Personalism in the sense of a distinct philosophy or worldview focusing on the full, accumulated import of the concept of the person, however, emerged only in the context of the broad critical reaction against what can be called the various impersonalistic philosophies which came to dominate the Enlightenment and Romanticism in the form of rationalistic and romantic forms of pantheism and idealism, from Spinoza to Hegel. Key figures in this reaction were Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi (1743–1819), the initiator of the so-called Pantheismusstreit in the 1780s, and F. W. J. Schelling (1775–1854), who in his later work rejected the impersonalist positions of his early idealist systems. (SEP entry "Personalism")In particular following I.H. Fichte was Hermann Lotze (1817-1881) who emphasized the ancient Greek distinction between persons and things within a personalistic idealism. "Persons" were said to be centers of consciousness, properly "subjects" so-called, which can initiate causes and change by their own intentional volition (among other requirements, many outlined in Schelling's Outline nature book), where volition is understood as agency. In Europe this was picked up later on in the metaphysics of the French philosopher Emmanuel Mounier (1905-1950) in his book Personalism. German personalism, by the time of the twentieth-century, had largely been adopted only by Catholic church but not so much by other philosophers (with the exception of Max Scheler).
While reading this, I had three thoughts that I'd like to type out very, very quickly.
1. Arne Naess, the Norwegian ecophilosopher, proposed we ought to consider mountains "persons," not because they "think" in any regular sense of the term or possess consciousness as in panpsychism (which would be ridiculous), but because of the intrinsic dignity of the mountain afforded by the agency it possesses - its power to affect change. Today, corporations have been long considered "persons." But if a corporation is a "person," then why isn't a mountain? There is a distinction of course between legal and moral rights, yet ontologically legal rights rely upon moral rights - for the value those laws and considerations possess can only be established by the reality and natures of the subjects those laws are said to govern. Thus, according to personalistic criterion, whose lineage goes back to the German idealists and the American personalists who followed from them (from Lotze to Bowne), and the European personalists who followed from the German idealists (in particular Mounier, perhaps Scheler), certain "things" are now being granted rights as persons due to new ontological perspectives which owe their viewpoints to the personalists of the 19th and 20th centuries - for example, recently rivers have been granted the same rights as human beings, due to environmental concerns. See HERE.
2. The danger of miscategorizing all of nature as "objects" or "things" is worse now than its ever been. Object-oriented ontologies may grant agency to things, fine; but nevertheless objects are things according to their view. Many object ontologies deny consciousness or personhood to even the most basic of "things" for fear that consciousness or personhood is an "anthropocentric" trapping. While I agree we ought to, in the name of an ecological approach, not make our choices according to anthropocentric and heirarchical ordering, I do not agree personhood is an improper attribution to non-human animals, for instance; or to rivers and mountains. "Objects" is, frankly, a depersonalizing categorization from the start. And when one starts with a category mistake, then one's following system is completely flawed from the start for it is flawed in its very foundations. "Agents" would at the very least be a better start, if "persons" is too "humanistic" (which, in cases of helping others less fortunate, the weak, the sick, the dying, then a humanistic-oriented form of personalism is indeed called for. In cases where the weak, the sick, the dying or suffering are non-human animals then the more encompassing form of agentialism, personalism, is called for. Afterall, I'd rather be thinking about the metaphysics of animal rights than about what it's like to be the inside of a watermelon, or how the essence of the watermelon forever "withdraws," or how the cotton and the flame magically interact when I'm not looking).
3. If onto-sympathy and empathy are key in understanding persons and their agency, I am wondering how, if the real is always concrete and individual, and if, as in personalism, we universalize the 'I' -so that each particular I is in its center the Absolute, how philosophically "individualism," as a philosophy and approach, lost touch with a notion so central to the philosophy of personalism that grants a common form of singularity among and between each 'I' (thus granting a true "community of particulars"). So in other words, does someone like Max Stirner, for example, make the same mistake as the object ontologists in having each Absolute 'I' so absolute that it is absolutely private and distinct from all others - so much so that it is always collapsing back into its own universality, thus eliminating the very possibility of real connection, contact, feeling, and communication between each 'I'? Or, on the other hand, is it the case that for Stirner universality is commens, and in that very collapse there is an inner form of empathy that is the same as the outer extension of touch, feeling, prehension, or whatever modes of interaction allow communication between particulars. This would mean that any "vicarious" form of causation (connection) between them would not be required. No "magic" needed.
Thinking about Stirner and personalism leaves me torn. There seems to be two very different and distinct dimensions at work when one considers Stirner and personalism. Stirner's "ownness" - each One being the Unique One, each particular itself Absolute. This uplifts each individual self, or subject, or person, or agent, to the infinite degree of value it ought to have in being One. Yet, personalism allows for individuals, selves, subjects, agents, to allow their own current status of value to meet the status of value had by another one suffering - to attempt to feel what they do in lack and need. (See for example Jean Vanier's Becoming Human - it is almost as if in manys' current status of "human" they are actually not human at all, but rather "things." Or at least treated as such.)
Obviously Stirner's "egoistic" personalism is very, very different from its speculative theist roots. But in any case, whether egoistic personalism or personalism proper (idealistic personalism), both are extremely preferably to ontologies which begin from the category mistake of "objects" from the start. Any subject or agent is not a "thing" - persons are not "things," persons are not "objects." This is the sort of thinking that leads to murder, torture, and genocide, not only of "human" persons, but of non-human persons such as non-human animals.