An Excerpt from “The Priority of the Person” by David Walsh

In The Priority of the Person (August 2020), world-class philosopher David Walsh advances the argument set forth in his highly original philosophic meditation Politics of the Person as the Politics of Being (2015), that “person” is the central category of modern political thought and philosophy. 

From “Chapter Sixteen: Hope Does Not Disappoint

Whether the political realm preserves the economic is never the most decisive point. What counts is that it preserves hope. That was in the end its signal contribution to an economy that had seemed to lose hope. But more than that it brought hope into view as the horizon of our existence. This may in turn bring about a deeper account of what the political itself is. As the community that is constituted by hope, it exists in the point of intersection of the timeless with time, not in the seemingly solid embodiments of power and presence with which it is readily identified. This is something we have always known. Certainly it is familiar to the wielders of public power, who cannot quite eliminate the nagging possibility that their writ might one day go unheard and unaccomplished. Perhaps now we can admit the fragility of power without the heightened anxiety that usually accompanies it. For we have seen that it is precisely this fragility, its eruption from depths immune from evanescence, that is the source of the prodigious strength and durability of political communities. Mere changes of government, even extraconstitutional ones, do not touch its underlying dynamic, for the political community is already present in the hope that precedes its formation. All that is needed is the assent by which possibility is affirmed. Free government is merely its most explicit realization, but all governments are based on consent. It is simply that the less free varieties cannot be certain of their foundation and thereby must resort or be ready to resort to the uncertainty of coercion. A genuinely free polity is an awesome expression of strength. It is the most compelling testament to the power of hope that bridges the separation between human beings. Assent may be the means by which they are united, but its possibility is provided by the hope in which they are already united before they begin.

There is no foundation before hope, nor is there historical access to any point before it. This is why the formation of states is a mysteriously impenetrable process. It is not defined by constitutional conventions or ratifications because they already presuppose a community for which such events are authoritative. What is crucial is perhaps most noticed through its absence, when trust has suddenly collapsed, as it did in the great financial crisis. No one knows whether the other party is truthful or reliable; suspicion distances each from engagement with the other. How, Thomas Hobbes asked in the midst of the English Civil War, is it possibly for such mutually suspicious individuals to come together in the formation of a civil society? The answer that he gave of an agreement or covenant has colored our perception of political community ever since. Its individualistic premise avoids the most decisive aspect, namely, that individuals could never come together by way of an agreement if they were not already within a relationship of readiness to form agreements with one another. Hobbes knew this and for that reason invoked the priority of natural and divine law, but his formulation placed all of its weight on the necessity of individual decision. That precarious commitment of individuals to the formation of a commonwealth is precisely what leaves modern societies prone to periodic collapses of trust and confidence, until they discover that what they thought they had lost has never really been lost because it was never simply there. How can we lose what furnishes the condition of our existence? Or how is it possible for what provides the dynamic of our lives to become completely present within them? Crises of confidence are themselves only a possibility for beings that can never so fully incorporate the hope from which they live nor ever so fully lose it that they cannot even remember it. Hope does not disappoint because it is what we live within.

The problem has been that we have lacked a model or metaphor that would enable us to grasp this about ourselves. That in turn has made hope that much more inaccessible. We may be held by hope, but we cannot hold onto hope without knowing that we are held by it. This is the big philosophical revolution underway since the time of Hobbes as we discover that the language of entities and fixed quantities does not apply to human beings. A very different mode of discourse was needed to break the hold of objectification. The breakthrough occurred in the realization that the model or metaphor we had been searching for has literally been under our noses all along, for it is as persons that we are capable of becoming what we are not and of discovering that we are more than we thought we were. It is not that this awareness of persons has failed to inform our whole liberal political tradition. We might even point out that the centrality of persons, entitled to limitless concern and respect, at the core of liberal political thought, arises from just such awareness. A person, we know, is a source of inexhaustibility in the universe, each one incapable of reaching the limit of what he or she is. Most of all we know this about the people we know and love. Our political practice has been built around this elevation of persons as ends-in-themselves, never to be used, as Kant insisted, as a mere means. The problem is that we have lacked the adequate linguistic means of conveying this because all our language references entities of a relatively fixed nature. How can we talk about persons who are distinguished by the impossibility of fixing them in any particular status? The answer must begin from the recognition that such a question can only arise from persons and that we are capable of answering it only because we ourselves are persons. Not only do we not have to abstract from our own existence as persons, but we must not if we are to have any possibility of grasping the reality of persons. Indeed, it is only through the horizon of the personal that we have any chance of grasping what can be known about the whole within which we find ourselves.

We discover that we are not isolated monads wandering aimlessly through the universe, but are borne along by a trust in what is trustworthy before we even become aware of ourselves. Even Hobbes’s solitary individuals eventually yield to that predisposition as the possibility of creating a Leviathan. The loss of trust only comes later in response to bitter experience, but it cannot eliminate the priority from which it recedes. Our collapse of financial confidence in 2008 was just such a moment and it was, interestingly, followed by a robust reaffirmation from the political level, but a reaffirmation that could not fully account for the source of its own confidence. That more delicate reflection entails an enlargement of perspective to include the condition of the possibility of political community that only becomes visible in the mutuality of persons. It is only possible for persons to form such enduring associations across space and time because that is what persons are. Not simply confined to what they are, persons are the movement out of nonexistence that is never exhausted in existence. The possibility of forming community has in principle no limits because there is never a point where responsibility for the other has reached its limit. I carry every other human being within me, including all who have ever lived or will live. This is what underpins the possibility of communication between us. Barriers of language and circumstance are only incidental. I can know each other as a unique other, that is, as a person. Indeed, there is a sense in which we have not really met until we have met in person. All other forms of communication, including mass communication and the myriad possibilities of contact available to us, are all derivative from that primacy of persons to one another. The hope through which we reach out to one another is what it means to be a person.


This blog post is part of the Enriching Scholarly Communication and Connections through Notre Dame Press project and has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this post do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Additional information about the National Endowment for the Humanities and its grant programs is available at www.neh.gov.

Subscribe to our newsletter and receive a free ebook!

Be the first to know what's new from the
University of Notre Dame Press