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Book Review: The Worldview of Personalism: Origins and Early Development

Tattvavit Dāsa

Jan Olof Bengtsson
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006
ISBN 0-19-929719-3

In the field of Western philosophy, beginning in the late eighteenth century, modern personalists, first in Germany and Sweden and then in Britain and America, turned against impersonalism and pantheism and established the absolute, or the independent source of being, as personal.

‘Hegel and Spinoza took the view that the only divine self-consciousness is the one realised in the finite individuals’, writes Jan Olof Bengtsson, ‘and the finite selves are alone real, and God is no more than an abstract universal’. But the modern personalists conceived of the absolute ‘as the personal God of theism, and vice versa. What the personalists achieved was in reality a new independent synthesis of the concepts of the absolute and of God’.

Bengtsson teaches the history of ideas at Lund University, in Sweden. The revised and expanded version of his Oxford thesis, a book called The Worldview of Personalism, tries to revive this particular expression of the wider and deeper Western phenomenon of personalism, or thinking centred around or influenced by the concept of the person. Modern personalism, personalism in the sense of a systematic philosophy and worldview, never became a dominant school of Western philosophy, but dozens of personalists kept it going for two hundred years, such as F. H. Jacobi, F. W. J. Schelling, E. G. Geijer, R. H. Lotze, A. S. Pringle-Pattison, and B. P. Bowne. Although modern personalism was soon replaced by completely different and incompatible developments, it is, Bengtsson writes, ‘a cultural product of lasting interest … and validity … whose intellectual and cultural meaning have been imperfectly grasped and assessed’.

His book will help readers appreciate the nature and meaning of personalism. By studying how modern personalists conceived of both the personal absolute and personal unity-in-diversity, readers will acquire some historical knowledge and new insights. The modern personalists’ ideas may even aid in the successful cultural integration of a new form of personalism in the West – that of India’s religious traditions. Therein the philosophical understanding of the absolute as the Supreme Person, whose divine identity comprises an impersonal aspect, has often been the dominant understanding. This sort of personalism survives to the present day as a major theology in India, and in the latter half of the twentieth century a form of it was introduced in the West as the Hare Kṛṣṇa movement. Perhaps the new Western representatives of India’s philosophy of personalism will read Bengtsson’s book and remind Westerners that some of their own modern philosophers and theologians partially understood the personal absolute, and take up the thread and bring the efforts of the modern personalists to completion. In several places in the book, the author points to the similarities between modern Western personalism and theistic Vedānta, and he stresses the fact that some of the representatives of the former were well aware that Indian philosophy and religion are not just forms of radical monism and impersonalism. Some modern personalists even initiated comparative studies in this field.

Historical understandings of God’s personality

Opening doors to the past, Bengtsson’s book shows readers why drawing lines of demarcation between different Western philosophies is important for a historical understanding of personalism. The modern personalists’ idea of the personal absolute is best understood in the historical context of concepts of God.

Bengtsson writes that: ‘The Church Fathers and the medieval scholastics did not consider God to be personal in the same sense as most modern personalists’. The Oxford philosopher and theologian C. C. J. Webb pointed out that there was ‘no clear conception of the personality of God, merely of personality in God, in the sense in which the term personality was used in the formation of Trinitarian and Christological dogma’.

Nowadays, the idea that God ultimately is a person is not prominent in Western theological circles, though most ordinary believers understand God in personal terms: as Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and as the almighty Father and Creator. However, the personality of God, as distinct from an acknowledgement of persons in God, is not affirmed. The unity of the Trinity is the doctrine of both Roman Catholicism and Russian Orthodoxy, and the standard view is that God’s essence does not exist apart from the Trinity. According to the scholar Pierre Hadot, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are sometimes seen, however, as manifestations of an impersonal, undetermined essence. The vague impersonalism behind the idea of the Trinity is traced back in Bengtsson’s substantial history to Greek concepts.

Then he adds: ‘It is clear that there were strong anticipations of the modern conceptual meaning of the term person in antiquity and among the Fathers (and not only the Greek but quite as much in Augustine). But it is only the gradual transformation and development of the concept through the Middle Ages, and in the course of modernity, that made possible the kind of personalistic theology which accepts the personality of God, and for which this personality has a meaning that is different from the one found in patristic and scholastic thought’.

What was new in modern personalism

Leading the way in modern personalism was the philosopher and novelist named Friedrich Jacobi (1743–1819), a man of letters who was at the time almost as influential as Kant. ‘He defended the status and the moral freedom of the individual, the moral values of the ordered community of persons, and the personality and transcendence of God’, writes Bengtsson. Jacobi argued that our experience as persons – our experience of personality in ourselves, as freedom, intelligence, and will – is indicative of God’s personality. He thought that if God’s personality is denied, the result ‘will be that man will elevate his own personality to the position of God and worship himself. …man’s grounding of himself in himself alone is nothingness or self-deification’, the ‘conceit of omnipotence’. In a putative religion of secular people who make themselves God, everyone has a divinised nature and no longer needs to turn toward God. They are gods and goddesses who can worship themselves.

Jacobi turned against the argument, writes Bengtsson, that ‘the ascription of personality to God is an illegitimate projection of finite human qualities onto the divine. Personality is constituted by “unity of self-consciousness, and every being who is conscious of its identity, a lasting I, existing in itself and knowing of itself, is a person.” Although, because of the flowing nature of his consciousness, man may doubt his own personality, the “true identity” of the subject, it is not possible to doubt the personality of God once we have ascribed conscious identity to him. If we do not want to relinquish everything conceivable, we must perforce acknowledge that “the highest intelligence” also possesses the “highest degree of personality”. It is therefore not true that man’s personality is ascertainable while God’s is not, that God is less personal than man. The opposite is the case’. This, Bengtsson suggests, ‘was a signal development in the thinking about the personality of God’.

Bengtsson shows that, in connection with this application of a modern concept of personality to God, Jacobi even explicitly defended anthropomorphism: ‘“In creating man, God theomorphised”,’ Jacobi wrote in a noteworthy formulation; in conceiving God, ‘“Man must therefore necessarily anthropomorphise”’.

The limitations of personalism

The modern personalists developed the understanding, in principle, that the spiritual world must be a concrete reality, but of course never fully developed such ideas, as they lacked the scriptural information to do so.

Despite what Christian theology says about souls being created, some modern personalists had the idea that personality was no mere temporary manifestation and that individuality was co-eternal with God. Bengtsson explains that the question as to whether the soul is created or exists eternally was generally not considered by the speculative theists – a central nineteenth-century school of philosophy in Germany and Sweden strongly influenced by Jacobi and by the later F. W. J. Schelling, who also took up Jacobian themes; this question was not considered to be an issue susceptible of meaningful philosophical treatment. They observed speculative restriction with regard to metaphysical explanation and insisted that the task of philosophy is rather the understanding of the givenness in experience. All personalists accepted that souls are persons because they emanate from a personal God.

Personal unity-in-diversity

Unity-in-diversity is the topic of Bengtsson’s main chapter. It rigorously presents the modern personalists’ concepts of the sacred connection of humanity with the divinity. Personality is the key to reality in personalism. Frederick Copleston, the author of a nine-volume history of Western philosophy, speaks of the personalists’ ‘interpretation of ultimate reality as being itself personal in character and of such a kind as to allow for the dependent reality of finite persons’, Bengtsson writes.

The organism of the personal absolute is the element of unity within which the finite beings are independent persons. The distinction between the personal absolute and the finite beings was carefully worked out by the modern personalists (Jacobi, Schelling, Geijer, Lotze, Pringle-Pattison, Bowne, and others) on the basis of specific epistemological considerations. Bengtsson writes that ‘the whole issue was notoriously and permanently blurred’ in mainstream German idealism and mysticism.

Modern personalism and traditional Vaiṣṇavism are related in nature, and the personalists’ new independent synthesis of the concepts of the absolute and of God closely resembles the Vaiṣṇava view of the Supreme Absolute Person. He is the all-inclusive personal absolute Śrī Kṛṣṇa (or his cosmic manifestation of Viṣṇu), whose divine identity comprises a transcendent impersonal aspect (often understood by Hindus as the impersonal absolute) along with immanent and cosmological manifestations.

Vaiṣṇavas have always contended with the impersonal understandings of monists, and their struggle resembles the modern personalists’ opposition to modern forms of nihilism and pantheism. The modern personalists, in opposing impersonalism in other currents of contemporary philosophy and theology, developed a ‘constellation of systematically elaborated positions’ that ‘creatively renewed a long-standing tradition of Western thought about the meaning of personality’, Bengtsson writes.

Against the impersonal pantheists, whether Enlightenment rationalists or Romantic idealists, Jacobi held that the philosopher must accept the divine will as ultimate and cannot proceed beyond it to further impersonal causes. All the philosophies he turned against ‘tried to reduce individual beings and events and distinct human personality to mere phenomena or appearances’. As the scholar George diGiovanni pointed out, Jacobi and his followers insisted against this that God creates the inherent natures of the diverse living beings, or individualises everyone; this ‘“implies that God himself would have to be somehow individualised, hence in some sense finite, precisely in order to play his role as absolute Thou”’. These are the conditions that make for genuine personal relations.

Without relinquishing moral universality, the Swedish personalists N. F. Biberg and S. Grubbe gave a central place to the unique spiritual individuality of the person in their moral philosophy. Biberg writes that the development of the ‘original content of the soul’ is the most important and ennobling aspect of one’s self-education, as it leads to the attainment of ‘participation in the super-sensual world’ and not assimilation of the spirit with outer forms of a temporary nature.

E. G. Geijer, another Swedish personalist, writes that ‘one must be able to conceive of an “inner” and “spiritual” time and space in eternity, beyond nature, “with its merely outer time and outer space”’. Geijer’s formulations on time emphasise spiritual dynamics, writes Bengtsson, ‘the ever developing content of the reciprocal life of personality. Time and space are pliable, and subservient to the life of personal relations’. That form and language of time cannot be wholly discarded in the thought of immortality, Vaiṣṇavas agree.

The British personalist Andrew Seth Pringle-Pattison writes that creation is a ‘“creation of creators” … selves with independent status and wills of their own’, whereas ‘modern rationalism … had been shown to be incongruent with the idea of … a creation of distinct productive forces’. Selves are ‘“real centres of existence”’, not ‘“simply pipes through which the Absolute pours itself”’. And personality is ‘“not a transitory product of a life which as a whole is impersonal”’; it is characteristic of self-conscious persons to continuously affirm and possess their experience, and this understanding of will also applies to God. Without it, the whole time-world becomes ‘“not the inwardly affirmed movement and rhythm of a concrete experience of life, but a kind of abstract destiny imposed on the universe’”, the illusion that absolutist systems pronounce it to be.

Pringle-Pattison ‘adduces timeless arguments against all philosophies of radical monism: “There cannot be illusion or mere appearance, unless souls or finite selves really exist as such, to be the seats or victims of this illusion”. It takes two not only to make a bargain, but “to love and be loved … to worship and be worshipped”’. Without individual differentiation, religion becomes ‘“a puppet show, and we fall back on the vulgar pantheism which makes the Absolute the direct agent in everything that is done”’.

He writes, ‘“The development of a personality in knowledge and goodness does not take place through confluence with other personalities, nor is its goal to be blended with innumerable other selves” in the Absolute’ like a drop of water that rejoins the ocean. ‘A union of “knowledge and love and conscious service”’, he insists, is ‘“closer and more intimate by far than any which can be represented”’ by a fusion. ‘It is in the “personality of the worshipper” that his value to God lies’. A merging in the higher life is meaningless ‘“unless the living self survives to realise the fruition of the union”’.

Studying and understanding the complex intellectual landscape of the modern personalists will be advantageous for Western devotees of Kṛṣṇa who are professional philosophers and theologians and historians of ideas. A cultural integration of modern personalism and Vaiṣṇavism is possible. The central significance of modern personalism was its defence, in philosophical terms, of personal unity-in-diversity – understood as constituted primarily by dynamic personal relations to God – and its polemic against impersonalism, which sometimes used almost exactly the same terms as the Vaiṣṇava teachers.

(Reviewer’s note: The Pluralist dedicated its Summer 2008 issue – Volume 3, Number 2 – to articles about Jan Olof Bengtsson’s book.)