The Charioteer

"The charioteer of the human soul drives a pair of steeds, and one of the horses is beautiful, good, and formed of such elements, whereas the makeup of the other one is quite the opposite." -Phaedrus

My Photo
Location: Duquesne University, United States

A Blog For All and None. Consider it my narrative history of ideas. A place primarily to share and obtain feedback to my thoughts through my graduate career in philosophy. For philosophy is simply "thoughts that have been thought out."

Thursday, February 22, 2007

What is Catholic Philosophy?

Ironically, I'm thinking about this question of Catholic philosophy more now, at Duquesne, than I ever did at Franciscan. But this is not ironic, in the sense that, at Franciscan, this attempt to build its program on the foundations of a "Catholic philosophy" was my only philosophical exposure. Retrospectively, I can see how my education there was truly formative. But like all good education, I suppose, I came away questioning its very foundation and approach. But, one can say, Franciscan isn't the perfect embodiment of what Catholic philosophy is, so surely it is prone to error. Well, I would respond, this is true, but isn't the converse of your statement precisely the danger of a Catholic philosophy? That is to say, isn't the attitude that since Catholic's philosophize given the light of faith and, perhaps to a less extent, the truth of Revelation, that we have reached a so-called, "one true philosophy," (a phrase I have certainly heard tossed around at Franciscan) in which case, we are no longer prone to coming to false conclusions. Indeed, the very organization of the curriculum at Franciscan--even in philosophy--is set up so students will not primarily be trained in the rigorous strictures of professional philosophy and the dominant philosophical trends therein, nor are they even necessarily taught to think for themselves about philosophical matters, but, the dominant approach seems to give the students--"the truth."

But, to take a line from the movie "The Forgotten": "The truth can't fit in your brain!" Or, from "A Few Good Men": "You can't handle the truth."

Therefore, in matters of philosophy, I will have to say, along with Pontius Pilate: "What is truth?" I say this not to create scandal, for I know very well that the Truth is Christ! But to know that the truth is Christ, and to know what that "truth" is are two very different things. Indeed, St. Basil says "Anyone who thinks they know God [and correlatively, Truth] has a demented spirit!"

So, the question I am proposing for the meaning of Catholic philosophy is: what bearing does the infinite expansiveness of truth, coupled with our finite capacity for truth, have on philosophy? There is much we can say about what this means, but at its basic level, it at least means we cannot claim such a thing as a "one true philosophy," which, of course, to Catholics would be a "Catholic philosophy."

Neither am I suggesting relativism, for I think there is such a thing as "Truth," with a capital 'T,' but the question is whether we can adequately know this Truth. Individually, I will say certainly not. Collectively and historically, I think we have gained (and are gaining) ground to this question. But this ground have been fomented precisely by not breaking our solidarity with the modern world, or in this case, with the broad philosophical community, by claiming for ourselves as Catholics to have ultimate philosophical truth, and all else are in error.

In the Chapter "What is Catholic Philosophy," in Swidal and Gensler's "Anthology of Catholic Philosophy," Three ways to define it are proposed: (1) "philosophy based on the premises of the Catholic faith," but, so understood, would seem to be self-contradictory since philosophy is "a rational investigation that doesn't appeal to religious faith." (2) Catholics who philosophize. (3) Thomism.

My answer would be to rank them, in this order: Primarily, Catholic philosophy means "Catholics who philosophize." This stems from my discussion above, in that, philosophy should be less about proclaiming an ultimate philosophical truth, and more about training catholics to think about questions of ultimate reality, by which they can then contribute to the philosophical discussion on a very personal level. Secondly, philosophy based on Catholic faith. This implies a definition of faith, though. Catholicism is not only a set of ideas to be passed on, but it is first and foremost, a religion to be lived (granted, in accordance with the contents of Revelation). But this can influence philosophy not only in one ultimate way, but in a plurality of ways--in very individual ways. It means, rather, how does my relationship with God (the one which Catholicism believes to be the True God) influence my thoughts about reality. What is normative here is THAT religion is to influence ones philosophy, but how this looks is not conclusive. Third, It is not conclusive because Catholic philosophy can in no way be reduced to how only one person's faith has influenced his own philosophy, namely, Thomas Aquinas. We know of a man, nay, a Saint, whose faith greatly influenced his thought, and he wrote so comprehensively and powerfully on all aspects of reality, that his faith-influenced philosophy has become normative. But I find this disordered, not because Aquinas was wrong. Indeed, he for his time was truly inspired. But the call of Aquinas I think is not to think what he thought, but to do what he did, that is, to philosophize according to your Catholic faith, colored in it own way by your own spirituality, your own relationship with the living God. How this philosophy will look will not be Thomistic, but it will be your own, faith-influenced philosophy! And this is the brillant part!! That the philosophy of a lay Catholic, Franciscan University student, living in America, in the 21st Century, should look much different from a Medieval Parisian Dominican!!

This is why I think Thomists today are not true Thomists: because they only think what he thought, and do not do what he did. But what did Aquinas do? He took Aristotle, a pagan philosopher, one not at all within the Catholic philosophical tradition, and he turned him into a friend of Catholicism--who is now perhaps even more a friend than Plato. That Aristotle is a friend of the Church would have been unheard in the early Church and the early medieval Church. Thus, Thomas was not traditional! He was not confined to the tradition, but he broke its bounds--he rewrote tradition! He started a new tradition! The analogy of our time would be to do the same thing with any of the "intellectual enemies" so ostracized and dismissed by our neo-Thomistic tradition today.

Thus Catholic philosophy is not a set of doctrine to learn, subsume, and pass on--it is a journey and a call to boldly philosophize, in your own way, as a follower of Christ and his religion!

Break the mold, and call philosophy your own! "Sapere aude!"