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Personalism is a philosophical perspective that holds that the person has its own autonomy, values, and reality, which are irreducible to any other components. Borden Bowne developed this view against all forms of materialism, naturalistic reductionism including the Social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer, and certain forms of positivism. Personalism as a philosophical movement flourished in the early twentieth century and Emmanuel Mounier contributed for the development in France.

Personalism developed primarily within Christian (Catholic) contexts, and it can broadly be qualified as a theistic humanism. Also Kant is not usually classified as a personalist, but his perspective of man as a morally autonomous individual is seen as its predecessor. Pope John Paul II, Martin Luther King Jr., Jacques Maritain, Gabriel Marcel also shared a personalist perspective.

General backgrounds

The concept of person as a non-material existence has been recognized in most religious traditions. The idea was often discussed in the contexts of or in relation to morality or ethics in philosophical traditions. The concept of person was discussed in various forms together with other concepts such as personal identity, freedom, responsibility, and moral autonomy.

For example, Socrates' arguments against the Sophists' secularist materialism and ethical relativism was based upon his conviction of the immaterial identify of the individual and the immortality of the soul. Socrates understood the purpose of philosophy as the cultivation of the soul. The Socratic perspective that asserted the immateriality of human existence was further developed as metaphysics by his student, Plato. Although Aristotle did not accept Platonic metaphysics, he interlaced the concept of person into diverse disciplinary fields and approached it from diverse perspectives.

Medieval thinkers, who integrated Platonism and Aristotelianism into a Christian framework, articulated the spirituality of human existence and its relationship with God, the Creator.

When modern philosophy, however, gave up theistic, Christian frameworks of thought and undertook epistemology as its primary concern, the immateriality of human beings was discussed more within epistemological or psychological contexts.

Personalism in the twentieth century conceptualized the immaterial aspect of human existence, which had been discussed in a variety of ways and contexts, as the person within theistic, or Christian, contexts. Personalists identified the person as the spiritual reality with explicit references to God, the Creator, and the Ultimate Person who has will and intelligence.

Personalists argued against trends of materialism, positivism, naturalism, and all forms of reductionism.

Personalism and individualism

Personalism is not individualism. Forms of individualism tend to view the individual as an isolated existence. It, at least, does not capture sufficiently the interdependent relationships by which any individual can define itself. Personalism, on the contrary, conceives the individual as an interdependent existence, who has intrinsic relationships with others such as God and other persons.

Borden Bowne's Personalism

Personalism flourished in the early twentieth 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 the social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer) which sought to reduce the value of persons. He also stood against certain forms of positivism which sought to reduce the importance of God.

Emmanuel Mounier's Personalism

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.

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.[1]

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.

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 personalities have dignity and worth.[2]

Pope John Paul II was also influenced by personalism. Before becoming Pope, he wrote Person and Act (also sometimes translated 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. His writings as Pope, 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


  1. 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.
  2. See his essay “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence” Retrieved January 8, 2008.

External links

All links retrieved November 23, 2022.

General Philosophy Sources


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