Something that marks personalism is its anthropological attempt to capture human nature in its entirety: Humans are both nature and spirit.
In opposition to philosophical idealism that refutes human nature, personalist intellectuals have maintained the claim that man is nature. Humans are part of the material world. We are connected to it and dependent on it – and are subject to nature. The physical world is the real world and not a semblance-world – a flawed understanding that some religious forms tend to support.
But because personalism has arisen alongside the breakthrough of a materialist anthropology, personalists have stressed that the human being is more than nature, namely a “spiritual being”.
How would a personalist understand this concept? In a narrow religious sense, the concept of spirit covers the human quality that enables us to stand in relation to a God or a higher being. Personalists, however, often use it to designate the fact that the spirit unfolds what is exclusively human or personal by rising above the merely animal. This sense of spirit is apparent in the notion of the “sciences of spirit” as opposed to the natural sciences. Thus, a “spiritual being” is not necessarily a “religious being” – it denotes something more fundamental: a being that rises above the “non-human”.
When personalism speaks of humans as “spiritual beings”, this means that humans, who are partially subject to nature, may rise above nature – behave like cultivated beings of spirit: humans. To a personalist view, those ideologists who reduce humans to being exclusively a fragment of nature commit the fatal mistake of depersonalizing the human.
Russian personalist Nikolai Berdyaev (1874-1948) speaks of a human dualism of spirit and nature. Spirit is a free and integrating activity in all human beings. The spirit has the right to total freedom and is the foundation for the human person. However, the spirit is also inevitably at odds with nature and the aspects of humanity that are determined by physical laws. This anthropology explains Berdyaev’s struggle for freedom of spirit and against materialism.
When humans in the western world today are reduced to something less than persons, personalists see this as corresponding to a materialist worldview. If we are not viewed as spiritual beings as well, we are quickly reduced to being consumers and a labor force. We live under a dominant totalitarian system that tries to make us believe that the road to happiness consists in producing and consuming.
A mantra in a capitalist society is the focus on economical growth as a scale for measuring the condition of society. This is in itself a depersonalizing factor in that the importance of human values thereby is degraded. And it is a bad scale because it only describes the condition of the system and not of the persons who live in it. Also it is thought provoking to consider the amount of economic metaphors that have entered our language and spread to all areas of life.
We can easily describe the values of our society in dollars and cents, but that does not provide any lines of direction by which we can live. It does not describe the values of friendships, love, corporation, art and other immaterial values. In personalist thought the balance between humans as nature and spirit is important.