The Meaning of Persons – Paul Tournier

“Science knows nothing of the unique fact; it can deduce laws only from facts which recur again and again…. We can understand then how it is that the person always eludes objective investigation, that it is only the personage that one finds.”

Another author writing in French, the Swiss physician and psychiatrist Paul Tournier, shaped my early search for GSOT even more than Albert Camus.  Tournier wrote from a dual perspective of science and religious faith.[1] His medical training imbued respect for science, but he developed a clinical approach called médicine de la personne that moved beyond science to promote holistic healing in the person who sought his help.

Tournier began a private medical practice in Geneva in 1925. Psychology and psychiatry had sprung up around the beginning of the century. Sigmund Freud in Austria and Carl Jung in Switzerland were practicing and writing actively. Paul Tournier, explicitly influenced by these pioneers as well as Christian reformers,
[2] moved toward a combined medical-counseling practice that by the late 1930s may have resembled today’s integrative medicine.



Tournier remained a believer throughout his life, theologically inclined toward Christian universalism.[3] Yet his insights regarding the human will, interpreted as the person, come from counseling and caring for people with problems that can strike any of us. You don’t need theistic presuppositions to learn something from Tournier. On the other hand, you don’t need liberal presuppositions either. You just need to be open to the possibility that ordinary human life, encountered in illness or daily activities, may allow us to perceive something more than what science or dogma usually describe.

Pursuing his vision of healing, Tournier organized many conferences and wrote more than 20 books, among which Le Personnage et La Personne in 1955 may have been his most philosophical. I read Hudson’s English translation, called The Meaning of Persons,
[4] early in my college years at Ole Miss. I don’t remember who had recommended it, perhaps my mother, perhaps someone at church or at the Wesley fellowship. My disparate family heritage of science and religious faith took on a sense of wholeness as I read the book.


Tournier made a crucial distinction between the person and the personage. The ordinary identity of any human being he called the personage.  The personage is the repetitive impression that a human being makes on those around her. The personage can be observed through her habitual responses, her resumé of accomplishments, and her established network of relationships.

The person in Tournier’s language is the deeper part of a human being, that which intermittently changes the direction of response, produces effort and commitment, and thus in concert with the physical and social environment creates the personage.

Tournier identified 3 levels of existence: the inorganic, the living organic or biologic, and the person. Today the first two of these are generally regarded as comprising a single level, about which I shall say more later. For now, let’s recognize that the personage belongs to the biologic level, and human life as the personage is a subset of animal life. Here is how he described the 3 levels in a critical section of The Meaning of Persons:

The inorganic world may be compared to a train which is compelled by the rigid rails on which it runs to follow exactly a pre-established course. The world of living things, on the other hand, is like a motor-car which enjoys a certain margin of deviation from side to side on the road. It course is kept practically straight by means of continual corrections to right or left applied through the steering wheel. Without this regulation the car would finish up in the ditch. But the regulation is a supple one, needing an intelligent driver, not an inflexible rail….

We are touching here on a problem that is very difficult to explain, but one which seems to me to be of the first importance for an understanding of the relationship that exists between the personage and the person. Let us return once again to our motorist. If he is accustomed to driving, he controls the progress of his vehicle quite automatically, through acquired reflexes. But when he arrives at a cross-roads, his action in turning the steering-wheel to take the road to the left or the right is of quite a different sort. He exercises his will to make a conscious decision.

Thus we have the same driver, making the same movement with his steering-wheel, but this time the significance of his action is of quite a different order. In the first case his action is automatic and recurrent; in the second it is an isolated act of the will. So in the life of man, what is seen, what is observable scientifically, is what is automatic – the personage. For science knows nothing of the unique fact; it can deduce laws only from facts which recur again and again….

We can understand then how it is that the person always eludes objective investigation, that it is only the personage that one finds. Science comprehends only the automatic aspects of the living being, which thus appears to it to be nothing more than a collection of automatic phenomena.

Near the beginning of this series, in the discussion of positivism I emphasized that science does not understand immediacy and particularity. For this insight I’m indebted to Tournier. We see him saying here the same thing: “For science knows nothing of the unique fact; it can deduce laws only from facts which recur again and again.”

I think that Tournier hits the mark precisely in his assessment of the limitations of science, which arise from the inability of science to deal with the singular event, or as he calls it, the unique fact. This leaves an opening for free will in the world, and free will is the essential function of what he calls the person.

A very important part of Tournier’s conception of the person is that the person operates discontinuously in time, as indicated in the example above of a driver choosing which fork in the road to take. Martin Buber said something similar. This is why the person cannot be studied scientifically; only the personage is open to public and reproducible investigation. La personne approached by the scientist reminds me of the ostrich stalked by pursuers in the biblical book of Job (39:18) – “When she rouses herself to flee, she laughs at the horse and his rider.”

In The Meaning of Persons Tournier takes an unfortunate detour into a discussion of biologic life, which he also considers to be based on unique and scientifically inexplicable particularities that might distinguish living organisms from the inorganic world. His book was published only 2 years after Watson and Crick published the double helix structure of DNA in 1953. His thinking and writing occurred, therefore, mostly before the remarkable story of molecular biology began. It was much too early for Tournier to understand the ultimate success of scientific advancement in explaining biologic life according to principles of chemistry and physics. Despite this slip on biologic life, his insights on the person and the will remain strong. As I have tried to show already (here, here, and elsewhere), insights regarding the will differ categorically from hypotheses in biology, chemistry, and physics. Therefore, Tournier’s description of la personne remains compatible with scientific progress, while supporting our capacity to make free choices.

When I was in college, I had so many choices before me that Tournier’s notion of the person, making choices, shone bright and lively. Now looking back after 50 years, what I can see is a certain number of decisions and a lot of repetition thereafter. Does the “person” diminish with time, so that the automatic “personage” becomes almost all that’s left after so many years? I do not think so, and let me explain why by exploring what Tournier called the unique fact.

The unique fact could be an easily recognized moment of decision, or a succession of such moments, as exemplified in the recurring judgment of qualities of a potential soulmate. The choosing of a career is a similar example. After those decisions are made, does the person diminish? No, because there are other unique facts. The immediate appreciation of beauty in nature, art, or music is a unique fact, always new. Each meeting of a new person – each new depth of conversation – these are also unique facts.

Beyond this, the inescapable, inexplicable fact that the world exists is a singular fact that endures before, through, and after every human life. What kind of response does a person make?


Groups and communities feature in Tournier’s thinking. He does not tie down his definition of the person to the limits of a human individual. In this passage near the end of The Meaning of Persons, he plainly states that his homeland “is a person”:

As I write it is the eve of the first of August, the Swiss national holiday…. The bells will ring out in all the towns and villages of my country, and beacons will be lit on mountain, hilltop and lake-side, recalling the fires that summoned the Confederates to battle in the olden days, in times of danger when the approach of some foreign army threatened their liberties. My homeland has a body: its mountains and valleys, its towns and its countryside; it has a soul – the joys and sufferings of its people, the intelligence of its scholars, the people’s tenacious will to work, and their passionate love of liberty.

But my country is more than that; it is a person. The Grutli Oath was…a solemn choice, a welling up of life which raised that handful of mountaineers out of their miserable condition as distant subjects of the Hapsburgs, to a personal existence. (p. 217)

In the following, he tends to see the whole world as a person:

It is as if a light had shone on life and shown it up in new colors. ‘We live,’ wrote Saint-Exupéry, ‘not on things, but on the meaning of things.’ The meaning of things is on the order of the person. When our eyes are opened to the world of persons, things themselves become personal…. Things are no longer things – they become transparent: no longer screens which hide persons, but living signposts which point us to them. The world comes alive; it speaks, and we enter into dialogue with it. (p. 182)

The person most often blossoms in groups of two, as in this passage:

All we possess, all we love, all we meet is incorporated into our person, shares in our person and takes on meaning through this personal sharing. One of my patients is a man who, in the most tragic circumstances during the war, experienced a sudden re-orientation of his spiritual life…. Love, he tells me, is something quite different from what is usually supposed. What people commonly call love is a mere function of sense, an emotional attraction. But since the change in his own life of which he is telling me he has seen it as a personal sharing in the destiny of another person. (p. 182)

Tournier explicitly acknowledged his debt to Martin Buber.[5] In the following paragraph from The Meaning of Persons, we hear echoes of Buber:

What creates in me consciousness of self is the consciousness I have of a not-self, of an external world from which firstly I distinguish myself, which I observe objectively from without, and with which I enter into relationship. Psychologists have described this birth of self-consciousness in the infant. There is, then, a double movement, first of separation and then of relation, between the self and things.

Next, what creates in me consciousness of being a person is entering into relationship with another person, the ‘thou’. Here again we find the double movement: the consciousness of being distinct from another person, and the possibility of entering into personal relationship with him. (p.125)

The person and the personage are distinct, but never very far apart, and each always influencing the other.

The essential, creative, personal act of life eludes our observation; all we see is the automatic action which prolongs that primary act, and which has no longer anything specifically living about it. This automatic activity ensures the fixity of the individual as well as of species. It makes him a personage. To the person belongs free choice, everything that is not fixed and automatic. But the choice is made manifest only by the continuing automatic action which it has set going. We can understand now why we could not detach the personage from the person, why the person was not directly accessible to us. We were able to trace it only through a personage which was already more or less firmly set in the role it played, already more or less deprived of liberty and life.

This automatic action is therefore a witness of life, but also a negation of it. It is at one and the same time its constant fruit, its indispensable servant, and its grave. (p.95)

Notice in the passage above how quickly self-reference (recognition of a creative personal act) becomes self-negation (disappearance of the act of will into automatic continuation and expression). In these blogs I have tried to express this concept through the 4th Rule, “Break these rules,” and through an appeal to Epimenides. According to Tournier, life has a rhythm as it cycles between person and personage –

We assert ourselves as persons in the moment of choice freely and responsibly made: then life wells up in us. Thereafter it sinks gradually back into the automatisms it has created and which become our prison. The personage hides the person until it breaks forth once more in a new self-commitment. Life is not a stable state, but a rhythm, an alternation, a succession of new births. (p. 218)

Tournier’s words in the quote below emphasize a point already made; la personne describes something very similar to what we have called the will:

The person always eludes our grasp; it is never static. It refuses to be confined within concepts, formulae and definitions. It is not a thing to be encompassed, but a point of attraction, a guiding force, a direction, an attitude, which demands from us a corresponding attitude, which moves us to action and commits. (p.179)

If it is the will, why not call it that? For that matter, why not speak of the soul or the spirit? Yet I think Tournier wisely chose la personne. The will has metaphysical connotations. He wanted us to find the person in daily situations. Soul and spirit appear mostly in sacred or theological texts, and we cannot help turning toward thoughts of afterlife or communion with God and angels. In contrast, the person moves through this life.

There is no doubt that Tournier’s concept of the person is a spiritual concept. But it refers to spirit in more the sense of family ties, of nature appreciation, of trust and love, of courage facing danger, of peace overcoming misfortune, and of lifelong quest than the theological sense of other world beyond this world. Other spiritual writers contemplate God first and then work down to human creatures. Tournier begins with the intimacy of the medical encounter with vulnerable humans ill in body and mind. He discovers there a hidden universe and calls it la personne.


Next post:  Evil Is Choosing the Lesser Good – Augustine

Previous post:  Albert Camus – Lucidity and Decision

Searching for GSOT outline:  Home

Images:  Header, girl in the Swiss Alps, Andi_Graf, Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain. Geneva lakefront, WilBar, Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain. Book cover, Paul Tournier, Vivre à l’écoute (Live to listen), from en/index.html. Village of Soglio in the Swiss Alps, peacepeaceofmind, Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain

[1] See, accessed 10/24/2016.

[2] Especially the Oxford Group, founded by Frank Buchman.

[3] Musick, D.D. Paul Tournier’s Universalism. Master’s thesis at Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL, 1978. Available at, accessed 10/30/2016.

[4] Tournier, P. The Meaning of Persons. Transl. Hudson, E. Harper & Row, New York, 1957.

[5] Tournier, P. La Medecine de la Personne, an article written for Les Cahiers de l’ADAPT. Available at, accessed 10/30/2016.



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