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Bengtsson, Jan Olof
The Worldview of Personalism. Origins and Early Development.
Oxford: University Press 2006. 310 S. gr.8° = Oxford Theological Monographs. Geb. £ 60,00. ISBN 978-0-19-929719-1.
Anselm Kyongsuk Min
A revised and expanded version of an Oxford dissertation, this is a meticulously researched, clearly written, and very informative and insightful account of the origins and early development of personalism. Personalism, of course, means many things, from the phenomenological personalism of Max Scheler and Karol Wojtyla to the dialogical personalism of Martin Buber and the communitarian personalism of Emmanuel Mounier to that of many others. B.’s concern in this book is the American personalism of Borden Parker Bowne with its characteristic emphasis on the personality of God, the problem of immortality, and the values of truth, goodness, and beauty, and his goal is to trace its origins and development in such a way as to outline and show the personalist movement as a coherent, independent philosophical worldview. B. does this quite systematically and persuasively.
B. begins in Chapter One with a survey of various accounts of the history of personalism, such as those by Keith Yandell, the Historisches Woerterbuch der Philosophie, the Lexikon fuer Theologie und Kirche, Rudolf Metz, John Passmore, Frederick Copleston, and Warren Breckman, as well as the self-understanding of the American school of personalism regarding its own history in the works of Bowne, A. C. Knudson, John H. Lavely, and others. B. argues that existing histories need to be significantly revised because they generally neglect the decisive founding roles of F. H. Jacobi and the later F. W. J. Schelling and the contributions of the 19th century speculative theists such as R. H. Lotze.
B. goes on to explore the main themes of personalism in the following three chapters. In Chapter Two he discusses the epistemological aspects of the personalist critiques of modern rationalism, absolute idealism, and pantheism, and the personalist alternative in terms of a personalist conception of the subject. In Chapter Three he presents the argument for a personal conception of the absolute against the prevailing pantheistic and impersonal conceptions. In Chapter Four he explores the applications of the personalist worldview to reality as a system of related personalities, of God and human beings as persons, whose dynamics are determined by the reciprocity of the I-Thou relation, and the implications of personalism for understanding the nature of freedom, the will, and creation. In each chapter B. discusses in chronological order the contributions of Jacobi, Schelling, and the 19 th century speculative theists including such Germans as I. H. Fichte, C. H. Weisse, H. Ulrici, and R. H. Lotze, such Swedes as N. F. Biberg, S. Grubbe, D. A. Atterbom, and C. J. Bostroem, and such Britons as S. T. Coleridge, W. Hamilton, H. L. Mansel, J. Martineau, C. B. Upton, J. R. Illingworth, C. J. Webb, and especially Seth Pringle-Pattison.
B. highlights the founding roles of Jacobi and the later Schelling; the speculative theism of the 19th century including Bowne’s personalism only develops the seminal ideas of these two. It is Jacobi who transformed the idealist idea of subjective self-consciousness into the idea of a unique, free, self-determining personality as the key to reality. For him rationalism neglects the personal element of concrete human experience and necessarily leads to pantheism, naturalism, materialism, and fatalism doing away with the reality of free will and the individuality of finite persons. God is not an undifferentiated abstract substance but also a person or personality, a Thou to finite persons, whose personality makes possible the independence and autonomy of finite persons. While Jacobi’s contribution lies in providing the metaphysical and epistemological foundations for personalism, the later Schelling’s lies in overcoming the rationalism of the absolute idealism he once initiated by insisting on the irreducibility of reality to reason, disclosing the element of the irrational as a necessary condition or ground of freedom, which makes freedom more concrete, dynamic, and creative, and thus making personalism possible.
In the last Chapter Five, B. argues that the American personalism of Bowne has its proximate origin in the European tradition of Jacobi, the later Schelling, and the German speculative theists, locating this European tradition itself in the context of the older Christian tradition, especially the Augustinian and Franciscan, and concluding with a brief assessment of the merits of personalism from the broader cultural and historical perspectives. For B., personalism was very much a product of the Enlightenment humanism and idealism yet also broke through the limitations of that humanism, its pantheism, immanentism, and individualism that recognizes no higher retraining norm than human self-actualization. It is the religious resources of personalism with its conceptions of the moral order and transcendence that protected the individual against the impersonality of pantheism, the self-inflating narcissism of Romanticism, and the normlessness of self-gratifying utilitarianism. It was especially the merit of Jacobi to see through the nihilistic logic of modern liberal humanism. Early personalism was modern in its espousal of the value of the person as self-actualizing and self-determining subject but also traditional in situating the person in the context of objective values and transcendence. For B., personalism demands renewed appreciation today as an antidote against both arbitrary self-absolutizing individualism and the many totalizing forces in the contemporary world.
As a history of personalism I find the book noteworthy for three things. Through thorough research and persuasive analyses it calls attention to the decisive contributions of Jacobi, the later Schelling, and the German tradition of speculative theism, making up for an area generally neglected in existing histories. It is also quite informative in providing a detailed account of the contribution of Swedish personalism, which, like many other aspects of Swedish intellectual life, generally remains a terra incognita in the Anglophone world. Likewise, it shares in the general contemporary critiques of Enlightenment rationalism and the current revival of interest in Jacobi (Radical Orthodoxy) and the later Schelling (secular postmodernism).
I have two reservations. In a book that takes the American personalism of Borden Parker Bowne as the paradigm of personalism, it is surprising that we find no separate substantive treatment of that personalism whose early origins and development is precisely the goal of the book to trace. The book makes only a very cursory, schematic reference to it. A substantive treatment of that personalism at the beginning would have gone a long way toward making the book more intelligible, more coherent and more relevant. The book also claims to be and is a purely historical account of the origin and development of personalism, and fails to engage the substantive philosophical and systematic issues of personalism, of which there are plenty, especially the relation of the person to the social in more than the negative sense of repressive totality. Such an engagement would have been quite appropriate not only in making B.’s case for the renewal of personalism against the limitations of modern individualism but also in exploring the strengths and weaknesses of the categories of personality and subjectivity in today’s globalizing world.
Within these limitations, however, I do highly recommend the book for its meticulous scholarship and insightful analyses which make it a substantial contribution not only to the history of accounts of a particular brand of personalism but also to our understanding of the general European intellectual history of the 19th century.