What is Personalism? A Rectification of Individualism and Collectivism

Part 2 in a Series on Personhood.


As a graduate student in sociology looking for a middle way between liberal individualism and authoritarian collectivism, I first encountered what I now know forms part of a philosophical tradition called personalism when I read philosopher Jacques Maritain’s book Integral Humanism.

Just as Max Weber feared that increased rationalization would lead to disenchantment with the world, I started studying sociology because I cared about social inequalities and social injustices, but the more educated I became the more disenchanted I also became with modernity’s failure to live up to its promises of equality and progress for all.

Where could I turn to find new ideas that might renew my conviction that by knowing the world we could better the world? When Pope John Paul II visited Cuba in 1998, I read numerous summaries of his speeches where he critiqued both liberal individualism that reigns in the U.S. and much of Western Europe and the authoritarian collectivism of Cuba (and of his native Poland during most of his life). I was intrigued by the philosophy that could critique both the idea that economic prosperity is the final ends of individuals and societies and, at the same time, coherently argue against a collectivist system that denies private property, stifles free speech, and suppresses freedom of religion.

When I sat down to study Catholic social doctrine for the first time, what intrigued me was that the works I read started with basic questions such as: what is the good of human persons? What types of development uphold human dignity? Much of neoliberal economics seemed to be based on very utilitarian questions: what economic system will produce the greatest amount of goods and wealth? In achieving that goal of creating greater wealth, it seemed like almost any means could be accepted as long as the goal of generating utility was achieved by individuals unencumbered by others in their actions.

In contrast, collectivism, such as that practiced in communist countries, upholds the good of the group–also normally defined in material terms–over the good of individuals. Although some the goals of social solidarity may be laudable, I found the means of denying individual dissent, disallowing free expression, and the general coercion and manipulation rampant in communist systems to be an affront to human dignity.

In 2000, as I was headed to France for research on my dissertation, I ran into an eminent (and now emeritus) Professor of Politics at Princeton University, Paul Sigmund, who was on his way to Rome to visit his mother-in-law Lindy Boggs, a former Congresswoman who was then the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican. I had gotten to know Paul a bit through various conferences at Princeton, and his work on religion, politics and democratization in Latin America fascinated me. When I told him I had started reading Catholic social teaching because I was disenchanted with liberalism and collectivism, he immediately said, “You need to read Jacques Maritain.”

Over the next few hours on the plane, Paul told me about Maritain’s biography and ideas. Maritain was part of a generation of European intellectuals who, like me at that time, were disenchanted by the failures of both liberalism and collectivism. Maritain developed a new political philosophy that both defended the dignity of persons and also sought the common good based on free participation in collective works. Maritain’s ideas were extremely influential in the the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the formation of Christian Democratic parties in Europe and Latin America, and in 20th century Catholic social teaching. I later found out that my grandfather and his brothers read and applied Maritain’s ideas to politics in Cuba to challenge Fulgencio Batista’s liberal authoritarianism, but they lost out to Fidel Castro’s collectivist and atheist totalitariansim.

In preparation for an upcoming presentation on personalism and sociology, I read the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on personalism and discovered Maritain is named as a leading figure of the European personalist school of philosophy. Kevin Schmeising’s article “A History of Personalism” also traces Maritain’s influence on European personalism. Through Peter Maurin, a Frenchman most known for his collaboration with Dorothy Day in the US, Maritain’s ideas greatly influenced American personalism as well.

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, personalism is a term that refers to at least 20 different philosophers and other scholars who, in general, defend the inviolability of the person, stress the fundamental relationally of persons, see the person as a subject and object of free action, and emphasize the person is a center of meaning and value. Schmeising emphasizes the theological influences and religious backgrounds of many personalists (including many converts from atheism to Catholicism such as Maritain and Edith Stein). Perhaps because of the metaphysical training of many personalists, personalists argue for the importance of both body and spirit to understanding the person, thus opens them up to the reality of transcendence.

Personalism contrasts with Marxist materialism and other forms of collectivism in which the individual is subsumed to the communal and the individual has no inherent worth. Personalism, by contrast, argues that a person can never be simply the means to another end, but each person must be treated as an end in and of himself. Liberal individualism too often conflates utility and value, but personalism also rejects the utilitarian idea that a person’s utility is the same as his value. Another way of stating that a person’s worth is not reducible to the profit she or he makes is expressed when Schmeising quotes Maurin as saying “the foundation of the economy should be the ‘person, not profit.'” (p. 23)

To the extent that our economic system is flawed, Schmeising states that Maurin and other personalists would argue that we can’t fix our economic problems on by re-organizing economic structure, but we must also re-organize the economy around spiritual or human values as well. In this sense, Schmeising identifies Nobel laureate Amartya Sen’s work on human development as being influenced by personalists insights.

So, as I asked in my last post, what is the difference between an individual and a person? Every human person is an individual in the sense that he or she is a member of the human race, a particular being. But a person has a dignity, an irreplacibility, and a uniqueness that grow out of his or her dignity. As stated in the Stanford Encyclopedia entry:

“The major distinction is that an individual represents a single unit in a homogenous set, interchangeable with any other member of the set, whereas a person is characterized by his uniqueness and irreplaceability.”

This uniqueness cannot be changed with another, cannot be used by another, and has infinite value. Perhaps the most striking summary of personalism, as stated in the Stanford Encyclopedia entry, is:

“The person alone is ‘somebody’ rather than merely ‘something’, and this sets him apart from every other entity in the visible world.”

This idea, articulated by great thinkers like Jacques Maritain, captured the attention of great reformers like Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, and many others. After first discovering this idea more than a decade ago, I still struggle to articulate personalism and live by its principles it in my own life. But yet, the ethical principle of personalism can be boiled down to clear and simple statements without losing its profundity. For example, as I read about personalism recently, my 9-year old nephew sitting next to me inquired what had me so intrigued.

I told him, “I’m reading about a philosophy which says that each person is unique and should not be used as an object for someone else’s good,” and he replied, “That sounds right to me!”

In future posts, I will elaborate more on how personalism influences social theory and research, so stay tuned. In the meantime, my reading of the history of personalism has shown me that not only Maritain, but others I have written about on these pages, such as Edith Stein and Amartya Sen, also have been influenced by personalism, so I invite you to read my posts on Stein and Sen if you have not already.

More than Individuals: How Personalism Influences Social Theory and Research

Part 1 in a Series on Personhood.

On July 1, 2012, I began a new funded research project entitled “A Virtue Ethics Perspective on Stress and Human Flourishing from Youth to Young Adulthood” (with Nicolette Mangos, Williams College, Co-PI; funded by the John Templeton Foundation, $603,650 over three years). This work builds directly off my new interest in human flourishing, which I have blogged about in a series of posts responding about whether women can have “it all”.


When I finished my book, Faith Makes Us Live: Surviving and Thriving in the Haitian Diaspora (University of California Press, 2009), I knew there were deeper theoretical insights to be gained from reflecting on how my interviewees in Haiti and the Haitian diaspora insisted that their fulfillment lay in strong relationships with family, friends and God, not just moving up in income or social status, like I had presumed. For example, I interviewed one of the most important lay leaders at Notre Dame, Gerard, several times about his work leading Notre Dame’s involvement in a faith-based community organizing movement. I accompanied him as he took members of Notre Dame to a city commission hearing on transportation, and to a county-wide symposium on transportation and development.

I planned to mostly write my book about such community organizing at Notre Dame, but one day after Sunday Mass, I asked Gerard how he had gotten so involved in the church and his answer made me re-think my theoretical framework.

“Ever since I knew I was Gerard, I knew I was in the church,” he replied. “I was bathed (emphasize his) in the church, I always worked for the church, I breathed the work of the church.” (Faith Makes Us Live, p. 86).

Gerard’s reply, and many other conversations at Notre Dame, led me to realize that my interviewees sensed I thought they cultivated a relationship with God and with family members in order to get other things. After the publication of Faith Makes Us Live, I read philosophers of human science such as Alaisdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor who have critiqued much contemporary human science research for adopting an individualist or materialist means-end rationality. I then realized the meaning of Gerard’s comment and so much of what I heard and experienced at Notre Dame: personal prayer is not individualistic–people told me they mostly prayed for others, not themselves–and Gerard’s identity, his knowledge of himself, was not as an individual but as a person.

What is the difference between and individual and a person? Why does it matter for social theory and research? This is a question Nicolette Manglos and I will take up at an upcoming panel at the American Sociological Association meetings in Denver later this month. To make our case we draw on What is a Person? Rethinking Humanity, Social Life and the Moral Good from the Person Up, sociologist Christian Smith’s book in which he discusses how personalist theory, which emerged as a response to the often reductionistic, means-end utility maximizing concept of the person that emerged from Enlightenment philosophy.

Smith writes that persons are not individuals, if the term individual is used to mean “discrete, self-contained, autonomous, self-existent selves,” (Smith, p. 67). Furthermore, persons are not “self-contained selves who subsequently engage and exchange with other selves in order to secure some outcome or consume some benefit” (Smith, p. 67). Further, he adds that “Persons, instead, are originally, constitutively and inescapably social, interactive, and communicative in origin and being” (Smith, p. 67).

Gerard’s reply to me expressed that idea well: he was trying to tell me that my very question “How did you get so involved in the church? Why do you work so hard for this community?” was not the fundamental question. For Gerard, like so many others I interviewed, their very concept of self was so intricately tied to the church community that not only did were they not concerned about where their self ends and other self begins, they couldn’t recall ever being outside of the church. They were born and bathed in the church, their life and breath was the life and breath of the church.

According to philosopher Karol Wojytla, it is precisely when acting with others that individuals become persons. In other words, the social and communal nature of action is rooted in the nature of the person: the person is social. Actions that lead to fulfillment or flourishing are social actions, in which one’s subjectivity becomes tied to another person or a group of persons. The actions of human persons are not individualistic but inter-subjective.


Although persons can and do act as rational actors, such as by exchanging things with others to maximize their utility, this reductionistic view of the person and of agency should not be  our model of the person. Such a reductionistic view overlooks moral commitments, constitutive-ends practices, and strong relationality. In my ongoing work on virtue ethics and sociology, I hope to move away from the enlightenment view of person that focuses on cognition and rationality and study persons as interacting bodies and inter-subjective actors.

What is “It All” That Slaughter Says Women Can’t Have?

Part 3 in a series on Women at Work.

Anne Marie Slaugther’s article in the Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” begs the question what is “It All?” Although most of her article discusses women having it all (or not having it all) with regards to family and careers, older generations of women were taught that a woman’s place was in the home; a woman couldn’t both have a big career and raise a family. Slaughter’s generation set out to break barriers, reach top posts in universities, law firms and public office, and also have fulfilling family lives.

So, does a big career and a happy family life = “It All”? There is no doubt that many women want a career and family, especially the college-educated women, women with law degrees and women with Ph.D.s, that Slaughter was primarily addressing. My field, sociology, dedicates pages and pages of our publications to studying occupational attainment, educational attainment, family formation and family disruption. We know from the data that not nearly as many people have “It All” as Slaughter defines it as those who would like it.

That said, would those who have “It All” (defined as career + family) be fulfilled? I’m not sure. Wealth, success, and a spouse and kids at home may certainly fulfill many aspirations, but does it fulfill them all? I think not.

My research and teaching recently led me to read work, mostly from philosophy and psychology, that has broadened my definition of what “It All” is. In an advanced social theory class I taught last year, I introduced students to philosopher Martha Nussbaum and her important book Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach.  Cambridge University Press summarizes the objective of her book, in the following way:

“In this major book Martha Nussbaum, one of the most innovative and influential philosophical voices of our time, proposes a new kind of feminism that is genuinely international, argues for an ethical underpinning to all thought about development planning and public policy, and dramatically moves beyond the abstractions of economists and philosophers to embed thought about justice in the concrete reality of the struggles of poor women. Nussbaum argues that international political and economic thought must be sensitive to gender difference as a problem of justice, and that feminist thought must begin to focus on the problems of women in the third world. Taking as her point of departure the predicament of poor women in India, she shows how philosophy should undergird basic constitutional principles that should be respected and implemented by all governments, and used as a comparative measure of quality of life across nations.”

Whereas Slaughter was writing to women at the top of the economic ladder, Nussbaum addresses a similar question but for poor women around the world. Do women at the top of the economic ladder and women at the bottom want fundamentally different things? I think not. Nussbaum makes a great contribution in enumerating the list of fundamental capabilities that are universal–they cross class, race, and ethnicity. She rejects moral and ethical relativism, arguing forcefully that a just society can’t be relativistic about the goods people want or deserve. For Nussbaum, a feminist, moral relativism too often is used to justify why women not only don’t have “It All” by saying they simply don’t want “It All.” For example, Nussbaum argues that even if poor women don’t know that an education would be good for them, society is obligated to educate women. I couldn’t agree more.

Nussbaum and Slaughter’s works both harken back to an ages-old question addressed by Aristotle: what is the greatest good for human persons? What constitutes flourishing, a full life? Aristotle was clear that material things are necessary but not sufficient for flourishing. For Aristotle, the question is: what would people do as a good in and of itself, not just as a means to another end? In the answer to that question lies a deep truth about human persons.

Although it is certainly true that people strive for material or external things, for Aristotle, those things are really means to the end of eudaimonia, normally translated as flourishing. How does one acquire this end of flourishing? Through the rather difficult process of aligning ones internal motivations and one’s actions. Hence, for Aristotle, eudemonia is found in cultivating virtues, understood as ways of being that lead to ways of acting. He also thus breaks down a bit the means-ends disntiction in action: if the end is a virtuous life, the means must be enacting virtues.


Does that sound too lofty and philosophical, too hard to understand enough to live? If so, don’t worry. I often wonder how to translate good philosophical ideas into good social science. Thankfully, my search has turned up a few tips. The former president of the American Psychological Association, Martin Seligman, published an important theoretically-grounded, empirically-based, book called Flourish that is written to be accessible to all readers and practical. As described in an excellent article about Flourish the New York Times, Seligman laments that many psychologists equate flourishing with happiness, understood as feeling good.

Seligman explains how his decades of research led him to define flourishing, or well-being, in 5 dimensions, which he calls PERMA: a) Positive emotions; b) Engagement; c) Meaning; d) Positive Relationships and e) Accomplishment.

How does this line up with Slaughter’s definition of “It All”? Slaughter seems to be focusing on positive relationships and accomplishment. Seligman’s definition of well-being comes much closer to Aristotle’s understanding of flourishing, though Seligman is clear to state that Aristotle is just one of many influences on his definition. Seligman and Nussbaum, in my view, bring back into focus the big picture: having “It All” must be much more than achievement, marriage and kids. Those things–which are undoubtedly very important–must be embedded in a meaningful life where one’s individual accomplishments are seen as part of a greater whole. Our lives need enjoyment and awe, something we can lose sight of in the quest for the perfect career and perfect family.

One virtue we can all start living is gratitude. Seligman found that people who were grateful to others, grateful to God, felt more positive emotions and had stronger relationships. I fully support those who want to strive to have “It All”, however you may define it, but along the way, let’s not forget to stop and give thanks for what we do have, right now, today, in this moment.

As my work on human flourishing and virtues continues, I hope to share more reflections from philosophy and social science to deepen our understanding of how to have “It All”, or perhaps more importantly, how to be thankful for all we have at this very moment.




Women Can’t Have it All, and It’s Better That Way

Part 2 in a series on Women at Work, in response to Anne Marie Slaughter’s piece in the Atlantic about careers and family.


When I was in graduate school, I played in Princeton University’s summer softball league for a team named “Leviathan.” I was one of very few women regulars on any team in the league, a league of not necessarily highly athletic but nonetheless ferociously competitive graduate students. At one game, hot tempers started flaring over someone heckling my team’s pitcher, and a fight was about to break out. I ran over to the two guys about to come to blows and jumped in the middle. I figured if they had to punch each other around me—a woman—they might walk away from the fight. I grabbed my teammate by the shirt and yelled, “Don’t do it! It’s not worth it!” The gamble worked: the fight never happened, and we returned to the sidelines.

When I went up to bat a few innings later, suddenly the same teammate had I pulled out of the fight yelled, “Go Mighty M!” Energized, I smashed a line drive right over the head of the left fielder who, seeing a woman at the plate, had mistakenly come in too close. My teammates cheered loudly and the nickname stuck. On the field, I often did seem mighty. I wasn’t afraid of breaking up a fight, colliding while trying to catch a fly ball, tagging someone out who is sliding, or barking at any guy who said anything improper to me. Having played high school softball, I also hit the ball harder and threw the ball harder than almost any woman in the league, earning me the respect of all the men. I proudly wore my league shirt with “Leviathan” on front and “Mighty M” on the back for many years, and enjoyed many glorious wins with my teammates followed by pizza and beer at Conti’s.

In my academic work, I often act like “Mighty M.” I’m not afraid of jumping into the middle of a passionate argument, calling someone out when they can’t support their argument, or defending myself against unfair questions or critiques. In academic sports leagues and academic conference rooms, “Mighty M” has succeeded because of her self-confidence, backed up by not so shabby amounts of knowledge and athleticism.

The hard part for me was learning that “Mighty M” is not “Almighty M.” Despite the fact that in the creed I pronounce every Sunday at Mass, I state, “I believe in God, the Father Almighty,” I mistakenly thought I was almighty for quite some time. I got degrees from two Ivy League schools, my early publications landed in good journals, I got an advance contract on my first book from the University of California Press, I got a great post-doc right out of grad school, and then landed a job in a top sociology department in the country.

But my academic life, my personal life, and even my physical health, have had many ups and downs. My outlook on life—my self-conception and reputation as “Mighty M”—was much more comfortable in the ups than in the downs. If we’ve been taught to think we can have it all (or we can have it all, but not at the same time) then those times when we patently don’t have it all (i.e., a publication we worked on for a year gets rejected by 2 journals, we suffer a major disappointment in our families, or we have a health problem that forces us to lie in bed for days or weeks), we will be quite miserable. Occupational success, personal happiness, and good health are wonderful. Don’t get me wrong.

But not having some of those things some of the times undoubtedly makes me a better person. Why? Acknowledging I don’t have it all makes me humble. By worldly standards, I do have more of “it all” than many people. Clearly, so does Slaughter (and I admit she has more of “it all” than I do or probably ever will). I admire Slaughter for acknowledging that when she realized she can’t have it all she also realized that for many years she felt a sense of superiority over other women who complained they can’t have it all.

Similarly, for me, thinking I had “it all” made me feel like I deserved to have it all, like I earned it all. Therefore, if someone didn’t have it all (or didn’t have what I have), they didn’t deserve it or work hard enough for it. Your article didn’t get accepted? You probably didn’t write clearly. Your relationship ended? You probably didn’t try hard enough to be understanding. You got sick? You probably didn’t eat healthy and exercise. This is precisely the mentality Slaughter criticizes, a mentality she laments in herself and many other successful women (like yours truly).

Not only is it easy for Might M to look down on others, what happens when Mighty M has downs? I take it very personally and find it hard to be happy.

It is only more recently that I’ve come to see my losses as equally important as my successes. My losses have taught me that I may indeed be Mighty M but I most definitely am not Almighty M. No matter how might we are, no mortal is almighty—maybe the reason we say God is Almighty in the Apostle’s Creed is that we need to remind ourselves constantly of it.

At the end, I’ve learned that it’s just as much a part of the human condition to want it all as it is not to get it all. The highest human virtue, the true human happiness, comes in finding happiness by striving for it all while being grateful for whatever comes and does not come. It’s often in not having it all that we come to see the value of what we do have.

Looking back on my life, there were things I wanted that I didn’t get and was terribly disappointed but later on realized that what I wanted at that moment would not have been best for me. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t want things, or want them ardently, but the trick is knowing how to want things ardently yet be happy either if we get them or we don’t get them. This is what Saint Ignatius of Loyola called holy indifference. It’s not complete indifference, because we must cultivate our desires, do our best to achieve them, and then let things evolve. We are not Almighty, and our vision of what is good for us at any point in time is limited. Not getting things is often part of a much bigger and a much better plan.

That’s why even if I don’t have it all, it’s better that way. In fact, I wouldn’t have it any other way.