The Human Person

A Beginner's Thomistic Psychology

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Steven J. Jensen
  • Washington, DC: 
    Catholic University of America Press
    , October
     2018.
     296 pages.
     $34.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780813231525.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In The Human Person: A Beginner's Thomistic Psychology, Steven Jensen presents a monograph on the perennial relevance of the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas. Having already published works on ethics and human action theory, Jensen is a choice scholar to offer a penetratingly insightful work on anthropology.

The reader may be forgiven for misjudging a book by its cover—or in this case, its title,—but this is in fact a work that functions as a masterful primer on anthropology, and not psychology as perhaps colloquially understood. While one might expect a work on psychology to focus on the mind, feelings, or mental health, what Jensen presents is much more comprehensive than that. In his own words: “In the title of this book we find our primary focus: the human person. We are seeking to understand human nature” (5). His focus is not limited by the narrow definition of psychology as understood today, but to the study of the soul, going back to the Greek roots of the word as carried over into our vernacular (4). In this pursuit, he has succeeded.

The work spans fifteen chapters and a modest 270 pages (index excluded). While the subject matter could easily demand the attention of a tome twice this size, the book successfully justifies its existence as for “beginners,” building an elegant framework upon which more detailed work can be built. While certainly structured and crafted as a primer to Thomistic anthropology, I feel confident that readers of all backgrounds will find this an illuminating read.

One of the best chapters, pedagogically speaking, is chapter 3, dealing with the topic of skepticism. Introducing the approaches of Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, and Hume, the reader is presented with alternate epistemological and anthropological systems, and in turn alternate approaches to understand the basics of human nature. In making the choice to situate the Thomistic synthesis in relation and contradistinction to these other theories of human knowing, Jensen has bolstered his claims and made the reader more confident in the conclusions towards which each chapter moves.

Another strength of the volume is the presence of various charts and diagrams that assist the reader in making connections and conclusions that might otherwise be obscured by dense prose. Indeed, any work that deals comprehensively with Aquinas is almost bound by obligation to include enough diagrams to deal adequately with the myriad distinctions which characterize Thomas’ trademark subtlety. One of the simpler diagrams can be found on page 50, depicting the contrast between the order of knowing [object of activity—activity—power—substance], and the order of being [substance—power—activity]. The chart makes the relations clear, demonstrating the congruity of the realities at hand and drawing a visual link between the two orders (perhaps even offering an olive branch to those more comfortable or familiar with the Kantian vocabulary of phenomena and noumena). While this may be obvious to the experienced reader of Aquinas, or to those well versed in philosophy, this is a foundational distinction for the beginner, and thus worthy of a diagram.

From the outset, Jensen’s method and project is clearly philosophical and bent on pursuing the power of reason to discover the depths of the human person. In fact, Jensen is adamant that it is Aquinas who is a worthy guide in this pursuit. “The people of medieval times,” he states, “had greater trust in the human capacity to discover the truth than we have in our age of cynical skepticism” (3). He continues: “Reason could find no greater defender than the humble Thomas Aquinas, who declared that the truth must be firmly founded in arguments of reason” (3). In the conclusion, Jensen lays out the point to which he has been driving the whole time: “The human mind has the capacity to discover the purposes instilled in things, that is, it has the capacity to discover the ends to which things move by their nature. . . . In some sense, we find diverse purposes within ourselves, for we find multiple powers with diverse ends. Still, Thomas thinks that we can discover our one single purpose” (264-65). In arguing for the reliability and the power of the human mind, and in offering a glimpse into the depths of the human soul, Jensen has offered a powerful vision of the mystery of the human person.

I recommend this text without qualification to any reader: to the graduate student exploring the thought of St. Thomas for the first time, to the undergraduate in an upper-level seminar course, to the curious layperson invested in cultivating intellectual and moral virtue. I would include this work as a foundational text in a course dealing with anthropology, ethics, human action, or any tangentially related topic. Jensen is to be commended for offering an introduction to Thomistic psychology sure to find a place on academic bookshelves for decades to come.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Joshua Madden is an Adjunct Professor at Ave Maria University.

Date of Review: 
August 28, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Steven J. Jensen is the author of Sin: A Thomistic Psychology; Knowing the Natural Law: From Precepts and Inclinations to Deriving Oughts; Living the Good Life: A Beginner's Thomistic Ethics andGood and Evil Actions: A Journey Through Saint Thomas Aquinas (all CUA Press).

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