Politics of the Person as the Politics of Being. David Walsh. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2016.
David Walsh has written a wonderful book. Because it studies the person in the context of Eric Voegelin’s project in Order and History, it will be of great interest to Voegelin readers who have followed his search for order. Walsh advances this search focusing on the person. The person is presented as existentially first, primordial—from every plausible theological, philosophical or political schemata—in this book. Indeed, at the core of the book’s thesis is a novel and exciting definition of the person. It is that persons are not beings within being but rather are being as self-revelation: generated before being then.
Walsh takes up the Voegelinian theme of revelation in history as differentiation of consciousness: one that creates a leap in being for humanity and human societies. Specifically, Professor Walsh recovers and explicates the Christian revelation that the self-disclosure of God as Being Itself to the Hebrews—I AM WHO AM—is further differentiated by the Incarnate Jesus as personal: the nature of Being is personal. David Walsh writes: “the person is not an event within being, but the event of being. As that which comes from what is not, the person exemplifies the emergence of being… Within inwardness the whole of being is contained in the mode of what is beyond being… as that which comes from that which is not the person exemplifies the emergence of being” (12). Hence Walsh’s working definition of the person for this study is exciting and new: the person is the condition of possibility for being, “that which can set itself aside, so that being might be” (12).
Why is this definition of the person so important, so relevant to the search for order in history? A short delineation of Walsh’s overall thesis and goals can best answer this question. First, Walsh faults 20th century personalist philosophy, as evidenced in the writings of Buber, Scheler, Mounier, Wojtyla, for failing to articulate the radically incommensurable nature of persons in a manner that brings any practical effective protection of the dignity of actual persons living in contemporary societies. Thus the failure of personalist philosophy to secure the inviolable value of persons is the beginning argument for Walsh in his project to expand the definition of persons to the level of, and indeed beyond, the category of being. For this reviewer, who has studied personalism comprehensively, he has made a convincing argument for the fatal flaw in this philosophy vis-a-vis the guarantee of protection for all persons.
“The problem is that the language of autonomy”, Walsh writes, “robs autonomy of its most serious connotations” (36). It is a “distorting absolute,” a utopian demand. Also, the linguistic medium, such as Buber’s I-It versus I-Thou paradigm, is still patterned on a “subject/object” mastery (26). Moreover, thinking is only possible to persons whose selves cannot be included within the horizons of conceptual activity. Hence Walsh notes: “How can that which thinks be included within what is thought about?” (27).
Thus our modern definition of the person is depersonalizing persons. Why? Walsh reports that the “loss of self at the hands of a language of self-determination is a prelude to the willingness to destroy other selves” (37). Evidence of this lies in the embrace by society of abortion and involuntary euthanasia as moral/ethical treatment of persons towards others for whom they bear responsibility. Walsh points to Peter Singer and Michael Tooley who have clearly articulated the implications of “the ultra-personalist foundation of rights” (41). The remainder of this book is a protracted, progressive and carefully clarified depiction of the person that goes beyond personalist categories to the realm of the moral and the metaphysical realities beyond any current definition of the person.
As an inter-disciplinary investigation from the competencies of philosophy, theology and political science, this book can be read as work of philosophy. But Walsh performs a methodological break with Voegelin’s political philosophy, whose writings often criticize German idealism, in that Walsh demonstrates a great admiration for the philosophical contributions of German idealism, including Hegel, and especially Heidegger— “the most powerful mind associated with existential openness”—and this school’s contribution to the investigation of Being itself. While he is in conversation with idealism especially, he is also proficient in modern and post-modern scholarship generally. This conversation occurs throughout this book. It reveals remarkable erudition and understanding of their works. His ideas are supported with many footnotes that demonstrate the depths of this political scientist’s philosophical acumen. And Walsh decidedly and creatively carries their thought further into his unique recovery of Being as personal.
Walsh’s book is uniquely and creatively a work of original thinking. He expertly situates his ideas within modern philosophical, theological and political thought, as well as within several Voegelinian perspectives. For an example, in chapter two, “Persons as Beyond Good and Evil,” Walsh presents an imaginary dialogue with Nietzsche and Kant, and discusses the Voegelinian theme of the Platonic metaxy in his first steps to define persons. Yet it is his own original ideas that dominate this chapter, in which he enlarges the conception of moral language that is borne by the person defined by responsibility rather than called to it. Persons, he writes, continually exceed their boundaries in transcendence and inwardness, going beyond moral principles towards the perfect gift of self. Jesus advocated this instability of moral codes, he writes, in his ethic of the supererogatory: “The moral dynamic by which personal existence is disclosed and enacted takes precedence over every formulation of it. As such the moral life is neither good nor evil, but beyond them” (63).
Hence, not only must the truncated account of autonomy that has dominated moral discourse be overturned, but also, the autonomy of the individual person as responsible almost assumes cosmic significance—one who chooses on behalf of the whole order of being. Voegelin’s understanding of the metaxy is introduced in chapter three’s presentation of the ontology of persons who think and choose within the tension between moral knowledge and ignorance. Beyond any moral duty with universal implications is the voice that personally addresses each person individually to a “fidelity to what cannot be fully known” (86). So the person must be defined in terms of a prior openness that is ready to respond in a process that transcends toward the Beyond shaping its inner personal depth. Thus Walsh posits that we must primarily think of metaphysics as an account of persons.
Any review of this book must apprise the unique style of writing and of formulating arguments in this work, a style which is decisively exemplified in chapter three, “Reality Transcends Itself in Persons,” that provides Walsh’s definitive expression of his claim of persons’ priority to being. It also perfectly exemplifies his original, creative style of philosophical explanation and logical argument. Barry Cooper, professor at University of Calgary, describes the writing style as a “luminous meditative study, filled necessarily with paradox,” as the subject challenges the adequacy of language to capture it. Walsh’s proposals are often articulated by reversing what is usually taken for granted; they are rooted in an antimony or contradiction characterizing our experiences of reality itself. They are indeed meditative, poetic, revealing what could be Walsh’s Irish gift of “fey” or preternatural insight into the world.
A summation of chapter three, as mentioned above, leads us to the heart of Walsh’s thesis. It also contains many examples of mystic understanding infiltrating his writing style, which is simply one paradoxical declarative sentence after another that clarify and establish the point Walsh wants to make. Walsh’s goal in this chapter is to study human persons, traditionally seen as a part of nature but who actually are outside of it in responsibility for it— “so that nature finds its place within us.” So Walsh declares, “persons are . . . the point at which the epiphany of the supererogatory occurs. Reality transcends itself” (91).
The paradox then is that the impersonal viewpoint of science must pass through a personal openness to reality; it depends upon a metaphysical necessity whereby it is only through the “other” that reality is encountered. Walsh states the antimony: persons stand within reality, giving access to the whole of it, but this is a presence through absence. Persons can set themselves aside and enter into the mode of being of the known. Our minds are part of nature but can grasp it in knowing it. So reality in being known is actually coming to know itself. Walsh’s exposition gives umbrage of the inner life of the Christian Trinity: the Father knows Himself fully in the Son: “Mind becomes the vehicle of the ‘self-knowledge of things’” (110). Hence, Walsh defines the personal, “as the epiphany of the supererogatory within reality, persons alone can contain what cannot be contained: the movement of nature by which it discloses itself as always more than itself.” For Walsh, the miracle of the personal pervades reality.
Chapters four to six constitute the expanded middle of Walsh’s completed work on the centrality of personhood. First, each of these chapters further uncovers the definition of what a person really is, even if in the end the whole of this definition cannot be attained. Secondly, these chapters represent a definite break in Walsh’s thinking from the tenets of idealism, a rupture in his arguments, that while continuing to recognize the accomplishments of idealism, nonetheless he thoroughly elaborates its inadequacies for even a minimal appreciation of the centrality of the person to life, love, thinking, and reality, and of course to politics. Lastly, each of these three chapters can stand as independent works of investigation in themselves—one could read them apart from Walsh’s book and benefit from them as comprehensive studies on the topics each discusses.
In chapter four, “God as the Seal of the Person,” Walsh, as Voegelin before him, refuses to separate faith and reason in his research. His thesis in this chapter is that personhood is revealed paradigmatically in God. One cannot be objective in one’s research into the definition of person if one ignores this then. The supererogatory is re-introduced. Personal love is always free. The problem of evil is the price paid for this. For the total gift of the self is integral to personhood.
The radiant wonder of personal reality discloses itself primarily in art; it is as important as religion and science for understanding personhood. This is the topic of chapter five, a chapter marked by its eloquence. Walsh writes that thought is not, and cannot be the horizon for thinking about persons. Rather the veil that is matter which obscures and hides reality is rendered transparent in art, with its inter-penetration of spirit and matter. The whole of reality is revealed; hence “art is the sacrament within which the sacramental effect has fully taken place. The radiance of persons is for the moment made to appear within the non-personal. That is the miracle of revelation that art is” (158-9).
History like art is an existential window on the person as being. Walsh explains this in chapter six, “History as the Memory of Persons,” that presents a final argument for the personal to be defined as the characteristic of being itself. History is “the openness of persons to one another as the possibility of stepping over the vastness of space and time as if they were not existent (189). Walsh’s thesis in this chapter is that “[a] personalist philosophy of truth is continuous with a personalist philosophy of history, for history is the realm in which persons can apprehend the truth that has eluded expression” (216).
The final chapter, “Politics of the Person,” is an exploration of what form a genuine politics of the person would be if persons are defined unlimitedly in terms of Being Itself. Walsh makes several points, and in doing so, dignifies the notion of politics; he restores its Aristotelian prominence. Persons are the self-transcending source and in turn embrace the transcending purpose of politics, he writes. The very existence of the political depends on the attainment of truth, and persons capable of religion, science, art and history, can attain the truth which necessarily constitutes a public realm. Only persons can make the gift of one’s self that is required for the consent of the governed that founds a common life. Hence the political community is the noble, heaven-born community of self-giving reciprocity grounded in the mutual openness of persons, from whom it emerges. So Walsh concludes, “the person is the possibility of politics” (242).
This reviewer began the review by describing Walsh’s book as wonderful. It is worthwhile reading for so many reasons: its erudition in philosophy, theology, and political science supported by comprehensive and consummate footnotes, as well as its almost mystical, poetic style of writing that simply asserts the truth in a demonstration of the common sense reasonableness of what is being asserted. One must claim also that Walsh achieves his stated goals. He has established a definition of persons as extensive with being. As such, persons cannot be subjected to the utilitarian trade off that we as a society now grant persons defined in terms of autonomy. In sum, there is never a justification of persons killing other persons, as in abortion and euthanasia, if it is established, as Walsh has successfully argued, that beingness itself affords all the incommensurable dignity a person owns.
However, I would like to enter into conversation with Professor Walsh on the very last position he takes in this book vis-a-vis the language of rights as superior to any account of the inviolability of the person. Walsh avers that rights are indeed the possibility of our being human. In the last section of chapter seven, “Rights as the Epiphany of Persons,” Walsh asserts that the language of dignity is insufficient to protect this inviolability. Only a rights language can express the “more than” characteristic of each person, he insists. This language therefore is superior because reflects the intangibility of rights holders, defines persons’ common humanity, and articulates the idea of the political community in which the whole lives for the part. Rights thus “are a badge of transcendence in a world of immanence” and “inseparable from the flash of transcendence a person is” (247-8).
It is true that the language of rights has served the incommensurability of persons very well; it is a centuries-old language that extends to medieval philosophy. Although somewhat tarnished in its British utilitarian formulations, it served the social justice doctrine of Leo XIII just as it served the founders of the United States two centuries before. But it does seem to this reviewer that this language too can be corrupted and redirected by postmodern revisionism, and hence, no longer protect persons—even when defined at the very level of Being. This is because the language of rights now serves the language of autonomy in the contemporary scene, in which persons assert their right to kill other persons in the service of one’s personhood—the very provocative situation that has inspired Walsh’s meticulous research on persons and being.
R.R. Reno has written recently (First Things, May 2016) that the language of human rights has changed its role: “it has become a powerful ideology that promises to relive us of the burdens of political responsibilities for the common good” (4). He states that unlike the Gospel which transcends the fallible judgments that govern the city of man, human rights override those judgments and circumscribe political life in a way that involves a utopian dream of public life. Rights language has thus become the patron of negative freedom; human rights now function as the enemy of the personal use of one’s freedom in the mutuality of the political community. They are used to supersede the political and its members as free, morally self-governing persons.
Professor Walsh begins his study of the person with a thorough analysis of personalist philosophy’s inability to access the full glorious reality that is the person, or to protect the destruction of persons in societies today. In the pages of this book, he has established, at least to this reviewer, an unassailable argument that persons come first, are primordial, and can never be approached on the basis of mere utility. But then, he ends this wonderful book with accolades to the language of rights, which may not be any more protective of persons than personalism. The reader is best served by all the superfine chapters in-between.
Please see David Walsh’s response here and Macon Boczek’s reply here. An excerpt of the Politics of the Person as the Politics of Being is available here; also Brendan Purcell’s review of the book and a conversation with David Walsh here.