Sunday, 30 July 2017

A Poet’s Appeal to Personalism: a Note on Alyosha (Augur Press, 2016)

by Daniel Gustafsson

Two things, it seems to me, threaten the irreducible reality and dignity of the personal life today: reductionism and relativism.
In the struggle against these twin tendencies of a depersonalised age, philosophy should resign its role as the henchman of science – let’s be done 

With doubt, with your school-yard squabbles and hair- 
splitting, your wisdom’s distrust of delight... –

and accept instead its vocation as the shield-maiden of poetry. Personalist thought, certainly, must be responsive to both ‘extra-utile’ and ‘extra-rational’ sources of value and revelation.   
Hence my fond invocation of Alyosha Karamazov, saintly foil of the sceptical Ivan. Alyosha’s loving response to his brother’s venomously disenchanted worldview – his relational and symbolic refutation Ivan’s rational-empiricist argument – should be the riposte of the poet and personalist alike to the negations of materialism.      

He tells you, don’t look, don’t love, only think!
It’s enough to make the world shrink…

For the world does shrink, and we with it, if scientism and solipsism prevail against our mutual and ek-static mode of being. Poetry, meanwhile, is entirely premised upon the personal. The relational and irreducible is not only the subject matter of poetry, but its very medium and material – manifesting the ineffable in the corporeal, the invisible in the apparent: 

Grant us beauty to cleanse our vision…
For beauty is a radiant proof of that in human experience which overspills or oversteps the merely causal and mechanical. It is one of the surest signs of our moral and spiritual dignity and potential. Beauty should therefore be no less a source and aim of the personalist, than of the poetic, endeavour:   

That true design may vanquish false powers… 

For it is the poetic mode of apprehension, and the poetic mode of re-presentation, that safeguards a world abundant in its offerings of splendour and significance:  

The ground is littered with anemones,
And the finches are in flitting and flight

Hence these poems seek to give place to wonder and reverence, the origin of real philosophy: not a practice of academic speculation, but a life lived in response to wisdom’s incarnate and ineffable disclosure.     
It is an unshakable tenet of personalist thought that we are dialogic beings. We exist face to face and, as it were, mouth to mouth; for language is an essential aspect of our inter-personal reality:  

Our lives are unfolded in language,
And we languish without conversation…

Language, for beings like us, is not only the functional projection of thought. Reflective, diachronic and metaphoric, the fabric of language itself offers new possibilities of meaning and of personal expansion. In poetry, this dialogic mode may be realised in its most distilled form. Dialogue can change us, improve us, and involves us in mutual transformation:

This is the fabric of our passion,
This is how we fashion ourselves… 

The lack of a dialogic sense has repercussions for the way we inhabit the natural as well as the cultural world. In a post-colonial and post-modern climate, pathologically uneasy about inherited goods and values, it becomes difficult to motivate care for a shared world, a shared language and a shared place. Our own time, zealous in its pursuit of progress and levelling, is impatient with reflection and disdainful of cultural preservation. Also our efforts to salvage the environment may, I believe, suffer from a lack of a relational anchoring and approach.  
These poems enjoin us, therefore, to care for a world endangered by entropy, deconstruction and desecration:  
          this frayed and threadbare fabric
Is not ours to unmask or unmake;

Our task is to love

When gratitude is replaced by entitlement, mutual responsibilities by individual rights, resulting in a loss of historical as well as situated consciousness, personalism should serve to affirm those relations that make us who we are, as persons inhabiting – as well as inheriting – a particular time and place. We are not self-sufficient. Nor are we simply consumers. We are heirs and stewards, and the world is ours by trust: 

                   Now that we are of the living,
This long-cherished landscape belongs to us
Only in the lasting need of giving…
We live at a time when reductionism is becoming increasingly politicised. In the discourse of rights, the personal is entirely overshadowed by the individual and the collective, the quantifiable monads and masses susceptible to standardised solutions. To speak, as I believe we must, of the spiritual aspects of personal dignity and relationality is becoming all but impossible; indeed, religiously indebted and inflected language is becoming increasingly unintelligible.  
Hence my fervent invocation of Yuri Zhivago; for this poet and physician, an object of mockery for the materialist-determinist powers that be, was persecuted for his defence of the personal in conditions too like our own:         

And you’d never enlist with your scalpel,

The quill and chisel of your healing arts,
For their cure-all campaign of negation:

You have witnessed their botched operation

We too have witnessed the wasteland of utility and universality, of platitude and bureaucracy; the reduction of all that is most particular, precious and perplexing in life to calculations of the lowest common denominator; and we summon against this malaise the healing arts of empathy and imagination; for we know 

That life is all muteness and misery
Unless blood is married to metaphor,

Unless the heart-walls and the measured floor
Break open to music and mystery

Daniel Gustafsson is a bi-lingual poet and philosopher. Working at the intersections of philosophy, theology and the arts, he seeks to affirm the irreducible nature of language, beauty, and personhood. Daniel received a PhD in Philosophy from the University of York in 2014. Debut collections of poetry in both English (Alyosha, Augur Press) and Swedish (Karve, Axplock) appeared in the summer of 2016. Daniel currently works in secondary education and divides his time between Yorkshire and his native land. In his spare time, he practises the patient arts of angling and tea-drinking. 

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

On Human Dignity

by James Beauregard

My first trip to the International Conference on Persons was the conference held at the University of Lund Sweden in August 2013. A few months earlier, I had emailed Jan Olaf Bengtsson about his entry on personal in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and in the conversation that followed he invited me to submit an abstract for consideration for the 13th ICP, and then, suddenly, I was walking down the oldest street in Scandinavia, learning to say, "hey hey” in greeting upon entering the city’s many shops, and, in the company of Dick Prust, learning that Lund has some excellent Italian restaurants.
At the opening event for the conference, I was very vivid memory of Randy Auxier getting us organized and ready to go, and not infrequently I recall his brief comments on human dignity as something that ought to be concerned with. This is an enormously refreshing, moving as I often do in a clinical, medical and scientific world in which such considerations tend to be raised only on occasion and bioethics committees.
The question of dignity, though, is bigger than that and I'm in agreement with Randy that it is something about which all Personalist thinkers ought to be concerned. Being an academic as well as a clinician, one of the recent ways that concern emerged was in a review of book on human dignity and bioethics that I wrote for the National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly, and, if any further proof was needed that no good deed goes unpunished, I was asked by the I was ultimately asked by editors to do a podcast on human dignity. Needless to say, this has caused me to think of some length about it, as have my discussions with my British friend and colleague Simon Smith, is an ongoing part of our transatlantic discussion.
What is dignity and how is it grounded? As is the case with many questions of philosophy, the answer begins somewhere else, and specifically with persons. Dignity questions are, I would suggest, at the root ontological and epistemological ones which bear fruit in philosophical anthropology and ethics. The 13th ICP was fertile ground for all of these, as the Anglo-American and European traditions of personalism came into a more conscious conversation.
Some years ago, neuroscientist Ruth Macklin referred to dignity as a “useless concept” when speaking of the field of bioethics, and instead argued that concepts such as "autonomy" will be much more useful, the term dignity being far too vague to be useful. But, our autonomy and dignity the same thing? The latter seems far more extensive than the former, and respect for autonomy really can't cover all of the issues that are rising concerns about human dignity and human rights, and a becoming ever increasingly intertwined in contemporary discourse.

What’s needed in the end is a robust and full throated conception of persons out of which a defensible concept of dignity can flow.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Drop by Drop

by Teresita Pumará

He knew he had won a battle, and easily, without apparent violence.
But violence had been done.

Ursula Le Guin, The Dispossessed

A couple of months ago I saw Pina Bausch´s Tanztheater Company live for the first time. The company is settled in Wuppertal, an industrial city in West Germany. A hanging train runs over the river. There is an Engels´ house, an Engels´ stone park and a giant Engels statue donated by China´s government. Wuppertal is a dystopian steam punk city that hangs between the past and the future, between the first and the third world. She holds the secret of western civilization.
The company presented two of their most famous pieces: Café Muller and Das Frühlingsopfer. I sat still and alert during the show, waiting for the strong aesthetic emotion that never came. There was no relax and enjoy beauty. The stillness, the alertness, remained. This is violent, I thought, while I clapped the dancers who showed no complaisance, still tense and serious. It would be better not to clap, it would be better to stand up in silence and look at each other and then leave the room and change the rules that order our lives. This is violent.

It was violent in a slight way. Not violent in the Lars Von Trier way, which makes you swear: I will never go through this experience again in my life. It was violent like life is violent: drop by drop, never reaching the top, so that it is always bearable. So that you grow into it and go on.

Pina Bausch is the big name in the story of Tanztheater. She created a new performance that made Artaud´s theatre of cruelty happen: in a total scene, the elements involved in it (movement, clothes, lights, words, music, respiration) are not submitted to the spoken word or the author´s authority. Each element connects to the others, configuring a performance that does not re-present but creates shadows. The shadows are the way in which what happens on stage echoes through each of the individuals that participate in the ritual, and transforms them.

In Café Muller a woman in a white nightgown, eyes closed, moves blindly against a wall or through a chair mined café. Another woman in the same nightgown finds and loses love. She sometimes dances, and sometimes takes her gown off and sits with her upper body lying on a table, showing her naked back. A third woman dressed in bright colours comes in and goes out, searching desperately for something, anxious to call anyone´s attention. The men take care of the women. They move the chairs for them, so that they do not stumble and fall. They hold them, get them on their feet, organize their movements and soften their falls.
Café Muller brings to the stage the invisible force that fixes each one of us to the wall and compels us to repeat blindly the same movements. This force flows between the dancers and the public, it makes them uncomfortable and lonely. It is, in Walter Benjamin´s terms, a law-preserving violence. The law this violence preserves is often a unwritten one. It tells us what is expected of a woman and what is expected of a man and drives us endlessly around the circle of action and reaction.

In his Critique of Violence Benjamin distinguishes between a law-making violence and a law- preserving violence. The critique of this second form of violence can only be achieved by a critique of all legal violence. But Benjamin warns the reader not to fall in a childish anarchism. In other words: there will always be parts to be played, there will always be rules. Life is a game and games are just games. But sometimes those rules give place to joyless bodies: bodies full of fear, societies that seek a foreign group to blame their frustrations on. Then everything and everybody becomes a threat. Is there a non-violent way to end a violent order? Benjamin likes mystic exits, so he suggests a “pure violence”, the divine power, which is cruel but not bloody and does not create law.

In Das Frühlingopfer a group of women and a group of men dance the dance of spring, full of strength and desire. The women seek and refuse a red dress as they seek and refuse their partners. The struggle takes place within each dancer as well as within each group and between each group. There is no easy, binary way to experience their ritual. In the end, a woman chooses and is chosen. She wears the red dress and dances alone. A stripe falls from her shoulder and leaves her left breast naked. At first she feels uncomfortable, she would like to cover it, but desire and music and movement are stronger. She dances with growing intensity, sucking strength and confidence from her naked breast.
This is a pure form of violence. It has nothing of the fixed movements of the men and the women in Café Muller, but it neither denies fear. It acknowledges it, it takes the risk, its dances through and beyond it. It echoes in the individuals who experience it, it never turns against them or seeks to destroy them. It questions the way in which we are organized, as bodies, as societies. It invites us to live beyond fear. Fear produces lonely and joyless people. Life, says the woman who dances, her left breast naked, is a risk, and love is the ultimate danger.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Here and There and Back Again

by Denis Larrivee

Nostalgic recollections from 1960’s communal utopias often focus on the iconic imagery of peace symbols and hippie lovefests meant, thereby, to illustrate a liberating eruption in a social fabric closed to the personal and unitive. Communal utopias, in the vision of hippie philosopher Steve Gaskin, offered an ideal of ‘absolute’ love, responsibility, and community where dropping out became a distinctively anti-modern impulse meant to embrace higher levels of existential fraternity. Reactions against modernist constraints focused on the ossified forms of hierarchical institutionalism and materialist consumerism that, it was claimed, deadened intuited needs for liberating wholeness. Writing in 1966, Alan Ginsberg lamented in his ‘Public Solitude’ the building of a technological tower of Babel that stifled the lived and experienced Spirit, creating a mental slavery to a material universe. Ginsberg and the anti-culture proposed, instead, an already sensed communal essence that would restore a grounding altruism and breach the constraints of an impersonal and rationalist science. Against this backdrop, use of psychedelics merely opened ‘doors’ breaking down barriers to liminal consciousness and unitive togetherness that forged the commune and retrieved the spirits of its ‘transcendental predecessors’, wraiths of Whitman, Emerson, and Thoreau.
Albert Hofmann, father of the discovery and a proponent of the use of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), however, situated what was more widely perceived as a drug and social dystopia to a psychotherapeutic and empirical level, where an intended medical product had been pirated to further a counterfeit social, cultural, and spiritual ‘infinity’. For Hofmann, the cavalier use of the psychedelic ‘shifted the focus from what should have been the essential issue.’ In his view, LSD apostles like Timothy Leary had propagated its use among juveniles overlooking and dismissing the patent and potentially lethal consequences of unrestrained consumption, subverting its otherwise potentially beneficial and scientific application for cognitive health. In fact, use of psychedelics voided, in the opinion of a number of cognoscenti, the very altruism the anti-culture intended to promote on grounds that intentional acts were set aside for an emotionally forged kubbitz.
Hofmann’s late retelling at the onset of the millennium, of the inversion of psychedelic retooling to cultural and hedonistic ends in the 60’s, appears to have itself been the stimulus for a recent antimodern defense of 60’s motivation hidden by the conflicting passions of an earlier era. In a recent article of the Journal of the Preternatural, Morgan Shipley, professor at Pennsylvania State University, claims that in the mire of the then rationalist and acrimonious debate – and not disfigured by the narcissistic and the self-indulgent – lay an apparently bona fide spiritual impulse among the truly initiate for a higher existence. What counted, and counts still, according to Shipley, was not the intercessory modality activated by theistic programs, but the revelatory character of a shared experience of ‘perennial truths’, serviced by Eastern meditative enlightenment. Coming more than 50 years after Leary’s brazen and heedless indoctrination of youthful adulants Shipley’s article has the tone of a panegyric, meant more to grace historical coffers of the disaffected rather than inspire and impel a following. Burdell Mansion, one of the last communes, closed its doors back in the 70's, and there has been little social clamor to revivify the listless Spirit since. After all, even the perennial truths of Eastern mindfulness that lay beyond psychedelic doors have been tamed to a neuroscientific ordering in an all pervasive neutral monism.
What seems odd about Shipley’s article is not the sort of vapid adulation that marks sentimental recollections of more imagined and pristine origins, that on the surface impelled communal idealization, but apparently the instigation by the scientific and sanitized, iconic, LSD retelling that charged the anti-culture with a value-less transference of a valued, empiricist program of -- in its revised retelling -- a value-neutral, value shorn, materialist order. Odd the resurfacing of action and reaction, framed by traditional passions and arguments. Why the need? Why the cycle?
Similar play and counterplay seems also to have marked the raison d’etre for the prolific output of one of the 20th century’s intellectual elites, Aldous Huxley, who, incidentally, seems to have himself been the inspiration for several expressed modes of psychedelic culture a mere decade or two in advance of its full flowering. Huxley, perhaps moreso than his English literary and socialist confreres, and perhaps even more than the technocratically vaccinated communal membership, emerged from an intensely personal, familial, and intellectually entitled scientific gentry. His grandfather, Darwin’s bulldog, proselytized the positivist bible chastening Anglican clergymen with accounts of their simian forebears and creating a nouvelle English aristocracy to challenge the revelation elites.
Provocation by such intense, impersonalist, and value-neutral anti-faith, strewn amidst Johanine insights, seems to have created a lifelong obsession for a realist account of that otherwise oxymoronic, a personalist monism. Beginning in the 1920’s and traversing uncharted sequelae of Brave New World, forging lagoons universally titled to a faithful and literalist  agnosticism, he tacked a metaphysical course from shore to sea and back again. At bottom, but amplified in successive rovings, appears a quintessentially English, youthful chapel experience, exposing the midlevel, patent logical contrary between his family’s professed materialist origins and a rational but personalist order. Speaking in the late 1950’s, and about a decade following publication of The Perennial Philosophy, when he had tacked well beyond Eastern Shangri-las, Huxley made his overarching metaphysical proclamation “The truth is, of course, that we are all organically related to God, to nature, and to our fellow man.”
Strikingly, perhaps, Huxley’s proclamation barely percolated into the social eruption that emerged from the culture’s metaphysical fissure not a decade later, that instead motored the more explicit but by then trail blazed roadways yearned for in recent nostalgias. With luminous reflectors along transcendental roadways, metaphysical superficialities seem to have charted a mind numbing, low-resistance route, cycling over and on... Comte, for all his positivist pandering, appears himself to have fallen into the cycle, becoming high priest not only for empiricist minions, but for a personalist and doleful eulogizing of his wife’s passing, from hers to his own.
So where the cycle's beginning? Comte’s rabid pursuit of terre nouvelle and the usual French penchant for the avant garde in philosophy, and much thinking elsewhere, highlights a festering and bard-like image that stirring the pot more than likely was connived in a Parisian fetish. Theologian Jean Luc Marion, for one, no stranger to French luminary innovations, credits that oft-cited, oft-maligned, but never wearied metaphysical entrepreneur Descartes for having taken a Ferrari style, Greek/Italian synthesis and abstracting out an ‘ego cogitans’ from its material shadow. Hence, since, the yin and the yang Nietzsche felt so beholden to; so also our dystopic utopias; so also our technocratic Babels.
And stopping? By petulant yearning over a substance free, relational metaphysic? By alchemies of nature that make marvels of material form, but pluck the heart out of meaning? By, perhaps, an intrepid English dinghy quietly toiling toward safer shores?

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Book Announcement: The Common Good

For Those who may have missed it....

The Common Good: An Introduction to Personalism
by Jonas Norgaard Mortensen

Our traditional ways of thinking about politics and society are becoming obsolete. We need some new points of reference in order to re-imagine the possible character, growth, and functioning of our private and common life. Such re-imagination would imply doing away with every-man-for-himself individualism as well as consumption-makes-me-happy materialism and the-state-will-take-care-of-it passivity. 
There is an alternative: Personalism is a forgotten, yet golden perspective on humanity that seeks to describe what a human being is and to then draw the social consequences. Personalism builds upon the thinking of Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas, among others, and has been a source of inspiration for Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, and other important personalities in recent history. 
According to personalism, humans are relational and engaged and possess dignity. The person and the relationship amongst persons are the universal point of departure: Human beings have inherent dignity, and good relationships amongst humans are crucial for the good, engaged life and for a good society. 
Personalism has been greatly neglected in Western political thought. In this book, Jonas Norgaard Mortensen attempts to introduce personalism while simultaneously demonstrating its historical origins, acquainting the reader with its thinkers and those who have practiced it, and showing that personalism has a highly relevant contribution to make in the debate about today’s social and political developments.

“The Common Good captures personalism's core insight, interpersonal relations as the key to understanding God, Persons, and the world. This presentation of personalism is the first, as far as I know, to present personalism to a general audience. From that perspective, The Common Good, accomplishes an important goal: Personalism is central to daily grappling with our common lives together. Pulled to something greater than ourselves, we must embrace personalism with unrelenting passion.” Thomas O. Buford, Professor, Furman University, North Carolina. (12% Discount using WRFLPR12 at checkout) 
Sample chapter available here:

The links to the Amazon pages: 

Sunday, 2 July 2017

The Common Good: A Review

by Simon Smith

As any chef, comedian, daredevil stunt motorcyclist, wine maker, Prime Minister thinking of calling a snap election to cynically capitalise on a (curiously mis)perceived advantage, or proctologist will tell you, timing is

Jesus Christ! You could have warmed your finger first!

I mean… everything.

And timing is, apparently, something that the folks at Vernon Press have down to a T. Their publication of Jonas Mortensen’s The Common Good in a second, expanded, edition could hardly be more opportune. Political opinion at every level in society violently polarised; our lives are increasingly subjugated to an extreme individualism which insists upon one's own good as the highest good, the only good worth considering. This is the kind of mindset which supposes our contribution to society, specifically in the form of taxation, to be a burden bordering on the criminal; that nods with bovine approval at the idea that not them is, as the current incumbent of the Whitehouse avers, the “smart” thing to do. This is the kind of mindset which sees investment in the education of others, of the next generation, as a gratuity, worse, an imposition, the justification of which waits on a clear demonstration of the value and benefit – to the individual in question, of course – of doing so. This is the kind of mindset to which the question of welfare and a society’s obligation to care for the poor and the vulnerable is ultimately a question of whether those in need deserve to be cared for.
My own reaction to any such thinking tends, frankly, to be a little “blue”. Editing it for delicate sensibilities, I would say, consider two things: firstly, the successes we each lay claim to are far more to do with what others have done for us than our own peculiar talents and efforts. If you are clever and interesting – and I’m sure you are – that is because someone else taught you to be clever and interesting. They taught you how to talk and think, to read and write, and do all the other things you regard as most typically and essentially you. Secondly, whether we are civilised or not, human or not, will not be determined by how assiduously we judge other people. They will be determined, indeed, are determined, by how well we take care of others whether they deserve it or not
The phrase, “there but for the grace of God…” is a good reminder of this; another is “for God’s sake, grow up.”
However, given the apparent dominance of infantile individualism, now does seem like a very good time to stop and think about another way of doing things. This other way of doing is radical in many ways, although it shouldn’t be since it is only a reminder of fundamental human relations, the essential connections which make us who and what we are. It is a reminder that sociality is the truth of human being and that to ignore that truth is a profound mistake. Whether it is the individual we deify, or the community into which he or she is born, we do so at our peril. For self and other are inescapable corollaries, inevitable coefficients; their embrace, in Martin Buber’s poignant phrase, the “cradle of Real Life.”
In the not-too-distant future, we shall be dedicating an issue of Appraisal, the BPF journal, to reviews of The Common Good and responses by the author. In the meantime, I offer the following review along with the stong suggestion that you visit the website and seriously consider purchasing your own a copy.

Review of The Common Good by Jonas Norgaard Mortensen (Vernon Press, 2017)

Given the nature of Personalist thought, it seems strange that no one has dragged it from the cloisters of academe into the public square before. After all, its practitioners stake their claim to real insight into all the richness and complexity of the human condition. We dedicate ourselves to a philosophy of reciprocity; we refuse, as Ludwig Feuerbach advised, to be “torn from the totality of the real human being;” the totality, that is, of concrete relation, full-blooded and bodied. Against the prevailing political, economic, and philosophical winds, we demand to “[t]hink in existence, in the world as a member of it, not in the vacuum of abstraction as a solitary monad, as an absolute monarch, as an indifferent, superworldly God.”[1] But we never tell anyone about it. We talk at great length about the social reality of the self and then we keep it, and ourselves, to ourselves. The first rule of Personalism, it seems, is that no one talks about Personalism.
Fortunately for everyone – philosophers and normal people alike – The Common Good breaks that rule. In so doing, it marks what we may hope is the all-important first step in a much-needed journey. By bringing this vital and exciting tradition to public attention, this book presents a crucial challenge to the philosophical, political, and cultural status quo. It does so, moreover, in a remarkably engaging and readable way. It may also prove to be a great contribution to the development of a popular public philosophical discourse. (The severely limited engagement of professional philosophers in public debate always strikes me as a great shame; how I envy the French their tradition of public intellectuals.)
The emphasis of the book on a range of European, and especially North European, thinkers will likely strike some readers as something of a shame. However, this seems to me no bad thing. A number of these thinkers will be unfamiliar to English-speaking readers. Now we have a very good introduction to them; what could be better? As such, this book should prove to be a valuable resource to students and ordinary readers alike: anyone, in fact, who cares to widen their philosophical horizons beyond the norm. True, it would have been nice to see the likes of Austin Farrer and John Macmurray mentioned. However, the responsibility for making their work available to the public can hardly be laid at Mortensen’s door. (Both Farrer and Macmurray did, in fact, write for a non-academic audience, with, it has to be said, mixed success.) Should we wish to see them better known and more widely appreciated, then it is really up to those of us who claim to champion them to see to it. In that regard, I see this emphasis on Northern European thinkers, not as a shortcoming of the book, but as a definite challenge to do likewise if we can.
In any case, many of the most important names in European philosophy are, in fact, discussed in some detail. Martin Buber, without whom no such presentation would be complete, is well represented; likewise, Emmanuel Levinas. Although I’m not sure I would have labelled Levinas a Personalist per se, his thinking certainly dovetails nicely with the tradition and has proved itself invaluable to many of us working in the field. It is, of course, Levinas – arguably borrowing from Feuerbach, as Buber did – who supplies one of the central ideas in Personalist philosophy: the infinity of persons. This notion not only underpins the inherent dignity and uniqueness of persons, as is clearly explained here. Just as important, it resists any clear-cut definition of what a person is. (Notably, this is in spite of the implicit assumption that “person” is synonymous with “human”, something, I suspect, many readers might object to, particularly considering recent research into non-human animal intelligence.)
Admittedly, to insist upon the infinite extensions of personhood (as Feuerbach assuredly did) and therefore the indefinability of persons is something of a risky move. Carelessly handled, it could easily lead accusations of deliberate vagueness and obscurity. In contrast, however, Mortensen would be well-advised to consider drawing the connection between this notion and his earlier talk of “spirit” more explicitly. Doing so would, I think, help elucidate for the general reader a difficult and often loaded term. Furthermore, the infinity of persons is, I am sure, something Personalist thinkers, must stand firm on. It represents a crucial acceptance and admission – one which no other philosophical, socio-political, economic, or scientific system would dare make – that personhood simply cannot be captured, pinned down, by any finite list of capacities, capabilities, or properties. Personhood is essentially dynamic. Recognising this not only rebuts the whole panoply of materialist qualifications, quantifications, and reductions, it also plays a vitally important role in practical morality, particularly in relation to questions regarding the beginning and end of life.
Another well-known European mentioned in this book is arch-existentialist, Jean Paul Sartre. Some readers might feel that his treatment, which is to say, the use made of him here, is not entirely fair. Sartre’s most famous adage, “hell is other people”, is cited several times and evidently serves as a convenient springboard for Personalism. It does so, however, only when taken out of context. Sartre was too good a psychologist; his point, as expressed in No Exit, the play from which the quotation is taken, is one that few Personalists would disagree with. People who choose to stifle themselves and others with selfishness and isolationism, people who resist the opportunity to engage humanly, openly, in a spirit of mutuality, such people are, indeed, in hell. That was Sartre’s point.
This, of course, does not necessarily detract from the point being made: demonstrating the difference between Personalism and Existentialism (as well as modern scientism). The belief that the world is, in fact, meaningless is one that has gained far too much currency in recent years, suggesting profoundly narrow and ultimately self-stultifying perspective has taken hold of the public imagination. This must be resisted, not only for moral reasons, but also because it undermines intelligent and intelligible discourse. Deny that the universe contains meaning and we end by denying the meaningfulness of all our talk, including the claim for meaninglessness itself. So goes materialism and, along with it, all the real and valuable insights which the sciences have to offer.
It may be, however, that the critical attitude towards Sartre is symptomatic of a stronger, Kantian, influence on the author’s thinking. This becomes particularly evident where the discussion grapples with moral matters. Kant is, of course, of great significance to anyone working in the field of ethics; Personalists are no exception. Indeed, Charles Conti credits him (partly on Farrer’s behalf) with a most effective use of the “the flint of moral sensitivity to fire the sensate self with a metaphysical vision of ‘the self’.”[2] (This was, Conti reminds us, designed to resist the causally flattened sense of agency retailed by Hume and every materialist ever since.) Granting that, however, the deployment of means/end thinking – even to oppose it – may not be an entirely convincing move. Certainly, it resists the utilitarian values which underpin such thinking, values which have come to dominate politics and economics almost entirely, as the author is evidently well aware. Nevertheless, this Kantian approach remains, ultimately, too rationalist to satisfy. Place too much emphasis on the role of reason in ethics and we risk undermining another vitally important insight, which our author is keen to bring to light. That is, the attempts by the like of Scheler (p. 88-9), Macmurray, and William James to reintegrate our emotional faculties into moral and all other intelligent thinking. (The dominance of reason was, of course, never more than intellectual fantasy, as the violence which characterises the 20th Century clearly demonstrates.)
More problematic, perhaps, for the overall explication of Personalism, is the question of whether this Kantian influence allows us to fully unpack the implications of persons as a social reality. It leads, for example, to the – perfectly reasonable – claim that objectifying others, treating them, in Kantian parlance, as a means rather than an end, is a grave offence to the inherent dignity of persons. Similarly, we are told – again, quite reasonably – that the common obsession with one’s own ambitions and desires often comes at the cost of others. The plain truth of these remarks is undeniable. The question is, however, do they go far enough? The answer, I think, is “they do not,” particularly considering Mortensen’s claims for the radical nature of Personalism, which ultimately stop short of demonstrating the unique moral position available in Personalist thought. Personalism, that is, is not simply another form of Kantianism. It is radical, as Mortensen says; not least because it invites us to reframe our moral thinking by starting, not with the “I” as moral agent but with the “you” of moral reflexivity.
What needs to be fully grasped here is that persons are essentially interconstitutive: our very existence is a consequence, a function even, of the dynamic interplay between persons. This is true from top to bottom: on every physical, biological, psychological, and metaphysical level. Otherwise put, consciousness, personal identity, is reflective: the self (co)constructs itself in and as a reflection of the other. This means that, when one objectifies others, one inevitably objectifies oneself likewise – means/end thinking isn’t strictly necessary here – leaving oneself unable to act as a genuine other, a person, to others and so become one oneself.
Recognise this and the case against individualism might have been significantly more forceful and, as a result, more damaging to the status quo. Equally, this would enable our author to push Wojtyla harder still and show that the self is not simply a gift to others but is a gift of them (and perhaps, if we dare, of an Other).
So much for philosophers and their influences. More important by far in a book like this is the inclusion of famous political figures such as Martin Luther King and Desmond Tutu. Their struggle for freedom and dignity still resonates world-wide; locating them within the Personalist tradition both grounds and exemplifies the real power of such thinking in the most pragmatic – and dramatic – way possible. Bishop Tutu’s work with the South African Reconciliation Commission provides a most powerful demonstration of this. The connection between those struggles and the deep socio-political concerns from which this book arises supplies a solid foundation which readers cannot help but share. Further, it provides excellent grounds for considering (or reconsidering) Personalism as well as the means for readers to orient themselves in their understanding of it. It will, I am certain, give The Common Good the broad appeal that it needs and deserves.
In this regard, the discussion of freedom and democracy in chapter 2 is both interesting and useful, providing as it does another important “hook” for the reader. Such matters are, of course, of vital concern today. That Mortensen has taken care not to present freedom and democracy in their usual garb, but rather as they are better understood by Personalists is, I believe a vitally important move. The idea of freedom, not as a matter of individual liberty as is commonly assumed, but as a concrete connection between persons and their social context, was central to Farrer’s conception of personhood likewise. In his Gifford Lectures (published as The Freedom of the Will) he compares Sartre’s notions of absolute freedom to “the spectacle of forty Phaetons drunk, driving wild on the Place de la Concorde”. “Thank heaven,” he responds, “I have this lecture to write, and beyond that, my pupils to see to; and ah, beyond that, if I dare to look, there is Lazarus on the doorstep, covered with sores.”[3] In similar vein, and extending the suggestion that freedom is a function of the dynamic interplay between persons, is the re-conception of democracy in terms of conversation. This will, no doubt appeal to many in the West, especially those who suspect that they have been disenfranchised by the political and economic systems which were meant to serve their welfare. Furthermore, it is likely to appeal as much, if not more, to non-Western readers. Much of the Arab world finds common conceptions of freedom and democracy problematic to say the least. Talk of dialogue – in which all parties freely admit that they have something to learn from others – and freedom expressed in our duties to others seem better able to open up routes for fruitful dialogue.
In less dramatic fashion, the use of research by, for example, the OECD, also gives our philosophy of reciprocity a practical edge, particularly as it is clearly linked to persuasive reminders of the economic costs of ignoring these insights. That said, a word of caution when it comes to supporting these ideas with actual research: the author’s reference to victim-offender conferences is, no doubt, entirely reasonable and well supported. However, it may well face scepticism in the UK. Such initiatives have, over the years, been treated with considerable hostility by the British press. This does not detract from the point, which still ought to be made, however, the author may wish to be prepared for a negative reaction.
One slightly odd note was the citing of research regarding work-related stress (p. 34). Given the importance of social connections and participating in the lives of others to our own well-being, it may strike the reader as curious to find that it is those who work in health care and education that suffer most. It may be that this reflects the increasing bureaucracy as well as the move towards increasing focus on skills and competencies with its consequent depersonalisation of these professions (discussed on p. 36-7). It would be interesting to see Mortensen’s view on this more explicitly stated.
The broader socio-political foundation of the book is another area which might be usefully expanded, particularly as it impacts on the neglect of Personalism, discussed in the final chapter. It may be worth noting that the rise of existentialism, correctly identified here as one of the primary reasons for that neglect, is itself part of a much bigger picture. This includes the emergence, during the post-enlightenment period, of what Michael Polanyi describes as “revolutionary societies”. Such societies were, as Polanyi shows, driven by the violent rejection of absolute truth in favour of moral and political relativism. This was quickly followed by the transformation of all truth into economic and power relations and the rise of both Fascism and Communism. To give the reader a sense of this would, perhaps, help to elucidate the rise and eventual dominance of utilitarian values. A brief consideration of Polanyi’s analysis of these events, which appears in The Logic of Liberty and elsewhere, might, therefore, prove useful.
There is, of course, considerably more that I should like to say about this book. It is, after all, one which invites creative and constructive engagement. That, I think, captures the spirit of both this work and its subject matter very well: creative and constructive engagement. In so doing, the author has highlighted a vital contrast, not only between Personalism and traditional, oppositional, modes of thought, but also between Personalism and the standard attempts to resolve those oppositions. It seems clear – especially after reading The Common Good – that Personalism goes further and does more precisely because it does not take the best elements from other views and seek to integrate them as most political, social, and moral thinking does. Personalism does not, that is, take from other positions, it seeks the best in them. It seeks out, in other words, that space within those other discourses wherein their human construction is hidden and draws it out into the open where it may flourish. By such means are bridges built; by such means, more importantly, do we become persons in the first place. That, I take it, is the message of this book.

1) Principles of the Philosophy of the Future, 67.
2) Metaphysical Personalism, 183.
3) The Freedom of the Will, 300.