Love of the Person: John F. Kavanaugh’s liberation philosophy

John Kavanaugh with Mother Teresa in 1975

John F. Kavanaugh, S.J.—teacher, scholar, journalist and priest—died one year ago this month. For years his essays in America shed light on films, Scripture and the ethical and political debates of the day. I first learned philosophy from John at St. Louis University and followed him to Washington University for graduate school. During the Vietnam War, when a group of students came together to form a community, John was there with encouragement and direction that continued through the years. John celebrated the Mass and sang when I married a member of the community. Whenever we were in St. Louis, we rode the elevator with John to the roof of Jesuit Hall. Surrounded by plants and vistas of downtown, we would talk politics, family, film, the church and especially philosophy. He was a mentor and friend. John’s life is celebrated for many reasons, in particular for showing that philosophy serves human liberation in a first-world setting.

The call to liberation usually evokes theology in the context of developing countries. John, on the other hand, was a liberation philosopher whose thinking was rooted in the thick of advanced capitalist culture. Like Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J., of the Universidad Centroamericana in San Salvador, John drew from Scripture, Aquinas, Marx and other sources to confront the dehumanization, idolatry and violence that grip this world. Philosophy is a foundational understanding that digs out the concepts underlying ordinary knowledge and experience. For many, philosophy is a nod to the past, a quaint legacy with little relevance to the science, politics and global economics of the present. But in his books Following Christ in a Consumer Society: The Spirituality of Cultural Resistance and Who Count as Persons? Human Identity and the Ethics of Killing, John practices philosophy as a living knowledge that belongs at the core of Jesuit education and in the public square.


For John, the human person is the perennial topic that provides the measure needed to think through the issues we face. The interpreting present for John stretched from Hollywood to Washington, from medicine to war, and included the struggles of the poor from St. Louis to Calcutta. John drew from Aquinas to respond to Fox News, making connections that elude less integral practitioners of philosophy. Thinking that stays alive stays attuned to its world.

The biggest challenge for philosophy, as John saw it, is to sound out the meaning of the human person. Catholic social teaching is rooted in the dignity of persons, but what does this familiar phrase mean? At different times in history, philosophy began with being, God, method, perception or logic. John’s answer to where philosophy must take its stand today is “with persons.” His first book, Human Realization: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Man, was an inquiry into the human person. John explores how an enlightened scientific and capitalist world can foster strange, even fantastic accounts of persons; how we are more conversant with black holes and stock options than with our own nature. A leading philosopher, Daniel Dennett, observed in The New York Times, “I’m a robot, and you’re a robot, but that doesn’t make us any less dignified or wonderful.” Such views are less startling to students than you might imagine. The sympathy for claims that are vaguely linked to science runs high. In this popular conception, one science leads to another, and the entire edifice is self-grounding or rests on math or logic.

For John, equating all knowledge with science constitutes “thing knowing,” a prejudice fostered by consumer society, in which endless things produced to be sold for profit captivate our minds. Humans come to view themselves as appendages to the gross domestic product: we exist to make economic growth possible. Capitalism unchecked becomes a totality or false gospel that reveals humans as things. Losing touch with the meaning of human existence is what John calls idolatry. The golden calf worshipped by the wandering Jews did not so much dishonor God as reveal humans sadly out of touch with their own personhood. Consumerism is one of countless ways that a society can lose touch with the incalculable worth of human existence. In idolatry, persons reverse roles with things: commodities take on human powers and humans are the “dead” ones that recover humanity through the intercession of possessions, income and status. Kavanaugh hears echoes of Psalm 115 in Marx’s exposure of the fetish character of commodities. Kavanaugh shares the fear of Søren Kierkegaard, Walker Percy and other existentialists that scientific and economic advances coincide with a loss of the self. Ironically, the very societies formed in enlightened defense of individual liberty spawn the skeptical view that freedom is an illusion.

In John’s view, the very idea of a self-grounding science reveals persons out of touch with their own existence. Like Martin Heidegger in Being and Time and St. Augustine in the Confessions, John recognizes that all inquiry presupposes an understanding of human existence. It is the unavoidable background to all questions we can raise. Immanuel Kant named “What is man?” the fourth, and encompassing, critical question. How we grapple with electrons, brains, abortion, war, money, medicine, God, poverty and the planet is shaped by our implicit views of persons. We cannot opt out of harboring an understanding of human existence. Taking oneself as a robot is a prior understanding that shapes one’s experience and work.

The first task of philosophy, as John understood it, is to determine whether these inescapable views of human existence are accurate or defective. Are persons robots? The answer to this question is sensitive to science, but the question is not a scientific one. It is phenomenological—that is, it involves experience-based inquiry directed at formulating fundamental concepts adequate to experience. Robot is not a concept adequate to our experience of human beings. The robot lacks the self-understanding that grounds human life and projects.

This view of philosophy is contested. Some regard the topic of persons apologetically, as if the energy poured into grasping the self is drained from the needs of the world: “Stop gazing at your naval and tackle the problems we face.” Some fear that probing into our own existence will only confirm the skeptical conviction that all knowledge is tainted by the human touch and hence reducible to human interests. Varieties of pragmatism—“whatever works”—replace truth. For some, it is impossible to encounter the other while the self blocks the way; genuine care means that the self must disappear. For some, my self is the flypaper of life, and egoism motivates all my actions and thoughts. To these eyes, self-love invariably means selfish. The self epitomizes bias that derails knowledge and morality. As education grows more technical and professional, the impatience with the inquiry into human existence can be felt: Has not everything been said on that topic already? But the retreat from inquiry into personal existence allows flawed conceptions to strengthen their hold.

It would be a mistake for the philosophy core required in Jesuit education to abandon the courses on human existence that broke open the scholastic format after the Second Vatican Council. A central goal of these courses should be to show how an understanding person disrupts the skeptical spiral into subjectivism, relativism and constructivism. If an understanding of persons is unavoidable, there is no other way to confront skepticism than with an improved phenomenology that shows persons open to the world. The first task of a phenomenology is to challenge the dualisms that split off the self from the world and from other selves.

For John, humans exist as embodied consciousness from the start. While embodiment sounds simple, it is as much a sticking point for grasping human existence as is the incarnation for God. The habit of splitting up inseparable aspects of human existence is difficult to break. It is easy to conceive of persons as combinations of body, thought, emotions and drives. But embodiment is not a conjunction of mind and body. A human mind does not enter into a relationship with the body because mind and body are inseparable to begin with. Embodiment is phenomenology’s response to the mind-body “problem” that struggles to grasp how the immaterial mind and material brain could interact. A person is one embodied being. Every idea and desire takes its shape as belonging to embodied consciousness. Human hunger differs from the primates’. We think and thirst as human—a point on which Aquinas insisted.

Embodiment means that we exist with others from the start. Other persons are the condition of my existence. For us, being social by nature, the question is not how do we enter into the reality of others, but rather how our involvement allows us to be known and loved. Philosophers do not differ from ordinary people in struggling with the finite. We want to be something more than a creature marked by needs and limited possibilities. A key task of Jesuit education is to reverse this assessment of the finite. John repeatedly makes the case that persons in their finiteness are something more. What John calls the ontological poverty of humans is the beauty that belongs to us precisely because we are not self-sufficient or self-made. In our smallness and vulnerability even before we have done one thing, we are worthy of infinite love. John echoes Gerard Manley Hopkins in seeing how our being catches and reflects the light of God.

Embodiment makes possible the recovery of freedom as human. In our day, extreme views distort the meaning of freedom. For some, scientific achievement implies that freedom is an illusion. Humans, like other species, are governed by natural laws. B. F. Skinner, for example, urges us to think “beyond freedom and dignity.” The sooner we kick the habit of recognizing humans as distinctive and free, the better. Libertarians by contrast treat persons as contracting agents whose choices underlie all actions. Absolute freedom separates individuals, and no one is responsible to anyone else unless he chooses. The social conditions of privilege and oppression disappear into this ideology of all-consuming choice.

What are students to think? In business and social science classes, we are preference-maximizing agents; in theology class, we find God in the least among us. The kind of liberty rejected in theology as a caricature underlies much of the curriculum. For many students immersed in consumer culture, it is the libertarian view that resonates as real and affirming.

John follows existentialists like Kierkegaard in rooting freedom in the distinctive human power of self-reflection. I not only see the sunset, I am aware of seeing it. For humans, every experience reveals the self engaged in the experience. This inward reflection, called by some the “space of reasons” and by John awareness of awareness, is how freedom emerges. From awareness of how experience is for me, meanings and possibilities open up. The strict dualism—we are either free or determined—gives rise to the actual human situation: embodied freedom is shaped by culture, biochemical states and personal history. Embodiment is not an obstacle to freedom; if we could step outside the limits of our situation so that “anything is possible,” no action could be taken.

Jesuit education fosters love of God, persons and the world. For John Kavanaugh, philosophy contributes to this goal by challenging the caricatures that block our understanding of human existence. These caricatures are legion. It is a mistake for philosophy courses to follow the textbook format, which lines up arguments pro and con. Assessing arguments always draws on an implicit understanding of persons. Whether the topic is science, ethics, epistemology, metaphysics, politics or logic, the human context in which questions arise should be evident in how we teach. Like literature, philosophy works through language to show us how to see the world. When John moves, in his book Who Count as Persons?, from the phenomenology of persons to euthanasia, abortion, capital punishment and war, the reasons to oppose killing are already there. Once the nature of persons unfolds, the incongruity of killing this kind of creature in any circumstance is evident. Love of persons arises from many sources, primarily experiential. But the careful study of human existence—perception, feelings, desires, memory, reflection, choices and appetites—is one important source of care for persons and their dignity.

For violence to occur, persons must first be seen as objects. It is difficult to kill someone whom I recognize as being like myself. The ways to objectify persons are pervasive, as John describes in Following Christ:

Once a man or woman, be he or she oppressor or oppressed, whether dressed in silk or sprawled in a Calcutta slum, whether on a battlefield or in a delivery room, whether bourgeoisie or proletariat, whether criminal, president, or both, is perceived as a thing or in terms of the commodity, he or she is thereby rendered replaceable. The fetus is a “blob of protoplasm,” the criminal is “scum and vermin,” the brain-damaged are “vegetables.” The poor are “like animals.” The Iraqi is “the enemy.” The wealthy or the police are “pigs.” The “enemy” is an obstruction—quantifiable, repeatable, manipulable, expendable, the legitimate object of our hatred and violence.

The threats to personhood can be overwhelming. Prophetic warning does not predominate in John’s writings. From a lifetime of close friendships, spiritual direction and work with small communities, John knew how to stay rooted in our humanity in everyday life. Like Aquinas, John lays out five ways: first is daily prayer and meditation to fight the emptiness endemic to consumer culture; second is the cultivation of committed relationships in which we are known and loved; third is the delight in things that simple living makes possible; fourth is the lifelong work for justice; and fifth is ongoing involvement with those at the margins, who show us the beauty in simply being persons. Liberation arises within and between persons who are grounded in the meaning of existence. John Kavanaugh’s practice of philosophy as liberation is a model for teaching in the Jesuit tradition.

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Beth Cioffoletti
5 years 2 months ago
This is one of the best articles about the philosophy of John Kavanaugh that I have read. Thank you! The line that stays with me: "Embodiment means that we exist with others from the start. Other persons are the condition of my existence. For us, being social by nature, the question is not how do we enter into the reality of others, but rather how our involvement allows us to be known and loved." This is eye opening for me.
Richard Burbach
5 years 2 months ago
Thanks to America for having the vision and compassion to mark the one-year anniversary of John Kavanaugh's death with this truly fine and compelling article. Thanks to Prof Schuler for her work as well. Her students at Creighton are blessed as were we in Fr Kavanaugh's classes at SLU.
Josephine Anne Pace
5 years 2 months ago
This is an excellent article. I wounder if you could expound on Fr. Kavanaugh's statement,"The biggest challenge for philosophy is to sound the meaning of the human person."


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