The folks over at Commonweal are up to something. In case you don’t make it to that corner of the web very often, let me commend to your attention Verdicts, Commonweal’s new blog covering books and culture. So far, since its launch in July, Verdicts has featured fine short pieces on David Foster Wallace, A.S. Byatt, Yves Congar, Terrence Malick, and Ismail Kadare, among several others.
As of this writing, the latest piece on Verdicts is a reflection on the life and work of the French Catholic philosopher Maurice Blondel, penned by Santiago Ramos, my friend and colleague at Boston College. Ramos argues that Blondel’s existentially-inflected explorations could provide a welcome complement to natural law “ethics-talk” that seems, at present, to be the only widely utilized product of the of Catholic intellectual tradition. Having run through a small list of influential Catholic philosophers of the 20th century, Ramos gets pensive:
Today, we may wonder whether any of the above-named Catholic philosophers, or any other who worked during the very rich 20th century, is ever exploited as a resource by a public figure or commentator who is trying to make sense of the American scene. Not a theologian (not Fr. Gutierrez nor Cardinal Dulles), not an activist (not Dorothy Day nor the Berrigans), not a literary figure (Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, et al.), not a mystic (Merton or De Mello), not a politician (Sargeant Shriver or Konrad Adenauer), but a philosopher whose dialectics would aid reflection about the experience of our time.
I am willing to be corrected, but I can only think of two: G.E.M. Anscombe and John Finnis. Together these philosophers have supplied a new interpretation of Aristotle’s ethics and the Thomist natural law tradition which has allowed Robert P. George and like-minded writers to make a fruitful (in some aspects) and definitely noticeable moral critique of American politics and culture.
Mr. Ramos’ willingness to be corrected is admirable, and in this case, highly apropos. I’m all for the importance of philosophical reflection that traverses the boundaries of practical “ethics-talk”, but it’s difficult to understand why two of our day’s most prominent philosophers—Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre—don’t garner a mention in this connection. MacIntyre’s reflections on tradition, and Taylor’s reflections on secularism, to name just a pair of their marquee contributions, have been widely influential in both the academy and beyond. They are both deeply insightful, widely read analysts of the “experience of our time,” and practicing Catholics. Granted, neither of these philosophers is likely to have their names dropped in a typical edition of the New York Times (is Anscombe or Finnis?) but I suspect that someone, say, like Ross Douthat, counts both MacIntyre and Taylor as influences.
Furthermore, this week’s New Yorker features a characteristically excellent piece by our best living literary critic, James Wood, much of which is taken up by an in-depth and very sympathetic engagement with the work of the aforementioned Professor Taylor, whose work is a sine qua non for anyone hoping to understand the place of religion in our contemporary context. Incidentally, the New Yorker piece, along with many others that Wood has penned, is an encouraging example of a serious atheist taking religiously informed thinking very very seriously. I heartily recommend it.
I also recommend, almost as heartily, that you wend your way over to Verdicts, and see what you find. It will likely be a compact, thoughtful exposition of some artist, book, or film that is eminently worthy of discovery, or of renewed consideration.