The Personalist Project

Previously, I wrote about how expressed and received language has its roots in reality and its end in communion. What happens if communion with reality and with others ceases to be the telos of language?

Melinda Selmys recently wrote about the value of experiences that transcend or conflict with systems of signifiers. The entire post is well worth reading for what it has to say about mysticism and communion with God (a communion that does not rely on linguistic communication), but I want to pull out this portion that relates to my topic:

At the first stage, we come up with words, images, and ideals that represent the real. So, for example, if I’m thinking about apples I’m thinking of a category in my mind called “apple,” not about an actual real red fruit hanging on a tree. At this first stage, we basically create an icon that renders truth accessible to minds, and allows us to manipulate it.

Now, from our stock of phantasms we begin to abstract, seeking patterns within the data so that we can ascend towards a higher kind of truth. Slowly, over time, the abstractions become more and more distant from the original object. And this is the crucial point: as this process takes place, there comes a moment when the fruits of our abstraction start to be projected back onto reality itself. At some point, we come to believe in an ideal apple and start judging actual apples by this standard. Before you know it, you have breeders trying to create hybrids that will produce perfectly shiny, round red fruits, and workers spraying a thin layer of wax onto apples before setting them out in the store, because we will no longer accept the lopsided red-green objects that tend to grow on wild apple trees.

The ideal supplants the reality.                                               

What use is a signifier that supplants the signified? Can language be a vehicle to communion if it has become detached from the direct experience of individual persons? I’ll come back to this thought, which has significance, I think, to the question of the value of a plurality of voices. 

Where is the person?

If the purpose of language, as I posit, is to bridge to some small extent the gap between persons, then our use of language must put persons in a primary place of importance, not in the aggregate, but in the particular; each time we speak or write, we are speaking or writing to someone, whether to ourselves (to clarify thought or provide a journal of experiences), to others, or to God. Language is transitive; it is transmitted from persons to persons. But since persons are particular, and language is contextual—language signifies and points to reality and is acquired via reference to reality and experience—a person-centered use of language must consider the context and experience of particular persons to achieve communication.

Am I the audience?

 I think private/public context is relevant because then the question of audience—and whether we ARE the audience or merely presume we are—comes into our understanding of another’s use of language.

Not everybody is the audience for every post or blog. When I, on my own tiny personal blog, used the word "shit" to describe false teachings that propagate spousal abuse, I offended at least one reader. But I wrote out of love and knowledge that strong, unequivocal language, even language meant to jolt and shock, would be experienced as a blessed relief to those women who had been or were presently subject to those false teachings from those around them. My intended audience responded as I expected they would, with gratitude and exhilaration at having their own experiences both expressed with strength and considered within the light of faith. 

It's difficult, I think, to accept that sometimes we are not the intended audience. More than that, it can be difficult to accept that it is a good that we are not always the intended audience, because others deserve and need to be loved differently and with different words and metaphors than would reach and move us personally.


If the goal of language is communion, it must always fall short. Which of us has not had the frustrating and bittersweet experience of explaining ourselves or seeking to understand a loved one and feeling that no matter how many words are poured forth or how much “active listening” is attempted, there still remains an unbridgeable gulf? It is the nature of persons to desire communion, but it is also the nature of the person that our attempts at communion must always fall short of understanding and grasping the full subjective experience and being of another.

Here is where context and subjectivity comes into communication. I asked earlier if language can be a vehicle to communion if it has become detached from the direct experience of individual persons. The obvious answer, I think, is that signifiers disconnected from experience are like signposts lifted up and moved away from the roads they are meant to mark. You can read and move them around, but you can’t ascertain from the signposts alone where they came from or what way they should point. In Mindy’s example, the person attached to their abstract, ideal apple may, (like the child who has learned a word from association with idealized pictures in books) deny the “apple-ness” of the imperfect and varying fruit the rest of us know by that signifier. The signifier acts still as a way to represent an abstract to the self, but it has lost its function as a mode of communication with others because it has lost its connection with reality.

The gift of Babel

The story of Babel speaks to the obstacles created by our lack of common signifiers across all of humanity. Past the state of near-complete disconnection described in our example of the apple is the lesser but equally intransigent problem of signifiers which different people associate with different realities. Without even addressing language barriers between people who speak different human languages with entirely different vocabularies, we encounter fairly frequently the barriers between people who use the same vocabulary to signify subtly or widely different realities.

But there are tastes of a pre-Babel state. We all know that there are people we communicate with better than others. I’ve found myself saying of particular friends that their company is a relief because we “speak the same language.” I do not mean by that that we have our own particular vocabulary and grammar. What I mean is that we have a shared context which gives us confidence that our words do indeed signify the same realities. Sometimes this context is born out of co-experience, out of long friendship and events experienced together. Sometimes this context is born out of parallel experience, where we have discovered similarities in how we have each lived and come to understanding of different ideas and realities. And sometimes it isn’t apparently obvious why we understand so many of the same things by the same signifiers.

I've never had an experience of complete communion, and don't expect to. The subjectivity of lived experience is such that there is never complete identification of context, never complete assurance of communication. But we can approach improved communication by listening and observing the person (or, in the case of public or semi-public speech, those persons in our desired audience who respond to us). Our attempts at communication are themselves shared experiences, and they give us the opportunity to both adjust our understanding of how others use language through observation and attention to the context of the other, and to adjust our own use of language with better understanding of the role of subjective experience in our own use of signifiers. This movement and growth in communion can only be personal though, even when it is public. We cannot use the same signifiers to invoke the same realities for all we might encounter, and being finite, very few of us will ever master more than a handful of “dialects” of shared experience and context.

It should not come as a surprise, then, to find that, given the freedom to seek to communicate with a wide range of people online, there should be a plurality of distinct voices with distinct uses of language within even communities of shared values or creeds. This, I would argue, is the gift of Babel. Just as it gives glory to God to praise Him in different tongues and modes, so it is a source of great beauty and healing to witness the many different ways we overcome our differences to pour ourselves and the richness of our subjectivity out for others in pursuit of communion with particular persons. Catholics observe this daily in the way different saints appeal to each us as models and intercessors. There is no evil God cannot bring to good, Christians profess, and this seems to me to be the good most desired by God. He chose to save us through His own person; he seeks to sanctify us and meet with us through other persons; and, judging from the example of the Saints, He evidently takes great joy in the brilliant spectra of His love refracted through our individual subjectivity, shining forth through our persons to shed light, drawing others into communion in varying shades of love.  

Comments (14)


#1, Aug 9, 2016 11:18am

Beautiful writing.  Isn't it true that if the post Babel world would stop kidding ourselves, and what I mean is that if we followed Socrates' logic that we need to have clear terms, true premises and conclusions that follow logically from the premises, that we would have fought half the battle just by doing that.  Then, if we would stop kidding ourselves again by denying the logos as the divine reason which all of humanity shares in we might arrive at communion with one another through it in and as the words we use to communicate.  We all know this as Hellen Keller showed us.  Even Koko the Gorilla came close to this with Penny Patterson.  You would think this would be easy for humans but obviously it escapes us.  In general, Plato said all learning is remembering, that everything we know comes through intuition, Aristotle, that we must abstract the forms through our senses but that intuition was still the source of everything.  The nominalists - everyone who followed Ockam said that words were just signifiers and nothing more; a denial of logos.  Our words carry the weight of everything in them.  We must choose them wisely and for the Good.

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#2, Aug 9, 2016 11:48am

I think we have to choose our words wisely, but not by our own lights and ideals alone. We're kidding ourselves if we think that using the "best" words in an ideal sense will help us reach communion in a fallen, post-Babel world where words DO operate for most people as signifiers--not pure signifiers with simple meanings, but as complex packages with multiple (often conflicting) meanings, experiences, intuitions, assignations, definitions, usages, and concrete associations attached.

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#3, Aug 9, 2016 11:48am

As an editor, I've become acutely aware of the deficiencies and yawning chasms between peoples left by a strictly prescriptivist approach to language. When even the words we use to define our terms are loaded with the baggage of lifetimes of divergent experience, there's something terribly detached about deciding that such-and-such usage is correct and things should be interpreted according to that "correct" usage and definition *regardless* of the intentions, experiences, or context of the speaker or writer. 

Descriptivism has its own shortcomings, but it seems to me that it benefits from being a concrete and person-centred approach, one which seeks to determine how words are actually used and with what load of associations and sub-meanings, and then, by cataloguing these permutations and sometimes divergent usages, seeks to enable clearer understanding between persons--not by lecturing the "incorrect" or divergent speaker, but by tutoring the listener to be alert to shades of meaning and potential differences in usage.

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#4, Aug 9, 2016 11:48am

My thesis is that what appears to us to be shockingly unclear or incorrect or offensive language may be, in fact, the form required to minister to those with a distinctly different instinctual usage and context than our own.

I can only plead ignorance on the philosophical battles on this topic, sadly. I remember, though, how frustrating it was as an undergrad to attempt to share truly life-changing ideas from my own education with a friend in a different university only to find that his education seemed to have primarily equipped him to label ideas by their proponents and origins, and, by labelling, thus dismiss them. The words and phrases that to me had become a bridge between my experience and the world were for him bricks that could be used to build walls. I think that is perhaps true whenever we lose sight of the goal of communion with the concrete persons in front of us, in all their messiness and subjectivity.   


#5, Aug 9, 2016 12:37pm

The only thing I am really saying Kate is that when someone speaks from love others understand it.  And love is not translated by signifiers, it's transmitted through intuition, as you show in your examples, because we cannot access it through our senses.  But when it is communicated through language it is usually communicated by use of analogy or parable, but the actual message, the love itself is transmitted through intuition.  I agree that in a conventional sense, language is translated through signifiers, and that this leads to many misunderstandings due to the diversity of languages, personal experiences, cultures, etc.  What I'm saying is that we all know this like Plato said we do, and that we kid ourselves into pretending that it is not true.  Signifiers are important, if not the crux of most misunderstandings as Socrates taught through the logic he used - what Aristotle learned from him and constructed formal rules for, but what Plato pointed out was that there is more to what Socrates was teaching, and that is that what is transmitted is not necessarily directly correlated with signifiers, and that all humans, no matter how diverse, understand universals, like love, when transmitted.


#6, Aug 10, 2016 1:13pm

What Plato said we all know is the logos.  He said we know this through intuition if we care to remember.  He used Socrates as an example of someone actively participating in the logos, actively participating in humanity’s shared divine reasoning.  He said that the logos is the inherent order of our shared subjectivity.  He said that this shared order is apparent in the logic of Socrates, in the Socratic method, which Aristotle later made as a tool to be used for no less than communion with God by communicating with other human beings.  Participation in the logos is communion with God through other concrete human beings.  When we communicate with each other, if we connect the dots with the language we use, when we make sense with our words, when we are logically coherent and cohesive, we are participating in the logos, the shared divine reasoning, the shared subjectivity of all human beings, we are in communion together with each other and with God, just by connecting the dots with our words.



#7, Aug 10, 2016 1:23pm

To do this with our intuition intact, to care to remember, Plato said, is the only way to experience the ultimate source of everything, which is goodness. 

The personalist has both a shared and individual subjectivity.  The individual subjectivity of the personalist is the interface between the universal and the particular, in other words, how does justice or love or joy or peace or beauty or truth or temperance affect any particular mind or any particular emotional make up?  Each particular mind and each particular emotional make up of each individual person is different.  But Plato said that we access ultimate truth through intuition, not the mind or the emotions.  The logos, or shared divine reasoning is of the intuition, within which each particular mind reaches by connecting the dots in the words it uses to communicate with other particular minds effortlessly because intuition carries the mind to its end and because the end of intuition is superior to the end of the mind’s reasoning.


#8, Aug 10, 2016 1:41pm

This is the limit of all particular minds.  This is the mind’s end.  This is the example of Socrates.  This is the logos, the truth, that Plato said is evident in the way we understand each other, and that is reached only by using our particular mind to communicate with language by connecting the dots with the words we use to make sense, so that each particular mind can understand the other and be in communion with other particular minds and therefore with the good, or God.  If we don’t connect the dots with the words we use in our language, we cannot understand each other, we cannot reach intuition on the above rung of the ladder, we cannot participate in the logos and we cannot be in communion with each other and therefore with God.  Through Socrates’ example, Plato taught that clear terms, true premises and valid conclusions are each particular mind’s end, and are necessary to reach communion with one another.


#9, Aug 10, 2016 1:43pm

Each particular person’s emotional make up must be managed sufficiently by each particular person in order to achieve communion with others.  Whether a person has negative or positive emotions they must be managed sufficiently in order to reach the necessary level of intuition for communion to take place.  The mind is good, emotions are good, but they are not human kind’s end, they are rungs on the ladder, the ladder that reaches the final rung of intuition.  Beyond the ladder is the source of everything, what Plato called the good.  Coming full circle, Plato said the good is achieved only by being in communion with others by way of the logos.

Jules van Schaijik

#10, Aug 10, 2016 8:31pm

Love this post, Kate. You're beginning to develop a much needed personalist philosophy of language.


#11, Aug 11, 2016 12:08pm

Two last comments.  There is a fine line between empathy and sympathy.  I was recently reminded of this by someone I know.  If someone is down in a hole and you jump down in the hole with them, that is sympathy, and now there are two people down in the hole and no one to help either of you get out.  If, on the other hand, you stand outside of the hole and reach your hand down to help them them out, or you get a ladder for them (perhaps the ladder of the logos that I talked about above), then that is empathy, and then both of you have the opportunity to rise to the level of communion.  Marshall Rosenberg mastered this skill and developed a model of communication called, non-violent communication, as Katie mentioned in your first post on your topic.  What you propose in your thesis seems to lean towards sympathy rather than empathy in this light.  I agree that persons now are messier than ever and that we must strive for personalist ways of regaining communion with one another, but the bottom line is that we are not responsible for other people’s feelings.


#12, Aug 11, 2016 12:11pm

We have to be strong enough to hold on to our own truth and that has everything to do with the words we use to communicate less we slip down into a hole and the ones we “help” hold us to our inability to lift them out.  Others will definitely consider you a prude in the current milieu but I guarantee they will respect you, and when they are ready, they will begin their journey towards communion with you.  Don’t change the way you speak to people to “try to get down to their level”.  The smart ones will see that you are changing who you are and will lose respect for you.  We must trust in what we know to be true and stop kidding ourselves by pretending we’re something we’re not in an attempt to be in communion with others.  We must understand that we can’t be in communion with everyone, but that we can be open to it by always being empathetic rather than sympathetic in our effort to reach communion, and in a sense, as Plato taught, we already are in communion with everyone, its just that some of us choose not to remember this.

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#13, Aug 11, 2016 2:30pm


I would never propose that we "pretend to be something we're not." I propose we attempt to *understand* how others use language and resist the temptation to *impose* our own context when interpreting those whose use differs from our own. The end result of *listening* to others in an empathetic way is that we change--encounters with others always result in change, often very beneficially, especially inasmuch as we learn better how to love by loving others in the concrete rather than merely in the abstract. 

The result of listening is gaining fluency, perhaps in only a few different "dialects." Becoming fluently familiar with another's context is distinct from putting on a pretence of fluency, just as learning to truly speak French is different from putting on a Pepe Le Pew accent and throwing in every French phrase or word we happen to have run across in popular culture. I would agree that the latter is problematic. But the former is important for concepts to ever be translated from one context to another. 

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#14, Aug 11, 2016 2:31pm

It is NOT necessary (and I am explicit in this in my article) that every person attempt to communicate in every context/"dialect". We are finite, and have different gifts. I merely propose that we recognise that the genuine ability to reach out and communicate *to an audience coming from a different context* is a genuine good, and an immensely Personalistic one, and resist the temptation to scold our co-religionists for having the audacity to speak to an audience other than ourselves in words not shaped and directed towards our own personal context. 

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