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The Priority of the Person: Political, Philosophical, and Historical Discoveries

The Priority of the Person: Political, Philosophical, and Historical Discoveries. David Walsh. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2020.


David Walsh’s most recent book on the topic of the priority of the person is a second volume on the subject.   David Walsh’s Politics of the Person as the Politics of Being, (University of Notre Dame Press, 2016) is the original book in which Professor Walsh creatively broke new ground, and challenged modern personalist philosophy with missing the mark in advancing the primordial inviolability of the person.  It is in this first book that the insight of “the person as beyond being” is originally introduced.  Walsh defined the person as ‘an emergence within being of the inwardness in which the whole of being is contained as mode of what is beyond being’ in this first volume.  He wrote that the radical incommensurability of persons that must be recognized to secure an effective protection of every person is not fully ensured in contemporary societies without the determinative positing of the person as the priority to every other created reality, as “beyond being”.  He did not believed that the personalist philosophy of the great writers in this field—-Buber, Scheler, Mounier, Wojtyla—had sufficiently established the foundational arguments of the “person as beyond being” as the essential protection for the radical difference to all of creation that is the person.

Walsh’s second book on the priority of the person is a collection of essays containing expanded reflections on the topic of the priority of the person, many of which have been published in other venues.  These essays broach the topic of the person within diverse fields of academic expertise:  the political, philosophical, historical, and literary disciplines.  It is a comprehensive study of the person that does indeed both unfold and clarify Professor Walsh’s creative grounding of the inviolability of personhood. The book is also exceptionally informative about these fields of study.  The second volume on the person as “beyond being” thus is well worth the read.

The book is divided into three parts, each containing several essays:  Part 1, The Political Discovery, Part 2, The Philosophical Discovery, and Part 3, The Historical Discovery.  Chapter One of the book introduces the topic investigated and “discovered” within the essays in each of these sections of the book.  Hence Chapter One is pivotal for understanding the project of this second book.  Its title is “The Priority of the Person as the Modern Differentiation”.    Professor Walsh writes that the priority of the person is a discovery that has gradually taken place in human history.  The Greeks discovered reason.  They also bequeathed humankind a comprehensive picture of the polis and its role for human order.  They recognize individuals as parts of the whole of the polis.  Nonetheless they did not leave us a sufficient language adequate to achieve personalism’s realization of the person as the part which is also itself the whole.  As members of the polis, persons must be afforded priority even when called to sacrifice for the polis. The person will always outweigh the whole.  This is the case “because each is a center of self-transcendence”.

The struggles of common life together by persons in political societies depend upon the notion of mutuality which Walsh posits as an abbreviated language of rights. (Priority, pp.5-6).   This thesis of the priority of persons is laid out int the chapter’s three sections.  The first is entitled, “The Person as Self-Transcendence, and plumbs the foundational views of Hobbes, Locke and Hume, i.e., of liberal political theory.  The second section is “The Person as the Horizon Thought” and includes some initial comments on Kant, Kierkegaard, Buber, Heidegger and Levinas—the Romantics, the transcendentalists, and the idea of the person as a primordial openness to others, that will lead eventually to the realization of the metaphysical status of the person as “beyond being”.  Hence, Professor Walsh writes that a significant readjustment is necessary in our discourse about persons; it must be recognized that the person is prior to and exceeds all definitions that political science, religion, philosophy, and literature can provide.  The basis for all and any discussion of the person is the person’s priority. (p.19)

The last section “The Person as Beyond Being” is a summary of several meanings contained in Walsh description of the person as “beyond being”.  The reader at this point is quite likely to be full of questions as to meaning of that unique and provocative definition of the person as “beyond being”. It strikes one as new antimony to join those identified by Immanuel Kant—how can the person be beyond being and remain an existent?   The section offers some initial answers, but the questions about the definition of personhood provoked by this challenging phrase will only be fully answered by the information, analysis and summation of the important thinkers examined in the three parts of this book. However David Walsh intimates some of the books insights into the meanings arising from the phrase ‘beyond being’ in the third section of the chapter.   For example,  if Parmenides can be credited with the discovery of being —“to think and to be are one and the same”, (thus the initiation of philosophy and metaphysics), the discovery of the person is indeed a step beyond this historical breakthrough—it is a revelation, a glimpse, beyond the discovery of being.   The section concludes with an overview of the book:  its “chapters . . . are an attempt to acknowledge the priority of the person that not only affirms the principle but continually submits to its imperative”. (p. 24)

There are five chapters in Part I of this volume, entitled “The Political Discovery”.  Each chapter highlights an aspect of liberal political principles derived from Walsh’s own depth of erudition of political theory.  Chapter Two, “Are Freedom and Dignity Enough?” A Reflection on Liberal Abbreviations”, provides a comprehensive analysis of liberalism as a political order with is its language of rights as well as of the dignity and autonomy of the individual.  Professor Walsh concludes with five implications on the liberal configuration. (pp. 48ff) In sum, the liberal political order represents the most adequate political expression of Christianity and its reverence for the dignity of personhood.  However, if liberalism adopts the path of rejection of the transcendent and of theological discourse, it will lack those essential resources to preserve a political order that ensures the priority of the person.

Chapter 3, “The Unattainability of What We Live Within” reads as another encounter with David Walsh’s aphorizing style of writing encountered in his first volume on the person.   For example he writes, “A society that places the primacy of emphasis on equality has already signaled its willingness to abandon liberty” (p. 56).  He insists that every generation is a “founding” one which nonetheless depends upon the original founders.  Walsh introduces the notion of “refounding” of the founding, hence, “what is present in eternity must be distended in time”. (p. 57, 67-71).   The chapter presents several insightful analyses of the works of Kierkegaard and Kant pertinent to its subject, which demonstrate a mature comprehension of these writers by Professor Walsh.  It ends with the section “Democracy as Eschatology” filled with paradoxical assertions: “what remains to be accomplished in the liberal democratic project has already been accomplished in the eternity of its beginnings: “Democracy to come” is eschatologically now”.

In Chapter Four, Professor Walsh takes up the problem generated by “the obscurity of the source of rights”.  It is in this chapter that he explains his judgment that there has been “an incomplete development of personalism” as a philosophical belief by its great proponents in the 20th century, i.e., Mounier, John Paul II. Walsh presents a credible and detailed argument that the language of personalisms still treats persons as if they were specimens of a universal nature”, that is as “things” rather than holders of “infinity”.  (pp. 82-83) He writes that a new language is imperative, one that unites the vocabulary of the common good in a way that involves the mutual giving and receiving of persons (who exceed the common good).

In Chapter Five Walsh, examines the work of liberal justice theorist in the Kantian tradition, John Rawls, who demonstrated a “personalist faith” in his practical suggestions for achieving justice in society.  Walsh makes a persuadable argument that Rawls, who initially desired a “universally acceptable account of the good in terms of principles of justice” (p. 108) is revised by the later Rawls whose personalism chooses the adoption of “the priority of the right over the good”.  Hence the fundamental principle of Rawls’ entire philosophical project is rooted in “a fundamental principle of morality rather than a principle about morality.” (pp. 110-111) The final chapter in Part I, “Dignity as an Eschatological Concept”, is an analysis of the “unsurpassability” of human rights as an eschatological proclamation.   In this chapter, Professor Walsh has learnedly retrieved sources of human dignity not only in the history of law but also accumulated in the theological and moral traditions of the human community.  It is a suitable chapter to end Part I’s political discoveries on the priority of the person.

In Part II, “The Philosophical Discovery”, David Walsh, the political scientist, reveals his philosophical acumen.  The first four chapters of Part II provide a matured, educated, and resolute critique of the thought of  significant modern philosophers—Voegelin, Hegel, Heidegger, Lonergan, Derrida, and Levinas, John Paul II, and members of the Frankfurt School—to name a few.  In the final chapter of this section, Walsh explains his view that Kierkegaard is the culminating figure in modern philosophical revolution.  In Chapter Seven, Walsh critically examines Eric Voegelin’s thesis that the philosophical error and “flawed genius” of German philosophers—Hegel, Heidegger, for example—was their prior readiness to entertain totalizing solutions to political problems.  But Walsh writes, these thinkers “were not peddlers of an ideological cure-all; they were genuinely philosophical figures in whom the original eros lived”. (p.143) Walsh writes that Voegelin neglected the assistance he needed in his philosophical inquiries from modernity’s Continental philosophers to enlarge his meditations guided by the classic philosophers. Hence, Walsh insists, “his philosophy of consciousness must ultimately find its basis in the philosophy of the person.” Walsh claims that Voegelin acknowledged this guiding principle when he insisted “that the philosophy of consciousness must derive from the concrete consciousness of the philosopher”. (p.154)

The creative insights into the great European philosophers provided with such detailed analysis in Chapter 8, “The Turn toward Existence as Existence in the Turn” make this chapter a “really must read one” in this book by David Walsh.  For example, he identifies Heidegger as a “negative theologian” rather than an atheist in his vocabulary of the concealment of Being; his philosophy pursues the revelation of Being in the most original sense.  Walsh identifies Kierkegaard as the philosopher who has accepted “existence in the turn”.   Kierkegaard introduced the revolutionary insight that our only possible perspective in philosophizing is through our participation in existence. (pp. 176-77) Chapter 9, “The Indispensability of Modern Philosophy” contains the counterpoint to the rigor of the critique of modern philosophers in Chapter 9.  It is a short chapter.  Walsh includes a good summary of ‘faith and reason” as necessary to the modern philosophical enterprise based upon the encyclical by John Paul II, Fides et Ratio in this chapter

Chapter 10, “The Turn to the Subject as the Turn to the Person” is a pivotal chapter in this book. It is a detailed explanation of the person as “beyond being”.  The “turn to the subject” is a reference to Descartes’ cogito, but the question of how we can conceive of the mind remains!  Walsh writes that mind is not able to be explained in terms of substance, rather, “it is in the person that the problems of the subject/substance are resolved”.  “There is no analogue in being for what can contemplate being as a whole.  Hence, in that act the person is definitely beyond being”.   Persons are . . . “unrestricted openness”, escaping every limit attempting to account for them, (p.207).   Walsh explains that Heidegger could not understand the transparence that marks a person because he believed a person is a being within being.  Rather, being is a person. (p. 208)   Walsh concludes that the person is the self-transcendence that makes subjectivity possible.   The decision to make the turn to the person that is beyond being is unconditional.  These few observations of the creative philosophical approach to the unique reality of the person in this chapter cannot do justice to Walsh’s new and creative personalist philosophy.  One must read it, and do so more than once, to appreciation its philosophical explanation of the person.  In summation, the “turn to the subject” must be replaced by the “turn to the person” as the central insight of liberal political theory.

The concluding chapter (11) in Part II of this book is devoted to the philosophy of Soren Kierkegaard, “who arrives largely unnoticed at the end point before the dialectic of philosophy has reached it”. (p. 215)    Walsh own introductory outline for this chapter on Kierkegaard as the culminating figure in modern philosophy works as a good summary of philosophical analysis of Kierkegaard’s thought. He writes that although there is not a consensus that modern philosophy follows an overarching narrative, one can identify turning points in which the many threads of this philosophy converge. Thus it is possible to turn to the philosophy of Kierkegaard to gain an overview of the modern philosophical revolution.   This examination is the first step of Walsh’s treatment of the Danish philosopher.  Secondly, Walsh summarizes how Kierkegaard completes the movement of thought that comes after him.  The summit is reached with Kierkegaard’s breakthrough to the paradox of faith.  It is the insight that “’the individual is higher than the universal’”, hence the individual becomes the horizon supporting reflection.  It is the case that the individual must disclose the inwardness of the person “in whom relationship to others is already contained.”  Hence the third step lies in an elaboration of Kierkegaard’s discovery of the “God relationship as the one in which the individual is most fully revealed”.  The person thus is the Who containing all of being because he or she is held with the inwardness of being that is God.  Kierkegaard’s culminating achievement lies in his breakthrough from a “metaphysics of presence” to “the mutuality of persons that had always been its source”.   Walsh explains his thesis competently in this chapter.  It provides a fine analysis of modernity’s failure to break into the achievement already elaborated in Kierkegaard’s personalism.

The third section of the book is entitled “The Historical Discovery”, but its essay cover literature, theology, and science as well.   The first two essays, “Epic as Saving Truth of History:  Solzhenitsyn’s Red Wheel” (Chapter 12) and “Art and History in Solzhenitsyn’s Red Wheel” (Chapter 13), introduce Professor Walsh in a new role: as an accomplished literary critic.  For example, Walsh explains Solzhenitsyn’s creative narrative device of “knots’ or the juxtaposition of characters and events that allow the reader of his work to realize “those compressed periods when the momentous transpires”. Solzhenitsyn’s art is a revelation of the deepest meaning of history “as eternal presence” and an invocation of the only possible justification of revolt: “revolution as repentance”.

Chapter 14, “The Person as the Opening to the Secular World” holds the surprise that Professor Walsh can write with great theological lucidity.  In this chapter Walsh examines in detail the four major encyclicals of Benedict XVI that so intelligently disclose the inviolability of the person.  Benedict explains the theological virtues of charity, hope and faith and in the fourth encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, “Benedict has provided a vision of what a person-centered civilization would look like” (p. 280).  Benedict wrote that “a humanism which excludes God is an inhuman humanism”; and Walsh affirms Benedict’s ability to bring his theological personalism to bear upon the great tradition of Catholic social teachings.   In Chapter 15, “Science is Not Scientific”, Professor Walsh reflects on science the perspective of the person whose mind can reach all reality.   It can make this contact due to its unlimited openness.  Thus it is possible to follow the canons of scientific method to come know reality as it is.  Thus science is  spiritual reality according to Walsh.  Scientific investigation transcends time and place.   Walsh stresses an ancient premise that science is studying the mind of God in created reality; forgetfulness of this fact will foster the pseudo science—“scientism” to supplant true science.

The final chapter in this book, “Hope Does Not Disappoint” brings the book to a meditative conclusion.  Walsh returns to his aphoristic writing style in this chapter.  For example Walsh writes “Hope is most manifest when the reasons for hope have disappeared”. (p. 304)   The political community lives within hope because, as the core of liberal political thought informs us, this community is a community of persons, who have the capability “of becoming what they are not and of discovering that we are more than we thought we were”. (p. 320) The chapter closes with the wise maxim that the transcendent beingness that is the person makes it possible for hope to be the horizon of our thinking. Thus hope does not disappoint.

To repeat an introductory statement The Priority of the Person can be beneficially read for more than one purposes.  First, the book is a serious and innovative study about the foundations of the inviolability of personhood,  The arguments, coming from several academic disciplines, succeed in rooting the dignity of the person, already acknowledged in liberal political theory, more broadly and convincingly.  However, this reviewer thought the “catch” phrase that Professor Walsh utilized of the person as “beyond being” somewhat contrived.  Perhaps “beyond being” is a new antimony—one asks how does anything exist if they are beyond being? The phrase is indeed mystifying.  That the person is “beyond being” could possibly be interpreted that the ‘person’ is another wholly different category than being, or even its convertibles:  Goodness, Truth, and Beauty.  Nonetheless, the use of the vocabulary beyond itself does remain fitting.  The person when defined as human inwardness called forth in self-transcendence beyond any created being including one’s being-ness as human, is appropriately circumscribe as “beyond”.  However, the phrase, “the person is beyond being” is often repeated throughout the essays of this volume, and the inner contradiction of the phrase made this definition jarring to this reviewer.

Admittedly, Professor Walsh’s definition of the person successfully underscores the dignity and unrepeatable mystery that is each person.  Walsh has perhaps provided a modern and more meaningful rendition of the Genesis description of the creation of the human being through the “breath of God”.   Walsh has commented once that personhood in this understanding of it is an insight into the traditional belief that God directly creates the human soul.  His is a so much more dynamic understanding of the human being as person, an ever-proceeding movement beyond created reality in a relating to Infinity that is integral to the essence of what can be defined as the human being.  The arguments for the person “as beyond being” then immeasurably exceed Boethius’s traditional definition of the human being as “a substance with a rational nature”.   David Walsh’s scholarly persistence through many academic disciplines has securely established the infinity of personhood.

Secondly, the academic acumen of Professor Walsh as a scholar is showcased in the book’s essays.   He is extensively well versed in several disciplines outside of his own in political science.  There is serious analysis of philosophical issues, presentations of literary interpretation, and discussions of theological themes in the chapters of this book that are resources in themselves.  One could easily use any one of the chapters as supplemental resources for interesting classroom discussions with both undergraduate and graduate students.  They are written with outlined clarity and students would be able to understand their thought-provoking content and will assuredly want to respond to the academic analyses offered.

Finally, David Walsh has written two books on the topic of the person.  Perhaps a third volume is called for.  The perennial question that is the person can be addressed from the overtly moral theological and philosophical perspective also.  There is a development from the “baby person” to the adolescent one to adult personhood.  This development can be corrupted or stunted. One may easily argue that the reality that is the person has been universally undermined in post religious world cultures.  Today we have many persons in a self-transcendence towards personal preferences, i.e. persons as “desiring subjects”.  The issue of preserving personhood in post-modern secularized cultures would greatly benefit from one more Walsh investigative study of the topic of the person!

Macon BoczekMacon Boczek

Macon Boczek

Macon Boczek is a Board Member of VoegelinView and has been an active member of the Eric Voegelin Society since 2001, after she earned a doctorate in Roman Catholic Systematic Theology from Duquesne University. She has a B.S. in Education and M.A. in both Religious Studies and Philosophy. She has taught at John Carroll University in Ohio and Kent State University, where she is currently on the faculty of the Religious Studies Department.

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