Politics of the Person as the Politics of Being
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Politics of the Person as the Politics of Being

David Walsh

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  2. English
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eBook - ePub

Politics of the Person as the Politics of Being

David Walsh

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Readers expecting a traditional philosophical work will be surprised and delighted by David Walsh's Politics of the Person as the Politics of Being, his highly original reflection on the transcendental nature of the person. A specialist in political theory, Walsh breaks new ground in this volume, arguing, as he says in the introduction, "that the person is transcendence, not only as an aspiration, but as his or her very reality. Nothing is higher. That is what Politics of the Person as the Politics of Being strives to acknowledge." The analysis of the person is the foundation for thinking about political community and human dignity and rights.

Walsh establishes his notion of the person in the first four chapters. He begins with the question as to whether science can in any sense talk about persons. He then examines the person's core activities, free choice and knowledge, and reassesses the claims of the natural sciences. He considers the ground of the person and of interpersonal relationships, including our relationship with God. The final three chapters explore the unfolding of the person, imaginatively in art, in the personal "time" of history, and in the "space" of politics.

Politics of the Person as the Politics of Being is a new way of philosophizing that is neither subjective nor objective but derived from the persons who can consider such perspectives. The book will interest students and scholars in contemporary political philosophy, philosophy of religion, and any groups interested in the person, personalism, and metaphysics.

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A Personalist Account of Persons

At first glance the title of this chapter is bewildering. What can a “personalist account of persons” mean? Is it simply recognition of the respect we owe one another as persons? That we should never subordinate persons to their social roles or functions? That the very language we use must embody the primacy of reverence owed toward persons as such? Or does the title intend all of these meanings and more? We are deliberately installing speed bumps for our inquiry into the politics of the person by reminding ourselves of the linguistic challenge involved. This is different from our ordinary way of proceeding. When we want to discuss something we usually just go right ahead, without asking permission of ourselves. Are we entitled to talk about persons without further ado? Without taking any special measures to ensure we get it right? As if turnips and persons were more or less interchangeable entities? Even our ordinary language seems to bristle with warnings about so casual a mode of discourse. We know, for example, that we must not talk about persons behind their backs. Nor should we talk about them when they are present. Intuitively we are put on alert that this is sacred ground. A proper distance is required. We cannot adopt an attitude of familiar indifference where persons are concerned. Only a sufficiently reverent “Thou” is suited to the delicate touch of encounter with an other “I.”
The challenge has been to find the appropriate intellectual means of incorporating that realization. In this chapter we attempt to gain some sense of the scope of what is entailed. This is why we begin with the question as to whether science can in any sense talk about persons. Merely because we have human and social sciences does not mean that their objective method can apprehend this most elusive dimension of the reality within which science itself lives.1 It is precisely the realization of the inadequacy of science to the task that prompted, second, the rise of a specifically personalist turn within philosophy. Yet despite the promise of this development there remains, third, something inconclusive in personalist philosophy that is attributable to the insufficiently radical character of its project. Personalist philosophy still clings to the language of objects and has yet to carry its logic into a revolution within philosophical language itself. It is for this reason that the elevation of the person, especially in selecting autonomy as the principal criterion of the person, has yielded consequences diametrically opposed to the inviolable dignity of persons. A focus on autonomy has had the distorting effect, fourth, of suggesting that we now possess an absolute means of drawing the line between human beings who are persons and human beings who are not. We witness the outcome in the dehumanization that follows from the assertion that we possess the means of defining a person. Perhaps this is not so surprising when one considers what is implied in such a claim, namely that we as persons can now stand in imperious judgment over what it means to be a person. We no longer find ourselves humbled before the mystery of persons for whom we are responsible, and therefore fail to see the extent to which it is other persons who ultimately define us. The easy assumption that persons can be regarded in the same way as all other entities in existence has misled us. The way back is, fifth, to acknowledge the irreducibly different character of the relationship in which, in regard to persons, responsibility is prior to definition. It is through our responsibility for the other that we can glimpse what it means to be a person. When it comes to persons, a coda will suggest, even the law must be ever ready to become more than law.

Can Science Talk about Persons?

Initially it would seem that persons, and the reverence owed them, is incompatible with the objectification science requires. Surgeons who must carve up the human body as a piece of meat, who indeed can fail if excessive squeamishness deters them from their task, must ritualistically separate their dissection from the politeness with which they greet their patients. Can philosophers do any less in presenting a model of the way in which discourse about human beings might take place? Indeed, the language of persons and personalism has been developed precisely to suggest such an approach. Human beings are not simply beings in the way in which things in general, tables, chairs, mountains, and rivers, are. As persons they may have an external dimension but they are not contained within it. Rather, they contain themselves, in inwardness, and are properly known only through the inward movement by which we know one another. Just as mastery of a name or address does not give us access to the person, neither does possession of even the most comprehensive catalogue of details tell us who the other is. At the core the person is a mystery, St. Augustine reminds us, “an abyss so deep as to be hidden from him in whom it is.”2 But how then is it possible to “know” one another at all? Surely it is only because we ourselves are persons, inwardly capable of bearing the inwardness of the other in the silence of our hearts. It is for this reason that we really only know the people we love, for love is what bridges the gap when “two solitudes guard and bound and greet each other.”3 Through love the inwardness of the other is held fast because it is held within. It is only because we ourselves live inwardly that we can know the inward reality of others, what constitutes the very being of a person.4
Conversely, this is a knowledge we must obliterate from our minds if we are to efficiently inflict damage on others. The knowledge that they are persons too must be ruthlessly suppressed. All killing requires the objectification of the other. This is the dehumanization of the enemy so familiar in the experience of warfare, with its attendant cost in dehumanization of the perpetrators as well. Now the question is whether that pattern of reification also extends to students of human nature. Are social scientists in the role of aggressors compelling submission from their defenseless material? Or must they somehow preserve the attitude of friendship by which the humanity of the other is preserved and disclosed? And if it is the latter, how are they going to ensure that their language, of objectification, does not betray the generosity of their initial impulse? Surprisingly this is a question that has received relatively little attention. Despite all of the discussion of methods in the human and social sciences, perhaps even because of methodological self-consciousness, the difficulty of making the transition from a world of subjects to a world of objects has not been sufficiently considered. Eager to grasp refinements we are defeated by the obvious.5
Of course, we know the difference between persons and things, between a Thou who calls forth a response and a datum whose structure must be analyzed. But what if that very distinction represents the limiting horizon of our own thought? What if the difference between persons and things is neither an axiom of our science nor a component of our inwardness? What if we cannot comprehend the distinction at all but find that the distinction is what provides the possibility of all of our comprehension? That far from understanding the difference between persons and things we find that our own existence is contained within it? We begin to see that if we did understand the distinction we would no longer be living within it but would have gone beyond it. If the mystery of the intersection between the subjective and the objective were to be penetrated, then it could no longer hold the whole vitality of our existence. In this sense everything depends on our never fully comprehending the distinction we have so easily taken for granted. We do not stand outside of the difference between persons and things and therefore cannot assume we know what it is all about. Rather, we must continually remind ourselves of our inability to penetrate it and thereby preserve a proper respect for the mystery within which the enterprise of science itself unfolds. It is good for students of physical nature to be reminded of the strangeness of their status as thinking parts of the material universe, but it is indispensable for students of human nature to bear in mind that they too are the very same as the object of their study. Then there is little danger they will forget that science is only a possibility for persons, that is, for those who can never be an object of study.

The Rise of a Personalist Approach

It was the need to articulate this ineliminable horizon of the person that gave rise to a countermovement against the monopoly of the scientific model. Science could not completely overlook the scientist. The problem was to find a formulation that would enable us to navigate the two worlds of the subject and the object simultaneously. A promising beginning was the burst of clarity provided by Martin Buber’s Ich und Du (1923). Of course, the problem of defending other modes of truth, especially the revelatory and philosophic, against the encroachments of science has been a preoccupation since the seventeenth century. “The eternal silence of those infinite spaces frightens me,” Pascal had declared.6 As a project it was unlikely to be fulfilled through a single author or work, not even one encountered as piercingly true. A civilizational crisis can only be resolved, if it ever is, through the formation of the civilizational resistance that is required. However, a single work can play an essential role. It can capture our attention. This was why Ich und Du had such a momentous impact. Within a brief 120 pages it reassured dazed modern humanity that its intuitions had not been wrong. Science could not pronounce the truth about our existence; nor could it provide any meaningful instruction on how we should live. Taken in themselves such observations are commonplace, widely echoed in public and private musings of the day. What Buber managed to do was to explain why they hold. Within the pages of his brief treatise he spelled out with unmatched clarity why an objective explanation fails to account for what matters most. We do not live in the external physical universe, a world of objects, but in the interior life that constitutes a universe of persons. Science, its investigation and manipulation of objective nature, remains but it is far from constituting the only, and certainly not the most important, dimension of existence. For this reason we do not have to bemoan the loss of meaning generated by the expansion of scientific reason. That has never been the horizon of our lives. Human beings have ever and always found their meaning within the relationship to others that is disclosed entirely from within. I and Thou always takes precedence over I and It.
Scientific method, Buber showed, is defective as science. It overlooks the most indispensable knowledge of reality through interpersonal encounter. Of course, everyone already knew this. No scientist ever mistook his wife for a hat or addressed his children as robots. Yet we lacked a way of clearly explaining the difference to ourselves. This was what Buber’s little masterpiece provided, a handy confirmation of what everyone, including scientists, has always known. There is a world of difference between the world of Thous and the world of Its. Knowledge of persons is vastly different from knowledge of things. Even when things are denoted by He, She, or They, the encounter is never in the form of a personal address. We know persons only as persons who by their very being address us and toward whom we move in responsibility.7 There is no knowledge of the Thou outside of the entry into relationship, just as there is no I that is prior to the relationship. Personal knowledge is not available except through the response by which we become responsible to and for the other person. Objectivity, by which the I can be held aloof from relationship, is unavailable. We cannot respond to the other with less than all of our being for to do so would be to fail to acknowledge what persons require of us. That is why there is no unexposed corner of the self outside of the relationship. Personal knowledge not only expands our epistemological horizon; it also stretches our existential openness to its breaking point. To the extent that the primary word of I-Thou can only be heard when we listen with our whole being, the philosophical challenge of establishing it as an authoritative mode of truth comes fully into view. Yet the event of relation, of responsibility toward the other, is no esoteric experience. It is the stuff of our ordinary human existence. To have at least named it, in distinction from the more easily demarcated domination of objects, was no small achievement.
The question was could it be philosophically elaborated? It is one thing to formulate the issue in principle, while it is quite another to suggest the full range of its consequences, not the least of which is the development of a language appropriate to their unfolding. To the extent that our language has been formed most readily in reference to I-It, including I-He/She/They, relationships, quite an adjustment is required to encompass the more primordial I-Thou relationship, one whose intimacy has all along shielded it from the full necessity of philosophical explication. Buber himself continued to push against these boundaries and made sufficient progress to establish that his central distinction contained considerable possibilities, but he never succeeded in making a decisive impact on the broader philosophical debate. It was left to others, such as Emmanuel Levinas, to more radically develop the implications of his insight.8 In part this may have been because of Buber’s own involvement with a broadly theological horizon, one in which he felt called upon to interpret the world religions more philosophically. It was not a calling that took philosophy itself as its primary focus. Without taking cognizance of the revolution required of philosophy, he was unlikely to significantly advance it. But identification of such intellectual limits is not the main interest. A more abiding concern is with the features of Buber’s thought that not only mitigated against its fuller elaboration in his hands but also stood in the way of successors who took up the same task. What are the obstacles that lie in the way of a philosophy of personal knowledge?

The Insufficiency of Personalist Philosophy

Buber was not the only one to grasp the significance of re-founding philosophy with more deliberate attention to these two fundamental modes of knowledge. Many had glimpsed the possibility of regaining metaphysical openness by beginning with the metaphysical openness of the person. Max Scheler had already shown how the bonds of a reductionist and materialist worldview could be burst asunder through the self-disclosure of experience.9 Emotions, the interior life of human beings, were not mere epiphenomena but a privileged access to the structure of existence as such. Henri Bergson undertook a similar reorientation of thought toward the vital inner processes through which being itself unfolds as we participate in it.10 The existentialists, especially Jaspers and the early Heidegger, turned phenomenological analysis to the disclosive power of moods, especially those that reveal our deepest orientation within being.11 Immanence, the contraction of humanity to a wholly mundane perspective, seemed on the verge of exploding. Metaphysics, that knowledge of contact with higher regions beyond mere finite existence, was about to recover from the long confinement into which the regnant materialism had pressed it. A particular focus on the centrality of the person flourished in France with the growing currency of the term “personalism.” Emmanuel Mounier had written a manifesto of Personalism, Gabriel Marcel had tilted his existential reflections in a similar direction, and a convergence was also under way from the Neo-Thomist perspective of Jacques Maritain.12 It is a movement that continued to flourish after the war, particularly among theistic circles who were convinced that if God was to be found anywhere in a godless world it must be within the inextinguishable openness of the human person. Thus, it was not surprising that, when Karol Wojtyla and the school of Christian humanism in Lublin sought to mediate between Thomism and phenomenology, the results would appear in the form of a study of The Acting Person.13 Yet the ambition of a fundamental reorientation of contemporary thought seems not to have been realized. The component parts, phenomenology and Thomist philosophy, have gone their separate ways, and the project of a personalist philosophy has yet to engage the intellectual mainstream. Indeed, the very contours of what has been designated as “personalism” are likely to remain in doubt.
What is it that accounts for the inconclusiveness of such a promising start? In large measure it seems to arise from mistaking the wish for its fulfillment. It is not enough merely to propose a project that wins wide admiration, for nothing is achieved without following through to the fullest possible realization. Advocates of a personalist philosophy never got much beyond advocacy because that is largely where the efforts remained. Further application would have entailed a deeper engagement with the consequences of the shift toward the perspective of the acting person. In particular, it would have required more sustained reflection on the philosophical transformation that was sought.14 How would philosophy itself be changed in the process? Would it be possible to leap from a largely objectivist perspective on the person to one more deeply attuned to interiority without revolutionizing our very pattern of thought? Could a philosophical revolution be attained without a comparable revolution in its language? The challenges were, in other words, more daunting than the proposed change of direction seemed to envisage. To make the inner life of the person central while continuing in every other respect with a language patterned on subject-object mastery was indeed to have changed very little. A bugle call had been sounded, but little else. To actually wheel an intellectual regiment more arduous attention to the details would be required. It was, for example, no accident that the most powerful philosophical mind associated with existential openness, Martin Heidegger, shifted his own attention decisively away from philosophical anthropology. He saw that fidelity to the project would entail more than naming it.15
One could not simply graft recognition of the incommunicable uniqueness of the person onto a general account of human nature. It is one thing to acknowledge that one cannot know a person until one knows him or her personally and another to explain how this relates to the universal category of personhood they all share. If each is a whole in himself or herself, then what is the whole that includes them? Without confronting the core problem that persons can only be known in themselves, never as an instance of something more universal, we can never become clear on why it is that the person must always take precedence over what she or he represents. Heidegger understood that nature could only become a question for a being who could not simply be bound by it, that is, for a being whose very existence is a question. Yet even he did not recognize the source of his insight within his own existence as a person. Too much influenced by the convention of persons as hypostases or substances, he sought to avoid anything that might reify the movement of his thought and, in the process, overlooked the source of that movement itself within the person. Being can only be put in question by persons because they alone are not what they are. The reason why persons cannot be included within the horizon of thought is that thinking is only possible by persons. To think is to exist within the openness that occurs only within each and every person. How can that which thinks be included within what is thought about?
It has been the inattention of personalism to this question that has led to the confusion of personal and essential modes of analysis.16 As a consequence, personalism has been left with a duality of approaches whose uneasy tension it has been able to neither resolve nor comprehend. We know that over and above everything that a human being says there is the inarticulable addition that can be grasped only by personal encounter. Why this must be so we cannot say until we have understood that the personal dimension is not some optional extra but the very core from which all saying arises. No matter how deeply we may intuit this, it cannot be appropriated until we have seen why it must be so. It is not just that persons always say more than they say, but that all saying arises from an overflowing of its beginning. We cannot separate the personal coloration from its content without draining the latter of all that makes it significant because what is said is always more than what is said. Even the most technical conversations cannot be reduced to their metrics. This is why computers cannot talk or, rather, their talk only makes sense to human beings. In all discourse we listen for the voice of the other that is nowhere contained in the sounds for it can only be heard by listening for what cannot be sounded. We alone can overhear what cannot be heard because we too are not confined to the expressed. Communication and meaning are not only a possibility for persons, they are also only a possibility for persons. Nature as such, we must finally concede, can be grasped only by persons for whom it is possible to go beyond nature. The challenge for a personalist philosophy is to incorporate its own insight into its elaboration.
The uniqueness of every single person must not just be acknowledged. It must be understood in its inescapability. Shocked by the suggestion, so nonchalantly advanced by Peter Singer, that human beings should be regarded as replaceable, and appalled by the prospect of homogenization within cloning, we nevertheless must be able to explain why this must not be so.17 The singular inexhaustibility of each particular person may be deeply embedded within us but that does not necessarily mean we know why. Everything within our relationships to others may be premised on such a recognition, even though the language of generalities seems destined to subvert the possibility of stating it. A personalist philosophy must be willing to concede the scale of the challenge it confronts. How can there be a philosophy of the unique? How can we name it, when even proper names defeat the project of singular identification? We must refuse to be satisfied with the admission that persons are unique in the same way as every blade of grass is an instance distinctly different from every other. ...


  1. Title Page
  2. Copyright Page
  3. Dedication
  4. Contents
  5. Preface
  6. Introduction
  7. Chapter One. A Personalist Account of Persons
  8. Chapter Two. Persons as beyond Good and Evil
  9. Chapter Three. Reality Transcends Itself in Persons
  10. Chapter Four. God as the Seal of the Personal
  11. Chapter Five. Art as the Radiance of Persons in Reality
  12. Chapter Six. History as the Memory of Persons
  13. Chapter Seven. Politics of the Person
  14. Notes