Perspectives on the Study of Eastern and Western Personhood

Matti Kotiranta & Antti Raunio

Philosophers (117) by Mikhail Nesterov. 
Depicting Pavel Florensky and Sergei Bulgakov
Philosophers (1917) by Mikhail Nesterov

A commonly held view is that the Western world perceives human beings as being individualistic. ‘Individualism’ may be understood in many ways, but the main question is whether the Western view of human beings is as strongly individualistic as it is often thought (or claimed) to be. This is an interesting question because the assumed individualism influences the Western cultures’ relations with, for example, Eastern Orthodox cultures.

The Christian tradition has contributed to the conception of the human being by introducing the term ‘person’, which was first used to describe the Christian understanding of the triune God. The Christian idea of a person combines Platonic, Stoic, Neoplatonic and Aristotelian influences. Even though the relations between Western theological and philosophical notions of the person have been discussed in many contexts, the topic has not been investigated comprehensively.

Historical sources (e.g. Augustine, Boethius, Thomas Aquinas, Luther) indicate that the Western views of a human being need not be interpreted solely from an individualistic sense. A more accurate view is to see the human being as a relational substance. Both the Eastern and Western conceptions are relational, but in the Eastern thought, humanity as a substance or essence is built on relations, whereas in the Western tradition, relationality is based on the unity of a substance. If this holds true, then there is a difference between the viewpoints; however, the issue is not primarily a question about alternatives between individuality and communality, but the ways in which these two aspects have been combined with each other.

As part of contemporary Orthodox contributions to the discussions on East and West, theologians such as Christoph Yannaras and John Zizioulas have given personhood a primary status from which notions of social issues, the nature of Orthodox theology and practice, and the Orthodox view of the West are drawn. However, the challenge is to formulate modern Orthodox anthropology in its own terms. Since both theologians have studied in the West, their work can be seen as constructing the Eastern Orthodox identity and personhood within what is pre-eminently a Westernised culture. Both Yannaras and Zizioulas have not shied away from Western discourses and challenges, while still adhering to shared convictions of neo-patristic and neo-Palamist theology.

In an investigation on the conceptions of human personhood, one should also consider the viewpoint of the natural sciences. The encounters between theology and sciences often reveal two fundamentally different approaches: an idealistic, theological personalism on the one side and a reductive physicalism or naturalism on the other. Theological personalism characterises the human person only by its ability to transcend its natural condition and ignores the biological aspect of human nature and the continuity between humans, non-human animals and non-living nature. Conversely, reductive physicalism shuns human uniqueness and disregards the moral and spiritual dimensions of human personhood. According to the reductive viewpoint, humans are merely biological machines determined by evolutionary history, and all mental phenomena can be explained in biological terms. However, in the discussion about the human person in the philosophy of mind, the recent trend has been towards non-reductive physicalism, where the mind is treated as an emergent property of the brain, connected with neural activity but still separate from it.

In sum, this kind of research analyses the basic presuppositions and deep structures of Europe’s Eastern Orthodox and Western Catholic and Protestant cultures. The conception of person may emphasise either communality or individuality. In the discussion, the alternatives have often been presented as exclusive. However, historical sources suggest that this view cannot be considered adequate. Therefore, a more thorough analysis of the existing conceptions of individuality and communality is needed.

The described analysis contains, for example, an investigation of the different versions of Western Catholic and Protestant conceptions of good personal life or life according to ethical standards from the point of view of communality and individuality. Comparable to it is the analysis of the Eastern Orthodox conception of the person and of the relation between individuality and communality in good life as a human person.

The main question leads to additional questions: What are the theological aspects underlying Western conceptions of a person’s individuality and communality? How can we define the theological principles of the Eastern model of good personal life as aspects of communality? How do the discovered theological aspects possibly change the Western notion of a human being?

By investigating Eastern and Western European conceptions of human person, theological research can contribute to the discussion on deep cultural, ethical and religious presuppositions and their implications for the social life and cooperation between the representatives of both traditions.

Matti Kotiranta, Professor of Eastern Church History, University of Eastern Finland. His areas of interest are the history of Russian ideas and church-state relations in Europe.

Antti Raunio, Professor of Systematic Theology, University of Eastern Finland. He specializes in Reformation theology, theological social ethics, and ecumenism.