The Personalist Project

I promise, I won't go on any more about my new workout routine. (If you'd like to hear me do that, you can always read all about it here.) But one day, when I'd been at it a few weeks, I tried to express to my husband why it's been so life-changing for me--specifically, the coach's insistence that I write down every morsel I eat. 

"He gave you a conscience," my husband guessed.

"No, that's not it at all!" I replied. "He gave me hope."

And it occurred to me: that's not just something newly minted health nuts need. It's what we all need.

The thing was, I already had a conscience. I knew perfectly well how I was supposed to regard my beloved hot pretzels and onion rings. Like any sentient American, I've been bombarded with information about such evils all my life. I was adept at feeling a powerful sense of guilt whenever I chose the french fries over the salad. It interfered with the pleasure of those french fries, but it seldom prevented me from choosing them.

What I lacked was not knowledge of the properties of french fries, but hope. I felt trapped in the cycle of feeling bad about eating the things I was going to keep on eating. The older I got, the more convinced I grew that life from here on out would be a long slide into deeper self-contempt and an ever-increasing inability to manage the simplest physical activities. 

But this week I played hopscotch with my younger kids and embarked on a nice mother-son bike-and-scooter ride. What I'd needed was not just information. What made the difference was the guidance of somebody knowledgeable, the companionship of fellow sufferers, and the momentum created by success.

Knowledge alone didn't cut it. That doesn't mean, of course, that the truth doesn't matter. I didn't want to forget about the facts about french fries, or find someone to lie to me and say that science had discovered they were good for you. I didn't want to hear that I was fine the way I was (being desperate enough to work out at 5:30 in the morning, I wouldn't have swallowed it anyway). I didn't want the false comfort of imagining that those who said potstickers would make me fat were being mean or unfair. 

Excessive objectivism is not excessive concern for the truth. There could be no such thing. It's concern for the facts--the objective state of affairs regarding, for instance, the number of carbs in a potsticker--without taking into account the personal subject.

In another context, Katie talks about: 

an insight from Newman and Wojtlya both—[...] Newman wrote of the "infinite abyss of existence" that is each individual soul, and about the mysterious subjectivity of "the illative sense"—the faculty by which we judge for ourselves what to do, what to believe, etc. Wojtyla constantly stressed personal responsibility. "You must decide." He too lived and wrote from a deep awareness of the inscrutability of God's dealings with another person, and the "impassibility" of the frontier between my will and another's.

Each of us has an "interior terrain", a zone of personal responsibility—an area "handed over to us" by God, where we're in charge.

This is significant because once you realize it, you realize your own responsibility to arise out of passivity--that your freedom isn't given to you just so that you can passively be conformed to the truth. But it's also significant for our dealings with other people, other selves. 

I'd had information about carbs, calories, and exercise available to me for decades. You can announce such information to people, expecting them to assimilate it the way a computer assimilates a downloaded image, making it part of a document's content. Or you can be even more disrespectful of their subjectivity by attacking them with this information, by ridiculing or being condescending. Or you can expect people to change their lives, or their bad habits, by assimilating information without a community, without a sense of responsibility, without encouragement and hope, without accountability and personal attention.

But that wouldn't be concern for truth. That would be excessive objectivism.


Image credit: Pixnio

Comments (22)

Katie van Schaijik

#1, Nov 17, 2017 9:09am

Devra, we are on the same wavelength. I've been thinking a lot about excessive objectivism and how to explain it by analogy.

Many thanks for this great post.

Sam Roeble

#2, Nov 17, 2017 4:44pm

Of the two types of solipsism: subjective & objective, is objective more harmful to persons because of the degree of conviction? 


#3, Nov 17, 2017 9:17pm

But what is to be considered excessive?  Is informing people that a diet of vegetables and whole grains is better than potstickers and french fries excessive objectivism?  And isn't our hope based on the fact/truth that if we do modify our behavior or make some sacrifice we can obtain the freedom and peace we desire?  Our hope doesn't come in being told, "I'm ok.  You're ok"  Does it?  Because isn't the truth, "I'm not ok and neither are you."?  But knowing that with God's help we can be? 

Reminds me of those needing to change the lyrics to Amazing Grace.  We live in a time that needed to change the original author's line of, 'that saved a wretch like me' to 'that saved and set me free' How dare we call ourselves wretched!  The author clearly recognized his wretchedness -- making the song all the more meaningful.  When did that become wrong?  There is nothing like understanding just how ugly our sins are and how much they hurt God.  To recognize our wretchedness doesn't downplay God's love and mercy for us -- it confirms it.  Again, I am having a hard time understanding personalism if this is what it means.      


Rhett Segall

#4, Nov 17, 2017 10:02pm

What's being confused in Devra's homey example is the experience of suffering or discomfort with the ontology of that evoking the suffering.. That activating the discomfort, in this case food, is objective; how much one wants to hear about it is subjective.  There can't be  too much objective reality-it's either there or not. However, there can be an excessive amount of what I can presently hear about the object, in this case food. Here's the way Maritain speaks to the issue:"Subjectivity marks the frontier which separates the world of philosophy from the world of religion. This is what Kierkegaard felt so deeply in his polemic against Hegel. Philosophy runs against an insurmountable barrier in attempting to deal with subjectivity, because while philosophy of course knows subjects, it knows them only as objects. Philosophy is registered whole and entire in the relation of intelligence to object; whereas religion enters into the relation of subject to subject.  For this reason, every philosophical religion, or every philosophy which , like Hegel's, claims to assume and integrate religion into itself, in in the last analysis is a mystification." Existence and the Existent" p.70

Devra Torres

#5, Nov 19, 2017 9:10am

Sam, I don't understand the question. What is "objective solipsism," and what did you mean by the "degree of conviction"?

Devra Torres

#6, Nov 19, 2017 9:18am

Joy, I don't think we disagree. As I said in the post, I wasn't looking for someone to tell me I was fine the way I was, when I wasn't. Or someone to tell me that french fries were good for me, when I knew they weren't. Or someone to lie to me about the number of carbs in a potsticker. 

To tell someone the objective truth is not "excessive objectivism." To hide the truth or lie about it is certainly not more "personalist"! The point I was trying to make is that we need the truth, but we need something more than an announcement of the facts. And if the facts are announced in a way that shows disrespect or contempt for the person failing to live according to the truth, or ignorance or indifference about that person's subjectivity--what's going on inside her, how she got to the point of not being able to use her freedom to follow the truth, what obstacles or addictions or personal history might be impeding her success--then the result may be that she sinks further into that failure.

Devra Torres

#7, Nov 19, 2017 9:22am

I agree, too, that if we tell someone the truth in the context of "I'm not OK, and neither are you," that could be a big improvement on what often happens--the message that often comes through--which is more like, "I'm OK, but you're not, and I'm here to tell you the objective truth about what's wrong with you. And if you don't like it, it must be because you're a relativist, a person who's only concerned about your own feelings."

I also want to make it clear that I'm not saying that if someone's had a difficult past, that person is exempt from following the moral law. I'm looking to find the kind of personal interaction that will be most effective not just in getting people to approve of what is good, but actually to live in the truth.

Devra Torres

#8, Nov 19, 2017 9:28am

Excuse me for going on, but one more thing: I always thought that the lyrics to Amazing Grace were changed because Catholic theology teaches that we retain our goodness at the ontological level--the level of our deepest being--even though we're stained by original sin. Luther thought we remained "wretches," ontologically speaking--and that our redemption didn't restore us to that original goodness but only covered our wretchedness the way snow covers up, but doesn't change, a dunghill. I'm a convert from Evangelicalism, and we used to sing it the old way, which I still prefer. I think it can be understood in a way that is theologically fine. So, no real disagreement there, either. 

Katie van Schaijik

#9, Nov 19, 2017 9:37am

Yes, Devra. Exactly. "Excessive objectivism" (a phrase I got from Wojtyla) doesn't mean denying or downplaying objective reality, never mind distorting it. It means not approaching persons as if objective truth is the only thing that matters. There's also subjective truth, which not only wants recognition, but—according to Wojtyla—even has a certain priority when it comes to all things personal.

So, for instance, it's objectively so that a full, balanced meal is more nourishing for a person than just sugar. But if it happens that a particular person has just had abdominal surgery and can't manage solid food, then the thing that's best for that person, is sugar dripping into her veins.

I knew a little girl once whose father was an alcoholic and whose mother had just died of cancer. She would only eat three things: pizza, bacon or french fries. Her doctor said, "It's okay. Those are fairly healthy foods. Don't worry. Don't force her."

Katie van Schaijik

#10, Nov 19, 2017 9:41am

The last thing that little girl needed was lectures from the adults in  her life about her poor eating habits. What she needed was patience and reassurance and time and grace.

Devra Torres

#11, Nov 19, 2017 9:46am

And just to be clear, those aren't cases of truth being trumped by something else. They're cases of truth in a particular case being arrived at by taking into account the person in question. As opposed to a concession to relativism or subjectivism.


#12, Nov 21, 2017 9:11am

Yes, after reading these further comments sounds like  we are in agreement.  I guess my only concern is then perhaps  an over emphasis that so many within the Church are shouting, "I'm  ok.  You're  not ok"  This simply  does  not seem to  be the case.  I think most do understand  extenuating  circumstances.  Must we label  those who do teach and spread  church teaching guilty of disrespect or contempt for someone's  feelings?  


#13, Nov 21, 2017 9:17am

Like you agreed, simply calling oneself a wretch does not mean the person thinks they are unworthy of God''s grace.  using that term does not automatically  indicate some  kind of fire and brimstone  outlook, where we forget  to realize  we are first and foremost  sons and daughters  of Christ -- special,  unique, and loved.

Katie van Schaijik

#14, Nov 24, 2017 9:54am


Joy wrote:

Must we label  those who do teach and spread  church teaching guilty of disrespect or contempt for someone's  feelings?  

 No, that wouldn't be good.

But that's not what's going on. Not at all. At least not with the Pope, who constantly affirms the necessity of upholding Church teaching.

He's simply asking us to give more care and attention to subjectivity, because that's what the gospel requires, and because that's what's urgently needed at this particular moment in the world.

When Catholics respond to that call by doubling down on the law, so to speak, they are actually making the Pope's case. They are showing that they have a tendency toward "excessive objectivism", in as much as they seem find a focus on subjectivity dubious and worrying and threatening to the Faith, when it isn't. On the contrary.


#15, Nov 24, 2017 10:37am

Ok, but can't one argue the opposite?  When Catholics respond to the call to give more care and attention to subjectivity, can they be guilty of neglecting the call to also uphold Church teaching?  Doesn't it work both ways?  If they worry that emphasis on "the rules" are threatening to the Faith and their focus is all about subjectivity, can they be guilty of excessive subjectivism, something to be equally concerned about?  

Obviously, a beautiful balance is key.  Of course, it's all about perception.  One person's "balanced approach" could be seen as "too rigid" or "too lenient", depending on someone else's point of view.  Good intentions don't always end in results.    

Katie van Schaijik

#16, Nov 24, 2017 10:45am

Yes, subjectivism is a danger.

But key to finding the right balance is and always has been staying close to the Pope, since he and he alone has the office and charism to judge what is particularly needed for the Church at this moment in her history.

And he—following in the line of his great predecessors, who's prime aim has been the right implementation of Vatican II—is asking us to pay closer attention to subjectivity.

He is not asking us to abandon objectivity. He is asking us to focus more attention on subjectivity. 


#17, Nov 24, 2017 10:59am

Yes, I agree.  Although the Church is the magisterium -- the Holy Spirit works through the Pope AND the Bishops.  

Katie van Schaijik

#18, Nov 24, 2017 11:05am

I don't think that's quite right. It's not the Pope AND the bishops, as if his authority were divided among them, or balanced by theirs. Rather, it's the Pope, in union with the bishops. His charism is absolutely unique. They do not have it. 

Individual bishops can set themselves against the Pope. It's happened fairly often in ecclesial history, alas.


#19, Nov 24, 2017 2:13pm

Perhaps you're right, but ecclesial history shows it was the Bishops and sometimes even lay people who, at times had to use fraternal correction toward the Pope -- thank God.  

Perhaps the role of some Bishops (say like Chaput) is to continue to make sure Catholics know the teachings of the Church, especially if some are misunderstanding Pope Francis' approach as meaning "the rules" no longer apply.  While I understand some might see Chaput's response as divisive and confusing, keep in mind there are others who see Pope Francis' approach as divisive and confusing?  Can't and shouldn't there be a place for both approaches? 

Like I mentioned, I am a revert to the faith and it is the approach of those like Chaput that resonated the most with me and helped deepen my desire for a relationship with Christ.  I saw the Church standing alone when others were cool giving into whatever latest philosophy made us feel good.  Personally, that's not what I needed.   

Rhett Segall

#20, Nov 25, 2017 7:02am

A few reactions on objectivity, subjectivity and the charism of truth:

Comparing earlier catechisms, such as the Baltimore Catechism, with the present catechism of the Catholic Church, the CCC  has a far, far greater emphasis on the subjective dimension of morality than the Baltimore Catechism! Remembering the distinction between "wrongdoing" (objective) and "sin" (subjective) is important.

Regarding the safeguarding of God's revelation by the Church, I think it of utmost importance to remember  that the Church herself teaches that the charism of infallibility is a papal prerogative only when spoken "ex cathedra". Pope Benedict XVI emphasized this.

It is also critical to remember that a Bishop is NOT a representative of the pope. He is a representative of Christ.

Lastly, I do think it important to recall the "sensus fidelium". A few examples where this stands out: Francis of Assisi, a layman, and his followers, were a stark example  of evangelical poverty to the flamboyant Pope Innocent III..

Catherine of Siena explicitly tells Pope Gregory XI to act like a man and get back to Rome.Her letter is a treat to read!

Creative tensions within the whole Church's effort to hear  God's Word is the Spirit at work!

Katie van Schaijik

#21, Nov 25, 2017 7:32am

There has never been an example of a bishop or lay person validly correcting a Pope when he formally teaches in the area of faith and morals in union with the bishops. 

When the Pope teaches in union with the bishops, he can be opposed, but not corrected. Such opposition typically leads to schism. See the Pius X Society for a contemporary instance.

It's not comparable to the creative tension of differences among the saints, like between Philip Neri and Charles Borromeo. Or between the saints and the sinners they corrected.

But I'm straying rather far from Devra's topic. And I'm still working on my critique of Archbishop Chaput's recent articles. I promise to alert you when that's done.

Katie van Schaijik

#22, Nov 25, 2017 8:44am

Rhett, one more point in answer to this:


Regarding the safeguarding of God's revelation by the Church, I think it of utmost importance to remember  that the Church herself teaches that the charism of infallibility is a papal prerogative only when spoken "ex cathedra"....

It is also critical to remember that a Bishop is NOT a representative of the pope. He is a representative of Christ.

 The dissenters from Humanae Vitae like to stress that distinction too. The Pope is "only infallible" when he teaches ex cathedra, the rest is optional.

But while that's true when it comes to the specific charism of papal infallibility, it's not relevant in the context, because the Pope's authority extends beyond that charism to the entire area of faith and morals. The faithful are bound to receive the ordinary Magisterium, not only to the 2 or 3 formally declared infallible doctrines. And there is no question that Amoris Laetitia, being papal teaching in union with the bishops in the area of faith and morals, is part of the ordinary magisterium of the Church.

Further, the Bishop represents Christ within the proper limits of his function as bishop. A bishop who is opposing the Pope is not representing Christ.

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