Why I’m a Personalist Part 2

Personalism is notoriously difficult to define. Sometimes I’ll read a writer and think, “this is personalism,” but then have trouble articulating exactly how. This is why Jacques Maritain quipped in The Person and the Common Good that “there are, at least, a dozen personalist doctrines, which, at times, have nothing more in common than the term ‘person.’” So instead of trying to define it, we’re going to take a look at a few examples of personalism.

Last time we looked at some of Denis de Rougemont’s thoughts. This post on “Why I’m a Personalist” features…


Martin Buber portrait

The Philosopher, Martin Buber

…because the only proper response to another human being is to say “Thou,” and never “it.” This is not just an ethical choice that maybe makes everything a little better. It has nothing to do with niceness. But rather, it is at rock bottom of who we are as humans, far deeper than Descartes’s idea that we are thinking beings, we are relational beings. This is because:

In the beginning is relation—as category of being, readiness, grasping form, mould for the soul; it is the a priori of relation, the inborn Thou. (I and Thou)


Since the relation is first and foremost, following Feuerbach, Buber says that

man’s being is contained only in community, in the unity of man with man — a unity which rests, however, only on the reality of the difference between I and Thou. (Between Man and Man)

And thinking this way can revolutionize how we come to any encounter:

When I confront a human being as my Thou and speak the basic word I-Thou to him, then he is no thing among things nor does he consist of things. He is no longer He or She, a dot in the world grid of space and time, nor a condition to be experienced and described, a loose bundle of named qualities. Neighborless and seamless, he is Thou and fills the firmament. Not as if there were nothing but he; but everything else lives in his light.

All of this doesn’t just change how we respond to other people, but to all of reality. As Maurice Friedman notes,

only I-Thou gives meaning to the world of It, for I-Thou is an end which is not reached in time but is there from the start, originating and carrying-through. (Martin Buber and the Human Sciences)

And then, once we greet one another as Thou, we can begin what the Rabbi of Rizhyn called the essential service of the human person:

This is the service man must perform all of his days: to shape matter into form, to refine the flesh, and to let the light penetrate the darkness, until the darkness itself shines and there is no longer any division between the two. (Tales of the Hasidim)

Everything lives in the same light of the Thou and our one service is to work “until the darkness itself shines.”

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