The Human Person as a Relational Being: Transdisciplinary Perspectives

In the second semester of 2023-2024 a group of professors and collaborators will offer a transdisciplinary course in the Alphonsian Academy entitled “La persona umana come essere relazionale. Prospettive transdisciplinari”. The course will be comprised of three parts: 1. Introduction; 2. Selected Authors and Texts; 3. Five Paradigms (personalist, phenomenological, psychological, sociological and theological). This is the first of a series of posts in which I will examine (in my own name, not in that of the research group) in a preliminary way each of these five paradigms. This initial post will take a closer look at the very idea of a paradigm, especially in the context of moral-theological discussion.

I.  The Term “Paradigm” Shifts Paradigm

A good place to begin a study of the term “paradigm” is with amo, amas, amat, or, more precisely, with the structure -o, -as, -at that is discernible in the conjugation of the verb amare in Latin. This structure may be considered a grammatical paradigm because it can serve as a model for the conjugation of similar verbs such as abominare. The least we can say of a paradigm is that it consists in a recognisable structure that can be imitated and repeated with different content. Despite all the changes that have taken place in the use of the term “paradigm” it is no harm to recall at the outset that this most simple of explanations retains its fundamental validity.

The understanding of the term was greatly complicated by Robert Kuhn in 1962 when he published the first edition of his famous work: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In this book the author takes up the existing term “paradigm” and uses it in quite a new way, without however violating its basic meaning as indicated above. It is important to understand that Kuhn was engaged in a discussion of the history of science. In particular, he was studying the way in which scientific knowledge is produced, gathered and transformed in the process of scientific investigation. In his postscript to a republished version of this same work Kuhn explains that for him paradigms are: «…universally recognized scientific achievements that for a time provide model problems and solutions to a community of practitioners». What has changed between the paradigm understood as -o, -as, -at and this understanding? We can note at least three developments. The first is the relationship between a paradigm and a scientific community. The shared paradigm both helps define the identity of a scientific community and constitutes a criterion for adhesion to that community. The second is that the currently dominant paradigm in a community is the fruit of previous research, the validity of which is recognised by the members of the community. The third is that the paradigm serves as a model for future research, which may, like the previous research, lead to a new change of paradigm (the so-called paradigm shift).

Recently, the term “paradigm” underwent another significant shift when it was used by Pope Francis in Laudato sì in his discussion of “the technocratic paradigm”. In the years between Kuhn and Pope Francis various shifts in the meaning of the term had already taken place in different contexts such as education and medicine. In the encyclical the Pope does not offer an explanation of what he understands by “paradigm”, seeming to take it for granted that its meaning will be clear to the reader.  What is of particular interest is the use of “paradigm” as a category of moral argumentation… the technocratic paradigm is judged to be morally inadequate and it is suggested that we need to search for new paradigms. But “paradigm” is not part of the traditional terminology of moral theology and so we have to think about how it can be integrated into this tradition.

Quite a number of interesting questions arise on this score: what is the precise meaning of the word “paradigm” in the term “technocratic paradigm”? How does it differ from a simple theory? Can we operate out of different paradigms at the same time? Does the Church have an alternative paradigm and, if so, where is it to be found?

Looking forward to lively exchanges on these and similar questions during the transdisciplinary course.

p. Martin McKeever, CSsR

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