According to personalist anthropology, humans shape their personalities through the choices they make and the actions they carry out in life. Every time we choose, we develop a particular aspect of our personality at the cost of other options, thus becoming the persons we are, or the persons we choose to be. Culture, upbringing and environment clearly play a role as well, but through our actions and choices we shape our personalities in a particular way – we become unique humans with unique personalities. When we act, we become responsible humans who take responsibility for our actions as well as our fellow human beings, whom directly or indirectly are affected by our decisions.
One of the main figures of personalism, the French philosopher Emmanuel Mounier (1905-1950), was a contemporary of Jean-Paul Satre (1905-1980) and had many discussions with the existentialists. Personalism is a form of philosophy of existence, starting from the fact that I exist here and now and that I am part of a world with which I must necessarily engage.
In Satre’s thought, this fundamental condition of life caused an intolerable feeling of nausea – Humans are thrown into the world, condemned to freedom and forced to take responsibility for their own actions.
Mounier’s fundamental mood is completely different. Despite the vulnerability and suffering of human life, to which he is far from blind, life fills him with joy, with a feeling of inexhaustible richness. The aim of human life is to partake of this richness, to keep it alive, and to perpetually conquer it. Personalism, then views life and the necessity of action as an opportunity, whereas for Sartre, it is rather a curse from which humans cannot escape.
The emphasis on the relationship means that the existential responsibility, in the eyes of the personalist, is never independent from or at the cost of the fellow human being. To take responsibility for my existence means exactly to “respond” to the decisions that it confronts me with, and theses decisions are always related to my fellow human being. Thus, the personalist view on existential realization does not become at the cost of, but through and because of, the fellow human being.
These are some of the reasons why Mounier refutes the existentialism formulated by Satre and claims that the true existentialist tradition is the one found in the work of personalists such as Nikolai Berdyaev, Martin Buber and Gabriel Marcel. The spokesmen of personalism therefore deplore the fact that it was Satre’s version that from the 1950’s became the main exponent of existentialism.
A society works well if the citizens are active, responsible, engaged, creative, and prone to take initiative. Personalism therefore emphasizes smaller communities in which humans have great influence on their own existence, and where decisions are being made as close to the citizens as possible. It is a positive thing when civil society and altruistic volunteer effort flourish.
Personalists are often engaged in the development of democracy. Along with Danish debater and theologian Hal Koch (1904-1963), personalism holds that conversation, community, and the understanding of and respect for others are fundamental to democracy. Democracy is not primarily about the decisions of the majority; it is a way of life, a social mindset, a way of thinking and of relating to others.
Co-determination and engagements must be strengthened and protected by having people participate to the greatest possible extent in decisions that concern their own lives. Therefore, it is necessary to limit the impersonal power of the system, whether they be the market, state institutes, or multi national corporations.