Appraisal Special Issue, Spring 2020 The Common Good: An Introduction to Personalism
A Healthy Kind of Radicalism
Given the nature of personalist thought, it seems strange that no one has dragged it from the cloisters of academe into the public square before. After all, its practitioners stake their claim to real insight into all the richness and complexity of the human condition. We dedicate ourselves to a philosophy of reciprocity; we refuse, as Ludwig Feuerbach advised, to be ‘torn from the totality of the real human being;’ the totality, that is, of concrete relation, full-blooded and bodied. Against the prevailing political, economic, and philosophical winds, we demand to ‘[t]hink in existence, in the world as a member of it, not in the vacuum of abstraction as a solitary monad, as an absolute monarch, as an indifferent, superworldly God.’1 But we never tell anyone about it. We talk at great length about the social reality of the self and then we keep it, and ourselves, to ourselves. The first rule of personalism, it seems, is that no one talks about personalism.
Fortunately for everyone – philosophers and normal people alike – The Common Good breaks that rule. In so doing, it marks what we may hope is the all-important first step in a much-needed journey. By bringing this vital and exciting tradition to public attention, this book presents a crucial challenge to the philosophical, political, and cultural status quo. It does so, moreover, in a remarkably engaging and readable way. It may also prove to be a great contribution to the development of a popular public philosophical discourse. (The severely limited engagement of professional philosophers in public debate always strikes me as a great shame; how I envy the French their tradition of public intellectuals.)
The emphasis of the book on a range of European, and especially North European, thinkers will likely strike some readers as something of a shame. However, this seems to me no bad thing. A number of these thinkers will be unfamiliar to English-speaking readers. Now we have a very good introduction to them; what could be better? As such, this book should prove to be a valuable resource to students and ordinary readers alike: anyone, in fact, who cares to widen their philosophical horizons beyond the norm. True, it would have been nice to see the likes of Austin Farrer and John Macmurray mentioned. However, the responsibility for making their work available to the public can hardly be laid at Mortensen’s door. (Both Farrer and Macmurray did, in fact, write for a nonacademic audience, with, it has to be said, mixed success.) Should we wish to see them better known and more widely appreciated, then it is really up to those of us who claim to champion them to see to it. In that regard, I see this emphasis on Northern European thinkers, not as a shortcoming of the book, but as a definite challenge to do likewise if we can.
In any case, many of the most important names in European philosophy are, in fact, discussed in some detail. Martin Buber, without whom no such presentation would be complete, is well represented; likewise, Emmanuel Levinas. Although I’m not sure I would have labelled Levinas a personalist per se, his thinking certainly dovetails nicely with the tradition and has proved itself invaluable to many of us working in the field. It is, of course, Levinas – arguably borrowing from Feuerbach, as Buber did – who supplies one of the central ideas in personalist philosophy: the infinity of persons. This notion not only underpins the inherent dignity and uniqueness of persons, as is clearly explained here. Just as important, it resists any clear-cut definition of what a person is. (Notably, this is in spite of the implicit assumption that ‘person’ is synonymous with ‘human’, something, I suspect, many readers might object to, particularly considering recent research into non-human animal intelligence.) Admittedly, to insist upon the infinite extensions of personhood (as Feuerbach assuredly did) and therefore the indefinability of persons is something of a risky move. Carelessly handled, it could easily lead accusations of deliberate vagueness and obscurity. In contrast, however, Mortensen would be well-advised to consider drawing the connection between this notion and his earlier talk of ‘spirit’ more explicitly. Doing so would, I think, help elucidate for the general reader a difficult and often loaded term. Furthermore, the infinity of persons is, I am sure, something personalist thinkers, must stand firm on. It represents a crucial acceptance and admission – one which no other philosophical, socio-political, economic, or scientific system would dare make – that personhood simply cannot be captured, pinned down, by any finite list of capacities, capabilities, or properties. Personhood is essentially dynamic. Recognising this not only rebuts the whole panoply of materialist qualifications, quantifications, and reductions, it also plays a vitally important role in practical morality, particularly in relation to questions regarding the beginning and end of life.
Another well-known European mentioned in this book is arch-existentialist, Jean Paul Sartre. Some readers might feel that his treatment, which is to say, the use made of him here, is not entirely fair. Sartre’s most famous adage, ‘hell is other people’, is cited several times and evidently serves as a convenient springboard for personalism. It does so, however, only when taken out of context. Sartre was too good a psychologist; his point, as expressed in No Exit, the play from which the quotation is taken, is one that few personalists would disagree with. People who choose to stifle themselves and others with selfishness and isolationism, people who resist the opportunity to engage humanly, openly, in a spirit of mutuality, such people are, indeed, in hell. That was Sartre’s point.
This, of course, does not necessarily detract from the point being made: demonstrating the difference between personalism and Existentialism (as well as modern scientism). The belief that the world is, in fact, meaningless is one that has gained far too much currency in recent years, suggesting profoundly narrow and ultimately self-stultifying perspective has taken hold of the public imagination. This must be resisted, not only for moral reasons, but also because it undermines intelligent and intelligible discourse. Deny that the universe contains meaning and we end by denying the meaningfulness of all our talk, including the claim for meaninglessness itself. So goes materialism and, along with it, all the real and valuable insights which the sciences have to offer.
It may be, however, that the critical attitude towards Sartre is symptomatic of a stronger, Kantian, influence on the author’s thinking. This becomes particularly evident where the discussion grapples with moral matters. Kant is, of course, of great significance to anyone working in the field of ethics; personalists are no exception. Indeed, Charles Conti credits him (partly on Farrer’s behalf) with a most effective use of the ‘the flint of moral sensitivity to fire the sensate self with a metaphysical vision of ‘the self’.’2 (This was, Conti reminds us, designed to resist the causally flattened sense of agency retailed by Hume and every materialist ever since.) Granting that, however, the deployment of means/end thinking – even to oppose it – may not be an entirely convincing move. Certainly, it resists the utilitarian values which underpin such thinking, values which have come to dominate politics and economics almost entirely, as the author is evidently well aware. Nevertheless, this Kantian approach remains, ultimately, too rationalist to satisfy. Place too much emphasis on the role of reason in ethics and we risk undermining another vitally important insight, which our author is keen to bring to light. That is, the attempts by the like of Scheler (p. 88-9), Macmurray, and William James to reintegrate our emotional faculties into moral and all other intelligent thinking. (The dominance of reason was, of course, never more than intellectual fantasy, as the violence which characterises the 20th Century clearly demonstrates.)
More problematic, perhaps, for the overall explication of personalism, is the question of whether this Kantian influence allows us to fully unpack the implications of persons as a social reality. It leads, for example, to the – perfectly reasonable – claim that objectifying others, treating them, in Kantian parlance as a means rather than an end, is a grave offence to the inherent dignity of persons. Similarly, we are told – again, quite reasonably – that the common obsession with one’s own ambitions and desires often comes at the cost of others. The plain truth of these remarks is undeniable. The question is, however, do they go far enough? The answer, I think, is ‘they do not,’ particularly considering Mortensen’s claims for the radical nature of personalism, which ultimately stop short of demonstrating the unique moral position available in personalist thought. Personalism, that is, is not simply another form of Kantianism. It is radical, as Mortensen says; not least because it invites us to reframe our moral thinking by starting, not with the ‘I’ as moral agent but with the ‘you’ of moral reflexivity.
What needs to be fully grasped here is that persons are essentially interconstitutive: our very existence is a consequence, a function even, of the dynamic interplay between persons. This is true from top to bottom: on every physical, biological, psychological, and metaphysical level. Otherwise put, consciousness, personal identity, is reflective: the self (co)constructs itself in and as a reflection of the other. This means that, when one objectifies others, one inevitably objectifies oneself likewise – means/end thinking isn’t strictly necessary here – leaving oneself unable to act as a genuine other, a person, to others and so become one oneself.
Recognise this and the case against individualism might have been significantly more forceful and, as a result, more damaging to the status quo. Equally, this would enable our author to push Wojtyla harder still and show that the self is not simply a gift to others but is a gift of them (and perhaps, if we dare, of an Other).
So much for philosophers and their influences. More important by far in a book like this is the inclusion of famous political figures such as Martin Luther King and Desmond Tutu. Their struggle for freedom and dignity still resonates world-wide; locating them within the personalist tradition both grounds and exemplifies the real power of such thinking in the most pragmatic – and dramatic – way possible. Bishop Tutu’s work with the South African Reconciliation Commission provides a most powerful demonstration of this. The connection between those struggles and the deep socio-political concerns from which this book arises supplies a solid foundation which readers cannot help but share. Further, it provides excellent grounds for considering (or reconsidering) personalism as well as the means for readers to orient themselves in their understanding of it. It will, I am certain, give The Common Good the broad appeal that it needs and deserves.
In this regard, the discussion of freedom and democracy in chapter 2 is both interesting and useful, providing as it does another important ‘hook’ for the reader. Such matters are, of course, of vital concern today. That Mortensen has taken care not to present freedom and democracy in their usual garb, but rather as they are better understood by personalists is, I believe a vitally important move. The idea of freedom, not as a matter of individual liberty as is commonly assumed, but as a concrete connection between persons and their social context, was central to Farrer’s conception of personhood likewise. In his Gifford Lectures (published as The Freedom of the Will) he compares Sartre’s notions of absolute freedom to ‘the spectacle of forty Phaetons drunk, driving wild on the Place de la Concorde’. ‘Thank heaven,’ he responds, ‘I have this lecture to write, and beyond that, my pupils to see to; and ah, beyond that, if I dare to look, there is Lazarus on the doorstep, covered with sores.’3 In similar vein, and extending the suggestion that freedom is a function of the dynamic interplay between persons, is the re-conception of democracy in terms of conversation. This will, no doubt appeal to many in the West, especially those who suspect that they have been disenfranchised by the political and economic systems which were meant to serve their welfare. Furthermore, it is likely to appeal as much, if not more, to non-Western readers. Much of the Arab world finds common conceptions of freedom and democracy problematic to say the least. Talk of dialogue – in which all parties freely admit that they have something to learn from others – and freedom expressed in our duties to others seem better able to open up routes for fruitful dialogue.
In less dramatic fashion, the use of research by, for example, the OECD, also gives our philosophy of reciprocity a practical edge, particularly as it is clearly linked to persuasive reminders of the economic costs of ignoring these insights. That said, a word of caution when it comes to supporting these ideas with actual research: the author’s reference to victim-offender conferences is, no doubt, entirely reasonable and well supported. However, it may well face scepticism in the UK. Such initiatives have, over the years, been treated with considerable hostility by the British press. This does not detract from the point, which still ought to be made, however, the author may wish to be prepared for a negative reaction.
One slightly odd note was the citing of research regarding work-related stress (p. 34). Given the importance of social connections and participating in the lives of others to our own well-being, it may strike the reader as curious to find that it is those who work in health care and education that suffer most. It may be that this reflects the increasing bureaucracy as well as the move towards increasing focus on skills and competencies with its consequent depersonalisation of these professions (discussed on p. 36-7). It would be interesting to see Mortensen’s view on this more explicitly stated.
The broader socio-political foundation of the book is another area which might be usefully expanded, particularly as it impacts on the neglect of personalism, discussed in the final chapter. It may be worth noting that the rise of existentialism, correctly identified here as one of the primary reasons for that neglect, is itself part of a much bigger picture. This includes the emergence, during the post-enlightenment period, of what Michael Polanyi describes as ‘revolutionary societies’. Such societies were, as Polanyi shows, driven by the violent rejection of absolute truth in favour of moral and political relativism. This was quickly followed by the transformation of all truth into economic and power relations and the rise of both Fascism and Communism. To give the reader a sense of this would, perhaps, help to elucidate the rise and eventual dominance of utilitarian values. A brief consideration of Polanyi’s analysis of these events, which appears in The Logic of Liberty and elsewhere, might, therefore, prove useful.
There is, of course, considerably more that I should like to say about this book. It is, after all, one which invites creative and constructive engagement. That, I think, captures the spirit of both this work and its subject matter very well: creative and constructive engagement. In so doing, the author has highlighted a vital contrast, not only between personalism and traditional, oppositional, modes of thought, but also between personalism and the standard attempts to resolve those oppositions. It seems clear – especially after reading The Common Good – that personalism goes further and does more precisely because it does not take the best elements from other views and seek to integrate them as most political, social, and moral thinking does. Personalism does not, that is, take from other positions, it seeks the best in them. It seeks out, in other words, that space within those other discourses wherein their human construction is hidden and draws it out into the open where it may flourish. By such means are bridges built; by such means, more importantly, do we become persons in the first place. That, I take it, is the message of this book.
1. Feuerbach, Ludwig. Principles of the Philosophy of the Future, trans. M. H. Vogel (Cambridge: Hackett. 1986), 67. 2. Conti, Charles. Metaphysical Personalism (Oxford: Clarendon, 1995), 183. 3. Farrer, Austin. The Freedom of the Will (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1960), 300.