This piece originally appeared in Public Discourse, the online journal of the Witherspoon Institute of Princeton, NJ, and has been reposted with permission.
“If there is a philosophical task for which our era demands a solution with unique urgency, it is that of philosophical anthropology,” wrote Max Scheler, a phenomenologist whose work came to be known as personalism. In his June 15, 2018, op-ed column in the New York Times, David Brooks wrote that personalist philosophy holds deep insights for our current cultural and political fragmentation.
I initially encountered personalism as a middle ground between the radical individualism and authoritarian collectivism that dominated nineteenth- and twentieth-century politics and culture. But as we have entered the twenty-first century, I’ve seen that personalism is relevant as well to our educational crisis, which is also a cultural crisis—a crisis of love.
How would you answer the basic question of philosophical anthropology: What does it mean to be human? How does that answer affect your life? Personalism not only helped me integrate a language of love into my research on suffering and resilience; it has also influenced my teaching and mentoring. Too many students have not been exposed to some of the basic propositions of personalism, such as the inviolable dignity of the human person regardless of one’s utility, and the idea that our uniqueness presents us with an amazing diversity of persons who share universal desires for unity as creatures made to love and be loved.
Answering the Question
As a philosophy, personalism is a particular answer to the question about what it means to be human, an answer that contrasts with other answers that descend from utilitarianism, skepticism, or communism. Personalist philosophy also influenced nineteenth- and twentieth-century social reform movements led by Jacques Maritain, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King and John Paul II, all of whom saw the enormous consequences for culture, education, and politics that are entailed in upholding the inherent dignity of every human being.
As someone who studied psychology at Yale and sociology at Princeton, I found that these two fields—which are dedicated to understanding the human person in society—never talked about our foundational assumptions about the human person. Lurking in the background of our work was often one of the rival views of the human person that sociologist Margaret Archer summarizes in the following way. From utilitarian assumptions that drive much of economics, we have been taught that we are atomistic, autonomous individuals who act rationally and strategically to maximize individual benefits (homo economicus). From sociologists who emphasize the determinism of our environment or particular situation on our behavior, we have been taught that we are bureaucratic role-players with no individuality (homo sociologicus). From the post-modernism that is rampant in literature and some social sciences, we have been told that our identity and subjectivity are constantly shifting, with no enduring concerns or direction (homo inconstantus).
In contrast, Jacques Maritain, one of the most famous personalists, described man—the human person—as
an animal endowed with reason, whose supreme dignity is in the intellect; and man as a free individual in personal relation with God, whose supreme righteousness consists in voluntarily obeying the law of God; and man as a sinful and wounded creature called to the divine life and to the freedom of grace, whose supreme perfection consists of love.
As Kevin Schmeising wrote in his intellectual history of personalism, around twenty or so intellectuals have come to be called personalists, including Jacques Maritain, John Crosby, Emmanuel Levinas, Peter Maurin, and Paul Ricoeur. Although there are some important differences among personalists, they share certain vital concerns. As evidenced in the quotation from Maritain above, personalists defend the inviolability of the person, stress the fundamental relationality of persons, see the person as a subject and object of free action, and emphasize the person as a center of meaning and value.
Not all, but many, personalists were monotheists. For Maritain, a convert to Catholicism, the question of man is tied to the question of relationship to God. Even though they might answer the theological question about man’s relation to God in diverse ways, personalists reject the materialism at the base of much of Enlightenment philosophy. Personalists generally emphasize that a person’s subjectivity, including our spiritual nature, is real and exerts causal force in the world. We are not just material beings, we are also spiritual beings. Our actions are not just reactions to stimuli or environmental conditions. A person’s thought and action are creative, not determined. We have an interior world in our souls that guides reflective thinking on our meaning and purpose in the world.
What sets personalists apart from other philosophers is their shared emphasis on the human person being unique and irreplaceable. This uniqueness is the reason one human person cannot be exchanged with another and cannot be used by another. Describing a person in terms of his utility implies that the function he serves could be fulfilled exactly by another individual. For personalists, the difference between an individual and a person is that an individual can be exchanged for another individual, but a person is unique and irreplaceable. A human person is not an object—a something—but also a someone—a center of meaning and purpose, a unity of mind, body, and soul.
The Relevance of Personalism
Personalism continues to be relevant today because so many people have not stopped to ponder their own dignity as human beings. For example, one day, after I taught some of these ideas in a seminar on virtues, happiness, and the common good at Yale, one student asked me privately: What is unconditional love? How do you get it if you have never had it?
I explained how, for many years, I lived a fragmented life. I pursued the achievements of security and status that my Ivy League education was supposed to get me while also pursuing a life of meaning, purpose, and love through volunteer service. Working with the poor taught me many things I never learned in a classroom. One of them is that, no matter what material possessions someone has or does not have, I have to believe in my heart that each and every person is worthy of love, just because they exist. That is unconditional love.
To experience unconditional love if you’ve never had it, I encouraged this student to find some local group she could volunteer with and give of her time and talents to others. I explained:
When you see that the people you are serving care more about you as a person than the thing you are giving them, then you will realize what unconditional love is: your worthiness is not based on your material possessions, status or your talents but in your dignity as a human being. You will be challenged to open your heart to let them love you first and foremost simply because you exist and have come into their lives.
Not long after that conversation, this student confided in me that she suffered severe depression. She had tried therapy and medication and taken time off from Yale. She got a bit better, but then got worse again after coming back to campus. She admitted that she thought about suicide almost every day in her Yale dorm room.
Because of her struggles, she was extremely grateful for the opportunity I had offered her through my student activities and conversations with her to try to think more about what kept her from being happy.
One day, over lunch in the dining hall, I went over all the resources she could access at Yale to help her—such as the mental health services for counseling or medication, and the Dean’s office for academic advice, including whether or not it might make sense to take time off from Yale, or if not, how to do her best given her limitations. But I also knew that she wanted more than my advice—she wanted a relationship with me. I confided that, as outwardly successfully and happy as I seem, I have been through very dark moments that I thought I might never come out of. During those tough times, I learned that my self-sufficiency was an illusion, and I became more open to receiving the love of others. My problems didn’t disappear, but my perspective was transformed through experiencing unconditional love.
I thanked her for confiding in me about her struggles, and I shared with her that I was truly worried about her. I reminded her I was willing to listen or try to help her in any way. Then I drew on personalist philosophy and my own experience to tell her what I truly believed she most needed to hear:
Even if you can’t see it right now, your life has a meaning and purpose simply because you exist. Even if you never fully overcome your depression, I do believe you will slowly see that you do belong on this earth and that you are loved unconditionally.
This student may have been having a mental health crisis, but she also was suffering a crisis of love. She was looking for her education and her mentors to guide her in the ways of love. She agreed that our uniqueness as humans is the source of infinite value. She began volunteering with a children’s theater group.
For personalists, part of our own personal development is freely giving of ourselves to another. But to make a gift of oneself to another requires embracing our own freedom first. By giving of herself to others in a non-utilitarian fashion, in giving of herself freely, this student found the contentment she had been seeking.
Giving freely of ourselves does not require being perfect. In this culture, it’s worth repeating that: being physically or mentally ill does not detract from ourinherent dignity or capacity for love. Our résumés are not the measure of our dignity. A person’s value is always distinct from his or her utility. One’s value on the market, or one’s health status, can never be the measure of one’s value as a person.
An Education in Love
Reading some classical texts of personalism will help us be aware of the assumptions we make about the human person. I began my journey into personalism through Jacques Maritain’s book Integral Humanism, and even designed a summer seminar to teach his ideas—and those of other great thinkers—about the crisis of modernity.
But it’s also important that we reflect on the assumptions that guide our own lives. How do the ideas we encounter in philosophical anthropology relate to our concerns and struggles in our particular time, place, and vocation?
I have spent ten years as a student at Ivy League institutions and thirteen years as a researcher, teacher, and mentor at elite universities—Yale, Princeton, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and now at Princeton Theological Seminary. My close relationships with students taught me something that my elite educational experiences didn’t (at least until I discovered personalism): love has to permeate all aspects of culture, and politics. Because the purpose of education is the development of the whole person, love also must be at the center of education.
Too many high-achieving students do not believe in their dignity and greatness as humans. They have never had relationships with academic mentors who are also willing to explore with them their deepest longings for love, meaning, and purpose.
Students are looking for mentors who are wise but also open to receive their students’ love, appreciate their talents, respect their freedom, and share their own journeys. They need relationships with wise, loving guides with whom they can talk about things that will never go on their résumés but that may be central to their life stories—their doubts, their fears, and their desires. Acknowledging our own vulnerability and humility is an important opening point to discussing what it means to be human with our students. I encourage students to be bold in asking big questions about humanity and striving for greatness, all while humbly acknowledging the limitations of our bodies, spirits, and minds.
We should celebrate our uniqueness as humans, which gives rise to wonderful diversity, while also acknowledging what we universally share: the desire to love and be loved, to be treated as a subject and not an object, never to be used as a means to someone else’s ends, and to give lovingly of our unique gifts for the common good without losing our freedom and individuality.
No scholar, citizen, parent, educator—no one at all—should live a life without asking: who are we as humans? Whether we acknowledge it or not, our economic system, political system, educational system, and our own personal commitments and habits all respond to that question. Working together to answer it can help us develop the practical wisdom we all need to heal our personal wounds and social divisions.