Thomas Buford

Thomas Buford

Thomas O. Buford (1932-) holds the Louis G. Forgione Chair of Philosophy at Furman University and has been an adherent of the Boston Personalism branch of philosophy.

Academic career

Buford joined the faculty at Furman University in 1969. After earning the Bachelor of Arts at the University of North Texas in 1955 and the Bachelor of Divinity at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1958, he received his Doctorate of Philosophy at Boston University in 1963, where he studied under Peter Anthony Bertocci (1910-1989), who had studied under Edgar Sheffield Brightman (1884-1954), who had studied under Borden Parker Bowne (1847-1910). Bowne, a friend of the philosopher William James, founded the Boston Personalist tradition in philosophy.


Personalism has been described as "a philosophical perspective for which the person is the ontological ultimate and for which personality is the fundamental explanatory principle," and as "most fundamentally . . . a philosophy committed to the "primacy of person-al (subject-related) categories of value and meaning", to the mutual respect of all beings in a "reality experienced as a community of persons" who are convinced that subject-related categories are subjectival, not subjective in the sense of being private and arbitrary." For personalists, in short, the world of persons is the starting point and end of all philosophy. For a while, Boston Personalism played a major role in American thought. Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, writes in his book [ "Stride Toward Freedom"] (1958) that the personal idealism of his teachers at Boston University "remains today my basic philosophic position," giving him, among other things, a "metaphysical basis for the dignity and worth of all human personality." In working to ground personalism, Bowne was influenced especially by Kant. As Bowne's first main successor, Brightman put Hegel in the place where Bowne had put Kant in personalist philosophy. Bertocci leaned perhaps most heavily on clinical psychotheory, and Buford draws particularly on the thought of the Neapolitan philosopher Giambattista Vico (1668-1744).

Personalists have always held that the practice of life itself is more important and valuable than the act of reflecting upon it philosophically. No personalist believes that wisdom is given only to those who reflect systematically on experience. But everyone reflects. As Buford puts it, “every adult is a philosopher. In the changing patterns and stages of their lives, adults face problems which drive them to examine again those beliefs and values which form the basis of their life-styles.” Personalists, including Buford, have a cautious faith that reflection, undertaken rightly, really can provide guidance for life, that is, “Philosophy is essential to a life good to live.” In his written works Buford often quotes Socrates’ maxim that the unexamined life is not worth living, but he changes it in a subtle way, in his own thinking, to the examined life is worth living. In practice Buford believes that the examined life can be as fruitless as the unexamined life, unless the examination of the unexamined life is undertaken both analytically and synoptically, with all results to be held provisionally under the test of practice itself. And we may add for Buford that the unlived life is hardly worth examining, while the totally unexamined life never really happens.

The metaphysics, the epistemology, the ethics, the social thought, the political philosophy, even the logic of personalism were well worked out by the time Buford inherited this tradition. It fell to his generation personalists to go out into the world and see what this philosophy could do. Buford’s work has been dominated by an effort to set personalism into practical motion. All of his books are dominated by practical forms, covering a number of sub-disciplines. Toward a Philosophy of Education is in the philosophy of education. Contemporary Studies in Philosophical Idealism is a general study in American metaphysics. Philosophy for Adults is an anthology for teaching college classes to non-traditional students, mixing Buford’s thought with primary source material. Personal Philosophy: The Art of Living is a textbook for introductory philosophy to traditional aged college students. Essays on Other Minds is a collection in analytic epistemology. Ambushed on the Road to Glory is practical pastoral theology, based on the New Testament. In Search of a Calling is a very serious study in the philosophy of higher education. Personalism Revisited is a historical record of the progress of American personalism in the 20th century. In addition to these books, Buford has published many articles in various journals, treating a still broader range of philosophical topics.


Buford’s method for doing philosophy is easily identifiable within the personalist tradition, but he has his own version. He adopts Bertocci’s method, arguing that philosophical reasoning is not monolithic but takes two fundamental forms, the analytic and the synoptic. Neither form operates well without the other. As Buford says, “the creative search for meaning demands that one cannot follow either one method or the other exclusively.” Analytic reason breaks experience down into its simplest parts, but in doing so, it does a certain violence to the way in which experience is had –which is holistic. Synoptic reason re-assembles what has been analyzed, synthesizes it in light of fundamental values. Thus Buford defends his method by arguing for a broader view of reason than most of his contemporaries have wanted to embrace.

The fundamental values revealed in the synoptic phase of reasoning are summarized in three questions, for Buford: what can I know, what can I hope, and what am I to do? These are Kant’s questions from the famous essay “What is Enlightenment?” but methodologically Buford uses them as guides for synthesizing our synoptic thinking in light of what our analyses have shown. Another synoptic guide that Buford uses methodologically is what he takes to be the final answer to Kant’s questions, and appropriately enough, it comes in the form of another question, from the prophet Micah: “what does the Lord require of thee but to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with thy God?” If one would know the fundamental values that guide all of Buford’s synoptic activity, these are the ones: just action, love of kindness and humility before God. In metaphysics Buford holds that ideals are more real than particular experiences and particular experiences cannot even be understood in a valuable way except in light of ideals which illuminate and connect them. The adaptation of the analytic/synoptic method of Bertocci to Kant’s questions and Micah’s values are Buford’s own variations on personalist methodology, an optimistic method, in that possibilities for improving human existence are always embedded in each situation, accessible to human understanding as ideals, and offer practical guides for action.

The Unity of Buford’s Thought

Buford’s writings represent a great variety of subspecialties in the discipline of philosophy, but he is most concerned with ethics, social philosophy, the philosophy of culture, the philosophy of religion, the philosophy of education, the philosophy of history, and to some extent epistemology. His philosophical writings show a clear preoccupation with the education of the human person, more specifically, the education of the person between the ages of 17 and 22. As he says, “while in college, students make choices that lead to the creation of a pattern of life that lasts for almost 20 years.” (PP v). Buford’s other writings in metaphysics and epistemology, in social philosophy and ethics, and especially in the fundamental character of institutions have all been support structures for the articulation of his central concern, which is education in the broadest sense of that term. In his words, “education, in its broadest sense, is the process of transmission of culture from one generation to the next.” Buford investigates the formation of persons, that process by which the capacities and potencies of the human soul become actualities through a process of experiencing. The unity of Buford’s thought is best grasped by examining it in light of this central concern.

Extrinsic Formation of Persons

It is best to divide the subject into what can be called the “extrinsic and instrumental” features of experiential formation, and the “intrinsic and essential” features. Under the heading of extrinsic features are included the social and cultural conditions and contingencies that provide the basic materials for the formation of persons. Buford’s writings in the philosophy of culture and history and social philosophy are concerned with the extrinsic and instrumental character of the formation of persons. Here Buford distinguishes between what he calls “primary institutions” and “secondary institutions.” A primary institution is a long-standing mode of human association that has shown itself basic to the conditions for bringing persons to actuate themselves as social beings. In his words, primary “institutions are relatively permanent social relations, sanctioned by norms, that satisfy a social desire, need, and/or purpose and are situated among the ecosystem, our normative beliefs, and ourselves.”

Taking an example, the family is an indispensable primary institution. The family is a relatively permanent, sanctioned social relation that can be constituted in many ways, depending on ecosystems, history, norms, and beliefs about norms and the persons they structure. But what is clear is that becoming a person in any recognizable sense seems to require that there be some such structure as the family, some mode of human association that fulfills the needed functions. Another primary institution is education itself, which is to say, all human societies in all times have some educational function which is formalized in some way. With regard to education, as with all other primary institutions, the formalization of this mode of human association attempts to project into the future a form of the past through the transmission of customary modes of associating and the creation of individual habits.

Secondary institutions, such as particular universities (Harvard or Oxford, etc.), or individual family lines (such as the Kennedys), are historical manifestations of the value of education or family, specified in accordance with the environment, place, time and cultures they serve (and by embodying historically the primary institutions, secondary institutions serve primary ones). And such is the case with all other extrinsic conditions of the formation of persons, not just institutions.

Buford’s analysis of extrinsic formation always draws us back from our own present habits to examine their general forms. For example, we may ask, “must a person learn to read in order to be a person in the fullest sense?” In many, indeed most, places and times in human history, most persons did not read. There is no reason to think that they were lesser persons for this, or that the full formation of a wise and happy soul was denied to such persons. Rather, in their contexts, different from our own, other habits than reading would have fulfilled the needed educative function, because there was for them just as there is for us. The particular historical manifestations of education are as varied as human life, and could be still more various than they are. For Buford, no specific habit is altogether required for the formation of persons, but there must be education of some kind, just as there must be family of some kind.

At this level of generality, one sees how contingent are the habits a given culture has developed to provide the specific kinds of human association we wish to encourage –reading, writing, calculating, critical reflection, command of scientific and historical fact—but we can imagine other habits that serve similar ends. None of these current habits is indispensable to the formation of persons, but what humanity could never neglect would be the creation of conditions in which learning occurs, and learning has to be facilitated by stable structures that give the future a form before we live our way into it. Without these extrinsic and instrumental features of primary institutions, the future is not secured against the things that tend to erode the development of persons –ignorance, in this case—of what persons need to know in order to live with dignity and grace, to become wise, and to experience happiness.

Buford came to be convinced early in his career that over-specialization and too much analysis with too little synopsis was taking over in the extrinsic conditions students had to negotiate. He saw an ever-increasing external pressure upon them to approach the entire process of education as the acquisition of instrumental knowledge and skills that would shunt them into careers in the fast-paced technological society. Not enough attention was being paid to showing students the connections that already existed among all these human pursuits, connections already embedded within the very culture in which we live. Those extrinsic connections bespeak basic values and purposes that were not being internalized by students because they were not being taught. There was more than a little unrest among young people early in Buford’s career in the 1960s, with its slogan “you can’t trust anyone over thirty.” In my generation we laugh at those young people, who are now our elders, say, “if you actually remember the sixties, you must have missed what was happening.”

Thus, in the sixties, responding to the unrest of his day in practical and philosophical ways, Buford began working experimentally, on one hand designing an integrated interdisciplinary curriculum for the new and experimental Kentucky Southern College, and on the other hand writing books for courses that counter-acted the tendency to force students to analyze too much and specialize too soon. Without denigrating the value of analytic reasoning, Buford’s books featured synoptic reasoning as the purpose analysis should serve. As he puts it, “philosophy is not at its best” when it settles for analysis alone.

Nearly all of Buford’s books are aimed at an audience of college students, and all of them feature a dialectic of practical examples set over against analysis and synopsis. Buford’s books have become a part of the extrinsic conditions in which persons are formed, constituting a set of connections made that can be learned and internalized, and which are quite explicit about the values they serve, the ways in which those values are the product of his own culture. His books speak of justice, of kindness, and of humility, while they quietly counter-act in their way the over-weaning press towards specialization and the analytic temper of modern life. This counter-balancing effort is a constant feature in all of Buford’s writing and in his educational work.

Intrinsic Formation of Persons

Empirical study and reflection upon extrinsic and instrumental conditions that contribute to the formation of persons does not provide its own justification. Even the values methodologically built-in, just action, the love of kindness, the humility with one’s God, need a ground. There are deeper reasons and values at stake in trying to understand the external aspects of education, culture, or society. Buford’s central intrinsic philosophical concern is freeing or liberating persons. The stable extrinsic value structures we acquire in the process of being educated, even synoptically understood, for a given historical time or place, can just as easily become fetters of our growth as free us for growth.

At some point in the 1970s Buford became convinced that the students he was seeing were not only suffering from the excesses of specialization, analysis, and the mechanization of their lives, but also that something else, something deeper, was not being communicated to them by their culture, their families, their societies as a whole. He identified the problem as a crisis of identity. The students were experiencing the questions “what can I know”? and “what may I hope?” and “what am I to do?” as if they were external pressures, while Buford held that they were really intrinsic concerns. Why were students not generating these questions from their interior lives? He came to think that the sorts of persons who can validate their own internal concerns were persons with a rich sense of personal identity, and nothing was being done to create the space within which students freely shaped their identities from their interior lives. Even matters of conscience had become so politicized and externalized that students could not distinguish a show of conscience from a true sense of it –this was one of the unexpected results of so many public acts of conscience during the social upheavals of the 50s and 60s. These externalizations of conscience led many people of the younger generations witnessing them to think of conscience as an external value. The impoverishment of the inner life led to a crisis of identity, and in time, an inability among young people even to recognize their innermost processes as valid sources of experience. We had hollowed out our young people, and they are hollow still, in his view.

Buford came to think the crisis in identity was best described as a loss of the sense of calling, in Latin, vocatio, in Greek ekklesia. This is an ancient idea that has been found in every human culture, a notion that the public lives we choose and lead are not simply the work of our own narrow choices, nor of the expectation placed upon us by external pressures, but a sense of purpose that comes to us both from beyond and from deep within ourselves. As a result of wrestling with the issue of “calling,” Buford’s philosophical views changed beginning in the early 1990s. His previous books had been focused upon the extrinsic conditions of education. The interior was missing. Buford said early on in his writings, “feelings, intuitions, insights, although important as data for reason in its search, do not guide the search. One could follow their lead if one wanted to do so, but there is nothing in them that is self-corrective, that would allow one to determine the best or correct answer.” Buford later came to realize that there was a lot more to the inner life of persons than just the processes generating “important data for reason in its search.” Buford’s 1995 book In Search of a Calling marks a watershed in his thinking, and features a major overhaul in his view. Philosophy and the “examined life” are about more than reason, however synoptically it is expressed. He also retained the same values, the Kantian questions, and the question of Micah. What was different was the role of reason and its interiority as expressed in ideas like “calling,” which are not wholly rational ideas.

Where in his earlier work Buford had held that it was the very objectivity of reason, both analytic and synoptic, that recommended it as a guide for life, in the 1995 book he lashes out against the very idea that reason is wholly objective. In his later work, Buford sees reason as creative, and the creative power wells up from within the person. We make our world, both in its rational and irrational character, from the resources of human creativity. The apparently objective character of reason is little more than the residue of past imaginative creativity. Someone else’s creativity, no matter how valuable, can never act as a substitute for our own, and can even become a fetter. If we would be free, we must free ourselves, and this is a creative act, requiring a strong sense of the value of our own interior lives. This might be described as Buford’s “Emersonian” turn, but it is as much Vicchian as Emersonian, resting upon a new emphasis on imagination. Reason is actually a form of imagination, and is in fact the most valuable form of imagination. Imagination does not have to follow the guidance of reason, but it can. The imagination can choose reason and create its purposes in its light. Reason is not something set over against imagination, it is a way of imagining. Aesthetic and moral types of reason are more basic to this creative imagination than are technical types of reasoning. Buford says, following Vico, that memory is a kind of imagination and fully embraces the idea that we make the truth insofar as we will have truth. He then battles against the narcissistic and romantic implications of this emphasis on creativity.

The notion of “calling,” Buford thinks, is basic to the formation of human persons; it cannot exactly be taught, but it can be learned. We can either teach people to recognize the calling and treat it as something significant, or we can fail to teach people how to recognize and value it. The key to achieving rich identity is to embrace “creative finding,” according to Buford. In creative finding we must attune students to possibilities, to treat possibilities as a kind of reality, and to imagine purposes for their lives as residing in those possibilities. He recommends the art of narrative as a way of teaching students to treat possibilities for their lives as real. They can learn to tell their own stories in many different ways, if we teach them this is worth doing, and in the process of so doing, they may locate themselves imaginatively in the service of the purposes those stories reveal. Having imagined a life narrative and having checked these possibilities against their feelings, their intuitions, their insights, a student might be in a position to experience the lure of a plan, an ideal of life, having therefore found something, a possibility, that he or she would then have a great hand in making actual. This is a “calling” in Buford’s philosophy.

For Buford’s mature thought, the person is not a substance, not a process, not a principle, not consciousness, not will, but personality and personhood are grounded in primal images, “imaginative universals,” as Vico calls them. The most basic image, grounding all the rest, is not just any image, it is the imago dei, the image of God. As Buford says, “the image of God in man is the imagination, and the fall of man is . . . the misuse of the image, the imagination.”

What have we learned about the imago dei from our reexamination of the language of Genesis 1 and 2, early Christian thinkers, the Greeks, and the Moderns? (1) Human likeness to God is representational and consists in the imagination; (2) the imagination implies freedom . . .; (3) humans are creators, or crafters, who transform the commonplace into something it was not before their work began; and (4) humans gain their definition both from God and from their own creative work.

In short, the intrinsic aspect of education is a kind of self-education which consists in freeing oneself from the extrinsic onslaught of conditions by an act of creative imagining. The reason we can create is because this is what God gave humanity in giving humans his image, the reason humans are not wholly free is that they freely misuse the gift, and the remedy to that problem is the wiser use of the same gift. These are Buford’s principal contributions to the tradition of Boston personalism and have made him perhaps the most important thinker of his generation in that tradition.


In addition to editing three collections and coediting two---most recently [ "Personalism Revisted"] ---Buford has authored four books, perhaps the most notable of which is [ "In Search of a Calling"] (1995). He also founded the academic journal [ "The Personalist Forum"] ---whose name was derived from the titles of two journals formerly devoted to personalist discussion, "The Personalist" and "The Philosophical Forum"---and a philosophical organization called the International Forum on Persons.

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