Is there life after liberalism? The post–Cold War ascendancy of liberal democratic capitalism has given way to exhaustion and decadence. The Left has become increasingly illiberal in pursuit of its visions of social justice, while many on the Right are accusing liberalism of failure and dreaming of a post-liberal future. But a just alternative is not obvious. Liberalism’s most successful rival is the techno-totalitarianism of the Chinese Communist Party, which few are openly eager to emulate. Indeed, most of liberalism’s Western critics propose to retain many liberal practices, even as they disavow liberalism’s theoretical formulations.
For a political order supposedly built on faulty philosophical foundations, liberalism has been surprisingly resilient. This practical persistence is explained by the political theorist and Catholic University of America professor David Walsh in his new book, The Priority of the Person. In this collection of essays, he elaborates his thesis that liberalism is the political expression of the spiritual epiphany of the person that has been differentiated by modern philosophy. This collection thereby supplements and accompanies his prior work, especially his brilliant efforts in The Modern Philosophical Revolution (2008) and Politics of the Person as the Politics of Being (2015).
As a companion, The Priority of the Person sometimes tarries behind, sometimes dashes ahead, and occasionally wanders down intriguing side trails in theology, art, the philosophy of science, and more. Despite these digressions, the book is united around Walsh’s ambitious philosophical project, into which he hopes this volume will provide an entry. He succeeds in this endeavor. Although the book may still sometimes challenge lay readers, it is more accessible than its predecessors. It is therefore essential reading, as Walsh’s attempted vindication of modern philosophy and political liberalism demands engagement from those debating the merits and future of liberalism—and I do not think it is only deference to my old professor that leads me to conclude this.
What Augustine did for Plato and what Aquinas did for Aristotle, Walsh attempts for modern philosophy. Though sometimes critical of his subjects, Walsh sprinkles holy water liberally, baptizing the unfolding of modern philosophy into Christian personalism, and defending liberalism as the political expression of this philosophical epiphany. He argues that the infinite value of each person necessitates the political respect for persons that is instantiated in the liberal regime of rights and liberties. Liberal systems of individual rights are not “a recipe for atomistic individualism, but the summit of mutual respect by which persons hold and behold one another. . . . The members outweigh the whole because each is a center of self-transcendence.”
This Christian personalism does not sound much like the traditional language of liberalism. And though Walsh perceives hidden depths in the likes of Hobbes and Locke, he concedes that liberal theory has often been an inadequate justification for its practice. But he argues that it is only through the practice of liberalism that many of its theoretical implications and rationales become apparent. For instance, the practice of liberal regimes of individual rights illuminates the theoretical basis for those rights, for the “primacy of the person is what we live by. To have rendered that conviction unmistakable is a singular moral advance, even if the philosophical rationale is limping far behind.” He therefore claims that “Human rights jurisprudence is the great moral achievement of our world. It is the way by which what would otherwise be invisible, the infinity of the person, is rendered visible.” The primacy of human rights derives from the incommensurable worth of the persons they protect, and the more we live by liberal practice, the better our apprehension of the basis for it.
However, the practical application of rights is often less about recognizing the inviolability of the person and more about the individual assertion of autonomy. Adversarial assertions of rights become another method of, and justification for, dominance over others. Recognizing this, Walsh suggests that the philosophical unfolding of the person must lead us further still, beyond competing assertions of rights. He urges us to replace the conception of atomistic individuals dominantly asserting rights with “the person who has no existence on his or her own but whose whole being is bound up with relationship to the other.” Rights must be understood as expressions of, and safeguards for, the responsibilities we have to other persons; they are other-directed, rather than claims of individual domination.
This is an appealing theory, which Walsh connects to the common good, but it bears little relation to current practice, and must aim at its correction. The theoretical reflections that have arisen from practice must in turn refine practice, which may further clarify theory. In this we see that theory is another form of practice, rather than a separate realm unto itself.
Part of the theoretical problem of liberalism has been the failure to develop a “personalist language of the person.” The philosophical language of subjects and objects is misleading when applied to persons, and Walsh faults personalist thinkers who “failed to acknowledge the extensive linguistic overhaul” necessary “to talk, not about the person, but out of the person.” For him, it is a mistake “to acknowledge the necessity of treating persons differently and then continue to speak about them in the language of things.” Because we cannot master persons (not even ourselves) as we master things, the person must become the horizon in which we think, rather than an object to be defined within our thought.
Despite the difficulty of this linguistic and philosophical task, Walsh does not think that we are cast adrift, for we may know more than we can say. Although the “elusiveness of the person may challenge our linguistic ability, . . . it is not for all of that mysterious. It is the common experience of everyone we know.” This helps explain why the development of modern philosophy has been less destructive than it is often accused of being. It is not a simple falling-off from a classical or medieval philosophical superiority into modern subjectivism, relativism, and nihilism. Rather, as the difficulties of successive philosophical systems have been confronted, we have been faced with the indispensability of the person to philosophy. Too often, the lived truths of philosophy had declined into the sterile intellectual manipulation of concepts that are detached from the existential reality of their formulation. Walsh’s defense of the modern philosophical revolution thus emphasizes the recovery of philosophy as an existential practice.
Of course, the modern philosophical project has had missteps of its own. Heidegger, for instance, drew our attention to the forgetfulness of Being, but himself was prone to a forgetfulness of persons. As Walsh observes, “Heidegger himself is missing from the Heideggerian philosophy.” In contrast, Walsh urges us to embrace the primacy of the person to philosophy, suggesting that “instead of becoming a problem within philosophical analysis, the person might be embraced as the inexhaustible source of reflection itself. Persons cannot be explained because they are the possibility of explanation.” Indeed, he insists that it is “futile to ask for a metaphysics of the person, as if anything more substantive could explain the transcendence of the person.” Nothing is more real than a person.
This recognition of the inexhaustibility of the person means that the person will always exceed propositional definitions, which are inevitably inadequate, despite their practical indispensability. Because there is much truth that cannot be stated directly, philosophy needs mystery, aphorism, and paradox. Philosophy must reject a strict reliance on propositional argument that presumes that the person is something from which we can stand apart. Following Kierkegaard, whom he views as the culminating figure of the modern philosophical revolution, Walsh draws us into the mystery of persons, for the “person who exceeds everything in the universe also exceeds all that can be said about him or her. Only God can adequately pronounce the name of the other.” We cannot step outsides of ourselves to fully define what we are, as if we or other persons were objects. We must philosophize from within our personhood, which is both finite and self-transcending.
Walsh credits Christianity with much of this personalistic philosophical development, and he asserts that the “stability of the liberal formulation arises from the residue of Christian resonances. . . . Christianity has awakened us to a permanent dimension of human nature.” The philosophical and experiential differentiation of the person does not immediately disappear when its historical unfolding is forgotten; the spiritual reservoirs that sustain liberalism do not run dry as soon as they are forgotten. But the luminous realization of the person that sustains liberalism’s vitality may eventually fade, for the “transcendent dignity of the person can only be preserved in its relationship to that which is itself transcendent.”
By revealing the inner illumination of liberalism, Walsh has also identified the occlusion that may poison it, a possibility that seems intrinsic to the unfolding of liberalism. For example, a declaration of rights can become an effort to dominate the world through assertion. The emphasis on the person and interiority heightens the temptation to conclude that we are self-creating, and to thereby close ourselves off from our primeval responsibility to the other. Even in Walsh’s defense of liberal modernity, the menace of Luciferian possibilities flickers at the edge of vision.
And it is not only the totalitarian cataclysms of the last century that might discredit the modern project. Ordinary life and death in liberal regimes may also involve great evil, a problem that Walsh confronts directly in the evil of abortion. He condemns abortion as a betrayal of the priority of the person, declaring that of “all the epiphanies of the person we might say that the vulnerability of the fetus is the one in which otherness is most deeply invoked.” Therefore, he insists that to “the extent that we turn our back on the other in his or her most elemental state, at the very beginning, we have not simply failed in our responsibility for the other. We have undermined that very possibility of responsibility. . . . [T]he fetus evokes responsibility in its most primordial form.” Indeed. That liberal societies have, in the name of individual rights and personal autonomy, rejected their elemental responsibility for the other, even for their own children, threatens Walsh’s case for liberalism as the politics of personalism, for the tree of liberalism must be judged by its fruit.
Of course, so must other regimes. This is why many of us find ourselves torn between the liberalism we live within and the critiques of it whose justice we must often concede. It is a divide not between head and heart, but within head and heart. We may, for example, reject as historically mistaken, philosophically foolish, and politically dangerous the view that ours is an Enlightenment liberal nation. Yet we are fond of many liberal practices, and are not eager to abandon liberalism for the uncertainty of often ill-defined alternatives. No book, not even this excellent volume, can resolve these disputes over liberalism, for they must be settled in practice. Walsh also writes within this tension. He is consciously engaged in the project of refounding liberalism, and his efforts to articulate a more adequate theory of liberal modernity are meant to serve as a corrective to its practical sins. He is trying to show liberal modernity what it really is, so it may become it and live.