The view that persons, divine or human, play the primary role in the structure of the universe.

Personalism exists in a wide variety of forms, and is closely related to idealism (the term personal idealism is often used) or to theism.

What they have in common is that the notion of a person is treated as basic and not to be analyzed in terms of, or seen as emerging out of, other entities.

R T Flewelling, ‘Personalism’, Twentieth Century Philosophy, D D Runes, ed. (1943)


Writing in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Thomas D. Williams and Jan Olof Bengtsson cite a plurality of “schools” holding to a “personalist” ethic and “Weltanschauung”, arguing:

Personalism exists in many different versions, and this makes it somewhat difficult to define as a philosophical and theological movement. Many philosophical schools have at their core one particular thinker or even one central work which serves as a canonical touchstone. Personalism is a more diffused and eclectic movement and has no such common reference point. It is, in point of fact, more proper to speak of many personalisms than one personalism. In 1947 Jacques Maritain could write that there are at least “a dozen personalist doctrines, which at times have nothing more in common than the word ‘person.'” Moreover, because of their emphasis on the subjectivity of the person, some of the more important exponents of personalism have not undertaken systematic treatises of their theories.

It is perhaps more proper to speak of personalism as a “current” or a broader “worldview”, since it represents more than one school or one doctrine while at the same time the most important forms of personalism do display some central and essential commonalities. Most important of the latter is the general affirmation of the centrality of the person for philosophical thought. Personalism posits ultimate reality and value in personhood – human as well as (at least for most personalists) divine. It emphasizes the significance, uniqueness and inviolability of the person, as well as the person’s essentially relational or social dimension. The title “personalism” can therefore legitimately be applied to any school of thought that focuses on the centrality of persons and their unique status among beings in general, and personalists normally acknowledge the indirect contributions of a wide range of thinkers throughout the history of philosophy who did not regard themselves as personalists. Personalists believe that the person should be the ontological and epistemological starting point of philosophical reflection. Many are concerned to investigate the experience, the status, and the dignity of the human being as person, and regard this as the starting-point for all subsequent philosophical analysis.[4]

Thus, according to Williams, one ought to keep in mind that although there may be dozens of theorists and social activists in the West adhering to the rubric “personalism,” their particular foci may, in fact, be asymptotic, and even diverge at material junctures.

Berdyaev’s personalism

Nikolai Alexandrovich Berdyaev (1874–1948) was a Russian religious and political philosopher who emphasized human freedom, subjectivity and creativity.[5]

Mounier’s personalism

In France, philosopher Emmanuel Mounier (1905–1950) was the leading proponent of personalism, around which he founded the review Esprit, which exists to this day. Under Jean-Marie Domenach’s direction, it criticized the use of torture during the Algerian War. Personalism was seen as an alternative to both liberalism and Marxism, which respected human rights and the human personality without indulging in excessive collectivism. Mounier’s personalism had an important influence in France, including in political movements, such as Marc Sangnier’s Ligue de la jeune République (Young Republic League) founded in 1912.

The historian Zeev Sternhell, has identified personalism with fascism in a very controversial manner, claiming that Mounier’s personalism movement “shared ideas and political reflexes with fascism”. He argued that Mounier’s “revolt against individualism and materialism” would have led him to share the ideology of fascism.[6]

Catholic personalism

This norm, in its negative aspect, states that the person is the kind of good which does not admit of use and cannot be treated as an object of use and as such the means to an end. In its positive form the personalistic norm confirms this: the person is a good towards which the only proper and adequate attitude is love[7]

This brand of personalism has come to be known as “Thomistic” because of its efforts to square modern notions regarding the person with the teachings of Thomas Aquinas.[8] Wojtyła was influenced by the ethical personalism of German phenomenologist Max Scheler.[9]

A first principle of Christian personalism is that persons are not to be used, but to be respected and loved. In Gaudium et spes, the Second Vatican Council formulated what has come to be considered the key expression of this personalism: “man is the only creature on earth that God willed for its own sake and he cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself”.[10]

This formula for self-fulfillment offers a key for overcoming the dichotomy frequently felt between personal “realization” and the needs or demands of social life. Personalism also implies inter-personalism, as Benedict XVI stresses in Caritas in Veritate:

As a spiritual being, the human creature is defined through interpersonal relations. The more authentically he or she lives these relations, the more his or her own personal identity matures. It is not by isolation that man establishes his worth, but by placing himself in relation with others and with God.[11]

Boston personalism

Personalism flourished in the early 20th century at Boston University in a movement known as Boston personalism led by theologian Borden Parker Bowne. Bowne emphasized the person as the fundamental category for explaining reality and asserted that only persons are real. He stood in opposition to certain forms of materialism which would describe persons as mere particles of matter. For example, against the argument that persons are insignificant specks of dust in the vast universe, Bowne would say that it is impossible for the entire universe to exist apart from a person to experience it. Ontologically speaking, the person is “larger” than the universe because the universe is but one small aspect of the person who experiences it. Personalism affirms the existence of the soul. Most personalists assert that God is real and that God is a person (or as in Christian trinitarianism, three ‘persons’, although it is important to note that the nonstandard meaning of the word ‘person’ in this theological context is significantly different from Bowne’s usage).

Bowne also held that persons have value (see axiology, value theory, and ethics). In declaring the absolute value of personhood, he stood firmly against certain forms of philosophical naturalism (including social Darwinism) which sought to reduce the value of persons. He also stood against certain forms of positivism which sought to render ethical and theological discourse meaningless and dismiss talk of God a priori.

Georgia Harkness was a major Boston personalist theologian.[12][13][14][15] Francis John McConnell was a major second-generation advocate of Boston personalism who sought to apply the philosophy to social problems of his time.[16]

California personalism

George Holmes Howison taught a metaphysical theory called personal idealism[17] or California personalism. Howison maintained that both impersonal, monistic idealism and materialism run contrary to the moral freedom experienced by persons. To deny the freedom to pursue the ideals of truth, beauty, and “benignant love” is to undermine every profound human venture, including science, morality, and philosophy. Thus, even the personalistic idealism of Borden Parker Bowne and Edgar S. Brightman and the realistic personal theism of Thomas Aquinas are inadequate, for they make finite persons dependent for their existence upon an infinite Person and support this view by an unintelligible doctrine of creatio ex nihilo.[18]

The Personal Idealism of Howison was explained in his book The Limits of Evolution and Other Essays Illustrating the Metaphysical Theory of Personal Idealism. Howison created a radically democratic notion of personal idealism that extended all the way to God, who was no more the ultimate monarch, no longer the only ruler and creator of the universe, but the ultimate democrat in eternal relation to other eternal persons. Howison found few disciples among the religious, for whom his thought was heretical; the non-religious, on the other hand, considered his proposals too religious; only J. M. E. McTaggart’s idealist atheism or Thomas Davidson’s apeirotheism seem to resemble Howison’s personal idealism

2 thoughts on “Personalism

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