Jacques Maritain Center: Thomistic Institute

Faith, Reason, and Logic

Roger Pouivet
Université de Rennes 1
Institut de Philosophie
Avenue du Général Leclerc
F-35700 Rennes (France)

As everybody knows, Pope John-Paul II is Polish. In his encyclical, Fides et Ratio, he renews the recommendations of Pope Leon XIII in favor of Thomas Aquinas' philosophy and theology. He quotes a number of Thomists, among them Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson; but, rather curiously, the Polish Pope doesn't speak about a very interesting group of Polish Thomists, often referred to as the Cracow Circle. The fact that the philosophical background of John Paul II is mainly phenomenological constitutes only an anecdotal explanation of this omission. Probably the main reason for it is that the encyclical isn't meant to be a philosophical study, and the Pope isn't trying to give an overview of a philosophical topic to be published in an encyclopaedia; he is merely concerned to convey the doctrine of the Church. Nevertheless, I think that it may prove interesting to examine the Cracow Circle's Thomistic stand on the subject of faith and reason. I shall maintain that it reflects a serious confusion between rationality and logic, despite my view that the Cracow Circle numbered among its members several excellent, and important, philosophers.

        I will first talk briefly about the Cracow Circle, because I am not sure that it is very well known. I will then present a critique of the general project of this group, although I will be unable to enter into much detail.

        The Lvov-Warsaw School was initiated by the Polish philosopher Kazimierz Twardowski at the end of the nineteenth century. Twardowski was strongly influenced by, and was in fact a former student of, Brentano. Like many Austrian philosophers, Brentano considered it essential to study Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. Jan Lukasiewicz studied with Twardowski in Lvov. The method they developed was built around anti-irrationalism, rigorous argumentation, the formulation of precise concepts and a thorough knowledge of the history of philosophy, especially Aristotelian philosophy.

        When Poland was rebuilt after the First World War, Lukasiewicz began to teach at the university of Warsaw, where it had become possible to lecture in Polish, and not, as previously, only in Russian. Lukasiewicz transported the methodology of the Lvov Department of Philosophy to Warsaw, with an added commitment to the essential role of logic.

        The Lvov-Warsaw School was the major influence within Polish philosophy between the two world wars, and its influence persisted even after political circumstances became inimicable to philosophy. Among the distinguished philosophers of this school are Tadeusz Kotarbinski, who was closely studied by Peter Geach, and Alfred Tarski, who is perhaps the best known philosopher in this group. I think also that Quine's sojourn in Warsaw during this period had a very strong influence on his thought and that through him the ideas of the Lvov-Warsaw School were subtly osmosed into a large part of so-called analytic philosophy.

        During the thirties, a new trend developed within the Lvov-Warsaw School, due to the special influence of Lukasiewicz. Lukasiewicz was a Roman Catholic. He considered that the anti-metaphysical materialism of Carnap and the Vienna Circle had nothing to do with the application of logic to the investigation of traditional metaphysical problems. He strongly rejected the Kantian anti-realistic influence and its main consequences. Lukasiewicz' project was not the rejection of metaphysics, but its revision. In his way of applying logical methods to questions of metaphysics he was rather close to Leibniz. Of course, this is a very scholastic approach. But Lukasiewicz believed that the contemporary logic of his time provided new techniques for dealing with metaphysical problems. He encouraged the work of two young priests, Jan Salamucha and Josef Bochenski, the well-known Blackfriars, and two young logicians, strongly Catholic, Jan Drewnowski and B. Sobocinski. Together, during the Third Polish Conference of Philosophy in Cracow, held in 1936, they founded the Cracow Circle.

        In a paper entitled "Tradycja myli katolickiej a ciso" [The Tradition of Catholic Thought and Exactness], Father Bochenski said:

From the beginning, Catholic thought has been characterised by a tendency for a maximum precision. If modern formal logic has tools which, for their exactness, overcome physics and mathematics, then Catholic Philosophy should use those tools, achieving in such a way St. Thomas Aquinas, who developed his system on an axiomatic basis [1].

The program of the Cracow Circle is here clearly stated: to be Catholic philosophers in the spirit of Aquinas, but to use the modern tools given by post-Fregean logic. In a particular way, the philosophers of the Cracow Circle wanted to conjoin faith, reason and logic.

        It must be said that such a program was not welcomed by the Catholic authorities in Poland in the thirties, especially by philosophers and theologians of the Catholic universities of Lublin and of Cracow. Indeed, the program was conceived of as a virus logisticum with respect to Catholic thought. Drewnowski felt obliged to say:

The effect of that misunderstanding is, generally speaking, a very low scientific level of the contemporary philosophy elaborated by the Catholics, in comparison with the leading position in St. Thomas' times. [2]

        Jan Salamucha's paper on the ex motu proof for the existence of God provides a good example of what the members of the Cracow Circle were trying to do [3]. He formalized Aquinas' proof using quantificational logic and the theory of relations. The intent is very clear: to improve traditional proofs and to show that -- and how -- they can be expressed in the language of contemporary logic. As Thomists, the work of the Cracow Circle focused mainly on a posteriori proofs, like the ex motu proof. We may remark that the much more recent work of Alvin Plantinga on the ontological proof and the problem of evil, even if not inspired by Thomistic thought, is in very much the same spirit.

        It is easy to imagine what happened to the members of the Cracow Circle after 1939. Drewnowski and Sobocinski disappeared during the war. Salamucha, like many professors of the Jagellionian University, was killed by the Nazis. Father Bochenski fought in the Polish army. And after the war, of course, nothing like the Cracow Circle could possibly exist in Poland.

        I don't think that when John Paul II criticizes "rationalism" in his encyclical, Fides et Ratio, his target includes the kind of reconstruction of traditional proofs and arguments proposed by the members of the Cracow Circle. He is concerned rather with scientism (as described in the §88 of the encyclical) and also, I suppose, with the Hegelian- inspired idealism which seeks to transform faith and its content -- including the Mystery of the death and resurrection of the Christ -- into rationally conceivable dialectical structures (see Fides et ratio, §46). The Cracow Circle's program in the philosophy of religion clearly concerns the relation between faith and reason; but nothing indicates that Bochenski, Drewnowski or Salamucha thought that it was possible or necessary to provide a logical foundation for religious faith. Remember, they were Thomists! Ryszard Puciato said that "it is not possible to formalize the internal structure of being, because logic grasps only the external relations of being." [4] It could hardly have been the goal of the Polish analytical Thomists to formalize the internal structure of being, especially if this were to imply trying to give a formal account of the existence of God. On the contrary, they simply tried to present traditional proofs in a way that would give them greater strength. Logic, for them, was conceived as an ancilla theologiae.

        What seems to me problematic in the program of the Cracow Circle is the identification of rigor with logical formalism. My criticism is akin to that which Wittgenstein directed against the Cantorian theory of sets. Wittgenstein remarked that even if Cantor's theory provides a relevant calculus, it doesn't explain at all what the Cantorian means when he speaks about the infinite. Successful formalizations don't necessarily protect us from conceptual confusion; a calculus may work even in the presence of such confusion. For me, this means that analytical cannot be identified with formal.

        While this shouldn't deter anyone from attempting to parse traditional proofs in the best possible logical form, using contemporary tools, it implies that by "reason", in the expression "faith and reason", we have to understand something different than a simple formalization of arguments. A formal argument is never a reason to believe something. Logic says absolutely nothing about the reasons we have for believing in the truth of any proposition; and even a logical rule like modus ponens cannot force someone to accept that a given proposition follows from certain premises.

        I explained earlier that the Cracow Circle developed under the influence of the Lvov-Warsaw School, and most especially of Lukasiewicz. A central commitment of that School was the anti-psychologism initiated by Frege. It would take a long time to discuss this question fully, but I think that propositions are human intentional thoughts, and that we can therefore not subscribe to an unbounded anti-psychologism. Why must we adopt a rule like modus ponens? Logical analysis doesn't answer this. The reason why we place confidence in such rules is not that they have been proven logically, but that they are basic, entrenched instruments of our thought. In fact, even Lukasiewicz recognized that logical reasons do not provide the strongest motive for believing something; and perhaps Wittgenstein meant to indicate something of the kind when he declared that we follow a rule blindly.

        I am not here preaching anti-rationalism or fideism, whose condemnation by the Church is renewed in the encyclical (§52). I simply think that the error of the Cracow Circle was to conceive of the philosophy of religion as a field independent from philosophical psychology of the sort that can be found in the works of Aquinas and that has been taken very seriously in recent times by Anscombe, Geach, Kenny, Haldane and McInerny, among others.

        There is an act of belief: what Aquinas called consideratio. This means that to believe is not simply to think something for a good reason but also to accept it, assentire. In short, even if belief is not voluntary, there is an element of will in every belief. In faith, this element is grace, a supernatural aid (according, at least, to Aquinas; see Summa Theologiae, II-IIae, 5, 2). In a sense, an act of faith is a psychological act that must be explained as deriving causally from a divine source. This is what a purely logical examination of traditional proofs leaves aside; but it is not certain that those proofs can be rightly understood if this aspect is not taken into account. The effect of reason -- the way the proof works as an element of religious belief -- supposes an infusion of grace (as Aquinas explains in De Veritate, 14, 9, ad. 4). Or, as Geach has put it:

Credo et intelligam; without an initial venture of faith the mysteries remain permanently opaque; once that venture has been made, they more and more enlighten and strengthen the mind that contemplates them [5].

        The members of the Cracow Circle would surely have agreed concerning the role that must be played by faith. Nevertheless, the way in which they studied traditional proofs -- focusing upon their logical features independently of the way such proofs must be understood in the larger context of religious life -- lends itself to a caricature of religious belief in the existence of God. It is not clear that the way the traditional proofs work can be properly explained without reference to faith and the intervention of grace. Nicholas Wolterstorff says :

God wills that we do what we ought to do. When a theist believes nonrationally, he acts in violation of the very will of the very God in whom he believes -- unless it be the case that there are extenuating circumstances [6].

So, God wants us to believe rationally; but if rationality were to be reduced to logic, there would be no epistemological place for the virtue of faith (which is not a logical attitude), and surely God does not want that.

        This is the deep difficulty in the philosophical project of the Cracow Circle. A logical study of the traditional proofs, or of analogy, is surely a very good thing. But such a study cannot be completely detached from a broader approach, including the question of faith and its relation to reason. The rationality of belief is an epistemological subject whose treatment must include a philosophy of human spirituality; it is not matter that can be treated by purely logical means.


[1] This text has been edited by K. Michalski in Myl Katolicka wobec logiki wspczesnej [Catholic Mind in Relation to Modern Logic], published in Poznan in 1937. See also R. Puciato, "Thomism and Modern Formal Logic: Remarks on the Cracow Circle", in the Italian Journal Axiomathes 2: September 1993; also my own paper "Le thomisme analytique, à Cracovie et ailleurs", forthcoming in Revue internationale de philosophie

[2] "Neoscholasticism and the Demands of Modern Science", published in the collection edited by K. Michalski, translated into English by R. Puciato ( Axiomathes 2: September 1993).

[3] It has been edited in English by A. Kenny (ed.) in the collection Aquinas: A Collection of Critical Essays, Doubleday-Anchor Books, Garden City, NY, 1969.

[4] Op. cit., p. 183.

[5] The Virtues, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1971, p. 41.

[6] "Can Belief in God be Rational?", in A. Plantinga and N. Wolterstorff (eds.), Faith and Rationality, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, 1993, p. 156.