Dietrich von Hildebrand: What is Philosophy?

What is Philosophy? Book Cover What is Philosophy?
Dietrich von Hildebrand. Introduction by Robert Sokolowski
Hildebrand Project
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Reviewed by: Peter Shum (University of Warwick)



Any philosopher’s epistemology will exert a considerable influence on his or her attitude toward the place and significance of religion in human life. Even for non-philosophers, and those of us who may not be academically inclined, our openness and receptiveness toward religion will be implicitly influenced by numerous general epistemological considerations. These might include our understanding of what kinds of things are amenable to being known, the possible modalities of their disclosure, and the appropriate criteria for confirming the validity of any ostensible discovery.

Dietrich von Hildebrand attaches particular significance to the place of religion in our lives, and to the kind of philosophical enquiry that can be conducive toward religious conviction and commitment. He thinks not only that philosophical knowledge has its climax in its knowledge of the existence and attributes of God, but that philosophy itself is the fundamental activity of the mind turned toward God, and that the proximity of an object’s relation to God is the yardstick by which philosophers ought to rate the importance of the objects of philosophical knowledge. He maintains that religious convictions count as knowledge, and that God is able to disclose Himself to, and communicate with ordinary religious practitioners who may not themselves have the requisite intellectual capacities for critical philosophical enquiry.

Impartial readers of What is Philosophy? are entitled to ask themselves whether Hildebrand’s epistemology has the resources to warrant such a trenchant affirmation of the importance of religion. Of particular relevance here is Hildebrand’s response to Kant’s revolutionary claim that human knowledge about the universe is necessarily delimited by subjective a priori features of the mind. An important part of Hildebrand’s reply centres on the idea that synthetic a priori truths can be discovered during metaphysical enquiry because at least some objects are capable of being given to us in their essential being. Let us examine closely how Hildebrand develops his position, before trying to assess its strengths and weaknesses.

Knowledge in General

An important starting point for Hildebrand lies in the anthropological question concerning the distinction between humans and animals. Hildebrand observes that humans, unlike animals, are inclined to wonder about the meaning of life, and the destiny of their own species. This is part of what it means to say that humans are “ordered toward eternity”. Philosophical questioning of this kind is an intrinsic part of being human. For this reason, Hildebrand regards epistemology as first philosophy, and begins the book with an account of knowledge in general. As the book proceeds, the epistemological enquiry narrows its focus to seek to clarify the true nature of a priori knowledge.

When Hildebrand accords knowing the status of a foundational phenomenological datum, he means that knowing as such is an act of consciousness that cannot be reduced to anything else. He seeks to investigate the phenomenology of knowing: to consider “what it is like” to know something, and to bring to light the essential structures of this fundamental act. For Hildebrand, knowing is an intentional participation in the world. In the first instance, knowing is essentially receptive: it is a receiving, not a producing. Yet this is not the whole story, for if knowing is receptive, it is not purely passive. Knowing has an active element, in that there is a mental “going with” the object. This “going with” the object is an intellectual penetration of it. It is a “making common cause” with the object. We find, then, that while it is true that the object discloses itself to the subject, there is an active cooperation on the part of consciousness with the self-disclosure of the object. Knowing is in this sense a mental possessing of the object, an intentional participation in the object’s being. I note en passant that there is a connection between Hildebrand’s  “going with” account of knowledge and the topic of empathy.

The subject’s response to the object may be an affective one, such as love. On the other hand, a response could be theoretical, like conviction or conjecture. Hence an important difference between conviction and knowing is that knowing is a receiving, whilst conviction is a response to that receiving. In other words, conviction is secondary with respect to knowing. Conviction posits not only the existence of the object, but a state-of-affairs pertaining to the object. The question of the metaphysical positing of the object of knowledge over against merely affirming that there is a fact of the matter about the object’s properties turns out to be an important theme in Hildebrand’s epistemology as the book proceeds.

Taking cognizance of something is predominantly passive, but judging and asserting are more active. A precondition of judging and asserting is a prior act of taking cognizance. The object of an act of judging is a state-of-affairs, i.e. a putative fact. Asserting objectifies knowing (taking cognizance) into a proposition.

Basic Forms of Knowledge

We find, then, that there are different kinds of knowledge, which can take place in different ways, and with different possible kinds of object being known. One kind of knowing involves the epistemic state of knowing about something, or knowing a fact, a set of facts, or a body of information. This kind of knowing can have varying levels of certitude. It is said to be superactual in the sense that I might happen to know [wissen], for example, that the capital of China is Beijing, regardless of whether I am thinking about this fact at the present time. Superactual knowing is possible due to the conserving power of the human mind. Superactual knowledge can influence my understanding of a given situation in an implicit manner, i.e. a manner which is not consciously foregrounded. Hildebrand wants to include religious convictions in this kind of knowing.

An important distinction that Hildebrand wishes to emphasise is between a static knowing and a dynamic coming to know something. An episode of taking cognizance is said to be (epistemically) dynamic because the subject comes to know something during the episode, something s/he did not know before. Static cases of knowing are normally the outcome of a dynamic episode of taking cognizance, or of multiple such episodes. An epistemological theme that Hildebrand develops is this idea of a dynamic taking cognizance “giving birth” to a static possessing.

The Nature of Philosophical Knowledge

In Chapter 3, Hildebrand elaborates in more detail upon his taxonomy of different types of knowledge. Two key distinctions that he draws attention to are (a) the distinction between pre-systematic and philosophical enquiry; and (b) the distinction between naïve and theoretical pre-systematic enquiry. As far as (a) is concerned, pre-systematic enquiry is the kind of enquiry we often undertake that falls short of the rigorous requirements of philosophy. As far as (b) is concerned, theoretical pre-systematic enquiry involves reflection, whilst naïve pre-systematic enquiry does not.

When Hildebrand looks more closely at instances of naïve pre-systematic enquiry, he discovers that they come in several different types. Some instances are completely unthematic, whilst others are tacitly thematic. Some instances are what Hildebrand calls “pragmatic”, such as a cook checking to see if a pan of water is boiling. Pragmatic object thematicity sees the object in instrumental terms. There is a particularly important form of non-pragmatic enquiry, which Hildebrand calls “special naïve taking cognizance”. When special naïve taking cognizance takes place, an object becomes “crystal clear […] in its deepest nature” to the observer. An example of this is suddenly seeing the true nature of someone’s personality.

Theoretical knowledge is knowledge that stems from reflection, over against knowledge that stems from perception. This is to say that in the transition from naïve enquiry to a theoretical attitude, something is gained, namely reflection, but something is also lost, namely proximity to the object. So-called “organic” theoretical knowledge grows “organically” out of episodes of naïve taking cognizance. It is a kind of condensation of episodes of naïve taking cognizance.

The foregoing discussion of non-systematic enquiry positions Hildebrand to specify some of the distinctive characteristics of a truly philosophical form of enquiry. In philosophical enquiry, the degree of certitude attached to a state-of-affairs is always commensurate with its level of givenness. Philosophical taking cognizance seeks to penetrate to an even deeper level of the concrete givenness of the object than naïve taking cognizance. Philosophical knowledge is always self-critical in the sense of examining its own (a) well-foundedness of premises; (b) stringency of arguments. (It is interesting to note in this context that notwithstanding the stress Hildebrand places on self-criticality and rigour in philosophy, he also maintains that there is a place under certain conditions for the transmission of philosophical truths by tradition.) A particularly high degree of knowledge thematicity is present during philosophical enquiry. Yet philosophical cognizance very often also foregrounds enquiry into the object in its own right. So there is in operation in philosophical enquiry both thematicity of enquiry and thematicity of the object. Sometimes the thematicity of enquiry predominates, and sometimes the thematicity of the object predominates. In all cases, however, there needs to be an organic stemming of philosophical conclusions from episodes of naïve taking cognizance.

We might say that Hildebrand perceives a “snake in the grass” threatening the philosophical project. He places this threat under the rubric of “superficial thinking”. Superficial thinking can be unself-critical, unsystematic, and liable to lose all authentic contact with the object. Hildebrand discusses a variety of possible causes of superficial thinking. Superficial thinking may rely on arguments that one has learned unquestioningly from someone else. It may involve an unjustified generalisation taken from a single perceptual episode. It may involve the unconscious acceptance of premises that are mistakenly presumed to be self-evident. Another mistake is to import a statement from science into philosophy and then treat the statement as metaphysical. An example of this would be claiming that miracles are impossible. The outcome of such lapses is often a prejudicing, impairment, or interruption of the accuracy of attempts at naïve taking cognizance. The superficial thinker’s enquiry fails to penetrate to the concrete givenness of the object.

The Object of Philosophical Knowledge

In Hildebrand’s phenomenology, there emerges an alignment of truth with being. One example of this alignment is to be found in Hildebrand’s view that the principle of non-contradiction is true not by virtue of being a tautology, but instead on the grounds that it is established by rational intuition. Hildebrand’s justification here is that when an existent object is brought to givenness, its existence is intuitionally self-evident. In this context, one sees that it is not possible for something to both be and not be. This renders the principle of non-contradiction synthetic (i.e. not analytic) in the Kantian terminology. Hildebrand thus upholds Kant’s synthetic/analytic distinction, even though he may on occasion use the term “tautological” in the place of analytic, and “non-tautological” in the place of synthetic.

In Hildebrand’s view, one of the most important aims of philosophy is to discover a priori states-of-affairs. But what exactly does Hildebrand mean by a priori? An a priori state-of-affairs is one which is intrinsically necessary. This does not mean that all a priori states-of-affairs are restricted to logic and mathematics. On the contrary, Hildebrand considers propositions like “Moral values presuppose a person as bearer”, “Love includes a desire for union”, “Moral guilt presupposes responsibility”, and “It is not possible for an object to both be and not be” to be synthetic a priori. When it is discovered, an a priori state-of-affairs is known with certainty. This view of a priori knowledge is strongly influenced by that of Plato in Meno. It is distinct from another sense of the a priori that is common in philosophy, which is that of a formal prerequisite.

For Hildebrand, it is certainly not the case that all a priori knowledge is obvious at first sight. Instead, a priori knowledge can be acquired by intuitional contact with the object, or by logical deduction, or by some combination of the two. Yet philosophers should be able to explain their a priori findings to others in such a way that they can become either self-evident or strictly proved by deduction. Deduction itself is ultimately founded upon an intuitional grasping of the truth of the laws of logic.

A priori givenness is completely different from empirical givenness. Ascertaining an essentially necessary state-of-affairs does not depend upon empirical evidence. It depends only upon the givenness of a necessary essence. A necessary essence could be given in a dream or in an act of the imagination. The foundation of the possibility of synthetic a priori knowledge is the faculty of the intuition of a necessary essence. So experience is involved here, but not empirical experience.

There are different types of unity. A heap of trash is an accidental unity. Secondly, the essence of gold, and of the lion species are known as morphic unities. Thirdly, in Hildebrand’s terminology, there are necessary essential unities, which are the same as intrinsically necessary unities. Hildebrand also refers to these as genuine essences. Examples of genuine essences are love, triangle, person, number, moral value.

This brings us to Hildebrand’s notion of intelligibility. The heap of trash mentioned above is intelligible as a unity, but only just. It is lacking in meaningfulness. It has the character of being accidental or contingent. Of greater intelligibility are the morphic unities and the regularities in nature that can be discovered by science. These entities and patterns have a kind of necessity to them, but it is a natural necessity as opposed to an intrinsic necessity. We might say that they are naturally intelligible. Hildebrand reserves the highest level of intelligibility, which he calls incomparable intelligibility, for entities and states-of-affairs that are intrinsically necessary. Entities and states-of-affairs having the property of being incomparably intelligible are capable of being known with certainty. They become self-evident in the course of phenomenological enquiry. An example of an incomparably intelligible state-of-affairs is “Moral values presuppose a person as bearer.”

Having intuitional access to a genuine essence is not the same as being able to define it. The essence of love, for example, is amenable to phenomenological investigation, but it is not amenable to being defined. In Hildebrand’s view, it is a mistake to think that the intuition of genuine essences is somehow less philosophically respectable than (a) finding a definition; (b) formulating a concept; or (c) deductive reasoning. A genuine essence, by virtue of its incomparable intelligibility, can be known with certainty by philosophers. This, however, is not the same as indefeasibility on the part of the knower. This is to say that philosophers are justified in attributing certainty to their knowledge of a genuine essence in the case that it becomes self-evident to them, but the findings of philosophers always remain defeasible. Hildebrand regards it as an absolutely certain philosophical discovery that genuine essences have their own autonomous being in their own ideal metaphysical sphere.

Hildebrand understands metaphysics to be the philosophy of real being, both possible and actually existing. The metaphysical picture that he sets out involves a concrete sphere of individual objects and an ideal sphere of essences. Both the concrete and the ideal spheres count as real in Hildebrand’s metaphysics. Hildebrand’s main criticism of Kant is that Kant was wrong to think that metaphysical enquiry could not disclose synthetic a priori truths about the noumenal world. Hildebrand argues that he has disproven this key Kantian tenet, by showing that it is possible to acquire a priori knowledge of genuine essences. Statements affirming what we intuit about genuine essences are synthetic a priori truths about the way things are in themselves, which will hold true in any universe.

Hildebrand admits that he does not provide a very detailed explication of how the ideal and concrete spheres interact with each other, saying that this is a very mysterious problem. What he is prepared to say on this matter is that the two spheres are “bonded” very closely, and that there is significant variation between such things as numbers, colours, moral values, and persons, in their modes of existence, and in the modes of “bonding” that can take place between the concrete and ideal spheres. The relation between the concrete sphere and the ideal sphere is one of “partaking”. Hildebrand also maintains that it is plausible to hypothesise that genuine essences exist “in God” in some sense or senses that remain to be clarified.

This brings us to the question of the place and significance of God in Hildebrand’s philosophy. Hildebrand’s concept of God is that of an infinite person who is the ground and source of all existence. Hildebrand believes the Cosmological Argument validly shows the existence of such a God. This God has a sui generis mode of existence that Hildebrand calls “necessary real existence”, which is a different mode of existence from that possessed by genuine essences.

Objectivity and Independence from the Human Mind

One of the main questions considered in Chapter 5 concerns the relation between electromagnetic waves and colours. Are they the same kind of thing? Is one more real than the other? Are colours fully objective? This discussion helps to illuminate Hildebrand’s metaphysics, clarifying his view of which entities can be regarded as metaphysically real, and the place of the objects of science in this metaphysical picture.

Hildebrand’s investigation into the phenomenology of perceiving a colour concludes that colours are different from the objects of science, on the grounds that something cannot be such-and-such a colour mind independently, but instead can only be such-and-such a colour for a perceiving consciousness. Colours, then, cannot be said to be mind independent, because truth claims about the colour of objects presuppose the cooperation of the human mind. Hildebrand notes that the term “subjective” has many possible senses in philosophy, and that it is for this reason ambiguous to assert that colours are subjective. However, if “subjective” is taken strictly and solely in the sense of presupposing the cooperation of the human mind, then propositions of the form “X is subjectively such-and-such a colour” are capable of being objectively true or false, with the proviso that such statements do not belong to science. This is sufficient, in Hildebrand’s view, to make colours objectively real. An important corollary of this latter conclusion is that some things are objectively real without being mind independent. Colours and electromagnetic waves are on different “levels” of being, because electromagnetic waves are mind independent whilst colours are not.

One of the most distinctive and unusual features of Hildebrand’s account of our perception of the natural world lies in his view that some (and only some) phenomenal properties are capable of bearing a “message” character. The message characteristic consists in the relevant phenomenal property appearing as if it were a message, ostensibly from God. Colours are capable of bearing this characteristic. For a believer in God, this message character amounts to “God-willed”. If something is “God-willed” it is thereby meaningful. Possessing a message character is evidence for the observer that an object is real. An example of this message character could be an apprehension by an observer that a blue sky is intended by God to look blue to humans. This gives the blueness of the sky an objective validity.

Hildebrand’s account of the message characteristic of certain phenomenal properties is bound up with his view that God created the world, and that humans are intended by God to be masters of creation. The manner in which an object appears to humans is held to be pertinent to its objective meaning, on the grounds that God created this world for humans. This line of reasoning supports Hildebrand’s conclusion that colour has an objective meaning for humans. According to this view, one of the reasons God created electromagnetic waves was to make colours visible to humans. The red colour of a rose is no mere illusion. Instead, if a rose looks red, it does so because it is intended to look like that by God.

The Two Basic Themes of Knowledge

The title of Chapter 6 turns out to be somewhat ambiguous, since it could refer either to the distinction between perceptual and non-perceptual knowledge or to the distinction between cognitive and contemplative knowing, both of which are relevant to what is discussed. Perceptual knowledge is more foundational than its non-perceptual counterpart, in Hildebrand’s view, on the grounds that during perception [Wahrnehmung] the object is given presentationally to consciousness. Perceptual knowledge is what preoccupies Hildebrand in this chapter, and his main finding is that perception can contain both cognitive and contemplative moments. These are supplementary to the moment of “taking cognizance” that is discussed earlier in the book. Intellectual intuition supports both the cognitive and the contemplative parts of knowing an essence. Cognitive knowing, which precedes contemplative knowing, is a grasping or apprehension of the object for what it is. Cognitive knowing, in Hildebrand’s terminology, is “notional”, enabling the subject to “appropriate” the object. Contemplative knowing, by contrast, is more intimate, involving a “dwelling within” the object by consciousness. Contemplation is only appropriate in relation to certain kinds of “spiritual” object, such as an artwork, a personality, or a value. Taken collectively, Hildebrand proposes that the three perceptual moments of taking cognizance, cognition, and contemplation are able to “fecundate” the subject’s mind in an especially “intimate” and “plentiful” way.

Characteristic Features of Philosophical Knowledge and Enquiry

When it comes to the question of philosophical method, Hildebrand sets great store on rigour. This is what Hildebrand means when he says that philosophical enquiry must always be “critical”. Premises must be justified; intuitions must be evident; arguments must be stringent. There can be no place for whimsical or fanciful thoughts. Indeed, philosophy, in Hildebrand’s view, should be no less rigorous than science. However, Hildebrand does recognise that there is a difference between scientific rigour and philosophical rigour. Science and philosophy go about their business in different ways, and have differing methods. When it comes to valuing scientific and philosophical rigour, Hildebrand regards the form of exactness to be found in philosophy to be superior to that of science.

Hildebrand recognises that this attitude toward rigour in philosophy raises a problem. If the highest quality philosophy really does proceed in such a rigorous way, why do so many philosophical questions remain mired in controversy? One would have thought that if the kind of rigour Hildebrand aspires to were attainable, then the field of philosophical knowledge would be expanding in much the same fashion, and with as little controversy, as mathematical and scientific knowledge. To be sure, controversies do arise from time to time in mathematics and science, but they are normally resolved relatively quickly. The situation is quite different in philosophy.

In the course of Chapter 7, Hildebrand indicates three ways of defending himself against this objection. The first way is to argue that the view that philosophical debates seem to be intractably mired in controversy is excessively bleak. He contends that many important philosophical insights are completely uncontroversial. Examples of these are Augustine’s “Si fallor, sum”, Plato’s distinction between a priori and empirical knowledge, and Kant’s distinction between synthetic and analytic propositions. Such great philosophical discoveries are never “dethroned”. This claim leads Hildebrand to suppose that there is no reason in principle why philosophical controversies should not be resolved satisfactorily, even if the time it might take for such controversies to be resolved should happen to be de facto longer than is the norm in mathematics and science.

Hildebrand’s second line of response is to argue that there are two special reasons peculiar to the way humans carry out philosophical activity that are conducive to controversies arising. Firstly, not everyone develops the requisite philosophical capacities properly. This can result in some so-called “philosophers” departing from the strict requirements of critical philosophy. Secondly, some philosophical truths are opposed because people have a subconscious reluctance to accept the implications of such truths for their personal and moral life.

Hildebrand’s third line of response is to suggest that science is more controversial than we might think. From an historical perspective, we find that science continually replaces one theory with another. So science is “controversial” in that sense. Hildebrand fails to note, however, that mathematics is not “controversial” in this sense.

The Meaning of Philosophy for the Human Person

In the concluding chapter of What is Philosophy?, Hildebrand makes the case for an especially central role for philosophy in human life, by arguing that philosophical knowledge has its climax in our knowledge of the existence and attributes of God. Philosophy is continuous with the pre-scientific view of the world, which is a naïve living contact. This means that instead of pulling the rug away from under the naïve understanding of the world, as science often seems to do, philosophy starts from, and clarifies what is already given in, our naïve living contact with the world. Philosophical enquiry is for this reason a more fundamental “position” of the human mind than the scientific attitude, and is able, furthermore, to grant the subject a participation in the being of its objects.

Only from the philosophical standpoint does the real meaning of things become clear. This affects our understanding of their relative value and consequently shapes the human personality in accordance with philosophical truth. Grasping philosophical truth, or coming into contact in some way with others who have themselves grasped philosophical truth, helps the individual to maintain and deepen his living contact with the world. The complaint that philosophy may seem abstruse and disconnected from real life is therefore mistaken.

Not everyone can be a philosopher. Hildebrand considers some ways in which the enormous benefits flowing from philosophical knowledge might be shared with those who lack the intellectual wherewithal to grasp it directly. The answer is to begin at the level of naïve living contact and then distil out of it the philosophical principle. Ordinary people rooted in a naïve living contact with reality are endowed with a latent sense for truth. Such non-philosophers have a “receptivity” to philosophical truth since it is continuous with their own naïve experience. This receptivity makes possible an encounter between the ordinary person and genuine philosophical findings. The bringing of philosophical truth to ordinary people is important in Hildebrand’s eyes, since he regards philosophy as constituting the proper foundation for the formation of people’s political views, and the foundation of a society’s culture, art, and literature. Philosophy is thus capable of exerting a pervasive influence on the lives of ordinary people.

The most important role that Hildebrand assigns to philosophy, however, is that it should be a preamble to faith. It orientates the mind toward the eternal, and prepares the soul for God’s revelation. Yet it is worth noting that for a book stressing the foundational importance of philosophy for human life, the final chapter has a surprising claim embedded within it, for Hildebrand maintains that that which “[…] is disclosed by revelation remains beyond what is accessible to philosophy.” This raises the problem of epistemological justification for what is putatively disclosed by revelation.

Objection 1: The Question of Philosophical Rigour

In support of his claim that philosophy is in the process of building up a generally accepted and uncontroversial body of knowledge, Hildebrand cites a number of important philosophical findings that attract few objections. This line of reasoning is not compelling for two reasons. Firstly, I note that the list of uncontroversial philosophical discoveries that Hildebrand cites is very short. Secondly, the premise that there exists a set of core philosophical discoveries that all or most philosophers can agree upon does not imply that the philosophers involved are working in a highly rigorous fashion. A group of art critics may agree, for example, that Shakespeare’s King Lear and Mozart’s The Magic Flute are indisputably great works of art, but it does not follow from this that the activity of art criticism is proceeding in a manner capable of building up a generally accepted and uncontroversial body of knowledge.

One of the drawbacks of Hildebrand’s intuitionism is that it can in itself be conducive toward philosophical controversy arising. If one philosopher affirms the intuitional self-evidence of X and another denies it, it is difficult to see how the matter can be settled, either by empirical evidence or the evidence of rational argumentation. Hildebrand’s claim that some philosophers may be disinclined to accept self-evident moral truths due to a subconscious reluctance to accept the implications of such truths for their personal life seems speculative and unverifiable. It would have been more prudent of Hildebrand to investigate the reasons that such dissenters have provided for doubting the truth of such allegedly “self-evident” claims.

Objection 2: Existence of God     

An important part of Hildebrand’s overall philosophical system is the view that there are good grounds for believing in the existence of God, understood as an infinite person who is the ground and source of all existence. This premise is not treated as a given by Hildebrand, but instead is found to be amenable to investigation and justification by philosophical activity itself. This is why Hildebrand inserts into Chapter 4 a brief two page discussion supporting the validity of the Cosmological Argument for the existence of God [136-7]. I wish to suggest that Hildebrand’s discussion of the Cosmological Argument is inadequate for a number of reasons.

Firstly, I would have expected some response from Hildebrand to Kant’s objection to the cosmological proof of God contained in his First Critique. Kant argues that the cosmological proof relies on an ill-founded concept, namely that of an absolutely necessary being. Kant also objects that the cosmological proof applies the category of causation beyond the realm of possible experience. More generally, Hildebrand must have been aware of the significant philosophical controversy that has built up over many centuries surrounding the Cosmological Argument. A twentieth-century philosopher whose system relies heavily on the presumed existence of God cannot simply wind back the clock and pretend he is writing in the Middle Ages.

Secondly, the God that Hildebrand believes in is a personal God, and the Cosmological Argument, even if valid, does not purport to show the existence of a personal God, merely a first cause. This is another reason why Hildebrand’s decision to cite the Cosmological Argument in Chapter 4 is slightly puzzling, when alternative philosophical arguments exist in favour of the existence of a personal God.

Thirdly, if there were a personal God, one would have thought that such a God would wish to make Himself accessible to us in the expressly intuitional fashion that Hildebrand places so much emphasis upon. I would have expected Hildebrand’s argumentation in support of the existence of God to be intuitional and phenomenological, as opposed to cosmological.

Objection 3: Colour

The phenomenology of colour perception is a topic Hildebrand returns to on numerous occasions throughout this book. It is, however, not essential to the book’s main theme, which is the perception of genuine essences. Hildebrand thinks colour in general, and individual colours, count as examples of genuine essences. I find Hildebrand’s discussion of colour problematic for the following reasons.

Firstly, there is the claim that one of the reasons God created electromagnetic waves was to make colours visible to humans. This is a speculative claim about the content of God’s thoughts. No evidence, be it phenomenological, empirical, or rational, is provided to support it. The claim is philosophically baseless.

Secondly, there is the claim that colours are among the phenomenal properties of an object capable of bearing the so-called “message” character, which consists in a colour appearing as if it were a message, ostensibly from God. This, in contrast to the claim about electromagnetic waves just discussed, is a phenomenological claim, but one which I believe is mistaken. I do not concur with it, on the grounds that an investigation into the phenomenology of colour perception could at best make the case for colours possessing an expressive quality, as opposed to a communicative quality. Communication is distinct from expression. Hence Hildebrand’s claim about the communicative quality, or message characteristic, qua phenomenological claim, is in my opinion at odds with the descriptive facts.

Objection 4: Ideal and Concrete Spheres

One way of objecting to a metaphysical position is to point out that it raises a new problem, one which would not have arisen if a different metaphysical approach had been adopted. Hildebrand’s metaphysical position is susceptible to this line of objection, for it raises the question of how the ideal realm of essences and the concrete realm of individuals are supposed to interact. If the essence of the colour red is metaphysically real, and a red rose is metaphysically real, then the nature of their interaction also becomes a metaphysical question. Hildebrand registers his awareness of this problem in at least two ways. One way is to claim that he wishes to avoid a two-world metaphysics. Another way is to concede that the nature of the interaction between the ideal and concrete spheres must be very mysterious, and that he is unable, in this book at least, to make much headway in explicating it.

Objection 5: Purely Subjective Transcendence

According to Hildebrand, there is an essence not only of triangle as such, but an essence of every triangle. I have a worry, however, that Hildebrand is overlooking the distinction between the existence of an essence of a triangle T, and there being a fact of the matter about the properties of the triangle T. Suppose T is the triangle whose vertices are at the points (2,1), (5,9), and (17,3) in the plane. Mathematicians are able to investigate and meaningfully discuss the properties of T because T is fully defined and there is a fact of the matter about its properties, such as the length of its sides, and the internal angles at its vertices. I am not free to imagine the properties of T being anything I like, but am instead constrained by the facts of the matter. This is to say that T is subjectively transcendent to my mind, or any other mind. There is no obvious reason to commit ourselves to the claim that T exists metaphysically or that the essence of T exists metaphysically. T is a construct of the mind, a purely notional thing. T is an idea, and hence ideal, but not real. There is no obvious reason to think that ideal things such as T are real. On the contrary, T is what Husserl would term irreal, that is, something that can be the object of meaningful intersubjective discussion and investigation, but which need not exist metaphysically. This line of reasoning seems to suggest that to assert that a genuine essence is real is metaphysically inflationary.

Objection 6: Relation between philosophy and religion

In Chapter 8, Hildebrand concludes his book’s discussion by sharing with us his understanding of the relation between philosophy and religion. Man has an innate orientation toward God and the eternal. The overarching mission of philosophy is to be a “preamble to faith”, by cultivating this orientation. This is what Hildebrand means when he refers to philosophy’s obligation to prepare our souls “for the acceptance of the revelation of God”. Yet what is disclosed by revelation remains “beyond what is accessible to philosophy.” By this Hildebrand means that the contents of such revelation are not amenable to discovery by the modalities of enquiry discussed in earlier chapters of his book.

There is a problem here. The truth of such putative revelation is treated by Hildebrand as a given. Revelation from God is held to be true on the grounds that God is the source of all truth. Yet even in theological circles, there is legitimacy in a discussion concerning how any putative revelation can be confirmed as genuine. It is not clear why Hildebrand would regard such a discussion as non-philosophical, and why he chooses not include the premises and constraints of any such discussion within the parameters of his epistemology. This leads the reader to conclude, in particular, that the account of knowledge in general that is contained in Chapter 1 is incomplete.


From an historical perspective, Hildebrand’s What is Philosophy? can be situated within the context of a twentieth-century realism-idealism controversy sparked by Husserl’s turn toward a version of transcendental idealism. Realists like Hildebrand had previously seen Husserl’s early phenomenology as offering a potential way of returning to a form of enquiry that might overcome the constraints placed by Kant upon the limits of metaphysical knowledge. Unfortunately Hildebrand’s attempt to break out of the Kantian epistemological constraints turns out to be susceptible to the objections that I have detailed: (1) Hildebrand’s advocacy of philosophical rigour is undermined by the conduciveness of his intuitionism toward controversy; (2) Hildebrand does not make a convincing philosophical case for the existence of a personal God; (3) Hildebrand’s phenomenological claim about the communicative quality of colour is at odds with the descriptive facts; (4) Hildebrand does not provide an adequate metaphysical account of the supposed interaction between the ideal realm of essences and the concrete realm of individuals; (5) It is metaphysically inflationary to think that it follows from there being a fact of the matter about the properties of X that X exists metaphysically; (6) Any putative revelation from God remains liable to a confirmation condition, and Hildebrand fails to include a discussion of such a confirmation condition within his epistemology.

Colby Dickinson, Hugh Miller, Kathleen McNutt (Eds.): The Challenge of God, Bloomsbury, 2021

The Challenge of God: Continental Philosophy and the Catholic Intellectual Tradition Book Cover The Challenge of God: Continental Philosophy and the Catholic Intellectual Tradition
Colby Dickinson, Hugh Miller, Kathleen McNutt (Eds.)
Paperback $35.96

Edward Baring: Converts to the Real: Catholicism and the Making of Continental Philosophy

Converts to the Real: Catholicism and the Making of Continental Philosophy Book Cover Converts to the Real: Catholicism and the Making of Continental Philosophy
Edward Baring
Harvard University Press
Hardback $49.95

Reviewed by: Elad Lapidot (University of Bern)

Is Catholicism a Religion?

Over the last decades, scholars have increasingly called into question the universal validity of the category “religion” as referring to a supposed ahistorical constant domain of all human mind and civilization, the domain of faith. The claim has characteristically been that, even though nowadays we often speak and think of religion this way, both in everyday life and in scholarship, in fact our notion of religion is a historical construct. This conceptual construct, so the claim, is fashioned after a specific cultural tradition, the Christian West, which, as part of obtaining or preserving its global epistemic hegemony, has asserted its own culture – Christianity – as a universal and superior feature of human nature as such: religion. Consequently, all cultures would have their religions: the Jewish, the Greek, the Chinese, the Indian, the Aztec, which could therefore be compared and evaluated in view of the underlying paradigm – and ultimate paragon – of religion, Christianity.

This sort of critique of religion is commonly deployed in postcolonial-like discourses, which confront the Christian West with its non-Christian others. Could the same critique apply within Christianity itself (West vs. East) or even within the Western? Wouldn’t the construct “religion” arise not only from a geo-political bias, i.e. the West, but also from a chrono-political bias, i.e. Modernity? And if so, wouldn’t it give effect and perpetuate a bias within the Christian West, namely in favor of modern Christianity, marked by Protestantism and Secularism, so as to undermine premodern, Catholic forms of Christian civilization? Is Catholicism a religion?

There is much in Baring’s intriguing new book to suggest that Catholicism is in fact not primarily a religion, but a philosophy, or even – philosophy. The main theme of the book is continental philosophy, whose center according to Baring is phenomenology. Its explicit concern is intellectual and institutional genealogy, “the Making of Continental Philosophy”, namely how a specific direction in 20th century philosophy, phenomenology, has been able to transform “from a provincial philosophy in southwest Germany into a movement that spanned Europe” (2), and so to become “continental”. Here and elsewhere in the book, Baring highlights the political significance of epistemic constellations, underlying the transnational, pan-European character of phenomenology as “continental” philosophy. His own historiography performatively turns away from national narratives (phenomenology in France, Husserl in Spain, Heidegger in Italy etc.) in search of a more transnational, universal ground. The movement that spread Husserl’s word among the nations (“the single most important explanation for the international success of phenomenology in the twentieth century”, 5), Baring suggests, is the one that goes under the name of the universal itself, the catholicos, Catholicism. Catholicism is the principal agent in this continental, transnational, catholic historiography of philosophy.

It is somewhat paradoxical that Baring’s professed transnational perspective nonetheless preliminary features phenomenology as belonging to “southwest Germany”, namely as originally particular, which accordingly begs the question of its continental success. According to this logic, this transnational success can only be accounted for by something beyond phenomenology itself, something more European, more universal, which would be Catholicism. However, in what sense would phenomenological philosophy itself not be sufficiently universal to account for its own universal spread? In what sense is Catholicism more obviously universal, and what explains its own international success, beyond the province of Rome?

Be that as it may, the notion of success, namely the ability of philosophy or thought, the ability of ideas, to obtain and expand their hold on the world, on reality, is central to Baring’s project. The primary transnational feature of Catholicism that the book foregrounds is its global institutional presence. Next to the transnational and universal, “catholic” historiographic perspective, Baring’s study accommodates Catholicism also in focusing on the worldly reality of the Church. The Catholicism that, as the book suggests, carried phenomenology across the continent is first and foremost a “network of philosophers and theologians that stretched across Europe” (7); “we can speak of ‘continental philosophy’ because phenomenology could tap into the networks of a Church that already operated on a continental scale” (11).

The story of “making” continental philosophy, as told in the book, is indeed concerned less with conceptual genealogy of ideas and more with how they spread. It’s a story of thought as an inter-personal, inter-institutional happening, where events of thinking take place between works, between thinkers. The great individual names of phenomenology – Husserl, Heidegger, Scheler, the “phenomenological trinity” Baring calls them (6) – are there, but they function as basic coordinates for describing the real plot, which is scholarship. Primary and secondary literatures switch here places. The main protagonists of this book are neither the great names nor the great book, but their less known scholarly recipients, the clerics, who read, translate, introduce, interpret, discuss and institutionalize ideas, convene conferences and found archives, journals and schools. Most importantly, and this is one of the great achievements of this book, the history of thought is told through formative debates, such that polemics – and with it politics – is posited at the heart of epistemology, a real at the heart of the ideal. Could polemics too – next to transnationalism and institutionalism – count as Catholic heritage?

At any event, Baring tells continental philosophy’s church history, and according to him the early church of phenomenology was Catholic. To quote some impressive facts:

“self-professed Catholic philosophers produced more than 40 percent of all books and articles on Husserl, Heidegger, and Scheler written in French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch in the period before World War II, making Catholic phenomenology by far the largest constituent part of the early European reception” (8-9);

“Within Europe, phenomenology has been most successful in Catholic countries, while tending to skip, at least at first, the Protestant strongholds of Scandinavia and the United Kingdom. Across the Atlantic, it has flourished in Latin America and at Catholic universities in the United States, such as Notre Dame, Boston College, DePaul, and Duquesne. The geography of phenomenology is best described, not by the contours of mainland Europe, but by the reach of the ‘universal Church’.” (11).

What is certain, in Baring’s account Catholicism does not just function as a contingent carrier of phenomenological philosophy, a vessel which would remain external to the content that it spreads. The Church is not simply a vehicle for Husserl’s word. The network of catholic intellectuals and institutions does not feature in this book as a mere logistical structure, but as the institutional embodiment of its intellectual content, of thought. Is Catholicism a religion? In this book, the Catholic emerges primarily as a philosophy. Insofar as Catholicism accounts for making phenomenology the philosophy of the European continent, Baring argues, it is because “before existentialism and before phenomenology, the first continental philosophy of the twentieth century was Catholic.” (19)

What is Catholic philosophy? This question is not really developed in the book, which has a very clear answer: medieval scholastic philosophy as it has been oriented by the works of Thomas Aquinas, namely Thomism. In the relevant period for the book, the first decades of the 20th century, Catholic philosophy consisted in the attempt to renew Thomism, namely in neo-Thomism or neo-scholasticism, which according to Baring was in these decades “the largest and most influential philosophical movement in the world” (8). Neo-Thomism was global philosophy, which makes one wonder about the reason it was only able to turn phenomenology “continental”, but no more than that. Neo-Thomism, as Baring portrays it, had set to itself a daring task. It translated medieval philosophy into modern terms not in order to modernize this philosophy, but, on the contrary, in order to effect “a philosophical conversion of modernity, a movement from modern to medieval metaphysics” (14). Neo-Thomism was the Catholic mission to the Moderns, aiming to reconvert modernity “back to Catholicism” (ibid.).

“Conversion” is a key word in Baring’s book. It is the basic description of the intellectual event that it portrays, and the plot is articulated by the personal conversions – official or not – of the protagonists. What was the nature of the conversion “back to Catholicism”, which neo-Thomists were trying to generate? The answer to this question lies at the heart of Baring’s historiographic thesis: it designates the ultimate purpose of Catholic, neo-Thomist philosophy, explains why phenomenology was deemed useful for Catholic intellectuals to pursue this purpose and so would account for why Catholicism helped phenomenology to its continental and international success.

Were neo-Thomists interested in converting modernity, modern thought and philosophy, from secularism or atheism back to religion? Obviously, as already indicated, neo-scholasticism was not looking to promote “religion” in its modern, paradigmatically Protestant or secular sense. But furthermore, Baring most often does not describe Catholic thought in terms of religion or what is commonly – in modern discourse – associated with religion as a special domain, of faith, transcendent God, holiness, spirituality etc., in short, as a different domain than secular, atheological or even atheistic philosophy.

On the contrary: neo-Thomism was looking to renew Thomism, for which, as described by Baring, theology implied worldly thought. Catholic thinkers “were convinced that the world incarnated a divine order, and that the institution of the Catholic Church was the worldly locus of redemption” (14); God is present in “His effects in the world” (30), such that faith is deemed “the perfection of natural knowledge” (29). The goal of Neo-Thomists was accordingly, among others, to connect Catholicism to science, natural science: by going back to Aquinas they were trying to reconnect with Aristotle. In other words, whether or not Catholicism was interested, in the first decades of the 20th century, in renewing something like religion, in Baring’s book Catholic philosophy emerges as a powerful agent for the renewal of Aristotelian philosophy, which historically speaking is perhaps nothing but Western philosophy, or philosophy tout court. Just as philosophy’s first and ultimate concern is with Being, Baring’s Catholicism is concerned with “the Real”.

“The Real” is the central concept of Baring’s narrative, which thus connects the contemporary discourse on philosophy and religion with the contemporary philosophical conversation on realism. Explicating this connection may have been a useful way for Baring to provide a more precise explanation of what he understands by “the Real”. Considering the pivotal centrality of this concept for the book’s argument, it remains rather vague and sometimes ambivalent. In fact, its basic significance in this book seems to be above all polemic, in that it designates what neo-scholasticism, seeking to renew medieval, premodern philosophy, was asserting against modern thought. Indeed, throughout the book, Catholic positions are characterized in various ways as opposing the negation of realism by modern philosophy, namely as opposition to the idealism, relativism and subjectivism that would characterize modern thought.

That non-realism (a negation of or distance from the Real) is constitutive to modern philosophy, is a decisive presupposition of Baring’s project. The exact significance of this presupposed non-realism or idealism remains as much an open question as the exact meaning of “the Real”. If the supposed non-realism of modern philosophy means detachment from the worldly and natural order, in favor of some dimension of transcendence, of some supernatural or transcendental subjectivity, will or spirit, this would mean that modern thought, far from being secular and “worldly”, has rather become closer to religion, as a relation to the unworldly. This kind of analysis no doubt sits well with accounts of modernity, such as Hans Jonas’, as arising from man’s liberation from and subsequent domination of nature (NB: not against but precisely through modern, technological science), which would resemble or even be the avatar of ancient Gnosticism, religion of the Alien God. Neo-Thomism, working to effect on modernity a – as the title of Baring’s book reads – “Conversion to the Real”, which is actually a re-conversion, a movement back to the world, would accordingly be the modern permutation of the same anti-heresiological movement that for someone like Hans Blumenberg, for instance, accounted for the emergence of Christian doctrine. This movement may be described less as a conversion from philosophy to religion than as a conversion from religion back to philosophy, from faith back to reason.

Converting modern philosophy to the Real was in any case, so Baring, the missionary goal of neo-scholasticism in the first decades of the 20th century. It is for this mission that Catholic networks identified phenomenology as suitable and for this purpose they “made” it continental. The reason that phenomenology was found by neo-Thomist to be such a suitable discourse for deploying the conversion of non-realist modern philosophy to realism, Baring argues, is that phenomenological thought, to begin with Husserl’s notion of intentionality (consciousness is always of an object), was identified as an anti-idealist movement back to the Real within modern philosophy itself, so to speak a spontaneous movement of self-conversion: “phenomenological intentionality seemed to bypass the distortions of idealism and provide access to the mind-independent real. For neo-scholastics, phenomenology could help secular thinkers recognize God’s order in the world.” (14) How exactly neo-scholastic thinkers and institutions tried to achieve this goal, their more or less successful negotiations – and debates – among themselves, with phenomenology, as well as vis-à-vis other Catholic, Protestant and non-religious intellectual currents, and how all this contributed to the making of continental philosophy – this is the story told by Baring’s rich book.

One basic and far-reaching insight of Baring concerns the ambivalent nature of conversion: the shift from one conception to another at the same time connects both conceptions and thus opens the way to a counter-conversion, from the second conception to the first. Conversions work “in both directions” (16). This insight may be deemed as a structural principle that regulates – and complicates – basic dynamics in the history of thought, something like the Third Law of Intellectual Motion. It seems to be particularly significant in conversions that are not just spontaneous, but induced, namely in conversion projects, in missionary movements.With respect to the neo-Thomist mission to convert modern philosophy “back to Catholicism”, in order to do so it established “the Real” as a connection between modern phenomenology and medieval scholasticism, which would serve as a passage from the former to the latter. As Baring shows, however, this passage also facilitated the inverse movement, to the effect that the bridge built between Thomism and phenomenology also served Catholic thinkers to cross to the other side and to “break with Roman Catholicism” (15). The paradigmatic example discussed by Baring is Heidegger.

What is however the meaning of this counter-conversion, away from Catholicism, which according to Baring has become so prevalent in post-WWII phenomenology so as to completely obliterate its early Catholic years? Would it be that phenomenology, and continental philosophy, was moving away from religion, towards secular and atheistic thought? Is Catholicism religion? The question of religion, as already noted, interestingly does not explicitly frame the narrative of the book, which foregrounds instead the debate of realism vs. idealism. Catholicism is realism, but is it therefore more or less a religion?

It is only in the Epilog that Baring directly addresses the question of religion. “Continental philosophy today is haunted by religion” (343): the famous return to religion, a contemporary conversion – or perhaps even a contemporary mission? By whom – to whom? Is Baring’s book a part of this project, namely facilitating the passage from contemporary continental philosophy to religion by recalling how it was Catholicism that originally “made” phenomenology into continental philosophy? The “religious specters” that “haunt” continental philosophy today, Baring argues, indeed arise from its “family history”, namely phenomenology’s transmission to the world as it was “passed down through Catholic scholars” (344), so to speak phenomenology’s Catholic womb. The current return to religion in continental philosophy is connected to its Catholic heritage.

However, according to Baring’s further insight into the Third Law of Intellectual Movement, just as conversion is not only unidirectional, inheritance too is not simply linear. He points out that intellectual inheritance may pass on not just positive, affirmative doctrines, but also negative positions, what he terms “negative inheritance” (347). According to Baring’s analysis, it is by way of “negative inheritance” that phenomenology’s Catholic past, namely neo-Thomism, continues to operate within continental philosophy’s return to religion. In other words, Catholicism, as portrayed in Baring’s book, is present in this contemporary return to religion not as the positive agent, not as the agent of religion, but on the contrary in the negative, anti-religious positions – more specifically in their realism.

He brings the example of Quentin Meillassoux, who “presents himself as a rationalist ally to the natural sciences, seeking to reinvigorate realism after a period of idealist hegemony. Meillassoux is aware of his proximity to Thomism, which he defines as ‘the progressive rationalization of Judeo-Christianity under the influence of Greek philosophy’”. (348) Baring’s conclusion: “The atheist scourge of much contemporary continental philosophy appears as the inverted image of those Catholic thinkers who helped make philosophy continental in the first place.” (ibid.)  It is not in the return to religion but rather in the resistance to this return that current continental philosophy would be inspired by Catholicism, which consequently operates, at least in this context, not as a religion, but as anti-religion.


Synopsis of the Book:

Baring’s story is told in three chronological parts, which concern three different periods in the early history of phenomenology in its reception by Catholic scholars: 1900-1930, 1930-1940 and 1940-1950. The narrative is organized by another triad, three main figures of early German phenomenology, the “phenomenological trinity”: Husserl, Heidegger and Scheler, and the debates around them.

Part I, “Neo-Scholastic Conversion. 1900-1930” deals with the immediate Catholic reception of German phenomenology. Baring traces back the initial reception to a specific current within neo-Thomism, “progressive Thomism”, promoted by the Louvain School of Léon Noël, head of the Institut supérieur de Philosophie. Progressive Thomism was oriented by the work of Cardinal Désiré Mercier (Critériologie), who translated Thomist realism into the discourse of epistemology. This anti-Kantian epistemology was the site of early Catholic reception of Husserl, as told in Chapters 1 and 2. The first reception referred to The Logical Investigations of 1900-1901 and was enthusiastic, as Husserl’s anti-psychological notions, such as intentionality (which goes back through Brentano to scholasticism) and categorical intuition, appeared to secure epistemic access to “the objective order of the world” (40). “For Catholics around Europe, reading Husserl’s Logical Investigations was a revelation”, Baring writes (48). Modern philosophy’s “conversion to the Real” was celebrated by scholars such as Jospeh Geyser, Erich Przywara and the Milan School’s Agostino Gemelli, and even existentially performed through a personal conversion, such as by Edith Stein, to whom phenomenology has showen “the way into ‘the majestic temple of scholastic thought’” (75). All the more disappointing was Husserl’s return to the transcendental consciousness in his Ideen of 1913. The second reception identified in Husserl a second, reversed conversion, from realism back to idealism, which “was experienced by neo-scholastics as a betrayal— both of Husserl’s earlier work and, by implication, of their own project” (61).

Chapter 3 follows the intellectual development of early Heidegger, a phenomenological convert away from Catholicism. Influenced by Joseph Geyser, young Heidegger, “a progressive scholastic” (88), in his 1913 dissertation embraced Husserl’s anti-Psychologism, and in his 1916 Habilitaiton on Dun Scotus, the “pinnacle of Heidegger’s neo-scholastic period” (97), formulated a meaning-based realism. The disengagement is signaled in 1917, as Heidegger stated that Catholicism “forgot religion for theology and dogma” and looked for religious experience in Christian mysticism, Augustine and Protestants from Luther, Otto, Overbeck, Kierkegaard, Dilthey and Schleiermacher. Being and Time of 1927, so Baring’s perceptive analysis, features a curious atheism based on “two confessional strands” (113): Catholic ontology, but no longer perennis, and Protestant Dasein-analysis, but indifferent to faith.

Chapter 4 traces a similar dynamic with respect to Max Scheler, extending the plot from theory to ethics and politics. Scheler’s 1913 Formalism in Ethics provided a phenomenological access (Wert-nehmen, axiological intuition) to an “objective order of value” (140) and his personalism, the notion of Gesamtperson, gave this ethics a socio-political embodiment. Both combined offered practical philosophy to Catholic social revival and anti-liberal, anti-bourgeois, anti-capitalist corporatism. Carl Muth’s influential Catholic magazine Hochland celebrated Scheler as “Black Nietzsche” (124) and intellectuals followed him in his early WWI patriotism, growing distance from nationalism and anti-republicanism in Weimar, such as Paul-Ludwig Landsberg’s “conservative revolution” (137). Disenchantment manifested itself, on the Catholic side, in doubts raised by neo-scholastics, such as Przywara, as to Scheler’s too heavy reliance on human intuition and emotional intentionality, and on Scheler’s side, in the pantheistic turn of his late work (1928, The Human Place in the Cosmos).

Part II, “Existential Journeys 1930-1940”, describes how, beyond its initial reception by neo-scholasticism, phenomenology “became a privileged battlefield in intra-Christian debates” (152). The central intra-Christian tension in Baring’s narrative is between neo-scholastics and existentialists. Chapter 5 tells about the rise of “Christian Existentialism across Europe” by portraying the tension between two converts to Catholicism, Gabriel Marcel and Jacques Maritain. Marcel (Metaphysical Journal, 1927; Being and Having, 1935), influence and mentor to existentialists such as Nicolai Berdyaev, René Le Senne, Jean Wahl as well as Simone de Beauvoir, Emmanuel Levinas, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Paul Ricoeur and Jean-Paul Sartre, criticized neo-Thomist intellectualism as “hubris”, and insisted on the “unintelligibility of existence”, its embodiment and “mystery”. Maritain claimed “existential philosophy” describes rather Thomism itself, which deals with esse and acknowledges its mystery, deems it nevertheless “open to intellectual understanding” (163).

Chapter 6 goes back to the Catholic reception of Husserl and how during the 1930s it was shaped by a division within neo-scholasticism, between progressive and strict Thomists. Baring portrays this division through the “Critical Realism Debate”, concerning the attempt of the Louvain School’s progressives, such as Léon Noël and René Kremer, to base realism on epistemology, namely on critique of subjective knowledge (leading to post-WII “transcendental Thomism”). “Strict” Thomists such as Étienne Gilson and Jacques Maritain rejected the notion of “critical” – Cartesian or Kantian – realism as self-contradictory, insisting on the primacy of metaphysics over epistemology. Baring shows how this debate pressed progressive intellectuals, such as Kremer, Kurt Reinhart and Sofia Vanni Rovighi, who initially embraced Husserl’s phenomenology, to reject and rectify his perceived idealistic tendencies, especially as manifested in the Cartesian Meditations of 1931.

Chapter 7 presents the 1930s’ reception of Heidegger as the battleground for the inter-confessional debate between neo-Scholastics (such as Przywara, Alfred Delp and Hans Urs von Balthasar) and Protestants, in particular Karl Barth’s Kierkegaard-inspired Dialectical Theology. Baring describes this debate as arising from “two diametrically opposed, if symmetrical, accounts of Heidegger’s atheism: Thomists explained it by the restrictions placed upon Heidegger’s ontology by his (Protestant) prioritization of human subjectivity; Protestant theologians understood it through his attempt to ground the analysis of human finitude in an ontology, which arose from an excessive and Catholic faith in our rational capacities.” (213) In other words, both (dialectical theology’s) emphasis on the unintelligible and (neo-Thomist) emphasis on intelligibility could be construed, from the opposite  perspective, as subjectivist and so proto-atheistic. This leads Baring to the brilliant observation whereby “religious notes” of atheistic conceptions (he speaks of existentialism) may arise not from “uncomplicated inheritance of a believing antecedent, but rather as the reflection of a more distant voice, directed toward and bouncing of a common religious foe” (240), i.e. “negative inheritance”.

Chapter 8 returns to the reception of Scheler, “The Black Nietzsche”, in Catholic political thought. Baring shows how the Schelerian notion of social corpora as embodying spiritual order of values could support to conflicting conceptions of Catholic anti-liberal politics. Luigi Stefanini drew on Scheler to affirm a “hierarchical order of values” enacted by an authoritarian and totalitarian state, which led him to collaborate with the Fascist regime and even acknowledge “racial defense” as “an act of the sovereignty and transcendence of the spirit” (259). In contrast, for Paul-Louis Landsberg, as Paul Ludwig Landsberg was known in his French exile and anti-Fascist resistance, “the divine order is always to come and can never be fully worked out. For that reason, authoritarianism runs the risk of shutting down the process by which the true order is revealed” (263), which led him to reject Nazism and Communism. Baring exemplifies the same ambivalence in Scheler in the development of Emmanuel Mounier’s Catholic-Nietzschean magazine Esprit, from support of Vichy to Resistance and post-WII negotiations of Thomism and Marxism.

Part III, “Catholic Legacies 1940-1950”, discusses how after “the Catholics who had helped promote phenomenological ideas around Europe withdrew from the stage”, “[t[he script that they had written […] persisted, to be picked up and adapted by new actors.” (276) Chapter 9 is dedicated to the story of the Husserl Archives, famously smuggled from Germany to Belgium by the young Franciscan Herman Leo Van Breda, to be institutionalized within Louvain’s Institut Supérieur de Philosophie. According to Baring, after WWII Van Breda, who was looking for means to secure the archives’ further existence (which he obtained at last from UNESCO), realized that “the archives would flourish only if they became independent of the Church” (297). Catholicism, which made phenomenology continental, was now required, in order to prefect its own making, to retreat. Like the truth of Heidegger’s Beyng, the appearance of neo-Thomism in phenomenology was completed by the concealment of neo-Thomism in phenomenology’s Veröffentlichung. It is thus that the first volume of the Husserliana was dedicated to the Cartesian Meditations, “the text where Husserl distinguished his work most clearly from scholasticism” (300).

Chapter 10, the last one, indicates traces of neo-scholasticism in “Postwar Phenomenology”, once again through an intellectual tension, this time between the secular Merleau-Ponty and the Protestant Paul Ricoeur. Both of “Marcelian bent”, affirming embodiment and existence versus idealism, their diverging interpretations of Marcel reproduced the debate between Thomism and Existentialism, inasmuch as Merleau-Ponty emphasized the intentional order of perception and Ricoeur the mystery and the “fault”. The disagreement on Marcel was intertwined with a disagreement on Husserl, which reproduced the debate between progressive and strict Thomism: whereas Merleau-Ponty, like the Louvain School, strove to protect Husserl’s realism from his transcendentalism, Ricoeur, like Maritain, read Husserl as an idealist. Commenting on the Protestant philosopher’s surprising affinity to strict Thomism, Baring provides a precious polemic triangulation, which is perhaps the real glory of scholastic sophistication: “Against the Thomists, Ricoeur denied that Christians could use philosophy to defend religious dogmas. Against the Barthians, Ricoeur did think philosophy retained an important role. It could challenge the pretension of science to have provided ‘a final solution.’ Christian philosophy would thus be a ‘science of limits, an essentially Socratic, ironic position [. . .] forbidding all thought to be totalitarian’.” (327)


Three Concluding Reflections:

  1. The key concept of the book’s argument is “the Real”. Catholicism promoted phenomenology for the sake of converting modern philosophy to the Real. As noted above, however, realism signifies in this book primarily polemically, in contrast to the alleged idealism of modern thought. However, as Baring insightfully shows with respect to “atheism”, polemic meanings are unstable and easily turned around. Just like criticism of “atheism” can be found in any religious position against any other religious position, isn’t criticism of “idealism” as detached from the real, i.e. as false, inherent to the disagreement of any philosophical position against all the others? Wasn’t metaphysical dogmatism for Kant too disconnected from reality, as the Ptolemaic system for Copernicus? For Hegel, an arche-idealist, the real was the reasonable. Baring shows how neo-Thomism too deemed the real intelligible, whereas existentialism and dialectical theology experienced reality in unintelligibility.
  2. It seems that ultimately “the Real” for Baring signifies the limit of human autonomy and power, where reason means intelligibility of – and subjection to – the given, eternal, cosmic order (Thomism), in contrast to modern “self-affirmation of reason” (Blumenberg). Conversion to the Real means something like undoing modern hubris, disempowering the human. Baring portrays at least two divergent ways of doing so in Catholic thought, rationalism and existentialism, both inspired by Husserl’s phenomenology. One may wonder, however, whether both modes of “the Real” are equally defining for continental philosophy. The very term “continental” philosophy, determines reason by existence, i.e. actual geography, politics, history, which arguably condition more continental than analytic thought. It is rather Anglo-American philosophy that may be said to represent anti-idealist, positive rationalism, where reason is limited qua “analytic”. Wouldn’t this modern philosophy – which is closer to natural sciences, and arises from phenomenology only within its alliance with logical positivism against psychologism – be a more suitable ally for neo-scholasticism?
  3. There seems to be a third way of limiting or determining reason, which is very present in Baring’s study, albeit unthematized as such. Next to rationalism (reason determined by given logical order) and existentialism (reason determined by given non-logical being), his narrative centrally features also the determination of reason through the inter-personal plurality of thought: thought as a school, the institution that gave scholasticism its name. As such, scholasticism determines reason neither by the given intelligible, nor by the unintelligible, but by the overintelligible, namely by the open excess of thought as polemics. By choosing the debate as a primary figure of thought, Baring’s book manifests perhaps scholarship itself, next to analytic and continental philosophies, as a third post-modern manifestation of scholastic realism, and perhaps of philosophy überhaupt.

Edward Baring: Converts to the Real: Catholicism and the Making of Continental Philosophy

Converts to the Real: Catholicism and the Making of Continental Philosophy Book Cover Converts to the Real: Catholicism and the Making of Continental Philosophy
Edward Baring
Harvard University Press

Reviewed by: Francesco Valerio Tommasi (Sapienza, Università di Roma)

Lo scopo di questo volume è di mostrare il ruolo nascosto giocato dal cattolicesimo nel successo e nella diffusione della fenomenologia. Le connessioni e i rapporti tra la corrente di pensiero inaugurata da Edmund Husserl e i pensatori e le istituzioni cattoliche del Novecento, infatti, sono molteplici e di diversi livelli. Si pensi a Martin Heidegger e ai suoi studi di filosofia medievale e di teologia, o a Edith Stein, protagonista di un percorso per certi aspetti speculare: il primo procede infatti dal cattolicesimo ad una fenomenologia metodologicamente atea – per cui l’espressione “filosofia cristiana” è notoriamente un “ferro ligneo”; la seconda muove invece dalla fenomenologia – orgogliosamente atea – al cattolicesimo. Ma si pensi anche, ovviamente, a Max Scheler, che contemporaneamente alle riflessioni sulla fenomenologia sviluppa le sue prospettive religiose, gravitanti attorno alla chiesa cattolica, di cui si fa promotore e da cui poi si allontana. Oppure, per risalire sino alle origini e alla preistoria della fenomenologia, si pensi a Franz Brentano, sacerdote e studioso di Tommaso d’Aquino, oltre che ispiratore e maestro di Edmund Husserl. Ma si pensi anche a Karol Wojtyła, formatosi allo studio di Max Scheler e su cui giocò un’influenza rilevante anche il pensiero di Roman Ingarden.

Il rapporto prevalente che la fenomenologia instaurò fu quello con la cosiddetta Neoscolastica, ossia con la corrente filosofica e teologica volta al recupero e alla riattualizzazione del pensiero medievale ed in particolare del tomismo, sostenuta con energia dalla chiesa cattolica nel corso del ventesimo secolo e rilanciata in particolare dall’enciclica Aeterni Patris di Leone XIII (1879). La vicinanza tra le due correnti può apparire a prima vista sorprendente: la fenomenologia infatti si presenta come un pensiero privo di riferimenti storici, rifiuta qualsiasi tipo di presupposto extra-razionale ed è costitutivamente contraria alla metafisica, tanto che “metafisico” e “fenomenologico” vengono talora ad essere aggettivi usati in modo antitetico; la Neoscolastica, all’opposto, trova appunto nel pensiero medievale un riferimento privilegiato, è orientata al dialogo con la teologia e con la fede rivelata, e sostiene una ripresa della metafisica.

A ben vedere, però, un orientamento marcatamente teoretico caratterizza anche la Neoscolastica, che si rivolge al passato medievale come ad una presunta “età dell’oro”, la cui validità teorica andrebbe riproposta con energia contro le derive e la crisi della modernità. Su questo piano dunque – ossia sul piano di un interesse speculativo scevro da pregiudizi – va compresa la possibilità di un primo, generico, punto di incontro. Un secondo, già più specifico, punto di contatto va rinvenuto nell’istanza fondativa con cui entrambe le correnti impostano il loro procedere, così che la fenomenologia, per quanto anti-metafisica, si presenta come una “scienza rigorosa” e come una “filosofia prima”. Ma il terzo e più preciso punto di incontro che ha condotto alla possibilità di dialogo tra queste due correnti va sicuramente individuato nell’approccio inaugurato da Husserl con le Logische Untersuchungen (1900-01): in quest’opera, infatti, si difende un‘impostazione che può essere compresa – ed è stato compresa effettivamente dai primi discepoli di Husserl – come realista. Husserl infatti propone una forte critica allo psicologismo, e molti allievi considereranno una svolta indebita da parte di Husserl l’impostazione idealista delle successive Ideen I (1913). Per la Neoscolastica era proprio lo psicologismo – e più in generale il soggettivismo – uno dei maggiori errori del pensiero moderno in generale, a partire da Cartesio e da Kant. La Neoscolastica proponeva quindi un ritorno al realismo metafisico che aveva caratterizzato l’epoca medievale. Così, il ritorno “alle cose stesse” propugnato da Husserl poteva certamente attrarre l’attenzione dei pensatori neoscolastici. La stessa fenomenologia, non a caso, venne accusata di essere una forma di “nuova Scolastica”. Proprio al realismo e alla necessità di “convertirsi” ad esso fa dunque riferimento il titolo del volume di Baring, che finalmente mette a tema questa importante relazione intellettuale tra due movimenti di pensiero protagonisti del secolo scorso.

Oltre alle figure più prominenti già menzionate in apertura, molti altri nomi sono emblematici del rapporto tra fenomenologia e cattolicesimo: Dietrich von Hildebrand, per esempio, altro giovane fenomenologo che conobbe la conversione al cattolicesimo in età adulta. Oppure Erich Przywara, che con curiosità di avvicinò allo studio del pensiero husserliano a partire da posizioni neoscolastiche. E poi, nelle generazioni successive di pensatori, si pensi all’importanza, per la diffusione della fenomenologia, di figure come Alphonse de Waelhens (Belgio), Sofia Vanni Rovighi (Italia), Joaquìn Xirau (Mesicco) o Herman Boelaars (Olanda). Fu un sacerdote cattolico, inoltre, Hermann Leo Van Breda, a porre in salvo i manoscritti husserliani e a fondare l’Archivio dedicato al padre della fenomenologia. E la diffusione attuale della fenomenologia in Francia – forse l’ultimo avamposto della corrente husserliana – è dovuta in buona misura a pensatori dichiaratamente ed esplicitamente cattolici, come Michel Henry o Jean-Luc Marion, ma anche Jean Greisch, Philippe Capelle-Dumont ed Emmanuel Falque: tanto che si è parlato, famigeratamente, di un “tournant théologique” della fenomenologia francese.

Mettere in luce questi rapporti rappresenta la mera esposizione di un fatto storico incontrovertibile. Tuttavia, a partire da ciò, prudentemente l’Autore non intende sostenere la tesi di un carattere cripticamente cattolico della fenomenologia – in quello che rappresenterebbe una sorta di ribaltamento della tesi di Janicaud sul “tournant théologique”. Infatti, egli scrive:

“By claiming that Catholics played an outsized role in the reception of phenomenology […], even in its atheistic versions, I don’t mean to argue that phenomenology is essentially Christian, and that the secular thinkers who have developed its claims in important and interesting ways were crypto-Catholics, blind to the true nature of their thought. First, the Catholic readings of phenomenology were in many ways expropriations. Husserl gave little encouragement to those who hoped to bend his philosophy to fit a Catholic agenda. Second, as we shall see, phenomenology’s compatibility with Catholicism was by no means assured, and it was the difficulty of aligning it with neo- scholasticism that made phenomenology attractive to other religious thinkers and, later, atheists. Finally, and most fundamentally, it is not clear on what basis one could declare phenomenology Christian or Catholic, because the concept of a ‘Christian philosophy’ is notoriously difficult to define. At almost precisely the moment when Catholics were shuttling phenomenological ideas around the continent, many of the same thinkers were also engaged in a Europe-wide debate about whether ‘Christian philosophy’ had any meaning at all” (11-12).

Il volume quindi procede prevalentemente su un terreno più solido e sicuro, che è il terreno storico. Tuttavia, con un’osservazione che può essere definita di “ispirazione” fenomenologica si deve rilevare come, evidentemente, non esistano “fatti” storici da poter cogliere in modo positivisticamente ingenuo e scevri da ogni carattere interpretativo. La buona “intenzionalità” dell’Autore, quindi, si perde almeno in parte nel corso del volume. Valutiamo come.

Nella prima parte vengono analizzati i rapporti di Husserl, Heidegger e Scheler con il cattolicesimo e la Neoscolastica, in quattro capitoli dedicati rispettivamente al rapporto, in senso generico, tra le due correnti di pensiero, e poi a ciascuna delle tre figure. La seconda parte si dedica a descrivere alcune influenze rilevanti che queste figure cardine giocarono sui rapporti con il cattolicesimo di alcuni pensatori al di fuori della Germania: nello specifico si analizzano sia figure quali Nicolai Berdyaev, Gabriel Marcel e Augusto Guzzo (definiti “esistenzialisti cristiani”); sia la corrente del tomismo qui denominato “cartesiano” – e definibile in senso più lato “trascendentale” – ossia Joseph Maréchal, Karl Rahner, ma anche Giuseppe Zamboni (nel meritorio ed informato ricordo di un dibattito molto interessante all’Università Cattolica di Milano); sia la ricezione teologica di Kierkegaard (soprattutto nella teologia dialettica); sia quella di Nietzsche nei fascismi, ed il loro controverso rapporto con il cattolicesimo impegnato socialmente e politicamente. La terza parte, infine, si dedica alla storia dell’Archivio Husserl e poi – ampliando la prospettiva al di là dei confini del cattolicesimo – prende in esame le vicende di Paul Ricoeur e di Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

Proprio questo allargamento finale di prospettiva – così come, più in generale, la vastità di questioni, correnti ed autori presi in considerazione – mostra forse quella che è una prima difficoltà del volume, ossia la tesi per cui il ruolo del cattolicesimo, nella vicenda fenomenologica, viene forse in alcuni tratti sovrainterpretato. Rispetto a Ricoeur o a Merleau-Ponty, infatti, non sembra che il rapporto con l’ambito di pensiero Neoscolastico o con la storia del cattolicesimo abbia avuto un’influenza così decisiva. Ma, a ben vedere, ciò non vale solo per questo capitolo. La tesi dell’Autore pare, a giudizio di chi scrive, dover essere ridimensionata in senso complessivo.

In ciascun passaggio, forse, Baring dona troppa enfasi al ruolo del cattolicesimo, come si può evincere in questo passaggio in cui egli riassume la sua prospettiva generale e che il lettore potrà valutare analiticamente:

“I argue that the neo-scholastic reading provided the impetus and stakes for the realism/ idealism debate that engulfed Husserl’s students in the 1910s and 1920s (Chapter 2); I suggest that Catholic debates lend context to the development of an existential version of phenomenology, both in Heidegger’s work (Chapter 3) and elsewhere in Europe in the 1930s (Chapters 5, 6, and 7); I show how the conflicts between religious thinkers furnished the means for non-Catholics to craft atheistic versions of phenomenology and existentialism (Chapters 7, 8, and 10); and I explain how Catholic readings helped imprint phenomenology with political meaning both in Germany in the 1920s (Chapter 4) and outside of Germany in the 1930s (Chapter 8), in a way that foreshadowed and shaped the emergence of existential Marxism in the 1940s (Chapter 10). The Catholic reception of phenomenology was a subterranean but massive structure, linking many of the most important developments in the history of twentieth-century philosophy. It could play this role because, before existentialism and before phenomenology, the first continental philosophy of the twentieth century was Catholic.” (20).

Su ciascun aspetto, si potrebbero mettere in luce anche dibattiti e contributi non solo di provenienza cattolica: il dibattito tra idealismo e realismo coinvolge tutti gli allievi gottinghesi di Husserl e il rapporto con i monachesi, ben al di là dei confini confessionali; l’esistenzialismo – categoria peraltro difficilmente applicabile al pensiero di Martin Heidegger – conosce uno sviluppo non solo marcato da influenze cattoliche, così come un esistenzialismo marxista ha una traiettoria anche completamente indipendente da matrici confessionali etc…

Le ultime righe del brano appena citato, poi, chiamano in causa una seconda difficoltà che ci sembra mostrare il volume di Baring, ossia una certa tendenza a sovrapporre troppo velocemente categorie ed etichette storiografiche: cattolicesimo e Neoscolastica, ad esempio, non sono sinonimi, così come evidentemente non coincidono nemmeno con l’idea della “filosofia cristiana”. L’Autore ne è consapevole, come abbiamo visto e sottolineato anche con una citazione esplicita, in precedenza; ma allora il rapporto della fenomenologia con il cattolicesimo in senso generale appare chiamare in causa figure e contesti anche molto (troppo?) diversi tra loro. Sull’altro versante, poi, l’equiparazione della fenomenologia con la “filosofia continentale” appare ancora più forzata. Se è vero che l’ermeneutica o l’esistenzialismo derivano o non possono prescindere dalla fenomenologia, il marxismo, il neokantismo, il neoidealismo, lo spiritualismo e il personalismo sono tutte correnti “continentali” che – sia pur entrate in qualche rapporto con la fenomenologia – hanno avuto origini e sviluppi da essa indipendenti e autonomi. Se negli ultimi decenni quindi la filosofia continentale è stata in larga misura almeno di ispirazione fenomenologica, evidentemente non sempre è stato così nel corso del Novecento e le due categorie non sono sovrapponibili.

Ciò che sta a cuore all’Autore, d’altronde, emerge nell’Epilogo, in cui egli afferma – forse con eccesso di enfasi:

“Continental philosophy today is haunted by religion. Whether they consider religion as something that needs to be exorcised, conjured up, or—and this is where my sympathies lie—mined as an intellectual resource, philosophers across Europe have returned insistently to religious themes and questions” (343).

Anche in questo caso, si sostiene un giudizio dalla portata molto vasta – e per farlo ci si deve riferire al pensiero “religioso” in senso generale; per poi concludere invece rivolgendosi nello specifico al Tomismo e affermando:

“Thomism is not the power house it once was. Still taught in Catholic universities and seminaries around the world, it rarely enjoys philosophical attention outside the Church. Yet when assessing its influence, we should not restrict our attention to those few who continue to bear its name. Whether passed on as a positive inheritance, or persisting as a negative imprint on other forms of philosophy, neo-scholasticism’s greatest legacy is the international debate between non- Catholic philosophers over phenomenology. And though this would be cold comfort to a Mercier, a Gemelli, a Przywara, or a Maritain, Thomism continues to deserve the title philosophia perennis, thanks to its contradictory afterlives in secular thought.” (349).

Queste osservazioni critiche, comunque, nulla tolgono al valore di un volume che molto meritoriamente evidenzia finalmente in modo diffuso e analitico, e con una erudizione sorprendente, un rapporto macroscopico e sinora sorprendentemente sottaciuto. Così come nulla tolgono alla precisione del testo alcuni piccoli errori o refusi (chi scrive questa recensione, ad esempio, viene talora confuso con Roberto Tommasi). Impostare il rapporto in modo più stringente sul rapporto tra Neoscolastica e fenomenologia – piuttosto che tra cattolicesimo e pensiero continentale – avrebbe forse potuto essere una scelta più efficace, ma il lavoro di Baring resta in ogni caso decisivo per comprendere una vicenda rilevantissima della storia della filosofia del Novecento e dunque anche – “Herkunft bleibt stets Zukunft – i suoi sviluppi futuri.