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Catholic Personalism up to John Paul II

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter charts the history of the Catholic Church’s personalism and its major representatives up to John Paul II. It examines the deep origins of personalism and discusses the theological controversies of the early Church as the ultimate source and the revolutionary philosophy of Immanuel Kant as the proximate source of personalism. It examines movements in European philosophy that prepared the ground for the rise of personalism, including ‘dialogical’ thought and phenomenology, along with the various European schools of personalism. Finally, it outlines the central ideas of personalist philosophy, especially its attempt to think through the various realities of human being, and indeed of reality in general, in light of the radically unique character of personal existence, as well as those aspects of human being linked to personhood ranging from relationality and community to the significance of gender, sexuality, and the mystery of love.

Keywords: Catholic Church, personalism, John Paul II, philosophy, Immanuel Kant, dialogical thought, phenomenology, European schools of personalism, human being, personhood

The term ‘personalism’ designates a number of philosophical movements that came to flourish primarily in the twentieth century, though they have common roots in late modernity and seeds in the early Christian period. Although they may reflect the rich intellectual legacy of the notion of ‘person’ in diverse and sometimes even opposed ways, they bear the name of ‘personalism’ to the extent that they take personhood to be a special kind of being, and indeed, to be in some sense the ultimate value or reality to which all other things are relative. Generally associated with a number of other schools of thought from the late modern era—for example, Lebensphilosophie, existentialism, and phenomenology—personalism is a philosophy with a decidedly religious orientation and foundation. It has grown for the most part within the Judeo-Christian tradition and especially in a Catholic context. In the following, we will offer, first, an account of the deep origins of this movement, then a survey of its major representatives up to John Paul II, and finally, a sketch of its central notions.

The Rise of Personalism

Considered historically, the rise of personalism may be attributed to two impulses. The first impulse, positive and general, was an effort to sound out the philosophical and political implications of the particular mode of being called ‘person’—the mystery of human interiority, the non-reducibility of the individual human being to the species, the paradoxes of relationality and uniqueness, and so forth—which the biblical tradition had introduced but had not yet fully explored. The second impulse, negative and particular, was the effort to resist the ‘dehumanizing’ intellectual and political forces that were growing in the modern period, and to rescue the special dignity of the human being in the face of the impoverishment of the notion of nature, due above all to the (p. 740) mechanistic tendencies of modern science. Although personalism shares many concerns and themes with classical and Renaissance humanism, it represents something genuinely novel by virtue of its origin in a specifically modern context. While humanism centres on man as the summit of the ‘great chain of being’, personalism arises, so to speak, after the breakdown of the analogia entis and, as we shall see, posits a radical discontinuity between specifically human existence and the rest of reality. Unbounded as it is by the disciplines of analogy, this unique starting point has led personalism to unprecedented insights into human existence, but at the same time has entailed certain dangers of exaggeration that have at times put personalists in tension with the classical tradition.

The ultimate source of personalism, which did not in fact initiate the movement but upon which thinkers drew once the movement was underway, is above all the theological controversies of the early Church. The term ‘person’—from per-sonare, to ‘sound through’—was first used to designate the masks in ancient Greek and Roman theatre, which both amplified the actor’s voice and illustrated his particular role or character. The notion extended beyond the dramatic context, first as a technical term in the Roman legal system, and then most significantly as employed in the formulation of Christological and Trinitarian dogma. Because ‘person,’ as dramatic character, indicated something both singular and distinct from nature, it offered a fruitful way of expressing the mystery of the unity in difference of Christ and of the Triune God. In subsequent philosophical reflection on the dogma, two definitions of ‘person’ came to prominence in particular. First, and above all, was Boethius’s definition, formulated around 513, which attempted to determine the particular kind of being a person is: ‘the person is an individual substance of a rational nature’ (Contra Eutychen et Nestorium, c.3). Second was Richard of St Victor’s attempt (c.1173) to highlight the difference from nature required in order to illuminate the Trinitarian mystery of distinct persons sharing a single substance. Richard’s definition thus centres on the particular mode of existence indicated by personhood: ‘Person is the incommunicable existence of an intellectual nature’ (De trinitate, 4, 22). A number of themes from these early philosophical reflections became central for later personalist thinkers: for example, the spiritual nature of the person, his or her incommunicable uniqueness, the peculiar relationality of which persons alone are capable, and indeed the inherently dialogical character of the person (which was implicit in the dramatic origins but set into relief in the Trinitarian dogma).

The proximate source of modern personalism was the revolutionary philosophy of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), which gave rise to the various intellectual currents that eventually converged in personalism proper. Though he enthusiastically embraced the new mechanistic image of the natural world brought to a certain systematic completion by Newton, Kant drew a definitive line between the realm of nature, wholly subject to the laws of physics, and the realm of reason, which is essentially free insofar as it is subject to no laws except those it gives itself. Kant’s so-called ‘Copernican revolution’ consisted in replacing the classical view of knowledge as the mind’s conforming itself to being with a view of nature as radically subordinate to human reason: nature is intelligible only insofar as it enters into experience and thus subjects itself to the conditions of (p. 741) all possible experience, which reason itself determines. In this respect, the intellect and will that most properly characterize humanity and represent the source of human dignity are not in any way derivable from nature, but are strictly speaking unconditional. The highest human act is no longer contemplation, which would subordinate man to being, but now self-determination, and ethics comes to take centre stage in philosophy. The absoluteness of the human spirit lies behind Kant’s (third) formulation of the categorical imperative, which later became one of the fundamental axioms of personalist ethics, namely, that humanity, whether in another or in oneself, must always be treated as an end and never as a mere means.

Kant’s detachment of reason from nature generated developments in different and even opposed directions, many of which are of direct significance for the later personalists. On the one hand, there was the idealism of J. G. Fichte (1762–1814), the early F. W. J. Schelling (1775–1854), and G. W. F. Hegel (1770–1831), which interpreted reason itself as the ultimate reality of things, and thus saw not only the natural world but all of history as reason’s project to achieve an ever-more-perfect self-determination. A version of this neo-Kantian idealism was embraced by the French philosopher Charles Renouvier (1815–1903), who worked out a very influential system of philosophy that in 1903 he gave the name ‘Personalism’. Different from most personalist systems, Renouvier’s philosophy was essentially atheistic, though he conceded the possibility of a ‘deist’ form. Along a similar neo-Kantian line, although in a more moderate form than that of the German Idealists who preceded him, was the philosopher Hermann Lotze (1817–81), who made person, as well as the crucial personalist theme of value, fundamental categories of his system. Lotze influenced Borden Parker Bowne (1847–1910), who returned to the US after his graduate study in Germany and founded the school of American Personalism, which is the instance of personalism best known to Anglo-American philosophers. There are overlapping themes and mutual recognition between this and the European schools of personalism that are the focus of the present essay, but the American school differs on two scores: first, its members are generally Methodist, and, second, they tend to be idealist philosophers in the strict sense of holding consciousness to be the only real reality, whereas the European personalists, as we shall see, give great importance to the embodied character of human consciousness.

On the other hand, Kant’s absolutizing of freedom coexisted uneasily with his rationalism, which reinforced the pan-logism that was overtaking German intellectuals in the early nineteenth century with the revival of Spinoza’s philosophy. This tension eventually led to the famous Pantheismusstreit, in which Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi (1743–1819) championed God’s freedom over the necessity of reason, which he argued tended by its own logic to identify God with the eternal world order. To safeguard freedom from the absolutizing of reason thus required the salto mortale of faith. A version of Jacobi’s position was adopted by Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834), who gave the name of ‘personalism’ in 1799 (the first known instance of the term) to the rejection of the pantheism of rationalistic philosophy and the affirmation of the revealed God as a free being wholly transcendent of the created order. Interestingly, Schleiermacher here made use of the classical distinction between person and nature to resolve the problem of God’s (p. 742) transcendence, and did so in a manner analogous to the Christological and Trinitarian solutions. The difference of Schleiermacher’s position from the orthodox one, however, is that Schleiermacher made no reference to the Divine Persons, but attributed personhood to the one God.

Prompted in part by Jacobi’s attack in 1811 on his philosophy as a kind of pantheistic naturalism, Schelling developed Jacobi’s position in great detail in his later thought. In what he called his ‘positive’ philosophy, which begins with the ‘unprethinkable’ reality of existence that can be acknowledged only through an ‘ecstasis’, an expropriation of reason, Schelling elaborated a general notion of personality as a triumph that other-regarding love achieves in the human individual over the egoism of nature. Along these lines, he interpreted history as God’s becoming personality through his conquering of the fragmentation of human sin. Differently from Schleiermacher, Schelling saw God’s personhood as essentially connected with his Triunity: there can be no solitary person; the transcendence of nature is inconceivable apart from relationality. The absolute primacy given to existence in Schelling’s positive philosophy made an impression on Søren Kierkegaard (1813–55), who as a young student in Berlin heard Schelling’s famous 1841 inaugural lecture, in which the old professor unveiled his long-awaited philosophy of mythology and revelation. Although Kierkegaard did not make the term ‘person’ a central one, preferring to speak instead of ‘the individual’, his recognition of the infinite density of existence, the ineluctable drama of freedom, and the essential ‘subjectivity’ of truth—i.e. that it is not enough to say that something is simply true; I must instead recognize and contend with the fact that it is true specifically for me—made him a significant figure for the later personalist thinkers.

Two other movements in European philosophy prepared the ground for the rise of personalism. The first is what might be called ‘dialogical’ thought, and the second is phenomenology. The German Idealists generally acknowledged that ‘spirit’ and ‘person’ were essentially relational notions, or more directly that the notion of a solitary person is an oxymoron. This idea goes back to Jacobi, but can be traced through all of the thinkers mentioned above. Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–72) is typically identified as the originator of the dialogical insight that the ‘I’ exists only in relation to a ‘Thou’. Feuerbach, however, strongly objected to the notion of the ‘person’, precisely because of its transcendence of nature. For him, this transcendence entails alienation, and the projection of personhood onto God is alienation writ large, as it were. Nevertheless, and although the personalists decisively reject the materialistic tendencies of the Left Hegelians, they tend to embrace enthusiastically the Marxist notion that stems from Feuerbach, namely, that no one can be free unless all are free. The dialogical principle implies solidarity, a fundamental personalist theme, and was originally developed in a personalist direction by two Jewish philosophers, Martin Buber (1878–1965) and Franz Rosenzweig (1886–1929), and two Christian philosophers, Ferdinand Ebner (1882–1931) and Gabriel Marcel (1889–1973). Buber’s notion that one ought to view the world in general in light of the personal I–Thou relationship was especially influential.

Phenomenology originated with Edmund Husserl (1859–1938), who pointed to the proto-personalist Lotze, among others, as an early influence. The heart of this new (p. 743) philosophical approach was twofold: first, the call ‘back to things themselves’, which involved a suspension of theoretical presuppositions and instead a renewed attention to the originary experiences that generated our ideas; and, second, an understanding of the sui generis characteristic of consciousness designated by the term ‘intentionality’. Consciousness is always consciousness of, which means it is directed in a great variety of ways toward things, which reveal themselves accordingly. Phenomenology was significant for the personalists for many reasons: the importance it accords to the concrete, its broadening of the scope of experience beyond mere ‘sense data’ to include higher-level categoriality and the supra-conceptual sphere of feeling, and the ‘creative’ role it gives to man in the constitution of meaning. Husserl’s initial exposition of the foundational notions of phenomenology in the ground-breaking Logical Investigations of 1900–1901 had a significant influence on the German and Polish personalists above all, as we shall see later. On the other hand, the personalists tended not to follow the more radical turn that Husserl’s thought took with the Ideas I of 1913, in which he proposed the ‘phenomenological reduction’, i.e. the suspension of any affirmation of existence (epochē) in order to free pure consciousness and its pure objects (noēsis-noēmata). The personalists instead developed what they called a ‘realist phenomenology’, which carried out its phenomenological descriptions inside a fundamental acknowledgement of the existence of reality as independent of consciousness.

The Schools of Personalism

It is against this general background that we can locate the various European schools of personalism. The best known of these schools is that of the French. In addition to the neo-Kantianism of Renouvier, mentioned earlier, another impetus for this variegated movement came from the ‘intuitional philosophies’ developed by Maine de Biran (1766–1824) and Henri Bergson (1859–1944). There are three primary figures associated with French personalism, each with a significantly different interpretation. The first is Emmanuel Mounier (1905–50), who was very much an intellectual ‘engagé’ and was associated with a number of additional movements, including the ‘Nonconformists of the 1930s’, the ‘Young Right’, the ‘New Order’, and (through Peter Maurin) the American Catholic Worker movement. In 1932 (and in fact before he had adopted the term ‘personalism’, which he acquired through Paul Louis Landsberg, a student of Max Scheler), he founded the journal Esprit, which became the major organ of French personalism and is still in existence. Mounier himself pointed to the French man of letters Charles Péguy (1873–1914), whom he discovered in 1928, as the main inspiration for personalism. Like Péguy, Mounier developed his philosophy outside the academy, speaking directly to the emerging realities of history. He worked toward a ‘spiritual revolution’, aspiring to a vision of society founded on the unique reality of the human person, and thus rejecting both materialism and idealism, the political left and right, individualism and collectivism, and capitalism and socialism. In fact, he called for a radical rethinking (p. 744) of all the basic areas of philosophy—metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics, and aesthetics—through the lens of the person.

A second strand is the ‘Thomist Personalism’, represented above all by Jacques Maritain, but which may be said to include the so-called ‘Existentialist Thomists’, Étienne Gilson, Aimé Forest, and Joseph de Finance, among others. Aquinas did not develop an extensive philosophy of the person, but he did affirm the person as ‘that which is most perfect in all of nature’ (ST I, q. 29, a.3), and remarked on the unique singularity that persons have in comparison to other individual substances (ST I, q. 29, a.1). Though initially a student of Bergson, Jacques Maritain, together with his wife Raissa, discovered the texts of Aquinas in 1908 and became convinced Thomists, turning against Bergson and the rising ‘modernist’ movement in France. In the area of political philosophy, however, Maritain moved beyond traditional Thomism in placing the person at the centre of society. In his book The Person and the Common Good (1947), which he wrote partly in response to the critique of his political thought that fellow Thomist Charles de Konick presented in an influential essay entitled, ‘On the Common Good, Against the Personalists’ (1943), Maritain drew a distinction between the individual and the person. The individual is a countable part of a whole, and can be interpreted either as standing over against that whole (individualism) or as subordinate to it as a constitutive member (collectivism). The person, by contrast, is never a mere part, but is always a whole in himself; at the same time, he never possesses his personhood apart from others, but rather always as intrinsically related to them in community. Maritain thus formulated a conception of society that has been widely accepted by personalist thinkers, defining it as a ‘whole made up of wholes.’

Gabriel Marcel is another modern French thinker commonly identified as a personalist. Marcel wrote his dissertation on Schelling and Coleridge, and possessed from the beginning a deep interest in the experience of concrete reality and the mysteries of human existence. He was also a musician and playwright, and in fact considered philosophy to be the third of his vocations. Like Maritain, he was a convert to Catholicism. In part as a result of his conversion, he felt obliged to study Thomas Aquinas, and did so for a significant period of time under Maritain, until he finally decided Aquinas did not speak to his primary philosophical concerns. Instead, his thought took an existentialist turn, and he developed a distinctively Catholic interpretation of existentialism in dialogue with Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980), at the centre of which stood the human person. Marcel was particularly concerned with protecting the openness to others and to the mystery of being, an openness of which only persons are capable, against the leveling tendencies of modern mass society.

In contrast to the significantly different forms of personalism in French thought, the German personalists generally stemmed from a common origin, namely, Husserl’s phenomenology. The central figure of this school of personalism is no doubt Max Scheler (1874–1928), who converted to Catholicism for a time (Scheler eventually left the Church, and ultimately abandoned any belief in a transcendent God, in part because of a troubled personal life and in part because he came forcefully to reject Thomism, to which he felt the Catholic Church had problematically wedded herself), and who (p. 745) had an instrumental role in the conversions of the two other main figures: Edith Stein, who was briefly his student at Göttingen, and Dietrich von Hildebrand, who befriended Scheler at the meetings of the phenomenological circle that gathered in Munich. Scheler had studied under Wilhelm Dilthey (1833–1911), Georg Simmel (1858–1918), and Rudolf Eucken (1846–1926), all of whom contributed to the intellectual movement that came to be known as the ‘philosophy of life’. Scheler was also deeply impressed by the critique of modernity offered by Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), and wrote a powerful book called Ressentiment (1913), which largely extended Nietzsche’s attack on bourgeois mediocrity, but from a Catholic perspective and on the basis of love rather than the will to power. Although he affirmed the unconditionality of human reason, Scheler was critical of Kant’s formalism, and he sought to develop instead a concrete ethics in which values, i.e. specifically material a prioris, were fundamental. After completing his studies and while a lecturer at the University of Jena, Scheler met Husserl and discovered the potential of phenomenology for his own philosophical pursuits. Though he was never formally a student of Husserl’s, Scheler became known as a representative of the school. Scheler’s thought centred on the theory of value, which led him to the significance of the person: the person is the supreme value, insofar as the person is the value for which all other values have their value. Values cannot be grasped intellectually, but are rather felt; Scheler identified the heart as the organ that perceives them, and love as the act that makes their perception possible. Love is a movement that precedes all cognition and willing as their source and is defined as a movement that opens one’s eyes to ever-higher values in the object. Scheler’s value-based ethics entailed a critique of eudaimonism, which in any event he felt was demanded by what Nietzsche referred to as Christianity’s ‘transvaluation of all values’.

Edith Stein (1891–1942) sought to reflect on basic dimensions of human experience from a phenomenological perspective. She studied under Husserl in Göttingen, following him to Freiburg, where she wrote her dissertation on the problem of empathy and then worked, along with Martin Heidegger (1889–1976), as Husserl’s assistant. She left Freiburg in 1918 to work and study independently, and eventually came to embrace the Catholic faith in 1922. After her conversion, she took a teaching post at a Dominican school for girls and began to study John Henry Newman and Thomas Aquinas. Toward the end of her life, which was cut tragically short by her being sent to the gas chambers at Auschwitz, she wrote her magnum opus called, Eternal and Finite Being, which attempted to synthesize Aquinas and Husserl. She is also known for her philosophical studies on woman and her reflections on faith and the life of prayer.

Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889–1977), himself an outspoken critic of the Nazi regime who was forced to flee the country in secret with his family, took a deep interest in the meaning of the person and the transformation of personhood in Christ. He also wrote perhaps the most extensive philosophical study on the nature of love (only very recently translated into English), which is based on Scheler’s axiological ethics. For von Hildebrand, while all love is a ‘value-response’, that is, a response to the objective good of a thing beyond any subjective interest, personal love is a ‘super value response’, which includes self-fulfilment inside the objectivity of value-response. This results in a self-gift (p. 746) to the beloved, which is a unique kind of self-transcendence. Among his various studies, von Hildebrand explored the notion of personal love in marriage and the relation between man and woman in works that had an influence on the thought of Karol Wojtyła.

Another student of Husserl’s, the Pole Roman Ingarden, brought a realist phenomenology back to Poland and introduced the young Karol Wojtyła (1920–2005) to the philosophy of Max Scheler. Having studied in Rome and written his dissertation on the concept of faith in St John of the Cross under the leading Thomist Father Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange (1877–1964), Wojtyła developed his own thought in a phenomenological direction with a habilitation study on Scheler, which explored the question of whether Scheler’s thought provided a sufficient resource for a Catholic ethics. He determined that it did not, insofar as it placed too much emphasis on feeling and not enough on the will, but through this study he embraced phenomenology as particularly fruitful for his own interest, namely, a philosophy centred on the mystery of humanity. Wojtyła worked out his own approach to phenomenology in two books that represent major references in personalistic studies, namely, Love and Responsibility (1960) and The Acting Person (Act and Person) (1969). In addition to his incorporation of a Kantian view of self-determination, Wojtyła, like Edith Stein, sought to articulate a distinctively ‘Thomistic Personalism’. which rooted phenomenological analyses of value and action within a solidly ‘objective’ anthropology provided by Thomism, thus avoiding what he felt to be the danger of subjectivism in some forms of personalism and phenomenology. Wojtyla was the main proponent of the school of Polish Personalism that had its home at the Catholic University of Lublin, and he brought the world’s attention to personalism through his election to the papacy as John Paul II in 1978.

The Core of Personalism

What most characterizes personalist philosophy is an attempt to think through the various realities of human being, and indeed of reality in general, in light of the radically unique character of personal existence. Moreover, with respect to the broader intellectual tradition, it has given novel attention to those aspects of human being especially linked to personhood, for example, the themes of relationality and community, the significance of gender, sexuality, and the mystery of love, and the experience of subjective interiority.

The core of personalism is the claim that persons are infinitely different from all other kinds of beings: the difference is infinite because there can be no common measure established that would permit comparison. Mounier once wrote that Marx was right to say that there is nothing in the world but objects, but wrong insofar as he failed to grasp the significance of persons, who are always more than mere objects; they are also subjects. And this means that they are not only ‘in the world’, but also in some sense transcend it. This distinctiveness is what lends persons an inalienable dignity. While, as Hobbes said, the value of all (other) things is their ‘price’, i.e. their exchange value, the unique (p. 747) character of their existence makes persons incomparable, unable to be ‘counted’ with other mere instances of a universal type, unexchangeable qua persons, and therefore literally of immeasurable worth. Hence, the so-called ‘personalist principle’ at the foundation of a personalist approach to ethics, namely, that persons may only be treated as ends and never as mere means.

What most immediately endows persons with this special status is their rational or ‘spiritual’ nature. Spirit, in contrast to matter, is capable of ‘taking hold’ of itself in self-reflection, which is to say that it is characterized by selfhood or subjectivity. Persons are unique, not in the first place by virtue of possessing special qualities that are not found in other beings, but rather by virtue of possessing themselves. In this respect, a person both is its nature and, to quote Richard of St Victor, has its nature (persona est naturam habens), which gives rise to a certain paradox: it is the nature of a person to transcend his nature, so as to be able to possess it even as the person is possessed by it. According to Aquinas, this capacity enables the person to be the author of his actions in a special way, or as modern personalists would put it, the person is not only capable of but also tasked with self-determination, i.e. the determining of his self in the determination of each of his actions. Scheler explains that the person lies at the centre of his acts, which is why the person is able to put himself or to express himself in what he does. This transcendence of nature, this selfhood, gives rise to an infinite wealth of what personalists refer to as ‘subjectivity’ or ‘interior life’. When a person dies, it is not only the end of a thing in the world, but indeed the end of a world, insofar as the person as subject sees the world, so to speak, in a unique and unrepeatable way.

Now, the characterization of the person as representing an infinite interior depth that transcends his presence in the world as an object would seem to pose a threat to embodiment, history, and relationality; as Mounier says, this unique status would seem to cut man off from the world and from others. But in fact the opposite is true, at least for the European (Catholic) personalists: only persons, after all, have a self-conscious experience of bodiliness, have a history, and are capable of profound—not merely ‘accidental’—relations. For personalists, first of all, being embodied is an indispensable aspect of the particular subjectivity that constitutes human personhood. In this sense, while it is true that I have a body, it is equally true that I am my body in the sense that my body is coconstitutive of the identity of my ‘I’. Embodiment characterizes human subjectivity from its deepest roots. Because of this insight, personalists have been led to reflect, perhaps more deeply than any other philosophers in history, on the meaning of gender and sexuality, which John Paul II has revealed is precisely the personal dimension of bodily existence, the ‘place’ where the distinctive status of the person comes to physical expression. Second, for all its rejection of materialism, personalism is not a ‘spiritualist’ philosophy, but it follows out the implications of embodiment to the point of being resolutely concrete and historical: personalist thinkers take a vital interest, not only in ethics, but more broadly in questions of culture, politics, and economics. Finally, in spite of its affirmation of the radical uniqueness of each person, personalism decisively rejects all forms of individualism. An individual is defined specifically as a part, and so as a ‘countable’ piece of a whole. Such a concept entails the dilemma of subordinating the (p. 748) human being to society in an improper collectivism, or to subordinating society to its members, in an improper individualism. As we saw earlier, a fundamental theme for personalists is that the ‘I’ exists only in relation to a ‘Thou’; personal identity is dialogically constituted. This theme acquires a particular importance in the context of revelation, in which the individual is addressed as person by God and thereby acquires a particular calling or mission that involves him intimately with the whole of humanity. In this sense, the person ‘transcends’ the distinction between being an individual and being a mere part of a collective. A personalist approach to society tends to reject both statism and libertarianism, promoting instead the concentric circles of intermediate human communities: the family, the village, the nation, the Church, and so forth.

This points to one of the most decisive contributions of personalism to philosophy: namely, the reflection on love, which was an important part of ancient and medieval thought, but slipped to the margins in the modern era, arguably because of a positivistic conception of nature. But personalism adds to the classical understanding of love a distinctive emphasis on the notion of ‘self-gift’. This emphasis stems from two aspects of personalism: first, because of the radical distinctiveness of personal being, the other can never be merely an object to me in any sense, including the appetitive sense. My love for an other can only be a love for the other as a person, i.e. the other as she exists in herself (subjectively). This means, however, that the other is not simply a beloved, but also a lover of me in turn, which makes me a recipient even in my giving. Love thus reveals itself to be essentially reciprocal, affirming of both the self and the other as persons in a special kind of transcendence. Second, because personal beings are defined by the capacity to possess themselves, in love, the person may give, not just things, i.e. objects or goods, but in fact his own unique and unrepeatable self or personhood. Ultimately this is the only response fully adequate to the personality of the other. Understood in terms of this exchange of selves, marriage comes to represent for the personalists a paradigm of personal existence and so a major theme of philosophical reflection.

One of the controversies that continues to occupy personalist philosophy is the question whether all human beings are persons, which is bound up with both the question whether the actual capacity for reasoning is necessary for the possession of the status of personhood and also the question, more generally, of the precise relationship between person and nature or being. Along these lines, one of the tasks for future reflection, which would in fact go a long way in resolving the controversy, is to bring personalism into more fruitful conversation with themes in classical philosophy by broadening personalism metaphysically as a context for phenomenological reflection, and by rethinking metaphysics personalistically, i.e. by developing a philosophy of nature and being as love in light of the paradigmatic meaning of being given in personhood.


For a list of abbreviations, further details of commonly cited Catholic official documents, and of the works of St Thomas Aquinas, please see the beginning of this volume.

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              Mounier, E. (1989). Personalism (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press).Find this resource:

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                        Wojtyla, K. (2013). Love and Responsibility, trans. G. Ignatik (Alexandria, VA: Pauline Books and Media).Find this resource: