Paul Tournier and The Meaning of Persons

Judy Koehler, M.A., LPC, NCC

Judy Koehler

Licensed Professional Counselor


Paul Tournier and The Meaning of Persons

If I say the words “person centered psychotherapy” Carl Rogers is the name that that usually comes to mind. Just Google the topic and Rogers name goes on for pages and pages. Though most counselors think of Rogers as the father of this approach, Victor Frankel would have credited a lesser-known man. Frankel thought of Paul Tournier as the head of the person-centered camp. Certainly Tournier had a holistic, humanistic, person centered approach, but he rarely makes the list of great psychotherapists. He is better known as a physician and philosopher, but many of his patients received what we would now consider to be person centered psychotherapy.

As a primary physician, Paul Tournier became fascinated with human beings. In his book, Tgo eahe Meaning of Persons, Tournier takes the reader on his personal journey of thought. He considers what it means to meet people’s needs. He is a physician who wants more than many doctors of his time wanted for their clients: Tournier sought to approach people holistically. The physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of a person are so interwoven that he believes to treat one part only is a detriment to the whole. He contends that the therapist must treat man as God treats him, in his entirety.

Because we humans are so complex Tournier explains the fundamental weakness is helpers who believe all human problems have solely organic or emotional components. His book not only assists in the formulation of personal approaches to counseling, but also is instrumental in persuading those who hold less comprehensive views. The preface indicates The Meaning of Persons has been well received.

The book is divided into four parts: The Personage, Life, The Person and Commitment. Tournier begins Part One by distinguishing between persons and personages. The latter corresponds to the self we wish to project to others and, often sadly, who we even feel ourselves to be. Our persona is formed by the perceptions of others and what we believe to be true about their perceptions. Persons, on the other hand, corresponds to our authentic self who God sees us to be. Thus we are not always what we want to be; he calls us “contradictory beings.” The author builds on this concept and adds that our personage is so linked to our authentic self that it is indeed impossible to completely separate the two. This thought is compounded by the fact that human beings are constantly in flux. Our ever-changing nature means that the doctor, patient and their relationship as a whole are never static. Since God remains the only fixed point in this sea of change, all must look toward Him as both creator and guide.

Tournier further highlights the dehumanization of our impersonal society, as it is far more concerned with personas than persons. This is true even within our marriages and intimate relationships and has become a particular problem as it pertains to the science of medicine. Of this Tournier says, “Science knows nothing of the person”

(p. 41). Indeed, medical science today is often so specialized and technique-driven that the human being as a whole is often neglected even though the initial complaint may be cured. Tournier says it best, “Moreover, the need to specialize accords priority to the organ over the organism, turning medicine into a brilliant technique, automatized down to the last detail” (p. 43). He often refers to automatism that he defines as “an economy of consciousness” (p. 96).

In the second part, Life, Tournier further explains our contradictory natures and how we intrinsically seek harmony between our persona and persons: this is healthy. In reality, this is a spiritual quest. Though the person and personage are indissoluble and in an ever-changing state, we need to discover ourselves and accept the personage God gives us like we would a piece of clothing (p. 77). This is more harmonious than trying to fully understand our selves or another. Science, though valuable, becomes grossly inadequate.

Part Three, The Person, cautions against creating an inflated concept of man as a “virgin forest” incapable of reaching. Man has god-given parameters with secrets which must be respected in order that dignity be upheld in the therapeutic relationship. People often open up in response to stories, parables or weepy films that overcome the human desire to run away when confronted by another who truly cares. As Tournier reminds us, the therapist has an awesome responsibility to create an environment of God’s grace and openness for the person to honestly face his/her depravity and dialogue with God.

Tournier concludes the Meaning of Persons with Part Four, Commitment. He states, “The person … 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 us” (179). Commitment, therefore, is required of both client and therapist. Both then are drawn to appreciate God’s tremendous commitment to each of us. In this, Tournier’s approach is much more relational and less directive.

The author raises several important issues related to counseling. One of these concerns the contribution to counseling of the worldview of other psychologists and philosophers. Throughout this work, Tournier analyzes views of popular therapists like Freud, Jung and Adler. He discusses concepts from philosophers such as Descartes, Socrates and Sartre. He adds the works of physicians of the 1950’s, when The Meaning of Persons was written. With every approach he “takes what he needs and leaves the rest” observing each concept for what is valuable and what is in opposition to his Biblical worldview. His treatise is an exellent example of critical thinking.

When reading Tournier’s work, the reader is challenged by the concept of how we often separate our persona from our person. The goal is to work toward authenticity and integrate the two. We are prone to be people of extremes in either laziness or anxiety over trying to “do it right” consistently. Only by trusting God to we achieve balance.

Reading this book may pose other issues and a stirring of questions in the modern reader. On page 37, for example, Tournier refers to sharing with clients his personal “difficulties, doubts and failings.” This raises the issue of how much the therapist should disclose to clients when seeking to build an authentic, therapeutic relationship. He further adds, “My experience of the power of God means more to them than it would if they thought me a quite different sort of person from themselves”.

Finally, Tournier calls each reader to consider his/her personal approach to counseling. He strongly states that no therapist, no matter how much he or she claims to be “neutral”, comes to counseling without a worldview. Of this he believes some people attempt “soul healing inspired by [their] own theology, which makes a god of the instincts” (p. 110). Indeed, many clinicians today are either relativistic or believe the client will eventually arrive at a satisfactory answer to his/her problems due to an intrinsic desire to accomplish whatever is right for the individual. Tournier believes our hope lies outside ourselves from the Creator who knows us better than we even know ourselves.

The reader can gain much personally from picking up The Meaning of Persons. Many will be challenged to emulate Christ in their work, as this author has done. If we as therapists are seeking an authentic relationship between counselor and client we must learn with the fine artist to see the negative spaces as well as the positive. The challenge is to see what is not there as Tournier writes “often that which is not seen is more valuable that what is seen” (p. 79). Science and technique, surely of great value, can often threaten to dominate our thinking. This little, red book reminds us to look at our therapeutic work as a ministry to which one is called.

Not only is Tournier a brilliant physician, psychologist and theologian, but he is a gifted writer, as well. He models a conversational tone so the reader himself/herself is treated with dignity. He is a master at using good metaphors and similies to explain and illustrate his points. For example, Tournier refers to a woman “like a dog that has been chained so long to its kennel that by force of habit it keeps within the same limited radius even after it has been released “ (p. 52). Several times, he refers to God as a musical composer and humans as the score (pp. 90, 103, 233).

Many have said that a good book challenges one to ask more questions. We ask, “Am I willing to enter the process and truly be committed to my clients?” “Will I take the time and energy required to focus on the individual rather than simply be content with the system within my organization?” “ Will I live with authenticity and embrace the privilege of encouraging others to do likewise?” “Will I model that in my marriage and other relationships?” Often a good read does more than give the reader answers. It raises good questions that encourage further thought and exploration. The Meaning of Persons certainly does just that.



Visit the author at: www.JudyKoehlerTherapist.com

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