The Personalist Project

An article by Jeffrey Lord in the American Spectator on the demonizing of conservatives reminds us of these lines from William F. Buckley's movement-launching book, God and Man at Yale, written when he was only 25 years old.

I believe that the duel between Christianity and atheism is the most important in the world. I further believe that the struggle between individualism and collectivism is the same struggle reproduced on another level.

He is right, with one important caveat.  The answer to collectivism isn't really individualism, but rather personalism.  Why?  Alice von Hildebrand frequently reminds us of a saying of her husband's: "The truth doesn't lie between two errors, but above them." 

Personalism is a philosophy that upholds the uniqueness and dignity of each and every individual, without losing sight of the essential "communitarian dimension" of the person.  

The paradox is well-captured in well-known declaration of Vatican II: The person is the only creature created for his own sake and called to give himself in love to others.  

As Dr. Crosby's series will teach us so well, John Paul's philosophical legacy can almost be summed up as an elaboration of this theme.

Comments (8)


#1, Dec 9, 2011 12:55pm

And truly the individual cannot escape the collectivists and still live in the freedom and personal dignity he desires. If he tries to resist on his own, he can only ever live comfortably to the extent he is allowed by the collectivists--to the extent they don't notice him (which means he must often foresake his faith and/or his moral convictions).

Collectivism and communism necessarily ignore, if not destroy, the individual dignity of the person. But a community of persons has an emergent property of strength that cannot be swept aside.

Helvi Moore

#2, Dec 11, 2011 12:24pm

It is interesting to read these discussions on individualism and collectism having recently been tackling these notions from the perspective of cross-cultural psychology.  Having just visited a "collectivist" society, Uganda, I have come away with great admiration for the "other-centered-ness" of collectivist Third World societies.  South African psychologist Marie Wissing and her colleagues employ a neat shorthand to describe the collectivistic/individualistic differences in approaches to materialism and self-construal, which they define as “Giving” and “Outside-in” (collectivist) versus “Getting/Receiving” and “Inside-out” (individualist), respectively.

I think it is a worthwhile pursuit to look at the larger dimensions of collectivism and individualism, moving beyond economic theories to encompass the whole person and his relation to others.

By the by, can anyone point me in the direction of a non-Christian/non-believing personalist philosopher?  I would very much like to introduce the idea of Personalism into the Positive Psychology movement (the study of what's strong, rather than what's wrong) but fear that my lovely humanist colleagues will starting plugging their ears when I start quoting Wojtyla, von Hildebrand et al.

Thanks.  Helvi.

Katie van Schaijik

#3, Dec 12, 2011 9:22am

The moving novel Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe piqued my interest in the African philosophy of Ubuntu.  I would love to see someone compare it to Christian personalism.

My glancing impressions lead me to think that we have much learn from their profound sense of group solidarity, even while we would have to criticize it for not doing full justice to the reality of the individual.

As for non-Christian personalists, have you come across Martin Buber's I and Thou?

I'm hoping to persuade a friend who has studied her very thoroughly to do a "personalist profile" of Simone Weil, but she might not fit your bill.  She was Jewish, but also a Christian mystic.

Jules van Schaijik

#4, Dec 12, 2011 1:19pm

Helvi Moore, Dec. 11 at 12:24pm

By the by, can anyone point me in the direction of a non-Christian/non-believing personalist philosopher?

Viktor Frankl, a Jewish psychologist, concentration camp survivor, and author of the beautiful bestseller, Man's Search for Meaning.

Also, though Catholic, perhaps Emmanuel Mounier would be more acceptable to your audience than Wojtylla and von Hildebrand. Mounier is considered the father of French personalism and is the author of Personalism.

Katie van Schaijik

#5, Dec 12, 2011 1:28pm

When I first read Dr. Crosby's draft for our manifesto, I was a bit startled by this line:

Only Jews and Christians have the spiritual resources to acknowledge unconditional worth in all human persons.

But the more I reflected, the more convinced I became that he's right.  The very concept of person is a fruit of the Christological controversies of the early Church.  It's not surprising, therefore, that when we want a deep and full appreciation of the nature and dignity of persons, we have to turn to Jewish and Christian thinkers who are also men and women of profound religious faith.

Helvi Moore

#6, Dec 12, 2011 2:46pm

Katie van Schaijik, Dec. 12 at 9:22am

Yes, ubuntu figured largely in my research proposal. My one question about it, though, is why those who come into power in African nation states seem to jettison the notion the minute they take over!


Yes, great: Buber is a perfect place to start. Simone Weil is another possibility but the Christian tag might be a stumbling block for my supervisor. You will be pleased to learn that Frankl is the poster boy for Positive Psychology exemplaries of eudaimonia.  I have Alice von Hildebrand to thank for a first introduction to these great figures.  What if I were to start with Max Scheler?  What would be the pitfalls?


Katie van Schaijik

#7, Dec 12, 2011 3:14pm

Helvi Moore, Dec. 12 at 2:46pm

Yes, ubuntu figured largely in my research proposal. My one question about it, though, is why those who come into power in African nation states seem to jettison the notion the minute they take over! 

I think--this is intuitive and speculative rather than informed--that the reason for this is hinted at in Things Fall Apart.  A superficial interpretation of that story (in which the harmonious Igbo culture collapses in the encounter with the alien Christianity that begins to infiltrate it) sees Christianity and western colonialism as the villains of the story.  But from another point of view we could say, I think, that it was the moral data of the Christian gospel, including its insistence on the irreducible uniqueness and dignity of each and every individual, that presented a fatal challenge to the then-reigning culture.

Being a Christian, I believe in faith that nothing good and worth preserving in that culture need be permanently lost.  But unless it finds a way of coming to terms with those truths, I fear it's doomed to remain a kind of nostalgic dream, rather than a potent cultural force.


#8, Dec 12, 2011 3:52pm

While Ubuntu is very pleasant sounding and acceptable to our Western sensibilities (yes, in spite of the fact that it is supposed to contrast with Western individualism), I fear that the emphasis on communalism there is still very exclusive, and the general dysfunction is many African societies stems from a preoccupation with local/tribal differences, a corruption of the emphasis on a strong community.

I think part of that susceptability has to do with the lack of some compelling higher force or justice to appeal too (unlike in Judeo/Christian traditions). Many different Libertarian ideas are based on societal pacts built on principles of non-aggression and the assumption that, since people can look out for themselves, they'll only ever look out for themselves and will never muddle in other people's business. But with no higher morality, there is no worry that, even if you get away with some evil in society, you'll still have to face an greater judgment. Responsibility and accountability only extend so far as your personal and physcial comfort. The natural compunctions against harshness or causing misery are subjuagted by more selfish, corporeal survival instincts.

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