Online Bibliographies Personalism: A Brief Account
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  • Personalism can be defined as the attempt to place persons and personal relationships at the center of theory and practice, and to explore the significance of personal catgeories across a variety of disciplines and traditions, including philosophical, theological, political, humanistic, and scientific.

    On a very broad view it is difficult to say where the philosophy of personalism begins. One commentator (Gacka 1994) suggests that it extends back to Anaxagoras and can be traced through Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, to Boethius who defines the person as "an individual substance of a rational nature" (Liber de persona et duabus naturis contra Eutychen et Nestorium , 512). The list continues with Augustine, Avicenna, and Thomas Aquinas, and into modern times with thinkers in both the rationalist and empiricist school of thought. This, however, is a very broad view.

    It may be best to think of personalism as a philosophical and theological approach with roots in 19th-century thought. It reaches its most systematic expression in the 20th century. The German philosopher, theologian, and theorist of hermeneutics, Schleiermacher used the term 'Personalismus' in 1799 in his Discourses . In 1830, John Henry Newman spoke of the "method of personation" in his Fifteen Sermons Preached Before The University of Oxford . Cambridge philosopher John Grote called his metaphysical approach "personalism" (in Exploratio Philosophica , 1865). Something akin to personalism can be found in the 19th-century philosopher-psychologist Rudolph Herman Lotze's work Mikrokosmus (1856-58), and in the psychologist William Stern's Person und Sache (1906). The personalist tradition in Germany was advanced by the phenomenologist Max Scheler (1874-1928). This phenomenological approach to personalism influenced a number of French philosophers, as well as the thought of Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II).

    In France Charles Renouvier published Le Personnalisme in 1903. The central figure of French personalism is Emmanuel Mounier who wrote A personalist manifesto in 1938, and other works throughout the 1940s. Other French authors who might be considered personalists include Gabriel Marcel, Jacques Maritain, and perhaps, most recently, Emmanuel Levinas.

    In 1901 the American George Holmes Howison employed the term 'personal idealism' in the sub-title of his book The Limits of Evolution . Mary Whiton Calkins called herself an "absolutistic personalist" and began to use the term personalism in 1906. The best known of the early American personalists is Borden Parker Bowne (1847-1910) who studied with Lotze in Germany, and was Professor of Philosophy at Boston University. He started what became known as the Boston School of Personalism. This movement included Edgar Sheffield Brightman (1884-1954), Walter George Muelder, and, the theologian Albert Cornelius Knudson (1873-1954), followed by philosopher Peter Anthony Bertocci, and in psychology, Harvard professor and student of William Stern, W. Gordon Allport. Martin Luthor King Jr. (1929-1968) recieved his Ph.D. at Boston University and studied with Brightman and Muelder. A California school of personalism was led by Ralph Tyler Flewelling (1871-1960) who founded The Personalist: A Quarterly Journal of Philosophy, Theology, and Literature (published 1920-79). Flewelling wrote: "To Personalism, personality is the supreme value. Society then should be so organized as to present every person the best possible opportunity for self-development, physically, mentally, and spiritually since the person is the supreme essence of democracy and hostile to totalitarianisms of every sort" ("Personalism" 1943). Other American personalists include the feminist Carol Sue Robb, Georgia Harkness, L. Harold DeWolf, S. Paul Schilling, John H. Lavely, John Lachs, and most recently at Boston University and Charles University in Prague, Erazim Kohak. The Personalist Forum was founded in 1985 by Thomas Buford to take over where Flewelling's The Personalist left off.

    Personalist philosophy takes personal categories seriously. Erazim Kohak writes: "In a technological age, philosophy inevitably faces a constant temptation to become a techne . Much of contemporary philosophical writing is based on the unspoken assumption that ultimate reality is impersonal, either infrapersonal matter in motion, drives, and gratification, or suprapersonal, whether "History" or "system." The problems that occupy many contemporary philosophers are again not the problems of persons, but problems of textual scholarship or of conceptual systems, and the language in which much philosophical writing is done is not the language of persons but the private language of philosophical technicians." Personalism denies that discourses of subpersonal processes or superpersonal forces are adequate for capturing the concept of person.

    Personalism is a philosophy predicated upon the irreducibility and primacy of personal categories, that is, the kind of categories that govern the meaningful interaction among personal beings--categories of meaning rather than cause, of respect rather than force, of moral value rather than efficacy, of understanding rather than explanation. While we recognize the legitimacy of materialistic categories derived from the metaphor of matter in motion and of vitalistic categories derived from the metaphor of need and satisfaction for certain purposes, we regard them as derivative, special case theories legitimate within the basic framework of personal categories. It is moral categories that we consider epistemologically and ontologically fundamental, not merely a peculiarity of human subjects but most approximating the ultimate structure of reality. (Kohak)
    Personalism finds a primacy in the ethical or moral realm. Thus, for example, in dealing with environmental issues, for personalism morality and what we owe to others take precedence to questions of utility. In political contexts, persons and their lifeworlds take precedence to systems or structures. In psychology and cognitive science, personal levels of explanation take precedence over subpersonal categories. Ontologically and epistemologically, personal or "moral" categories are irreducible to impersonal systems, or subpersonal processes. Personalism is thus an attempt, in an age of increasing depersonalization, to defend both the concept and the reality of persons.

    If there is consensus among personalists concerning the primacy and importance of the person, there is no dogma or unified doctrine that further constitutes a personalist ideology. Although the majority of personalists have been theists, there is no unified theology, or even a requirement that to be a personalist one must believe in God. There are no agreements about methods or definitions; indeed, even the definition of 'personhood' remains an open question.

    A large number of personalist academics are associated with the International Forum on Persons , based at Oxford, England. This group organizes an international and interdisciplinary conference every other year. Further information is available at The Personalist Forum . Also see a statement on personalism by Gregory Gronbacher at the Center for Economic Personalism. And several extensive bibliographies and on-line texts related to concepts of person, self, personal identity, and personalism are available at Research Sources


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  • Personalist Bibliography.
  • Research Sources.
  • The Personalist Forum.
  • International Forum on Persons


    1998 Shaun Gallagher.