Personalism is a cluster of ideas that makes personhood central to the understanding of reality. There has been a strand of personalism in Christianity from earliest times, in Jesus himself and St Augustine, but as a philosophical subject it came to attention in philosophical and theological circles in late C19th in France and the US. Prominent personalists include Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker Movement, John Macmurray, Martin Luther King, and Rowan Williams . However, Quakers from the first have embraced the philosophy of personalism, even if without knowing it. An early and the best expression of Quaker personalism is in Fox’s well-loved exhortation “…walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one.”
Personalism emphasises the significance, uniqueness and inviolability of the person. It is more than just humanism, because each of us is more than just an instance of humanity. The person has not only a physical body but an inner emotional, intellectual and spiritual life and lives in and grows with family, friends and a wider social, cultural and political community. The person is more than an individual and more than any description that can be attached to her, be it child, parent, citizen, consumer or worker, victim or oppressor. Each of us is unique by dint of our hidden interiority and has her own special, inner life. At the same time, each of us is a member of a community and our lives, including our cultural and spiritual lives, are enriched by our association with others. Personalism’s main philosophical value is that it can be used to identify and oppose ideologies and systems of thought which reduce the human being to the status of a category. Because personalism focuses less on social class, economic status or political rights and more on the full person in herself and in her relationships and community (including any religious community) it leads to an emphasis on the dignity of the individual and the value of social solidarity and cohesion.
The personalist respects science, including the social sciences, as informative but they are not fundamental. Personalists oppose depersonalising ideologies and objectifying practices such as racism and sexism. In addition, respect for the dignity of the person calls for a respectful discourse and avoiding simplistic labelling of others, such as the poor as powerless victims or democratically elected politicians as knaves and fools.
Fox’s exhortation has all the elements of personalism. It portrays the person as active, engaging positively with whoever she meets, and keeping a good state of mind which shows healthy self-esteem. It acknowledges that there is that of God in everyone, which is a way of putting personalism in theistic terms, and that we get along best when we recognise the divine in the other. In addition to the exhortation, many of the Advices & Queries are beautiful expressions of the personalistic outlook. Readers may want to explore this point for themselves.