An Interview with David Walsh, author of “The Priority of the Person”

We recently had the opportunity to ask David Walsh a few questions about his new book, The Priority of the Person: Political, Philosophical, and Historical Discoveries, which was published by the University of Notre Dame Press in August 2020 as part of the The Beginning and the Beyond of Politics series. Walsh is professor of politics at the Catholic University of America and author of a number of books, including Politics of the Person as the Politics of Being (University of Notre Dame Press, 2015). 

The Priority of the Person expands upon and broadens your previous volume with the University of Notre Dame Press, The Politics of the Person as the Politics of Being. How did you come up with the idea to write this new book? 

After I had published Politics of the Person as the Politics of Being, it occurred to me that the focus on the person had been an abiding theme of all my philosophical thinking. Even an author doesn’t fully understand the path he is walking. It’s only by looking back that it becomes clear what the real subject has been. I thought I had been dealing with the crisis of meaning in modernity, the great totalitarian convulsion and the collapse of faith in a secular age. As a political theorist I understood my calling as that of addressing the deepest sources of order and disorder in the world in which we live. In one way or another it all circled around the unique responsibility each of us holds for addressing the problems that confront us. The discovery of that is not something I made but the turning point in every human life. We mature as persons on the day we admit that the problems are not all of someone else’s making. I have to play my part.

How do you approach your research as a political theorist?

As a political theorist my research consists of common sense observations of the world around me and draws extensively on the work of journalists, scholars, social scientists, writers, and artists, and conversation with people in many walks of life. Of course, the principal method is a close reading of texts and documents since that is the main access to the world of meaning we share. But reading texts is not just a matter of passively going over them. One has to penetrate below the surface, to ask about what motivated an author, to discern the patterns and depths that may have remained invisible to him or her. The goal is always to encounter the inner person who ultimately stands behind what has been written or created. The same applies to everything in the realm of art, as well as the monuments that have been left behind. Yehudi Menuhin, the great violinist, once remarked of a famous conductor, that “of all the great conductors with whom I worked, Wilhelm Furtwängler was the only one who always searched for the truth in a piece of music.” It is never just a matter of following the notes but of reaching the glimpse of truth from which they were inspired.

The Priority of the Person argues for a recognition of the person and their rights and dignity during this tumultuous political climate. How does this book contribute to contemporary conversations or events?

In many ways we are in one of those periodic crises of liberal democracy, the political form that has been the main force of resistance against the various outbursts of apocalyptic violence and escapist dreaming that have afflicted the modern world. Despite the astonishing success of this political order, rooted in respect for the rights and dignity of every human being, it is still the case that the convictions that underpin it can erode and erupt into a crisis of confidence. A longing for strong arm rule is a natural reaction to the chaos of contentious political life. Dictators always appear to have solved the problem of politics, the reality of disagreement. But this is an illusion. Their power is fragile and shatters under pressure because there is no real community. For political societies to really endure they must be based on the mutual recognition of rights by which each person is, as far as possible, allowed to live their own lives. A society that leaves everything up to free individuals is the only one in which civic friendship and civic virtue can emerge. This was the insight of the American Founders. Yet even the Founders did not adequately explain why this liberal constitutional order was the best, not simply the most practical. The philosophical roots of liberal convictions are obscure. Why should human beings be treated with inexhaustible dignity and respect? Even the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights avoids an answer. To say we are made in the image of God is the answer but it raises more questions than it answers. Somehow that idea must be made concrete. That means reflecting on the sacred depth of each person whom we know personally. Each person is encountered as a flash of transcendence that can never be fully known. But that is not a theory or an idea. It is first of all a lived reality. That is the great idea from which we can deepen our liberal commitment of mutual respect and rights.

What did you learn from this book?

What I learned I tried to put into the essays that constitute the book. Many of the chapters began from invitations to address one issue or author that at the time I was not planning on examining. This is the pattern of a scholarly life that may appear solitary but really consists of constant interactions and collaborations with others. Invitations to conferences, symposia, and lectures are usually the beginning and we are all led by the promptings of others. The two chapters on Solzhenitsyn came from an invitation from Natalia Solzhenitsyn to come to the Solzhenitsyn center in Moscow for a conference on the Red Wheel. Invitations to think about the meaning of human dignity came from plans for an anthology or for another conference. Almost everything in the volume comes from such provocations and, looking back, one sees that they are the fruit of my invisible collaborators. We think, Aristotle says, in the company of our friends.  

Is The Priority of the Person different from the book you set out to write?

In many ways it is an unintended book. When I finished Politics of the Person I sensed that I had done the essential theoretical work on the person. I felt I had moved philosophical reflection beyond where the “personalists” had left it. But then it occurred to me that there was a great number of case studies or applications of the ideas of that book that might help readers understand the theoretical insights more fully. Sometimes it is better to approach a topic sideways rather than head on. This is especially the case when the topic is the person, a category that remains problematic in the history of thought. This is mainly because the only way into it is from within the experience of being a person. How is it possible for the person to stand outside of him- or herself? How is it possible for persons to give themselves? To sacrifice themselves? What must such a reality be that is not designed merely for survival? That survives by going beyond itself? A whole new paradigm of reality is needed. This is why the category of the person has remained invisible in the history of thought. We prefer to deal with individuals rather than persons whom we can only know inwardly as another inwardness.

Who has influenced your work? 

Looking back I see many influences. But it is always other persons. This especially includes intellectual influences. One of the biggest was Eric Voegelin whom I did get to know personally as a young graduate student. Initially that meant putting oneself under that guiding influence. One trusts oneself to another. This is what all students must do in the apprenticeship of the intellectual life. Later I discovered that there were limits to Voegelin’s thought, just as one discovers one day that your father does not know everything! That’s when you begin to think more independently and really collaboratively. I don’t see myself as departing from Voegelin’s great insight into the way in which experience is the medium through which we discover the order of things. Faith and reason in that sense exist on a continuum. But Voegelin does not complete the logic of that insight, to perceive that there is no experience without the person who undergoes it and remains beyond it. Science and philosophy are a collaborative enterprise and I would see myself as building on the work of Voegelin and the great stream of personalist philosophy that comes out of German Idealism but goes back to the classical and Christian origins. In the intellectual life we have been sent out on a vast ocean on a ship were the passengers are continually being replaced and they in turn must continually rebuild the ship. Without sinking it!

Who would you like to read The Priority of the Person?

Every person who begins to think about what it means to be a person, one who shares in the life of the three persons of the Trinity. It is for anyone who thinks about what it means to be a person, and comes to recognize with St. Thomas that a person is always defined by the relation to others. It would be good if readers who are concerned with the present moment, especially the crisis of liberal political society, could read this to discover that the person is at the core of both the challenges and the responses. Dissidents like Vaclav Havel and Liu Xiaobo exemplify the invincibility of the person.

What are you working on now?

My long-term goal is to write a history of the idea of the person from the ancient world to the present. But it will be the selected highlights. The person remains the missing category in thought. More immediately I am finishing a short manuscript on “The Invisible Source of Authority: God in a Secular Age.”


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.

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