceeding to our discussion.

            John Paul II understands the human person in his or her totality as a “lived body”; to borrow Chesterton’s phrasing, “a man’s body is his body as his mind is his mind…he can only be a balance and union of the two.”[15]  Setting aside all metaphysical claims for the moment, we can understand this phenomenologically in the sense that the body is not so much the temple in which the “I” dwells or the ship which the ego captains as it is really and truly, on a fundamental level, the person, himself or herself.  I am my body and my body is I, though not in a restrictive sense; there is an aspect of me which is greater or higher than the body, which craves infinity, as noted above.  Even so, I would not be quite myself without my body; to put it in St. Thomas’ (admittedly metaphysical) phrasing, “The soul united to the body is more like God than the soul separated from the body because it possesses its own nature more perfectly.”[16]  What this means, in plain prephilosophical language, is that I am ultimately more at home in my body than anywhere else, and that wherever I end up, my body had better be there too.  It, in a way, “completes me.”  I cannot resist giving a final quote on this subject from Josef Pieper, who wrote that “man is corporeal…in a certain sense, even the soul is corporeal.”[17]

            The fastidious phenomenologist will object that I have gone too metaphysical in the preceding paragraph, and they are right.  It is important to take the above quotations without implying any reference to metaphysics.  Even so, there is plenty of material available expositing that material phenomenologically, most chiefly the work of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, a martyred Carmelite nun whom John Paul II canonized in 1998, known in her secular life as Edith Stein.  Her 1916 dissertation, On the Problem of Empathy (written and defended several years before her conversion to Catholicism), dealt with the phenomenological relationship between the “I” and the body at length.  The following quotations, which serve to illustrate the fundamental, albeit not absolute, unity between the two have been taken from the subsection entitled “The givenness of the living body.”

Stein describes a thought experiment to demonstrate how the body is essential to the human person.  “‘In thought’ I can get up from my desk (…) I do not take my living body along. (…) Thus my ‘I’ has been doubled…even though the real ‘I’ cannot be released from its body. (…) An ‘I’ without a body is a possibility.  But a body without an ‘I’ is utterly impossible.”[18]  Stein contends that even though we can hypothesize our consciousness as lacking corporeal existence, there remains a unique connection with our physicality, the latter of which is in some way defined by the ego.  But despite the ego’s transcendence, the body still has a defining claim to it.  The fact that the “I” may be duplicated, perhaps triplicated or quadruplicated if we continue the experiment, but not transferred out of its “living body,” not wholly separated, is an evidence of our essential corporeality not simply as “I’s” but as persons.  Consider this now in the light of the end of Stein’s quote, that a (“lived” or “living”) body is impossible without an “I” – the very fact that in my mind’s eye I can see me sitting at this desk, and not a clone or an impostor, but rather me in my corporeality, is proof that I am more than my ego, and my body is more than a “negligible napkin.”[19]  The ancients, despite their prephilosophical milieu, described the issue in even more arresting language; to the Ancient Near East, for example, “the body was considered the outer manifestation of the personality.”[20]  Stein herself advocated for a view with striking parallels, or at least interesting similarities.[21]

Now that we have cleared up this issue, we can proceed with our analysis of TOB, specifically three aspects: “original solitude,” “original unity,” and “the experience of shame.”

Original Solitude

            The first section of TOB is a discussion of the primordial state of humankind before the Fall described in Genesis 3; however, the Pope explains his reasoning regarding the archetypal human (Adam) with reference to the experience of contemporary persons.  He begins with a discussion of what he terms “original solitude”; that is, the state of the person as he or she encounters the world.

            It might be objected at this point, not without merit, that such an encounter exists only in the abstract.  Stories of feral children aside, the human person is born into the community of persons (for which the Pope uses the Latin phrase communio personarum) and does not grow up in some hypothetical “state of nature.”  It would appear as though the Holy Father, in expositing the Creation Narratives, has allowed himself to be affected by their stylization and has abandoned phenomenological analysis from the get-go.

            This is a worthy objection; however, both the Creation Narratives (specifically the second, the Yahwistic account given in Genesis 2-3) and the Holy Father are considerably subtler in their analysis.  The “original solitude” of which the latter writes exists on both the literary and the personal levels.  “Solitude,” as a matter of fact, “has two meanings: one deriving from man’s very nature, that is, from his humanity…the other deriving from the relationship between male and female…this is evident on the basis of the first meaning.”[22]  Therefore, what the Pope means by “original solitude” is an ongoing and ultimately integral aspect of the human person.  There might never be a person who actually “encounters the world” from a state of nature, but for each and every one of us, we are always already engaged in that encounter.  The Creation Narrative which the Pope has set out to interpret merely sets that encounter in literary terms.  Indeed, the Holy Father himself says “this issue is prior…in the existential sense: it is prior ‘by its very nature.’”[23]

            What then is “original solitude”?  The first meaning, as listed by the Pope above, is rooted in our humanity, specifically in our humanity juxtaposed with the material universe.  Quoting the Biblical account, “So the Lord God formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds of the air, and he brought them to the man to see what he would call them; whatever the man called each living creature was then its name.”[24]  John Paul II takes especial interest in the central clause of this verse, noting that its construction implies “an examination that man undergoes before God (and in some way also before himself).  Through this ‘test,’ man gains the consciousness of his own superiority, that is, that he cannot be put on a par with any other species of living beings on the earth.”[25]  The phenomenological import of this statement should be clear: the first aspect of “original solitude,” endemic to every person, is our sense of separation from the material world.  This “separation,” however, is far from clean, as the section above showed: in our corporeality and yet simultaneous incorporeality, we form a sort of “bridge” between both the physical and metaphysical worlds with which we are immediately confronted.  Bodily perception plays a significant role in our realization of this fact: “The body, by which man shares in the visible created world, makes him at the same time aware of being ‘alone.’ (…) Otherwise he would not have been able to arrive at this conviction…if his body had not helped him to understand it.”[26]

            This, then, is the first meaning of the term “original solitude.”  By their very nature, through and despite their bodily interaction with the material world, every human person comes to the realization that he or she is both in the world and yet not of it.  This is fairly straightforward, but according to the Pope, it merits closer consideration.  The physical body, we already noted, is essential to establishing our own innate “otherworldliness,” but this is somewhat counterintuitive.  “The awareness of solitude could have been shattered precisely because of the body itself.  Basing himself on the experience of his own body, the man…could have reached the conclusion that he is substantially similar to the other living beings (animalia).”[27]  Rather, it is through “awareness of the body” – the body, our symbol of solidarity with the material and corruptible universe – that we are in fact distinguished from said universe.  The primal act of our rationality, it would seem (this same rationality which, as I noted above, is concerned with the “totality of beings”), is to recognize our own corporeality, and in and through this recognition, we encounter ourselves as “originally solitary.”  This is confirmed by the very nature of the question; in asking ourselves, implicitly or explicitly, “am I different from the rest of the world?”, we find our answer.  “All of this reveals itself not on the basis of some primordial metaphysical analysis, but on the basis of man’s sufficiently clear concrete subjectivity. Man is a subject not only by his self-consciousness…but also based on his own body.”[28]

            There is, however, a second meaning to original solitude as well, which proceeds organically from the first.  The fact that we are in some sense “alone in the world,” while not necessarily wrong, implies a lack, and as mentioned earlier, it is in the nature of humanity to call after the infinite.  Thus, the “self-as-solitary” (which it in a sense always is, as distinguished from “the world”) is engaged in, and in fact is always engaged in, a twofold quest: first, the desire for transcendence, spoken of earlier, and second, “his own being…his own definition…his own identity.”[29]  “Deep calls unto deep.”  The ends of the two quests are really One.  But that begins to wax theological.  There is a more immediate answer, one bound up in the nature of human desire and experience.

Original Unity

            The second meaning of original solitude, that “relational” aspect, can only be fully considered in the light of what John Paul II calls “original unity,” which is the idealized fulfillment of the primal drive that arises from the first meaning of original solitude.  Again, it might be objected that we are not dealing with phenomenological data here, so it is important to understand that the abstract concept of “original unity” forms a reference or (to borrow one of the Pope’s favorite phrases) “point of departure” for all our subsequent investigations of immediate experience.  The human desire for unity, with the world as a whole and another person in particular, is primal, and it presupposes an ideal; these desires are therefore fundamentally phenomenological.

            The Pope gives the outline of what he means by “original unity” in reference to original solitude.  As noted above, the two are intrinsically connected, as “the meaning of original solitude enters and becomes part of the meaning of original unity.”[30]  He further reinforces the conclusions of his meditations on original solitude as essential for a discussion of unity; the body, or rather, the experience of the body, is foundational for understanding and linking the two.  Much is made of the complementation of the sexes, but on a deeper level, when we begin our departure from solitude in our encounter with the Other, we encounter them not first as male or female, but as human.  We encounter them with “at last, bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh.”[31]

            John Paul II makes a great deal of that verse, and it frequently appears throughout TOB.  It is spoken, in literary terms, by Everyman to Everywoman, and more broadly, by every person to his or her fellow.  It is the encounter with what the Pope calls the “‘second I,’ which is also personally and equally related to the situation of original solitude…that whole process of establishing human identity in relation to all living beings.”[32]  The Biblical language is even more evocative.  In the Yahwistic narrative, the human person (not yet specifically identified as male or female, falls into a “deep sleep,” which in the style of the time could be seen as a metaphor for what the Holy Father describes as (among other possibilities) “‘a dark terror’ of nonexistence, as at the threshold of creation: ‘the earth was unformed and deserted and darkness covered the abyss’ (Genesis 1:2).”[33]

            Let us pause for a moment to consider the ramifications of this.  In the Biblical account, the primal Man, the Everyman, left alone in original solitude, lapses into a “sleep of sadness,” into “dark terror” on the edge of the abyss.  It raises the very question of one’s existence – as if confirmation of our reality were dependent upon one like us.  Analyzing our personal experience, we find that this is true.  We have a primal urge toward and for the Other; we have a “dream,” as it were, of a “second I,” however implicit, and our encounter with the Other is like coming out of darkness.  It very well could be described as a sort of “re-creation” of the world.  And what is poetically expressed in the opening chapters of Genesis is true in a real sense of our daily lives, as we come into contact with those who are fundamentally like us, who are, indeed, “of exact correspondence.”[34]

            Let us temporarily set aside our discussion of TOB and refer to another source, specifically, Emmanuel Levinas, a French Jewish philosopher who was a significant influence on John Paul II.  In his Totality and Infinity, Levinas focuses on the encounter with the Other as a glimpse of the divine, saying “the Other remains infinitely transcendent, infinitely foreign; his face in which his epiphany is produced and which appeals to me breaks with the world.”[35]  What this specifically means is that “the face resists possession, resists my powers.”[36]  In other words, in encountering the Other we find ourselves “face-to-face” with a being of what one might describe as “common destiny” or origin with us, unable to be controlled by us.  Note the similarities with the thought of John Paul II: the human person is in some sense distinguished from the material world by their “control” of it[37].  But owing to one’s “exact correspondence” with the Other, it is clear that the Other is, as under Levinas’ account, unable to be controlled, being, one might say, “of the same stuff” as the “I.”  Considering this fundamental solidarity in the ideal, as John Paul II endeavors to do, would doubtless lead us to the conclusion that we “live in a society of possible gods and goddesses…the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship.”[38]

            Now that we have considered the gravity of the encounter with the Other, we can begin to consider a phrase which I mentioned earlier in passing, the “community of persons,” which John Paul II regards as better preserved in the Latin communio personarum[39].  Much of the Pope’s thought on this topic is drawn from the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Latin title Gaudium et Spes) from the Second Vatican Council, at which a younger Wojtyla played an important role.  Section twelve of the document reads, in part, “But God did not create man as a solitary, for from the beginning ‘male and female he created them’ (Gen. 1:27). Their companionship produces the primary form of interpersonal communion. For by his innermost nature man is a social being, and unless he relates himself to others he can neither live nor develop his potential.”[40] 

            As Pope, John Paul II casts these reflections in phenomenological language and examines their origin in human experience.  I will quote his meditation at length: “As we observed before, in his original solitude man reaches personal consciousness in the process of ‘distinction’ from all living beings (animalia), and at the same time, in this solitude, he opens himself toward a being akin to himself, defined by Genesis as ‘a help similar to himself’ (Gen 2:18, 20).  This opening is no less decisive for man as person; in fact, it is perhaps more decisive than the ‘distinction’ itself.  The man’s solitude in the Yahwist account presents itself to us not only as the first discovery of the characteristic transcendence proper to the person, but also as the discovery of an adequate relation ‘to’ the person, and thus as opening toward and waiting for a ‘communion of persons.’”[41]

            This section of the Holy Father’s catechesis is enormously rich, especially when read in the light of the second meaning of “original solitude” given above, as well as his explicit remarks regarding the essential connection between original solitude and original unity.  The process of personal individuation is twofold: first the “I” distinguishes itself from and in its material surroundings, but it only comes to completion in meeting its double.[42]  This conception of original unity is cemented by the Pope’s dramatic statement that “Man becomes an image of God not so much in the moment of solitude as in the moment of communion.”[43]  The import of this should be made fully clear: in the encounter with the Other, the “I” becomes like God.

The Experience of Shame

            The Pope spends the next several meditations specifically dealing with the interpersonal, especially the somatic, union between man and woman, in which this “divine image” takes clearest shape.  While doubtless very valuable, these reflections are not particularly relevant, in my opinion, to the person qua person, regardless of gender.  We will therefore pass over them.  There is, however, one remaining aspect in the first chapter of TOB that I want to address, specifically the phenomenological content of the encounter with the Other, for which the Pope uses the term “original nakedness” as his point of departure.  While the Holy Father’s exposition presupposes the actual “nakedness” given in the literary account in Genesis 2-3, his understanding is grounded enough to allow for a more generically phenomenological evaluation.

            The bulk of the lectures which deal with the question of original nakedness (this being the topic for most of the second half of the meditations in the first chapter of TOB) discuss the concept of shame, which, in the Biblical account, was lacking in our earliest ancestors, but entered the domain of human experience (particularly with regard to the nakedness of the body) after the original sin.  Shame is understood by the Pope as, fundamentally, “fear in the face of the ‘second I’…this is substantially fear for one’s own ‘I.’  With shame, the human being manifests…the need for affirmation and acceptance. (…) He experiences this at the same time within himself and toward the outside, in the face of the ‘other.’”[44]  Note the similarity with the thought of Levinas: “The expression the face introduces into the world does not defy the feebleness of my powers, but my ability for power.”[45]

            In our encounter with the Other, in our encounter, as it were, with divinity, we realize our absolute powerlessness.  Remember our discussion on the nature of human activity in the world – how the person’s superiority is practically demonstrated by their physical dominion over the world.  The defining characteristic of the person is that they are not merely a thing; “And do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.”  In this the profound impotence of the ‘I’ is realized: that we cannot through physical means, through our mark of material power, overcome the Other.  In every interaction, therefore, in every encounter with the Other, we are reminded of their fundamental equality with us.  For this reason, the Pope can say we crave “affirmation and acceptance” from the Other; I would go so far as to say that the very notions of “affirmation and acceptance” necessitate that they are endemic to each and every individual.

            Shame has a twofold nature in reflection of the above concepts.  In the first place, in recognizing the impenetrability of the Other, it establishes a distance between the Other and the “I”; in the second place, by virtue of that equality and that distance, it induces a longing “for” the Other (one might recall our reflections at the end of the section on original unity).[46]  However, there is a deeper level to this experience of shame stemming from our above considerations: that it is not essentially a positive experience.  Were this a discussion of metaphysics, we could discuss the ontological content of shame qua shame, but the point in question here is that in the phenomenological experience of shame, the “fear” in the face of the “second I” is derived from the desire for affirmation, an affirmation which is perceived as lacking.

            Let us return to this issue in the light of our previous discussions, specifically the experience of original solitude.  As we noted above, original solitude is not necessarily a negative experience; it is, in fact, essential to the individuation of the person.  This was the first definition of original solitude, which served as the basis for most of our argument in that section.  The second definition, the understanding of original solitude in the light of the encounter with the Other, spills over into the question of primal unity.  Remember that unity is necessary for the completion of individuation: before the encounter with the Other, the person exists in a sort of phenomenological torpor, a sleep on the edge of nothingness in which one hungers for, if not explicitly dreams of, a “second I.”  And what was the purpose of this “second I”?  So that our very existence, not simply as persons (who, as we have noted, are defined relationally), but as individuals, could be made secure. 

            In the ideal, and to some extent in historical existence, the encounter with the Other is, as mentioned previously, a sort of “re-creation” of the person.  But in historical existence this assurance is lacking.  When we encounter the Other there is a sort of estrangement, a “distance-creating” fear, that divides us from them and prevents, or attempts to prevent, this dramatic “re-creation” of which we have just spoken.  This fear is not dissimilar from that which afflicts us before the encounter, when we sleep on the edge of the abyss.  The fear that is connected with shame is an existential fear: in our encounter with the Other, despite knowing their transcendence of our domain of individual control, there still lingers the idea that our very existence is somehow at stake.

            Pope John Paul II did not put the last few paragraphs into words, but their content is surely consonant with his thought and sheds much light on his contention that “the emergence of shame…is linked with the loss of that original fullness.”[47]  Shame, as an impediment to the unity sought in the encounter with the Other, is a stunting of the original solitude with which we began these reflections and which is our normative state of existence. 


This last paragraph brings the Pope’s thought full circle, and it provides a striking analogy for his understanding of human nature as a whole, not simply in a phenomenological sense (one cannot forget my remarks on his rebuke of Scheler, that the phenomenologist who is restricted to purely phenomenological data is in fact a traitor to their own principles), but in a metaphysical sense as well.  The human person, experiencing both corporeal and incorporeal sensations, has the task of defining itself simultaneously on both planes of existence; in other words, of finding his or her place both in the world and yet outside it.  This is the challenge of original solitude, the experience of individuation which proceeds in both directions and, if not kept in balance, threatens to collapse back in on itself and undermine the very experience of individuality itself.  The human, in the encounter with the Other, sees its own image and experiences, as it were, the divine Itself, and in this experience finds itself “created anew”; its existence completed and confirmed.  The experience of shame, fundamentally a lack or a privation, attempts to prevent this experience through fear of the Other owing to the Other’s innate freedom from dominion by the “I.”  Even so, it might be noted, if the Other could be dominated by the “I,” it would only hinder the quest of original solitude to “break out” in embrace of the “second I.”

Applying this schema to created reality as a whole, metaphysically and no longer phenomenologically, we can see a dramatic alignment of the two.  Nature was created good, as a free gift of grace, and through this nature God seeks to become “all in all,” and to establish Himself in “mutual intersubjectivity” with His people.  And yet sin has caused a sort of “fear” of God, not in any reverent sense, but in disgust and distaste with the transcendent, which escapes our power of mastery.  Just as in the case of the fear connected with shame, it is ultimately motivated by pride.  Even so, there is the possibility for grace to “burst through” and bring the grand design of God to triumphant conclusion, in each and every soul.

Thus, the phenomenology of John Paul II conforms to his metaphysics, and his metaphysics to his phenomenology, just as we noted at the beginning of this essay.  Unlike Scheler and other “pure” phenomenologists, the Holy Father does not restrict himself merely to the study of perception, but uses it as the foundation of his whole philosophical system, thereby fulfilling Heidegger’s call for a “fundamental ontology.”

Now that we are at the end of our reflections, I am drawn to conclude with another excerpt from the Second Vatican Council document Gaudium et Spes.  The final line of this quotation was perhaps the most frequent citation in the whole of the Theology of the Body, and I believe that, especially in its context, it provides a fitting synthesis for the thought of John Paul II as a whole, both metaphysical and phenomenological:

“God, Who has fatherly concern for everyone, has willed that all men should constitute one family and treat one another in a spirit of brotherhood. For having been created in the image of God, Who “from one man has created the whole human race and made them live all over the face of the earth,” all men are called to one and the same goal, namely God Himself.  For this reason, love for God and neighbor is the first and greatest commandment. Sacred Scripture, however, teaches us that the love of God cannot be separated from love of neighbor…Indeed, the Lord Jesus, when He prayed to the Father, “that all may be one…as we are one,” opened up vistas closed to human reason, for He implied a certain likeness between the union of the divine Persons, and the unity of God’s sons in truth and charity. This likeness reveals that man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.”[48]

[1] John Paul II, address to a delegation of the World Institute of Phenomenology (March 22, 2003)

[2] Dr. Michael Waldstein’s magisterial edition of the work, titled Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body (used as the primary source for this paper), documents 133 addresses in total; however, several of them were only written down and not officially delivered.

[3] I will refer to Wojtyla under his papal name only in contexts that include or imply his papal writings.

[4] This is to be distinguished from the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre.  Existentialism in this context refers to a philosophy which gives primacy to concrete existence, and it is to be contrasted with essentialism, understood as a philosophy that places the emphasis on abstract concepts.  Aristotle, for example, would be seen here as more of an existentialist, whereas Plato would be associated with essentialism.

[5] Also abbreviated as TOB

[6] Full title Evaluation of the Possibility of Constructing a System of Christian Ethics on the Assumptions of Max Scheler’s System of Philosophy, henceforth abbreviated as Scheler

[7] English title Formalism in Ethics and Non-Formal Ethics of Values: A new attempt toward the foundation of an ethical personalism. translated by Manfred S. Frings and Roger L. Funk. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press. 1973., henceforth abbreviated as Formalism.  Page numbers will refer to the English translation; all emphasis is Scheler’s.

[8] “World” in this sense refers to what Josef Pieper called “the totality of being.”  It could be objected that we often do perceive “the world” as hostile or otherwise at odds with us, but these are only things within the world in the above sense.  Further, it might be noted that in the act of recognizing hostility toward us, we presuppose a positive equilibrium possessed by the world, which further supports my thesis.

[9] De anima, 3, 8 (431b).  While the soul is admittedly a metaphysical and not a phenomenological affair, we can take Aristotle’s words as indicating that the “world” in a phenomenological sense is reflected in the individual consciousness.

[10] Found in the English translation of the Dutch Catechism on pages twelve and sixteen, respectively.

[11] Formalism, 208

[12] Scheler, 109

[13] Ibid., 115

[14] Ibid., 196

[15] G. K. Chesterton, The Dumb Ox, Chapter 1 (“On Two Friars”)

[16] Quaest. disp. de potential Dei, 5, 10 ad 5.

[17] Josef Pieper, Leisure The Basis of Culture, Ignatius Press edition, 104.  The actual quote is taken from The Philosophical Act, which is included with the former work in this particular edition.

[18] Edith Stein, On the Problem of Empathy, “The givenness of the living body”

[19] Another example of this is what I call the “Pinocchio Problem”: Pinocchio, despite being conscious, is aware that he is not a “real boy”; his boyhood only comes when he receives a true body.  Having the mind of a small boy is insufficient to make one a small boy, and I am unaware of anyone who disagrees with Pinocchio on this matter.

[20] TOB 8:4, footnote 15

[21] Edith Stein, On the Problem of Empathy, “The living body and feelings”

[22] TOB 5:2

[23] Ibid., 5:3

[24] Genesis 2:19, New American Bible (Revised Edition)

[25] TOB 5:4

[26] Ibid., 6:3

[27] Ibid., 6:3

[28] Ibid., 7:2

[29] Ibid., 5:5

[30] Ibid., 8:1

[31] Genesis 2:23, New American Bible (Revised Edition)

[32] TOB 8:3

[33] Ibid., 8:3, footnote 14

[34] Ibid., 8:4, footnote 16

[35] Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity, “Infinity and the face”

[36] Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity, “Ethics and the face”

[37] “One can say that from the very beginning the awareness of ‘superiority’ inscribed in the definition of humanity has originated in a typically human praxis or behavior.  This awareness brings with it a particular perception of the meaning of one’s own body, which emerges precisely from the fact that it is man’s task to ‘cultivate the earth’ and ‘subdue’ it.” (TOB 7:1)

[38] C. S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory”

[39] “One could also use the term ‘community’ here, if it were not so generic and did not have so many meanings.  ‘Communio’ says more and with greater precision, because it indicates precisely the ‘help’ that derives in some way from the very fact of existing as a person ‘beside’ a person.” (TOB 9:2)

[40] Gaudium et Spes,12

[41] TOB 9:2

[42] There is surely some comparison here, albeit metaphysical enough to warrant footnoting, between this understanding of the encounter with the Other and the Christian, specifically Catholic, understanding of God beholding “the very imprint of His Being” in the Person of the Word; to truly know oneself, one must know the Other, and this even holds for God Himself.

[43] TOB 9:3. The Pope continues in the next sentence, “He is, in fact, ‘from the beginning’ not only an image in which the solitude of one Person, who rules the world, mirrors itself, but also and essentially the image of an inscrutable divine communion of Persons.”

[44] TOB 12:1

[45] Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity, “Ethics and the Face”.  Levinas endnotes to this sentence the French phrase, “Mon pouvoir de pouvoir,” translated “my power of power.”

[46] Cf. TOB 12:1

[47] TOB 12:2

[48] Gaudium et Spes, 24 (emphasis mine)

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