Many major philosophers and religionists regard personhood as the key to understanding everything. Personalism is a major form of idealism, associated primarily with Borden Parker Bowne (1845-1910) and his successors. Charles Hartshorne, who is not usually classified as a personalist, says that "personality is the only principle of wholeness, of integration, on a complex level such as the universe must involve, of which we have any experience."
Person does not always mean human being. As personalist philosopher Edgar S. Brightman puts it,
A person is a self that is potentially self-conscious, rational, and ideal. That is to say, when a self is able at times to reflect on itself as a self, to reason, and to acknowledge ideal goals by which it can judge its actual achievements, then we call it a person.
All normal human beings are persons, but not all persons are human beings. If certain animals, such as dolphins and whales, are as advanced as we are led to believe, they may be persons; if there are angels, presumably they are persons. There may be many kinds of non-human persons inhabiting planets throughout the universe. Above all other persons is the ultimate Person, God, personal not only in relation to us, but in him/herself. God is the only complete person; we are fragmentary persons. There is no impersonal Ultimate beyond or underlying the personal God.
We emphasize that person and personal as used here do not refer to one's more or less superficial mask (what the words literally refer to) or guise or public role covering one's deeper character or individuality, but to that basic individuality itself.
To some it seems conceited and unduly human-being-centered (anthropocentric) to think that something more like us than like a rock (which is about as impersonal a thing as you can imagine) could be the highest reality. But ask yourself whether you can conceive of the highest, most basic, originating reality as something lacking in individuality (unity), self-consciousness, self-control, rationality, wisdom, love, ethical sensitivity, sense of humor, ability to choose one course of action rather than another, appreciation of beauty. Can you believe that a reality having such qualities is dependent on anything lacking them, or arose out of such a dull existence? To believe that it, or we, could have done so is to embrace a materialism that dispenses with anything worthy of being called God. Albert C. Knudson corrected a common misplacement of God and ourselves when he noted, "In emphasizing the personality of God we affirm, not the likeness of God to man, but rather the likeness of man to God." Borden Parker Bowne maintains that "complete and perfect personality can be found only in the Infinite and Absolute Being, as only in Him can we find that complete and perfect selfhood and self-possession which are necessary to the fullness of personality." Bowne warns against
transferring to [the Supreme Person] the limitations and accidents of our human personality, which are no necessary part of the notion of personality, and think only of the fullness of power, knowledge, and selfhood which alone are the essential factors of the conception.
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Research Sources on Concepts of Person and Self contains information on personalistic metaphysics.
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Latest update June 23, 1998
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