In the last few blog posts I have tried to clarify some important terms such as “Platonism” and “the Forms.” While I’m at it, I should also clarify another term important for explaining my own philosophical sensibilities: Personalism. I consider myself to be a student and admirer of the “Christian personalist” movement that flourished, especially though not exclusively among Catholic thinkers, in the early part of the twentieth century. Important figures for this movement include Max Scheler, Gabriel Marcel, Edith Stein, Karol Wojtyła (Pope John Paul II), John Zizioulas, and my absolute favorite, Dietrich von Hildebrand.
I frequently meet a certain confusion about the term personalism, however, especially when I am talking to people who are interested in apologetics. I came to find out that the well-known apologist Edward Feser and David Bentley Hart have been advancing a critique of what they call “theistic personalism,” in an effort to counter a dangerous trend they see in analytic philosophy of religion. They especially have in view the even more well-known William Lane Craig, and they propose “classical theism” in opposition. As some indication of how well-known these figures are right now, both Feser and Craig have recently been interviewed by Ben Shapiro on the Daily Wire, and Hart has such a fan club that people frequently refer to him merely by the acronym DBH and expect you will know whom they mean. For the details of the controversy between “theistic personalism” and “classical theism,” I recommend this interesting post on Feser’s personal blog.
The gist of “theistic personalism” as a pejorative term involves thinking of God merely as “a person,” relying too heavily on the analogy between human persons, and failing to recognize the fully transcendent nature of God. Feser is careful to point out that “classical theism” does not mean conceiving of God as impersonal, but rather simply recognizing the radical disanalogies between our finite, temporally-bound experience of personhood and the transcendent God. Further, the doctrine of the Trinity teaches us that God is not merely a person, but rather three persons, which should all the more persuade us not to think of God as simply an expanded version of an ordinary individual up in the sky.
I explain all this merely to say that it has nothing to do with the Christian personalist movement. Christian personalism primarily concerns the meaning of personhood for human beings. It has more to do, therefore, with philosophical anthropology than theology. Since the name describes a broad movement of various thinkers with different positions, it is hard to identify a single thesis that captures what it means to be a personalist. Nevertheless, here is an attempt at what I mean when I call myself a personalist:
- The distinction between persons and things is ontologically fundamental. Who someone is simply cannot be reduced to what he is. Recognizing this distinction opens up to us a unique kind of value that only persons posses.
The personalist thinkers I named in the first paragraph all count as members of the movement because this distinction between person and thing forms a central theme in their total philosophy. We can easily see that an emphasis on this distinction can easily spread out into other areas of philosophy. For example, if persons possess a unique kind of value precisely as the person that they are, then this should affect our ethics. We ought to treat persons as persons, and further treat this person as the particular person that he is.
This obviously has something to do with theology, but it involves a much broader set of concerns than the narrow dispute between “theistic personalism” and “classical theism” that Feser and Hart have in mind. The Christian personalist are generally motivated by a vision of the Trinitarian, personal being of God and by the doctrine that man is made in the image of God. All the thinkers that I mentioned, however, would fall under Feser’s description of a “classical theist” and would not be guilty of “theistic personalism.”
If you are interested further in Christian personalism, I highly suggest reading this excellent, brief summary from the Personalist Project. I also highly recommend anything from the Hildebrand Project. I have attended their summer seminars for the last several years, and it is consistently one of the best philosophy events.