Personalism, Modernity, and the Classical and Christian Traditions

The philosophy of personalism is centered around a concept which, for all the comparative perspectives on Western civilization that require new thinking with regard to the relations, the differences, and the similarities between the cultural traditions of humanity, must still in many respects be considered specifically a product of Western civilization.

In its philosophical and theological version, ”person” is one of the most complex and elusive of Western concepts, and it has developed through a constellation and an interplay of intellectual and historical factors that seem quite distinct. But although it is hardly possible to find full equivalents, that is, concepts that comprise all of the various elements that have successively been taken up in its evolving Western definition, many more or less precise counterparts of these elements can of course abe found in other cultures, and the varying degrees of apprehension and articulation of the referent, and the different theoretical emphases in its understanding, do not disprove the concept’s universality.

I have often argued for introducing the comparative (East-West) perspectives also in the study of personalism, but this is quite as much because of the importance of some central, more general metaphysical teachings of the East for the philosophy of personalism as of what could be regarded as the specific counterparts of the concept of the person itself. Those partial equivalents do add some important insights precisely in the larger context of the mentioned metaphysical teachings, but it is essential first of all to understand the modifications the selective acceptance of latter in themselves imply with regard to some more general worldview aspects of the classical and Christian tradition and in particular certain aspects of traditional orthodox Christian religion. When I write about Christianity in connection with the history of personalism, I seize selectively on particular teachings of this religion which have been of decisive importance for personalism, and which can be and indeed have already historically been disentangled from particular dogmatic and theological settings of which they were also parts.

In an influential, posthumously published article, Adolf Trendelenburg described the trajectory of the changing meaning of ”person” from the time when, in the Greek form of prosopon, it signified the mask of the actors in Greek drama, and thus the dramatic role, that is, the ‘externally adopted illusion [den angenommenen Schein]’, to the nineteenth century, when it had come to be an expression of the opposite, ‘the innermost moral nature [des innersten sittlichen Wesens]’, ‘the most private core of man [des eigensten Kerns im Menschen]’. [Adolf Trendelenburg, ‘Zur Geschichte des Wortes Person’, Kant-Studien 13 (1908), 3.] Since then, scholars have regularly stressed the gradually evolving meaning of the term, the cumulative growth in significance and connotation.

Not only the secular dramatic and social role concept of antiquity, but also the use of the term person in the dogma of the Trinity was quite different from the meanings gradually emerging in the course of the Middle Ages, when to Boethius’ famous definition, persona est rationalis naturae individua substantia, with its coordination of an individual and a universal element, were added primarily the dimensions of will and a certain interiority, and the stress, due to the human person’s being created in the image of God, on its openness to the transcendent relation to God, on the specific dignity of personhood. Parallel to the everyday usage of the term simply in the sense of a human being, ‘a man or a woman’, which was established in the thirteenth century, there continued to develop in the course of modernity the more specific philosophical meaning, now influenced by the increasingly dominant epistemological preoccupation with self-consciosness and subjectivity, but also by the new stress on individuality both of the Enlightenment and of romanticism, as well as by the new historical consciousness. It was only after these dimensions of meaning had been added that personalism emerged as a distinct, systematic philosophy and theology.

In many respects, however, personalism, properly conceived, must still be regarded as a product of the cultural developments of antiquity. While adding essential new and valuable meanings and making possible the rise of the philosophy and theology of personalism, modernity also signifies a rise of ‘impersonalistic’ and even anti-personalistic modes of thought and of concomitant cultural, social, and political practice which resist and oppose both the insights achieved through the classical and Christian development that were the precondition of the concept of the person, and the modern contributions that are in line with or harmonizable with them. The classical and Christian traditions themselves, and even, although more recently, personalism itself, have been problematically influenced by this impersonalistic side of modernity.

Both because of the value and importance of the truths of the kind mentioned, the truths that made possible the development of personalism and not just the concept of the person, and because of the worldview limitations of traditional Christianity, modernity as made possible and realized throughout the Renaissance, Enlightenment and Romantic periods must, I find, be affirmed, and in particular in the form of the renewed and further developed forms of the current of philosophical idealism that always provided a third, main worldview alternative in the West, distinct from both dogmatic orthodox Christianity and secular materialism and nihilism.

But while what is of value in the modern development must never be lost from view, and some of its truths are essential for personalism, it is equally important to focus on the problematic dynamic of modernity. As I have argued elsewhere, this dynamic and its various effects are in fact such as to make necessary today a redefinition of personalism of a kind that reconnects it more firmly to at least some of the deeper cultural presuppositions in Greek philosophy and Christian religion of the development of the distinct Western understanding of personhood.

The truly personalistic and humane civilizational progress of modernity must be understood quite as much as a fruit of these earlier traditions as of modernity itself and especially of course impersonalistic modernity. As pruned of the adverse influences of that side of modernity, and defined more strictly in continuity with certain aspects of the classical and Christian traditions properly understood, personalism must be understood as an essential part of what I suggest should be called an alternative modernity.

The distinction between the modern and the premodern should probably be rejected as misleading with regard to the continuity of personalistic thought and thus to the central humanistic and moral tradition of the West. In terms of the great querelle of les anciens and les modernes, conceiving of personalism as an alternative modernity could perhaps even to some extent be said to imply a synthesis of the two positions, an assessment of modernity as superior to antiquity not because it departs from it by introducing wholly new norms, but because it beats it in its own game, as it were. It implies that what is best in the modern West is a continuation along the same lines or a further development of some central classical and Christian principles and values, that in reality the latter are in themselves ‘modern’ in a certain sense and define what is of value in the modern West.

I will set forth some of the arguments for these broad assertions and suggestions, introducing in relatively short, synoptic posts the deeper and broader historical perspectives in a way I find not just legitimate but badly needed, even if this cannot be done except at the price of some inevitable simplifications.

2 Responses to “Personalism, Modernity, and the Classical and Christian Traditions”


  1. 1 John Anngeister September 21, 2011 at 10:39 pm

    Thanks for the continued writing on Personalism, and I think you’re right to take another look at the origins, especially the great change which took place between ancient Greek and Patristic Christian understandings of personality.

    With aid from Sergius Bulgakov’s ‘Lamb of God’ (1933- ET 2008) I am beginning to appreciate the controversies of some pre-Chalcedon fathers whose writings (about 100 years before Boethius) exhibit what a great impulse was contributed to the concept ‘person’ by the problem of explaining the Divine Incarnation. (I refer to Apollinarius, Nestorius, and Cyril of Alexandria).

    Thanks for the reminder about Boethius’ definition (I found Albert Knudson’s treatment in POP, p.80 ff, for clarification).

    • 2 Jan Olof Bengtsson October 25, 2011 at 3:16 pm

      Thanks, and good to hear from you again. It is unfortunate that you will not be able to read the many posts with comments on some works on the history of the concept of person and related subjects which I have begun to publish in Swedish (I will soon deal with the various Church fathers and the discussions of the personhood of Christ, which, as you rightly indicate, were of central importance for the development of the concept of person. But I promise to continue to write some things related to this in English too. At the moment I plan primarily a series of posts dealing with Voegelin’s analysis of the process of differentiation, but also expanding it in some respects and focusing on its import for the concept of the person and for personal individuality. This post is the first in that series. I will also revisit your blog asap to see what you have to say about the pre-Chalcedon fathers.


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