Bringing Philosophy Back from the Brink

In the postmodern era, a man of faith is coming to the rescue of reason.

Pope John Paul II has done just that in his recent encyclical, Fides et Ratio on the ability of human reason to comprehend truth.

The document has received wide media coverage and a generally warm reception on Catholic campuses.

Off campus, the encyclical has surprised many, with its focus on reason as a path to the truth, which culminates in the knowledge of God and salvation in Christ.

While faith, a gift from God, yields the highest comprehension of ultimate truth, the Church has always taken great pains to demonstrate that the te-nets of the faith can also be shown to be reasonable and not contrary to sound thinking.

The need for a new and rigorous Catholic defense of reason is a response to the state of modern philosophy and contemporary culture, which has descended from finding “truth” outside of God to questioning the possibility of any objective truth.

Which raises the question: Are things really so bad in philosophy that the Pope has to devote an entire encyclical to its rehabilitation?

Modern philosophy, writes the Holy Father in Fides et Ratio, with its one-sided concern for human subjectivity, “seems to have forgotten that men and women are always called to direct their steps toward a truth which transcends them.”

A philosophy of being, which understands a thing “as it is,” has been abandoned for a philosophy of human knowing, which understands the thing “as it seems to be.” This sort of thinking, the Pope warns, leads swiftly to agnosticism and relativism, which is everywhere evident in contemporary society.

Catholic philosophers have traditionally been grounded in metaphysics, the study of being as being. Metaphysics goes from consideration of the lowest forms of matter up to the reality of God. The metaphysics of Catholic philosophy emphasizes objective truth and substantial reality, whereas much of modern philosophy stresses subjectivity or process.

Small wonder then that Fides et Ratio's championing of being and metaphysics has endeared it to many Catholic thinkers.

At the University of Dallas, where being and metaphysics have been in fashion since the school's founding in 1956, Cistercian Father James Lehrberger reports that the “entire faculty was happy to get the support” of the encyclical.

Last autumn, a Fides et Ratio symposium of three leading Catholic philosophers — Kenneth Schmitz, John Caputo and Ralph McInerny — drew almost 350 participants from the campus community and beyond.

Says Father Lehrberger: “The mind is made for the knowledge of the truth, and the quest to know the truth, especially the truth about the whole of reality; and the zenith of the human mind's searching is the first principle of this whole,” who is God.

The Role of Aquinas

Kevin White, associate professor of philosophy at The Catholic University of America, reports that the Pope's philosophy of being in Fides et Ratio was sympathetically received at the Washington, D.C. school, which also held a symposium on the encyclical.

Metaphysics is central to the depart-ment's work, White says, and it is approached from different points of view: ancient, medieval and modern. St. Thomas Aquinas is central to that discussion.

“Aquinas is recognized as one of the great original thinkers about being,” says White, an avowed Thomist. “He combined Greek and Arabic thought about being with texts from Scripture in a way that was highly original. His presentation of being, or existence, is very novel in the history of philosophical thought.”

The investigation of being is essential, White says. “Who can avoid being?” he asks. He holds that this is practically impossible for Christians who confront a God in Scripture who reveals himself as “I AM.”

“Creation is understood traditionally as a gift of being,” White continues. “It is implicit at the very beginning of the Bible and the Creed.”

The culture and tradition of thought in the United States present particular challenges to this view.

“The great metaphysical approach goes against the grain of American thought,” which is often overly pragmatic, White asserts. “It has been the role of Catholic schools to keep the question alive and remind people in the new world of this great classical question of being.”

White says he thinks that a Catholic philosophy department “should have a mission. It should not prescribe a curriculum — the Pope himself says that the Church does not endorse any one philosophy — but a spirit. The Catholic faith is open to truth wherever it comes from.”

Something Intelligible

The Pope in Fides et Ratio defends reason and truth. “Truth does depend upon being,” White notes.

“If there's an understanding of being, it follows necessarily that there is an understanding of truth. Those are the transcendental properties of being: unity, goodness and truth. Being is understood as something intelligible.

“Intelligibility is important because it precedes our intellect; there is something there in the world before we get to it.”

A respect for truth is founded on respect for being, and the Pope is trying, White believes, to evoke reverence for being. That attempt has drawn great sympathy from students in the Catholic University school of philosophy, who mostly welcomed the encyclical.

At Boston College, associate professor Thomas Hibbs reports that a rising number of philosophy students are specializing in metaphysics.

This trend comes even though the college is oriented toward the history of philosophy, which tends to give equal weight to traditional as well as modern thinkers, Hibbs says.

Hibbs explains that Boston College's particular emphasis on “20th-century Continental philosophers — Heidegger, Husserl and Gadamer — provides a dialogue with the roots of the phenomenological tradition” that formed Edith Stein and the young Karol Wojtyla.

“Both Heidegger and the Pope raise the question of being, which had been suppressed within philosophy for years,” Hibbs contends. “Heidegger's considerations provided an opportunity to recover ancient and medieval notions of being.”

According to Hibbs, being is emphasized in Fides et Ratio for two reasons: “First, the question of being arises with all the ultimate questions about human life: the intelligibility of the world, the meaning of life. Is there a God? Am I free?

Secondly, the Pope talks about recovering reason's comprehensive range.”

John Paul is concerned that people are leading distracted, fragmented lives which prevents them from considering the truth about the whole, Hibbs believes; moreover, the Holy Father wants society and individuals to “recover that sense of wonder.”

“Metaphysics in the ancient world,” Hibbs adds, “began and ended with wonder.”

He thinks a key insight of the encyclical is that the radical critique of reason may have seen its day. The Pope sees reason as being autonomous but not self-sufficient.

In looking toward the future, Hibbs is optimistic. “I am astonished,” he says, “at how many excellent students, really bright young people, come into our philosophy and theology Ph.D. programs interested in the questions posed by Fides et Ratio. And that's a hopeful sign.”

Not All Agree

Support for Fides et Ratio isn't universal, however. Jesuit Father Bill Richardson, a prominent Heideggerian scholar at Boston College, isn't as impressed with the encyclical as others. Fides et Ratio, he says, was a “long document that tried to do everything.”

According to Father Richardson, the Pope “talks about being and metaphysics and a stable universe, but he doesn't take into account the role of history.

“He doesn't ask philosophy to take into account shifts in history and shifts in philosophical thinking, and in concepts of being. … One can't impose a 13th-century standard on a 20th century that doesn't yield easily to transcendence.”

John Crosby, chairman of the philosophy department at Franciscan University at Steubenville, however, says the encyclical's affirmation of the philosophy of being and of metaphysics is welcome at the Ohio school, where these foundational areas of philosophy continue to be taken seriously.

He is also grateful to the Pope for calling philosophers back to the acknowledgment of objective truth. “Besides being supremely important in itself, deferring to the truth of being is profoundly rooted in the Catholic tradition in philosophy,” Crosby said.

Thus, Catholic schools are “particularly well-positioned to give leadership in the work of recovering objective truth today.”

“In schools bearing the Catholic name,” Crosby adds, “the Church is right to require that the teaching in theology and philosophy departments be in harmony with Revelation.”

Philip F. Kelly Jr. writes from Toronto.