Emmanuel Mounier

Book cover

I came to this book because of my reading about The Catholic Worker and Peter Maurin, who was particularly influenced by Mounier’s philosophy. Although I feel a certain affinity for many of the ideas Mounier expresses, I still feel only partly able to explain what “personalism” really means. Here are a couple of broad brush strokes:

-Personalism accepts the existence of persons as the most salient and valued feature of reality. It is fundamentally non-reductionist because no person can be fully characterized by a set of enumerable characteristics.

-Although the term sounds like it could be a synonym for “individualism,” it is emphatically not. Mounier’s view of the person seems to me to have a deep affinity with the ethics of care developed by Nel Noddings, understanding the person as fundamentally relational as well as unique.

-As such, personalism is staunchly opposed both to communism and to individualist capitalism. For one thing, these two systems work to view the person as pure relation or pure uniqueness, both of which ignore significant aspects of personhood. For another thing, both are fundamentally materialist, and Mounier puts ultimate value on the earthly pursuit of the transcendent.

-Although this book only touches lightly on the subject, there is a strong Christian strand in personalism. There is a natural affinity between the personalist approach and the Christian understanding that God existed in human form. Two of the most well-known adherents of personalist philosophy were Martin Luther King Jr. and Pope John Paul II. I should also say, though, that there are very influential non-Christian personalists, such as Martin Buber.

Ultimately, I think “personalism” may not be well known as a branch of philosophy because it is not at all reducible to a bumper sticker: Mounier values balance in many things, including between relation and individualism, engagement in the world and meditation, valuation of the body and valuation of the transcendent. This can come across as fence-sitting, but it more often just comes across as sensible.

As I said, though, although I have positive feelings about the philosophy, I have mixed feelings about the book. For such an earthy philosophy, his exposition is written on a very theoretical level, almost completely devoid of example–in contrast to Noddings, for example, who clarifies her theoretical positions with a wide variety of concrete examples that seem to give more of a soul to her work.

My Goodreads rating: 3 stars