The Personalist Project

Arts and Letters Daily links today an interesting Newsweek article about Mary Shelly’s novel, Frankenstein. I read it years ago; Jules read it this summer. (Dr. Healy’s quotation of passages from Dracula in his talk on damnation had put him in the mood for catching up on those classics.) What strikes me in particular is the number of personalist thoughts and themes in the article as well as the book. Take just this passage:

The Romantics did not reject science, as Richard Holmes demonstrates in his remarkable new book, The Age of Wonder. (Holmes is also the author of a brilliant biography of Percy Shelley). They were ambivalent. Romantic artists and scientists shared a commitment to the quest for truth, and they were both motivated by wonder. It’s no accident that Frankenstein shares certain features with Percy Shelley. Frankenstein is a kind of artist, as well as a composite of the era’s well-known scientists. But as Holmes shows in a chapter on Frankenstein, Mary also captured the fear surrounding scientific exploration: if man can manipulate nature like a machine, what becomes of the soul? Chemistry and biology must be only half the story—half the human, one might say. Frankenstein is an argument between reason and emotion, nature and civilization, the divided self. Frankenstein’s radical suggestion is that it doesn’t take God to heal the rift. It takes the loyalty and love of another person.

Makes me wish I could take a year to study the seeds of personalism in 19th century English ethos.  I’d like to look into questions like the relationship between science and persons, the problem of solitude, and the role others play in mediating us (or not) to ourselves.

Comments (11)


#1, Sep 28, 2009 7:22am

Are you familiar with the writings of Dr. Anna Terruwe and Dr. Conrad Baars? They wrote extensively about others’ mediation of ourselves back to us.  They use the term affirmation but not in the same way as current psychology uses it.  I find their work very interesting.

Katie van Schaijik

#2, Sep 28, 2009 3:16pm

I’m only slightly familiar with it.  I admire much of what I’ve heard of them, though I have some points of criticism too.  I’d be interested in learning more of what they say on this point.


#3, Sep 28, 2009 3:45pm

I would be very interested in your critique of their material.  I don’t know if this is the proper forum but you can certainly email me if you have the time to share your insights about their teaching.

Jules van Schaijik

#4, Sep 29, 2009 5:45am

This is definitely a good forum for it.  I’m very interested in a discussion of their thought.
Can you be more specific about what you like in Terruwe and Baars?  Is there an article we could read?


#5, Sep 30, 2009 7:48pm

I don’t know of any articles on the subject.  I have read their books and listened to Suzanne Baars speak about it a few times.  She is Conrad Baars daughter.  I will want to review what they say a bit before I engage in a discussion because it has been a few years since I read them and I don’t want to misrepresent what they say.  So, give me a few days and I will get back with you!

Jules van Schaijik

#6, Oct 1, 2009 5:18am

Take your time, Lauretta.  I’m in a similar position.  I read (or should have read) them many years ago for a class on Christian Anthropology.  But I’ve forgotten everything except their names .


#7, Oct 2, 2009 5:48am

Yesterday I began looking through the books I have and found a couple of statements from Born Only Once that I thought might be a good short explanation of affirmation.  Here are the excerpts:

“In order to become open to all existing goodness and thus to find happiness through affirming that goodness, whether in beings or in things, you first have to be you.  In order to become you, you must first receive the gift of yourself.  In order to receive this gift, there has to be another who gives, who gives without taking, without demanding anything, who gives you what is not his own, but yours, your own goodness. The other can do this only when he is already happy with himself, and thus open to the goodness of all else…

It is an undisputed fact that all human beings desire happiness.  Happiness is what we are created for.  However, every human being, no matter how many close friends he has is also, in the ultimate analysis, unique and alone.  He stands alone in his unique self, either weakly, inadequately, and unhappily; or firmly, strongly, and happily.  If he perceives himself to be good, worthwhile, desirable, lovable, he will possess himself strongly and firmly.  For this sense of one’s own firm-ness each human being is totally dependent on another human being’s gift of af-firm-ation.  The earlier in life he receives this gift the sooner his growing firmness and strength enable him to cope with the world, to contribute to the world his own strength, and share his happiness with others.

Your affirmation, your feeling firm and strong, your possessing yourself in joy, your feeling worthwhile, starts with and is dependent on another human being, who:

1) is aware of, attentive, and present to your unique goodness and worth, separate from and prior to any good and worthwhile thing you may do or can do, and

2) is moved by, feels attracted to, finds delight in your goodness and worth, but without desiring to possess you, or use you, or change you, and

3) permits his being moved by and attracted to you to be revealed simply and primarily by the psychomotor reactions—visible, sensible, physical changes—which are part of his ‘being moved.’

These changes constitute the tenderness and delight revealed in his eyes, his gaze, his touch, his tone of voice, and choice of words.  They cause you to feel, sense, see, and hear that you are good and worthwhile—good for the other and good in and for yourself.  You come to feel and know who and what your are.

Awareness, being moved, and revealing constitute the essence of affirmation.  Anything more—helpful deeds, words of advice, gifts, acts of kindness or support, silence, patient waiting, and so on—is the concrete expression of affirmation, but not its essence.  Affirmation is first of all affectivity, a matter of feeling.  Only secondarily is it effectivity, a matter of doing.”

Born Only Once seems to be the most concise explanation of affirmation of all of their books.  It is quite short and easy to read—which is necessary for someone like myself!

I look forward very much to your thoughts on this topic!

Katie van Schaijik

#8, Oct 2, 2009 4:52pm

These are very well chosen quotations, Lauretta, revealing an intuitive personalism in the author.  Thank you!  I see nothing in them to disagree with, only much to admire.  I have put the book in my shopping cart at Amazon, along with his “Healing the Unaffirmed: Recognizing Emotional Deprivation Disorder.” 

This passage reminds me of Newman: “These changes constitute the tenderness and delight revealed in his eyes, his gaze, his touch, his tone of voice, and choice of words.  They cause you to feel, sense, see, and hear that you are good and worthwhile‚ good for the other and good in and for yourself.  You come to feel and know who and what your are.”

I am thinking of Newman’s (great and wonderful) Oxford University Sermon, “Personal Influence, the Means of Propagating the Truth.” (Google the title and it should pop right up.)  And of a well-known passage from one of his Historical Studies about the superiority of a living teacher over mere books:

“ book can convey the special spirit and delicate peculiarities of its subject with that rapidity and certainty which attend on the sympathy of mind with mind, through the eyes, the look, the accent, and the manner, in casual expressions thrown off at the moment, and the unstudied turns of familiar conversation.”

Deep truths are communicated person to person, heart to heart.


#9, Oct 3, 2009 10:39am

I look forward to your receiving of the books and your thoughts about them!  To me, much of the affirmation explanation seems very similar to JPII’s personalism.  The quotes you gave from Newman are also very much the same idea.

We have such wisdom in our Church.  I just wish it were in a packet that could be distributed to all or better yet people in each parish who could counsel every young couple to emotional and spiritual health before embarking upon marriage and family life.

Katie van Schaijik

#10, Oct 3, 2009 11:00am

Lauretta, you have been a great encouragement.  A small study of the fundamentals of personalism for “normal people”—i.e. non-academics—is urgently needed.  It is perhaps the first item of business for the Personalist Project, now that we are up and running.  I commend the project to your intercession!  Meanwhile, keep the feedback coming.  It helps a lot!

Jules van Schaijik

#11, Oct 4, 2009 7:29pm

Sorry for the delay, Lauretta. I too loved the excerpts from Born Only Once you posted above.  (In fact, like Katie, I also ordered the book through Amazon, so now we’ll have to return one of them.)

A couple of points came to mind, all of which could be developed at much greater length. But what can one do? There are just 24 hours in a day.

1) Have you listened to Maria Fedoryka’s talk, available from our downloads page, “Created in Love”? They touch on this theme, especially part II.

2) The quotes you selected emphasize an important but often neglected truth about human persons, namely, our dependence on others. It is virtually impossible for us to become (what, in a real sense, we already are from the get-go) free, self-standing, responsible individuals without prior acceptance and affirmation by other human persons. Let me quote one of my favorite sections (there are many!) from John Crosby’s The Selfhood of the Human Person, in which he tries to show what this reveals about the being of persons:

The unconditional acceptance of me by another person, or by the entire social milieu in which I live, is all-important in enabling me to accept myself. If all the significant others in my life refuse to accept me as the self that I am, then I will be crippled in relation to myself. There is more here than an empirical psychological need for the confirmation of others. It seems rather that I exist from the roots of my personal being towards others and with others; this is why they play this large role in mediating me to myself. I cannot simply say to those who do not accept the self which I am, ‘You are wrong, I have in reality a self worthy of acceptance,’ and then proceed to live, unimpeded, a full self-acceptance—as if they were in error about the date of my birth and I were holding fast to what I know to be the true date. It is rather the case that I exist in such solidarity with them that their rejection of me is a real assault on me, it creates a serious (even if not an absolutely insuperable) obstacle for my relation to myself. I quote here the profound words of Martin Buber:

Man wishes to be confirmed in his being by man, and wishes to have a presence in the being of other. The human person needs confirmation because man as man needs it. An animal does not need to be confirmed, for it is what it is unquestionably. It is different with man: sent forth from the natural domain of species into the hazard of the solitary category, surrounded by the air of a chaos which came into being with him, secretly and bashfully he watches for a Yes which allows him to be and which can come to him only from one human person to another. It is from one man to another that the heavenly bread if self-being is passed

3) But this dependence on others in no way detracts from the ultimate solitude characteristic of persons. Baars recognizes this when he says that “every human being, no matter how many close friends he has is also, in the ultimate analysis, unique and alone.”  Human affirmation does not change this. It just helps him to stand alone “firmly, strongly, and happily.” It is not so easy to keep these two truths together, let alone, as Baars does, mention them coherently in the same sentence.

4) There is a lot to be said for locating the essence of affirmation in affectivity rather than effectivity. It is largely a matter of the heart, and not just of external actions. This is, I think, because external actions are in our immediate control. We can act as if we care when really we don’t. Our eyes, gaze, touch, tone of voice, etc. are less easily controlled and therefore more revealing of our real feelings.

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