The central insight of David Walsh’s book is that “...the person is transcendence, not only as an aspiration, but also as his or her very reality. Nothing is higher. That is what this book strives to acknowledge.” Walsh, professor of politics at Catholic University of America, proposes that the change that overcame philosophy around the time Descartes declared his “I think therefore I am”—the shift from metaphysics, or the study of being as being, to epistemology, the study of knowledge or how we know—is, overall, a good thing that has veered off course by focusing on the autonomy of persons rather than their ultimate value.
Walsh admires the work of Kant, along with that of Martin Buber, Nietzsche and Heidegger, among many others. Which is what makes this book a surprise for one trained in scholastic philosophy. After all, hasn’t personalism been done before? Mounier, Marcel and Maritain, led the way after World War I. Yet, Walsh maintains, they never managed “to engage the intellectual mainstream” because they mistook “the wish for the fulfillment” and never dove into a “more sustained reflection on the philosophical transformation that was sought.”
Thus the idea of autonomy stole the show and led to philosophers like Peter Singer saying that persons, especially infants, are expendable. Echoing Buber, Walsh responds, “The other must always be a Thou if he or she is to escape being an It.” And so he endeavors to push personalism past mere advocacy into the realm of development and discovery.
He does this by describing his vision of personalism in chapters devoted to personalism itself, morality, reality and science, God, art, history and politics. In these chapters Walsh reiterates his definition of the person as something transcendental—“transparent” like God, but not God.
The two chapters that stood out for this reader were on morality and art. The chapter on morality is titled, in Nietzschean parlance, “Persons as Beyond Good and Evil.” Walsh admires “the great iconoclast” because “Nietzsche’s critique of conventional morality was at root a moral critique.” Also: “Nietzsche has an unfailing ear for the humbug that crept into the most well-meaning exhortations to goodness. And he never failed to expose it.” Nietzsche reminds us that life is “an unending struggle” and that truth should be “integral to moral discourse.” Persons, Walsh says, are beyond good and evil because they are always struggling to move toward one or the other, not because good and evil don’t exist.
Kant described “this dynamic as a mysterious unfathomability that has not been well served through its identification with the notion of autonomy,” for since we have labeled what it is to be human as autonomy, then “the vitality of the moral life is arrested.” In other words, “Autonomy overflows into a metaphysics of the person...autonomy is itself overturned in the direction of the personal horizon with which it unfolds.” Everything must be looked at remembering who is doing the looking.
The chapter on art is titled, “Art as the Radiance of Persons in Reality” and is itself a radiant exposition. Walsh begins by noting that the category of “art” did not really exist until modern times; previously, art was always in service of something else, usually “religion and power.” Because of the decline of religion, “art and science have been released from all oversight but their own.” This has led to advances in both, yet also “a decline in accessibility.” Walsh describes how art should be radiant with truth and ends the chapter with his own philosophical paean: