Quote: David Brooks on the Need for the Philosophy of Personalism

[O]ur culture does a pretty good job of ignoring the uniqueness and depth of each person. Pollsters see in terms of broad demographic groups. Big data counts people as if it were counting apples. At the extreme, evolutionary psychology reduces people to biological drives, capitalism reduces people to economic self-interest, modern Marxism to their class position and multiculturalism to their racial one. Consumerism treats people as mere selves — as shallow creatures concerned merely with the experience of pleasure and the acquisition of stuff…

[T]oday’s social fragmentation didn’t spring from shallow roots. It sprang from worldviews that amputated people from their own depths and divided them into simplistic, flattened identities. That has to change

David Brooks

The quote above is from David Brooks’ article (see here) where he suggests a return to the philosophy of Personalism – a philosophy that had a brief life in the late 19th century and early 20th century. I’d initially dismissed this philosophy as “too subjective”, but as I read more about it, the more I come to see the potential value this philosophy has, particularly when one does not divorce it from God’s revealed Word.

I plan on reading more on Personalism, but some initial thoughts come to mind:

  1. Personalism is not saying that the individual is the ground of reality. The essence of humanity (at least in part) is that we are personal beings. And, as created in God’s image, our personhood reflects the nature of the Triune God. [Obviously, more needs to be said about what is meant by “personal”, but that’ll come later.]
  2. Personalism does not have to reject universal truth; in fact, I believe that one can consistently hold to a form of Personalism and universal truth.
  3. In a day where we experience the Cartesian divorce of humanity from “culture and tradition” on one end of the spectrum, and the Postmodern complete encapsulation of humanity within culture and tradition on the other – Personalism may be a helpful way to bridge the gap.

So, it seems that my personal (no pun intended) research is beginning to take shape once again as I near the end of my one-year hiatus from writing. With my previous post on “knowing and being known” and now this renewed interest in Personalism, I believe I have my work cut out for me.

Understanding the Philosophers: Descartes and “I think, therefore I am”

Perhaps one of the most misunderstood figures of history is Descartes, viewed by many (especially Christians in general) as the fountainhead of Enlightenment philosophy.  While Descartes’ method of doubt was indeed something by which subsequent philosophers employed, Descartes is not necessarily the “bad boy” many Christian thinkers make him out to be.  Descartes was a devout believer in the Christian God, and his belief in God was the source of his belief that we can know things certainly.  What Descartes sought to correct, though, was how he had believed things in the past to be true when they were indeed false.  Further, he was reacting against the skepticism of his day in light of the competing truth claims. Continue reading

Descartes and Augustine’s “City of God” XI.26

Descartes is most well known for his “I think, therefore I am.”  Bent on finding certainty upon which to build his beliefs and non-basic knowledge, Descartes wielded his method of doubt like a machete, undercutting all of his beliefs, allowing them to fall into uncertainty.  Like the skeptics, Descartes was perhaps reacting against the various competing truth claims of his day, and resorts to doubt as his answer to the problem.  Unlike the skeptics, though, Descartes doesn’t use the method of doubt to undercut certainty and knowledge; rather, doubt serves as his route to certainty.  Hence, his “I think, therefore I am” grounds certainty in the very fact that he is doubting, and because he knows that he doubts, he can know certainly that he exists.  From this vein of though, Descartes is able to develop his version of the Ontological Argument for God’s existence and to distinguish between foundational and non-foundational beliefs (I realize that this discussion is broad in nature and misses out on the nuances of Descartes’ method; my purpose, though, is to provide a basic picture of his method. To do otherwise would bog down this post).

Roughly 1100 years prior to Descartes, Augustine arrives at the certainty of his existence in a similar manner as that of Descartes.  In City of God, Book XI.26, Augustine discusses how the image of the Trinity is recognized in humanity to an extent.  The image of the Trinity in mankind is not “adequate,” but is a “very distant parallel” (City of God XI.26, trans. Bettenson).  He further states: “We resemble the divine Trinity in that we exist; we know that we exist, and we are glad  of this existence and this knowledge” (XI.26; emphasis mine).  That one can have “the certainty that I exist…is independent of any imaginary and deceptive fantasies.”

This certainty of one’s existence is contra the philosophy of the Academics who question whether one can be mistaken or deceived about his own existence. Bettenson, in footnote 48 (p. 460) notes that Augustine here refers to the “philosophers of the ‘Second Academy’ who followed Arcesilaus of Pitane…in adopting the scepticism (sic) of Pyrrhon of Ellis.”  In response to the skepticism of the Academics regarding one’s existence, Augustine states:

In respect of these truths, I am not at all afraid of the arguments of the Academicians, who say, What if you are deceived? For if I am deceived, I [exist]. For he who [does not exist], cannot be deceived; and if I [exist] deceived, by this same token I [exist]. And since I [exist] if I am deceived, how am I deceived in believing that I [exist]? For it is certain that I [exist] if I am deceived. Since, therefore, I, the person deceived, should [exist], even if I were deceived, certainly I am not deceived in this knowledge that I [exist]. And, consequently, neither am I deceived in knowing that I know. For, as I know that I [exist], so I know this also, that I know. And when I love these two
things, I add to them a certain third thing, namely, my love, which is of equal moment. For neither am I deceived in this, that I love, since in those things which I love I am not deceived; though even
if these were false, it would still be true that I loved false things. For how could I justly be blamed and prohibited from loving false things, if it were false that I loved them? But, since they are true
and real, who doubts that when they are loved, the love of them is itself true and real? Further, as there is no one who does not wish to be happy, so there is no one who does not wish to be. For
how can he be happy, if he is nothing? (trans. Marcus Dods, ec. Philip Schaff, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf102.html)