Personalism

2019-01-19

In my philosophy department talk last October, I said something that might turn out to be more true than I had realized: it's a worthy ambition to become an accomplished person. Recalling that there used to be a philosophical journal called The Personalist, I've started to wonder if "personalism" might be an appropriate name for my approach to philosophy. A quick Internet search revealed that there has been a loose tradition of personalism over the last 200 years, encompassing thinkers as diverse as William James, Karol Wotyla (Pope John Paul II), and, appropriately enough for this weekend, Martin Luther King, Jr. (who studied with personalist theologian Edgar Sheffield Brightman at Boston University).

In my first encounter with personalism, I recently absorbed one of the best books I've read in years: Phenomenology of the Human Person by Robert Sokolowski. Several aspects of Sokolowski's book are especially intriguing. One is that he explains the epistemology of reason in the context of human conversation: by embracing the back and forth of speech (in Greek λόγος means both speech and reason - and, of course, the Word), he sidesteps the ever present dangers of solipsism and mental representationalism. Another is his call to overcome the opposition of individualism and collectivism through deep human connection or communion, especially in the form of family and friendship.

The concept of personalism is connected, too, with some thinking I've been doing about personality (an area where I still have much to learn). Over the last 50 years, psychological researchers have formulated a robust theory of personality called the five-factor model, which distills more particular behaviors into five basic traits or dimensions: introversion, conscientiousness, emotional stability, agreeableness, and openness to experience. (There are sub-traits and such, which are more granular.) The worldview that makes sense for you depends in large measure on your mix of personality traits. For instance, the Hellenistic schools of Epicureanism, Stoicism, and Skepticism might have appealed to different kinds of personalities. How does one best integrate philosophy and personality? How do various philosophical practices and exercises and attitudes ("philosophy as a way of life", as Pierre Hadot has explored) help you work both with and against the grain of your inborn personality traits to flourish as a person? This is another fascinating aspect of personalism.

I've already racked up a long list of personalist thinkers to explore when I write my book on The Art of Living Well (which I plan to start after completing the composition of my "eudaimonia suite" on Rand, Nietzsche, Aristotle, Thoreau, Epicurus, and Lao Tzu).

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