The Personalist Project

A post on the member feed by James Barclay has me thinking. He raises the question of "personalism in action," as opposed to personalism in theory. This distinction is of particular interest for what we might call "the French school" of personalism—the personalism articulated by the likes of Emmanuel Mounier, Simone Weil, and Jacques Maritain, and heroically championed in social action by people like Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Speaking in very broad lines, we can say that the French school of personalism seems to have been driven especially by concern over social injustice, which it sought to remedy by emphasis on the dignity of work and workers, and protest against the wrongs of luxury and privilege. It was, in other words, largely a political project.

The so-called "Polish school" of personalism, while related in various important ways, had a different point of departure. It grew more directly out of the intellectual tradition, particularly the questions raised by Kant's moral philosophy. It focused especially on the metaphysics of the person—his nature and being—and its ethical implications. It was largely an academic project.

So, notwithstanding deep shared interests and insights, there is a natural and historical tension between these two schools of thought, which incline to two opposite moral hazards: the heresy of activism and the ivory tower syndrome.  Activist types like to decry bookishness; bookish types look down their noses at the activists.  And both have an important point to make. To the extent that personalism is true, it is is truth that demands to be lived. It can't leave us indifferent or complacent in our theorizing. "Tua res agitur." The thing concerns you.

On the other hand, it would be a mistake to suppose that in order to "do" personalism, we have to become social activists, devoting our lives to the service of the poor, or that there is something illegitimate in the academic vocation as such. "Personalism in action," I propose, is more a way of being than a program for "social action."

For instance, I have a professor who makes a point of saying a person's name in conversation.  If I ask him a question, he almost always begins his answer with, "Well, Katie..." This isn't just a quirk, I'm sure. It's a deliberate way of habituating himself to giving attention to the individual in front of him.  He's "doing" personalism in his way of conversing.

One of the ways I try to be more personalist in my habits is by listening more carefully and attentively, especially to my children. What is this person really asking? What does he want to say? What does he need?

In the moral life, we become more personalist as we begin to interogate our own hearts, looking less to rules and norms, and more to "the still, small voice within."  Less "what's the correct thing here?" and more, "what should I do in this situation?"

Newman is an example of an intellectual whose way of living out his intellectual vocation was markedly personal.

I'd love to hear others' examples of conscientious personalism-in-action.

Comments (2)

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#1, Aug 27, 2013 9:01pm

I've been musing on this a bit myself, after James' question. I studied personalism under Jules a decade ago (where on earth does the time go?). I haven't had much leisure for intellectual pursuits in the interim; yet, that smattering of study has markedly informed my actions and decisions. I'm not in a position to step out into the world to do radical acts of solidarity with the poor; heck. I AM the poor. But I am going to encounter people every day, in the course of my day.  

So how does my Personalism shape my parenting? How does it shape how I approach my friends, my family, the cashier at the store, the new aquaintance, the person I interact with online? 

I sometimes think that this is what we need to communicate to the world: not the activism or the academic approaches in isolation, but to bring those principles in an accessible way to people who are not suited to either activism or academia; who have their arms full of cares and burdens and every day living-with-people, and face so many contradictory messages about how to relate to each other. 

James Barclay

#2, Sep 15, 2013 2:14pm

Once again, Katie, you have opened up a broader set of thoughts and perspectives;  especially those that concern the Polish (intellectual?) nature of Personalism and Kantian ethics.  Kate, I didn't even consider how parenting is involved, but I do now.  I personally enjoy making friends of anyone I can and enjoy their reactions.  Some may think this manipulative and even voyeuristic. But I think not.  I love to see people happy or at least at peace with themselves.  My years in Registered Nursing gave me a perspective I don't think I would have ever gotten otherwise.  I actually equate it with trust,  The patient, as a person, must trust me.  After all, what I do is as personal as it gets.  I must feel "with", but not feel "for", the person.  I do not want that patient to see me as that impersonal authority, The Nurse.  I have come to be that way in life.  and I have found that first it begins with self love and then love for the person.  Not acting, not doing, but being.  I make being what I am also who I am and what I do.  I make it part of my essence.

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