The Personalist Project

Like love, the truth about persons and personal life entails reciprocity and openness. This has directly to do with the fact that we are first and foremost subjects, not objects. Persons live our lives from within. We are, as Karol Wojtyla put it, the eyewitnesses of our own experience, and our experience is unique, real and valuable. ("We must never forget that the subjectivity of the person is something objective.") 

It follows that our knowledge of any given issue or situation involving persons is incomplete to the degree that we lack others' perspective and experience. No matter how high my IQ or how learned and credentialed or prominently-positioned in the field I may be, if I'm not genuinely open to others involved and solicitous of their views and experience, my knowledge is at best partial. Typically it's also distorted, just as conjugal relations are distorted by birth control. No one can fully or rightly understand a personal matter who fails to approach those he's dealing with as persons, that is, in a spirit of sincere openness and reciprocity.

The Jeffery Epstein case is on my mind, as is my experience yesterday of Facebook "dialogue" over my post below.

How do we get another person's truth? There's only one way: through her freedom. She has to offer it to us, willingly and sincerely. What makes a person willing to share her truth responsibly? Reciprocity. She has to be able to see and believe that the person who wants her truth is willing to offer his to her.

No one can get personal truth on demand. We can't get it by browbeating or pressuring or sneering or cajoling or manipulating or bribing or shaming. In those cases, even if she reveals something, it won't be her truth, any more than seduction can yield a woman's love and devotion. Authentic love and devotion can't be had except by way of a free, sincere gift. And a free, sincere gift can't be gotten by extortion.

But I've noticed with sorrow and pain and frustration that a lot of people actually aren't interested in truth. They're interested in winning an argument or scoring points or swatting down or belittling an opposing viewpoint or looking tough or smart or whatever. I've noticed that there are even many Catholics who present themselves publicly as experts on, say, the Theology of the Body, while they treat their interlocutors abusively. It's worse than ironic.

Guardini, following Buber, explains why fallen human beings are inclined to objectify others. We prefer the safety of the I-it relation to the vulnerability of the I-Thou. I-it relations allow us to feel safe, superior, and in control. The I-Thou relation demands something of us, it prohibits superiority and control.

When confronting an object a man is only objectively interested. His personality is at rest. [His self is not involved.] … But as soon as he confronts the other as an 'I' something arises within him ... he loses the protection which consists in the 'objective quality' of the situation in which he is acting. When I glance at another as 'I', I become open and 'show' myself. ... Personal destiny springs only from the unprotected openness of the 'I-Thou' relation.

Did you catch that last line? Personal destiny springs only from the unprotected openness of the 'I-Thou' relation. 

No one can achieve fulfillment in his personal life unless he opens himself personally to others. Neither can anyone acquire the truth about a personal issue or situation unless he deals in the I-Thou mode.

Jules and I are working on a new website—a sort of successor to the Personal Project that better reflects our current aims and intentions. Part of that involves thinking about and establishing the terms of engagement. Yesterday's experience and reflections have led me to a new resolve. I'll engage only with those who show themselves willing to engage reciprocally with me—those who show a sincere interest in and respect for my views and for me as a person. The kind of truth I'm about here requires it, and so do I as a particular individual.

I don't mind disagreement or objections or challenges or even fights. I do mind being dismissed or belittled or objectified in any degree.

There's a difference between a discussion and a put down. It's a lot like the difference between a caress and molestation.

Comments (6)


#1, Jul 12, 2019 3:33pm


Rhett Segall

#2, Jul 12, 2019 5:00pm

A couple of points on "arguments", Katie. "Dialectic" is argument for the sake of arriving at truth. In the exchanges between people reasons for holding on to something or rejecting it are exchanged for the sake of clarification. Good will is held on both sides sprinkled with a little bit of humility.

On the other hand there is eristic, which is argument for the sake of proving yourself right and the other wrong. Truth is not sought, "winning" is.

It is very hard to keep on the level of dialectic in exchanges. It's a constant asceticism.

A second response I have concerns "the other person's truth."  I agree the sine qua non of this is the other's revelation, it can't be forced. But many times the other is lacking in self knowledge and/or is incapable of articulating it. I might see in the other what they have not yet come to terms with. And vice versa.

One final thought.  Life would be exhausting to see every human relationship in terms of "I-Thou"!  Of course the other should never be seen in terms of "I-it". But much of life is "I-you".

Katie van Schaijik

#3, Jul 12, 2019 8:00pm

Thanks for your thoughtful feedback, as always, Rhett.

I'm speaking here of personal truth and matters and issues involving persons. So not, for instance, merely scientific or factual questions, such as "Who wrote Hamlet?" or "At what temperature does water boil" or whatever. Of course, if we're arguing with another person, it's always important to have his dignity and worth in mind at least implicitly.

I'm wondering what you see as the difference between "I-thou" and "I-you." Those look synonymous to me.

Von Hildebrand distinguishes between the I-thou relation and the "we" relation. In the first the other person and the relation between us is the direct "theme"; in the second we standing side by side, as it were, looking at something together. I like that a lot.

Katie van Schaijik

#4, Jul 12, 2019 8:03pm

Another point I'd meant to add: Even if a person is lacking in self-knowledge or is deceived, or whatever, it's still meaningful to speak of her truth.

My truth is the truth of my experience and perspective, feelings, ideas, views, etc. To be in touch with it and able to articulate it takes skill and virtue and practice and time.

Rhett Segall

#5, Jul 12, 2019 9:27pm

I-thou is a depth experience that is relegated to special encounters such as friendships, lovers, perhaps siblings, parent/child, Perhaps teacher/ student etc.

.It would be too exhausting for me to relate with every person as a thou. When I go to the market and exchange friendly greetings with the cashier I don't expect, nor should I, an exchange of deep feelings and aspirations. Yet my interaction with this person has a quality to it that calls forth a reverence radically different than if I were using a self serve machine. I should address the person in some way, with a smile and courteous exchange. The other here is a "you" which unless circumstances change, will never be a "thou" for me. But the "you" reminds me this other is a person of infinite worth who is never to be treated as a thing.

Katie van Schaijik

#6, Jul 13, 2019 9:47am

Yes, I agree with you on the point, even if I wouldn't use the same terms. Not every interaction with other human beings ought to be intimate. But we are never justified in treating a human being as less than a human being, as an "it".

Also, we have a fallen-human tendency to objectify ourselves or others that menaces all our interactions. Often we treat ourselves or others as less-than-subjects, because it's too tedious or tiring to do them full justice.

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