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Religion and Society

What Man Cares About


Author: Margaret S. Archer


Title: Essere umani. Il problema dell’agire


Publisher: Marietti, Genoa-Milan, 2007, pp. 356



Margaret S. Archer teaches sociology at the University of Warwick (UK). From 1986 to 1990 she was President of the International Sociological Association and continues to be a member of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. The volume Being Human. The Problem of Agency, published by Cambridge University Press in 2000, seeks to offer the fundamental elements of a social anthropology. This work, together with Realist Social Theory. The Morphogenetic Approach (1995), has helped to make Archer the most representative exponent at an international level of critical realism in the social sciences, and springs from the need to resist the impoverishment of the human under way in contemporary Western societies, in which cultural relativism and post-modernist ideology appear to call into question every form of factuality. In this volume, one of the most important published over the last decade in the field of social theory, the processes by which self-consciousness, personal identity and social identity emerge are subjected to analytical examination.



Archer’s arguments are based on an original approach which seeks to reject both the model of the (sociologistic) hypersocialised social actor and the (economistic) hyposocialised social actor, as well as approaches that render everything that we are a product of society and perspectives that assert that everything that makes up society can be deduced only from what we are as individuals. For Archer, the meaning of the self, as a part of our humanity, precedes and is original to sociality; self-consciousness has a practical foundation, not a linguistic one. The practices embodied by men in the world, defined as ‘the non-oral source of reason’, have a priority which is both logical and substantial as regards social relationships in the emergence of a permanent meaning of the self and in the development of personal priorities (which already exist, in potency, in the newly-born child). With these considerations, Archer, worried about all the forms of social constructivism that tend to remove the human, seeks to preserve the surplus of the human person, his irreducibility in relation to the human context in which he lives. Searching for what constitutes the proprium of the human being, Archer identifies a series of concerns that can be referred to the natural order, the practical order, and the social order, and which are listed amongst what are called ultimate concerns. Taking up these theses of the philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt (but one could also say also going back to St. Augustine), Archer argues that ‘we are what we are concerned about’. This means that our self is generated pursuing what is ultimately of concern to us. These ‘ultimate concerns’ do not arise in a solipsistic way, nor can they be introduced into the person from the outside (in this case one would be dealing with alienation). They arise, instead, in relation to how a person defines his own choices when responding, on the one hand, to the requests of society, and by pursuing, on the other, the deepest needs of his own self. The identity of the person arises from the dialogue that it is capable of sustaining with itself and with the identities that are attributed to it by institutions (the family, society, the state, religious communities). This dialogue, which Archer calls an ‘interior conversation’ (the author developed this aspect in her Structure, Agency and the Internal Conversation of 2003), constitutes the foundation of the reflective ability and transcendence of the person.



This book is an inescapable point of reference because it establishes the (anthropological and ontological) foundations of dialogue between persons and between cultures and because it invokes the meaning and the responsibility of our being human. The contribution of Being Human is thus of a certain importance for those who do not accept that dialogue should be seen, on the one hand, as a luxury we cannot afford, and, on the other, as mere ‘chatter’ or a Trojan horse for ideological plans of various hues and colours.