Appraisal Special Issue, Spring 2020 The Common Good: An Introduction to Personalism
A Response on Behalf of the Author
As mentioned in the introduction to this special issue, Jonas Norgaard Mortensen has, unfortunately, been unable to respond to reviews of his book. Nevertheless, a reply of some sort is clearly warranted. In this last essay, therefore, I have taken it upon myself to supply that reply. In so doing, however, I shall not attempt a detailed analysis of each and every one of the contributions above but offer instead some reflections prompted by them. Nota bene, I do not here claim to speak on Mortensen’s behalf. The opinions and ideas presented below are my own, with one exception: viz. an expression of gratitude. On behalf of our author and myself, my thanks to all our reviewers for their hard work and patience. Thanks, perhaps most of all, to Teresita Pumará and Lucy Weir who challenge Mortensen in particular and personalism in general. In these days of polarised political opinion and ever-sharper divisions of discourse, our best allies may be those who disagree with us. Without them, how shall we ever learn to think better?
2.The scope of the work
As we proceed, we should keep in mind that Mortensen does not claim to represent the entire field of personalist thought. There are far too many permutations for that. Echoing Jacques Maritain’s observation of, John Hofbauer avers, ‘[t]he intentionally non-systematic personalist movement has multiple, seemingly diverse, currents.’1 Quite so. Indeed, as we read Mortensen, we are constantly reminded that personalism is not a system, but a perspective. That this perspective is broad enough to include a more than tolerably wide range of views is, I suggest, no accident. Conscious of this plethora of personalisms, Grzegorz Holub is doubtless correct to suggest that disentangling the influences and interconnections of the numerous threads would be a wholly ‘enriching’ strategy for future iterations of the book. Yet it is, perhaps, quite beyond the scope of what is, in essence, an introductory work, which aims to draw the broad sweep of personalist thought, giving the reader a sense of where the tradition is coming from and where it is, or might be, going. To do otherwise would be inappropriate for a volume intended for new and, we should add, non-academic readers. Hence, one might fairly respond to Holub’s suggestion as one might respond to those, like David Jewson and myself, who lament Mortensen’s decision to leave out the many great British and American personalists. The emphasis and, indeed the scope of Mortensen’s work should not be regarded as a shortcoming but as a challenge. If another book is waiting to be written, then perhaps we should write it ourselves.
3.Praxis and theoria
Holub’s expansive recommendation for Mortensen is not the only development opportunity he spies. The book might, he suggests, be profitably supplemented by expanding on the practical applications of personalist ethics, specifically in the direction of environmental issues (on which, more later) and the potential ‘personhood’ of non-human animals.
I have elsewhere noted reservations regarding what personalist ethics amounts to.2 For Mortensen, it seems to be a sort of Kantianism; but Kantian ethics are essentially and exclusively rationalist and therefore fundamentally impersonal, so cannot account for the complexity of personal relation and personal action.3 Despite such misgivings, however, Holub has put his finger on something very important. Anything that directs the gaze of personalist philosophers beyond interminable, theoretical discussions about the nature of ’personhood’ and drives them – and by ‘them’ I mean ‘us’ – to put personalist ideas to work can only be a Good Thing. Given how unlikely that is, however, Holub’s suggestion possesses the remarkable virtue of being as theoretical as it is practical.
Practical questions about whether and, if so which, non-human animals qualify as persons have serious moral implications. If any non-human animals are persons, even to the smallest degree, then we do wrong in treating them otherwise. Such an admission might change the human world significantly. Consider the possible impact on medical and pharmaceutical research; consider, too, the possible impact on national and global economies. Beyond selfish, anthropocentric interests, claims for non-human ‘personhood’ could raise disturbing questions for wildlife conservationists, especially where culling may be, or may seem to be, a requirement of their activities. Equally, those of us who keep pets or rather, in the vernacular of the veterinary sciences, companion animals, might face uncomfortable questions.
Besides the obvious practical urgency, concepts of non-human ‘personhood’ might also contribute to broader, theoretical discussions of what it is and what it meansto be a person.
The problem with any such enquiry is the tendency to begin drawing up a list of faculties or qualities by which real or genuine persons might be distinguished from other creatures. Notably, according to Ludwig Feuerbach, the fork in the road of human and animal evolution is marked by the emergence of religious consciousness. This, he observes, is something that no other animal, not even elephants, have developed.4 As it happens, I am inclined to agree with Feuerbach here, assuming we could agree on the meaning of expressions such as ‘religious consciousness’ and its corollary ‘species being’. (Such concepts refer to the interactive, interconstitutive, and essentially mythopoeic nature of ‘personhood’.)
In the western tradition, rational thought has been the criterion of ‘personhood’. And in such applications, troubles abound. There is, perhaps, no need to revisit ground already covered elsewhere.5 Suffice to say that, even leaving aside the difficulty of specifying the meaning of terms such as ‘reason’ and ‘rationality’, there are, besides, inevitable exceptions to any rule we apply in deciding who shall and who shall not count as a person. For example, many and various are the accounts of non-human animals demonstrating tool use, surely a manifestation of reason in some degree. More worrying are all those actual people who have, at different times, been counted out of the category, ‘person’: those with mental and physical difficulties, women, children, the elderly, Jews, Muslims… the list is endless.
The difficulty arises from a misunderstanding of how descriptive language works. As the likes of Friedrich Waismann, J. L. Austin, and Charles Conti, have shown, no matter how carefully we strive to pin down our descriptions and determine the scope of their application, we can never do so exhaustively or absolutely. For our use of language carries with it always the possibility of vagueness; that is, the ‘open texture of language’ or as Waismann termed it, Porositat der Begriffe.6
If debates around the category, ‘persons’, are hampered by attempts to determine the essential qualities or defining characteristics by which real persons might be known, then they are likely to be hampered even more by anthropocentric prejudice. As Holub notes, ‘personhood’ can have nothing to do with biology or species designations simpliciter. These categories are a function of the discourse in which they play their part; useful – undeniably so – for finding our way about the physical world but not to be mistaken for natural kinds or objective reals. To say this is a member of the human species and that a member of the feline is not to say anything very metaphysically important (although it may be important in other senses). To assume otherwise is to abandon metaphysics and, as Holub points out, to indulge a short-sighted impulse towards what he, along with Peter Singer, has dubbed ‘speciesism’.7 Deny this and we must explain why species designations should be considered relevant to ‘personhood’ while other no less arbitrary descriptors are not. If species, then why not skin colour, or gender, or heritage, or bloodline, or that most nebulous of all pseudo-scientific constructs, race? For that matter, if I may supply the reductio, why should our concept of persons take account of shoe size? Per contra, should we, at some stage, encounter creatures which differed from us, but were capable of ‘imposing general and explicit rules on their conduct and on their social arrangements and on their inquiries into reality’, creatures which, moreover, told ‘each other stories, and… [were] interested in recalling their own past and parentage’ then we might, as Stuart Hampshire avers, reasonably assume them to be persons no matter how much they differed from us biologically.8
A nagging doubt remains. We cannot disagree with Holub on this point, but it is not at all clear how compatible it is with his assertion that Mortensen ‘rightly observes that abortion and selection of children goes against a special standing of the person.’ After all, one might reasonably wonder what else there is to a foetus, particularly in the early stages of development, besides what may be captured by a biological account. In what sense is a foetus a person? The answer depends largely on one’s concept of a person. My own relies on action and what Farrer termed ‘experienceable difference’.9 Holub and, I strongly suspect, Mortensen have another, one rooted in theological, rather than philosophical, commitments. Their view is not entailed by personalism, but nor is it excluded by it. Notwithstanding our disagreement here, the point, I take it, is simply this: if personalist claims amount to nothing more than claims about the human being as a biological entity, then it is no longer clear what the point or value of personalism could be. There is, after all, no shortage of philosophies that retail an exclusively and narrowly anthropocentric perspective; those rationalist-cum-realists who deny any such thing and lay claim to radical objectivity, perhaps most of all.
Beauregard’s objection to categorising human beings as animals has, I take it, more to do with the arbitrary extension of impersonal scientific terminologies and the correlative supposition that such terms are in some way exhaustive. The aim is not to deny that human beings may be described as animals for certain purposes, but rather to remind us that, such descriptions are psychologically and morally reductive. Use them too freely and without being aware of the implications and we run the risk of forgetting that human beings are more than animals. Surely, no personalist would seriously disagree. Indeed, one of the few things all personalists do agree on is the need to resist reductivism when it comes to understanding persons, both practically and theoretically. To misquote Emerson, they reckon ill who leave the personal out.12 And yet, while we applaud Beauregard’s broad conclusion here, the reasoning behind it remains unclear.
To confuse empiricism and realism is bad philosophy. Equally problematic, however, is the suggestion that ‘[s]cience and the philosophy that has developed in relation to it has, historically, taken a bottom-up approach to the nature of persons.’ This is a curious claim for a personalist to make, particularly as it concedes the very ground which personalism seeks to defend. If Beauregard is correct about the scientific approach, then those who are inclined to take a reductive view of persons have already won the day. In admitting as much, Beauregard contradicts the first and most basic personalist principle: viz. to defend the idea that persons rather than physical forces, chemical reactions, or biological structures simpliciter, are the metaphysical, epistemological, and moral ‘bottom line’. In the words of Thomas O. Buford, persons are ‘the supreme value and the key to the measuring of reality.’14 However, if the sciences have, in fact, begun at another, more real, bottom and are working their way up, in search of nature’s fundament, then it is difficult to see why those sciences should not pursue their object with all the vigour they can muster. Furthermore, given the undeniable success of scientific method, to abandon it now would seem at best counterproductive and at worst perverse.
Beauregard’s solution to all this seems similarly misguided. To avoid deterministic reduction, he avers, ‘scientists and philosophers must reverse the process, beginning [instead] with what is uniquely personal’. Doubtless, this injunction should be heeded by philosophers; equally doubtless, scientists would find it wholly unreasonable. It amounts, after all, to telling scientists not to be scientists. Rather than attend to the forces, reactions, and structures which they are demonstrably well-equipped to study, personalists insist that scientists address themselves to phenomena which they are demonstrably ill-equipped to properly acknowledge. But why should anyone make such a demand? And why should anyone accede to it? Doing so could only exacerbate the real problem, already noted: the tendency to assume that one set of conceptual tools is sufficient for exploring all modes of reality. Surely, a better solution would be to adjure scientists to respect the limits of their discourse.
Beauregard’s reliance on John Macmurray for support is also curious, not least because he and Macmurray are so clearly at odds here. True, Macmurray uses the metaphor ‘fields’ to divide up the world of our experience into the personal, the organic, etc., as Beauregard asserts. However, in so doing, Macmurray did not intend to signify actual modes of reality: his ‘fields’ are ways of seeing, not ways of being. Otherwise put, the sciences, like all discourses which claim to describe reality, deploy what Farrer called ‘diagrammatic fictions’.15 These ‘fictions’ are the maps and models which scientists use to find their way about the universe. As with any map, we must avoid confusing them with the reality they diagrammatise; no more can we presume that the scale is 1:1.
Hence, Macmurray would correctly argue that the sciences are, speaking philosophically, essentially idealist.16 That scientists may well disagree is neither here nor there since, qua scientists, they do not speak or think philosophically about such matters; metaphysics is, by definition, beyond the scientist’s purview. Besides, one might point to the scientist’s reliance on computer-generated models and images and the almost exclusive use of mathematics as their lingua franca. The neuroscientist who relies on fMRI scans relies on images, and rightly so. As indicated, his mistake is to confuse, as even personalists are wont to do, the scan or image with the reality it represents. Per contra, empiricism and idealism are, as our philosophy undergraduates would again remind us, kissing cousins. In identifying the sciences as philosophically idealist, Macmurray reminded us that, no matter what scientists and philosophers may believe about their fields of study, those fields do not and cannot approach the most fundamental level of description. Rather, they are abstractions from the properly basic field of the personal. Persons are, after all, the first and most real features of our experience; their reality cannot be gainsaid without self-stultification, nor can the activities in and as which that reality is manifest. It follows from this that all other modes of discourse are ultimately grounded in a logically, psychologically, and epistemologically primitive experience of personal existence.
5.Nomos and (meta)physis
One suspects that Beauregard’s concerns, and possibly his confusion, are themselves grounded in old-fashioned dualism. The distinction of human from non-human animals, the belief in bottom-up sciences contra (presumably top-down) personalism, amount to a more or less clear-cut separation of the personal or spiritual from the natural and physical. These are precisely the kind of binary divisions which trouble Teresita Pumará and she is right to remind us of the risks they pose. Subject/object, necessity/contingency, transcendence/immanence: logical and ontological disjunctions, all leading to epistemological breakdown and the isolation of persons from a physical and social environment.17 If those isolationist tendencies can trap philosophers, their impact on real people is likely to be worse. How swift the slide – or should we say ‘slither’ – from the metaphysical subject/object distinctions to the pernicious and all too common delineation of Us and Them.
From time immemorial, such distinctions supplied philosophical and, as Pumará correctly notes, theological grounds for violent ‘repression and control of the body;’ most especially, perhaps, where that body is not explicitly and determinately masculine. ‘[R]epression and control,’ of course, quickly spill over into murder and ‘mass annihilation’. Beyond the human world, those dualisms have justified the violence and destruction wrought on so many other species, not to mention the planet as a whole; for which, no doubt, we will one day pay dearly. Is there a hint of the classical doctrine contemptus mundi in all this? More than a hint, perhaps. How short the step, moreover, from contempt to what Pumará aptly terms the ‘crazy little gods’ which persons seem intent on becoming. Why should this be? Possibly because our dualisms are never value-neutral. He who draws the distinction and calls it ‘natural’ holds the power. Thus, dualisms lead to hierarchies, such as the classically misconceived Scala Naturae, or any declaration of ‘normality’ you care to name.
Mortensen is clearly aware of the issues here, suggesting that hierarchies are not merely a function of power but also, and more importantly, of responsibility. Pumará, however, is not convinced; and in fairness, her point stands: dualisms and hierarchies are fundamentally tainted, too closely tied to destructive and exploitative forms of individualism to be rescued or re-visioned. The crucial question is, then, are those dualisms and hierarchies essential to human dignity? Is our ‘instrumental use of nature’ an inevitable consequence of our acknowledging others as persons? ‘Why not,’ Pumará wonders, ‘bestow upon… [those creatures with which we share a planet] the same mysterious and infinite value that personalism is ready to recognise in other human beings?’ Good question; which is, no doubt, why Lucy Weir’s detailed and wide-ranging critique takes a similar line. According to Weir, that is, ‘the degradation of non-human systems’ is consequent upon our failure to acknowledge ‘the more-than-human world (in David Abram’s phrase)’, to address that world as Thou. No wonder she regards the ever more ‘fragmenting individualism,’ which now stands in personalism’s place, as a ‘ravening ghoul’.
Are dualism, hierarchies, and exploitation essential to personalism, as Pumará and Weir suspect? Can personalism do without an anthropocentric bias? And if not, is ‘personalism’ just another, highfalutin word for old-fashioned anthropomorphism?
The answers to these questions are, I believe, ‘no’, ‘yes’, and ‘no’. I do not deny that some formulations of personalism ground themselves in disjunction and hierarchy, thereby reducing to anthropomorphism. I do deny, however, that these are the necessary conditions for any personalism at all. However, a personalism possessed of the self- and other-awareness Pumará and Weir wish to see requires a new metaphysics, one scientifically informed, one that puts persons in their proper place: a physical universe constituted, or rather co-constituted, by other modes of existence.18
Our new metaphysics begins with a reaffirmation of persons as our philosophical and theological bottom-line, our point of departure. In saying so, however, we should remember that the concept ‘person’ is not the simplistic signifier of privilege and superiority it once was. Speaking epistemologically, ‘personhood’ is as much a constraint on our proceeding as an excess of freedom. We cannot explore our world in any manner but as persons, cannot but make use of the only perceptual-cum-conceptual apparatus available to us. Admittedly, the breadth of vision that apparatus supplies is tolerably wide thanks to a talent for imaginative and analogical projection. Nevertheless, that vision is limited; as Thomas Nagel argued, I cannot know what it is to be any other creature with any other apparatus.19 Of course, Farrer notes, we may and commonly do ascribe emotional and other cognitive states to non-human animals: the contentment of the cat purring in my lap, for example, or the fear of the hunted beast. However, we must acknowledge, in the name of intellectual honesty, that we cannot know that non-human animals experience such states or if those states resemble our own. Such ascriptions are undeniably useful for sympathising with other creatures; they often add the vital moral component to our search for knowledge. As philosophers, however, we should not take them literally, should not, that is, confuse the map with the terrain. For the ‘god’s eye view’ of radical objectivity is denied to us; quite so, Farrer agreed, ‘the pretence of any other starting-point’ than our own is the ‘pretence of jumping off one’s own shadow.’20 Further, given our acknowledged position ‘under the sun’ (as Charles Conti puts it)21 we cannot reasonably presume that position to be the pinnacle of any scale of objective values. We are not, in other words, compelled to declare our tools to be objectively the best in order to recognise them as the best we have.
If it is true that we cannot explore the world except with the tools we have, it is equally true that we cannot know the world except that we do explore it. We cannot, that is, know the world apart from concrete contact, apart from the experienceable impact it has upon our exploratory activities. To be sure, there is no room here for the realist’s antediluvian abstractions. The reason is clear, both Farrer and Whitehead have shown the way: Aristotle and Newton were wrong about the universe and for broadly the same reason. The classical conception of a universe filled with inert substances bouncing hither and yon is as much a literal non-sense as the radical objectivism that is its corollary. Reality is dynamic, not static; in a Latin phrase, esse est operari.22 No solid-state being (or Being), real being is being-in-and-as-action; fully interconnected; better, interconstitutive. Call it Whiteheadian ‘process’ or Farrerian energia; either way, it signifies metaphysics embracing Einsteinian truth: ‘[e]nergy, rather than stuff is our ultimate.’23 Moreover, given that energia entails ‘a plurality of elements’, we may say, as Whitehead did, that the universe is a nexus of actual occasions, a complex of interpenetrating agencies. Naturally, that nexus or complex includes us: it includes us naturally. Persons are an integral part of the universe, not separate elements or distinct units of existence, as classical dualism would have us believe. No Cartesian observers overviewing a universe that is somehow ontologically different from them, persons are in-and-as mutual interplay with their environment; their actions simultaneously shaping and shaped by the mutual modification of forces which is the universe. In the parlance of an older metaphysic, personal ‘being’ participates in the ‘being’ of every other ‘being’ (although not, perhaps, immediately or proximally). The moral and psychological implications of this are clear. Given that participation and, perhaps more importantly, our consciousness of that participation, we bear responsibility for and to the other participants in the nexus. Minimally, actions which damage other participants are morally problematic. Let us be clear, however: the point here is not that negatively impacting on other elements of the nexus is to our detriment while positive impacts somehow benefit us. Nor is it, as Weir and Mortensen aver, a matter of altruism. Both Weir and Mortensen, we venture to suggest, need to think bigger. We are very far from disinterested or selfless concern here. It is more fundamental than that. Indeed, it is almost the opposite of selflessness. The point is, we depend on the other elements of the universe to be anything at all; without them, we are not. Our actions shape what we are and what we become. Thus, as Holub recognises, personalism cannot simply be a matter of human interaction. It is a matter of how persons act towards and enact themselves within their whole environment. Hence, Martin Buber’s invitation to approach our encounters with other creatures as encounters with others, not objects. To say ‘Thou’, rather than ‘it’, to the world is to treat the world with respect and with seriousness; it is to recognise one’s place in that world and the mutual dependence that may flourish as a result.24 So Weir is right to see relationality as the key to and the common ground between Mortensen’s personalism and herself. Personalism does indeed have the tools to overcome the dualisms and distinctions and hierarchies which she and Pumará see as so dangerous. More, I believe that personalism has the tools to do this without falsifying or denying the role, nature, and position of persons in the universe. Correctly understood, that is, personalism is especially well-equipped to relocate persons within the universe, not as concatenations of chemical, biological, or physical forces and certainly not as ‘beings’, mere or sheer, but as persons: exploring agents, morally and social alive to their situation. Better still, perhaps, alive to the possibility that persons may well be the universe itself becoming conscious of itself.
6.Persons and the polis
Pumará and Weir are, quite naturally, less concerned with grandiose cosmological speculations than they are with the socio-political and environmental impact of our (alleged) dualisms. In this, they are more in tune with Mortensen than am I, since it is the personalist’s responses – if not actual solutions – to those concerns that are the principal themes of his book. More in tune, too, with our other reviewers: Nathan Riley, for example, raises several similar concerns. For Riley, however, it is the increasingly radical individualism issuing from dualism that is the most serious practical problem we face. This individualism isolates us both from one another and from the world; it objectifies others and our environment, investing them with a merely instrumental value thereby diminishing us all.
Like Mortensen, Riley sees that isolating individualism expressed in the dehumanising ideologies and institutions to which we enthusiastically enslave ourselves. ‘Personhood’ is being systematically defeated; we see it everywhere: in the standardised testing of learners (not students, nota bene), in the fetishizing of ‘gas-guzzling’ automobiles, in the voracious demand for the products of sweatshop labour, and the consumption of resources that are, as Weir points out, ‘mined, dredged, bombed or filtered from countries at a fraction of the selling price.’ Holub too, makes the point, pointing the finger squarely at ‘conspicuous consumption and individualistically-oriented societies’ which appear hell-bent on exhausting their own and everyone else’s resources, so drive the world into crisis at every opportunity. One need only think, for example, of the 2009 global recession, when American and European financial institutions took a break from asset-stripping the developing world and snorting cocaine off a prostitute’s back to hump civilisation over an economic cliff edge; and all in the name of unregulated, free-market economics. As Weir so succinctly puts it, while ever we continue ‘[a]bsolving ourselves of responsibility for having more stuff than we know what to do with,’ we do nothing but undermine the meaning of ‘personhood’.
Keep in mind that talk of ‘individualistically-oriented societies’ and ‘civilisation in crisis’ is largely aimed at the 25% of the world’s population which consumes over 75% of the world’s resources; which is to say, the West. Many African and Asian societies are, by contrast, not essentially individualistic but socially oriented, hence the difficulties faced by the US and its allies when franchising democracy out.
Many African and Asian societies have problems too, of course; arguably, many of them are the same as those found in the West, with the exception, perhaps, of excessive consumption.25 Evidently, there is as much opportunity for ideologies and institutions to overtake persons in the developing world as in the developed. Certainly, no country or culture is free of the racism, misogyny, and homophobia which alienates, isolates, and dehumanises self and other.
Turning to causes, as Riley perceives them, of such damaging encounters, the reader may notice a certain similarity, particularly of puzzling expression, with Beauregard. Rather than focus on the scientific world view, however, Riley’s regards the somewhat broader ‘systematic thinking’ as the dehumanising force which threatens to warp educational institutions and, by the strongest possible implication, the institutions which constitute our Western civilisation; and ‘systematic thinking infects every dimension of our thought today.’
Immediately obvious among the problematic claims here is the equation of dehumanising systems with ‘capitalistic… thinking’; from the context, Riley appears to be referring to the neoliberal ideology which dominates the economic and political landscape. The West’s economic policies are responsible for a great deal of inequality and exploitation, but lest we forget, socialist policies are also burdened with injustice; they, too, have their dehumanising systems and ideologies.
More generally, one cannot help wondering whether systematic thinking is really the problem Riley supposes it to be. After all, systematic thinking is, to some degree, a crucial element of all serious scholarly research, whether in the physical and social sciences or the humanities. Certainly, it is difficult to imagine how philosophy might ever have begun, let alone progressed, without systematic thinking; few enough are those capable of thinking as systematically as, for example, Plato’s Socrates. And, as Feuerbach clearly shows, philosophy, as critical self-analysis, is the most important mode and expression of our psychodynamic development.
It does not take an inordinately sympathetic reading to see that Riley’s target is not what his careless language implies. He is actually concerned with the increasingly impersonal, process-driven world in which so many of us now live. He is speaking of the business and business-like objectives which govern our activities, of technologies and workflows and the increasingly pathological tendency for persons to work for them, rather than the other way around. By extension, he is speaking of the social, political, and economic ideologies which frame this world of workflows and business models, wherein almost every human endeavour is transformed by production-line thinking. In short, he is talking about utilitarianism.
Hence, in his poignant example, we see an education system geared towards the passing of exams and the achievement of grades. Being a more measurable indicator of success than a person who has learned to think for themselves, this, we are supposed to believe, is better. One might think of a hundred other examples to illustrate Riley’s point. Anyone who has worked in academia during the last fifteen or twenty years cannot have escaped the unhappy thought that, rather than contributing to the sum of human knowledge as they had always hoped, their primary function was to meet the business objectives of their institution. If you are an academic, you will have wondered at this and, I have no doubt, more than wondered.
Similarly, it is a commonplace today that increasingly pervasive, if not invasive, technology has made life significantly more complicated, not less so. This is clearly an exaggeration; equally clearly, it is not a falsehood. One might even wonder whether the ceaseless production of material goods that no one wanted until told they did is actually geared towards the transformation of persons into mere consumers and the maintenance of the economic status quo for its own sake.
Both Riley and Mortensen seek to remind us that the human beings caught up in these systems are persons and not merely political and economic units. More importantly, they urge us to act upon that remembrance and reinvest the world of workflows and business objectives with the personal relations they were always meant to serve. To address the other as, in unashamedly Buberian terms, a personal Thou rather than a political, economic, or any other kind of It is the death of dehumanising utilitarianism. As John Hofbauer suggests, above, personal address is an expression of the ‘absolute truth which proclaims the intrinsic value of the human person, independent of “quality of life” considerations, and independent of “cost-benefit” analyses.’ We could hardly agree more. Hence, moreover, the crucial role of personalism in public as well as formal education as advocated by Holub.
Otherwise put, personalism is, or ought to be, a social movement as well as a subject of scholarly enquiry, a philosophy that is both thinkable and liveable. Mortensen has made no small effort to press that point home, focusing much attention on important political figures such as Martin Luther King Jnr, Desmond Tutu, and Vaclav Havel.26
Social and political philosophies can be slippery things, however, and one cannot help wondering just how this one will play out. Undoubtedly, the world is, as Mortensen tells us, facing quite the clusterfuffle of crises, largely thanks to neo-liberal individualism. So Holub points gloomily to a time when ‘the current social and cultural atmosphere will be at the end of its tether.’ That time seems very close now, but perhaps ’twas ever thus. Nevertheless, Holub is correct when he, like Riley, sees the solution to these problems in ‘a change of perception of ourselves as individuals and as societies.’ Personalism could provide the foundations for such a change, could enable us, as Holub says, to ‘breathe… the fresh air of optimism and hope;’ for that matter, to breathe any air at all. It seems a little odd that Holub regards personalism as ‘a new approach to understanding our European societies and ourselves,’ particularly given the history of personalist thought. Notwithstanding that venerable pedigree, a personalist politics certainly would mark a new social and economic direction. The question is, ‘for whom?’
According to Holub, at stake here is ‘our commitment to the European heritage.’ Exactly what such a commitment would mean or look like is not altogether clear, however. There is no question, of course, that we should ‘get to know it [that European Heritage] better,’ as Holub sensibly advises. And we absolutely should not simply condemn or ignore it, as some blithely do. But nor should we rewrite it. We might all – and I count myself in this – know more about our socio-political heritage: about its foundation on colonialism and the voracious exploitation of Asia, Africa and the Americas. We might know more about its foundation on institutionalised misogyny, racism, and homophobia. The shameful reaction in Poland to the 2019 Pride events stands inelegant testimony to our continued commitment to the violently patriarchal aspects of that European Heritage. Likewise, the increasing numbers of women murdered and decreasing numbers of prosecutions for rape and sexual assault in the UK.27 Besides such domestic brutality, it may be worth remembering that our European heritage is also the heritage of fascism and communism along with two (thus far) world wars. Turn to intellectual history and you will find a heritage almost entirely shaped by the very rationalist-cum-realist tradition which has brought us to the current crisis point. Here is the birthplace of both radical individualism and utilitarianism, of over-inflated transcendentalism and flattened naturalism, objectivism and subjectivism. In short, every disastrous dualism and absurd black-and-white binary that has crippled western thought and driven us further from the fundamental acceptance of the other as one’s self, these too are of that heritage. This tradition, which still dominates, has given us much bad philosophy and worse theology; we should indeed be more aware of it than we are.
There is, of course, more to our European heritage than this. There is art, science, and philosophy; there have, moreover, been tremendous developments in education and human rights. Women and men, throughout European history, have seen their duty clearly: to fight against division and oppression. But if we are to know and understand our heritage clearly, then we must see it clearly too, both good and bad. Gnothi seauton, as both the Delphic Oracle and, more recently, the personalist philosopher, Thomas O. Buford, wisely exhort.28
For Holub, the key to our European heritage and our commitment appears to lie in the development of a ‘European and Christian identity.’ Mortensen might agree; certainly, the Christian and, more specifically, Catholic foundations of personalism are important and should not be gainsaid. Besides, many of the most important thinkers within and without the personalist tradition have drawn fruitfully on their faith. That being said, one might just keep in mind here, that Christian identity has its roots far beyond the borders of Europe, in the Middle East; and that is a world which neither our European heritage nor our European Christian identity have been especially kind to. Furthermore, Western Christian philosophy has undoubtedly been shaped by Greek philosophy and it’s medieval transliterators; but it was Arabic scholars, such as Abu Ali Sina (Avicenna), who first translated the likes of Aristotle into Latin and introduced them to the West after many centuries in the wilderness.
Again, we do not wish to denigrate the contribution of European’s who laboured to build our Western intellectual culture. But we should recall that there were others, from outside that world whose contribution was just as great. Thus, if we are to develop our ‘European and Christian identity’ then let us not forget that some of its roots lie in other soil. The real philosophical lesson here is simple: any identity, even a religious one, is only one identity among the many we all possess. This follows directly from Mortensen’s commitment to persons as intrinsically relational. Metaphysically speaking, the alternative is, after all, unintelligible: there is simply no way to coherently express the idea of a single true or real essence, an unchanging identity that is who I really am. Such notions posit a mode of being which is, by definition beyond all action and relation. Such notions are, as we have seen, literally nonsensical: we cannot intelligibly claim to know that with which we can have no actual, possible, or conceivable contact. Inert conceptions of the self are, moreover, morally pernicious, since the self that is unchanging is also irredeemable. If I cannot change who and what I am, then morality is useless to me, just as it is patently useless to a great many who lay claim to a Christian identity.
Ultimately and in contrast, we should insist that personalism offers more than Eurocentric, Christian identity politics. Personalism points towards something more universal. This much is evident from Mortensen’s presentation of personalism and its parallels in South African culture; nor should we forget Muslim and Hindu personalist thinkers.29
In striving for something universal, personalism should not rule any particular faith in or out. Certainly one might argue, as I have done elsewhere, that ‘personhood’ is inherently religious: consciousness is religious consciousness.30 But I am perfectly ready to countenance the possibility that ‘personhood’ and the personalism which describes it has no religious dimension at all. Besides which, the alignment of consciousness with religious consciousness – particularly when done in the Feuerbachian style – is universal, pluralistic, not the exclusive property of any one faith community. Instead, personalism accommodates all religious perspectives; more, seeks to participate in any attempt at lived faith which respects what it means to be a person. This, then, is our conclusion: that personalism cannot be appropriated by or aligned with any kind of partial view, be it religious, political, ethical, or (pseudo) scientific. For personalism, as Mortensen shows, is an attempt to articulate an understanding of what it means to be a person that is both deeper and wider: that which is foundationally or primitively true and so underpins all our other modes of thinking and acting.
Jacques Maritain: ‘at least, a dozen personalist doctrines, which at times have nothing more in common than the word “person”,’ The Person and the Common Good. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1947), 12. For excellent summaries of the many different ways or approaches to personalism, see Thomas D. Williams and Jan Olof Bengtsson’s article “Personalism”, in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2016/entries/personalism/; and Thomas O. Buford’s “Personalism” in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, accessed 26/02/2017, www.iep.utm.edu/personal/.
See John Macmurray, Reason and Emotion (London: Faber and Faber, 1995), Chapter. 2, “Reason in the Emotional Life”; William James, “The Will to Believe” in The Writings of William James, ed. John J. McDermott (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977); and Simon Smith, Introduction to In the Sphere of the Personal: New Perspectives in the Philosophy of Persons, eds. James Beauregard and Simon Smith (Delaware/Malaga: Vernon Press, 2016).
Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, trans. George Eliot, (New York: Harper & Row, 1957), 1.
See Carol J. Moeller, ‘“We Are Not Disposable”: “Psychiatric”/Psycho-Social Disabilities and Social Justice’ and Introduction to In the Sphere of the Personal: New Perspectives in the Philosophy of Persons.
Friedrich Waismann, “Verifiability” in The Theory of Meaning ed. G. H. R. Parkinson (Oxford: OUP, 1982), 37. Nota bene, this is why those in search of full, final, and complete explanation are always, ultimately, doomed to fail.
Peter Singer, Practical Ethics (Cambridge: CUP, 1993), 55-68; 105-107.
Stuart Hampshire, Innocence and Experience. (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1992), 26 and 44.
Austin Farrer, Finite and Infinite, 2nd Edition (Westminster: Dacre Press 1959), 70. See also Charles Conti, Metaphysical Personalism (Oxford: Clarendon, 1995), 214, n8.
Juan Manuel Burgos, Antropología: una guía para la existencia 5a ed. (Madrid: Ediciones Palabra, 2013), 75-77. I am particularly grateful to James Beauregard for supplying this reference.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘Brahma’ in Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson (New York: New American Library, 2010), 534.
For more on this see my chapter, ‘Doing and Being: A Metaphysic of Persons from an Ontology of Action’ in Neuroethics in Principle and Praxis - Conceptual Foundations ed. Denis Larrivee (InTechOpen: 2019).
It may be of interest to note that Macmurray was Farrer’s tutor at Balliol.
See, for example, John Macmurray, The Self as Agent (London: Faber and Faber Ltd, 1957), Chapters 7 & 8, esp. 159; 173-183; 200.
Dualism, at least in the Cartesian mould, is grounded in many simplistic and wholly unsupportable beliefs about the supposed conjunction of logic and reality. Notable among them are: that no proposition or statement can be both true and false at the same time; that one thing cannot be two things, and that two things cannot occupy the same space. All of these beliefs are patently false. ‘Yes and no’ is a perfectly reasonable answer to many questions: it can be both raining and not raining, as anyone who has been to Ireland may testify. A person can be both good and bad; a butter knife can be a screwdriver; a chair can be a ladder or the scaffolding for a makeshift fort; combine two drops of water and, as Macmurray observed, we have not ‘two drops but only one bigger drop’ The Self as Agent (London: Faber and Faber Ltd, 1957), 169.
For a more detailed discussion of these ideas, see my essay ‘A Convergence of Cosmologies: Personal Analogies in Modern Physics and Modern Metaphysics’ in Looking at the Sun, New Writing in Modern Personalism, eds Anna Castriota and Simon Smith (Delaware/Malaga: Vernon Press, 2018).
Thomas Nagel, ‘What is it like to be a bat?’ in Mortal Questions (Cambridge: CUP, 1979). Cf. Farrer, ‘Causes’ in Reflective Faith ed. Charles Conti (London: SPCK, 1972). Farrer’s essay, which was written in 1963, suggests that Nagel’ analysis is not quite correct because he failed to acknowledge the role of analogical projection in the acquisition of knowledge.
Farrer, Faith and Speculation (London: Adam & Charles Black, 1967), 1.
Conti, Metaphysical Personalism (Oxford: Clarendon, 1995), xxv. It does not follow from this that I cannot, therefore, know about the experiences of other persons. The interconstitutive nature of ‘personhood’ means that any resources I possess for understanding ‘personhood’ were invested in me by others. Without others and their resources, the meaning of ‘personhood’ and all its manifestations would be utterly opaque to me; more accurately, there would be no me for those manifestations to mean anything to.
Farrer, Finite and Infinite 21. See also Faith and Speculation 167; see also Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality 22. The active nature of reality is why radical scepticism is always, ultimately, a doomed enterprise. To deny knowledge is at once self-stultifying and self-contradictory because the activity wherein I both come to be and come to know myself is a constant interplay with our environment and its inhabitants.
Farrer, Freedom of the Will (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1960), 52.
See Martin Buber, Meetings ed. Maurice Friedman (Chicago: Open Court, 1973), 26; 31-2.
Since the dragon wing of American cultural colonialism has o’erspread the earth, this is not as true as it may once have been.
Indeed, this very practical dimension of personalist thought may account for the seemingly curious fact that it is not better known, either within academia or the real world outside. That is to say, the fact seems curious, given the ways in which political activists have been inspired by personalism. Yet it is, perhaps, not so curious after all, when one considers that those people tended to act on their personalist instincts rather than talk about them.