What we mean by Personalism
The men and women of our time are ever more aware of themselves as persons. We experience as never before the incomparable worth of each person. We are alive to our inviolability, that is, we know in a new way that none of us is ever rightly used and destroyed for the good of others. We are more sensitive than our ancestors to all the forms of coercion that threaten our personhood. We reject the ancient distinction between Greek and barbarian; we know that the birthright of a person belongs not to a select few but to every human being. This awakening of human beings to personal existence is an epochal event, a sea-change in the way we understand ourselves.
Now personalism is nothing other than the philosophical reflection on this new self-understanding of human beings. Personalist thinkers try to articulate it, to relate it to earlier understandings of human beings, to protect it against excess, to draw out its social consequences, and to achieve a more personalist form of religious existence.
There are different strands and schools of personalism; the PP is especially indebted to the Christian personalism of Karol Wojtyla (John Paul II). Wojtyla was led to think deeply about the interiority of each person and to understand that each exists as subject, not as object, or in other words, as someone, not as something, or in still other words, as self-determining, not determined. According to the personalism that he represents, a human person does not exist just to provide an instance of the human kind, but exists as this unrepeatable person and so stands in a sense above the human kind, being always more than an instance of it. This personalism understands the “infinite abyss of existence” (Newman) in the interiority of each person, in virtue of which each always exceeds the finite qualities and properties that he or she displays.Rooted in Judeo-Christian revelation
According to our personalism, this sense of personal existence has emerged in the encounter with the living God of Judeo-Christian revelation. It can be sustained and deepened only by continuing to live in this encounter. Those who repudiate God cannot preserve the personalist affirmation of the incomparable worth of each person, though they may for a time live by the light of a setting sun. Nietzsche understood this; he understood that, once God is dead, we are at liberty to acknowledge real worth only in a few human beings of exceptional quality and to contrast these with the vast run of deficient and misbegotten human beings, whom we are at liberty to scorn as having relatively little worth. Only Jews and Christians have the spiritual resources to acknowledge unconditional worth in all human persons.
Our personalism has the effect of transforming the way we understand our social lives. We can no longer live in the social solidarity that was natural in earlier times. Parents no longer choose the profession and the spouse of their children; they acknowledge that these are choices that can only be made by their children. We can no longer share the faith of our group merely out of loyalty to the group; as persons each of us acts in his or her own name in making basic commitments of one’s life. This is because persons are never mere parts in any social whole; we never exist in a social whole in the way in which organs and cells exist in a body. A human society is not a whole composed of parts, but rather, in the felicitous expression of Maritain, a whole composed of wholes.Solidarity and co-responsibility
It may seem to follow from this that personalism is just another species of individualism and is sure to bring severe social fragmentation in its wake. But most personalists have been very sensitive to the sterility of individualism. They have taken very seriously the interpersonal relations in which human persons live and move and have their being. The interiority of a person does not isolate a person from others, but rather opens him or her to others. Personalists refuse to think about social life only in terms of rights and of protection against intruders; they also think in terms of solidarity and co-responsibility. The personalism to which we are committed impels us to work towards a new kind of solidarity that is precisely based on the fact that each member, as person, is always more than a mere part of the community. For personalism the ideal of a communio personarum represents the only valid form of all deeper social life.Incarnational personalism
Personalists divide over the question of the bodily nature of human persons. Some posit a sharp antithesis between self and body, as if a person’s body were among the objects that a person deals with and as if it were just an instrument to be used for acting in the world. They see something sub-personal in the idea of a person being a bodily person. But other personalists, and we of the PP among them, strongly affirm just this bodily being of human persons. A person’s body is not just an object for that person but it enters into his or her subjectivity. We do not just use our bodies instrumentally, but we exist as embodied. One has distinguished between dualistic personalism and incarnational personalism, and we of the PP are emphatically incarnational. On the other hand, we take great care not to abandon the distinction between matter and spirit in human persons; in fact we insist on the ineliminable duality of matter and spirit, and in doing so we make no concession to the objectionable dualism.
The difference between the two personalist approaches to the human body gives rises to two opposed approaches to the man-woman distinction. For the dualistic personalism, that which is male or female is primarily the body, the person being neither male nor female; whereas for the incarnational personalism sexual identity is not confined to the body but informs the whole human person.
The personalism to which we are committed sees in the incarnate condition of human persons nothing unworthy of persons; it rather discerns in it a mysterious personalization of the material world. In fact we personalists discern in it the basis for the particular place of the human person in the created world. Human persons exist on the border of matter and spirit; in them matter is spiritualized and spirit is enmattered. They have, as has been said, a kind of priestly function in creation, mediating in themselves between matter and spirit. But their mediating function is in evidence only if they are fully acknowledged as the incarnate persons that they are.Personalist ethics
Since personalism takes seriously the freedom of persons, it takes seriously the moral existence of persons. Moral good and evil form the axis of the personal universe. The encounter with the moral law in conscience stirs the waters of personal existence like nothing else in our experience. When it comes to the norms of a personalist ethics our personalism starts with Kant’s prohibition on using persons, and proceeds to consider all the forms of coercion that do some violence to persons. In developing an ethics of respect for persons our personalism guards against two opposite errors. On the one hand, it rejects the ethical eudaemonism according to which the main point of the moral life is to achieve our own happiness; against this it affirms the transcendence of the moral subject who shows respect to persons because respect is due to them. On the other hand, it rejects the ethical altruism which asserts the claims of others so forcefully that any interest in our own happiness is made to appear as selfish; against this it affirms that the moral subject is also a person and thus also one who may not simply be used, or let himself be used, for the good of others.
The personalism to which we are committed includes a particularly rich concept that has recently arisen within ethics, namely the concept of the individual moral calls addressed to particular persons. The idea is that I am not only subject to universal moral laws that bind all persons in the same way, but am also subject to particular moral calls that grow out of my unsubstitutable self and out of my encounter with other unsubstitutable selves—calls that address me and no other. If my entire moral existence consisted only in doing what any morally conscientious person would do, then I would overlook these personal calls, and my moral existence would lack its full personalist range. At the same time, our personalism takes care to avoid the extreme of holding that our entire moral existence consists only in following personal calls, of holding that a personalist ethics has no use for universal moral norms, as if these were inherently de-personalizing. We are personalists who look for the unity of the unrepeatably personal and the universally valid, and we do not set them against each other.Realist personalism
So far we have distinguished our personalism from individualistic personalism, from dualistic personalism, and from antinomian personalism. We have still to distinguish it from what has been called “actualistic” personalism, which says that human beings are persons just to the degree that they are consciously alive and self-present. One says this because interiority and freedom, which are so fundamental to personal being, presuppose consciousness. One infers that a human being who gives no evidence of conscious life (such as an embryo) cannot be a person. Personhood, one says, is proportioned to consciousness. But we hold the personalism according to which personhood in fact exceeds consciousness in the sense that most of us, in our conscious self-presence, fall short of the persons who we really are. The factual condition of our conscious lives does not fully manifest, and sometimes it obscures rather than manifests, the glorious birthright of existing as person. This means that our being as person far exceeds, and may even precede, our conscious self-experience. Actualistic personalism impoverishes us human persons, cutting us off from the fullness and abundance of our being.
What is the Personalist Project?
We are a non-profit organization based in West Chester, PA, dedicated to the spread of Christian personalism. Personalism is philosophy that focuses attention on the truth about the nature and dignity of persons—a truth directly at stake in the deepest and most difficult problems afflicting our society today. It can be understood at least in part as a the philosophical contemplation of man “from within,” as a unique and irreplaceable self—a moral agent who “possesses himself,” is free and responsible to dispose over himself, and who lives his life in relation to other persons and to the world of objective goods and values.
This way of approaching persons throws new light on the philosophical tradition and brings it into fruitful contact with contemporary thought and society, not least by challenging prevailing destructive ideologies at their root.
Here is Karol Woytyla (later John Paul II) in a letter to his friend, the theologian Henri de Lubac, from behind the iron curtain in 1968:
I devote my very rare free moments to a work that is close to my heart and devoted to the metaphysical sense and mystery of the person. It seems to me that the debate today is being played out on that level. The evil of our times consists in the first place in a kind of degradation, indeed in a pulverization, of the fundamental uniqueness of each human person. This evil is even more of the metaphysical order than of the moral order. To this disintegration planned at times by atheistic ideologies we must oppose, rather than sterile polemics, a kind of “recapitulation” of the inviolable mystery of the person.
But it is not only by resisting what is false and evil that personalism does its work. It also recognizes and helps elicit and illumine what is good in the modern world’s characteristic interests and aspirations—its preoccupation with selfhood and authenticity, its yearning for freedom, its focus on questions of sexuality and relations between men and women, its longing for love, its resistance to authoritarianism and paternalism…
With its attention to the interior aspect of persons, Christian personalism contributes, too, a new depth and perspective in ethics, with dramatic implications for such fields as science and medicine, politics, economics, art and culture, inter-religious dialogue, environmentalism, and so on.
Not less importantly, personalist philosophy has proven to have a profound personal impact on those who encounter it, because it sheds beautiful and compelling light on the meaningfulness of human life and the possibility of our attaining to truth and goodness as individuals and in communion with one another.
[The] encounter with personalism was for me a spiritual experience that left an essential mark, especially since I spontaneously associated such personalism with the thought of St. Augustine, who in his Confessions had struck me with the power of all his human passion and depth.
- Pope Benedict XVI, Milestones
Without naively or arrogantly pretending to hold all the answers to the riddles of existence, philosophy can—by deepening and clarifying our understanding of reality (and partly by leading us beyond itself)—teach us how to live in better solidarity with ourselves, with others, with the whole created order, and with God.
Benedict XVI’s new encyclical, Spe Salvi, says this about philosophy in the ancient world:
Philosophy at that time was not generally seen as a difficult academic discipline, as it is today. Rather, the philosopher was someone who knew how to teach the essential art: the art of being authentically human—the art of living and dying.
An important aspect of our mission, then, is to help restore in practice the original sense of philosophy as a search for wisdom and as “care for the soul,” rather than exclusively a professional academic discipline. We want to reach ordinary thoughtful people, who would like to give some time and attention to “the permanent questions:” Who am I and why am I here? Why is there suffering in the world? Is there a God?—and who would like to do it through reading great books and in conversation with other living minds asking the same questions.
Here is a note from a friend, an R.N. and a mother of five, about her discovery of personalist philosophy:
I loved reading von Hildebrand, Newman, JPII, Pieper, etc. and relating to my fellow students…all the info, which isn’t bland ‘info’ but material that sits like seeds in the soul and gets nourished by relationships, prayer, life, suffering, the sacraments, everything. Personalism enriches life in a manner I never thought possible…and gives one a new sympathy with the hearts/suffering of others.
We are interested in all thinkers, past and present, who have contributed to this movement within philosophy (Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, Duns Scotus, Pascal, Kant, Scheler, Marcel, Mounier, Peguy, Weil, Kierkegaard, Therese of Lisieux, Maritain, Buber, Edith Stein, von Balthasar, de Lubac, Pieper, and Ratzinger, to name just a few) but we have three particular guiding lights: John Henry Newman, Dietrich von Hildebrand, and Karol Wojtyla/John Paul II.
No profession of faith is needed to engage with these thinkers and these ideas—only an open mind and a sincere commitment to pursuing truth.
A more complete statement of our philosophical views is coming soon, together with more information about leading personalists, links, suggested reading, article archives, bibliographies, and, we hope, a lively discussion forum.
TPP founders, Katie and Jules van SchaijikPhilosophical origins and antecedents
We met as undergraduates at Franciscan University of Steubenville in 1985. A talk by Alice von Hildebrand at a Christian Culture conference there in 1986 awakened in us both an unexpected interest in philosophy. At her recommendation, we signed up for a class the following semester by Michael Healy on the Nature of Love, where we encountered for the first time the writings of Dietrich von Hildebrand, Karol Wojtyla, Soren Kierkegaard, and Josef Pieper, among others. Wanting much more like it, we filled what space we had in our final-year schedules with philosophy electives. Then, after graduating in 1988, we went on to the International Academy for Philosophy in Liechtenstein, where we had the inestimable privilege of studying at the feet of the great philosophical triumvirate of Josef Seifert, John F. Crosby, and Rocco Buttiglioni.
We were married in 1989.
Several things about our experience at both FUS and the IAP were key in shaping the mission of the Personalist Project.
- For us, philosophy was never about advancing along an academic career track. It was about falling in love with Truth. We filled our time with classes and papers and philosophical conversation because what we were learning was wonderful—illuminating and beautiful and immeasurably enriching for our lives. We worked toward our degrees not primarily with a view to earning a living, but for the sake of the light our studies threw on life, and because we wanted to be better equipped to share what we had received with others.
- Our experience of philosophy was highly existential (in the sense of related-to-life) and dialogical. Classes typically involved very lively, sometimes impassioned exchanges among professors and students. Discussions begun in class overflowed naturally into conversation over meals, or over beer in the alpine pubs, or on the tediously long trips between the Academy and the far-flung Studentenheimen. The professors interacted with us freely, both in and outside the classroom, treating us almost as friends and peers—fellow seekers after truth.
- This dynamism was reflected in the IAP’s general approach to philosophy. It was not primarily about scholarship in the usual sense, but first and foremost a vital engagement with “things themselves,” with truth as the central theme. We had perhaps more “systematic” courses than historical ones—courses on being and nothingness, on death, on ethics, epistemology, metaphysics, on persons and community… The history of philosophy was treated not primarily as a body of knowledge to be learned by rote, but as a fascinating, millennia-wide intellectual arena, an infinitely rich source of wisdom and knowledge, and an on-going conversation among great and serious minds across the ages. It was normal for us not only to study the philosophers of the past, but to wrestle with them—absorbing their ideas and concerns as best as we could, and analyzing their arguments. If we found them insufficiently justified, we felt free to dispute their conclusions or challenge their adequacy in light of new insights and experiences.
- Without conflating the two, or illegitimately mingling them, we learned that faith and philosophy are natural complements of each other. The IAP is not formally Catholic, and the philosophy it taught carefully avoided reliance on religious assumptions. Many of its students and lecturers were not religious at all. Fideism was recognized and rejected as a serious error. But the three main professors at the time were men of deep faith, whose Christian witness was an essential and especially valuable part of our education. The religious students pursued philosophy as integral to faith: faith relied on sound and incisive philosophy; philosophy was illumined and perfected by faith. We saw both as means of drawing us deeper into the mysteries of Reality—created and uncreated. There was a tiny and ancient chapel nearby, where several of us assisted at daily Mass, usually celebrated by one of the several Polish priests among the students, and ending with a sung Salve Regina.
These things (together with others peculiar to our circumstances) rendered us unhappy in the professional academia we entered later, with all its bureaucracy and politics tending to dethrone Truth, and its way of rejecting faith as hostile to science, or else injecting it in a way that does violence to true philosophy.
Then, too, for all the great and indispensable work being done by many scholars in academia, we found the excessive professionalization of philosophy deeply depressing. We saw it as bad for the philosophers. If they are constantly driven by the practical demands of class preparations, paper grading and committee work, plus harassed by interference from officious administrators, and under constant pressure from the publish-or-perish mentality typical of universities today, how will they be able to cultivate the kind of leisure that seemed to us essential to true philosophy? It also seemed bad for the wider culture, because philosophy had, unquestionably, become too technical and esoteric to play the role it should in human life and society.
If an ordinary person wants (as he should) to give some serious attention to the fundamental questions of human life, must he either enroll in a years-long, expensive degree program toward an academic career, or try to come to terms with abstruse texts and difficult problems on his own, without the help of teachers? If he wants a more rigorous grasp of the foundations of the Church’s moral teachings, say, or deeper insight into the nature and dignity of persons, or a fuller appreciation of the issues relating to freedom and law in political philosophy, or a sharper, more probing and comprehensive intelligence generally, is it necessary for him to study foreign languages, master an intricate body of technical jargon, and devote large swaths of precious time to deciphering the works of Schopenhauer, Spinoza and Sartre? Or isn’t there some other way?
Our sense that there must be some other way, for philosophers and philosophy students alike, led us to establish The Personalist Project, in 2007 on the Feast of All Souls. We dedicate its work (not counting its shortcomings, which are ours alone), in gratitude, to our former professors, and commend it to the intercession of our three most important intellectual influences: John Henry Newman, Dietrich von Hildebrand, and Karol Wojtyla.