Why this NY Times Writer [David Brooks] Loves Personalism and You Should Too

by Joe Miller | Jun 26, 2018 | LatestNewsPhilosophyScience, Reason & Faith

The first part of the 21st century could easily be remembered as the era of identity politics, in which one societal group is pitted against another in an upwardly spiraling struggle for power and respect.

David Brooks’ recent New York Times Op-Ed on personalism, a philosophical perspective that emphasizes each person’s infinite uniqueness and depth, is a timely and much needed reminder of the dignity of every human being regardless of their race, gender, age, nationality, economic status, intelligence, athleticism, physical beauty, etc.

Because personalism recognizes the mutual dependence of all persons, it is fundamentally opposed to the modern “we win and you lose” mentality. Brooks offers a profound insight on this point when he writes:

“Every human encounter is a meeting of equals. Doing community service isn’t about saving the poor; it’s a meeting of absolute equals as both seek to change and grow.”

In the article he credits a few of the notable philosophers who helped define personalism and some of the humanitarians who actually lived it. Two significant Catholic figures that he mentions are the 20th century French philosopher, Jacques Maritain, and Karol Wojtyla, who became Pope John Paul II. One particularly important personalist thinker that is not credited is Father W. Norris Clarke, S.J..

In Father Clarke’s book Person and Being Clarke posits that the relational aspect of being is not accidental to being but is a primordial constituent thereof. In other words, no man is an island, to be is to be in relationshipwith others. For a good summary of Fr. Clarke’s philosophy read this articleby David C. Paternostro, S.J..

David Brooks is to be commended for shining the light of truth regarding the human person in the midst of so much darkness.

Joe Miller

Joseph Miller is the Executive Director of the Magis Center

David Brooks is on to something with regard to the dignity of the human person as relation. He wwrote on the topic a year ago last June [6/14/2018] Personalism: The Philosophy We Need

By David Brooks

  • June 14, 2018


CreditCreditEduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images

One of the lessons of a life in journalism is that people are always way more complicated than you think. We talk in shorthand about “Trump voters” or “social justice warriors,” but when you actually meet people they defy categories. Someone might be a Latina lesbian who loves the N.R.A. or a socialist Mormon cowboy from Arizona.

Moreover, most actual human beings are filled with ambivalences. Most political activists I know love parts of their party and despise parts of their party. A whole lifetime of experience, joy and pain goes into that complexity, and it insults their lives to try to reduce them to a label that ignores that.

Yet our culture does a pretty good job of ignoring the uniqueness and depth of each person. Pollsters see in terms of broad demographic groups. Big data counts people as if it were counting apples. At the extreme, evolutionary psychology reduces people to biological drives, capitalism reduces people to economic self-interest, modern Marxism to their class position and multiculturalism to their racial one. Consumerism treats people as mere selves — as shallow creatures concerned merely with the experience of pleasure and the acquisition of stuff.

Back in 1968, Karol Wojtyla wrote, “The evil of our times consists in the first place in a kind of degradation, indeed in a pulverization, of the fundamental uniqueness of each human person.” That’s still true.

So this might be a perfect time for a revival of personalism.

Personalism is a philosophic tendency built on the infinite uniqueness and depth of each person. Over the years people like Walt Whitman, Martin Luther King, William James, Peter Maurin and Wojtyla (who went on to become Pope John Paul II) have called themselves personalists, but the movement is still something of a philosophic nub. It’s not exactly famous.

Personalism starts by drawing a line between humans and other animals. Your dog is great, but there is a depth, complexity and superabundance to each human personality that gives each person unique, infinite dignity.

Despite what the achievement culture teaches, that dignity does not depend on what you do, how successful you are or whether your school calls you gifted. Infinite worth is inherent in being human. Every human encounter is a meeting of equals. Doing community service isn’t about saving the poor; it’s a meeting of absolute equals as both seek to change and grow.

The first responsibility of personalism is to see each other person in his or her full depth. This is astonishingly hard to do. As we go through our busy days it’s normal to want to establish I-It relationships — with the security guard in your building or the office worker down the hall. Life is busy, and sometimes we just need to reduce people to their superficial function.

But personalism asks, as much as possible, for I-Thou encounters: that you just don’t regard people as a data point, but as emerging out of the full narrative, and that you try, when you can, to get to know their stories, or at least to realize that everybody is in a struggle you know nothing about.

The second responsibility of personalism is self-gifting. Twentieth-century psychologists like Carl Rogers treated people as self-actualizing beings — get in touch with yourself. Descartes tried to separate individual reason from the bonding emotions. Nikolai Berdyaev said that tends to turn people into self-enclosed monads, with no doors or windows.

Personalists believe that people are “open wholes.” They find their perfection in communion with other whole persons. The crucial questions in life are not “what” questions — what do I do? They are “who” questions — who do I follow, who do I serve, who do I love?

The reason for life, Jacques Maritain wrote, is “self-mastery for the purpose of self-giving.” It’s to give yourself as a gift to people and causes you love and to receive such gifts for others. It is through this love that each person brings unity to his or her fragmented personality. Through this love, people touch the full personhood in others and purify the full personhood in themselves.

The third responsibility of personalism is availability: to be open for this kind of giving and friendship. This is a tough one, too; life is busy, and being available for people takes time and intentionality.

Margarita Mooney of Princeton Theological Seminary has written that personalism is a middle way between authoritarian collectivism and radical individualism. The former subsumes the individual within the collective. The latter uses the group to serve the interests of the self.

Personalism demands that we change the way we structure our institutions. A company that treats people as units to simply maximize shareholder return is showing contempt for its own workers. Schools that treat students as brains on a stick are not preparing them to lead whole lives.

The big point is that today’s social fragmentation didn’t spring from shallow roots. It sprang from worldviews that amputated people from their own depths and divided them into simplistic, flattened identities. That has to change. As Charles Péguy said, “The revolution is moral or not at all.”


He writes on it today as “The Big Story You Don’t Read About” [5/17/2019]. Good stuff as it takes on body in the mind of Brooks and in the pages of the NYT. He suggest in the above that this might be an important time for the revival personalism, and I might add, for a first time center state performance for Christian personalism as the defining center of societal, political and economic life.

In the article two levels above, I am part of the story of Brook’s attention to Norris Clarke, S.J. in that I brought Clarke the radicalism of the theological thought of Joseph Ratzinger gleaned from the traditional theology of the Trinity. Ratzinger – as forerunner of Vatican II – offered Christology and anthropology as candidates for this unheard of radicalism where the human person, as the divine – mutatis mutandis – was constitutively relational – meaning that as the Person of the Father is not first the Father (substance-like) and, then, engenders the Son, but rather, the Father ia the very action of engendering the Son. That is, the Father is not a Being-in- Himself, but is an action, a relating: “Only as this act is it person, and therefore it is not the giver but the act of giving…In this idea of relativity in word and love, independent of the concept of substance and not to be classified among the ‘accidents,’ Chritian thought discovered the kernel of the concept of person, which describes something other and infinitely more than the mere idea of the ‘inidividual.’” And then Ratzinger announces that “the undivided sway of thinking in terms of substance is ended; relation is discovered as an equally valid primordial mode of reality. It becomes possible to surmount what we call today ‘objectifying thought,’ a new plane of being comes into view.” And then It is probably true to say that the task imposed on philosophy as a result of these facts is far from being complete – so much does modern thought depend on the possibilities thus disclosed, but for which it  would be inconceivable.”[1] Clarke, who was not interested in theology in this venue, dismissed me. But 10 days later called me to concede that perhaps I was on to something. He took the idea and did wonderful things with it as we can see from his publications and even gave me space in his first footnote of  his Marquette Lecture on “Person and Being.” However, my opinion was that we had to get rid of the Greek notion of substance entirely as Ratzinger suggested in the quote above.

[1] J. Ratzinger, “Introduction to Christianity Ignatius (1990) 132.

One thought on “Why this NY Times Writer [David Brooks] Loves Personalism and You Should Too

  1. Fr. Bob. I read the above. Digesting it again. Personalism #1 to know the other in depth is the essence of true friendship. Forgetting myself so that “I” can focus more deeply, more lovingly on the other, the “Thou”. Hard, unselfish work only accomplished with grace. Thanks

    Liked by 1 person

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