Appraisal Special Issue, Spring 2020 The Common Good: An Introduction to Personalism
Wow! What a book! This is a book about the future, as well as how we all could be happier, better people. This book is an antidote to the current crisis in politics, a crisis that names a paradox wherein, in trying to make our lives better, we just seem to be making them worse. This book is not only for philosophers; it is for any deep-thinking people!
Simon Smith, editor of Appraisal, asked me to review this book, as I was new to philosophy and to personalism. So, until reading this book, I didn’t know what personalism really was. Jonas Mortensen has made an enormous effort to explain the principles of personalism clearly and simply and without jargon. The book is beautifully and enticingly laid out, with the thoughts, stories and pictures of renowned personalists cleverly entwined with main text to clearly illustrate what personalism is all about.
Personalism, as any philosophy should be, is about the things that matter most to human beings and make for a better life – things such as friendship, love, kindness, respect, dignity, hope, compassion, and fairness, as well as how these things nearly always come from having a healthy network of human relationships. Fostering and understanding those relationships, and more importantly, interacting with the people in that network of relationships, is likely not only to increase your happiness but also the happiness of those in the rest of your network. In a relationship, perhaps surprisingly, giving can be more rewarding and satisfying than receiving. Relationships also involve a deeper and, in some ways, stranger connection than just knowing about other people, so that when, for example, someone you are close to feels pain or dies, you too feel pain, and sometimes enormous pain, which someone who had not experienced such a relationship might find hard to understand.
The book is divided into four parts, with the first three discussing the important pillars of personalism, i.e., how human beings relate to each other, how they engage with each other, and how each human being is of individual importance. The fourth part is about the problems personalism has encountered and possible reasons for its relative (and undeserved!) obscurity in both current philosophy as well as politics, political theory, and political science.
Politically, personalism could revolutionize the world. Mortensen shows how liberalism, socialism, and capitalism, although interesting in their own right, are all missing the vital ingredients that are important to people and neglect how these important ingredients are usually gained through personal relationships. Liberalism, socialism, and capitalism are like a diary of a family’s life where everything the family did is carefully recorded in minute detail, but contains nothing about how they felt, who they loved, or what was important to them. In the same way, liberalism, socialism, and capitalism are all incomplete and have inadvertently allowed loneliness and alienation to become a politically accepted part of our society. Personalism provides a much more complete, human, and fulfilling political philosophy.
What is particularly interesting is, as Mortensen shows, that there have been personalists throughout history. Personalism is not a new idea at all. It is if personalists of the past have looked and seen the same important things in life as modern-day personalists. Indeed, for example, the Christian religion has many aspects with which a personalist might agree. So, if you ‘love your neighbour as yourself’, you are more likely to have a happy life, whereas if you are too attached to material things, then you are less likely to be happy. After all, ‘it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven’. There are some fascinating famous people in history who have also been personalists. Mortensen cites lovely stories about Karol Wojtyla (Pope John II), Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, and Václav Havel, elucidating how their personalist philosophy has fundamentally changed both their own lives and the lives of millions of others for the better.
For such a powerful, practical and contemporary philosophy, Mortensen rightly asks why personalism has never been adopted as a mainstream philosophy. Personalist ideas also seem strangely absent from political policy. For example, policy relating to unemployment tends to be economically focused, and thus, revolves around such things as the level of benefits for the unemployed. Dehumanizing and undignified treatment by the benefits office (as portrayed in the film, ‘I, Daniel Blake’) is not considered particularly important – which is presumably why it has reportedly happened so frequently.
A metaphor as to why there is this absence of personalist thought can be found, I think, from my own practice as a medical doctor. A child with behavioural problems is marched into my surgery by his (or her) parents. He is causing untold disruption and distress. My solution might be that the child needs more discipline, a strong hand and firm punishment (perhaps a right-wing attitude needs to be put into practice). The parents, having suspected this was the case, might agree, and accordingly, send the child to boarding school. Alternatively, I might say the parents need to reward good behaviour and ignore bad behaviour (a more left-wing attitude, perhaps), which at least saves the boarding school fees. Finally, having read Mortensen’s book, I might say that the parents need to look at the behaviour of the whole family. Perhaps, the fact that the father gets drunk and shouts at the mother has something to do with the child’s behaviour or the fact that the parents dote on his little sister and ignore the child himself has something to do with it. Perhaps, it is the relationships of the whole family that need to be examined and ‘family therapy’ undertaken with an expert would provide the best solution.
Faced with this explanation, the parents might be stunned. The suggestions and possibilities I raise might well have not considered by the parents; surely all this behaviour is the child’s fault, not the fault of the family? Surely it is the child that needs sorting out, the child that must have some illness or need some pill or cure? For the typical parent, family therapy is not an obvious solution for behavioural problems. Most parents have not thought deeply about these problems, had the experience of professionals, or seen evidence of what does and doesn’t work. Personalism is similar, in that personalists have thought deeply to develop an understanding about people, about relationships, and about personal knowledge, and have found evidence of what does and doesn’t work often by putting personalism into practice in their own lives. So, personalism is a way of living one’s life, not just an abstract theory. Understanding personalism takes time and effort, which most can’t or won’t afford, and therefore personalism sounds like nonsense, just as ‘family therapy’, to some, sounds like nonsense that has no hope of helping (perhaps to parents who are using simple ‘common sense’ instead).
There is an interesting postscript at the end of the book about psychology. Psychology seems to be part of personalism, psychology being the study of human behaviour and the human mind, and personalism presumably arising from individual philosophers contemplating their own experience of human behaviour and mind. However, there is a difference that Mortensen points out: philosophers are often interested in values: for example, they may be interested in what makes the good life, rather than a simple study of some of the unexpected ways humans behave. Personalists are interested in both the ways human being relate, and more importantly, the rather unexpected things that happen when they do relate, rather than just the psychology of particular human beings.
Psychologists could help personalism to develop, as they have the time and finances to study human behaviour in a detailed way that individual philosophers do not and cannot. So, for instance, research on levels of happiness in society is helpful to personalists and Mortensen quotes such research in his book. However, research that includes the fact that humans are constantly interacting with others, rather than research that focuses purely on the individual, and research that self-consciously includes values, would be the most helpful to both the philosophy of personalism and its political endeavour to improve the world for everyone.
There were other ideas raised by in the book that aren’t so clearly spelled out by the book itself, but nevertheless occurred to me. So, for example, I am a small cog in the world, but I am part of a network of people, all of whom I influence, at least to some extent. So, by being personalist, I can make a small and valuable contribution to making the world a better place – and so can all other personalists. I love the ideas of personalism, and I think they are grounded in sound and clear observation, but everyone is different and I know personalism will not appeal to everyone or be adopted as a philosophy of life by everyone. But I now realise that this doesn’t matter. Personalism does not have to be some all-conquering philosophy spread by erudite academic books; it is a way of thinking that can be adopted and enjoyed by as many who choose it, by ordinary people who can then pass it on to those around them.
Belonging to the British Personalist Forum, I would have liked some discussion of British personalists such as Farrer, Polanyi, and Macmurray in the book, but, as Mortensen himself points out, the book is not meant to be a comprehensive account of personalists. However, I do feel Britain has been rather left out! The book, perhaps rightly, concentrates almost entirely on Western philosophy (British philosophy is ‘Western’), but since reading it, I have come across interesting strands of personalism both in African tribal culture and ancient Chinese culture, and it could add an interesting slant to explore these in any future edition. Also, some of the ideas of the academic philosophers that were quoted still seemed a little opaque, despite a good effort by Mortensen to explain them. All of that said, this book has helped me realise that personalism has a huge future, offering hope and a different and happier way life to everyone who chooses to understand it and, by their connection to the interrelated network of mankind, it thereby offers positive change for everyone. In summary, I loved this book. I think as a paperback The Common Good would be a definite bestseller.