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"Personalism" is a philosophical perspective or system for which person is the ontological ultimate and for which personality is thus the fundamental explanatory principle. Explicitly developed in the twentieth century, personalism in its historical antecedents and its dominant themes has close affiliations with and affinities to other (mainly idealist) systems that are not strictly personalist. This article will concentrate on American personalism, although the movement is not only American; there are and have been advocates of personalism or closely related positions in Europe, Great Britain, Latin America, and the Orient.

Background of the Term

The term person comes from the Latin word persona, meaning mask and/or actor. It came to refer to a role and to a man's dignity in relation to other men. This usage is reinforced by theological language for which persona is the Latin equivalent of the Greek hypostasis (standing under) and for which both persona and hypostasis are closely related to ousia (substance). These associations foreshadow the ultimacy that personalism attaches to personality, both in value (a person is identified with his dignity) and in being (person is substance). On this basis we can understand the importance that personalists have attached to Ancius Manlius Severinus Boethius's definition of person as an individual substance of a rational nature (Persona est naturae rationabilis individua substantia ). The effect of the modern critique of the concept of substance on the definition of person will be considered later.

In comparison with persona, the term personalism is relatively recent. Walt Whitman and Bronson Alcott both used the term in the 1860s; early in the twentieth century it was adopted and applied more systematically. In France, Charles Renouvier wrote Le personnalisme in 1903; in Germany, William Stern developed critical personalism in Person und Sache (1906). In the United States, Mary Whiton Calkins began to use the term in 1907 and Borden Parker Bowne adopted it the following year. Bowne said of himself, "I am a Personalist, the first of the clan in any thorough-going sense." About this time, personal idealism established itself in England. Shortly thereafter, Neo-Scholastic (and hence, more realistic) versions of personalism emerged, especially in France.

Historical Antecedents

The historical antecedents of these personalistic philosophies are so pervasive and for the most part so well-known that they need not be discussed in detail here. A. C. Knudson supplies abundant historical background in The Philosophy of Personalism (1927). In general, personalism has been decisively influenced by both the Greek metaphysical and the biblical religious motifs of the dominant Western theological tradition. With the notable exception of J. M. E. McTaggart's atheistic personalism, personalism in virtually all its forms has been integrally connected with theism. Nevertheless, it has usually considered itself a system defensible on philosophical grounds and not one based merely on theological presuppositions.

Recognition of the dominant historical influences on personalism would not, therefore, be complete without mention of several modern philosophers. Following René Descartes, the primacy and indubitableness of personal experience and its identification as mental substance have exercised a decisive influence on nearly all forms of personalism. The Cartesian principle is apparent in Edgar Sheffield Brightman's definition: "A person is a complex unity of consciousness, which identifies itself with its past self in memory, determines itself by its freedom, is purposive and value-seeking, private yet communicating, and potentially rational" (in A History of Philosophical Systems, edited by V. Ferm, p. 341).

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz is sometimes spoken of as the founder of personalism. His doctrine that all reality is composed of monads (psychic entities) without remainder and that monads are essentially centers of activity has been particularly influential on idealistic personalists of pluralistic and panpsychistic types.

The influence of George Berkeley converged with that of Leibniz in providing an impetus to idealistic personalism. Material substance is reinterpreted as the "language" of the Divine Person. Further reinforcement for this theme is found in Immanuel Kant's doctrines of the phenomenality of the sense world and the primacy of the practical reason. It is only in the personal world of the practical (moral) reason that one has access to the noumenal. This Kantian direction has had enormous influence on what might be called ethical personalism.

G. W. F. Hegel was the single most important influence in the development of absolute idealism (absolutistic personalism). His emphasis on dialectical movement toward wholeness, on the concrete universal, and on the ultimacy of spirit has had a decided influence on other forms of idealistic personalism, notably that of Brightman.

One thinker who does not compare with the foregoing figures in eminence deserves to be mentioned because of his influence on such American personalists as Bowne and G. T. Ladd. He is Hermann Lotze, whose main work is Mikrokosmus (18561858).

Types of Personalism

In characterizing more precisely the systematic position of personalism, it will be helpful to distinguish two major forms: realistic personalism and idealistic personalism. The former can best be understood in the context of supernaturalism or traditional metaphysical realism, and the latter in terms of metaphysical idealism.

realistic personalism

For realistic personalists, personality is the fundamental being. That is, ultimate reality is a spiritual, supernatural being. There is also, however, a natural order of nonmental being, which although created by God is not intrinsically spiritual or personal. Many Neo-Scholastics, for example J. Maritain, E. Gilson, and E. Mounier, identify themselves as personalists in the realistic sense. In fact, realistic personalism has been developing with remarkable vitality both in Europe and America in conjunction with the resurgence of Catholic theological thought. There are, however, some realistic personalists who do not stand in the scholastic tradition; among them may be mentioned N. Berdyaev, J. B. Pratt, D. C. Macintosh, Georgia Harkness, and A. C. Garnett.

idealistic personalism

Excluding Platonism and Kantianism, there are three main types of idealism: absolute idealism, panpsychistic idealism, and personal (pluralistic) idealism. Although there are no neat lines of demarcation separating these types, oversimplification can in this case be illuminating.

(1) Absolute idealism (or absolutistic personalism) is the view that reality is one absolute mind, spirit, or person. All finite beings, however otherwise designated (for example, as physical things, logical entities, or human beings), literally participate in this absolute being; they are ontologically by virtue of their being manifestations or activities of the absolute mind. Since this is so distinctive a philosophical tradition, it receives full treatment elsewhere. Representative thinkers who have either had influence on or association with other personalistic positions are Edward Caird, T. H. Green, Josiah Royce, A. E. Taylor, Mary W. Calkins, and W. E. Hocking. With reservations, C. A. Campbell, Brand Blanshard, Paul Tillich, and Gabriel Marcel may also be included here.

Absolute idealism has not commended itself to personal idealism, which, in opposing complete immanence or monism, is closer to realistic personalism and related theistic positions.

(2) For panpsychistic idealism, Leibniz's monadology is the paradigm. Reality is a hierarchy of psychic beings (monads) determined by the degree of consciousness possessed by any monad. The supreme monad (God) has created all other monads in preestablished harmony. Panpsychism has been developed in various ways by James Ward, F. R. Tennant, H. W. Carr, A. N. Whitehead, and Charles Hartshorne.

In many respects, panpsychistic idealism may be considered to be continuous with personal idealism. Although personal idealists do not deny the possibility that there are more grades of self or mind than the human and the divine, they tend to believe that panpsychists have not adequately resolved the tension between pluralistic and monistic strains in their position.

(3) Personal idealism is usually considered the most typical form of personalism. It is idealistic: all reality is personal. It is pluralistic: reality is a society of persons. It is theistic: God is the ultimate person and, as such, is the ground of all being and the creator of finite persons. Henceforth personalism will be used to mean personal idealism.

Systematic Themes

Among the first generation of American exponents of personalism the most significant were George Holmes Howison (18341916) and Borden Parker Bowne (18471910).

In the 1860s Howison was a member of the St. Louis Philosophical Society. The discussion of Hegelian idealism, to which this group devoted so much of its time, led Howison to reject what he considered the submerging of the finite individual in the Absolute.

His basic metaphysical position is stated categorically: "All existence is either (1) the existence of minds, or (2) the existence of the items and order of their experience ; all the existences 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" (in J. W. Buckham and G. M. Stratton, eds., George Holmes Howison, p. 128). Howison's unswerving pluralism led him not only to reject pantheism but also to deny creation. "These many minds have no origin at allno source in time whatever. There is nothing at all, prior to them, out of which their being arises . They simply are, and together constitute the eternal order" (ibid., p. 129). Howison's "eternal republic" is reminiscent of Royce's community.

Bowne taught philosophy at Boston University from 1876 until his death. Berkeley, Kant, and Lotze were the major influences on his thought. Like Howison, Bowne was a pluralistic idealist, but unlike Howison, he was explicitly theistic. The Divine Person is not only the creator of finite selves or persons but is also the "world ground," whose "self-directing intelligent agency" shows itself in the order and continuity of the phenomenal world.

Bowne's famous chapter in Personalism on "The Failure of Impersonalism" expresses his basic polemic against Hegelian absolutism, Herbert Spencer's evolutionism, associationism, and materialism. At the same time, he fought just as hard against fundamentalism and dogmatic supernaturalism. Through his influence on many generations of students at the Boston University School of Theology, he contributed decisively to liberalizing the leadership of the Methodist Church.

Three of Bowne's students were the leading exponents of personalism in the period following World War I. Albert C. Knudson (18731953) continued the personalist tradition in theological context at Boston University School of Theology. Ralph Tyler Flewelling (18711960) developed the School of Philosophy of the University of Southern California and also founded and edited the journal the Personalist.

Edgar Sheffield Brightman (18841953), the most important of Bowne's students, taught at Boston University from 1919 until his death. Brightman, a creative and original thinker, developed a comprehensive and coherent personalistic system.

Brightman espoused an epistemological dualism of "the shining present" (or "situation-experienced") and "the illuminating absent" (or "situation-believed-in"). Immediate experience is the inescapable starting point, but experience always refers beyond itself (self-transcendence). The possibility of reference is found in the activity of the mind in knowing; the adequacy of reference is determined by the criterion of coherence. Maximum coherence in interpreting experience is maximum truth. In his emphasis on the tentativeness and testing of hypotheses, Brightman is empirical; in his emphasis on system and inclusive order, he is rationalistic.

In metaphysics, Brightman maintained that "everything that exists [or subsists] is in, of, or for a mind on some level." He defined personalism as "the hypothesis that all being is either a personal experient (a complex unity of consciousness) or some phase or aspect of one or more such experients" (Person and Reality, p. 135). The natural world is understood as an order within or as a function of the mind of God. Finite persons are created by the uncreated Person. Human persons are, therefore, centers of intrinsic value.

Brightman might be called a value empiricist. His Moral Laws (1933), which has not received the attention it deserves, works out an impressive ethical theory. In his philosophy of religion values have a central place. The value dimension of human experience provides the evidence of a religious dimension of reality. Hence, generically, God is the source and conserver of values.

The most distinctive aspect of Brightman's thought is his revision of the traditional idea of God. He argued that if we are to take personality seriously as the basic explanatory model, then we must accept a temporalist view of God. If God is personal, he is omnitemporal, not timeless. Brightman also argued that the traditional conception of divine omnipotence could not be maintained without seriously qualifying the divine goodness. His penetrating consideration of evil, suffering, and death led him to conclude that the will of God is limited by nonrational conditions (the Given) within the divine nature that are neither created nor approved by that will. God maintains constant and growingalthough never completecontrol of the Given. Some personalists, including L. Harold DeWolf, prefer to follow Bowne's more traditional view of God's eternity and omnipotence. Others, like Peter A. Bertocci, find in Brightman's revisions the conditions of an intelligible and cogent theism.

Current Developments

In recent years, personalism may seem to have been eclipsed by the rise of existential and analytic philosophies. However, many of the doctrines and motifs of personalism have been or are being appropriated and elaborated by other positions. Existentialism and the phenomenological movement have turned to the exploration of personal existence in ways that will be gratifying to most personalists. This movement should be particularly fruitful for personalists since it grapples in new ways with the relation of the body to the person, a problem that has caused a long-standing ambiguity in personalistic thought. Both realistic and idealistic personalists have stumbled over this problem. Phenomenological investigations may therefore provide an impetus for new conceptions of personality.

The analytic concentration on language also contributes to an improved understanding of personal symbolizing and communication, and the renewed interest in philosophy of mind, stimulated by recent psychological theories, again provides material that is important in the development of personalist thought. Personalists would seem to have an advantage in being willing to risk a systematic conception of the total person that would combine surface experience (sense) and depth dimension (value).

Among the large number of Brightman's students who have been developing various facets of personalistic thought, the best known is Bertocci, Brightman's successor as Borden Parker Bowne professor of philosophy at Boston University. Other contemporary personalists also continue to demonstrate that personalism can be a viable alternative among persistent philosophical perspectives.

See also Absolute, The; Berdyaev, Nikolai Aleksandrovich; Berkeley, George; Blanshard, Brand; Bowne, Borden Parker; Brightman, Edgar Sheffield; Caird, Edward; Descartes, René; Existentialism; Gilson, Étienne Henry; God, Concepts of; Green, Thomas Hill; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Hocking, William Ernest; Howison, George Holmes; Idealism; Kant, Immanuel; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm; Lotze, Rudolf Hermann; Marcel, Gabriel; Maritain, Jacques; McTaggart, John McTaggart Ellis; Mounier, Emmanuel; Panpsychism; Platonism and the Platonic Tradition; Renouvier, Charles Bernard; Royce, Josiah; Taylor, Alfred Edward; Tennant, Frederick Robert; Tillich, Paul; Whitehead, Alfred North.


general works

Brightman, E. S. "Personalism (Including Personal Idealism)." In A History of Philosophical Systems, edited by V. Ferm, 340352. New York: Philosophical Library, 1950.

Flewelling, R. T. "Personalism." In Twentieth Century Philosophy, edited by D. D. Runes, 323341. New York: Greenwood, 1968.

Knudson, A. C. The Philosophy of Personalism. New York: Abingdon Press, 1927.


Beck, Robert N. The Meaning of Americanism. New York: Philosophical Library, 1956.

Bertocci, P. A. Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1951.

Bertocci, P. A., and R. M. Millard. Personality and the Good. New York: David McKay, 1963.

Bowne, B. P. Metaphysics. New York, 1898.

Bowne, B. P. Personalism. Boston, 1908.

Bowne, B. P. Theism. New York, 1902.

Brightman, E. S. Person and Reality. New York: David McKay, 1958. Edited after Brightman's death by P. A. Bertocci; contains a selected bibliography of Brightman's writings compiled by J. E. Newhall.

Brightman, E. S. A Philosophy of Religion. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1940.

Buckham, J. W. The Inner World. New York: Harper, 1941.

Buckham, J. W., and G. M. Stratton, eds. George Holmes Howison, Philosopher and Teacher. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1934.

Čapek, Milič. The Philosophical Impact of Contemporary Physics. Princeton, NJ: Van Nostrand, 1961.

DeWolf, L. H. The Religious Revolt against Reason. New York: Harper, 1949.

Flewelling, R. T. Creative Personality. New York: Macmillan, 1926.

Flewelling, R. T. The Person or the Significance of Man. Los Angeles, 1952.

Howison, G. H. The Limits of Evolution. New York: Macmillan, 1901.

Muelder, W. G. Foundations of the Responsible Society. New York: Abingdon Press, 1959.

Munk, Arthur W. History and God. New York: Ronald Press, 1952.

White, H. V. Truth and the Person in Christian Theology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1963.

Closely related positions are developed in the works of J. E. Boodin, J. S. Moore, D. S. Robinson, J. S. Bixler, and C. Hartshorne.


Carr, H. W. Cogitans Cogitata. London: Favil Press, 1930.

Carr, H. W. The Unique Status of Man. London, 1928.

Oman, J. Grace and Personality. Cambridge, U.K., 1917.

Sturt, H., ed. Personal Idealism. New York: Macmillan, 1902.

Webb, C. C. J. God and Personality. London, 1919.

Note also the writings of H. Rashdall, W. R. Sorley, and F. C. S. Schiller.


Eucken, Rudolf. Die Einheit des Geisteslebens in Bewusstsein und Tat der Menschheit. Leipzig, 1888.

Lotze, H. Mikrokosmus. Leipzig, 18561858.

Stern, William. Person und Sache. Leipzig, 1906.

Note also the writings of Max Scheler.


Brunner, A. La personne incarnée. Paris: Beauchesne, 1947.

Lahbari, M. A. De l'être à la personne: Essai de personnalisme réaliste. Paris, 1954.

Maritain, J. The Person and the Common Good. London: Bles, 1948.

Mounier, E. A Personalist Manifesto. Paris, 1936.

Mounier, E. Le personnalisme. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1950.

Nedoncelle, M. Vers une philosophie de l'amour et de la personne. Paris, 1957.

Ravaisson, F. De l'habitude. Paris, 1933.

Renouvier, C. Le personnalisme. Paris, 1903.

Note also the writings of Henri Bergson.

additional works

Berdyaev, N. The Destiny of Man. Translated by N. Duddington. London: Centenary, 1937.

Buber, Martin. I and Thou. Edinburgh: Clark, 1937.

Romero, Francisco. La filosofia de la persona. Buenos Aires: Talleres Gráficos de la Editorial Radio Revista, 1938.

Stefanini, L. Personalismo filosofico. Rome, 1954.

John H. Lavely (1967)