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Personalism is a philosophical school of thought searching to describe the uniqueness of a human person in the world of nature, specifically in relation to animals. One of the main points of interest of personalism is human subjectivity or self-consciousness, experienced in a person's own acts and inner happenings—in "everything in the human being that is internal, whereby each human being is an eye witness of its own self".[1]

Other principles:

  1. Persons have unique value, and
  2. Only persons have free will

According to Idealism there is one more principle

  1. Only persons are real (in the ontological sense).

History of Personalism


Socrates (469–399 B.C.) is praised for having taken philosophy seriously as the search for truth by which to live, even at the cost of his life, and opposed moral relativism by a critical, rational method which combined an ethics of satisfaction and an ethics of reason. He discovered the soul or self as the center from which sprang all human action.


Plato (427–347 B.C.) the debt of Personalism is philosophically most significant. He stated that only the logical, the ideal, and the self–active is true. His doctrine of Eternal Ideas provided a clear affirmation of the objectivity of value–norms independent of human opinion. In his method, Plato contributed what he called a ‘synopsis’, a deliberate viewing of experience in its larger and more richly significant wholes. In ethics, he espoused a doctrine of self–realization, the aspiration to become a harmonious whole in which every aspect of the soul might take the role most consonant with the meaningful unity of the whole.


Anaxagoras (500–430 B.C.) approached a personalistic Theism by his doctrine that the divine Nous or Mind governs all motion.


Aristotle (384–322 B.C.) emphasized reality as concrete and individual, and thus disagreed with Plato’s affirmation of an abstract metaphysical universalism. He substituted the World–Soul of Plato for a single self–conscious Being, a ‘Prime’ or ‘Unmoved Mover’. To Aristotle the American Personalists gratefully attribute an increased emphasis upon empirical method and a sharpening of logical instruments, the continuance of the ethical tradition of self–realization and an aesthetic theory which found intimate positive relations between aesthetic experience and other needs of the human person.

Gregory of Nyssa

Gregory of Nyssa (c 335 – after 394) emphasized the notion of humankind as created in the image of God. He was among the first to explicitly claim that God is qualitatively infinite, and so incomprehensible. From this follows that humankind, being the image of God, is also to some extent incomprehensible and that every person has infinite value. This led him to his famous critique of slavery:

God said, Let us make man in our image and likeness. If he is in the likeness of God, and rules the whole earth, and has been granted authority over everything on earth from God, who is his buyer, tell me? Who is his seller? To God alone belongs this power; or rather, not even to God himself. For his gracious gifts, it says, are irrevocable. God would not therefore reduce the human race to slavery, since he himself, when we had been enslaved to sin, spontaneously recalled us to freedom. But if God does not enslave what is free, who is he that sets his own power above God's? (Homilies on Ecclesiastes)


Augustine of Hippo (354–430) developed the conception of the unity of the mental life, the significance of the will in the life of both God and humans, and also he formulated the truths that self–certainty is more immediate than our knowledge of the external world and that valid metaphysics must be based on the self–knowledge of the finite personality. Not only did he put thought above things but he valued the thinker above thought. Augustine established the existence of the soul as a thinking and willing being. In his Confessions and De Trinitate, he made much use of analogies between observed aspects of the human soul and the distinctions within the Holy Trinity, thus showing many times his belief in a profound kinship between the human soul and God, despite the mystery and transcendence which he also emphasized.


Anicius Manlius Severinus Boëthius (480–524) defined the person as the individual substance of a rational nature (Personae est definitio: naturae rationabilis individua substantia).

Avicenna and Thomas Aquinas

Avicenna (980–1037) in the Islamic East and Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) in the Christian West drew from Aristotle a personalistic interpretation and thereby preserved the peculiar genius of Eastern and Western culture. St. Thomas ascribed efficient as well as final causality to God and thus made the world directly dependent upon the divine will both for its origin and its preservation (creatio et conservatio mundi). He attributed a distinctly personal character to God as the Author of all being and established the belief in personal immortality, defending a system of philosophical ethics and ascribing to humans the highest worth possessed by any creature on earth.


René Descartes (1596–1650) revived the Augustinian doctrine of the primacy of self–certainty and made it basic to his system: Cogito, ergo sum (or more correctly, cogito sum, simply). At the same time he broke the Aristotelian distinction between matter and form which had triumphed over the western mind for almost two thousand years, and in its place he put a radical distinction between thought and extension or mind and body. He held the mind to be independent of the body and by virtue of its own unique self–identity capable of an immortal destiny.


Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716) defined more precisely the nature of individuality and ascribed to the individual a large degree of metaphysical independence. He conceived of substance as realized both in the Infinite and in finite monads as psychical and active. The Leibnizian monadology represented reality as made up of active individuals, including human persons but also a vast variety of other psychic units, ranging from the most dimly conscious or unconscious sleeping monads to the sublime consciousness of God. Every monad is active (“to be is to act”) in the universe consisting of simple psychic monads, but the monads do not interact (only seem to) by virtue of a pre–established harmony. As Descartes reintroduced the primacy of self–certainty, so Leibniz reformulated the principle of individuality.


George Berkeley (1685–1753) was the first philosophical personal idealist. He completely denied the substantial reality of the material world, reducing it to a series of presentations produced in finite minds by the Infinite. To God and to souls alone did he ascribe metaphysical reality. All reality consists of active spirits and their perceptions or passive ideas. There is no unconscious material substance (esse est percipi). Material substance is unverifiable. Nature exists only in spirits, primarily in the Divine Spirit or Person, and then is communicated as “a divine language” to human spirits. In describing the material world as the divine language G. Berkeley combined Christian Theism with metaphysical Idealism. His system was, in the strict sense of the term, a Personal Idealism.


Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) influenced American Personalism under three headings: the theory of knowledge, ethical theory, and the primacy of practical reason. Personalism owes much to Kant’s theory of knowledge. The central aspect of his theory is the activity of the mind. By this doctrine of the creative activity of thought Kant gave to the spiritual individualism of Leibniz and Berkeley a definiteness of content that it had previously lacked and also supplied it with a firm epistemological basis.


Nikolai Alexandrovich Berdyaev (Russian: Никола́й Алекса́ндрович Бердя́ев) (1874–1948) was a Russian religious and political philosopher who emphasized human freedom, subjectivity and creativity.

A Presentation of Personalism

Personalism as diverse category of thought

Writing in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,[2] noted scholar Thomas D. Williams cites a plurality of "schools" holding to a "personalist" ethic and "Weltanschauung," arguing:

Personalism exists in many different versions, and this makes it somewhat difficult to define as a philosophical and theological movement. Many philosophical schools have at their core one particular thinker or even one central work which serves as a canonical touchstone. Personalism is a more diffused and eclectic movement and has no such universal reference point. It is, in point of fact, more proper to speak of many personalisms than one personalism. In 1947 Jacques Maritain could write that there are at least 'a dozen personalist doctrines, which at times have nothing more in common than the word ‘person.’ Moreover, because of their emphasis on the subjectivity of the person and their ties to phenomenology and existentialism, some dominant forms of personalism have not lent themselves to systematic treatises.
It is perhaps more proper to speak of personalism as a 'current' or a broader 'worldview, since it represents more than one school or one doctrine while at the same time the most important forms of personalism do display some central and essential commonalities. Most important of the latter is the general affirmation of the centrality of the person for philosophical thought. Personalism posits ultimate reality and value in personhood — human as well as (at least for most personalists) divine. It emphasizes the significance, uniqueness and inviolability of the person, as well as the person's essentially relational or communitarian dimension. The title 'personalism' can therefore legitimately be applied to any school of thought that focuses on the reality of persons and their unique status among beings in general, and personalists normally acknowledge the indirect contributions of a wide range of thinkers throughout the history of philosophy who did not regard themselves as personalists. Personalists believe that the human person should be the ontological and epistemological starting point of philosophical reflection. They are concerned to investigate the experience, the status, and the dignity of the human being as person, and regard this as the starting-point for all subsequent philosophical analysis" [Williams, 2009].

Thus, according to Williams, one ought to keep in mind that although there may be dozens of theorists and social activists in the West adhering to the rubric "personalism," their particular foci may, in fact, be asymptotic, and even diverge at material junctures.

Emmanuel Mounier's Personalism

Further information: Non-conformists of the 1930s

In France, philosopher Emmanuel Mounier (1905-1950) was the leading proponent of Personalism, around which he founded the review L'Esprit, which continues to exist to this day. Under Jean-Marie Domenach's direction, it criticized the use of torture during the Algerian War. Personalism was seen as an alternative to both Liberalism and Marxism, which respected human rights and the human personality without indulging in excessive collectivism. Mounier's Personalism had an important influence in France, including in political movements, such as Marc Sangnier's Ligue de la jeune République (Young Republic League) founded in 1912.

A famous historian of Fascism, Zeev Sternhell, has identified personalism with fascism in a very controversial manner, claiming that Mounier's personalism movement "shared ideas and political reflexes with fascism". He argued that Mounier's "revolt against individualism and materialism" would have led him to share the ideology of fascism[3].

Roman Catholic personalism

A distinctively Christian personalism developed in the 20th century. Its main theorist was the Polish philosopher Karol Wojtyła (later Pope John Paul II). In his work, Love and Responsibility, first published in 1960, Wojtyła proposed what he termed 'the personalistic norm': "This norm, in its negative aspect, states that the person is the kind of good which does not admit of use and cannot be treated as an object of use and as such the means to an end. In its positive form the personalistic norm confirms this: the person is a good towards which the only proper and adequate attitude is love".[4] This is a first principle of Christian personalism: persons are not to be used, but to be respected and loved. In Gaudium et spes, the Second Vatican Council formulated what has come to be considered the key expression of this personalism: "man....cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself".[5]

This formula for self-fulfillment offers a key for overcoming the dichotomy frequently felt between personal "realization" and the needs or demands of social life. Personalism also implies inter-personalism, as Benedict XVI stresses in Caritas in Veritate: "As a spiritual being, the human creature is defined through interpersonal relations. The more authentically he or she lives these relations, the more his or her own personal identity matures. It is not by isolation that man establishes his worth, but by placing himself in relation with others and with God."[6]

Boston Personalism

Personalism flourished in the early 20th century at Boston University in a movement known as Boston Personalism and led by theologian Borden Parker Bowne. Bowne emphasized the person as the fundamental category for explaining reality and asserted that only persons are real. He stood in opposition to certain forms of materialism which would describe persons as mere particles of matter. For example, against the argument that persons are insignificant specks of dust in the vast universe, Bowne would say that it is impossible for the entire universe to exist apart from a person to experience it. Ontologically speaking, the person is “larger” than the universe because the universe is but one small aspect of the person who experiences it. Personalism affirms the existence of the soul. Most personalists assert that God is real and that God is a person (or as in Christian trinitarianism, three persons, although it is important to note that the meaning of the word 'person' in this context is significantly different from Bowne's usage).

Bowne also held that persons have value (see axiology, value theory, and ethics). In declaring the absolute value of personhood, he stood firmly against certain forms of philosophical naturalism (including social Darwinism) which sought to reduce the value of persons. He also stood against certain forms of positivism which sought to reduce the importance of God.

California Personalism

George Holmes Howison taught a metaphysical theory called Personal Idealism[7] which was also called "California Personalism" by others to distinguish it from another type of Personalism called "Boston Personalism"(see above) which was taught by Borden Parker Bowne. Howison maintained that both impersonal, monistic idealism and materialism run contrary to the moral freedom experienced by persons. To deny the freedom to pursue the ideals of truth, beauty, and "benignant love" is to undermine every profound human venture, including science, morality, and philosophy. Thus, even Personalistic Idealism Borden Parker Bowne and Edgar S. Brightman and Realistic Personal Theism Thomas Aquinas are inadequate, for they make finite persons dependent for their existence upon an infinite Person and support this view by an unintelligible doctrine of creatio ex nihilo.[8]

The Personal Idealism of Howison was explained in his book " The Limits of Evolution and Other Essays Illustrating the Metaphysical Theory of Personal Idealism". Howison created a radically democratic notion of personal idealism that extended all the way to God, who was no more the ultimate monarch, no longer the only ruler and creator of the universe, but the ultimate democrat in eternal relation to other eternal persons. Howison found few disciples among the religious, for whom his thought was heretical; the non-religious, on the other hand, considered his proposals too religious; only J. M. E. McTaggart's idealist atheism or Thomas Davidson's Apeirionism seem to resemble Howisons personal idealism.[9]

Antecedents and influence

Philosopher Immanuel Kant, though not formally considered a personalist, made an important contribution to the personalist cause by declaring that a person is not to be valued merely as a means to the ends of other people, but that he possesses dignity (an absolute inner worth) and is to be valued as an end in himself.

Catholic philosopher and theologian John Henry Newman, has been posited as a main proponent of personalism by John Crosby of Franciscan University in his book Personalist Papers. Crosby notes Newman's personal approach to faith, as outlined in Grammar of Assent as a main source of Newman's personalism.[10]

Martin Luther King, Jr. was greatly influenced by personalism in his studies at Boston University. King came to agree with the position that only personality is real. It solidified his understanding of God as a personal God. It also gave him a metaphysical basis for his belief that all human personality has dignity and worth. (see his essay “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence”)

Pope John Paul II was also influenced by personalism. Before becoming Pope, he wrote Person and Act (sometimes mistranslated as The Acting Person), a philosophical work suffused with personalism (ISBN 90-277-0985-8). Though he remained well within the traditional stream of Catholic social and individual morality, his explanation of the origins of moral norms, as expressed in his encyclicals on economics and on sexual morality, for instance, was largely drawn from a personalist perspective[11]. His writings as Roman pontiff, of course, influenced a generation of Catholic theologians since who have taken up personalist perspectives on the theology of the family and social order.

Notable Personalists

  • Dietrich von Hildebrand
  • Thomas Buford
  • Edgar S. Brightman
  • Dorothy Day[12]
  • Ralph Tyler Flewelling
  • George Holmes Howison

  • Bogumil Gacka
  • Luigi Giussani
  • Georgia Harkness
  • Albert C. Knudson
  • Edvard Kocbek
  • Christopher Boykin
  • Milan Komar
  • Edwin Lewis

  • Gabriel Marcel
  • Peter Maurin
  • Walter George Muelder
  • A.J. Muste
  • Ngo Dinh Diem[13]
  • Ngo Dinh Nhu[14]
  • Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu
  • Ngo Dinh Thuc

  • Nikolai Lossky
  • Constantin Rădulescu-Motru
  • Charles Renouvier
  • Denis de Rougemont
  • William Stern
  • Edith Stein (Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross)
  • F.C.S. Schiller

See also

  • Humanism
  • The Personalist - a journal dedicated to personalism from about 1920-1979, now the Pacific Philosophical Quarterly.


  1. K. Wojtyła, Subjectivity and Irreducible in: Idem Person and Community. Selected Essays, Th. Sandok OSM, P. Lang (trans.), New York 1993, p. 214; Cf. P. Bristow, Christian Ethics and the Human Person, Family Publications Maryvale Institute, Oxford 2009, pp. 102-103 ISBN 978-1-871217-98-8
  2. *Personalism at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  3. Zeev Sternhell, "Sur le fascisme et sa variante française", in Le Débat , November 1984, "Emmanuel Mounier et la contestation de la démocratie libérale dans la France des années 30", in Revue française de science politique, December 1984, and also John Hellman's book, on which he takes a lot of his sources, Emmanuel Mounier and the New Catholic Left, 1930-1950 (University of Torento Press, 1981). See also Denis de Rougemont, Mme Mounier et Jean-Marie Domenach dans Le personnalisme d’Emmanuel Mounier hier et demain, Seuil, Paris, 1985.
  4. Love and Responsibility (Ignatius Press, 1993), pg. 41
  5. Gaudium et spes, no. 24. This apparently paradoxical idea - if you seek your life selfishly, you will lose it; if you are generous in giving it, you will find it - is rooted in the gospel: cf. Mt. 16:25; Mk 8:35; Lk 17:33.
  6. Caritas in veritate, #53
  10. Crosby, John (2003). Personalist Papers, 280, Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press.
  11. see Doran, Kevin P. Solidarity: A Synthesis of Personalism and Communalism in the Thought of Karol Wojtyła/John Paul II. New York: Peter Lang, 1996. ISBN 0-8204-3071-4
  12. *Dorothy Day interviews on You Tube: with Christopher Closeup (1971) and Hubert Jessup/WCVB-TV Boston (1974) where she discusses her personalist views
  13. Kolko, Gabriel, Anatomy of a War pages 83-84, ISBN 1-56584-218-9
  14. Karnow, Stanley, Vietnam: A History p. 259

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