“Figures in the Carpet,” a free 60-minute podcast featuring Dr. Wilfred McClay, SunTrust Chair of Excellence in Humanities at UTC, reflects on how assumptions of the meaning of “the human person” have shaped some aspect of the American experience. McClay is one of five cultural historians interviewed.
“The ‘self’ is a fundamentally unstable concept because it denies the very things that form it,” explains McClay. “It [the self] sees those things as being the obstacle to its true realization.”
McClay elaborates on the work of philosopher Charles Taylor in saying that the concept of the person involves an element of recognition of the individual as part of an existing order (family as well as civil and political order) — in McClay’s words, “. . . an entity that is accorded the dignity of being under the canopy of law and social existence.” Self, in contrast, does not address itself to those things, but often sets itself up against them. This, says McClay, is the Romantic illusion that there is a world out there full of forces that are designed to constrain us and make us artificial — to keep us from following our bliss.
McClay and the other historians featured on the podcast are all interested in how particular understandings of human nature have influenced American history, and how the distinctive shape of American history has shaped understanding of the meaning of human nature and the contours of human flourishing.
The musings of these scholars were part of a project funded by the Pew Charitable Trust Christian Scholars Program. Seventeen thinkers contributed essays to the newly-published anthology Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past (Eerdmans). In addition to exploring what it means to be human in the context of American history, scholars also reflected on the meaning of human nature and its implications in politics, religion, business, the arts, communication, education, and medicine.
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