“Start your work from where you live, with the small concrete needs right around you. Help ease tension in your workplace. Help feed the person right in front of you. Personalism holds that we each have a deep personal obligation to live simply, to look after the needs of our brothers and sisters, and to share in the happiness and misery they are suffering.”

David Brooks, The Road to Character. 2015. 

Personalism is a philosophical school of thought searching to describe the uniqueness of 1) God as Supreme Person or 2) 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 eyewitness 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).


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

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.

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

In France, philosopher Emmanuel Mounier (1905–1950) was the leading proponent of personalism, around which he founded the review Esprit, which exists 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 Jewish anti-fascist, 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]

Catholic personalism

Following on the writings of Dorothy Day, 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 brand of personalism has come to be known as "Thomistic" because of its efforts to square modern notions regarding the person with the teachings of Thomas Aquinas.[5] 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 is the only creature on earth that God willed for its own sake and he cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself".[6]

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.[7]

Boston personalism

Personalism flourished in the early 20th century at Boston University in a movement known as Boston Personalism 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 nonstandard meaning of the word 'person' in this theological 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 render ethical and theological discourse meaningless and dismiss talk of God a priori.

Georgia Harkness was a major Boston personalist theologian.[8][9][10][11] Francis John McConnell was a major second-generation advocate of Boston personalism who sought to apply the philosophy to social problems of his time.[12]

California personalism

George Holmes Howison taught a metaphysical theory called personal idealism[13] which was also called "California Personalism" by others to distinguish it from the "Boston Personalism"(see above) 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 the Personalistic Idealism of Borden Parker Bowne and Edgar S. Brightman and the Realistic Personal Theism of 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.[14]

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 Howison's personal idealism.[15]

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.[16]

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”)

Paul Ricœur explicitly sought to support personalist movement by developing its theoretical foundation and expanding it with a new personalist social ethic.[17]:3 However, he later had significant disagreements with Mournier and criticized other personalist writers for insufficient conceptual clarity. Ricœur also disagreed with the other personalists in asserting the signfiicance of justice as a value in its own right and gave this primary in the public sphere, whereas Mournier characterized all relationships including public and political ones in terms of love and friendship.[17]:7

Pope John Paul II was also influenced by the personalism advocated by Christian existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Before his election to the Roman papacy, he wrote Person and Act (sometimes mistranslated as The Acting Person), a philosophical work suffused with personalism.[18] 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.[19] 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

See also


  1. Herman Van Rompuy, former Prime Minister of Belgium and President of the European Council, frequently referred to personalism and wrote extensively about Catholic personalist philosophy.[29][30][31][32]


  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. Williams, Thomas D. "Personalism". In Zalta, Edward N. 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 Toronto 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. Williams, Thomas D. "What Is Thomistic Personalism?" (PDF). Alpha Omega. Archived (PDF) from the original on 25 April 2013. Retrieved 20 June 2014.
  6. 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.
  7. Caritas in veritate, #53
  8. Miles, R. (2010). Georgia Harkness: The Remaking of a Liberal Theologian. Library of theological ethics. Westminster John Knox Press. ISBN 978-0-664-22667-1.
  9. Burrow, R. (1999). Personalism: a Critical Introduction. St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press. ISBN 978-0-8272-3055-2.
  10. Deats, P.; Robb, C. (1986). The Boston Personalist Tradition in Philosophy, Social Ethics, and Theology. Mercer University Press. ISBN 978-0-86554-177-1. Retrieved 11 July 2018.
  11. Carpenter, Dianne Evelyn Shaheen (1988). Georgia Harkness's distinctive personalistic synthesis (PhD). Boston University.
  12. Burrow Jr., Rufus (1993). "Francis John McConnell and personalistic social ethics". Methodist History. 31 (2). hdl:10516/5872.
  13. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2012-07-07. Retrieved 2012-08-17.
  14. "Research Howison, George Holmes (1834-1916) - Encyclopedia of Philosophy". Archived from the original on 2012-10-02.
  15. Archived 2011-06-08 at the Wayback Machine.
  16. Crosby, John (2003). Personalist Papers. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press. p. 280. ISBN 978-0-8132-1317-0. Archived from the original on 2016-03-11.
  17. 1 2 Deweer, D. (2013). "Ricœur and the Pertinence of a Political Education: on Crisis and Commitment" (PDF). Archivio di filosofia. 81 (1): 71–80.
  18. ISBN 90-277-0985-8
  19. 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
  20. Gronbacher, Gregory M.A. (1998). "The need for economic personalism". Journal of Markets & Morality. 1 (1): 1–34.
  21. Schmitz, K.L.; Grondelski, J.M. (1993). At the Center of the Human Drama: The Philosophical Anthropology of Karol WojtyÅ‚a/Pope John Paul II. Catholic University of America Press. p. 35f. ISBN 978-0-8132-0780-3.
  22. Lawler, R. D. (1982). The Christian Personalism of Pope John Paul II (Vol. 1). Franciscan Pr.
  23. Woznicki, Andrew N. (1980). A Christian Humanism Karol Wojtyla's Existential Personalism. Mariel Publications.
  24. Doran, K. (1996). Solidarity: a synthesis of personalism and communalism in the thought of Karol Wojtyla/John Paul II (Vol. 190). Peter Lang Pub Inc.
  25. Cooper, J. W. (1995). Body, soul, and life everlasting: biblical anthropology and the monism-dualism debate. Vancouver: Regent College Bookstore.
  26. Kolko, Gabriel, Anatomy of a War pages 83-84, ISBN 1-56584-218-9
  27. Karnow, Stanley, Vietnam: A History p. 259
  28. Foret, FranÇois (22 August 2011). "Theories of European integration and religion: A critical assessment". Politics of Religion in Western Europe. Routledge. doi:10.4324/9780203803851. ISBN 978-0-203-80385-1.
  29. Crosby, John F. (1 November 2006). "The Witness of Dietrich von Hildebrand". First Things. No. 168. p. 7-9.
  30. Gourlay, Thomas V. (9 February 2018). "Book Review: Dietrich von Hildebrand, Liturgy and PersonalityLiturgy and Personality. By von HildebrandDietrich. Steubenville, OH: Hildebrand Press, 2016. Pp. 160. US$17.99. ISBN 9781939773005". The Downside Review. SAGE Publications. 136 (2): 137–138. doi:10.1177/0012580618758961. ISSN 0012-5806.
  31. Kitzinger, Denis (2011). "Towards a Model of Transnational Agency: the Case of Dietrich von Hildebrand". The International History Review. Informa UK Limited. 33 (4): 669–686. doi:10.1080/07075332.2011.620740. ISSN 0707-5332.
  32. "X CONGRESSO da TSD - Trabalhadores Social Democratas (Social Democratic Workers)" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2004-10-21. Retrieved 2008-01-07. (Portuguese), pg. 7
  33. John English (2006-10-06). Citizen of the World. Knopf Canada. p. 147. ISBN 978-0-676-97521-5.

Further reading

  • Bengtsson, Jan Olof (2006). The Worldview of Personalism: Origins and Early Development. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-929719-1. Retrieved 11 July 2018. 
  • Bengtsson, Jan Olof (2008). "Reply to Phillip Ferreira". The Pluralist. University of Illinois Press / Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy. 3 (2): 47–61. JSTOR 20708936. 
  • Bengtsson, Jan Olof (2013). "Personalism". Encyclopedia of Sciences and Religions. Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands. doi:10.1007/978-1-4020-8265-8_1689. ISBN 978-1-4020-8264-1. 
  • Burrow, R. (1999). Afrikan American Contributions to Personalism. Encounter-Indianapolis-, 60, 145-168.
  • De Tavernier, Johan (30 September 2009). "The Historical Roots of Personalism". Ethical Perspectives. Peeters Publishers. 16 (3): 361–392. doi:10.2143/ep.16.3.2042719. ISSN 1370-0049. 
  • Schmiesing, Kevin (2000), A History of Personalism, Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, doi:10.2139/ssrn.1851661 
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