The Personalist Project

David Brooks is not a philosopher, but yesterday he made a good argument for personalism in his op-ed in the New York Times. 

Writes Brooks, 

Most actual human beings are filled with ambivalences. Most political activists I know love parts of their party and despise parts of their party. A whole lifetime of experience, joy and pain goes into that complexity, and it insults their lives to try to reduce them to a label that ignores that.

...This might be a perfect time for a revival of personalism.

Here, he echoes my own recent thoughts:

Where so many ideologies reduce people to roles or identity groups, Christian Personalism resists this flattening of human experience and interaction to insist on the importance of humility in the face of the incommunicable: there is in each person a depth of subjectivity that resists simple definitions and a freedom of will and mind that cannot be compelled. If you know one person intimately well---you know one person. 

What I found especially interesting is the way Brooks then encapsulated personalism as a set of "responsibilities"---challenges, really. 

The first responsibility, according to Brooks, is to "see each other person in his or her full depth." Here, he draws on Buber's distinction between two modes of relating, the "I-It" and "I-Thou." Here on this blog, we also often distinguish these as objectification vs. relating to the other as a subject. 

The second challenge of personalism is the call to self-gift.

The reason for life, Jacques Maritain wrote, is “self-mastery for the purpose of self-giving.” It’s to give yourself as a gift to people and causes you love and to receive such gifts for others. It is through this love that each person brings unity to his or her fragmented personality. Through this love, people touch the full personhood in others and purify the full personhood in themselves.

This is what one professor of mine used to call "taking hold of yourself so that you can give of yourself." An important distinction needs to be made between the challenge or responsibility of self-gift and the idea of owing or being owed a debt in a utilitarian, mercenary sense. Self-gift is called for as a value-response to the good of the other. "Value" in this sense refers not to monetary or trade value, but to intrinsic worth. This elevates charity beyond a sort of dutiful pity and challenges us to recognize and respond to the intrinsic good in each person we interact with. 

The third responsibility Brooks names is really a condition for the other two: "availability: to be open for this kind of giving and friendship." 

A little over ten years ago, Katie and Jules van Shaijik founded The Personalist Project as an organization to encourage discussion, sharing, and expansion upon philosophic questions outside of the limited boundaries of academia: 

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.

None of those of us writing for the Personalist Project blog have been social media experts. We use no fancy tricks to fool Google's search algorithm into giving the site a better ranking. We have a Facebook page, but don't create or post memes or viral material. We don't do Insta, we don't Tweet, we don't write listicles or limit our discussions to trending topics. We aren't great at writing clickbait. 

Still, we have chugged away, hosting thoughtful discussion, part of a quiet movement that Brooks calls "still something of a philosophic nub." 

Ten years is a long time for a quixotic project like this blog, and I am afraid it will wind down soon, though the archives and discussions should stay up for a long time to come. Those of us who have written here will almost certainly continue writing about personalism, wherever we write. Every action changes the actor first of all--writing for the Personalist Project has formed and shaped each of us over the years. 

But it cheers me to see personalism discussed in the pages of the New York Times, with the impressive reach of that publication. 

David Brooks is not a philosopher, and he has probably never visited The Personalist Project. But he does represent the spread of personalistic thought in a non-academic sphere, as Katie and Jules dreamed a decade ago. 

And he is right. 

This is the perfect time for a revival of personalism.  

NYT building image via Pixabay

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