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TPP founders, Katie and Jules van Schaijik

Philosophical origins and antecedents

We met as undergraduates at Franciscan University of Steubenville in 1985. A talk by Alice von Hildebrand at a Christian Culture conference there in 1986 awakened in us both an unexpected interest in philosophy. At her recommendation, we signed up for a class the following semester by Michael Healy on the Nature of Love, where we encountered for the first time the writings of Dietrich von Hildebrand, Karol Wojtyla, Soren Kierkegaard, and Josef Pieper, among others. Wanting much more like it, we filled what space we had in our final-year schedules with philosophy electives. Then, after graduating in 1988, we went on to the International Academy for Philosophy in Liechtenstein, where we had the inestimable privilege of studying at the feet of the great philosophical triumvirate of Josef Seifert, John F. Crosby, and Rocco Buttiglioni.

We were married in 1989.

Several things about our experience at both FUS and the IAP were key in shaping the mission of the Personalist Project.

  • For us, philosophy was never about advancing along an academic career track. It was about falling in love with Truth. We filled our time with classes and papers and philosophical conversation because what we were learning was wonderful—illuminating and beautiful and immeasurably enriching for our lives. We worked toward our degrees not primarily with a view to earning a living, but for the sake of the light our studies threw on life, and because we wanted to be better equipped to share what we had received with others.
  • Our experience of philosophy was highly existential (in the sense of related-to-life) and dialogical. Classes typically involved very lively, sometimes impassioned exchanges among professors and students. Discussions begun in class overflowed naturally into conversation over meals, or over beer in the alpine pubs, or on the tediously long trips between the Academy and the far-flung Studentenheimen. The professors interacted with us freely, both in and outside the classroom, treating us almost as friends and peers—fellow seekers after truth.
  • This dynamism was reflected in the IAP’s general approach to philosophy. It was not primarily about scholarship in the usual sense, but first and foremost a vital engagement with “things themselves,” with truth as the central theme. We had perhaps more “systematic” courses than historical ones—courses on being and nothingness, on death, on ethics, epistemology, metaphysics, on persons and community… The history of philosophy was treated not primarily as a body of knowledge to be learned by rote, but as a fascinating, millennia-wide intellectual arena, an infinitely rich source of wisdom and knowledge, and an on-going conversation among great and serious minds across the ages. It was normal for us not only to study the philosophers of the past, but to wrestle with them—absorbing their ideas and concerns as best as we could, and analyzing their arguments. If we found them insufficiently justified, we felt free to dispute their conclusions or challenge their adequacy in light of new insights and experiences.
  • Without conflating the two, or illegitimately mingling them, we learned that faith and philosophy are natural complements of each other. The IAP is not formally Catholic, and the philosophy it taught carefully avoided reliance on religious assumptions. Many of its students and lecturers were not religious at all. Fideism was recognized and rejected as a serious error. But the three main professors at the time were men of deep faith, whose Christian witness was an essential and especially valuable part of our education. The religious students pursued philosophy as integral to faith: faith relied on sound and incisive philosophy; philosophy was illumined and perfected by faith. We saw both as means of drawing us deeper into the mysteries of Reality—created and uncreated. There was a tiny and ancient chapel nearby, where several of us assisted at daily Mass, usually celebrated by one of the several Polish priests among the students, and ending with a sung Salve Regina.

These things (together with others peculiar to our circumstances) rendered us unhappy in the professional academia we entered later, with all its bureaucracy and politics tending to dethrone Truth, and its way of rejecting faith as hostile to science, or else injecting it in a way that does violence to true philosophy.

Then, too, for all the great and indispensable work being done by many scholars in academia, we found the excessive professionalization of philosophy deeply depressing. We saw it as bad for the philosophers. If they are constantly driven by the practical demands of class preparations, paper grading and committee work, plus harassed by interference from officious administrators, and under constant pressure from the publish-or-perish mentality typical of universities today, how will they be able to cultivate the kind of leisure that seemed to us essential to true philosophy? It also seemed bad for the wider culture, because philosophy had, unquestionably, become too technical and esoteric to play the role it should in human life and society.

If an ordinary person wants (as he should) to give some serious attention to the fundamental questions of human life, must he either enroll in a years-long, expensive degree program toward an academic career, or try to come to terms with abstruse texts and difficult problems on his own, without the help of teachers? If he wants a more rigorous grasp of the foundations of the Church’s moral teachings, say, or deeper insight into the nature and dignity of persons, or a fuller appreciation of the issues relating to freedom and law in political philosophy, or a sharper, more probing and comprehensive intelligence generally, is it necessary for him to study foreign languages, master an intricate body of technical jargon, and devote large swaths of precious time to deciphering the works of Schopenhauer, Spinoza and Sartre? Or isn’t there some other way?

Our sense that there must be some other way, for philosophers and philosophy students alike, led us to establish The Personalist Project, in 2007 on the Feast of All Souls. We dedicate its work (not counting its shortcomings, which are ours alone), in gratitude, to our former professors, and commend it to the intercession of our three most important intellectual influences: John Henry Newman, Dietrich von Hildebrand, and Karol Wojtyla.

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A serious life means being fully aware of the alternatives, thinking about them with all the intensity one brings to bear on life-and-death questions, in full recognition that every choice is a great risk with necessary consequences that are hard to bear.

Allan Bloom, Closing of the American Mind