Why Philosophy Matters
Reviewing God, Philosophy, Universities by Alasdair MacIntyre, which was first published in paperback last year, is a little like writing a summary of a summary. But it is an important summary. Subtitled “A Selective History of the Catholic Philosophical Tradition”, the book teaches us something fundamental about the nature of philosophy, the importance of God to philosophy, and the importance of both to how we study the universe (that is, to the university).
The work first appeared in hardback in 2009. Three years is not too great a distance, as it will take MacIntyre’s thesis a good while to seep into the general Catholic (and hopefully non-Catholic) consciousness. What is most important about the book is its almost breathtaking conception of philosophical development from the ancient world to the present in light of an important threefold thesis:
- God is the key to the unity of the universe and the nature and destiny of man within that universe;
- Philosophy is for asking and answering the most fundamental human questions and for organizing all of the human sciences in the service of a cohesive and holistic vision of man in the universe;
- The university, where all human disciplines should find their highest expression, must recover a proper respect and role for philosophy if it is to be anything more than a grab-bag of disparate self-fulfilling professional concerns.
The narrative is astonishing because of the obvious depth of the author’s philosophical knowledge combined with his remarkable ability to highlight the key developments which both make his thesis clear and prove its truth, all in language which any interested layman can understand. To cover the development of philosophy over a period of two and a half millennia is necessarily an exercise in selection and summary. To emerge with more than a travelogue is an extraordinarily valuable accomplishment.
Now, to proceed to the summary of the summary, here are the main lines of MacIntyre’s narrative:
The Rise of the Catholic Philosophical Tradition
Philosophy begins in the classical world with the effort to rationally explore and answer the key questions of human existence. What is man? What constitutes a good life? What are the ultimate ends of human life? What is virtue? What enhances or interferes with progress toward our true ends?
But classical philosophy develops to its highest point in those philosophers who recognize God, and tends to fragment in those who do not. After the rise of Christianity, the philosophical insights of such geniuses as Plato and, later, Aristotle are picked up and put in a deeper and more fruitful perspective with the assistance of the Christian certainties about God, which serve as a sort of guide and corrective to philosophical investigation. Thus the Catholic philosophical tradition begins to develop within a theological framework provided by the Church Fathers, in particular St. Augustine.
Gradually universities arise in the medieval world, centers of learning in which various particular human disciplines are brought together under the unifying vision provided by theology and philosophy. Philosophy flourishes in the work of many seminal Catholic thinkers, most notably St. Thomas Aquinas and his Catholic critics. There is a long and fruitful period of philosophical development, featuring many contentious issues, all within that theological framework by which the Church provides unity and direction to the philosophical enterprise. Thus the certainties of Revelation ensure that Catholic philosophers retain a certain fruitful focus, a focus which prevents them from inadvertently straying too far from the essential unity of the key questions which man asks about himself and his destiny.
But under the stresses of the classical revival of the Renaissance, the religious quarrels of the Reformation, the cultural relativism of the age of discovery, and new interests in natural science, Europe drifts into a long period of secularization. As a result, once again the unity of philosophical inquiry tends to break down.
The Tradition Stumbles and Revives
Some philosophers begin to separate mind from body in ways which distort human nature and which over-emphasize the reality (or non-reality) of what goes on in the mind. At the same time, the idea of a unifying soul erodes. Increasingly philosophers have trouble coming to grips with the spiritual and relating it to what the newer sciences can observe and know. Many, having come to a decision against God, seek to develop systems of empiricism which seem to do away with the need for Divine causation and sustenance. The different human sciences promise great material success and develop rapidly. The vision of man becomes fragmented; the question of human meaning tends to be ignored or denied.
The nature and purpose of the university becomes fragmented in the same way until the university evolves into a modern research institution, in which each discipline perpetuates itself through deep but exceedingly narrow research, with little or no regard for that unity of the universe and of man which alone enables all disciplines to contribute to a larger and more comprehensive set of truths. Theology is driven out of the university, and philosophy is marginalized. Catholic philosophical work is confined to religious institutions, and tends for a time not to engage the issues raised by secular philosophers.
Toward the end of the 19th century, Pope Leo XIII (a philosopher) calls for a revival of Thomism in the encyclical Aeterni Patris (On the Restoration of Christian Philosophy), and sets in motion a new wave of Catholic philosophical activity, first in returning to the great sources of the tradition, and then in continuing the tradition and adapting it to address modern philosophical problems. A century later, Pope John Paul II (also a philosopher) issues the encyclical Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason), which addresses key questions about the nature of philosophy and its relationship to theology, to Faith and to the Magisterium, and which seeks to stimulate a new and more comprehensive philosophical effort guided, once again, by perennial Augustinian insights.
Such is MacIntyre’s compelling narrative. This summary is sufficient to demonstrate the trajectory of the author’s theme, but a great advantage of reading the original is that one actually learns to identify and understand the key philosophical questions which were being developed and debated throughout this long history. Still, now that we have reached the chronological end point, what does Alasdair MacIntyre conclude?
A Daunting Task
He concludes that Catholic philosophers are uniquely situated to understand that the universe cannot make sense, human nature cannot be understood, and the meaning of human life cannot be discerned apart from a fundamental grasp of the existence and role of God, a grasp which is communicated to us through, if you will, the immensely profitable shortcut of Divine Revelation. He further concludes that it still remains the philosopher’s role, and not the theologian’s, to thoroughly explore all human questions, to take into account the peculiar insights proper to each discipline, and to weave the whole into a comprehensive yet unified account of human nature and human life.
He also concludes that Catholic philosophers inescapably face a daunting task. Owing to the absence of Catholic philosophy from the great philosophical questions of modernity for such a long time, Catholic thinkers are now in a position of playing “catch up”. They must now, all at once as it were, explore the problems posed by the philosophical schools which have emerged, especially in the secularized West, both in order to glean fresh insights for their own development of the Catholic philosophical tradition and also to identify the questions these secular schools of thought ignore or resolve incorrectly, thereby failing to give an accurate, complete and authentic account of man.
In other words, Catholic philosophy will now
have to engage with the contentions of the whole range of contemporary major philosophical positions incompatible with and antagonistic to the Catholic faith, including the whole range of versions of naturalism, reductive and nonreductive, the Heideggerian and post-Heideggerian romantic rejections of the ontology presupposed by the Catholic faith, pragmatist reconceptions and postmodern rejections of truth, and that so often taken for granted thin desiccated Neokantianism that is so fashionable in contemporary philosophy. (178)
Moreover, Catholic philosophy will have to meet this challenge in the midst of an ongoing renewal of our gigantic research universities, which tend to be interested in everything except a unified vision of man:
From the standpoint of physics human beings are composed of fundamental particles interacting in accordance with the probabilistic generalizations of quantum mechanics. From that of chemistry we are the sites of chemical interactions, assemblages of elements and compounds. From that of biology we are multicellular organisms belonging to species each of which has its own evolutionary past. From that of historians we are intelligible only as emerging from long histories of social and economic transformations. From that of economists we are rational profit-maximizing makers of decisions. From that of psychology and sociology we shape and are shaped by our perceptions, our emotions, and our social roles and institutions. And from that of students of literature and the arts it is in the exercise of our various imaginative powers that we exhibit much that is distinctive about human beings. But how do these relate to each other? In what does the unity of a human being consist? And how should the findings of each of these disciplines contribute to our understanding of ourselves and of our place in nature? (175)
A Plain Discipline for Plain Men
Finally, Catholic philosophers will face a particular common-sense challenge, one that was articulated clearly by John Paul II. If philosophy ultimately asks questions about the nature and meaning of man, then its special province is really the same questions that all men ought to be asking themselves, and in fact all do ask themselves in some way. Thus, to be useful, philosophy must raise and answer these questions in ways that any serious inquirer can understand. Its subject matter is a systematic exploration of the deepest questions of those whom MacIntyre calls “plain men”; these questions must be addressed with truly universal value—and not as academic specialties—in ways which enable “plain men” to understand, so that they might flourish as a result.
MacIntyre concedes that nearly everything seems to be stacked against Catholic philosophy: The secular public order, the dedicated research university, centuries of neglect and marginalization, excessive specialization within the discipline of philosophy itself, and so much more. But MacIntyre is a Catholic. He sees this as a Catholic’s enterprise, and therefore he has a Catholic’s hope.
Now, having gotten this much from a review, why again would you go on to read the entire book? I think the best answer is, as they say, “because you can”. And that, in the world of academic philosophy, is a rare treat.
MacIntyre is readable even when he is dealing with very difficult concepts. He has a wide-ranging yet cohesive intelligence, and an ability to distill what he knows into key themes which enable the reader to see larger realities more completely, significantly enhancing knowledge. But what is at stake is more than just knowledge. You can indeed get a limited amount of the same knowledge from my summary of the summary. But if you read God, Philosophy, Universities in its entirety, you will be exposed to a scholar who not only understands how Catholic philosophy is supposed to work, but who actually practices it. In other words, you will gain not just knowledge, but something far more valuable than mere knowledge. You will grow in wisdom.
If you doubt the concluding sentence, I can only say that I believe the book produced this result in me. As evidence, consider the first thing I wrote after my exposure to just a part of this book: Augustine: Reason and Faith, Philosophy and God. This essay will also shed greater light on the early portions of MacIntyre’s book, particularly those Augustinian insights which MacIntyre takes to be an essential framework for fruitful philosophical inquiry.
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Posted by: Robby -
Apr. 28, 2012 9:55 AM ET USA
I do not doubt your concluding sentence. I have a copy of the subject of this splendid summary but haven't given it more than a cursory glance. This summary of summary has jolted me to the realization of the potency of "God, Philosophy and Universities". Thanks for the stimulating article.