When I was a student of Philosophy at Notre Dame and the University of Toronto, I developed a great appreciation for numerous thinkers who identified themselves as “personalists.” While personalism took many forms the essential commonality among them was placing the human person at the center of philosophic thought.
A year or so ago, David Brooks pointed out the relevance that personalism has for our society and culture today (New York Times, June 14, 2018). He wrote:
… Our culture does a pretty good job of ignoring the uniqueness and depth of each person. Pollsters see in terms of broad demographic groups. Big data counts people as if it were counting apples. At the extreme, evolutionary psychology reduces people to biological drives, capitalism reduces people to economic self-interest, modern Marxism to their class position and multiculturalism to their racial one. Consumerism treats people as mere selves — as shallow creatures concerned merely with the experience of pleasure and the acquisition of stuff.
Back in 1968, Karol Wojtyla wrote, “The evil of our times consists in the first place in a kind of degradation, indeed in a pulverization, of the fundamental uniqueness of each human person.” That’s still true.
So this might be a perfect time for a revival of personalism.
Personalism is a philosophic tendency built on the infinite uniqueness and depth of each person. Over the years people like Walt Whitman, Martin Luther King, William James, Peter Maurin and Wojtyla (who went on to become Pope John Paul II) have called themselves personalists, but the movement is still something of a philosophic nub. It’s not exactly famous.
Personalism starts by drawing a line between humans and other animals. Your dog is great, but there is a depth, complexity and superabundance to each human personality that gives each person unique, infinite dignity.
Despite what the achievement culture teaches, that dignity does not depend on what you do, how successful you are or whether your school calls you gifted. Infinite worth is inherent in being human. Every human encounter is a meeting of equals. Doing community service isn’t about saving the poor; it’s a meeting of absolute equals as both seek to change and grow.
The first responsibility of personalism is to see each other person in his or her full depth. This is astonishingly hard to do. As we go through our busy days it’s normal to want to establish I-It relationships — with the security guard in your building or the office worker down the hall. Life is busy, and sometimes we just need to reduce people to their superficial function.
But personalism asks, as much as possible, for I-Thou encounters: that you just don’t regard people as a data point, but as emerging out of the full narrative, and that you try, when you can, to get to know their stories, or at least to realize that everybody is in a struggle you know nothing about.
The second responsibility of personalism is self-gifting. Twentieth-century psychologists like Carl Rogers treated people as self-actualizing beings — get in touch with yourself. Descartes tried to separate individual reason from the bonding emotions. Nikolai Berdyaev said that tends to turn people into self-enclosed monads, with no doors or windows.
Personalists believe that people are “open wholes.” They find their perfection in communion with other whole persons. The crucial questions in life are not “what” questions — what do I do? They are “who” questions — who do I follow, who do I serve, who do I love?
The reason for life, Jacques Maritain wrote, is “self-mastery for the purpose of self-giving.” It’s to give yourself as a gift to people and causes you love and to receive such gifts for others. It is through this love that each person brings unity to his or her fragmented personality. Through this love, people touch the full personhood in others and purify the full personhood in themselves.
The third responsibility of personalism is availability: to be open for this kind of giving and friendship. This is a tough one, too; life is busy, and being available for people takes time and intentionality.
Personalism demands that we change the way we structure our institutions. A company that treats people as units to simply maximize shareholder return is showing contempt for its own workers. Schools that treat students as brains on a stick are not preparing them to lead whole lives.
The big point is that today’s social fragmentation didn’t spring from shallow roots. It sprang from worldviews that amputated people from their own depths and divided them into simplistic, flattened identities. That has to change. As Charles Péguy said, “The revolution is moral or not at all.”