Thursday, 12 November 2015

Personalism and Fox’s Exhortation

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.



  1. Thanks for sharing your blog with me. Some questions: in what sense is a person 'inviolable'? How would you see animals and plants - are they also persons and should they not also be respected and treated with dignity? If not, why not? Is personalism not just another 'category', ie. that of a person?

  2. Thanks. I think you have a good point and I admit to being troubled by the question of animal rights and related issues. Are animals, at least the higher animals, persons? In some respects I would say they are, but I would argue they don't have morality in the Kantian sense that they can universalise a principle, i.e they can't say that because this is bad for me as a person therefore it is bad for all persons. Humans have obligations to animals but we can't say that animals have obligations to humans. But does that mean our obligations to animals are stronger or weaker than our obligations to humans? I just don't know. I suppose it depends, which is no answer.

    Thanks again for your comment.