Personalism Research Paper

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To fully develop and be a reliable guide to bioethical issues globally, Global Bioethics needs at least these elements: a metaphysical foundation for the dignity of persons and a theory of persons. These principles require exploring from a global perspective principles of moral living, the transcendent character of persons, their orientation to Cosmic Person (or God) that transcends finite personal living, a moral compass, and a basis for interpersonal relationships and community. Personalism is any philosophy that considers personality the supreme value and the key to knowing reality and human rights. Therein lies the significance of Personalism for Global Bioethics. Personalism can provide the elements required for a defensible Global Bioethics. Outside of Christianity and Judaism, few Personalists have developed elements that aid the development of a Global Bioethics and that offer the potential to impact a broad range of current bioethics problems, such as allocation of finite medical and health-care resources, the use and limits of genetic manipulation in support of desired medical outcomes, informed consent, proper land and water use, death and dying, and family relations. These issues require a careful ethical analysis and an ethical framework from which those decisions can adequately be made. Though few Personalists have worked toward developing a Global Bioethics, Personalism is nevertheless rich in potential resources in its three dominant forms: Indian or Hindu, European, and American. Here these resources are identified from a historical viewpoint.

The American form of Personalism took root in the late nineteenth century, flowered in the twentieth century, and continues its life in the twenty-first century. Its earliest roots can be traced to a European form and back through Western philosophy to the Mediterranean basin. Long before its Western form, Personalism thrived in India through the six orthodox schools of Indian philosophy scattered along the Indus River Valley of the Indian subcontinent, developing parallel to Personalism in the West. Personalism did not develop in other areas of the globe, but Personalist themes can be found in many of them, providing rich resources for the development of an ethical framework for a Global Bioethics.


Personalists claim that Person is the key in the search for self-knowledge, for correct insight into reality, for the place of persons in reality, and for correct living (ethics). Other than giving centrality to the Person, Personalism has no other set of principles or unified doctrine. Many prominent Personalists have been theists, but that doctrine is not a requirement. There is also no common set of methods or definitions, including the definition of Person. Respecting that caution, Personalists defend the primacy and importance of persons against any attempt to reduce persons either to the Impersonalism of an infrastructure, such as Scientific Naturalism, or superstructure, such as Metaphysical Absolutism. Between the Scylla and Charybdis of either type of Impersonalism, Personalists trace the origin of the concept of Person and the development of Metaphysical Personalism from the ancient world to its flowering in Europe and America. Open to the richness of their philosophical tradition, Personalists trace their origin and development both to the Indian subcontinent and to the West.

History And Development Of Personalism

South And East Asian Personalism

India Hindu Personalism.

 In India the religious practice and thought spawned by the Vedic (from Veda, “knowledge,” “wisdom”) texts from at least 1500 BCE formed the backdrop of Hindu Personalism. The term Hindu is derived from the river Sindhu (the Indus) where various schools of practice and thought were formed.

Broadly conceived, Personalism in India originates within the main goal of Hindu philosophical inquiry, which is freedom from misery. Each system of Hindu philosophy seeks to help persons to that end by giving them insight into the nature of ultimate reality and their place in it. These systems advocate self-knowledge, atmavidya, without which the desired freedom is impossible. The nature and destiny of individual persons are the common themes of the six orthodox Hindu philosophical systems: Nyaya, Vaisesika, Samkhya, Yoga, Purva-mimamsa, and Vedanta. The Vaisesika school is frequently lumped together with the Nyaya (logic) school, and Yoga is classically grouped with Samkhya. Each system promises self-knowledge, atmavidya, that bonds the systems into a single philosophical tradition.

Seeking freedom from misery through self-knowledge, Hindu Personalist schools of thought center on four questions: What is the self? How is it related to the material world? What is the relation of the self to ultimate reality? And, what is the path from pain and misery to liberation?

First, according to each orthodox school, persons are marked by various characteristics, including a permanent and eternal soul (atman) that exists behind the veil of empirical consciousness and that possesses a physical body (jiva) existing as part of a changing material world. While it is agreed that the atman is eternal, unchanging, independent essence, the six orthodox schools differ whether the transcendent I is conscious or unconscious, active or passive. Each school also recognizes that by being connected to the material world, Persons possess other characteristics, including agency, will, thought, desire, free will, intention, and identity.

Second, Hindu Personalists focus on the indissoluble reality of the individual soul and on its relation to the empirical consciousness. The soul, the basic reality in humans and all living things, is a transcendent I (atman) and is veiled by a person’s empirical consciousness. It cannot be the object of experience. The empirical consciousness, the experience of objects sensed or being sensed, comes to be interpreted as alien, attributive, essential, adventitious, permanent, or temporary. Schools differ on how to correlate the transcendent I and the empirical consciousness. Hindu Personalism views the empirical consciousness as either attributive or alien, monist or dualist.

At one extreme, Samkhya, the oldest school, interprets the dualism of the transcendent I and the empirical consciousness as a dualism of spiritual consciousness (purusa) and material nature (prakrti). Purusa is sentient and passive; prakrti is insentient and active. As sentient, purusa experiences products of prakrti and desires emancipation. As passive, purusa can be understood as unaffected and secluded. In Samkhya, the material world is not an illusion; it is real and stands over against the spiritual person. This dualism is motivated by final beatitude. However, achieving it requires, in theistic versions of Samkhya, moral support, compassionate companionship, and guidance from a Supreme Being who possesses perfect knowledge and is capable of perfect action. The Yoga thinker Patanjali (300) introduced God into atheistic Samkhyan dualism to satisfy the moral demand of the spiritual aspirant. With that addition, the Samkhyan school becomes a theistic Personalism.

At the other extreme, monism is represented as Advaita Vedanta (non-dualistic Vedanta). Sankara (788–820), the leading expounder of Vedanta (literally, the end of the Veda) philosophy, states its principle insight that the self is One with Ultimate Reality (Brahman). Thus, the transcendent I includes the empirical many and the Divine One. The triune of Divine One (Brahman), the transcendent I (atman), and the empirical many is a grand unity. Sankara was the most influential Vedanta thinker who espoused the monistic framework, as defined in the Upanishads (tat tvam asi) Thou art that or (atman is Brahman).

The ethical dimension is found in the search for self-knowledge, which is necessary for the soul to be one with Brahman. During a person’s life cycle, the caste system prescribed in the Vedas eliminated the possibility of social movement, from lower to higher caste. Self-knowledge focused on one’s place in the caste system and its accompanying duties. The soul through its life cycle within a caste system seeks virtue, allowing reincarnation in a higher caste. In this way, the virtuous soul achieves release from pain and suffering to Nirvana. Little or no attention is paid to global bioethics, yet in some traditions the person is understood as having inherent dignity, necessary for grounding ethics, rights, and law. Within the unorthodox systems, such as Ajivikas (fatalists), Charvakas (materialists), Jains (who accept the existence of eternal selves but reject the existence of a supreme God), and Buddhism, Personalism does not develop, except in one sense as noted below. Ajivikas adopted materialism on the ground that sense-perception was the only valid means of knowledge. The Ajivika materialists questioned the validity of theological and metaphysical theories that do not come within the ambit of sense-experience. This explains why they rejected the religious version of atmavada, the belief in a metaphysical self.


Buddhists, followers of Siddhārtha Gautama (563–483), rejected the doctrines of atman or purusa, central to Hindu Personalism, and accepted instead a causal account (paticcasamuppada) of the human personality. The Person, for Siddhartha, is a causally connected bundle of psychophysical aggregates (namarupa). Kasulis says, “According to Buddhism, therefore, I am not a self-existent being who chooses with what or how I wish to relate to external circumstances” (Kasulis 2002, pp. 62–63; Mortensen 2014). A Buddhist Personalism, the Pudgalavadins thought that behind the aggregates or groups (skandha) of mental and physical Pudgalavada, arose two centuries after the lifetime of Siddhartha. De Smet says, “The conditions observed by introspection, there must a substrate. Had not the Buddha, in a well-known passage, spoken of the ‘bearer of the burden’– an expression seeming to indicate some sort of ego underlying the aggregates? At the same time the pudgala could by no means be identified with the atman, because it was merely an integrating function demanded by the aggregates and expressed by them” (De Smet 2010, p. 38). Its teaching came close to the heresy of the eternalism of the atman and soon died out.

China And Japan

Regarding China and Japan, in neither country’s faiths are persons understood as having an eternal essence or inherent dignity or value. The Chinese, deeply influenced by Confucianism (551–479 BCE), believed that humans elevated themselves to a position through examinations and service, providing little or no help in formulating a Global Bioethics. The Japanese, deeply influenced by Buddhism, understood persons in terms of their relationships with other humans, nature, and the totality of things. They held to a hierarchical dyadic view of persons. Persons continue to perfect themselves within the community of excellence. Parallel to the origin and formation of Personalism in India, and later the failure of Personalism to take hold in China and Japan, Personalism in the West began in the Mediterranean basin and through Christianity spread north to the Atlantic Rim, northern Europe and the British Isles, and America.

Roots Of Idealist And Realist Personalism In The Mediterranean Basin

All Western Personalists trace the origin of the ontological status of persons and their supreme importance as key to the understanding of Reality to the confluence of Greco-Roman philosophy and Christian experience and theology. Both made significant contributions to the formation of the concept of Person and the moral life, and Western Personalism can mask contributions central to global bioethics.

In its early uses, the word Person carried no ontological import. Person is first found in Greek and Roman culture. First consider the formation of “person” in the West. The roots of person lie in the Greek word prosopon that refers to the face consisting of that around and near the eyes (pros + accusative of ops). Soon it designated the masks or faces used in the Greek theater. Its Latin cognate is persona, probably of Etruscan derivation from phersu. Persona referred to a mask functioning as a loudspeaker (persono, per, “through” + sona, “resound,” “resound thoroughly”). The mask worn by actors on stage aided them by “sounding through” to be heard by an audience. In the Roman theater persona meant a character and role in a tragedy or comedy. In Roman society, the personae of individuals gain their identity, status, and responsibilities from their roles in a hierarchical, honor-shame society. For example, persona came to be used in reference to the king as king, implying a difference between the important social man and the relatively unimportant singular empirical man. By the end of the second century, persona became a judicial term referring to a Roman citizen as possessor of legal rights, in contrast to a slave who possesses no legal rights, a non-persona.

Meanwhile, as Pythagorean, Platonic, and Aristotelian philosophical influences continued, individual persons had little philosophical importance. Plato distinguishes between the individual and the universal and thereby understands the individual through the universal. The individual Socrates participates in the universal, Human Being. To understand the individual Socrates, first know the universal, and then one can understand and account for the particular. Pythagoras and Plato used the term soma, body, and played on the similarity between soma and sema, body and tomb. Aristotle, unlike Plato, calls the individual primary substance and the universal, conceptual. First substance is that which stands under (hypostasis) a general term referring to whatever stands under something else. Initially, prosopon gained no ontological meaning through that understanding of substance.

In the Eastern Mediterranean among the Jews, the Hebrew word, nephesh, is sometimes translated as “person.” However, in ancient Hebrew life and culture, no word analogous to prosopon or persona appears. Nephesh is more often translated as soul, life, creature, or self. Nephesh can refer to the animating principle of a physical entity or the existential quality or state of life. Usually referring to a human being as a unified entity, no distinction is made between immaterial and material aspects. Nephesh as a whole is created by God; nephesh is not an attribute of a substance. The form/matter and substance/attribute distinctions are foreign to ancient Hebrew thinking. However, beginning with Alexander the Great in the fourth century BCE and continuing through the Roman period, the Eastern Mediterranean became Hellenized. New Testament writers, St. Paul, for example, would have known nephesh, prosopon, and persona, likely aware of semantic tensions that later found their way into theological debates within the Christian church. The different Greek and HebrewChristian understandings of person moved into focus in the fourth and fifth centuries as the Christian church attempted to work out a satisfactory understanding of the Trinity and the individual personhood of Jesus the Christ. The details of the controversies that arose are beyond the limits here. However, central to the controversy was the understanding of the individual person. Is an individual person an attribute of being? or is an individual person being, who, having been created by the free and independent God and who bears God’s image, is also free and dependent? If the former, the Greek metaphysical word, ousia, expresses the Trinity, as in una substantia (God) and tres personae, where the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit are understood as three independent Gods. If the latter, person is not an attribute of ousia, but upostasis. Earlier both ousia and upostasis meant substance. Eventually, they were used separately, ousia referring to substance and upostasis referring to individual person. This means that persona is no longer a kind of mask worn by an ontological substrate, ousia. The Greek Fathers, particularly the Cappadocians, led by Gregory of Nazianus (329–389 or 390), understood that individual persons are ontologically ultimate, the central thesis of Personalism. However, an understanding of the interior life of persons lay beyond their metaphysical interests given the honor-shame culture in which they lived.

European Development And Flowering

The analysis of the interior life of persons and laying the foundation for Idealistic Personalism fell to Augustine (354–430), yet he continued the substance view by defining person as “a rational soul using a mortal and earthly body” (substantia quaedam rationis particeps, regendo corpora accomodata). Nevertheless, a person is One; a soul in possession of a body does not constitute two persons but one person. His contribution to Personalism was his investigation of the inner experience of persons. Augustine set a new course in philosophy that would not be developed until the modern period. In doing so, he developed an understanding of reality as Person through an understanding of the interior life of persons. Further, he argued that in persons, free will is superior to rationality.

Realistic Personalism

In the late Roman era or early Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church adopted Boethius’ (480–524 or 525) definition of person as the naturæ rationalis individua substantia (an individual substance of a rational nature). In the meantime, the Greek Orthodox Church continued the doctrines of the Cappadocians, particularly Gregory of Nazianus.

Medieval philosophers, such as Thomas Aquinas, modified Boethius’ definition, and others such as Scotus and William of Occam were critical of Boethius’ substance view of Person. Nevertheless, Boethius’ definition became firmly entrenched in Western Catholic philosophy and continues into the twentieth century as Realistic Personalism (resting as it does on Aristotelian and Thomistic foundations). During the modern period and the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Personalists continued to debate the nature of Persons. Though the meaning of substance changed under the impact of the Renaissance and the influence of modern thinkers such as Locke, Descartes, Hume, and Kant, the thought of Aquinas became known as the best statement of Christian Philosophy. Thomism has continued due largely to its institutionalization by the Catholic Church in 1879 by Pope Leo XIII in his Aeterni Patris where he designated Thomas’ thought as the official philosophy and doctrine of the Catholic Church. Cardinal Elio Sgreccia (2012), an important contemporary Thomistic thinker, has made important contributions to Global Bioethics.

Idealistic Personalism: Modern Formulations And Debates

As the grand systems of Christendom in the high Middle Ages cracked under the weight of heavy criticisms from Scotus, Occam, Montaigne, and the new science, a new vision arose in the Renaissance: the Emerging Self. Though for many the substance view of persons continued, aided by its institutionalization in the Western church, it was soon challenged. Pico della Mirandola’s, Luther’s, Descartes’, and Locke’s critiques and Augustine’s careful descriptions and insights into the interior life of persons contributed to emerging selves.

Influenced by pyrrhonistic skepticism, Descartes (1596–1650) searched for a new foundation for society, culture, and knowledge, one that measures up to the ideal of certainty as in mathematics. He argued that one can know for certain that he exists and that he can doubt every other knowledge claim, including those of the external world. In this way, inspired by new scientific investigations, he raised problems, particularly the mind-body problem. Rather than the view that God created ex nihilo substances with a rational nature, or persons are substances using a body, Descartes contends that God created two substances, res cogitans and res extensa, mind and body. Central to his view of mind is freedom of the will and rationale. In freedom of the will, one finds a characteristic of God that is exactly the same as one finds in oneself. God’s reason is so far beyond our finite minds that we cannot with confidence claim that God is reason. Descartes’ discussion of the interior life of persons in the early seventh century continues Augustine’s insights in the late fourth century. However, Descartes’ dualism of two kinds of created substances significantly differs from Boethius’ view that a person is an individual substance with a rational nature. Though modified, the substance view of persons persisted.

In reaction to Descartes’ dualism and Spinoza’s monism, Leibniz’s (1646–1716) doctrine of monads offered pluralism. Both Descartes and Spinoza assumed that extension implies actual size and shape. Leibniz wondered why we couldn’t assume that all things are compounds or aggregates of simple substances. These substances are not the extended atoms of Democritus or Epicurus. Each simple substance is a monad that is unextended and has no size or shape. Each is a metaphysical point that Leibniz called souls to emphasize their nonmaterial nature. And, each possesses its own principle of action within itself and behaves according to its own created purpose; still they work together according to God’s preestablished harmony. A person’s identity centers on a dominant monad, his soul, whose life is an “unfolding,” set from the beginning. Since the basic nature of persons is thought, development through life means moving from murky confused ideas to true ones, the way things really are. In this way, Leibniz was the first philosopher to reject the substance of persons and to adopt an agency view, even if deterministic. Some philosophers, such as Leroy E. Leomker (1900–1985), considered Leibniz the first modern Personalist, where persons are agents, not substances with an attribute.

Kant (1724–1804) and Hegel (1770–1830) exerted major influences on the formation and development of Idealistic Personalism in the West. Kant’s distinction between the phenomenal and noumenal world reinforced Berkeley’s view of “material” substance and emphasized that the only path to reality is through the practical reason of persons. With his claim that compliance with moral law is the essence of human dignity and personhood, Kant exerted the single most influence on many personalists with his categorical imperative, persons must be treated as ends and never as means only. That influence was transmitted into American philosophy through the work of Hermann Lotze (1817–1881).

Within that background, the modern Idealist Personalist vision was first stated in the context of a philosophical issue lying at the core of eighteenth and nineteenth-century German philosophy. The issue was raised in the debate between the followers of Spinoza and those of Leibniz. For Spinozists, Being is one and independent. If Being were more than one, it would not be independent; and, if Being is independent it cannot be many. For Leibnizians, reality is a pluralism of monads. The debate between the two systems sharpened to the debate between monism and pluralism. The problem of the One and the Many resurfaced. How can they be reconciled? What philosophical view can do so? At least two alternatives surfaced at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth century.

The first alternative was Hegel’s. According to a recent interpreter, Hegel sought a “unification philosophy – the need to unify not only life’s various and conflicting powers, but especially the opposing human craving – for individuality and finitude, on the one hand, and for the absolute and the infinite, on the other” (Hegel 2005, p. 48). Hegel sought it by blending the organic growth of an Aristotle and the Absolutism of a Spinoza into a dynamic monistic system marked by Idealism, Pantheism, and Rationalism.

In reaction to the Rationalism of Absolute Idealism and to individual realism, a poet and philosopher and older contemporary of Hegel, Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi (1743–1819), offered a second alternative, Personalism. He thought that Personalism is “that form of Idealism which gives equal recognition to both the pluralistic and monistic aspects of experience and which finds in the conscious unity, identity, and free activity of personality the key to the nature of reality and the solution of the ultimate problems of philosophy” (Bengtsson 2006, p. 53). The insight of Jacobi continued in Schelling, in the speculative theists (Fichte, Weisse, Ulrici), to Hermann Lotze, the preeminent philosopher in mid-nineteenth century Germany. It was primarily through Lotze that Personalism arrived in Boston. When Personalism arrived in Boston, the distinctive modern characteristics of persons were in place: numerically distinct, individual interiority, freedom of choice among genuine options, autonomy, dignity, and agency. As Personalism made its way to Boston and the West Coast, Personalism on the European continent and in England responded to German Idealism, specifically to Hegel.

In the debate between monism and pluralism, the traditional metaphysical problem of the One and the Many resurfaces. But more, metaphysical monism and pluralism lie beneath many modern philosophies that Personalism rejects as impersonal, dehumanizing. Absolute Idealism leaves little room for free will and self-determination and cannot be reconciled with the worth of the singular person. Totalitarianisms see persons as means to an end that exist for the interests of the state. Personalists respond insisting on self-determination, responsibility, and inherent dignity of all persons. Individualism champions the autonomous self as its own lawgiver, making all other persons a means to one’s own ends. Personalism contends persons are communal, open to, cooperating with, and possessing rights respects the viewpoints of others. Personalism also rejects any reduction of persons to impersonal, deterministic laws, whether those of society, for example, Auguste Comte (1798–1857), or of nature, Darwinism evolution. Personalists challenge Comtean philosophical positivism and naturalism whether that of Darwinism or Samuel Alexander (1859–1938) by appealing to the dignity of individual persons, their free will, and values.

On the European continent, responses to Hegel led to the development of three schools: Paris, Gottingen/Freiburg, and Lublin. In Paris Emmanuel Mounier (1905–1950), under the inspiration of Charles Peguy, founded French Personalism. He also founded and edited the influential French magazine Esprit, the organ of Personalism in France. His work influenced (1) the development of the Catholic Worker Movement, (2) Dorothea Day and Hull House in Chicago, and (3) Jacques Maritain, who helped formulate the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and signed it. Mounier’s influence continues in the work of the Danish philosopher, Jonas Mortensen, in his book The Common Good (2014). In Gottingen and Freiburg, Phenomenology developed under Edmund Husserl (1859–1938) who addressed the question of the relation of objective reality and philosophical reflection. Later he returned to Idealism, precipitating a break with his former students, who, when on their own, made significant contributions to Personalism. These included Max Scheler (1874–1928) who developed a theory of values based on Love and against the formalism of Kant. In Poland, the Catholic University of Lublin continues as a center of Personalist thought, whose foremost representative was Karol Wojtyla (1920–2005), later Pope John Paul II, an interpreter of Scheler, who developed a distinctive theory of man in his major work, The Acting Person, where he argued that man is best understood in action.

Idealistic Personalism In North America

Before the mid-nineteenth century, few in North America discussed the thought of German philosophers such as Kant, Fichte (1762–1814), Schelling (1775–1854), Hegel, and Lotze. As demands of academic life increased, young American philosophers completed their philosophical preparation with a year or two of study in Germany. When they returned, no longer fully embracing the old Scottish orthodoxy, their thinking was framed by the Spinoza-Leibniz debate, sometimes understood by theologians and many philosophers as the pantheism-individual freedom debate and by reductions of persons to deterministic laws of society and nature. Deliberating within that framework, they thoroughly discussed the Personalism they learned while studying with Hermann Lotze at Gottingen. Among that group were George Santayana (who wrote his doctoral dissertation at Harvard University on Lotze), William James (1863–1952), Josiah Royce (1855–1916), and Borden Parker Bowne (1847–1910). That conversation grew into what W. Werkmeister (1901–1993) in the mid-twentieth century called the “first complete and comprehensive system of philosophy developed in America which has had lasting influence and which still counts some of our outstanding thinkers among its adherents” (Werkmeister 1981, p. 103).

Those historical roots found their way into American philosophy and formed at least four distinctive branches of Personalism. These four branches are Idealistic (against the threat of naturalism and realism), Realistic (against reducing all to mind or person), Organismic (against Idealistic and Personalistic Realism), and ethical (against collectivism and reduction of personality to mechanism and the body-brain).


Harvard University

Josiah Royce, who taught at Harvard, was motivated by a religious view of life and reality, with an emphasis on the self and community. He sought to realize his philosophical goals through a synthesis of two traditions: the rationalistic system building of philosophers in the West and the pragmatic emphasis on experience and practice, distinctive of American philosophical activity since the late nineteenth century.

At the root of Royce’s system is a concept of the Self. Early in his career, the Absolute appears as the Self who knows all in one synoptic vision. Rejecting realism, mysticism, and critical rationalism, his central thesis is that to be real is to be a determinate, individual fulfillment of a purpose. Later he focused more on mediation and the idea of system. Toward the end of his career, the Self appears as social. He developed a social theory of reality, a community of interpretation. He called this community “the Beloved Community” whose goal was to possess the truth in its totality.

William James, a leading pragmatist, shared with Personalists a key insight. James said, “The more perfect and more eternal aspect of the universe is represented in our religions as having personal form. The universe is no longer a mere It to us, but a Thou, if we are religious; any relation that may be possible from person to person might be possible here” (James 1955, pp. 27–28).

William Ernest Hocking (1873–1976) believed the universe is independent of human minds and discoverable through Phenomenology. Sometimes thought of as the American Husserl, he studied for three months with Husserl at Gottingen. Through careful phenomenological analysis, Hocking unpacked everyday phenomena and found that “nature can no longer be fully understood from the atoms upward but only from consciousness or selfhood outwardly” (Howie 2004, p. 219). He stressed that Philosophy must be idealistic. Further, values keep emerging as more is learned about the world and ourselves.

The mental life has unity, is deep and mysterious, and finally coheres in a single will. The finite person is an imperfect image of the universe. Influenced by Personal Idealism and Royce’s Absolute Idealism, the final unity is a Self, infinite in depth and mystery. The Self or Person is also a natural thing that is completely determined. More than a natural thing, the self is free to determine what will be fact in the next moment. Though nature and mind are in opposition to each other, one subject to the laws of nature, the other transcending them, through the ceremonies of religion that opposition is overcome.

Boston University

Borden Parker Bowne claimed to be the first Personalist in any thoroughgoing sense, having developed a systematic metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and psychology. He taught at Boston University from 1876 until his death in 1910. Metaphysically Bowne was a Pluralistic Idealist like Howison. But his theism distinguishes his Personalism from Howison’s. God, the Divine Person, is both creator and world ground. Finite selves are created, and nature is the energizing of the Cosmic Mind. As world ground, the Divine Mind is the self-directing intelligent agency that accounts for the order and continuity of the phenomenal world.

Bowne was not only a systematic philosopher but also a caustic critic of Hegel’s Absolutism, Spencer’s Evolutionism, and all forms of Materialism. These criticisms were expressed in his famous chapter in Personalism, “The Failure of Impersonalism” (Bowne 1908, pp. 107–150).

Bowne’s teaching at Boston University attracted many young talented philosophers, some of whom formed the second generation of Personalists in America. The most important among them were Albert Knudson (1873–1953), who continued the Personalist tradition in the Divinity School of Boston University; Ralph Tyler Flewelling (1871–1960), who developed the School of Philosophy at the University of Southern California; and Edgar Sheffield Brightman (1884–1953), who led the Philosophy Department at Boston University from 1919 until his death in 1953.

Brightman, in agreement with other Boston University Personalists, sought truth to guide creative living in the most empirically coherent interpretation of experience. Rejecting the skepticism of Descartes, beginning the search for truth within experience, and advancing and testing hypotheses, Brightman developed the distinction between the shining present and the illuminating absent. Pointing beyond itself, the shining present is unintelligible without reference to an illuminating absent. Though the shining present does not prejudice the nature of the illuminating absent, Person is the hypothesis that most coherently illumines the shining present.

Brightman contended that everything that exists/subsists is in, of, or for a mind on some level. He defined Personalism as the hypothesis that all being is either a personal experience (a complex unity of consciousness) or some phase or aspect of one or more such experience. Nature is an order generated by the mind of Cosmic Person. Finite persons are created and grounded by the uncreated God and as such possess free will. Reality is a society of persons.

Brightman’s most impressive work is his Moral Laws, in which he works out, along lines heavily indebted to Kant and Hegel, a thoroughgoing ethical theory. In Moral Laws, Brightman adopted perfectionism that moved from the abstract universal to the concrete universal. In its moral development, value choices should be guided by moral laws, a kind of cultural neutral regulatory system. Understood dialectically, the moral life is a special instance of the relation of the universal to the particular, wherein the personality can achieve both the best possible and rational freedom (Deats and Robb 1986, p. 111). In this way, personality, under the guidance of reason, seeks to become the best it can be, a fully integrated personality.

Peter A. Bertocci (1910–1989), following Brightman as the leading Personalist at Boston University, enriched the understanding of person through his work in psychology. Bertocci claims that the person “is a self-identifying, beingbecoming agent who maturing and learning as he interacts with the environment, develops a more or less systematic, learned unity of expression and adaptation that we may call his personality” (Bertocci and Millard 1963, p. 217). Bertocci is well known for his work in ethics and his view that the essence of person is time.


Howison’s position can be succinctly stated in this way: all existence is either (1) the existence of minds or (2) the existence of the items and order of their experience; all the existences are known as “material” consisting in certain of these experiences, with an order organized by the self-active forms of consciousness that in their unity constitute the substantial being of a mind, in distinction from its phenomenal life. Devoted to empiricism, Howison rejected creation, persons simply are, metaphysically they have source. Collectively they move toward their own fulfillment as measured by the eternal standard to God. Later at the University of Southern California, Ralph Tyler Flewelling, a student of Bowne, taught Boston University Personalism enriched into Democratic Personalism.

Central And South American Personalism

 Personalism in Latin America developed in the twentieth century against the background of Scholasticism (sixteenth to nineteenth centuries) and Naturalism and Positivism (nineteenth century). When Latin American philosophers became aware of North American philosophy in the twentieth century, it was the Personalism of Edgar Sheffield Brightman that attracted them most. The interest was reciprocal. “Brightman established the first graduate course in Latin American philosophy in the United States” (Kruse 2002, p. 149).

Personalist Themes In African Thought

Africans held a rich view of persons, but did not develop a Personalism in the Western or Eastern sense of persons, such as Augustine’s rational soul using a mortal body and understanding epistemologically, ontologically, and ethically through personality. They held a social view of themselves. Society comes first, epistemologically, ontologically, and morally. Within community a man becomes a man, and that becoming is a process that takes many years. In this sense, they rejected Western individualism, especially Western Protestant Christianity when presented through the eyes of missionaries who presented the Gospel as calling an individual to right his or her life with God. Furthermore, no one working in these traditions addresses issues in global bioethics.

Personalist Themes in the Near East

Some Islamic philosophers developed a form of Personalism, the most notable of whom was Muhammad Iqbal (1877–1938). Though born in British India (now Pakistan), he was a well-recognized poet in Pakistan. Ibal was deeply religious and at an early age enrolled in a mosque to a study of the Koran and Islam. His philosophical thought centered on the belief in a Cosmic Self that the whole world obeys. The whole of life is self-knowledge and self-realization. The self goes through various stages before arriving at perfection, when the self becomes a vice-regent with God. He stressed that self-realization and perfection can only be achieved within the nation. In his poetry he continually emphasized the importance of community.


As noted earlier, few Western Personalists have addressed issues in Global Bioethics. Personalists in America focused on issues current at the time, such as the Other Minds problem and ethics. There are notable exceptions such as Erazim Kohak’s (1933– ) The Embers and the Stars (1984), an exploration of the moral sense of nature. Kohak writes on environmental ethics, a subfield of bioethics, from the perspective of a Personalistic Phenomenologist. The most notable contemporary work by Personalists in bioethics comes from the pens of realists, most of whom are in the folds of the Catholic Church. Christians of all persuasions support a journal published by Oxford University Press, in which issues in bioethics and global bioethics are discussed. Nevertheless, a central contribution of Personalism is its focus on value theory, and the transcendent character and dignity of human life offers the potential to impact a broad range of current bioethics problems, such as allocation of finite medical and health-care resources, use and limits of genetic manipulation in support of desired medical outcomes, informed consent, proper land and water use, death and dying, and family relations. However, few personalists have developed an adequate theory of interpersonal relations, central for an adequate understanding of community.

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