Personalism is a term that can be given to a philosophy or other schools of thought (e.g. theology, psychology, economics), that take the person as the central or structural theme.
Personalism can be understood both broadly and narrowly. Broadly, thought about persons is present in many intellectual traditions both East and West, from the ancient world to the present, though the idea of person may or may not stand at the center of a particular intellectual tradition. Narrowly, Personalism refers to currents of thought that explicitly take the person as the central theme and may identify themselves explicitly as personalist. In philosophy, personalist thought in this narrow sense begins with the idea of person and seeks to develop a philosophical vision that encompasses the major philosophical areas of investigation including metaphysics, epistemology, philosophical anthropology, ethics, aesthetics, etc. Personalism as a distinct and recognizable tradition in philosophy finds its roots on the one hand in the tradition of eighteenth century central European thought, and on the other in twentieth century Western European thought. In both traditions, the historical background extends back to the ancient world, both East and West.
Table of Contents
- Personalism: An Introduction
- Historical Background
- Contemporary Personalist Thought
- Major Themes in Personalist Thought
- Recommendations for further reading, internet resources
- Academic: How to Cite this Entry
- Author name and contact information
- Related Entries in this Encyclopedia
1.Personalism: An Introduction
The term “Personalism” can be applied to any philosophy, as well as to other schools of thought (e.g. theology, psychology, economics etc.), that take the person as their central, foundational and structural theme.
Personalism can be understood both broadly and narrowly. Broadly, thought about the nature of persons is found many intellectual traditions of both East and West, from the ancient world to the present; in this broader sense the notion of person is present, though may or may not stand at the center of a particular intellectual tradition. The idea of person, for example, is richly addressed in the wider context of the world’s major religious traditions including Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Confucianism, Christianity, and Islam.
In more specific or narrow terms, Personalism refers to interrelated currents of thought that explicitly take the person as their central theme and that may identify themselves explicitly as personalist. Philosophically, personalist thought in narrower sense begins with and maintains the notion of person at its center and seeks to develop a philosophical vision that encompasses the major philosophical areas of investigation, including metaphysics, epistemology, philosophical anthropology, ethics, aesthetics, etc. Personalism today as a distinct and recognizable tradition in philosophy traces its modern history back to two philosophical traditions, the idealist tradition of central European thought (principally Germany) on the one hand and to the realist tradition of philosophy that gave rise to specifically personalist thought in France and southern Europe from the early- to mid- twentieth century (more on these two traditions below). At the same time, the historical background for personalist thought extends back to the ancient world, both Eastern and Western. Furthermore, personalist thought has been brought into other disciplines where it has formed a central structural role. In this sense it is also appropriate to speak of a personalist psychology, personalist economics, personalist theology, etc. This is not to say that all personalist thinkers move from an identical concept of person; the very notion of person is a source of dialogue among the major personalist currents of thought, something evident in contemporary personalism in the dialogue, for example, between Anglo-American personalism, European and Continental personalism and Eastern personalist thought of the late twentieth and early twenty first centuries.
Moving from the central idea of person, there are a number of themes that can be discerned as common to many or most schools of personalist thought, among them the centrality of the concept of person, the distinction between persons and nonpersons, the notion of impersonalism, the dignity of the person, freedom and self-determination, the interiority or subjectivity of persons, transcendence, the social nature of persons, and persons in community which will be described after a survey of the background and content of personalist thought. (see “4. Major Themes of Personalist Thought,” below).
- Historical Background of Personalism
While personalism as a distinct and identifiable philosophical tradition has direct and identifiable sources in the modern era, the roots of personalist thought extend back to the ancient world. In this section, we will look at the historical antecedents of personalist thought, including its conscious development as Personalism in the twentieth century.
2.1 The Ancient World
The theme of person is present in the thought of the ancient world. In this section we will, roughly chronologically, examine the development of personalist thought in ancient times, first in the East and then the West.
2.1.1 Eastern Origins of Personalism: South Asia, China, Japan
Asian personalism’s earliest roots can are found in Hindu thought, which comprises several distinct traditions – Nyaya, Vaisesika, Sankhya, Yoga, Purva-mimasa and Vedanta. The notion of person in these traditions has several dimensions, including that of an eternal soul (atman) existing beyond consciousness and the changing physical world and the physical body (jiva). While atman is unchanging, the fact that we have bodies points to additional characteristics of persons such as freedom, agency and identity (Williams and Bengtsson, 2020). Hindu thought as a whole seeks for the person’s freedom from misery through self-knowledge (atmavidya) and in light of this goal asks several key questions about persons – What is the self? How is the self related to the body and the material world in general? How is the self related to ultimate reality? What is the path a person can take from misery to freedom and liberation from suffering? In the Advaita Vedanta, which is a non-dualistic Hindu school of thought, the self is considered one with the ultimate reality, Brahman,, so that the many including the Divine, are one, captured in the phrase “Atman is Brahman.” (Buford, IEPn.d.).
Also originating on the Indian subcontinent, Buddhism, beginning with Siddhārtha Gautama (c. 563-483 BCE) took a very different view of the person. Persons, for him, were namarupa, psychophysical aggregates that were causally connected. In the Buddhist perspective, we are not persons in a Western, individualistic sense. Pudggalavada Buddhim developed some two hundred years after Gautama and, taking a cue from the Buddha’s mention of a “bearer of the burden,” expressed the view that behind or beneath these aggregates of psychophysical states there was some ongoing substrate, perhaps alluding to some sense of self (De Smet, 2010, 38, Buford, IEP, n.d.). Buddhism spread from the Indian subcontinent eastward and developed in the context of both Chinese and Japanese culture. Both of these traditions assert the need for specific practices that aim at transformation of character leading to understanding, developing in time into the tradition of Zen Buddhism (Williams and Bengtsson, 2020).
Confucianism developed from the teachings of K’ung Fu-tzu, (c. 551-479 BCE, Confucius in English) also has a strong practical dimension that looks to specific practices for self-cultivation and sanctification of persons through ren, which can be translated as humanity, benevolence, goodness, kindness, love, and thus a form of ethical personalism that is both individual and social in nature (Lu, 2020).
Islamic Personalism presents the unique feature of both Western and Eastern influence (Middle Eastern, rather than the personalisms of South or East Asia). Islamic philosophy in general has been strongly influenced by Western philosophical thought through the texts of Aristotle that were translated into Arabic (often mediated by Neoplatonist commentaries), and remained available in the Islamic world through the early Middle Ages. There are geographically-related Christian influences on Arabic thought, as some of the major Arabic philosophers of the Middle Ages lived and worked in Spain. Arabic philosophers of the eastern Mediterranean world included Alkindi (ninth century) and Alfarabi (tenth century). Ibn Sina (Avicenna, 980-1037) was a prominent and influential Islamic philosopher whose work exerted a strong influence on the Christian philosophy of the Middle Ages. Physician, philosopher and theologian, his major work, Al-Shifa (The Book of Recovery) evidences the influence of Aristotelian thought.
There is also a tradition of medieval Islamic philosophy in Spain, from the tenth through the thirteenth centuries, centered in Cordova. These included Ibn Bajja (Avempace, d. 1138), Ibn Tufail (1100-1185) and Ibn Rushd (Averoës, 1126-1198).A philosopher, physician, lawyer, theologian, Averoës was born in and worked in Cordova, Spain, and is considered one of the Middle Ages’ great commentators and original authors of philosophical works. His work addressed numerous topics in philosophy, including metaphysics, the eternity of the world, the human intellect, and the relationship between faith and reason (Marías, 1967).
2.1.2 Western Origins of Personalism: Near East and the Mediterranean Basin
Personalism’s western origins can be located around the Mediterranean basin, including the Middle East, Greece and Italy, in the religious traditions of Judaism and Christianity, and in the philosophical traditions of Greece and Rome.
A personal God stands at the center of Judaism, a Person who has created all thing ex nihilo and formed human beings in God’s own image and likeness (Genesis 1). The Hebrew scriptures are the story of God’s interactions with Israel, with whom God formed a series of covenant relationships – in creation, with Adam and Eve, with Abraham, and the covenant with the Moses and the people of Israel at Mt. Sinai at the beginning of the Exodus.
Jewish philosophy of the Middle Ages developed in a multicultural context, also in Spain in the midst of both Christian and Arabic communities. The influences on this philosophical tradition are many and include Jewish scripture and tradition (principally), Islamic philosophy, Neoplatonism and the mystical tradition of Kabballah, and Christian scholasticism. This tradition produced several philosophers of note. Avicebron (Ibn Gabriol (11th century) was known to Christian scholars as a proponent of the notion that the human soul is composed of both actuality and potentiality and was material in nature. His best-known work was Fons vitae (The Well of Life). Ibn Zaddik of Cordova and Judah Halevy also wrote during this era. The best-known Jewish philosopher of the Middle Ages, though, was Moses ben Maimon (Maimonedes,1135-1204) who was born in Cordova, Spain and was a contemporary of Averoës in that city. An example of the surrounding cultural influences appears in his work the Guide for the Perplexed, written in Arabic though in Hebrew characters, and subsequently translated into Hebrew. The Guide for the Perplexed is a Jewish Scholastic Summa that seeks to reconcile Aristotelian philosophy with the religion of Judaism (Maimonides, 1190). For him, the object of both religion and philosophy is knowledge God, and so it was necessary to discern a consonance between the knowledge of faith and the knowledge of reason.
Christianity has exerted a profound influence on Western personalism (and western thought in general) in that it served as the matrix in which the concept of person was formulated early in the Christian era. It was worked out in the Patristic era of early of Christianity in the context of an effort to understand the life and identity of Jesus of Nazareth, whom Christians understood through Revelation as God. This impelled the Christian community to struggle to understand how the one God of the Hebrew Scriptures could simultaneously be Three (Father, Son and Holy Spirit). The concept and understanding of person that evolved in these early Christian thinkers would exert a strong influence across the whole of European philosophy.
The Christian Middle Ages in Europe felt the influence of the works of both Islamic and Jewish philosophy, especially through the works of Avicenna, Averroes and Maimonides, all of whose works were studied in the Christian West. Next, we will trace in greater detail the Western origins and development of personalist thought.
2.1.3 Ancient Greece and Rome
The word person as understood in the West derives from the Greek word prosopon and the Latin persona. Prosopon in Ancient Greece originally referred to the area of the face centered around the eyes (pros + ops) and came to designate the masks worn by the actors in Greek theater (Buford, IEP). The Latin persona also referred to the theater mask, here with reference voice rather than sight, per-sonare, to sound through, indicating the opening in the mask through which the actors spoke to the audience. In time these two terms came to refer more generally to the character that was being portrayed on the stage, and then to the actors themselves, to persons. Persona also played a role in Roman jurisprudence where it designated who held citizenship in the empire, and therefore possessed certain rights not accorded to non-Romans; It also referenced social status. Slaves, women, children and foreigners did not have status as a persona in Roman society (Williams and Bengtsson 2020; Burgos, 2018).
Greek thought in pre-Socratic era focused primarily on the question of nature and made its first stirrings toward metaphysics in the work of Parmenides and the Eliatic school. Socrates’ most frequent philosophical questions were ethical in nature, focusing on human action. Platonic and Aristotelian thought turned more explicitly toward both metaphysics and anthropology. In Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy, the question of persons was typically considered under the term soul (e.g. Aristotle’s De Anima, where soul is the principle of life). Platonic thought has a dualistic character, viewing the non-material soul as being imprisoned in the body, desiring to return to its true home in the realm of the Ideas, the perfect exemplars of all that exists. For Aristotle, persons were a composite, a unity of form and matter, referred to in its better-known Latin form substance, a concept that would resonate through philosophical thought for well over a millennia. Neoplatonism was the last systematic non-Christian philosophy to develop in the ancient world, and would, especially in the work of Plotinus (204-270 CE), exert a profound influence on early Christian, for example, in the work of Augustine of Hippo. Neoplatonism is pantheistic in nature. All of reality is derived from the One understood as being, the good and divinity. In his Enneads, Plotinus depicted all things as emanating from the One, first of all noûs, the world of spirit, then soul, which is a reflection of noûs and finally, at the furthest and lowest emanation, material reality. Plotinus; progression of the cosmos moves from the One to the many. Also dualistic in nature, the soul’s task is to free itself from the material body, moving upward toward unity with the One. Human beings occupy a middle ground between the One and the animals, being composed of both soul and body (Plotinus, The Enneads; Marías, 1967; Padilla, 2016).
A profound shift in thought developed in the context of Christianity. Greek philosophical thought was characterized, generally, by several foundational presuppositions; the world (nature, phusis) was considered eternal and understood as an intelligible, ordered whole (kosmos). Change and multiplicity were fundamental characteristics of the world, and human reason had the capacity to understand ourselves and the world around us.
Christianity brought about both theological and philosophical innovations, including a much wider currency of seeing world as created by God out of nothing rather than being eternal as the Greeks believed (in this the Christians were in consonance with Hebrew thought and scripture). The Christian vision remained monotheistic as opposed to the multiplicity of gods in Greek thought. Other profound ideas were introduced into human thought: sin and grace, love as both a theological and a philosophical concept, a theology and philosophy of history and equally important, a new understanding of the human person arising from the struggle to understand incarnation.
Inheriting the monotheistic faith of Judaism, and embracing the incarnation (God becoming human), early Christians confessed Jesus as God, and also the Holy Spirit as God. This immediately raised a difficult question – how could God be both One and Three? Drawing on the resources of both reason and revelation (Greek philosophy and the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures) resulted in a new concept of person that would resonate through history. Christians confessed God as simultaneously Unity and Trinity – God the Father, God the Son Jesus Christ and the God the Holy Spirit. In working this out Patristic thought turned to the concepts of person and nature (in the sense of the essence of a thing). God is understood as One, whose nature is divine. At the same time, God is understood as three persons – Father, Son and Spirit. All share in the divine nature. God the Father and God the Holy Spirit are persons, divine in nature. Christ is understood as one person of this Trinity, who is both God and human, that is, possessing both divine and human natures in one Person, the Word. In working toward this understanding of persons, both human and divine, the early Church fathers continued to draw upon Greek categories of thought, including concepts such as substance (ousia) and nature. The best known formulation of person in the early Middle Ages was given by Boethius (ca. 480-525 CE)” persona est natura rationalis individua substantia – a person is an individual substance of a rational nature, a definition that would be taken up in the scholasticism of the high Middle Ages (Burgos, 2013; Padilla, 2016; Gilson, 1991).
2.2 The Medieval World
Patristic speculation on both God and human beings continued in the work of Origen (d. 254) who was strongly influenced by the Neoplatonism of Plotinus, and the Cappadocian fathers Gregory of Nissa (d. 394) Gregory of Nanzianzen (ca. 329-390) and Basil the Great (d. 379). The work of Plotinus was also known in the early Middle Ages and would continue to influence Christian thought.
In the history of personalist thought, he most important thinker of the early Middle Ages was Aurelius Augustinus, Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE). Born in Tagaste in North Africa of a pagan father and a Christian mother, he studied rhetoric at Carthage and for a time embraced the dualism of Manichean thought and was a student of Neoplatonism. In the 380s he traveled to Milan and there met St. Ambrose, bishop of that city, and with his help and guidance Augustine was baptized in the year 387. He returned to North Africa, where in 391 he was ordained a priest and later appointed bishop of Hippo. He wrote widely on theological and philosophical matters until his death in 430. His work The Confessions marked a remarkable turn to the interiority of the person, and his De Trinitate was and remains an important historical resource for personalist thought. Persons, made in the imago Dei (the image of God) and also in the imago trinitas (the image of the Trinity). For Augustine the Trinity is reflected in the structure and powers of the human soul – memoria, intelligentia, voluntas (memory, intellect, will). Human beings also possess free will and thus are able to choose the good, and evil involves the bad use of human freedom (Coreth, 2006). Overall, Augustine’s thought is marked by the move to an interiority that sees the reflection of God in persons – to know God, one can look inward and upward (Buford, IEP).
Another important figure of the early Middle Ages, already mentioned, is Boethius (ca. 480-525) who formulated a definition of persons that would see ongoing use through the Middle Ages: a person is naturae rationalis individua substantia, an individual substance of a rational nature. Christian thought continued to make extensive use of previous Greek philosophy throughout the Patristic era and the Middle Ages, as can be discerned in this definition of persons: substance as the unity of form and matter, and rationality as a defining feature of persons (Aristotle’s “rational animals’). While the early Middle Ages drew from the philosophy of Plato and the Neoplatonists, it would be the European recovery of the works of Aristotle that would bring about advances in theological and philosophical thought during the High Middle Ages.
During the High Middle Ages, scholasticism, the philosophy and philosophical methods of the schools, that is the major universities that had been created in the great European cities such as Paris. The scholastic method was centered around reading and commentary on the authoritative texts of the tradition – Aristotle, whose work reentered the West through the Islamic world, ancient works of science, the early Church fathers – Basil and Gregory, Augustine, Dionysius, Boethius, and many others. Personalist thought would be influenced by leading Christian thinkers such as John Scotus Erigena, who was influenced by Neoplatonism and the mystical works of Dionysus the Areopagite. While God was the central focus of theological and philosophical thought, reference to the human person was inevitable as thinkers worked out the relationship between God and human beings. St. Anselm (1033-1109) was well acquainted with the Patristic tradition and with Neoplatonism. He understood his intellectual enterprise as fides quarens intellectum – faith seeking understanding. Following Augustine, Anselm turns to the interiority of the person – when we enter ourselves, we encounter both ourselves and God.
Albertus Magnus (1206-1280) was instrumental in bringing the work of Aristotle into the medieval world; his best-known student was Thomas Aquinas (1221-1274). Aquinas asked the question of person first in the context of the personhood of God, and this is then reflected in what he writes about human beings, particularly in terms of the moral life. In Question 29 of the first part of the Summa Theologica, in the context of his writing on the Trinity, Thomas asks directly, “Is God a Person?” and answers “Yes.” He turns first to the definition of Boethius, a person is an individual substance of a rational nature. He understands persons as hypostases, substances (unity of soul/form and body), individual in their nature, who have free will and the ability to direct their own actions. “Therefore also the individuals of the rational nature have a special name even among other substances; and this name I person.” (ST, Ia, Q. 29, A. 1). He also asserted that “Person signifies what is most perfect in all nature – that is, a subsistent individual of a rational nature” (ST Ia, Q. 29, A. 3). Following the patristic literature, Thomas identifies three persons in God. He will write of human persons, made in the image and likeness of God, in the second part of the Summa where he deals with the moral life. Human action and ethics, for Thomas, is motus rationalis creaturae ad Deum, the movement of the rational creature toward God. Following Aristotle, Thomas writes at length of virtue ethics, incorporating the four classical virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance, and adding the three Christian virtues of faith, hope and love. The ultimate end and goal, and the ultimate happiness, for human beings is union with God in the beatific vision, a union in perfect love (ST Ia IIa, Q. 1; Padilla, 2016; Marías, 1967).
In the late Middle Ages, John Duns Scotus (1266-1308), in contrast to Aquinas and in keeping with the Franciscan tradition of Bonaventure, posited that the will, rather than the intellect had primacy in the human person (voluntarism), including in the ethical life, and that therefore love had primacy over faith (Marías, 1967). William of Occam (1280-1350) further developed the thought of Duns Scotus, including a further separation of science from theology that would lay the groundwork for the early modern age.
2.3 Modern World
The era beginning in the fifteenth century that we refer to as modernity, marked a break with the medieval word in a variety of ways. The question of God changed to the question of persons and humanism developed in the Renaissance, which bore fruit in many areas – philosophy, the arts, voyages of discovery, technological developments such as the invention of the printing press and moveable type and the sciences. At the heart of this modernity was the question of authority – where does one look for guidance in answering life’s most important questions? The medieval answer was to look to the ancient texts of both faith and reason. The figures of the Renaissance did not wholly abandon the past; rather, they manifested a rejection of aspects medieval thought, and looked rather to the human person as a center of philosophical speculation, and to antiquity – both Greece and Rome. A renewal or rebirth – renaissance – of the thought and the arts of antiquity served to center thinkers on the human person. Many trends of humanist thought are present in Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man (1486). Here persons are viewed as the summit of creation and includes a defense of the free will of human beings and of free human activity in the world.
A hallmark of modernity which affects us profoundly to this day is the Scientific Revolution. Modern science is based on the authority of the empirical method of experimentation rather than the authority of the ancient scientific texts. From Nicholas Copernicus’ (1473-1543) work De revolutionibus orbium caelestium to Isaac Newton (1642-1727) in his Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica of 1687, a new physics and a new astronomy were born. Copernicus placed the sun rather than the earth at the center of the universe. Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) supplemented Copernicus’ work with rigorous evidence written in the language of modern science: mathematics. Galileo (1564-1642) preceded Newton in the field of physics, discovering some of the moons of Jupiter and supporting the work of Copernicus. Newton established the laws of gravitation and motion. These and the subsequent sciences (e.g. chemistry, biology) would adopt a physicalist view of the universe that could be explained via empirical experimentation, and expressed through rational laws in the language of mathematics (Marías, 1967).
The philosophers of the early modern era sought to do their work with the same rigor, and to achieve the same level of certainty regarding philosophical truth as they had witnessed in the hard sciences. René Descartes (1596-1650) brought about a decisive turn in the philosophy of the early modern era as he embraced the findings of science. Trained in the scholastic method still taught in the universities of France, he instead developed a new philosophical method, the method of doubt, with the goal of reaching philosophical certainty. Doubting everything, he discovered one thing that was beyond doubt – that he existed, for it was he himself doing the doubting. His initial conclusion was cogito ergo sum – I think, therefore I exist. His philosophical work moved forward from this insight. What does Descartes find himself to be? Ego sum res cogitans – I am a thinking thing (Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy). Human beings, then, are first thinking things – this Descartes states is beyond doubt. In reaching this first conclusions about persons, however, Descartes also creates a deep problem: from this starting point, how does one attain certainty about the physical world, including one’s own body, and certainty about the existence of God? Descartes will posit two substances (note the survival of Aristotelian and medieval thought in the use of this term), res cogitans and res extensa – a thinking thing and an extended/physical thing that together make up the human person, though distinct from each other. Herein lies the problem: if res cogitans and res extensa are distinct, how do they interact in one and the same person? Or, to phrase it in more contemporary terms, how do mind and body interact? Descartes here introduces a modern dualism in persons that philosophy has wrestled with ever since. In the subsequent history of philosophy, there will be an increasing tendency not to work toward the unity of these two substances, but to side with one or the other – res cogitans in rationalism and idealism, and res extensa in empiricism and realism.
The history of personalist thought will now mirror the wider history of philosophy, the development of realist and idealist traditions. There is a branching in the personalist tree of development that becomes more prominent in the philosophy of the Enlightenment and of the nineteen the century. In the next two sections, we will follow those two streams of development from the Enlightenment through the 20th century. As we will see, both currents have continental European origins; one broad current of modern personalism will develop out of 18th century German thought and find its way to England and the United States, while the other will be a continuation and development of another aspect of continental thought in France and southern Europe (Spain, Italy and regions of eastern Europe where Catholic tradition and influence remained strong). Both traditions show a history of religious influence, Protestant Christianity in the former, and Catholic Christianity in the latter. The two traditions are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they look to many of the same philosophers, and the dialogue between the two currents is alive and well in the twenty-first century. To distinguish these two interrelated currents of personalist thought, I will refer to the first as the Anglo-American tradition (recognizing its origins in Germany and from the twentieth century encompassing northern Europe, the United Kingdom and North America) and the second the Continental tradition (broadly encompassing France, southern Europe, Poland and Latin America).
2.4 Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard
These three philosophers – Immanuel Kant, Georg F.W. Hegel and Søren Kierkegaard exerted a profound influence on both of the currents of personal thought just mentioned – the Anglo-American and the Continental. Some personalist wrote in continuation of their thought, some in opposition to it.
2.4.1 Immanuel Kant
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) wrote initially in reaction to the empiricism of David Hume (1711-1776) and made numerous contributions to modern philosophy. In epistemology, his distinction between phenomenal (things as they appear to us) and noumenal (things as they are in themselves) knowledge established building blocks for twentieth century idealistic personalism. His division of knowledge into the a priori and a posteriori on the one hand and the synthetic and the analytic on the other allowed him to establish a basis for ethics, the area of his strongest influence on personalist thought. It is in the realm of a priori synthetic judgements (a priori – knowledge that exists before and does not depend on experience and synthetic – they add something to our knowledge) that Kant locates his ethics (Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, 1781). In ethics, human beings are, for Kant, rational beings, and the highest good, that which is truly good in itself, is a good will. Kant’s is a normative ethics, that is, it lays out norms for moral action. Kant formulates the basic norm for moral action as an imperative, a command that the moral person ought to act in a certain way. Moral imperatives for Kant are categorical, meaning that they possess unconditional and absolute authority. The categorical imperative for the moral life was formulated by Kant in three different ways in his Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals (1785). The first formulation states that we ought to “act only according to that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.” (Kant, Groundwork, 34). Immediately following this is a second formulation of the imperative: “so act as if the maxim of your action were to become by your will a universal law of nature (34).
Kant distinguishes sharply between persons and all other beings. Things have a price. What has a price is interchangeable, it can be replaced by something else, by an equivalent thing and can be used instrumentally. Persons, on the other hand, are unique, unrepeatable and beyond price, they are an end in themselves and have an inner worth beyond any price. A person is that which “is elevated above any price, and hence allows of no equivalent, has a dignity.” (Groundwork, 46). And, in his third formulation of the categorical imperative: “So act that you use humanity, in your own person as well as in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means” (Kant, Groundwork, 41). Persons, having an absolute worth, a dignity, may never be instrumentalized, used merely as a means to an end. Kant’s thought has been fundamental to twentieth and twenty-first century discussion of human rights.
2.4.2 Georg W.F. Hegel and Idealism
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) continues to exert an influence on Anglo-American personalism. His philosophical system is both subtle and complex. In his Phenomenology of Spirit, the logical process of philosophy advances by means of dialectic in which a thesis is met by an antithesis which are ultimately united in a synthesis which is not a mere consolidation or addition of the two previous movements, but a new knowledge. Spirit, for Hegel, is being for itself that progresses through stages, and in the realm of spirit he delves into philosophical anthropology, psychology and consciousness (subjective spirit), moving upward through right, morality and social ethics (objective spirit). In the moral domain, persons are rational beings endowed with free will, and morality takes on a subjective dimension in which the individuals intentions determine the morality of that individual’s actions. Society for Hegel includes all that is involved in the relationships between persons. This culminates in the State, for Hegel, the highest realm in which morality operates achieved across the whole course of history. Human freedom remains an essential concept for Hegel throughout (Marias, 1967; Kenny, 2012). The Idealist tradition of Hegel would bear fruit in the work of philosophers in Germany who stand at the foundation of the Anglo-American tradition including Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi (1743-1819), and Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling (1775-1854) and Rudolph Hermann Lotze (1817-1881).
2.4.3 Søren Kierkegaard and Existentialism
The 20th century tradition of existentialism traces its origins to the work of Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) who, with Hegel as his foil, rejected idealist and abstract philosophical systems and returned to the existence of the concrete individual as the subject of philosophy. Here also individual persons possess freedom, and can make fundamental choices about life. Kierkegaard’s philosophical interests were profoundly human, concrete and personal – individual existence, suffering, the person as having both temporal and eternal aspects. He speaks of different paths one may take in life: the esthetic (a life lives in the sensual, in sensible pleasures), the ethical (symbolized by marriage) and the religious (in which the individual encounters God face to face in the life of faith (Padilla, 2018b).
2.5 Anglo-American Personalism
This current of personalism developed within the broad philosophical tradition of idealism, and in opposition to the rationalism of the Enlightenment. Several philosophers in Germany would prove foundational for this personalism current and for its transmission into the English-speaking world: Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, F.W.J. Shelling, and Hermann Lotze.
2.5.1 The Eighteenth Century
Kant and Hegel exerted an overwhelming influence on the philosophy of the 1800s in central Europe and beyond. Subsequent philosophical thought was often either a development of or a reaction to them, including Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi (1743-1819), a key figure in the development of Anglo-American Personalism. In his writings he defended human freedom and specifically moral freedom and moral values, as well as the notion of a personal God against the pantheistic and abstractionist trends in other 19th century German philosophers. He was a defender of the primacy of person in philosophical thought. His could be termed a theistic personalist as well, though his thought would not be considered orthodox Christian.
2.5.2 The Nineteenth Century
Jacobi was a source of inspiration to F.W.J. Schelling (1775-1854) who advanced the idea of the personality of God, and late in his career developed a theistic and personalist metaphysics grounded in the idea of human freedom (Bengtsson, 2006).
A key figure in the journey of personalism from Germany to the English-speaking world was Rudolph Hermann Lotze (1817-1881). Lotze worked in the tradition of idealistic personalism and developed philosophy of value. His work, carried by his students to both the United Kingdom and the United States (though thinkers in both countries would draw on their own native philosophical traditions as well), contained many of the themes that would be developed in twentieth century Anglo-American Personalism: the interior life of persons, human freedom, autonomy and dignity (Bengtsson, 2006; Buford, IEP). American philosophers were influenced by Lotze, including Bowne, George Santayana, William James, and Josiah Royce.
In the United Kingdom, the Scottish Common Sense school exemplified by Thomas Reid was drawn upon by William Hamilton, S.T. Coleridge, H. Mansel and John Grote as an alternative to skepticism and utilitarianism. These thinkers also drew directly upon the work of the earlier German philosophers Jacobi and Schelling, and some of them studied under Hermann Lotze in Germany at the University of Göttingen. Andrew Seth Pringle-Pattison (1856-1931) became a proponent of an idealist personalism in defense of the unique value of the person.
2.5.3 Britain in the Twentieth Century
R.G Collingwood worked (1889-1943) made a significant contribution to personalism in his philosophy of history. Three other philosophers working in the United Kingdom made significant contributions to personalist thought during the early-to-mid twentieth century:
John Macmurray (1891-1956) located the person at the center of his philosophical enterprise, and made clear distinctions between the personal, organic and material worlds. Anthropologically, he viewed human existence as both active and interactive, creating a barrier to the reduction of persons to mere biology or matter. The self, for Macmurray is an active agent in the world in his works Interpreting the Universe (1933), The Self as Agent (1957) and Persons in Relation (1961).
Michael Polanyi (1891-1956) a chemist and philosopher born in Hungary, who worked in England wrote extensively on human knowledge, criticizing objectivist notions of knowledge that see our knowing as impersonal, rule-based and devoid of any contribution from the person. He argued instead that persons contribute both explicitly and tacitly to all that we know, and that the personal is an integral and vital component of our knowledge. Personal engagement in coming to know is a major theme of his principal work, Personal Knowledge (1958). His works address a variety of other topics including the society in which he lived, as seen in Science, Faith and Society (1946) and The Logic of Liberty (1951).
Austin Farrer (1904-1968) was an Anglican theologian who published works in both theology and philosophy. In his principal philosophical works, Finite and Infinite (1943), The Freedom of the Will (1957) and Faith and Speculation (1964) he wrote in response to the positivism and linguistic relativism of his day and showed deep connections between thought and action. He alsoemphasized the role of praxis faith and philosophy, while also making contributions to philosophy of mind.
The thought of these philosophers continues to be studied and developed by personalists in the twenty-first century, through independent scholarly work and in the context of the British Personalist Forum.
2.5.4 The United States in the Twentieth Century: Boston University, Harvard University, California
Borden Parker Bowne (1847-1910) is a pivotal figure in the history of Anglo-American Personalism and considered a founder of personalism in the United States. Bowne was a student of Hermann Lotze in Germany, in an era when it was not uncommon for American philosophers to undertake a period of study in Europe. Bowne returned from his European studies and taught at Boston University from 1876 until 1910. Operating within the idealist tradition in philosophy, he nevertheless was a critic of Hegel and Spencer, and of materialist philosophical systems. Drawing upon Lotze, Kant, Berkley and others, his philosophical vision is laid out in his book Personalism (1908). Philosophy, for Bowne, involved the analysis of human experience, which he viewed as irreducibly subjective, if also objectively valid and critically realistic; our experience is structured by active intellect. Before settling into the term “personalism” for his system, he had called it “transcendental empiricism. Bowne understood persons as “a living, conscious unity” (Bowne, 1908). Since his focus was the person, his thought necessarily extended in several areas to encompass metaphysics, epistemology and ethics. He also authored books in psychology, theology, the philosophy of religion, along with a number of collections of sermons and writings on contemporary issues in Christianity. As noted above, Bowne taught for many years at Boston University and founded what has since come to be known as the Boston School of personalism. Among his students who became personalist philosophers in this tradition were Albert Knudsen (1873-1953) who brought personalist thought to the Boston University Divinity School.
Edgar Sheffield Brightman (1884-1953) headed the philosophy department at BU from 1919 to 1953 and was a student of Bowne. A Methodist minister and expert on the Hebrew Scriptures, he also wrote in the personalist tradition on metaphysics, ethics and philosophy of religion. Like his teacher Bowne, Brightman sought truth in the field of human experience. As Buford writes, Brightman “defined Personalism as the hypothesis that all being is either a personal experience (a complex unity of consciousness) or some phase or aspect of one or more such experience. Nature is an order generated by the mind of Cosmic Person. Finite persons are created and grounded by the uncreated God, and as such possess free will. Reality is a society of Persons” (Buford, IEP) Peter Bertocci (1910-1989) was a student of Brightman who deepened personalist through his writings in psychology and also wrote in the field of philosophy of religion.
Erazim Kohák (1933-2020) was a Czech philosopher whose thought was influenced by Borden Parker Bowne. After earning his PhD at Yale he joined the faculty of Boston University, where he taught for many years. His best known work is The Embers and the Stars: A Philosophical Inquiry into the Moral Sense of Nature (1984), in which the theme of person in the context of a technological word is central.
Walter George Muelder (1907-2004) was also an important figure in Boston personalism. A Methodist pastor, he earned his doctorate in philosophy at Boston University in 1933 under Edgar S. Brightman who taught at Berea college in Kentucky, taught for several years at the University of Southern California and then returned to Boston University, serving as a professor of social ethics, and was the dean of the school of theology. Martin Luther King Jr. was among his students at BU, and King credited Muelder with guiding him toward a personalist philosophy of nonviolent social change. Muelder published works in several areas of personalist thought including the relatively new field of social ethics. His works include Foundations of the Responsible Society in 1959 and Moral Law and Christian Ethics in 1966.
John Howie (1929-2008) was a philosopher and Methodist minister who also earned his doctorate at Boston University and was very active in the civil rights movement. He taught philosophy and biomedical ethics at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, touching on topics of the moral life, faith and democracy.
Thomas O. Buford (1932-2018) was an important figure in American personalism in the second half of the twentieth century and the early years of the twenty-first. He studied philosophy at Boston University, wrote extensively and was a co-founder, along with Charles Conti (American, working in England), of the International Conference on Persons, which sponsors a biannual academic conference that is an international gathering of personalist thinkers that alternates between Europe and the Americas.
Joe Barnhart was also in the Boston University personalist tradition. He taught for many years at the University of North Texas. His works Religion and the Challenge of Philosophy, The Study of Religion and Its Meaning: New Explorations in Light of Karl Popper and Emile Durkheim, and (with Linda Kraeger) Dostoevsky on Evil and Atonement: the Ontology of Personalism in His Major Fiction.
James McLachlan (1955 – ) is a personalist philosopher, also in the Boston Tradition, influenced by Hocking and by the European continental tradition through Marcel and Lévinas, who taught at Western Carolina, where he hosts a biannual meeting of personalist philosophers, focusing each time on two personalist thinkers. He is also a Mormon studies scholar who in 2005 co-founded Element: a Journal of Mormon Philosophy and Theology. His research interest also include process philosophy, Nicolas Berdyaev and Henri Bergson.
Kipton E. Jensen is a contemporary philosopher who also stands in the tradition of Boston University Personalism, and is currently on the faculty of Morehouse College. He has published works on Hegel’s philosophy of religion, religious identity and public health ethics and more recently a work on Howard Thurmon, a mentor to Martin Luther King Jr., Howard Thurman: Philosophy, Civil Rights, and the Search for Common Ground (2019).
The Harvard School of Personalism
Boston University was the first, but not only center for American Personalism. Several scholars art Harvard University exerted a deep and lasting impact on American personalist thought. Josiah Royce (1855-1916) is likely the best known of these thinkers. Working in the idealist tradition and influenced by both Hegel and F.H. Bradley, in 1898 attended lectures given by Charles Sanders Peirce. Royce made substantial contributions to idealist philosophy, ethics, the philosophy of religion and the field of logic. His thought characterized the whole of reality as an entire universe of ideas or signs that exist in community. In ethics, he centered his thought on the centrality and importance of persons in action. His principal work in metaphysics is The World and the Individual (1899-1901), originally delivered as the Gifford lectures at the University of Aberdeen. His later philosophical work became more consciously personalist and concerned with the practical implications of his thought; in ethics this meant living a meaningful life grounded in the free choice of the individual and aiming toward morally important commitments in life, as he wrote in his Philosophy of Loyalty (1908). He also focused on the individual in community over against what he viewed as the extreme individualism of Nietzsche and the Concord transcendentalists such as Emerson. Royce also wrote on the philosophy of religion, the problem of evil, and atonement. He was at times critical of established Christian churches, and also had great respect for Buddhist thought in The Problem of Christianity (1913) (Parker, 2013). Royce’s philosophy has influenced the work of several contemporary personalist philosophers, including
Jacquelyn Kegley teaches at California State University, Bakersfield in the areas of personhood, the philosophy of self, and philosophy of technology, neuroethics, race, class, gender and sexuality. She has been influenced by the philosophy of Josiah Royce and has published about him.
Dwayne Tunstall, is a philosopher at Grand Valley State University and is also a scholar influenced by the thought of Josiah Royce. His research and teaching areas include African American philosophy, existentialism, moral philosophy, phenomenology and the philosophy of religion. His works include Yes, But Not Quite: Encountering Josiah Royce’s Ethico-Religious Insight (2009) and Doing Philosophy Personally: Thinking about Metaphysics, Theism, and Antiblack Racism(2013).
Randall Auxier (1961 – ) is Professor of Philosophy and Communication Studies at the University of Southern Illinois, Carbondale. Also influenced by Royce, his academic interests are wide ranging, including symbol theory and semiotics, the philosophy of communication, history of rhetoric, ethics, philosophy of history, philosophy of education and philosophy and popular culture. He has, for many years, been a leading figure in the International Conference on Persons. His works include Time, Will and Purpose: Living Ideas from the Philosophy of Josiah Royce (Chicago, IL: Open Court, 2013) and Metaphysical Graffiti: Deep Cuts from the History of Rock (2017). He has also edited numerous volumes in the Library of Living Philosophers.
William Ernest Hocking (1873-1966) was a student of Josiah Royce and also philosopher in the idealist tradition at Harvard University, though he worked to incorporate both empiricism and pragmatism into his philosophical system. He published numerous works in the philosophy or religion, though he also wrote about politics, human rights and psychology. He developed the idea of “negative pragmatism” in which what pragmatically works may or may not be true, but that which does not work must be false (see Sahakian and Sahakian, 1966).
William James (1842-1910) was a close friend at Royce, and their work was mutually influencing; both taught at Harvard. He is best known for his works The Principles of Psychology (1890) and The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). His educational background was in science and medicine and this is reflected in much of his work. James was deeply influenced by the American philosophy of Pragmatism. He taught at Harvard and offered courses in physiology and psychology in the era in which the field was reimagining itself as a modern empirical discipline. He also taught in the areas of logic and philosophy.
In the 1870’s James established the first American psychology laboratory at Harvard. His European travels had brought him into contact with leading intellectual figures of the age in this discipline including Carl Stumpf, Wilhelm Wundt, Jean Charcot. James’ Principles of Psychology, published in 1902 contains key elements of his thought and psychological ideas that remain current today, including consciousness and stream of consciousness, while remaining concerned with the relationship between mind, body and psychology. His Varieties of Religious Experience delves the religious experience of persons, and makes distinctions between healthy and unhealthy religious experience, and also delves into the characteristic of mystical experience. Later in his career he published works on the philosophy of pragmatism (Goodman, 2017).
Charles Hartshorne (1897-2000) was a personalist philosopher known for his work in philosophy of religion and in metaphysics, and was one of the philosophers responsible for reclaiming aspects of medieval philosophy in the twentieth century (e.g. Anselm’s ontological argument). He earned his doctorate in philosophy at Harvard, and he spent time in Germany studying with Husserl and Heideggar, and was influenced by the work of Charles Sanders Peirce. He taught over the course of a long career at the University of Chicago, Emory University and the University of Texas. In his metaphysical work, he offers several arguments for the existence and more importantly, the action of God (Dombrowski, 2020)
Mary Whilton Calkins (1863-1930) was a student at Harvard of both Josiah Royce and William James. A philosopher and psychologist, she taught at Wellesley College (where she created an experimental psychology laboratory), Clark University and Harvard University. Her work, influenced by her teachers at Harvard, covered topics including space and time consciousness, the emotions, and dreams, and promoted a self psychology in sharp contrast to the developing views of behaviorism. Her personalist contribution to the field included the examination of persons through the concept of “self.”
Gordon Allport (1897-1967) was a Harvard psychologist whose work was foundational in the psychological study of personality, noteworthy also because he developed his work in the context of the American behaviorism that was widespread during his career. He published seminal research on prejudice and discrimination.
Ralph Tyler Flewelling (1871-1960) brought personalist thought from Boston to the University of Southern California and founded the journal The Personalist, which published from 1920 through 1979. His personal was dedicated to its implications in political life.
George Holmes Howison (1834-1916) studied at Harvard, was influenced by Josiah Royce, and brought personalist thought to the University of California at Berkley. He called his personalist system “Personal Idealism,” which was grounded in human freedom in relation to the world of living things, other persons and God.
There are also Personalists working in the United states influenced by the work of Max Scheler. Ken Stikkers teaches Southern Illinois University, Carbondale and has written in the areas of morality and economics, and the work of Max Scheler.
Anthony Steinbok (1958- ) at SUNY Stony Brook University also operates within Schelerian tradition and is the director of Stony Brook’s Phenomenology Research Center, and is the editor in chief of Continental Philosophy Review. His research investigates contemporary German and French philosophy, the development of phenomenology through the work of philosophers such as Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, Scheler, Heidegger, Levinas, Derrida, Marion, Waldenfels, and Lefort, social ontology and aesthetics.
Other philosophers in North America have been influences by the work of the Hungarian/British Michael Polanyi. Marjorie Grene (1910-2009) taught at the University of Southern California at Davis and Virginia Tech. She is considered a founder of the field of philosophy of biology. She worked with Polanyi while she was at the University of Manchester in the late 1950s. Her philosophical work was in the fields of the history of philosophy, epistemology and philosophy of science, with a focus on the philosophy of biology. Her publications included works on existentialism, Martin Heideggar, Sartre, as well as works on evolution.
Richard Prust is an American personalist philosopher also influenced by Polanyi. He taught at St. Andrews University in North Carolina until his retirement and is the author of Wholeness: The Character Logic of Christian Belief (2003) and Personal Identity in Moral and Legal Reasoning (2019). He has been active for many years in the International Conference on Persons.
2.5.5 Mormon Personalism
William Henry Chamberlin (1897- 1969) was the first Mormon to undertake academic philosophical study, first under Howison in California. A few years later he took some classes with Josiah Royce at Harvard. Chamberlin taught at Boston University but encountered opposition to his teaching about higher criticism and about evolution. He taught at several Mormon institutions including Brigham Young University in the areas of philosophy and ancient languages, in which he applied higher criticism to the Bible. His thought was personalist in nature. James McLachlin has characterized Chamberlain’s thought as deeply personalist, including the notions that persons are eternal, metaphysically ultimate, that persons are social by nature, and the God is the ultimate example of personal existence (McLachlin, 1996).
Sterling M. McMurrin (1914-1996) was influenced by the personalist tradition through his studies with Ralph Tyler Flewelling at the University of Southern California. He taught at the University of Utah. His book, Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion stood alone for many years as a work of Mormon theology. In it he referred to the work of Boston University’s Edgar Sheffield Brightman.
Obert C. Tanner (1904-1993) also taught at the University of Utah, as well as at Stanford University. He wrote works for the Mormon Church that can be considered personalist in nature.
2.5.6 African-American Personalism
African-American personalism has a strong and enduring social justice theme, and has been deeply influenced by the Boston University tradition. John Wesley Edward Bowen (1855-1933) was born into slavery in New Orleans, and was freed at the age of three. His father fought for the Union army during the Civil War. Bowen was the first African-American to earn a doctorate at Boston University (theology), where he was strongly influenced by the tradition of idealist personalism founded by Borden Parker Bowne. He served as pastor at several Methodist Episcopal churches. The importance of person remained at the center of his thought and he was a strong advocate of higher education for African-Americans. He taught at Gammon Theological Seminary from 1993 until his retirement, with a lifelong interest in social justice.
Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968) studied personalist thought at Boston University and sought to bring those insights into social action during the 1960’s. King placed a strong emphasis on the notion of a personal God, and on the dignity of created persons, as well as the existence of an objective moral order that governed all human affairs.
Rufus Burrow Jr. is a personalist thinker in the Boston tradition who earned his doctorate at Boston University and whose writing have promoted justice for the poor and the oppressed, the dignity of women, and deep social change. His works include Personalism: A Critical Introduction (Chalice, 1999); God and Human Dignity: The Personalism, Theology, and Ethics of Martin Luther King, Jr. (University of Notre Dame Press, 2006); ; Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Theology of Resistance (McFarland & Co., 2014).
In Africa, Desmond Tutu has promoted nonviolent resistance to Apartheid in South Africa, and later a peaceful transition to majority rule in that country. He led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which worked to bring about reconciliation between the peoples of South Africa. Throughout, Tutu stressed the dignity of the human person, and forged a genuine African personalism around the Bantu concept of Ubuntu, which includes spiritual facets of persons such as generosity, compassion, caring and personal relation, and the sense that the humanity of each person is bound to the humanity of every other person (Mortensen, 2014).
2.5.7 Indigenous Personalism in the Americas
Indigenous thought about persons in the Americas differs in some important ways from traditional Western philosophical thought and must be approached on its own terms. Native American thought might not consider itself as falling under the term “personalism” understood as a western philosophy, though personalist themes are evident in its tradition.
Vine Deloria Jr. (1933-2005) is a Standing Rock Sioux has written in the area of metaphysics from an indigenous perspective and has developed themes that include the sacredness of life and the existence of a moral order to which we are all subject, and of relationships imbued with a moral content.
The contemporary philosopher Lee Hester at the University of Sciences and Arts of Oklahoma is a citizen of the Choctaw Nation who has brought indigenous philosophy into conversation with traditional categories of western philosophical thought. In his article “Truth and Native American Epistemology,” he writes that the “search for ‘Truth’ is the European tradition. The Native tradition does not abstract truths out of stories, the stories are often abstract enough in themselves without further removing them from reality. The narrative is as close to the truth as you can get.” (Hester and Cheney, 2001).
A very useful resource on Indigenous thought is The American Philosophical Association Newsletter on Indigenous Philosophy, which addresses indigenous philosophy throughout the Americas and has published work by scholars including Pedro Lebrón Ortiz, Andrea Sullivan-Clarke, Emmanuel Onyemachi, Brian Yazzie Burkhart, James Maffie , Shelbi Nahwilet Meissner, Shay Welch, Alexander Guerrero and many others.
2.5.8 Jewish American Personalism
Martin Buber (1878-1965) lived in Vienna, several cities in Germany and finally Jerusalem. He was a European personalist in the dialogical personalist tradition that also included as Levinas, Rosenzweig, Ebner and Guardini. His work became well known in the United States not least through his student Nahum Glatzer who taught at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, as well as through English language translations of his books that came to scholarly attention in the United States. Later in his career Buber became consistently interested in philosophical anthropology.
Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) was a theologian and philosopher born in Poland who emigrated to the United States in 1940; he taught at Hebrew Union College in New York. As a young adult Heschel pursued both rabbinic studies as well as a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Berlin. His study of the Hebrew prophets led him to participate in social justice issues in the 1960s, including the American civil rights movement and protests against the Viet Nam war. Man is Not Alone (1951) examines the personal encounter with God that has its origins on the human side in what Heschel terms “radical amazement. In his book The Sabbath (1951) he portrayed Judaism as a religion of time rather than space and the Sabbath as central to Jewish faith and tradition. God in Search of Man (1955) continues his theme of awe in the face of experience of God, and addresses questions of Judaism’s self-understanding faith and revelation. In The Prophets (1962) one sees the influence of phenomenology on his thought in his investigation of prophetic consciousness. Who is Man? (1965) is a work of theological and philosophical anthropology that addresses the nature of the human person.
Leon D. Stitskin (1908-1978) was a Rabbi and Professor of Jewish Philosophy at Yeshiva University whose book Jewish Philosophy: A Study in Personalism (1976) delves into personalist aspects of Jewish thought, beginning with the centrality of the person as theme and point of departure for his inquiry, with “personalistic consciousness” as a leitmotif (7). He draws upon the Hebrew Scriptures as well as specific Jewish philosophers of the past including Isaac Israeli (855-955), Abraham bat Hiyya (1065-1143), Abraham Ibn Ezra (1092-1167), as well as better known figures such as Maimonides (1135-1204) and Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786).
2.6 Continental Personalism
Having seen the progress of idealist personalism from Europe to the United Kingdom and the Americas, we turn now to the other major personalist current that I have called the Continental tradition. We will survey this tradition by country, keeping in mind that the tradition shares certain features and that different countries have their own distinct philosophical perspectives. Thus, the philosophers in each country are identical in their personalist views; each thinker embraces multiple influences, and there are many overlaps, one example being recourse to the philosopher Immanuel Kant and his ethics in relation to human dignity.
Within the Continental tradition, distinct schools of personalist thought have developed. Their common influences include the Judeo-Christian tradition and the history of Catholic philosophical thought including, for example, Augustine and Aquinas and the neo-Thomism of the twentieth century. Immanuel Kant, Søren Kierkegaard and the twentieth century existentialist tradition also influence this tradition. Out of this intellectual matrix developed the existentialist personalism of Gabriel Marcel and Luigi Pareyson, the dialogical personalism of Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig, Ferdinand Ebner, Romano Guardini and Emmanuel Lévinas. A communitarian personalism developed in the twentieth century building on the work of Emmanuel Mounier and including Díaz, Lacriox and Domenach. The realist phenomenological tradition that developed in early twentieth century Germany under Edmund Husserl was developed by Landsberg, Josef Seifert, Max Scheler, Dietrich von Hildebrand and Viktor Frankl. Influenced by Thomism, a group of thinkers in several countries has sought to bring classical philosophy into dialogue with the realist phenomenological tradition, including Jacques Maritain, Maurice Nedoncelle, Edith Stein, Czeslaw Bartnik, Karol Wojtyla, and Juan Manuel Burgos.
Jacques Maritain (1882-1973) was educated at the Sorbonne, and reacted to the general educational atmosphere there (pragmatism, relativism). He struck out on his own philosophical path. Born into a Protestant family, he entered the Catholic church in 1906, and encountered the work of Thomas Aquinas, whose thought would become the greatest influence on his own. Initially opposed to much of the thought of modernity, Maritain later came into engagement with various thinkers of the twentieth century from his Thomistic perspective. In 1932 he published what is considered his first major philosophical work, Distinguer Pour Unir, Ou Les Degrés du Savoir (The Degrees of Knowledge), a work of epistemology from the perspective of critical realism. Integral Humanism was published in 1936, Maritain’s first major work in political philosophy, in which he sought a dialogue between Catholic tradition and modern thought, and advanced a communitarian personalism that addressed both the individual and the common good. His writing career was long and wide-ranging touching on epistemology, philosophical anthropology, ethics the history of philosophy, aesthetics and politics. Maritain stood at the twentieth century foundations of Thomistic personalism (Burgos, 2018; Sweet, 2019)
Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973) is considered a leader of the tradition of Christian existentialism and personalist existentialism, who was also influenced by the personalism of Royce and Hocking. Marcel wrote in opposition to atheistic existentialism in the work of Jean-Paul Sartre. For Marcel, philosophy always had a deep connection with social action in the sense of engaging the great questions of his age. His intellectual concerns included intersubjectivity as a point of philosophical departure. Being, for Marcel, is being-with, including being-with God. His metaphysical thought placed a strong focus on persons. He also wrote on the nature of mystery in relation to persons, and made a distinction between being and having, again with a personalist tone. He wrote analyses of fidelity, hope and love. Hope, for Marcel, has a dramatic, ongoing character. His philosophical methodology shows the influence of both existentialist thought and phenomenology and he frequently addresses the capacity of persons for transcendence and creative fidelity (Treanor and Sweetman, 2016).
Emmanuel Mounier (1905-1950) died young but nevertheless left an indelible mark on personalist thought both in his native France and abroad, not least through the foundation of the journal Esprit in 1932, which advocated personalist themes and addressed many pressing social questions of the day – war, poverty, Catholic culture, the labor movement in France and elsewhere. Personalism for Mounier was always intended to bear fruit in social action and social transformation, and he sought to steer a course between the extremes of radical individualism on the one hand, and the totalitarianisms of both the right and the left on the other, a course that was grounded not in ideologies, but in persons. His personalism thus had a communitarian tone, ordered toward social and a transformation of society that would come about through commitment and witness to truth. (Burgos, 2018; Williams and Bengtsson, 2016). In his book Personalism, written toward the end of his life, he brought together many of the themes that had been explored by him in Esprit, including the interiority and transcendence of persons, personalism as distinct from both individualism and collectivism, human freedom, human dignity.
Paul Ricoeur (1919-2005) was a student of Emanuel Mounier whose work encompassed both phenomenology and hermeneutic theory. Some consider Ricouer a personalist philosopher while others do not – this may be understood in light of the narrow and broad definitions of personalism noted earlier. Ricoeur had an ongoing interest in philosophical anthropology and wrote of the capabilities and vulnerabilities of the person in action. His work also touches on the theory of language (The Rule of Metaphor), psychoanalysis, and in his three-volume Time and Narrative investigated the importance of narrative for one’s identity.
Emmanuel Lévinas (1906-1995) developed a philosophy of ethics conceived of as first philosophy (Bergo, 2019), and focused on interpersonality. For Levinas, it is the face of the other that invites us inter an interpersonal dialogue with ethical implications (Burgos, 2018).
The German tradition of personalism in the Continental current was deeply influenced by the development of phenomenology, primarily under Edmund Husserl (whose publication of Logical Investigations are remembered as the founding document) and by the work of Max Scheler.
Husserl, Göttingen Freiburg, and Realist Phenomenology. Many of those who wrote in the tradition that can be termed realist phenomenology were Husserl’s early students and include Dietrich von Hildebrand and Edith Stein, as well as others who would subsequently be directly influenced by the phenomenological movement, among them Josef Seifert, Viktor Frankl, Maurice Nedoncelle, Czeslaw Bartnik, and Karol Wojtyła. Other personalist philosophers in Germany developed their thought in the context of a dialogical personalism whose roots lay in the work of Martin Buber, and included Romano Guardini, Franz Rosenzweig, and Emmanuel Lévinas.
The phenomenological movement is diverse and complex, and it developed over the course of much of the twentieth century. It can be understood as the investigation of “the primary sources of direct intuition and to insights into the essential structures derived from them” and utilizes as its methodology the epochē (bracketing, or the phenomenological reduction), which involves holding in abeyance our everyday experience for the purpose of gaining insight into the essences of things, as well as all of our presuppositions about the whole of reality (Spiegelberg, 1960, 5, Williams and Bengtsson, 2018). Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) laid the foundation for the movement with the publication of his Logical Investigations in 1900, and may of his early students were also taught by one of his leading disciples, Adolf Reinach (1883-1917) who wrote on the philosophy of law, ontology and the philosophy of language from a phenomenological perspective (Beyer, 2020).
Max Scheler (1874-1928) was a disciple of Husserl who also made numerous independent contributions to phenomenology. One of Scheler’s most important contributions to phenomenology was in the field of ethics. HisFormalism in Ethics and Non-Formal Ethics of Values, Scheler takes a different position on ethics than does Kant, arguing against Kant’s formalistic ethics of duty. Scheler instead proposes an ethics of value grounded in the concrete experience of value in each of us. The ethical call, for Scheler, presents itself in our experience as what we ought to do and what the individual person, the I or self, ought to do (Davis and Steinbock, 2019).
Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889-1977) was strongly influenced by the work of his friend Max Scheler, and developed his own theory of value which he grounded in the notions of motivation and importance, denominating three types or categories of importance: the merely subjectively satisfying, the objective good or evil for the person, and the important-in-itself (this third being his definition of value). Values, for Hildebrand, call to us and demand an appropriate response that does justice to the particular value, a value response. The highest value response for von Hildebrand is love, as he showed in his work The Nature of Love. He published works on ethics across his career, and also wrote on aesthetics and various aspects of his adopted Catholic tradition.
Edith Stein (1891-1942) was a Jewish woman who entered that Catholic Church as an adult. She was a student of Husserl and Reinach, and so steeped in the early/realist phenomenological tradition. With her adoption of Catholicism, she also entered into a serious study of the work of Thomas Aquinas and strove to bring about a dialogue between the two traditions in her work, an enterprise that would later be taken up by Karol Wojtyła. In the phenomenological tradition she wrote on the nature of empathy and on metaphysics, as well as on the nature and status of women in contemporary society. She entered the Carmelite convent at Cologne in the early 1930’s and turned her attention to spiritual works, including a treatise on St. John of the Cross (The Science of the Cross).
Several philosophers in Germany also stand at the foundation of what has come to be called the philosophy of dialogue or dialogical personalism. Ferdinand Ebner (1882-1931) is considered a foundational figure. His thought was influenced by both Kierkegaard and John Henry Newman, and he wrote within the broader existentialist tradition of the twentieth century. His work was not generally systematic in nature; it stands against an objectivism of viewing persons only from the outside and instead focuses on the I-Thou relationship and the natural relationality between persons using the concepts of word and love, naming love as the heart of the relationship between persons (Burgos, 2018). Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) was familiar with Ebner’s work and also focused on the I-Thou dialogue between persons in relation, and thought at length on our relationship with God in these terms (Burgos, 2018).
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was a German Lutheran pastor who earned his doctorate in theology from the University of Berlin and was a lecturer there in the 1930s. An opponent of Nazism, he joined in the founding of the Pastor’s Emergency League, which protested against National Socialist attempts to control Germany’s Christian churches and participated in the founding of the Confessing Church, independent of Nazi control (and abolished by the Nazis in 1937). In 1940 he joined the anti-Nazi resistance in Germany and worked as a courier to the British government on behalf of the resistance. He participated in a plot to assassinate Hitler. Bonhoeffer was arrested in 1943 and executed by the Nazis on April 9, 1945. His best known work may be his Ethics, in which he argued for an ethical vision grounded in Christianity and based on the sense of reconciliation between God and the world: “God and the world are thus at one in Christ in a way which means that although the Church and the world are different from each other, there cannot be a static, spatial borderline between them” (Ethics, 204). Ethical action, for Bonhoeffer, happens in the real world, not in the realm of theory about good and evil and is guided by faith in Christ, and becoming like Christ. Another well-known work, The Cost of Discipleship, is a reflection on the Sermon on the Mount.
Spain has a history of personalist thought that courses across the twentieth century and has been influenced both by personalist tratition within Spain and by foreign personalist thought as well. Internal influences include the work of Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955), and Xabier Zubiri (1898-1983), who worked to develop a new understanding of classical metaphysics and philosophical anthropology in dialogue with the philosophies of modernity. Pedro Laín Entralgo (1908-2001) wrote on the history of medicine, anthropology from a personalist perspective, and literature. Spanish personalist thought also developed in response to personalism in neighboring France (Maritain, Mounier, Marcel). Julián Marías(1914-2005) was influenced by French personalism and increasingly focused on the concept of person as his thought developed. Historically, the development of personalist thought was slowed by Franco’s regime, but in its wake, particularly in the last quarter of the twentieth century, it moved forward (Burgos, 2018).
More recently, Carlos Díaz (1944 – ) has been strongly influenced by Mounier’s work and has had influence not only in Spain but in Latin America as well. His works embody a communitarian personalism and personalist anthropology. Alfonso López Quintás (1928 – ) is the best known Spanish representative of dialogical personalism also influenced by the work of Romano Guardini. He has published works on aesthetics, metaphysics, philosophical anthropology and religion. Juan Manuel Burgos (1961 – ) has been influenced by the French personalists, especially Maritain, and by the work of Karol Wojtyła, developing his own personalist vision which he has termed Integral Personalism, which, like Wojtyła before him, seeks to bring about an integration of classical philosophy with the philosophy of modernity. He has published work on philosophical anthropology, epistemology and metaphysics from this perspective.
2.6.4 Eastern Europe
Poland – The Lublin School, Catholic University of Lublin
A strong tradition of personalist thought developed in Poland in the years after the Second World War, when Poland was under communist rule and the Roman Catholic Church provided the principal bulwark against Marxism’s atheistic vision of the human person (Buttiglione, 1997). The work of French personalists such as Maritain and Marcel were important to these Polish thinkers, as was the phenomenological movement that began with Edmund Husserl, and that was carried to Poland by one of Husserl’s students, Roman Ingarden. Max Scheler would also be an influential figure in Polish personalist thought as it developed from the 1950s. Much of this intellectual activity centered in the Catholic University of Lublin, giving rise to the name the “Lublin School,” which had a strong focus on personalist anthropology and ethics.
Wincenty Granat (1900-1979) was a professor (and later rector) at the Catholic University of Lublin whose work moved from a grounding in Thomistic thought to engage Marxism. He developed a theological personalist vision that grounded philosophical anthropology in the Incarnation (Granat, 2006).
Czeslaw Bartnik (1929- ) also taught at the Catholic University of Lublin as professor of fundamental theology and dogmatic theology. A proponent of a universal personalism, Bartnik sees personalism as a way to approach the whole of reality, and in doing so he addresses questions of epistemology, the philosophy of history, theology, aesthetics and metaphysics. His book Studies in Personalist System is available in English.
Karol Wojtyla (1920-2005) was one of the best-known personalists of the twentieth century. Born in Poland, he was ordained a Catholic priest and later bishop. In 1978 he was elected pope and chose the name John Paul II. He taught at the University of Lublin as did the other Polish personalists mentioned above, and in his work sought to bring the best of classical philosophical tradition, especially Aquinas, and twentieth century phenomenology into dialogue for a new contemporary synthesis of personalist thought. He was particularly influenced by the thought of Max Scheler and ethics remained a central interest to him throughout his career. Personalist themes are obvious in his writings as pope as well. His principal works as a philosopher include Love and Responsibility, published in 1960, and The Acting Person (1969) and numerous philosophical essays in which he develops his personalist thought. It is in The Acting Person that Wojtyła’s commitment to an integration of Thomism and phenomenology is most evident as his intellectual resources for the formulation of a contemporary philosophical anthropology. Persons, he wrote, are revealed in action and the themes of modern philosophy are very much present in his work: consciousness, subjectivity, the importance of human experience, the irreducibility of persons. As pope he gave a long series of homilies at his Wednesday afternoon audiences that were later collected and published as Theology of the Body (2006) where he further developed themes present in Love and Responsibility, in which he presents a Christian anthropology and a Christian vision of human sexuality.
Jan Patočka (1907-1977) was a Czech philosopher and personalist who wrote on a wide variety of themes in personalism including history, humanity and culture,, metaphysics, and work on some of the major figures in early phenomenology. Erazim Kohák’s work on Patočka is an excellent introduction to this philosophers work (Kohák, 1989).
- Contemporary Personalist Thought: The Twenty-first Century
Personalist thought remains a viable and lively philosophical tradition today, with contributions from scholars across the world.
Anglo-American personalism continues to develop through the work of contemporary scholars in the United Kingdom and North America.
3.1.1 Personalism in the United Kingdom
Charles Conti has worked on personalist thought developing ideas from the work of Austin Farrer, whom he knew personally. Simon Smith studied under Conti and has also written on Farrer’s work as well as in the area of personalist metaphysics. Alan Ford is a British scholar who has published on the work of personalist philosopher John Macmurray, and Richard Allen is a contemporary British expert on the work of Michael Polanyi who has published widely in the area of economics and personalism. Each of these philosophers is involved in the British Personalist Forum and the journal Appraisal, which promotes the thought of the major British personalists.
3.1.2 North American Personalism in the Boston Tradition
There are numerous contemporary personalist philosophers in North America; their work moves from several different personalist traditions. Many of them were educated in the Boston personalist tradition and continued to develop this tradition of thought. Thomas O. Buford earned his doctorate in philosophy at Boston University and taught for many years at Furman University. Randall Auxier writes on Personalism at the University of Illinois, Carbondale and has written on the work of Royce, Brightman and Hartshorne, as well as bringing personalist thought to bear in analysis of contemporary music.
Richard C. Bayer at Fordham University has developed personalist thought from the tradition of Catholic social justice teaching. Patrick Grant in Canada has addressed personalist thought in light of postmodernism and Marxism. Rufus Burrow Jr. writes on African American personalism in the Anglo-American tradition, including work on Martin Luther King Jr. James McLachlan has published on Mormon personalist thought.
3.1.3 North American Personalism in the Continental Tradition
In addition to the personalists influenced by the tradition of Boston Personalism (Boston University and Harvard University) there are North American Scholars working from Continental personalist traditions as well.
John F. Crosby was a student of the personalist philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand who now teaches at Franciscan University, Steubenville, where he focuses on the work of Hildebrand as well as John Paul II and John Henry Newman. He has translated some of Hildebrand’s major works, including The Nature of Love.
James Harold teaches at Franciscan University, Steubenville, Ohio, and has been influenced by the work of Dietrich von Hildebrand. He has published in the area of philosophical psychology from a personalist perspective.
Peter J. Colosi teaches at Salve Regina University in Rhode Island where his research has focused on personalism, Catholic medical ethics and Catholic Social and Moral Teaching
Mark Spencer teaches at the University of St. Thomas (MN), where his areas of interest include metaphysics, aesthetics and phenomenology.
Jason Bell teaches at the University of New Brunswick, where he focuses on nineteenth and twentieth century Philosophy, with a particular interest in Husserl’s early Göttingen circle, personalism, and phenomenology.
Derek S. Jeffreys is a Professor of Humanities, Religion and Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin who writes on John Paul II, and has focused for many years on the ethics of torture and solitary confinement. He also works in prison education.
Maria Fedoryka teaches at Ave Maria University, studied under both Josef Seifert and John F. Crosby. She focuses on the philosophy of love.
Beth Rath teaches at the Borromeo Institute of John Carroll University and is a specialist in moral philosophy and the work of Thomas Aquinas.
Jonathan Sanford is president of the University of Dallas, where he has taught in the areas of Catholic Higher Education, ethics,, metaphysics and virtue theory.
D.T. Scheffler currently teaches in the areas of the history of the concept of person, and twentieth century Christian Personalism.
James Beauregard teaches at Rivier University in New Hampshire and has been influenced by Spain’s Integral Personalist tradition and the work of Dietrich von Hildebrand. He has published in the area of neuroethics from a personalist perspective.
3.2 Continental Personalism: Western, Central, Eastern Europe
The European personalist tradition remains an ongoing source of inspiration as well.
In Spain, Juan Manuel Burgos continues to publish work in Integral Personalism. Raquel Vera writes on personalism and the family, and Rafael Fayos studies the work of German personalist Romano Guardini. Nieves Gomez has published work on Julian Marías and Martin Roca works in the area of personalism and political philosophy. Xosé Manuel Dominguez Prieto teaches at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid and has written extensively on personalism and psychology.
Rocco Buttiglione (1948 – ) continues to write in the personalist tradition and has published work on John Paul II/Wojtyła’s philosophy. He has published work across several decades on social ethics, economics and politics. He has also served in the Italian Parliament and the European Parliament. Elisa Grimi is an Italian scholar who is Executive Director of the European Society for Moral Philosophy. She publishes in the areas of moral philosophy, philosophy of religion and analytic philosophy.
Josef Seifert has long published on a variety of philosophical topics including the work of Dietrich von Hildebrand. He has served as a Senior Scholar at the Hildebrand Project
Marie Wolter teaches at the Franciscan University Austria Program in Gaming, and focuses on the work of Dietrich von Hildebrand and John Paul II and John Henry Newman, and in the area of bioethics.
Martin Cajthaml is a personalist philosopher in the Czech Republic, where he is head of the department of Philosophy and Patrology at Palacký University. He has written works on ethics, value theory, and on the spiritual and intellectual roots of European culture.
Hrvoje Vargić has studied the work of Dietrich von Hildebrand, and published today in the areas of political philosophy, ethics and bioethics, the philosophy of the human person and phenomenology.
The Asociación Iberoamericana de Personalismo (Latin-American Personalist Association) has promoted personalist thought throughout Latin America including work by scholars J.L. Cañas, Rosa Zapien, Roberto Casales García and others.
- Major Themes in Personalist Thought
In this section I will bring together the central themes of Personalism that emerge from this tradition. They are the themes most commonly seen in a majority personalist philosophers, though this does not mean that each individual personalist philosopher expresses each and every theme at length in their work. Each theme can be tested against particular personalist thinkers to determine the extent to which they are present, either implicitly or explicitly. The themes are: the centrality of the person, the dignity of persons, interiority or subjectivity, freedom and self-determination, transcendence, persons and lauguage, persons in relation, persons and the transformation of society, and persons and nonpersons.
4.1 The Centrality of Person
The first sentence in this entry was “Personalism is a term that can be ascribed to any philosophy, or to other schools of thought (e.g. theology, psychology, economics), that takes the person as the central or structural theme.” In contrast to more abstract ideas such as “being” or “action,” it is the idea of “person” that stands at the center and can be thought of as Personalism’s most defining feature. While different philosophers have voiced different understandings of who or what persons are, they share “person” as their common point of origin. From this point personalist thinkers consider the nature of the human person (philosophical anthropology), and numerous other areas with this personalist theme, including metaphysics, epistemology, aesthetics, and ethics, as well as practical spheres such as politics, economics etc.
Personalists agree that there is something unique about persons, something not reflected in other aspects of the world (e.g. animals, plants, inanimate objects). They make a distinction, then, between persons and nonpersons (see 4.6 below). The notion of person, as we have seen above, can be traced back to the ancient world, and in the West it developed in the early centuries of Christian tradition as patristic thinkers worked out a concept of person in relation to the Trinity. Many, but not all, personalists ground themselves in a specific religious tradition, while others do not. In both cases, it is the idea of person that serves at the point of origin of their thought. Rejecting conceptual limitations imposed by the history of scientific thought in the modern era, many personalists recognize aspects of personhood that are not readily measurable or explainable by the canons and practices of the hard sciences. Among these are aspects often identified as being part of the spiritual level of persons (where ”spiritual” can be understood in both philosophical and theological contexts), the complexity of human knowledge and understanding, freedom and self-determination and the will, happiness and spiritual affectivity (love between persons, personal relationships of many types, aesthetic experience, and the many aspects of human experience captured in the term “the heart”). In all of these areas, personalists begin with persons themselves rather than moving to persons from other categories (e.g. biology, nature, etc.)
4.2 The Dignity of Persons
Persons are at the central point, the point of origin of personalist thought, and as we have just seen personalists also view persons as unique. An aspect of this uniqueness is captured in the notion of human dignity. This has been expressed in a variety of ways across human history. Immanuel Kant is one of the best known philosophers to touch on the reality of human dignity. He understood the difference between ‘someone’ and ‘something’ and made a distinction in his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals between price and worth. Things, he wrote, have a price and are interchangeable. One bag of potatoes at the grocery store is as good as any other and can be purchased at a certain price. Persons, in contrast, have a worth or dignity. A person is “elevated above any price, and hence allows of no equivalent” (Kant, 2012, 46).
A consequence of the dignity of persons is that it calls forth from us certain types of responses. In Kant’s words (a view held by many subsequent personalist and other philosophers), persons are an end in themselves; we may never be used merely as the means to someone else end: “So act that you use humanity, in your own person as well as in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means,” (Kant, 2012, 41). Wojtyła, also recognizing the uniqueness and dignity of the human person, takes this a step further by providing specific content of action and attitude in his personalistic norm: “A person is an entity of a sort to which the only proper and adequate way to relate is love” (Wojtyła, 1981, 41). Not only the way we treat persons, but the way we think about persons, matters. Dietrich von Hildebrand touches on the dignity of persons in his Ethics when he writes of the inherent value of persons, a value that calls forth from us a specific and adequate value response (von Hildebrand, 2020).
4.3 Interiority or Subjectivity
In more recent times, the term subjectivity runs the risk of being confused with subjectivism, the latter being connected with relativism and the view that all values are relative to the subject, and to time, place and culture. Subjectivity in the personalist tradition refers most frequently to the interior life of persons, not in a relativistic sense but rather as a real aspect of what it means for us to be persons. It may be more helpful nowadays to use the term interiority, as John F. Crosby has suggested to refer to the whole of the interior life of persons (Crosby, 2019).
While the sciences of modernity have tended to view persons from the outside, as objects, the first stirrings of modernity in philosophy were characterized by a turn to the inner world of persons, to our subjectivity or interiority. Descartes viewed us as “thinking” things (res cogitans). This is not to say that the inner life of persons had never before been investigated. The turn to the interior life of persons is discernable already in the ancient tradition, including various religious traditions, in works of Neoplatonism. And one need only turn to Augustine’s Confessions to see a rich, extended examination of the inner life. The scholasticism in the Middle Ages engaged in a detailed analysis of the ethics of human action taking into account the knowledge and freedom of the actor. Human subjectivity or interiority, however, became a conscious and sustained aspect of philosophical thought at the beginning of the modern era, in philosophers who focused on concepts that have become ubiquitous in modernity – consciousness, the self, “I” etc. We are not merely something, a passive thing to which something happens, but rather we are subjects, conscious and free persons, the originator of our thoughts and actions.
4.4 Freedom and Self-Determination
The notion of freedom is central to personalist thought, and is also seen as a central aspect of what it means to be a person. We are not completely causally determined in the sense that all of our thoughts and actions are directly caused or derived from our previous thoughts and actions. At the same time, personalist thought does not generally assert a sense of unbridled or absolute freedom for persons. There are real limitations placed on our actions by factors such as the makeup of our bodies (we cannot will ourselves to fly, for example) and by the limits of human life in general. Within this wider framework, however, personalists generally assert that we are the originators of our thoughts, feelings and actions, over against a vision of persons that is materialistic and deterministic in nature.
The Western philosophical tradition has tended to identify rationality – out intellectual capacities – as a central and distinguishing feature of persons, linking it closely to the will and to human freedom. Personalists typically accept this notion, while some expand it further to include all aspects of persons, including affectivity. Many personalists also view human action as self-determining or formational, that is, when we act in the world, our actions redound to us, forming us into a certain type of person. For example, a person who consciously develops virtuous habits through the practice of virtuous thoughts, attitudes and actions forms herself into a virtuous person, while the one who turns to vice in their behavior develops into a vicious person. In this regard, it is not surprising that so much of personalist thought has been directly concerned with the moral life and human action.
We are all familiar with the saying “No man is an island.” We are not self-contained, self-sufficient entities engaged only with ourselves. Personalists agree with this, and moreover recognize that persons constantly go beyond themselves to engage other persons and the world at large. Personalists speak of transcendence in two senses. First, personalists recognize our capacity to move beyond ourselves in order to engages others, to engage with the nonpersonal world around us and to form personal relationships. Personalist thought also recognizes that we are all, at many points and circumstances in our lives, brought to the point of asking ultimate questions – “Why am I here?” “What is the meaning of my life?” We look beyond ourselves to seek answers to these questions and to find meaning in times or joy and sorrow, in times of suffering, and when confronted with the reality of death. Love between persons is an occasion of great transcendence, when we give ourselves as gift, receive another person as a gift and share the depths of our interiority with each other. The experience of falling in love is often described as taking us “out of ourselves” and to the beloved, and love is perhaps the most revealing aspects of personhood. Second, many personalists move from one or another religious tradition, and in this sense transcendence also includes relationship with the Supreme Being, and with a personal God. In this sense, God is considered the model and source of personhood, as is certainly the case in Christian tradition. For believers, it is in this sense of transcendence that answers to the ultimate questions of life are sought: “What should I do?” How should I treat others and myself?” “What happens to me when I die?”
4.6 Persons and Language
Language is one of the most unique ways in which persons transcend themselves. The twentieth century saw a linguistic turn in philosophy – a turn to the philosophical study of language. Personalists recognize language aa s human, personal activity, distinct from, for example, animal communication. Persons are able to think in language, to think in abstractions, in metaphors, to imaging possibilities, and to think about the future. We occupy the present, while simultaneously able to remember our past and to project ourselves into the future, to make plans and to then begin to realize them. Spanish personalist Julian Marías captures this aspect of persons well when he writes, “The person is a projective reality, future oriented (futuriza) who escapes the present and transcends it” (Marías, 1996, 15). Language is an important and defining aspect of our personhood which that enables us to project ourselves into the past, the present and the future, and to engage in personal relationships with each other.
4.7 Persons in Relation
Persons come into existence in the context of relationships and engage in personal relationships throughout their lives. This relational or social aspect of persons is accepted by all personalists, though they sometimes differ in their visions of the role that relationships play in personhood. Some dialogical personalists, for example, argue that persons are createdby relationships, that the come into existence in the context of relationships and because of relationship. Other personalists assert the ontological priority of person over relationship, believing that persons exist first and are then formed in, grow and develop in the context of personal relationships. In either case, persons are generally recognized as social by nature rather than by choice. This recognition of the social nature of persons has, historically, helped personalists to navigate between the Scylla and Charybdis of collectivism and radical individualism. We are neither radically isolated entities, nor are we merely a part of a larger collective – we are persons who form relationships because is natural for us to do so, and these relationships come into existence at varying levels of complexity, from one-to-one personal relationships, relationships in and in larger communities, and finally, the whole human family. It has been a characteristic of many personalist thinkers who lived through the collectivisms of the twentieth century (Fascism, Marxism, Nazism) that society exists for persons, and not the other way around, so that even in their social and political thinking, personalists maintain the centrality of the person. For most personalists, this is a question of balance – respecting the dignity of persons in relation to each other and in relation to the varying levels of community.
4.8 Persons and Transformation of Society
Personalists tend not to give carte blanche approval to any particular social system or state. For example, writing during the interwar years and the Second World War and its aftermath, Emmanuel Mounier’s communitarian personalism saw social transformation as central to its mission. Many currents of personalism, recognizing first the dignity of persons, have a strong social justice sense, and see every society as, at some level or in some particulars, in need of reform or development, a reform grounded in a comprehensive notion of persons. Many contemporary personalists have written perceptively about aspects of states and societies that denigrate persons, and more recently, have addressed the various populisms that have arisen since the 2010s. Personalist thought today often involves analysis of contemporary societies with the goal of making society more just and more respectful of the good of the person.
4.9 Persons and Nonpersons
Are persons better than animals and other nonpersonal beings? If so does this give us the right to use animals and nature purely as resources to our own ends? Not a few critics of personalist thought have mistakenly assumed that asserting a difference between persons and non-persons (animals and plants, and all other aspects of the world around us) necessarily implies some form of superiority of persons that justifies instrumentalization of the natural world without regard to the cost, to an inevitable degradation of the natural world, a pure instrumentalization of the natural world for human ends, or at least the ends of some humans, since others, typically the poor, tend to suffer from such action. Can we view nature as nothing more than raw material for our use with no consideration for the consequences of such an attitude? Personalists would typically – and emphatically – respond first that this is an inaccurate representation of personalism and second that the content of the various currents of personalist though do not or cannot lead to such conclusions. The instrumentalization of the natural world has its origins in modernity generally, not in personalist thought, in the view that humans, because of their rationality, are the most superior form of animals, and that the world’s natural resource can be instrumentalized and brought into the service of human needs without concern for impact on nature or on societies that serve as the source for raw materials (a factor in colonial history that has received increasing attention since the late twentieth century).
Respect for the natural world has long been an aspect of personalist thought, despite attempts by some philosophers to pigeonhole personalists into a kind of speciesism. At the same time it is true that an attitude of instrumentalization or mere use of nature apart from any moral considerations does exist. It can be found within a certain type of scientific world view when it is materialist in nature, and as such devoid of any objectively grounded moral values, when it embraces a utilitarian vision of the world (and of persons as simply another thing or object in the world). For example, this utilitarian perspective, when it stands as a foundation for bioethical thinking, can also see human beings as raw material for use, maximizing the happiness and well-being of the majority while an unhappy or miserable minority suffer in order to being this about. Clearly not all, and not even a majority of, scientists think this way, and these statements should not be taken to mean that the scientific world view is inherently destructive with regard to the natural world. At the same time, it should not be applied to personalist thought.
Personalism does indeed posit a difference between persons and nonpersons, a uniqueness nowhere else represented in the natural world as we have seen above, because there are. As noted, this does not logically or necessarily imply an instrumentalist view of nature. Erazim Kohák’s work, for instance, is a splendid example of a personalist vision that respects the natural world. Personalists have long argued against utilitarian and instrumentalist views, both when directed at persons and in more recent decades when directed at the environment. One of the twentieth century’s best known personalist thinkers, Karol Wojtyła, writing as Pope John Paul II in 1999, had this to say about the relationship between persons and the natural world:
The danger of serious damage to land and sea, and to the climate, flora and fauna, calls for a profound change in modern civilization’s typical consumer life-style, particularly in the richer countries. Nor can we underestimate another risk, even if it is a less drastic one: people who live in poverty in rural areas can be driven by necessity to exploit beyond sustainable limits the little land which they have at their disposal. Special training aimed at teaching them how to harmonize the cultivation of the land with respect for the environment needs to be encouraged.
The world’s present and future depend on the safeguarding of creation, because of the endless interdependence between human beings and their environment. Placing human well-being at the centre of concern for the environment is actually the surest way of safeguarding creation; this in fact stimulates the responsibility of the individual with regard to natural resources and their judicious use. (Message of His Holiness Pope John Paul II for the Celebration of the World day of Peace, 1 January,1999).
Personalist thought simultaneously recognizes the difference between persons and nonpersons, and the importance of treating both persons and nature with the respect that is due to them. Part of the difficulty and confusion about this aspect of personalist thought arises from how persons have been thought of throughout the history of philosophy. Aristotle classified persons as animals – animals of a certain type. He saw us in the biological categories that he had developed, and placed us in a particular genus and species. We were seen as animals, and thus in the same category as apes, lions, tigers and bears, but with a distinguishing and defining feature: reason. We were conceived of as rational animals – this was our species difference. Some personalists have argued that this biological vision of persons has in effect put blinders on philosophy, making it difficult to see those aspects of personhood that differ radically from the animal kingdom.
The personalist philosopher John Macmurray has highlighted this conceptual problem in delineating what he terms three “Fields” (conceptual architectures) of thought in the history of philosophy – the Material or Mechanical, the Organic or Biological and the Personal. In his progression from the Material to the Personal, each Field subsumes that which is in the one before it in the movement toward persons. He refers to these three different ways of conceptualizing the world evident in the history of the relationship between philosophy and science. Looking back on the history of science, he discerns the movement in the modern era from Physics, then Chemistry, in the earliest phase of the Scientific revolution to Biology in the 19th century. The emblematic figure in the era of physics was Isaac Newton, and the philosophical thought that reflected it ran from Descartes to Hume. Substance and matter were the organizing concepts, and so the vision of the universe, including persons, was impersonal, and cause and effect (and so necessarily determinism) was the paradigm. Persons were viewed as material beings, derived from matter and explainable through these paradigms.
The next era Macmurray characterizes is the Organic or Biological vision of the 19th century, reflect in the work of philosophers from Kant to the mid twentieth century. This too was an impersonal vision in which persons were viewed as biological organisms still subject to the deterministic laws of physics (cause and effect, matter in motion) and also to the biological paradigm of stimulus and response (as well as adaptation to environment in the paradigm of evolution), also a deterministic view. Consciousness appears here (absent in the material world). In the Field of the Organic, persons are viewed from the perspective of biology and the functioning of biological organisms (Macmurray, 1996a).
The twentieth century, Macmurray argued, gave rise to new ways of thinking about persons, and he termed this the Field of the Personal. The organizing concept was neither matter nor organism, but persons seen not as organisms but as agents possessing free will and capable of acting as they chose in contrast to biological models of person in which instinct governed action in a deterministic paradigm. The intellectual tools for understanding the Field of the Personal differed from the mathematical and mechanistic paradigms of the field of the Material, as well as from the biological paradigms of the Field of the Organic. The tools for the Field of the Personal are the multidisciplinary human sciences that work to understand persons from many different perspectives – history, art, literature, economics, sociology, psychology etc. It is in the Field of the Personal that what is most distinctly personal and unique to persons appears – freedom, self-determination, transcendence, personal relationships, persons in community. Only by moving from the Field of the Personal, Macmurray argued, can we truly understand who we are (Macmurray, 1996b). Lastly, Macmurray illustrated the workings of the Field of the Personal by looking back at history. Viewed from the Field of Personal, if one subtracts that which is unique to persons, one is left with the Field of the Organic. If one then subtracts life, then the result is the Field of the Material and Mechanical. The difficulty arises, then, when one attempts to view persons in a “bottom-up” paradigm, looking at us from the perspective of the Organic or the material, when in fact we can only see ourselves if we begin in, and remain in, the Field of the Personal. The German personalist Robert Spaemann captures the distinction between the personal and the impersonal when he refers to persons as “someone” – the Field of the Personal – rather than “something” – the Fields of the Organic and the Material (Spaemann, 2017). What, specifically, is found in the Field of the Personal, what is not reflected in animals and nature as a whole, which can only be seen from the perspective of the personal? It is here that we encounter the full-blown and varied capacities of human reason – our ability not only to reason but to understand, our human, that is to say, personal affectivity including the richness of human love, freedom and the capacity to determine our own futures, our ability to orient ourselves to the future and not merely to the present, the capacity to transcend ourselves, our world of aesthetic values, the search for and ability to experience happiness, our ability to connect with other persons in love and friendship.
The nature of problem of reductionism both in the sciences and in philosophy becomes clearer here. The categories one employs have a deep impact on the conclusions one reaches about persons. To begin with the personal is to open our eyes to understanding what is most unique about persons. This top-down approach to persons stands in contrast to the “bottom up” approach just mentioned. What has characterized much of the thinking about persons in the modern era, as philosophy embraced different aspects of science, is the attempt to ignore the Field of the Personal altogether and to understand persons in light of the other two Fields of thought, the Organic and the Material, viewing us from beneath, as it were, instead of beginning with, and remaining with what is unique to persons.
The problem of considering persons and understanding the difference between persons and other beings is one of taking a lower conceptual field and trying to explain the higher exclusively in terms of it. Consider the Field of the Organic as an example. Is biological functioning an aspect of the human person? Yes, clearly. Does the biological explain everything about persons? Clearly not. If we think of the depth and richness of the human, personal love between to persons who have fallen in love, and try to explain it solely in terms of the Organic, that is, as the work of hormones, the neural circuitry of the limbic system and the workings of mirror neurons we are left cold, with good reason. These things happen, certainly, but they fail to capture the richness, the intensity and the beauty of love.
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- Recommendations for further reading, internet resources
General Books on Personalism
Bengtsson, Jan Olof. The Worldview of Personalism: Origins and Early Development. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Burgos, Juan Manuel. An Introduction to Personalism. Translated by Richard Allen. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2018.
Burrows, Rufus R. Personalism, a Critical Introduction. St. Louis, MO: The Chalice Press, 1999.
Williams, Thomas D. and Jan Olof Bengtsson. “Personalism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/personalism/#Aca.
Buford, Thomas O. “Personalism.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://iep.utm.edu/personal/.
Books on Personalism Available Online:
Bowne, Borden Parker, Personalism.
Buford, Thomas O. and Harold H. Oliver, Personalism Revisited: Its Proponents and Critics.
Burrow, Rufus Jr., Personalism: A Critical Introduction.
Chazarreta Rourke, Rosita A., A Theory of Personalism.
McLean, George F. (ed.), Personalist Ethics and Human Subjectivity.
Williams, Thomas D., Who Is My Neighbor? Personalism and the Foundations of Human Rights.
Journal Articles Available Online
Berdyaev, N.A., Personalism and Marxism, manuscript.
Buford, Thomas O., Personalism, manuscript in PDF.
Cole, Graham and Michael Schluter, From Personalism to Relationism: Commonalities and Distinctives, manuscript in PDF.
DeMarco, Donald, The Christian Personalism of Jacques Maritain, manuscript.
Personalism, entry in the Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Personalism, entry by Thomas Buford, in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
De Tavernier, Johan, The Historical Roots of Personalism, paper (PDF) in Ethical Perspectives, 16(3) (2009): 361–392.
Williams, Thomas D., What Is Thomistic Personalism?, paper (PDF) in Alpha Omega, VII/2 (2004): 163–197.
- Academic: How to Cite this Entry
James Beauregard, “Personalism,” Internet Encyclopedia of Personalism (Spring 2021) https://www.personalism.info/personalism.
Beauregard, James. “Personalism.” Internet Encyclopedia of Personalism (Spring 2021). https://www.personalism.info/personalism.
- Author name and contact information
United States of America
The author would like to thank Randall Auxier, Juan Manuel Burgos and Simon Smith for their helpful review and comments as this article was being prepared.
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