Appraisal Special Issue, Spring 2020 The Common Good: An Introduction to Personalism
Chapter 5 of The Common Good is an attempt to articulate how, if at all, a personalist anthropology can be reconciled with psychology notwithstanding the particular ‘interdisciplinary obstacles’ (p. 136) that arise when comparing contrasting academic traditions. Jonas Norgaard Mortensen’s analysis reveals that it is possible to reconcile the disciplines, providing that psychology absorbs the personalist’s value-based principles. Mortensen observes the obvious differences between psychology and personalism in the former’s emphasis on persons as autonomous individuals who find resolution to personal issues through an analysis of their psyche. These claims are stated rather than substantiated by either sustained argument or by articulating the argument. Thus, it is beneficial that Mortensen qualifies this section is ‘a set of scientifically focused meditations’ (p. 129), akin to sketch-maps designed for personal reflection and points for further discussion with follow up, after reference to his limited source arguments. It might have been useful for the author to pose a number of reflective questions to each mediation and possible solution. This reviewer is supportive of his overall claims however the reader would have benefited from a wider range of arguments.
Mortensen’s series of meditations suggests that three main ‘obstacles’ or stumbling blocks lie between personalism and psychology. These are: the emphasis on individualism in psychology; the focus psychology maintains as a science without a similar focus on values or ends; the lack of existential answers to be found within the individual. An advocate of psychology as a discipline may challenge Mortensen’s view, suggesting instead that these difficulties only exist in comparative terms and are not self-evidently inherent in the discipline itself. Nonetheless, Mortensen’s argument, that personal development does not occur in a vacuum but is enmeshed in relationships and communities that persons live in, which psychology appears at times to misrepresent, has validity. Each of Mortensen’s meditations do lightly touch on vast areas of psychological theory and, although his insights have validity, the format he employs, by necessity, lacks a robust discussion of each issue. This follows from the brevity of his treatment and discussion of psychological theories. In addition, had the author reminded the reader of his personalist principles and offered questions or others points of reflection on the ‘meditation’, the reader may have engaged with the discussion in a more thoughtful manner.
It is important to acknowledge that, on my reading at least, the meditations proffered by Mortensen are meant to be read together as collective arguments and are not self-standing reflections to critically assess psychology as a discipline. This might encourage some scholars to further criticise his methodology and suggest he is ‘cherry picking’ rather than critically thinking through the issues and weakness inherent in any academic discipline. I think this would be an unfair criticism, however; psychology as a discipline has roots that extend as far back to Aristotle’s De Anima and no one single treatise can ever present a complete appraisal or critique of any particular text. Given this vast terrain of thought and the many competing schools within psychology, any generic analysis can at best capture a few critical ideas; whereas Mortensen’s sketch-maps or meditative approach canvasses complex notions related to the psychology’s methodological approach that leaves an engaged reader with a desire to further explore and for further illumination in psychology and personalism.
The strength of the chapter follows from page 136 when Mortensen offers solutions to the dilemmas that he has raised in his critique of psychology. He states, correctly in my view, that ‘a reinterpretation of psychology is called for’ (p. 136). He could refresh the reader’s mind here by recalling the philosophical definition he uses for personalism, (the definition is listed as a note on p. 153), however an earlier reference in the text could strengthen his argument. Mortensen argues that psychology needs to be integrated within a set of values (or ‘contexts’) that focus on persons living a ‘meaningful common life’ (p. 136). He then goes on to argue that this ‘meaningful common life’ is appropriately achieved through a ‘psychology founded in a relational conception of development and a personalist set of values’. Mortensen proceeds to discuss ‘a relational conception of development’ (p. 136) and restate his personalist principles. I am supportive of this direction, however Mortensen could make the point clearer by again restating the personalist values he states on page 22. The personalist values Mortensen establishes have a sort of ‘objectivity’ since they transcend personal emotions and experiences and while focused on aggregate goals, they are not based on utilitarian values of happiness and greater good. Indeed, the personalist values are particularly personal, that is, they are concerned with my own good and your good in non-competing ways. The personalist goals are also focused on: the relational other; the relational brain; identity as a relational process; relationships – for better or worse; the pursuit of pleasure and so forth. The examples that Mortensen articulates in each of these meditations all transcend individual persons and focus on the importance of ‘common life’; for example, the findings form the longitudinal study related to happiness on p.137 and how the correlation of loneliness and depression and Alzheimer’s Disease (p. 140). Mortensen achieves his aim in describing the limits of traditional psychology albeit through brief sketch-maps or meditations. He presents a robust argument for a value-based psychology that emanates from personalist anthropology.