Personalist profiles

Karol Wojtyla | John Henry Newman | Dietrich von Hildebrand | Søren Kierkegaard | Gabriel Marcel

Karol Wojtyla / John Paul II

Karol Wojtyla was born in Poland near Cracow in 1920.  When he entered the Jagellonian University in Cracow in 1938 he studied Polish literature with a special emphasis on Polish drama.  The university was closed the following year by the occupying Germans.  Wojtyla soon discerned a call to the priesthood and began his studies in an underground seminary.  It was here that he encountered philosophy for the first time-in the manuals of Scholastic philosophy that were part of the seminary curriculum.  After completing his doctorate in theology at the Angelicum in Rome in 1948 he returned to Poland for work on his Habilitation at the Jagellonian University in Cracow.  Since Wojtyla was exploring the relation of Max Scheler to Catholic moral theology, he had to study closely the phenomenological personalism represented by Scheler.  Scheler’s personalism resonated deeply with Wojtyla and elicited his own personalist thinking.

In 1954 Wojtyla became professor of ethics at the University of Lublin in Poland.  His courses centered around St. Thomas Aquinas and Max Scheler, with much attention also given to Kant.  He was constantly concerned with relating the personalism he found in Scheler with the Thomism of the Catholic tradition.  Even after becoming a bishop in 1958 he continued his teaching and writing in philosophy.  In 1960 he published Love and Responsibility, a personalist study of man and woman.  He was an active participant at Vatican II (1962-1965); by his own testimony the experience of the Council deepened the personalism of his thought. The fullest statement of his personalism is found in his work, The Acting Person (1967).  The most accessible introduction to his personalism is his paper, “Subjectivity and the Irreducible in the Human Being.”

On being elected pope in 1978 he proceeded, as John Paul II, to bring his personalism into his prolific papal teachings.  Best known is his “theology of the body,” in which he develops and deepens his personalist approach to man and woman, giving particular attention to the place of the body in man-woman relations.  But one feels the presence of his personalism throughout his papal teachings, as in the encyclical on human work, or in his teaching on proposing rather than imposing the Christian faith.

John Henry Newman

John Henry Newman (1801-1890) was educated at Oxford and was ordained a priest in the Church of England in 1822.  In 1833 there arose in the Church of England a reform movement known to history as the Oxford Movement.  From the beginning Newman was the guiding spirit of the movement, which sought to recover the apostolic and patristic roots of the Church of England.  For the 12 years of the Oxford Movement Newman was prodigiously productive as an author, writing tracts, treatises, letters, essays, sermons, and poems of great power and originality.  After some years of struggling to renew the Church of England the conviction grew on Newman that he was in fact in a schismatical church, and that the true descendant of the ancient apostolic Church was the Roman Catholic Church, which Newman joined in 1845.  He is generally regarded as the most significant Catholic convert since the Reformation.  As a Catholic he labored in behalf of Catholic education and he did much to prepare the ground in the Church for the Second Vatican Council.  He was made a cardinal by Pope Leo XIII in 1879. 

Throughout his life Newman distinguished himself as a writer of incomparable expressive power; James Joyce said he was the greatest writer of English prose.  In his Anglican writings Newman is not only concerned with ecclesiastical questions; he is also concerned with the fundamentals of faith, certainty, doubt, truth, commitment.  He thus speaks to all men and women who seriously raise the religious question, and not just to Anglicans concerned with their ecclesial roots.  His concern with religious fundamentals continues in his Catholic writings, in which he explores with great penetration the sources of religious belief and unbelief.  Many religiously awakened people in our time study Newman closely and find themselves deeply nourished by his work. 

They also find in him the outlines of a profound Christian personalism, especially in what he writes about personal influence in contrast to organization, about personal judgment in contrast to formal proof, and about appealing to the heart in contrast to appealing only to the intellect.  One student of Newman put it like this: “Newman stands at the threshold of the new age as a Christian Socrates, the pioneer of a new philosophy of the individual Person and Personal Life.”  But Newman was a personalist thinker not only in subject matter of his writing, but also in the manner of his writing.  In a singular way he is personally present in his writing.  He speaks from the heart and addresses the heart, and this in a manner that has fascinated readers.  He does not just offer true propositions to the mind, but he touches the existence of those who are drawn into his orbit.

By the time of his death in 1890 he was revered throughout England as a saintly man.  In a Protestant country he had become a credible witness to Catholic Christianity, and in an age of growing unbelief he had become a credible witness to a destiny for human beings reaching beyond earthly existence.

Dietrich von Hildebrand

Dietrich von Hildebrand was born in Florence in 1889, the son of the German sculptor, Adolf von Hildebrand.  He was educated by tutors at home until he began his university studies in Munich in 1906.  Between 1909 and 1911 he spent several semesters studying in Goettingen with the great Edmund Husserl, the father of phenomenological philosophy, and in 1912 he completed his doctorate.  In Goettingen he also studied with Adolf Reinach, whom he always venerated as his real teacher in philosophy.  But he also received tremendously much from Max Scheler, with whom he had a very close friendship for 15 years.  It was Scheler who awakened von Hildebrand’s interest in personalist philosophy.  Von Hildebrand’s dissertation concerned the problem of moral action; in fact he subsequently became best known as a moral philosopher.

In 1914 von Hildebrand, who had received no religious education as a child, converted to Catholicism, partly under the influence of Scheler.  In addition to his properly philosophical books he wrote in the course of his life a number of more religious and spiritual studies, for his Christian faith was supremely important to him.  Already in the 1920’s he began to distinguish himself in the Catholic intellectual world by his original personalist writings on man and woman.

Von Hildebrand became Professor of philosophy at Munich, where he taught until 1933.  It was Hitler’s coming to power in that year that drove von Hildebrand from Germany.  He had been one of the earliest critics of National Socialism, raising his voice against its Weltanschauung already at the time of the 1923 Putsch in Munich.  Refusing to live in a country governed by Hitler, he left Germany in 1933, going first to Florence and then Vienna, where he tried to rally the intellectual resistance to Nazi Germany.  In collaboration with the Austrian chancellor, Dollfuss, he founded a review in which he brought his philosophy to bear on the European crisis of the time, exposing in essay after essay the intellectual and spiritual corruption of National Socialism.  One of these essays was entitled “The Struggle for the Person,” and expresses the personalism contained in all that he wrote in those years.  In the life of von Hildebrand one sees not only the intellectual labors of a moral philosopher but also the public witness of a great moral personality.

He escaped Vienna barely with his life in 1938 when Germany annexed Austria.  He spent the next years as a refugee moving through Switzerland, France, Portugal, Brazil, until he arrived in New York City in 1941.  He became professor of philosophy at Fordham University, where he taught until his retirement in 1960.  It was in 1953 that he published his major work in moral philosophy, Ethics.  He lived in New York until his death in 1977.  In his last years he published Das Wesen der Liebe [The Essence of Love], which he considered one of his most major works; it is also an important source for the personalism of his thought.

Søren Kierkegaard

Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) was born in Copenhagen, Denmark and rarely left his native land (four trips to Berlin, one to Sweden). He wittily described himself as the greatest philosopher in Denmark. He was a critic of idealistic philosophy, especially that of Hegel, as well as of the state of Christianity in his time. He is considered to be the father of the existentialist movement in philosophy. Existentialism stresses the importance of the decision of each person in his freedom and power.

After exposure to Hegel's philosophy early in his career, Kierkegaard reacted strongly against it, influencing the bent of his thought for the rest of his life. He regularly used irony and wit to make fun of the figure of a "worshipful Herr Professor" who has spent so much time building an abstract system of explanation for all of reality that he has forgotten that he himself is an individual responsible for his own life before God and not just "a fantastic three-eighths of a paragraph" within his own system. Thus Kierkegaard stresses the subjective development of the individual as a constant theme and attacks the importance of objectivity in thought. This leaves him open to the charge of irrationality and indeed some later philosophers of the absurd (e.g., Sartre) trace themselves back to Kierkegaard. However, Kierkegaard can more appropriately be seen as attacking an overweening modern rationalism rather than reason itself. He is much more an opponent of Hegel than of Thomas Aquinas. In that light, he can be seen as a breath of fresh air within the modern tradition, even recapturing classical wisdom. For example, as opposed to Sartre, Kierkegaard in The Sickness Unto Death clearly asserts that man has an essence—he does not create his own essence—which he must discover through experience and faith and then use his freedom to strive for fulfillment. Man's essence is paradoxical, with dimensions both in time and in eternity, and can only be fulfilled by discovering the truth about one's God-relationship. A man discovers what it means to be a person (this particular individual) only when he discovers that he comes from and is called to give himself back to God.

Kierkegaard stresses that each individual must take responsibility for his own freedom and his own unfolding being. He contrasts this ethical and religious maturity to being lost in the crowd or merely drifting along with societal expectations. Even where social habit and pressure are good (e.g., in the direction of or in support of Christianity), if individuals only follow along out of habit or social pressure they are not authentic or genuine. Thus near the end of his life Kierkegaard unleashed what has become known as his "attack upon Christendom" in which he castigated the Danish State Lutheran Church for its complacency. Once again, parallel to the way his attack on rationalism is sometimes interpreted as a rejection of reason itself, this religious assault has been used as ammunition against Christianity itself by atheists and free-thinkers, though by Kierkegaard's own confession in The Point of View of my Work as an Author every word he wrote was for the purpose of making men more deeply Christian. He writes to each single individual as that individual stands alone before God.

Thus Kierkegaard's thought is open to widely different interpretations, partly because he at times goes to extremes, partly because he himself hid behind pseudonyms in many of his published works. As a child, he and his father used to act out entire dialogical arguments as if they were two other people. Kierkegaard later wrote books in this manner—as if he were someone else holding a particular worldview and expressing it. Two of his first large works were Either/Or, the first written from the point of view of a young man living for the pleasures of the moment (what Kierkegaard calls the "aesthetic" stage), the second an answer to the first supposedly from a middle-aged, married man living in the midst life-long responsible commitment (the "ethical" stage). Kierkegaard, of course, wrote both. He also includes, by means of a sermon (or "edifying discourse) under his own name, a hint at his third stage (the "religious" stage) wherein one discovers one's God-relationship and relation to eternity, not merely to time. Kierkegaard thinks the individual has to crash on the rocks of despair over the limits of mere earthly pleasure and even the limits of mere earthly commitments before he can authentically enter the religious stage.

Kierkegaard is widely known, from Fear and Trembling (in which he dramatically analyzes Yahweh's command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac), for what he calls "the teleological suspension of the ethical." This would seem to imply a voluntarism in God, putting the entire ethical law in a merely conditional status, dependent solely on God's will rather than being grounded in His essence. Further, if you drop God and faith out of the equation, as later atheistic existentialists do, then any objective ethics becomes even more lacking in foundation. Thus we see here dangerous possibilities in Kierkegaardian interpretation. Nonetheless, Fear and Trembling is a very early work of Kierkegaard (1843, just after Either/Or), is written under a pseudonym (which means, according to The Point of View of My Work as an Author, that it is not necessarily representative of the authors own position), and its position on the ethical in relation to the religious is contradicted by many later works of Kierkegaard which depict a much closer interpenetration of the ethical and the religious ("the ethical is the breath of the eternal"). So again an interpretation is possible here which is much more in line with classical philosophy and natural law ethics.

Kierkegaard lived through the periods of despair, anxiety, dread, fear and trembling about which he writes. He overcame a despair over his spiritual state and sins through two conversion experiences, one in 1838, the next in 1848. In the first, he says that he realized that his sins were forgiven, but he still dreaded the consequences of his sins. In the second, he says he realized that not only were his sins forgiven, but forgotten. After this experience in 1848, he began to be more open in his writings and ceased the use of pseudonyms. Kierkegaard eventually seemed to achieve a complete openness and trust in God, the God who entered time to save us on the cross, but he had an ongoing problem with openness to human beings. He was engaged once, to Regina Olsen; however, though he loved her dearly, he decided to break the engagement (1840-41), provoking great crisis within. It is not clearly known exactly why he broke the engagement—was it for physical, psychological-emotional, or spiritual reasons?—because Kierkegaard carefully went back through all his journals and diaries and cut out the paragraphs that described his motives here. He said that he knew that later generations would pore over his papers and that he wanted to keep certain things private. He does say at one point that if he had had more faith, he would have married Regina. Kierkegaard is a great Christian believer and personalist thinker, possessed of deep psychological acumen, critic of the modern age, witty, intriguing, inspirational, and problematic.

Gabriel Marcel

Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973), born in Paris, was a French philosopher, playwright, musician, and drama critic. He was known as a Christian existentialist or philosopher of existence, though he very much contrasted himself to the existentialism of the atheistic absurdists, Sartre and Camus. Marcel was an original thinker whose works stay very close to his experience. Philosophy and an autobiographical description of the questions and thought processes which led him to his conclusions are closely entwined when one reads his works. He is afraid that "systematizing" can lead one astray from the truths present in our experience.

He was an only child raised in a broken and areligious family. He felt isolated from his fellow students at school and was very negatively affected by the fiercely competitive educational system. His initial pathway out of isolation and despair had to do with drama and music. He developed a love for theater, communicating with imaginary companions in the absence of live friends or siblings. He also felt uplifted by beautiful music, which gave him some impression of a higher harmony and possibility of communion, even if not expressed in concepts. This kept him from despair and suicide until he later addressed these themes of communion and hope philosophically—and finally religiously. It was not until age 39 that he discovered faith and converted to Catholicism.

His major philosophical themes—in both his plays and his theoretical treatises—focus on the world of the person, finding meaning in human life, and the call and challenge of communion with others and ultimately with God. A major concept in his thought is what he calls disponibilité or "availability." By this he means not the way an apartment is empty and "available" for rent, but rather the way one person can be available for another in service and in love. This requires a fullness within, and a self-control, that allows me to make a gift of myself to another. I cannot be available to another or make myself a gift to him or her (or to God) if I am clogged up with myself, i.e., if I am dominated by pride, concupiscence, habit, human respect, etc. I must have a vision of what I am for, what I am ordained to, in light of values and of other persons worthy of love.

Marcel also distinguishes between being and having. One can only "have" things, never persons. Ownership of a person would be slavery, the most fundamental insult to human dignity. But we treat one another as things whenever we try to manipulate instead of trying to love. With persons, one can only "be with" another in mutual respect and love in a genuine personal "presence" to another. This is the doorway to human communion. But evidently loving communion can never be only one-way, can never be forced or imposed on the other, but must be reciprocal—a free gift on each side. He also distinguishes between problem and mystery. A problem is an objective challenge with a potential final answer, e.g., in mathematics, physics, or logic. A mystery is not merely "objective" but involves the person addressing it intimately and subjectively, and does not have a final universal solution, but rather deeper and deeper levels, e.g., friendship. So a problem is to be solved but a mystery is to be lived. In a related theme, Marcel is very critical of our technological, utilitarian mass society with its tendencies toward reducing the individual to his functions and uses, treating him as a thing to be manipulated rather than respected.

As opposed to the philosophies of anxiety, despair, and absurdity (e.g., Sartre and Camus), Marcel emphasizes a philosophy of gratitude, hope, and communion and tries to uncover those dimensions of human experience which ground and point toward such a solution to the human situation. Thus, while faith may complete and fulfill what reason points to, faith is not an irrational leap. Rather, there are grounds in the human experience of love, value, and meaning which point toward a transcendent fulfillment beyond reason. He argues, for instance in Homo Viator, that love in its fundamental validity reaches out beyond death, even on the level of human experience. He starts concretely with the acknowledgement that his love for his wife is the most deeply meaningful and valid response of his entire life. But, if love is valid, if love is not absurd, then his wife must be more than a complicated organization of material elements; his wife must in other words be more than merely her body. If she were only the material elements of her body, then what would love mean? What would marriage vows mean? The body is over 80% water, plus various other elements, highly organized—which means it is just a highly organized mud puddle. How do two highly organized mud puddles [my imagery here, not Marcel's, but for the purpose of illustrating Marcel] love one another or make vows to one another? That would really be absurd. But, since love itself is not absurd, but most deeply valid and meaningful, therefore the beloved must be more than the body which dies. So, Marcel states, "Love says, 'You will not die!'" But if love is not absurd, then neither is human life.

Ultimately, then the grounds for meaning and hope in human life break the bounds of this world of space and time. Hope is not on the same level with a dispositional or psychological optimism, nor is it just a calculation of odds, not is it just wishful thinking. Hope in human life is based in the genuineness (truth) of values, of beings worthy of life-long faithful commitment and love, but their validity points to a transcendent ground beyond themselves, beyond time, in eternity—in God, His power and His goodness. "I hope in Thee for us" is Marcel's famous summary phrase here.

But if there are things in being, especially persons, worthy of love and commitment, then we are also called to both gratitude and faithfulness. Gratitude is the fundamental response to being as a gift—our own being and that of those we love. Further, we are called to constantly renew our love and commitment in what Marcel calls "creative fidelity." That is, our obligation as lovers is to return again and again to the wellsprings of our response, the reasons for our love, and to renew our hearts. We must not grow blunted or cold, falling asleep to the gifts we have received and beginning to take them for granted. This requires commitment of the will, but a commitment precisely to keep our hearts open, to let ourselves be touched deeply again and again—it is never just a dry commitment of the will alone, binding only from the past. Rather, it is a present reality constantly renewed—that at least is the challenge.

In relation to the philosophia perennis, Marcel regularly arrives at positions compatible with classical and medieval philosophy, but he wants to show from his own experience how he gets there. He is sensitive to the danger of just churning out answers from within a system based on certain traditional terms and presuppositions perhaps no longer "alive" to their roots in human experience.


Board of Directors

Board of Advisors

  • Josef Seifert, Ph.D.:  Rector, International Academy for Philosophy
  • John F. Crosby, Ph.D.:  Professor of Philosophy, Franciscan University
  • James Dubois, Ph.D.:  Mäder Endowed Chair, Dept. Chair, Director, Center for Healthcare Ethics, SLU
  • Jill Burkemper, Ph.D.:  Assistant Professor, Healthcare Ethics, St. Louis University
  • Maria Fedoryka, Ph.D.:  Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Ave Maria University
  • Alice von Hildebrand:  Professor Emeritus, Hunter City College of New York
  • Guillermo Montes, Ph.D.:  Senior Researcher, Children's Institute, University of Rochester
  • Rev. Fabrizio Meroni:  Director of the Centre for Culture and Christian Formation (CCFC) - Brazil
  • Peter Damgaard-Hansen, Ph.D.