Appraisal Special Issue, Spring 2020 The Common Good: An Introduction to Personalism
Make it Personal
In her novel The Dispossessed, Ursula Le Guin tells the story of Shevek, a physicist from an anarchist-syndicalist colony of the satellite planet Anarres, who travels to the mother planet Urras in search of better living and working conditions (access to research material and enlightening conversations) and to develop a theory of Time. Shevek leaves Anarres asphyxiated by its power structures, which have outgrown the people, fuelled by pride and fear. Pride at achieving a horizontal organization of society. Fear of the disintegrating potential of leaving too much space for individual initiative. But in Urras, Shevek also feels his potential as scientist constantly blocked. He is closely watched and each country wants to use the results of his investigation for their own interests.
The question that lingers after reading this novel is: how can we avoid the organizational structures that our communities produce working to fortifying themselves instead of supporting our development as collectives and individuals? In Jonas Nordgaard Mortensen’s words: ‘In practice it often happens that systems and institutions grow compulsively. An active and conscious resistance is therefore required’ (120). In Le Guin’s novel this ‘active and conscious resistance’ means being constantly on watch; on watch against the dark powers of impersonalism that turn people into numbers and so clear the way for every kind of totalitarianism.
The Common Good displays for both the academic and the non-academic reader personalist philosophy as a path of resistance against the depersonalization that takes place both in neoliberal/capitalist societies, where the human individual is turned into a lonely god, and in communist/collectivist societies, where the community grows into a tyrannical god. ‘We too easily let ourselves be limited by systems and structures,’ claims the author, ‘we become the servants of systems that become ends in themselves instead of being the ones who control this systems’ (120). Notably, in the book, personalism enters the stage not as a system we could or should stick to, but by bringing forward the contributions of personalism to some key events in the 20th Century, as a multiplicity of ‘windows into a way of thinking that may expand our imagination’ (27). In other words, Mortensen invites the reader to think differently, to think outside or in between the traditional binaries of individualism and collectivism, capitalism and communism. Does The Common Good achieve what it sets out to deliver? Does it reveal to the reader an alternative path?
Personalism, as described in Mortensen’s book, draws its strength as a philosophy of resistance, in the first place, from its refusal to building a single systematic philosophy. The heart of personalism is the human person, which, being essentially dynamic and complex, is not easily reduced to abstract theory. And so personalism shows itself initially as an open philosophic anthropology, but then immediately also as an ethic, because the concept of person should not be confused with the idea of the individual as put forward by liberalism. A person, according to Mortensen, is only such in relation to others. In this fundamental relational dimension of the human person, personalism founds its main strength to carry its struggle against the depersonalization of society. ‘The absolutely central starting point of personalism’ is ‘the essential belonging together and the relationship between human persons.’ (29)
Personalist philosophers such as Martin Buber (30-31), Desmond Tutu (52-53) and Emmanuel Levinas (82-83) develop this central axiom. To them it is the I-You relation, the perpetual mirror game between One and the Other, that allows the person to develop in all their richness, their full potential and creativity. This means that we know ourselves through our reflection in others, and mainly that are ourselves only in that reflection, only in that relation. Once we recognize the interdependency and deep infinity of the human person, it becomes impossible to reduce the Other to our views, wishes and demands.
This relational ontology results in an ethic of engagement. Only in association with others can a person find the space, as said above, to fully develop the possibilities their existence entails. Liberalism as seen through personalism’s eyes, has sold us the illusion of, individualism, of lonely self-realization (135): we alone choose what is best for ourselves and we alone are responsible for our successes and failures. Each one of us probably knows intimately the anguish and sadness that this illusion produces, along with its convenience to a system that once and again profits from our struggle to show ourselves as crazy little gods in our own isolated planets.
According to French personalist philosopher Emmanuel Mounier, as quoted in the book, ‘Freedom is not only refusal and conquest, but it is also – and ultimately – the act of association.’ (58) And so only through engagement with others – and not only our friends and family, but also and mainly the unknown others – we achieve freedom and help to build a truly democratic society. Democracy through this perspective is more than a formal way of organizing societies. It is ‘a way of life, a social mindset, a way of thinking and of relating to others,’ (62) supported in association and conversation.
This invitation to engage allows us to struggle against the pressure of impersonal structures in every level of our lives: from the casual conversation in the train, where we connect, however briefly, with a stranger and refuse to consider him or her a threat, to the more organized and wide actions of protest and resistance. But this same invitation loses power, in my eyes, when supported by a dualist anthropology. ’Russian personalist Nikolai Berdyaev speaks of a human dualism of spirit and nature. Spirit is a free and integrating activity in all humans (…) but the spirit is also inevitably at odds with nature and the aspects of humanity that are determined by physical laws.’ (85-86) And so following this line: ‘humans, who are partially subject to nature, may rise above nature -behave like cultivated beings of spirit: persons.’ (85) Going beyond the theistical grounds, this is a central thesis to personalism as it considers that the philosophies that ‘reduce humans to being exclusively a fragment of nature commit the fatal mistake of depersonalizing the human.’ (85)
I find this dualist anthropology problematic in two ways. In the first place, because it reproduces the well-known division that bestows a negative meaning to our corporeality. In these dualisms, our bodies are usually understood as the source of ‘sin,’ negative and disruptive instincts which we should rise above and control. But not acknowledging this division does not immediately mean that the person is reduced to be either consumer, labour force or a ‘fragment of nature.’ On the contrary, nobody knows what the body is capable of, claims Spinoza. We cannot begin to imagine in which ways what we are used to calling body and soul, nature and spirit, interact. Our Western culture of repression and control of the body (reproduced in today’s imperatives of health and fitness) has also damaged our souls, the discipline we have submitted our bodies to has made of us productive subjects ready to be reduced to numbers – to be depersonalized. A number is not a material thing: it lives in and is nourished by human rationality. And this rationality, in its instrumental aspect, is the main thing responsible for the organization and legitimation of mass annihilations.
In the second place, this dualist anthropology supposes that, because of its ‘spiritual quality’ or ‘spiritual nature,’ humanity is somehow separated from, and therefore of greater value than, the rest of what we are used to call ‘Nature.’ Mortensen acknowledges and addresses this problem, arguing that, although ‘personalists (...) have reacted against all attempts to place humans alongside that of animals and nature as such’ this ‘does not cause personalism to regard the value of nature as reducible to being of service to humans.’ This due to its theistic foundations but also because a ‘responsible conduct towards nature is a necessity, not just for nature itself, but also for the sake of our fellow humans’ (117).
I believe this hierarchical view of humanity, this thinking ourselves as the big brothers of nature, is deeply linked to the individualist idea of the subject being enough for himself. According to this hierarchy, we have the rightful power to exploit natural resources and use animals for our benefit, but we should control and responsibly use this power. And so our fellow inhabitants of the Earth receive the status that, according to liberal individualism, our fellow human possess: you can exploit and eventually destroy them, but you should not. Why not, I wonder, bestow on them the same mysterious and infinite value that personalism is ready to recognize in other human beings? Why do we need to justify our instrumental use of nature on our superiority? And why do we need to feel ourselves superior – at least to nature – to be able to recognize the inviolability of our fellow human beings? After reading The Common Good, as one expects from every good philosophy book, the questions and problems it addresses lingered and insisted among my thoughts. The book achieves in this sense to open the window into a different way of thinking, and to show its paths as full of potential. I would have liked to follow this path further, more radically, into questioning the old dualist and hierarchical divisions which are, too, the sources from where the depersonalizing systems of Western societies have developed.