Jacques Maritain Center : The Range of Reason

Chapter Four


A FEW years ago an American philosopher, Doctor Eilmon Sheldon, whose high ideals and vast erudition I particularly admire, published in The Modern Schoolman{1} two articles entitled, "Can Philosophers Co-operate?" which raised interesting discussions. Doctor Sheldon would not put himself among the strictly orthodox Thomists, although he thinks of Thomism with congenial and comprehensive insight, and has long meditated on the hylomorphist doctrine{2} and the idea of substantial form. As he contemplates the tragic problems with which humanity is struggling today, he sees with sorrow that those who, specializing in philosophy, should lead men toward wisdom are separated by ever-increasing disagreement. In the two articles I have just mentioned he wonders whether this disagreement cannot be settled and whether it is truly impossible for philosophers to co-operate. And since the two currents of thought which seem particularly significant to him in the United States today are the pragmatist current, on the one hand, and the neo-Thomist current, on the other, he endeavors, with fine intellectual generosity and remarkably penetrating analyses, to show that those who represent these two currents of thought could discover, upon studying each other's systems more broad-mindedly, many points held in common, and the germs of agreement and joint progress. They would find these even when the systems seem, at first sight, absolutely opposed to each other as in the contrast, for example, between the rational demonstration dear to the Thomists and the experimental verification dear to the Pragmatists, or between the idea of process and that of immutability, or between the theory of substantial forms and the idea of evolution.

It seemed to me that an appeal as honest as that made by Doctor Sheldon deserved to be discussed in a manner just as honest and that a Thomist should really try to answer the question from his own point of view. Although in discussing Doctor Sheldon's suggestions we shall have to consider the case of pragmatism in particular, it is clear that analogous observations could and should be made (within the proper proportions, of course) concerning the other great currents of contemporary thought.


"Can philosophers co-operate?" The problem is eternal but particularly pressing today, and brings to mind one of the saddest conditions of our human, conceptual and discursive way of thinking.

To make my position clear, I would state that, in my opinion, co- operation between philosophers can ony be a conquest of the intellect over itself and the very universe of thought it has created -- a difficult and precarious conquest achieved by intellectual rigor and justice on the basis of irreducible and inevitably lasting antagonisms.

In the perspective of the inner, conceptual and logical structure of philosophical systems and, if I may put it thus, of doctrinal exchanges each system can avail itself of the others for its own sake by dismembering them, and by feeding on and assimilating what it can take from them. That is co-operation indeed, but in quite a peculiar sense!

Yet from a deeper point of view, and in the perspective of the judgment which each one passes on the other, contemplating it as a whole, as an object situated in an external sphere, and trying to do it justice, a mutual understanding is possible which cannot indeed do away with basic antagonisms, but which may create a kind of real though imperfect co-operation, to the extent that each system succeeds (i) in recognizing for the other, in a certain sense, a right to exist; (2) in availing itself of the other, no longer by intussusception, and by borrowing or digesting parts of other, but by bringing, thanks to the other, its own specific life and principles to a higher degree of achievement and extension.

In the first part of this essay, I shall consider the question of cooperation between philosophers from the first of the two points of view I have indicated, that is from the point of view of the inner structure of the systems and their possible doctrinal exchanges.

In the second part, I shall treat of the same question from the other point of view, that of the intellectual grasp which various philosophical systems can have of each other, each being taken as a whole.



Human beings, whatever may be the error under which they labor, have a right to exist. But philosophical doctrines are not human beings; their internal truth is their only right to intelligible existence, recognized by the mind, in the immaterial realm of thought. co-operation between philosophers as men, in the human field, takes place as a matter of course. But the issue we are discussing deals with co-operation between philosophers as philosophers, or between philosophies.

In the perspective of that tissue of elaborate concepts, assertions, and negations which constitutes the inner structure of a system, woe to the system which overlooks the many "valid insights, fresh though partial visions of the truth" (to quote Doctor Gerald Phelan) which the other systems bring forth or with which they are pregnant! Yet the system in question would not be a philosophical system if, in recognizing and taking care of these insights and visions, it did not, at the same time, endeavor to encompass them in its own way of conceptualizing reality -- which naturally does not answer the purpose of the systems involved.

Rational Proof and Pragmatic Verification

For example, when we base ourselves on sound Thomistic doctrine, what are we to think of the Pragmatist tenet that the knowledge of the existence of God requires experimental verification? (For the Pragmatist this is not only required but should take the place of a rational demonstration.) Can we allow, if not the pragmatist tenet itself, then at least the idea of an experimental verification of the proofs of the existence of God?

Scholasticism can assuredly admit that "experimental verification" of the philosophical proofs of God's existence is "indispensable." But in what sense? First, it seems to me, in the sense that the philosophical knowledge of God must tend to that higher knowledge in which divine reality is "known as unknown" and more experienced than known, and which is peculiar to contemplative "mystical" wisdom (here we are far removed from Pragmatic verification). And secondly (here we come nearer to Pragmatic verification), in the sense that either the testimony of the great mystics and the religious experience of mankind (such as examined by Henri Bergson or William James) or the deepest requirements of human action and the psychological and moral attitudes proper to a balanced and integrated personality -- once we have become aware of them -- pave the way for the rational demonstration of God's existence, remove obstacles, and also strengthen, not, to be sure, the internal validity of the proof, but the inner unity, harmony, and security, and consequently the power of adhesion of the whole man grasping the intellectual demonstration.

But the Scholastic will immediately insist that all this process of "Pragmatic verification" is but an external preparation for, or an external confirmation of, the philosophical task itself. It involves the intellect and the will, as Doctor Sheldon rightly points out, whereas metaphysics is a merely speculative and intellectual knowledge, and whereas its purity, rigor and mobility require that no interference of the will and the affective powers should cast the slightest shadow of subjectivity over the intelligible necessities with which the metaphysical insight deals. Thus the Scholastic will use the Pragmatist's discoveries in order to compensate for and remedy the negligence which, through routine, laziness or lack of attention, he had evinced toward a certain set of experimental truths; but in so doing he will completely recast the meaning which the Pragmatist has given to these truths; for he will put them outside the field with which speculative philosophy is concerned -- that is, in the case of our philosophical knowledge of God's existence, outside the field of metaphysics; and, on the other hand, he will still feel that, when the intellectual instrument and the habit of reason are denied the power or possibility of grasping the existence of the Cause of being, both God and the Intellect are offended.

Process and Immutability

Likewise, when it is a question of the idea of process, which the Pragmatist deems co-existential with that of reality, whereas the Scholastic sees divine reality as immutable, the Scholastic gladly welcomes the subtle and profound analysis through which a metaphysician like Doctor Sheldon emphasizes the instantaneous character of the act of understanding (which is the terminus of a time process) to make us realize the notion of the timeless and immutable, and perceive the supremely active and life-filled character of the immutability of God. He is even prepared to describe, in our human words, divine eternity as an instant which lasts, and to say that God is an intellectual flash eternally subsisting. And he will, for that very reason, definitely reject the word "static," a quite inappropriate term to designate the timeless, which in his opinion has an eminently dynamic density.

But when it comes to the inner and essential meaning of concepts, he will consider that any definition of the timeless as a time process infinitely swift, and of eternity as a time infinitely concentrated, is perhaps a helpful and somewhat illuminating but metaphoric or equivocal expression, and therefore a pseudo-definition. for the passage "into a higher dimension" which Doctor Sheldon correctly mentions here, means, in reality, that between the immutable and the mutable, particularly between eternity and time, there is an insuperable difference of nature or essence; so that the notion of "process" is, like that of "duration," an essentially analogical notion. This notion of process could perhaps be applied to the infinite perfection and aseity of God, Who is Life subsisting, Intellection subsisting and Love subsisting (do not the theologians use the word "procession" with regard to the divine Trinity?); but the notion of process could be so applied only in an analogical sense and on condition that it lose any connotation of time, and designate only act, and pure act. Similarly, time is a kind of duration -- the duration of the mutable; and eternity is a kind of duration -- the duration of the immutable; but not a shadow of univocal community, only an analogical community of meaning is here involved.

This point is not denied, nor is it emphasized, in Doctor Sheldon's reflections on the matter. I am aware that these reflections, which are to my mind an especially remarkable piece of philosophy, may have a persuasive appeal for many modern thinkers -- both the experiential- minded and the lovers of metaphysics. Bergson would have been delighted with them. I remember a conversation I had with him a long time ago, long before he wrote Les Deux Sources. He made clear to me the difficulties that he met with in the traditional -- so-called "static" -- concept of divine immutability; and the solution he outlined at that time was exactly of the nature of the one suggested by Doctor Sheldon. Later on, however, he was not to insist upon this solution. Moreover, as a matter of fact, he had nothing of the Pragmatist. Taking into account the observations offered above, I am honestly afraid that, were a Pragmatist philosopher able to agree with Doctor Sheldon's views without fear of risking what Professor John Dewey's disciples so amiably term{3} a "failure of nerve," his agreement would, in the last analysis, rest upon an involuntary equivocation.

Substantial Forms and Evolution

With regard to the third specific issue -- substantial forms and finality -- we may wonder whether any vindication of substance, substantial form and finality, however persuasive in itself it may be, can really convince a Pragmatist thinker. For the latter is indeed disposed to admit that we have signposts "telling us what behavior we may expect of things" and "enabling us to adjust successfully to the things that behave." But precisely the "behavior" that substance and substantial form lead us to expect and enable us to adjust ourselves to, is, if I may say so, the intelligible behavior, the very intelligibility of things insofar as their reality is analyzed in terms of being and resolved into the root intelligibility of being; whereas the behavior to which the Pragmatist philosopher is eager to adjust himself is the sense-perceivable behavior of things analyzed in terms of becoming and inter-activity, and resolved in the observability and measurability of "scientific" phenomena.

In the same way, finality, as Doctor Sheldon rightly observes, is the primary reason for becoming, and the deepest stimulus in the drama of the universal process, but I doubt whether we can realize this if we philosophize on the level of the empirico-mathematical explanation of phenomena and not on the level of metaphysics' abstractive intuition. And finality implies that the process tends toward an "end," toward a point where there is no longer any motion, but only repose and possession, so that the universal process and dynamism which permeates the cosmos and which carries along, so to speak, each agent beyond its own particular ends, making creation groan after its accomplishment, has its ultimate reason in the transcendent finality by virtue of which He Who is the self-subsisting Being is desired and loved by every being more than itself. Would such a view be acceptable to Pragmatist philosophy?

On the other hand, whereas I believe that it is perfectly right to emphasize the need for Thomistic philosophy, in the various phases of its conceptualization, to give greater scope to the general idea of dynamism and evolution -- the real conquest of modern thought -- and to deepen in this connection the traditional notion of substantial form, I think, nevertheless, that such statements should be further developed in order to remain true.

Substance is not a static inert substratum; it is the first root of a thing's activities and, while remaining the same as to its substantial being, it ceaselessly acts and changes -- through its accidents, which are an expansion of itself into another, non-substantial, dimension of being. But as substance it does not change. As long as a material substance is not "corrupted" and transformed into another, it is immutable in its metaphysical -- merely intelligible and non- experiential -- reality of substance. Man's nature, while keeping its fixed specific determination, owing to a substantial form which is spiritual and subsisting, is, of course, capable of an endless increase of knowledge and intellectual achievement -- this is the privilege of reason. But the root power and natural strength of the human intellect are not able to go beyond the capacities of reason and to pass into the degree of intellectuality of the least of the angels.

I am convinced that the hylomorphic theory involves no incompatibility with the discoveries of modern physics; and the suggestion that "the Scholastic should lay more stress on recent physics and less on chemistry" seems to me highly commendable. Surely, as Doctor Sheldon writes, "it would present his Thomistic cosmology in a fairer light, bringing out its power of adaptation and progressive character." Nevertheless, I should like to point out that it would be illusory to seek a verification of the hylomorphic theory in modern physics, for the one and the other are at work on different levels of thought, and the entities constructed by the physico-mathematical explanation of matter involve a great deal of symbolization: they sound like entia rationis grounded in the nature of things rather than like ontological realities.

Finally, as concerns evolution, I believe that the evolutive process of nature and the notion of substantial form can and must be reconciled. Yet Doctor Sheldon put his finger on the crucial point when he wrote: "The difficulty is to see how, if a substantial form is fixed and definite, it can contain a principle that allows for its own transformation, not merely into another substantial form, but into a greater one." This difficulty is a logical impossibility indeed; no substantial form can be transformed into another; when a substantial change occurs, the new substantial form is drawn out ("educed") the potentiality of matter according to the ultimate root dispositions introduced in matter by the physical agents which modify atomic structure and cause the transmutation of an element, or, in the case of compounds, by the activities of the very substances which are in the process of "corruption," and which will cease to exist at the instant in which the new substance comes into being.

The new substance can be more "perfect" -- imply a higher degree of integration and individuality -- in the ontological scale of physical nature, not only because matter (prime matter) "aspires" to the full actualization of all the forms it contains potentially, but because the new more perfect" substance results from an atomic redistribution which, in its capacity of an "ultimate disposition," requires the "eduction" of a higher form, or because, in the case of compounds, this new "more perfect" substance is the integration, in a new formal and subsisting unity, of the activities brought about in matter by the antecedent substances which "generate" it at the instant when they destroy each other (and whose forms remain virtually in the new substantial form then educed). This also presupposes that the entire cosmos and the interaction of all its energies co-operate in the production of the new substance, that is, in the "eduction" of the new substantial form.

Now, when it comes to the biological realm, a new problem arises; new living organism has of necessity the same specific substantial form as the organism or organisms from which it proceeds. How then, is biological evolution to be conceived in terms of substantial forms? I think there are two possible ways of explaining it. First of all, species (the ontological species, not the taxonomic species dealt with in botany, zoology or genetics) could be understood in a more dynamic as well as in a more extensive manner. When I say "a more extensive manner," I mean that such large groups as those which classification terms families, orders, etc., should perhaps be considered as belonging to one and the same ontological species. When I say "a more dynamic manner," I mean that the substantial form, in the realm of life, could be considered as protruding, in its virtualities, beyond the capacities of the matter it informs in given conditions, like, for example, an architectural style or poetic idea which we might imagine as thrown into matter and working it by itself. In short the substantial form would then be viewed as an ontological impulse realizing itself in various patterns along the line of a certain phylum. Yet such evolution could, of course, only take place within the limits of the phylum or the ontological species in question.

Secondly, concerning the hypothetical origin of the various phylums themselves, if now we take into account the transcendent action of the First Cause, we may obviously conceive that (particularly in those formative ages when the world was in the state of its greatest plasticity, and when the divine influx was penetrating nature and completing the work of creation) that existence-giving influx of God, passing through created beings and using them as instrumental causes, was able -- and is still able -- to heighten the vital energies which proceed from the form in the organism it animates, so as to produce within matter, I mean within the germ-cells, dispositions beyond the limits of that organism's specificity. As a result, at the moment of generation a new substantial form, specifically "greater" or more elevated in being, would be educed from the potentiality of matter thus more perfectly disposed.

These much-too-summary considerations may give perhaps some idea of the manner in which the fact of evolution (leaving aside what concerns the origin of man which entails quite different problems){4} is to be integrated into Scholastic philosophy. Would such a way of thinking have a meaning from the Pragmatist point of view? That is another question.

Pragmatism and Thomism

I have tried to stress the difficulties a Thomist may find in any effort, however fine its inspiration, toward a conciliation with Pragmatism based on a kind of mutual adjustment and exchange of ideas. I am not qualified to represent the Pragmatist outlook. I am, however, inclined to surmise that a Pragmatist would probably have similar difficulties to point out from his own perspective.

In the last analysis we are confronted here with a metaphysical opposition which is more basic and more comprehensive than any partial agreement. At the root of Thomistic philosophy lies the affirmation of the primacy of being over becoming. At the root of Pragmatist philosophy (as of Hegelian philosophy -- despite the historic struggle of Pragmatism against Hegelianism, they have some common grounds, particularly perceivable in John Dewey's Pragmatism) lies the affirmation of the primacy of becoming over being. We could express this opposition in another way, by stating that the crucial place which is occupied in Thomism by truth, is occupied in Pragmatism by verification.

I am not forgetting, of course, that the Pragmatist makes use of the notion of truth -- particularly in the usual sense of everyday life -- and so does the Thomist with the notion of verification. But as a primarily significant philosophical concept, Truth is for the one, Verification for the other, that concept on which all the rest depends. In the eyes of the Thomist, verification is only a way and a means of grasping truth. And when the intellect has made itself true, the truth thus attained possesses objective consistency because it is the vital conformity of the intellect with what exists (actually or possibly) independently of the mind; and, however humble it may be, this truth is an end in which the intellect comes to fruition and has its perfection, rest, and joy. Every truth, even dealing with the most fleeting event, has something of the immutable (a butterfly touches a rose and then flies away -- at least it will remain eternally true that it touched the flower at that given moment); and the truths which deal with the inner necessities of essences are immutable by their very object. To enjoy truth, without further ado, is the very life of the intellect qua intellect, and the aim of science qua science as well as that of metaphysical wisdom. Whereas the Thomist emphasizes in this way the contemplative import of knowledge, the Pragmatist distrusts it as a "static" illusion, opposed to the reality of intellectual life which is only becoming and laboring. This quarrel between Being and Becoming, and between Truth and Verification, reveals a deep-seated antagonism that the best efforts cannot overcome. That is why, however praiseworthy may be the attempts toward conciliation on this or that particular point, one cannot escape feeling that "cooperation" as a whole is in an extremely precarious position.



I come now to the second part of this inquiry. I should like to consider the problem of philosophical co-operation from a more profound point of view.

And first let us remark that, if we were able to realize, in a higher light, that most often our mutually opposed affirmations do not bear on the same parts of aspects of the real and that they are of greater value than our mutual negations, then we should come nearer the first prerequisite of a genuinely philosophical understanding; that is, we should become better able to transcend and conquer our own system of signs and conceptual language, and to take on for a moment, in a provisional and tentative manner, the thought and approach of the other so as to come back, with this intelligible booty, to our own philosophical conceptualization and to our own system of reference.

Following this line of thought and endeavoring to satisfy the demands of intellectual justice up to the very end, we come upon a new and deeper aspect of the problem: "Can philosophers cooperate?" Then, we are no longer concerned with analyzing or sorting the set of assertions peculiar to various systems in spreading them out, so to speak, on a single surface or level in order to examine what conciliation or exchange of ideas they may mutually allow in their inner structure. But we are concerned with taking into account a third dimension, in order to examine the manner in which each system, considered as a specific whole, can, according to its own frame of reference, do justice to the other in taking a view of it and seeking to penetrate it as an object situated on the outside -- in another sphere of thought.

From this new standpoint, two considerations would appear all- important: the one is the consideration of the central intuition which lies at the core of each great philosophical doctrine; the other is the consideration of the place which each system could, according to its own frame of reference, grant the other system as the legitimate place the latter is cut out to occupy in the universe of thought.

Actually, each great philosophical doctrine lives on a central intuition which can be wrongly conceptualized and translated into a system of assertions and negations seriously deficient or erroneous as such, but which, insofar as it is intellectual intuition, truly gets hold of some aspect of the real. And, consequently, each great philosophical doctrine, once it has been grasped in its central intuition, and then re-interpreted in the frame of reference of another doctrine (in a manner that it would surely not accept), should be granted from the point of view of this other doctrine some place considered as legitimately occupied, be it in some imaginary space. If we try to do justice to the philosophical systems against which we take our most determined stand, we shall seek to discover both that intuition which they involve and that place we must grant them from our own point of view. And then we shall benefit from them, not by borrowing from them or exchanging with them certain particular views and ideas, but by seeing, thanks to them, more profoundly into our own doctrine, by enriching it from within and extending its principles to new fields of inquiry which have been brought more forcefully to our attention, but which we shall make all the more vitally and powerfully informed by these principles.

Pragmatism as Viewed and Re-interpreted By a Thomist

What is the view that a Thomist, under these circumstances, might take of Pragmatism? If I may summarize in a few brief statements some considerations which would require further development, I would say tentatively that in my opinion the central intuition which lies at the core of Pragmatism is the intuition of the reality of time and becoming as immanent to experience and to the human conditioning of the effort of the understanding. And as regards the place in which, according to the Thomistic system of reference, both the inspiration and the specific principles of Pragmatist philosophy would receive, once duly transposed, a legitimate meaning, I would suggest that for a Thomist, Pragmatist philosophy is to be placed neither at the level of metaphysics nor at the level of the philosophy of nature, but at the level of ethics and moral philosophy. I do not mean that in doing so we would consider Pragmatism as offering us a particular system of morality which would be true in the Thomistic perspective -- I am far from thinking that. I mean that Pragmatism embraces the whole extent of the philosophical subject matter, and especially the process of knowledge, from the practical outlook which is peculiar to ethics, the knowledge of human acts.

Here we have the conditions under which in the Thomistic perspective the Pragmatist notion of truth and verification might have its case; for according to the views of Scholasticism, at the final point of the practical or moral order, truth (which then pertains no longer to "science," but to the virtue of "prudence") is deprived of all speculative and contemplative import and becomes thoroughly experiential, not theoretical; in other words, truth is now the adjustment to what is to be done, to fully integrate action; it implies the joint activity of the will and the intellect, and is to be looked at, not as the conformity of the mind with what exists, but as the conformity of the mind with the right tendency to action, "with the right appetite," as Cajetan put it.

Similarly, and to take another example, there is in the ethical field an approach to God which is not theoretical but practical, and does not deal with the proofs of reason, but is immersed in moral experience, if it be true that a man really chooses God as his ultimate end when in an occasion where his act of free will is deep enough to have the value of a first beginning in his moral life, he chooses to do a certain good action because it is good and for the sake of the good alone, and thus makes his whole moral activity appendent to bonum honestum.

At that moment, although this man can have no thought of God in a conceptual manner, he nevertheless knows God in a merely practical manner, by virtue of the implications involved in the dynamism of the moral act. And such a strictly moral and vital knowledge of the supreme Good is, so to speak, an elemental, remote and implicit experience, which, by meeting, and being enlightened by, the illuminations of reason and faith, may develop into higher experiential knowledge -- the peak of which is the genuine, grace-given and supernatural experience of divine life, such as is attained in mystical contemplation. I realize that these considerations would need deeper and more explicit discussion; I propose them only to suggest how the Thomist, in his own thoroughly non-Pragmatist manner, might satisfy, in transferring them to their right place, the inspiration and basic views which the Pragmatist holds dear.

By the same token, he might himself become more aware of the potentialities of his own doctrine as well as of the improvements and wider scope he could afford for the application of his own principles. He might, for instance, feel attracted to exploring more completely the field of moral philosophy regarding those implications of the dynamism of the moral act, which I just pointed out. Or else, by considering the Pragmatist's epistemological analysis and the impact of the historical and social environment and the human practical concerns upon the formation of our philosophical notions, the Thomist might endeavor more carefully and systematically to rid his speculative concepts, especially the primary metaphysical concepts, of the extraneous elements which are part of the complex human heritage carried along by language, and to make these concepts more perfectly free of any streak of subjectivity or relativity, by establishing them in a more critically elaborated manner.

Thomism as Viewed and Re-interpreted by a Pragmatist

Should I now try to play the part of a Pragmatist philosopher? I feel neither authorized to do so, nor hopeful of success. Let us attempt, nevertheless, to imagine how a Pragmatist, supposing he accepted the methodological approach we are now examining, would take a view of Thomism according to his own frame of reference and in order -- to the best of his abilities -- to do intellectual justice to Thomism. As a Thomist I feel that I may, without appearing presumptuous, safely say that I have some idea of the central intuition which is at the core of Thomistic philosophy and on which it lives. It is the intuition of the basic intelligible reality of being, as analogically permeating everything knowable; and especially the intuition of existence, as the act of every act and the perfection of every perfection. This intuition has no place in the Pragmatist's universe of thought (which is, I daresay, less hospitable than the Thomist's). If, however, the Pragmatist tries to recognize the value of this intuition, or rather to find in his own perspective something equivalent to it, I imagine he would say, more or less in the following terms, that for him the central intuition of Thomistic philosophy is that of the architectural power, inner coherence and all-pervading logical rigor of reason. That would in any case be more fair than seeking in Thomism, as do certain Pragmatists I have known, the ghost of authoritarianism and the Inquisition.

And as regards the place in which, according to the Pragmatist frame of reference, both the inspiration and the specific principles of Thomistic philosophy would receive, even duly transposed, a legitimate meaning, I am aware that such a place does not exist in the Pragmatist's universe of thought. But it might exist for him outside this universe, in an imaginary space, after the fashion of an as if, or of the intelligible world of Reason in Kant's philosophy. I would therefore imagine that, just as the Thomist tells the Pragmatist: "Your philosophy is not a philosophy, but a philosophy viewed in the distorting mirror of a merely ethical outlook," so the Pragmatist -- in no less gracious terms -- would tell the Thomist: "Your philosophy is not a philosophy, but a system of Plato-like intelligible myths, a mythology of reason which transposes reality into terms of rationally organized patterns. These would have a legitimate meaning in an imaginary world, if the abstractive power of the human mind were also an intuitive power; and if the intellect were able to perceive essences, nature and ontological structures in and through the data of sense-experience."

Yet the very possibility of such a system of rational myths (to use the language he would probably use) raises, it seems to me, many problems for the Pragmatist from his own point of view. For this system of rational myths is coherent in itself, and by means of its own lexicon of signs it is able to propose a synthesis in which all degrees of human knowledge, and especially modern physics and experimental knowledge of nature, find a justification, and many apperceptions dear to the Pragmatist are saved, though interpreted according to another frame of reference. How is this possible? And would not some deeper inquiry as to the instrumental value of abstraction and reason appear here as suitable? By trying to take a real view of Thomistic philosophy and to do it justice from his own point of view, the Pragmatist would certainly enlarge the boundaries of his own system, enrich it from within, and discover new potentialities in his own principles, by striving to find, in particular, how he could better interpret and save the function and power of abstract thought.


I have tried to indicate what I consider to be the inner difficulties, the limitations and also the least ambiguous possibilities of philosophical co-operation.

Perhaps, in the last analysis, we shall have an idea that this word "co-operation" is perhaps a bit too ambitious. All that can be said on the question can be summed up in the philosophical duty of understanding another's thought in a genuine and fair manner, and of dealing with it with intellectual justice. This already is difficult -- and is sufficient, if only we are aware that there cannot be intellectual justice without the assistance of intellectual charity. If we do not love the thought and intellect of another as intellect and thought, how shall we take pains to discover what truths are conveyed by it while it seems to us defective or misguided, and at the same time to free these truths from the errors which prey upon them and to reinstate them in an entirely true systematization? For intellectual justice is due to our fellow-philosophers, but first of all to truth.

In other words, what essentially matters is to have respect for the intellect, even if, in its endeavors, it appears to us as missing the point, and to be attentive to disentangling and setting free every seed of truth, wherever it may be. Thus, philosophers should be capable, if not of co-operating, at least of understanding each other and practicing justice toward each other in the field of philosophy itself.

The Hegelian Dialectics

Since these reflections were occasioned by Doctor Sheldon's attempt to reconcile Pragmatism and Thomism, I have referred to Pragmatism as a typical example when I discussed, from my viewpoint as a Thomist, the questions relative to philosophical co-operation and the effort at intellectual justice which must be accomplished among philosophers. It is clear that the same considerations would apply in the case of other systems.

For instance, what about the Hegelian dialectics? We shall not try to re-invent history, philosophy or religion in the perspective and through the procedures of the Hegelian dialectics. We prefer to leave such exercises to minds, I shall not say bolder or more flexible, but rather to minds more timid and more naïve.

But we shall ask ourselves from what central intuition the Hegelian dialectic derives its life. And we shall not be far wrong, it seems to me, if we answer that this central intuition is that of reality as history; for history as such, which, like time, cannot complete its being without the mind and the memory, offers to our consideration the development of ideas or logical loads incarnate in time; and it is true, as a matter of fact, that each of these "historical" ideas, which is a form immanent in time, can only reach its own final accomplishment -- in time -- by provoking its contrary and denying itself, because its very triumph exhausts the potentialities which summoned it and by the same stroke unmasks and provokes, in the abyss of the real, the contrary potentialities.

But reality is not only nor primarily history. Before the Hegelian "idea" or the idea as form of the historical development (which is an accidental or secondary form), there is the Aristotelian "idea," the act, the substantial or primary form of reality as being. The error has been to mistake the form which is immersed in time as an immanent germ loaded with potentialities of historical development, for the form through which the reality of things is constituted; and, to tell the truth, it is in the hylomorphic doctrine that the interpretation and conceptualization of the intuition of which we are speaking should have been sought.

We shall also ask ourselves in what place Hegelianism, duly transposed and re-interpreted, should be situated, according to the Thomistic frame of reference, in order to be given a legitimate significance. It is obvious that the philosophy of history, not metaphysics, will then appear to us the natural locus of Hegelian thought.


To take another example, shall we consider what is today called Existentialism? I believe that the central intuition on which the Existentialism of Kierkegaard lived was, in the last analysis, the very same which is at the core of Thomism: the intuition of the absolutely unique value and primacy of existence, existentia ut exercita; but then this intuition arose in the midst of an anguished faith, stripped of its intelligible or super-intelligible organism, a faith which desperately awaited miracle and refused the mystical possession after which it thirsted, and was born of a radically irrationalist thought which, rejecting and sacrificing essences, fell back upon the night of subjectivity. And I believe that the central intuition on which contemporary Existentialism lives, or dies, is the negative aspect of that Kirkegaardian intuition, henceforth emptied of the faith which once animated it -- I mean the intuition of the absolute Nothingness of the creature, henceforth without a Creator, and the radical absurdity of existence uprooted from God.

Is there a place or situation where these two kinds of Existentialism can find a legitimate significance? Doubtless there is. For the first it would be the mystical experience of apophatic theology in which God is known as unknown and which Existentialist philosophy misconstrues, pilfering it all the while from the saints. For the second kind of Existentialism it would be the mystical knowledge of Hell.

To be thorough, we should finally ask ourselves what kind of an idea a Hegelian philosopher and an Existentialist philosopher, if they, for their part, made a like effort to be intellectually just, could form of the central intuition of Thomism, and in what place, according to their own frame of reference, they would put Thomism in order to give it a legitimate significance. But the question would be naive, for it seems to be of the essence of Hegelian and Existentialist thought to be unconcerned, with regard to other forms of thought, with any attempt at intellectual justice but simply to consider outgrown and invalidated by time any endeavor of the human mind which, being born in time, claims nevertheless to rise above time.



If I were to follow my line of thought to its last end, I should say, and not without a certain feeling of melancholy, that only two disciplines of knowledge are truly and actually capable of intellectual justice, namely, either mere history of ideas (because it is not a philosophy and has no doctrine), or Thomist realism (because it is a doctrine which is possessed both of love and zeal for being and of the sense of analogy). That is why it is sad to contemplate on the one hand, the behavior of those Christians who deem that they must turn away from this philosophy and ignore or despise it in order to do justice to modern philosophical systems; and, on the other hand, the behavior of those among the disciples of this philosophy who wrong its infinite capacity for understanding and use the formulas they have been taught in order to save themselves from regarding the thought of others, and to criticize it all the more peremptorily because they expect it to display only error. The universe of intelligible objects, to which first and foremost we owe our loyalty, is not that universe of verbal conclusions which serve all too often as material blinders which keep a man from gazing into the eyes of other men. It is the universe of reality itself, made intelligible in act and objectivized before the mind, and that universe is transparent, not opaque. From the perceived object, and through the perceived object, it leads to that other reality which is the thought that also seeks to grasp it, albeit perhaps clumsily, and which must in its turn be made intelligible in act and objectivized before the mind, and respected in its depths.

If the notion of objectivity is thus taken in its real meaning, as including existing reality and even that of the subjects which seek to grasp it, it must be said that the more a philosophy possesses objective value and derives its life from the object, the more it has the sense of intellectual justice. And the more a philosophy discards the object in order to seek itself in the folds of subjectivity --a subjectivity entrenched within the individuality of the ego, instead of being spiritualized and universalized by its communication with objective being -- the more it loses the sense of intellectual justice.

Today all intellectual objectivity seems to be concentrated in the realm of science where, moreover, an admirable co-operation of minds can be seen. But in the realm of philosophy contemporary thought is most often, and increasingly, subjective and introverted.

And yet we may observe that rarely has so much intellectual talent been spent, rarely have so many truths -- not only so many errors, but also so many truths -- been circulated. Truths are running rampant. We meet them in every corner of our daily newspapers and weekly magazines, and in the speeches of our politicians. People are even beginning to notice that the world is perishable, and that science without wisdom is of no use to men. But the ordinary intellect hardly profits from this swarm of truths; it takes them in one on top of the other, along with the mass of errors which are also running rampant -- a blotter soaking up everything without discrimination.

This means that setting forth and elaborating philosophically even the best-established truths is to little purpose if intellects are not purified, but instead remain intoxicated by the poisons which afflict the world. How can clear vision be expected of ailing eyes? How can a debilitated organism be expected to sort out the queer mixture it receives as food, and to assimilate what is healthy and burn what is poisoned?

As to the work of Christian thought, it thus happens that to many contemporary minds the meat furnished by the philosophy in which that thought reaches its highest fulfillment and greatest vigor, I mean Thomistic philosophy, appears as too strong a food. One solution consists in diluting or more or less adulterating the food itself, and in discarding articulate knowledge and its too rigorous disciplines. An argument in favor of this solution is the pressing need we feel to go to our neighbor's help. But in reality, I am afraid, this solution would serve both to weaken and diminish the verities, and to prolong or aggravate the attack of pernicious anemia which the powers of the subject are now undergoing.

The true solution would require that one succeed in strengthening these powers from within, in restoring the taste for truth within the minds of men, and in purifying and refreshing the sight of their eyes. Finally, in order to achieve these ends -- and this is the point I want to make -- there is only one remedy: to re-awaken in the world a sense of, and esteem for, contemplation. The world is prey to a great thirst, an immense mystical yearning which does not even know itself and which, because it remains without objective, turns to despair or neurosis. The prognosis is hardly favorable if we refuse to have recourse to what was recently described as "the only method which has proved its worth when it is a question of transforming man." This was written by Aldous Huxley, who does not understand much about Catholic dogma, but whose testimony is important and significant.

For my part, after having travelled along the ways of the world and after coming to know many countries, I am persuaded that if the perennial philosophy is to act again upon culture and humanity and to bear fruit in civilization, instead of becoming enclosed within the limits of a school where it would be content merely transmit to a few rare minds the heritage of a wisdom grown perforce esoteric, the essential condition required for this change is that the environment within which this philosophy labors be itself purified by a rising of the contemplative life-force.

I do not only mean that those who are nourished on the doctrine of the Angelic Doctor should follow his example and quicken intellectual study by love for contemplative wisdom. I also mean that there should be established everywhere, on a larger scale, centers of spiritual life where the practical science of the contemplative ways and the lessons taught by the saints could be studied (in themselves and also in their relation to poetry and knowledge, to works of culture and to everyday morality). There this multitude of thinking beings of every background and every denomination (including also philosophers and those who read their writings) whose hearts are troubled by a secret aspiration could be helped to rise above the life of the senses and to receive a spark of that fire which used to consume the heroes of the spirit. It is a fact that great contemplatives are rare. But, from the viewpoint of what might be termed the sociology of the intellect, the important thing for the health of the world as well as for the health of philosophy (which of itself pertains to the world), is above all that the authentic scale of values be recognized, and that, even at the price of much "trial and error," the average level of man's spiritual experience be sufficiently raised.

Then the intellect would be able to cast off many of the toxins which today dim its sight. I am well aware that the subject's good dispositions are not enough, and that purity of vision is not enough to make men discern truth: it is also necessary for the object to be set forth in its true light. But, at least truth would be loved, words would no longer be perverted, and a minimum of common language would once more be possible.

And, to get back to the subject of this essay, the sense of intellectual justice would grow stronger among the philosophers; and, in the very midst of doctrinal conflicts, it would be possible to see the development of a certain philosophical co-operation like that which I have tried to describe, instead of the deaf-men's quarrels in which philosophical discussions consist today.

{1} January and March, 1944.

{2} That is, the Aristotelian conception of material being as composed of prime matter (with absolutely no determination of its own) and substantial form or entelechy.

{3} "A New Failure of Nerves." Partisan Review, January and February. 1943 (concerning the renewed interest in Thomism in the United States).

{4} The profound ontological break in continuity introduced, beneath the apparent continuity with which science deals, by the advent of a spiritual soul which can come to exist only as immediately created by God, presupposes not only the above-mentioned action of the creative influx, the principal agent of evolution, passing through nature, but also a special intervention of God to create a spirit, a soul "in His own image" which is the entelechy of a new living species, and by virtue of which the body of the first human being also represents, metaphysically speaking, an absolute beginning, and has God alone as its engendering cause and Father, even if the body in question resulted from the infusion of a human soul into a pre-ordained animal cell -- which, by the very fact of the infusion was changed in its very essence, to the point of being contra-distinguished to the whole animal realm.

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