Back in January 2020, before SARS-CoV-2 had become the most devastating pandemic since the Spanish Flu a century earlier, I was attending my public speaking class which was required for my since-abandoned communications minor. This particular day was the day of our first of five required speeches, where we were to introduce ourselves to the class by creating a speech centered on our name.
Being somewhat different from most of my collegiate peers, I had decided to take my speech in a more philosophical direction rather than the genealogical direction most of them decided to take. I tried to see and present what, if anything, could be revealed about the nature of the human person from our names. Though I did not know it at the time, the philosophy I ended up extrapolating from my contemplation was roughly identical to what countless authors have dubbed “personalism.”
I later learned about the philosophy itself. The more I read and studied it, the more I found it gave articulate expression to views and opinions and vague intuitions I had long held about the nature of the human person.
What, exactly, is personalism, though?
Giving a definition is no simple task. Yet, for all the diversity of thought that is given the label, “personalism,” there is nonetheless a unifying, common concept: all personalist thought begins with the ideas that the human person, however conceived, has a fundamental, inherent dignity, and that the person, as stated in the “Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy” (SEP) entry on “personalism,” is, “…the ultimate explanatory, epistemological, ontological, and axiological principle of all reality…” I will be using personalism as it is commonly understood in the industrialized West, expressed eloquently by Jacques Maritain, and which has strong roots in Catholic social teaching. With such roots, its understanding of the person will ultimately derive from the hypostases of the holy trinity. That is, what it means to be a person, in essence and in purpose, is ultimately found in reference to the persons within God himself. In this understanding of the person, it is from this relation – this reference to God – that human persons ultimately possess the inviolable dignity, the centrality and the place in the moral hierarchy of creatures that personalism ascribes to them. This personalism, derived from Catholic theology, not only gives dignity to the individual, but also understands the individual in their corporate context.
Fundamentally, Catholic theology understands salvation not to be the salvation of individuals qua individuals, but the salvation of persons grafted into the body of Christ, as is seen in the parable of the Vine. It is through being connected to Christ, being grafted onto the vine of Christ, that we are saved. This connection is expressed in and through inclusion in the church. Such salvation is salvation into the eternal life of God, into union and communion with God, the very purpose of human life. Thus, the person is no isolated individual, but is only a full person through connection with God and his people. This has important political and social implications.
The most important implication is that, no matter how we govern and organize ourselves, we cannot either violate the dignity of the individual, nor erode the essential connectedness, dependence and community that is central to a person’s flourishing. We cannot reduce the person to less than he is. Yet, modern society does this very thing. David Brooks, in his June 14, 2018 “New York Times” opinion column, “Personalism: The Philosophy We Need,” describes modern society’s unjust reduction of the human Person:
“[O]ur 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.”
The reason for the situation described by Mr. Brooks, as I see it, is that modern society is at the mercy of two equally flawed sociological assumptions: individualism and collectivism. Both, in their own way, do damage to the person.
Individualism is the idea that the individual qua individual is simultaneously the most fundamental unit of society and, in the words of a classical liberal friend of mine, the largest possible moral unit. Thus, to the individualist, society is an aggregation of individuals, of their actions and choices, and the individual’s free, unencumbered choice, so long as it doesn’t unduly constrain another’s free choice, is the bestower of moral legitimacy. This means that family, community, religion, tradition, society, etc. are secondary to the individual and have little to no claim to restraint of the individual’s choices.
Personalists certainly share with individualists a belief in the inherent dignity of the individual and the individual rights that flow from that. Nonetheless, individualism’s assertions are fundamentally flawed. Catholic social teaching (CST) has held that it is the family – this first, small community – that is the fundamental unit of society, and as such affords it as high a moral standing as the individual, and in some cases, higher (e.g. in a petition to divorce in order to pursue another lover).
The truth of the CST conception over and against the individualist conception is fairly obvious when you consider how humans come into the world. Individualism has a difficult time coming to terms with the utter unchosen givenness that forms the very foundation of human life – an unchosen givenness that by its very nature involves communal dependence: We do not choose to be conceived and born; fundamental, biological life is given to us. We do not choose our first language. We do not choose the religions or philosophies or values we are raised in and with. From the very beginning of our lives and for the first several years after, we are utterly and totally dependent on others for our very survival.
This is to say nothing about the formation of our personalities. We do not choose our genetic make-up; it is given to us. To the extent that our genes determine who we are, to that extent we do not choose who we are. We do not choose the environment we are raised in; it is given to us. To the extent that our childhood environment and experiences determine who we are, to that extent we do not choose who we are. By the time we are capable of significant choices in our lives, we have been formed into a person that, in one way or another, will affect who we become later in life.
Beyond that, without what we were given, which we could not obtain on our own, we never would have become capable of choice in the first place. All of this givenness takes place ideally within a loving and large biological family, but at the very least in some sort of community formed by you and at least one other person. If the isolated individual, as an individual, is the fundamental unit of society, if they are the largest possible moral unit, then there is a problem, because the individual by themselves cannot even begin to exist, much less survive long enough to make any choices.
“Human beings have innate dignity and flourish in communal relationships, not as individual consumers or pawns of the state.”
To put it more simply: Every individual is dependent on something and someone else – the family – just to get off the ground. That means that family is more fundamental than the individual. If the individual, in their moral worth and capacity, is totally dependent on the family, then the individual cannot be the largest possible moral unit. Given these flaws, individualism reduces persons to less than what they are. Individualism cannot uphold the dignity of the individual it claims to believe in.
Collectivism is equally problematic. Whether of an authoritarian variety or not, it fares no better than individualism at accurately assessing and respecting the human person. Under collectivism, the collective – however defined and however large – is the primary moral unit. There is nothing more fundamental or important than the group itself and its good. This means that the group has ultimate say over the individual, and its needs are held to a higher importance than the needs of any one individual. The Marxist dictum, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” does an excellent job of summing up the collectivist ethos.
On its own, personalists have little to disagree with in this statement. We share with the collectivists a belief in the necessity and moral uprightness of social solidarity, in the reality of human dependence on others and in the praiseworthiness of those who sacrifice their needs for the greater good. Nonetheless, collectivism is fundamentally flawed. When collectivism is taken to its logical conclusion, there is only “the people.” This is an abstraction, one far removed from the concrete existence of real persons.
Real persons are unique – different from one another. They have different wants and needs. There is a real beauty in their variety and a lack of uniformity. All of this is papered over when we limit our gaze to “the people” as a pure abstraction. Despite rosy collectivist rhetoric, it doesn’t leave much room for an individual to be fully themselves. In extreme circumstances, as in the massacres and mass imprisonment in harsh environments seen in several communist regimes, the individual is so reduced to a cog – so reduced to a group-utility maximizer – that, if they are deemed to be an obstacle by those acting on the behalf of the collective, they are simply removed.
Questions such as innocence and guilt, such as individual needs and dignity, do not come up. Why would they? If the group is ultimately what matters, then the group must be looked after, regardless of the cost to individuals. If the group is ultimately what matters, questions of individual need are simply meaningless. If the group is ultimately what matters, then individuals are no more than ants in a colony, or a machine in a factory to be used for some purpose in which they have zero say. They are disposable as soon as they no longer serve the good of the group. They can’t not be. Given this, collectivism is no more respectful of persons than individualism.
Fortunately, personalism offers a middle path between these two, as described by Margarita A. Mooney in her August 8th, 2012 blog: “What is Personalism: A Rectification of Individualism and Collectivism.” Personalism avoids the mistakes of both individualism and collectivism while retaining their strengths by recognizing that human persons are both individually unique and dependent on the community.
I am a member of a small third party – the American Solidarity Party – that is built on the philosophy of personalism, the notion that human beings have innate dignity and flourish in communal relationships, not as individual consumers or pawns of the state.
Returning to the story that opened this article, we need to talk about names. There’s a sense in which you could say that the philosophy of personalism is embodied in our very names.
Names tell us a lot about what it means to be human. They tell us that we are not merely isolated individuals, disconnected from those who came before us or from those around us. If all goes well, we are born into a loving family and given a surname. This name is likely unchanged for many generations, being passed down the generations, the same name connecting people who have never and can never meet. Our names, given and surnames, are also shared among the culture, connecting us to others. When meeting someone with one or more of the same names, a bond is instantly formed by having navigated life through the same identifying moniker. Often, this leads to friendships, or at least friendly conversations where you get to know at least a little bit of who this other person is. In my own life, I met a gentleman at my church with the same name, and this was enough of an icebreaker to learn more about one another. From this initial reaction of, “Oh, hey, cool! We have the same name,” we found out that we had quite a bit in common: We were both U.S. Air Force veterans, and Star Wars fans. We had very, very similar tastes in alcohol and tobacco – and a similar sense of humor. We uncovered this avalanche of commonalities purely because we were both named Zach.
Similarly, our names demonstrate our utter dependence upon others, the utter givenness of life. Names are not chosen, but given. They are part and parcel of our identity, a main marker of who we are. Because these are not chosen, but given, it can thus be said that who we are is in large part given to us, and not chosen by us. That means that our very identity is dependent upon others.
Even if we later change our name, this is only done by having to first reject what was once given. That givenness is always there, and whether directly by keeping the name of our birth, or indirectly through our later chosen name, which must always come second to our given name, our name attests to that givenness. It is fundamental. We have no control over the circumstances that lead to the single biggest marker of our identity.
In my own case, Zachary, my middle name but the one I go by, was given to me by my older brother, who was six years old at the time of my birth. My parents had given me my first name, John, after several people in both their families. They let my brother choose my middle name, which he gave me after his best friend at the time. There was this entire history, set of circumstances and web of connections that I had no knowledge of, no ability to alter, and yet gave me the fundamental words by which I conceive of my very individual self.
Finally, our names demonstrate our uniqueness, individuality, dignity and worth. Names are one of the most common ways to distinguish one person from another, giving to each person an existence that isn’t simply subsumed into anything else. They make us stand out, separate our identity from others and call attention to the fact that we are not simply interchangeable with another, as if anyone is as good as another and so can be replaced with another without real loss. Names make tangible and articulate our parents’ love for us, a love they have for no one else. Even when deliberately named after someone or something else, this is an expression of their love by calling to mind what else they love and giving it to us, but it does not take away the uniqueness of their love for us, for we are not thereby interchangeable with what or who we were named after. Names tell us that we are not merely cogs in a machine, the same as any other.
In other words, names tell us that we are not totally subsumed by the collective. Names tell us that we have lives worth distinguishing and have a concrete existence that is unable to be abstracted away. It is telling that in situations where we must become abstractions, such as military service, recipients of government benefits or customers in a long line, we are given not a name, but a number. Names tell us that there is far more to us than cold rationality and mere utility. Even in the situation described above where one meets people with the same name as oneself, the frequency is small enough that names nonetheless largely function as unique identifiers. In my own case, I was not given the same name as my brother. Though our parents love us to an equal degree, they love us uniquely as persons, not interchangeable with one another. One of us isn’t just as good as the other for them. They want us in our totality and uniqueness. Our unique, non-interchangeable names express and give that unique, non-interchangeable love our parents have for each of us.
What, then, is in a name? Whatever else might be said: Personalism is.
Zach Boston is an United States Air Force veteran and an automotive technician. He is currently working on a B.S. in Physics, and spends his free time hiking. He is Anglican.