Month: September 2014

Henri De Lubac on the Spirit of the Age

The Christian thinkers of the past are looked down upon as if they no longer had anything to say; the traditional formulations of faith are stated in such a way as to appear ridiculous, so as to hasten their replacement. And under the pretext of merely changing this or that word or phrase, it is the very essence of our faith which runs the risk of being sifted away. . . .

Whatever is recriminatory, whatever excites, is declared prophetic, even if it is evident that it stems from ignorance, or from concessions made to what is currently in vogue—and this is the exact opposite of what we mean by prophetic! . . .

We must not be afraid to say so: there is nothing in all of this that is promising. A faith which dissolves itself is unable to engender anything whatever. A community which breaks up is incapable of radiating or of attracting others. Agitation is not synonymous with life. That last hatched slogan is not necessarily a new thought. The noisiest critics are frequently the most sterile.

— Edward D. Lubac. “ The Church in Crisis,” Theology Digest 17 (1969): 312–25; here 317. As relayed by Edward T. Oakes (“The Surnaturel Controversy: A Survey and a Response” Nova et Vetera 9:3), who notes that “most secondary scholarship on de Lubac, both pro and con, largely ignores his criticism of liberal Catholicism in the wake of Vatican II”.

(Oh, the irony).


Ralph McInerny, on Continental and Analytic Philosophy

From Ralph McInerney’s Students Guide To Philosophy (Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1999) — a hilarious accounting of the development of philosophy, and how we got into the mess we are in today. Suffice to say he doesn’t mince any words, and I’m sure he had as much fun writing it as I did reading it).

From its beginning, medieval education sought to establish a modus vivendi between faith and reason. This remained true in the thirteenth century. The recovery of philosophy had to be accommodated to the theology based on Scripture. For one brief shining century everything cohered. Faith and reason fully complemented one another. The range of reason was what Plato and Aristotle thought it was. The human mind could know the divine and know that the soul was immortal. Christianity had an ally in the life of reason, and vice versa. It did not last.

Soon thinkers in the name of faith began to devalue reason and eventually the mind had only language to play with. Nominalism and the Reformation effectively dismantled the medieval synthesis, paving the way for modernity. Descartes spoke of a tree of knowledge and the quest for method sought a new systematic integration of the different sciences, but philosophy became progressively more isolated from the natural sciences and mathematics. The turn from the world to the mind as the primary concern of the philosopher led to a succession of theories purporting to establish the a priori conditions for thinking. But the distinction between being and being known blurred to the point where to be and to be thought were identical. What would unify the enterprise of human thought was no longer a connection among the sciences, but an understanding of why we think as we do.

The last great effort of idealism is phenomenology.
The return “to the things themselves” disappointingly became a concern with the constituting acts whereby
objects become objects (i.e., the conditions of presence), and what had seemed a realism became one more effort
to tease from the structure of our mind the character of its objects, to anticipate experience, to turn thinking into
a kind of thing-ing that generates its own object. This alteration of the program of phenomenology caused the
recently canonized Edith Stein to part company with Edmund Husserl.

Phenomenology, like drugs, is addictive. Imagine finding sentences like the following meaningful: “In fact,
after Nietzsche had brought to an end and completed all the possibilities—even inverted—of metaphysics, phenomenology,
more than any other theoretical initiative, undertook a new beginning.” (Jean-Luc Marion) It would be more accurate to say that philosophy, both Continental and analytic, succumbed to Teutonic gurus who uttered gnomic pronunciamentos. The influence of a Heidegger and a Wittgenstein can be difficult to comprehend, yet these are the two most influential philosophers of our century. Each proclaimed himself to be a new beginning. Ezra Pound, in his Cantos, sought to produce lines like the uneven ones in the remnants of Sappho’s verse. Some modern philosophers aspired to write pre-Socratic fragments. The style was aphoristic, arguments were scarce to nonexistent, a mood was induced or an attitude produced which ruled out questioning. Nietzsche was tolerable because the madness
had no method. In Heidegger, Nietzsche is given credit for having brought metaphysics to an end, whatever that might mean. Heidegger is the first post-metaphysical thinker. He must be; he tells us so. Wittgenstein sought to redefine philosophy, yet boasted in old age that he was a professor of philosophy who had never read Aristotle. One would have bet on it.

There is little sign that the influence of Heideggerian and Wittgensteinian gnosticism is abating. Like a fever,
it will have to work itself out. Meanwhile, academic philosophy is in the doldrums, light-years distant from the questions that alone can justify it. If one could make sense of the claim that all — all! — the possibilities, inverted or not, of metaphysics had been brought to an end and completed by mad Nietzsche, one might agree or disagree. But what would either mean? It is best to heed Jeeves’s remark to Bertie Wooster. “You would not like Nietzsche, sir. He is fundamentally unsound.”

It may seem a relief to turn to analytic philosophy from the polysyllabic breathlessness of Continental philosophy. But this is to turn from Heidegger to Wittgenstein, the one as enigmatic as the other. The linguistic turn, like the transcendental turn, aims at putting philosophy /in any traditional sense out of business. The seemingly straightforward desire to establish the meaning of meaning has not met with success. So we are back at the beginning; philosophy in the twentieth century, like philosophy in the sixteenth, is still trying to get started.

Its present state is obscure, its past nonexistent, and its future nothing worth waiting for. To say that modern philosophy has abandoned classical and medieval philosophy is simply to accept its self-description. Since this has still not led to anything, perhaps it is time to question the wisdom of the abandonment.

Here and There

  • Interviewing Ikons: Fr Aidan Kimel – Interview with Fr. Kimel – one-time Catholic convert from Episcopalianism, now Orthodox and living “a tranquil retired existence in the foothills of Roanoke, Virginia, where he writes articles no one reads (or so he thinks) for his blog, Eclectic Orthodoxy.” Kimel’s post-conversion experience as a Catholic in contemporary times is, alas, may ring all too familiar to some readers: “My conversion to Catholicism had largely occurred in my head with my books. I knew very little about the Catholic Church on the ground level. Speaking only for myself, I increasingly came to realize that I could not spiritually survive in the Catholic Church.”
  • ‘The Classical Moment’: Author Q&A with Father James Schall, S.J. Sean Salai, S.J. interviews the prolific Fr. James V. Schall on his latest book, The Classical Moment: Selected Essays on Knowledge and Its Pleasures (America 07/14/14):

    When you write, you write among both friends and antagonists. Of the latter, you want, as Aquinas would advise, to find the truth in what they are trying to say. Of the former, you are grateful that someone else has seen a truth before you did, or explained to you why it was so. So to “mix” these references is simply to be honest. Someone else really did guide you to some truth or insight that you might have otherwise never noticed.

  • Cultural-warrior Ryan T. Anderson in action (+ Q&A). Methinks this is how debates of this nature should be conducted, sans vitriol from either side.
  • How Husserl changed Catholic attitudes toward Judaism – Artur Rosman (Cosmos in the Lost) traces connections between phenomenology and Catholicism.
  • “A Word in Favor of Ideology” Throne and Alter 08/28/14,the author expresses his affinity with the Marxists’ historical perspective, in an age where “libertarianism is not an ideology in the old sense. It is a dogma,” (Mark Lilla), the blogger explains his affinity for the Communists of yore.
  • Recently published and translated by David Bentley Hart, Analogia Entis: Metaphysics- Original Structure and Universal Rhythm (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. February 2014)| Reviewed by Christopher J. Malloy (Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews):

    Although Erich Przywara (1889–1972) was one of the preeminent Catholic theologians of his time and a profound influence on such people as Hans Urs von Balthasar and Joseph Ratzinger, he has remained virtually unknown in North America. This volume includes Przywara’s groundbreaking Analogia Entis, originally published in 1932, and his subsequent essays on the concept analogia entis — the analogy between God and creation — which has currency in philosophical and theological circles today.

  • In “The Rock Star of One First Street”, Stephen Presser suggests that Bruce Allen Murphy’s recent intellectual biography of Justice Antonin Scalia makes him out to be more honorable than the author may have intended, whose “jurisprudence is not really cherished by Professor Murphy, but he does a creditable job in explaining it and offering it a grudging respect.”
  • “A Secular Age 2.0” – Matthew J. Milliner reviews Minding the Modern: Human Agency, Intellectual Traditions, and Responsible Knowledge (Books and Culture):

    … like Charles Taylor (A Secular Age) and Brad Gregory (The Unintended Reformation), Pfau is a man equipped for the enormous cartographic task of remapping the rise of modernity. Sweeping narrative retellings such as Pfau’s are frequently accused of being unfocused, tangential, historically selective, or insufficiently edited. Pfau, however, deftly avoids dilettantism by never quite leaving his realm of professional training even while he ranges widely beyond it. Which is to say, Minding the Modern is no history, nor is Pfau a historian. Instead, it is an extended, historically grounded close reading of texts that an accomplished literature professor is well equipped to provide. As he puts it, “any account of competing or intersecting intellectual traditions has to rest on the kind of close, textual analysis that, at its best, has always been the bread and butter of literary studies.” Such an approach enables Pfau to seamlessly move, for example, between Shaftsbury and Heidegger, Augustine and Arendt, Levinas and Cardinal Newman, or Marion and Aquinas, on the same page. This stems not from indecision but from a premeditated attempt to intertwine historical and philosophical, or horizontal and vertical, approaches with a sustained argument. In addition, Pfau focuses his wide-ranging account by choosing the (admittedly enormous) category of human personhood, and its corollaries of will and agency, as the vehicle in which he takes his tour of the ages. His express aim is “to capture the intrinsic idea of will and person through a series of forensic readings of representative arguments.”

  • Lastly, why am I just now hearing about this?!? — The Grand Inquisitor, a comic book from the fevered imagination of Catholic blogger John Zmirak:

    The tale is simple, but all its permutations are profound. Sometime in the near future, a papal conclave drags on as the College of Cardinals finds itself at a deadlock. Tension mounts outside the Vatican walls. The liberals stage a walkout and hurl their scarlet robes to the crowd below in protest. The few remaining electors choose a complete unknown as the next pontiff, an African monk from a forgotten Traditionalist order. (Think Hadrian the Seventh, but with real saints and real sinners facing off rather than an empty conflict of aesthete poseurs and vulgar bureacrats). Unfortunately, one prince of the Church, possessing his own strange and alarming agenda, arranges a mix-up at the new pontiff’s airport pickup. The vast bulk of the story deals with the confrontation between the cardinal–incidentally, a dead ringer for Teilhard de Chardin–and the simple priest, now imprisoned in the mental ward of a Roman hospital along with a dozen or so deranged papal claimants of a less legitimate nature. What happens next will decide the fate of the Church, and with it, the world.