Faithful Reason: Essays Catholic and Philosophical
by John Haldane
Routledge, 288 pp. $34.95. paper.
Contemporary Western philosophy can be roughly divided into two camps. I am not here thinking of the usual division between the analytical and continental schools. Rather, I have in mind that between those thinkers who see philosophy as primarily a technical subject aimed at solving self-contained problems using logico-mathematical techniques, and those who see philosophy as a humane discipline aiming at the love of wisdom.
A number of years ago it was seriously proposed to me by one eminent American philosopher that philosophy is “nothing but a series of crossword puzzles”: one tackles a problem with one's technical toolbox, does one's best, then moves on to something perhaps entirely unconnected, with no thought of an overall picture or synthesis. More recently, a younger philosopher with a reputation to build told me that he neither cared about the ultimate truth nor thought that it could be attained: the aim was to come up with the most technically impressive and original theory that would make the most waves and command the greatest attention. Again, the overarching picture counted for nothing.
It is true that continental philosophers have a reputation for being more concerned with worldviews and syntheses—with relating philosophy to ordinary life and to the big picture. Analytical philosophers, on the other hand, are reputed to be more concerned with, well, analysis—technical minutiae, the meanings of words and concepts, logical consistency, endless distinctions, and so on. Though these caricatures still have a ring of truth, it is no longer so easy to lampoon analytical philosophy as wholly unconcerned with worldviews and syntheses. Though the analytical school has typically been less concerned with history than continental philosophers—especially with bridging the gap between the history of ideas and contemporary philosophical problems—one now finds at least some prominent analytical philosophers paying far more attention to history than has been the norm.
John Haldane is one of the prime examples of a philosopher born and bred in the analytical tradition who takes philosophy to be the humane discipline it has traditionally been—the love of wisdom and the search for understanding. In particular, Haldane is committed to the idea that one can be a Catholic philosopher in the modern world, despite the difficulties. He is convinced, moreover, that it is the methods and techniques of the analytical school that should be brought to bear on the perennial concerns of Catholic philosophy: “My teachers were, and my colleagues are, thoroughly analytical and I am a fully subscribing member of the same community. . . . In my experience, those who react most strongly to the phrase ‘Catholic philosophy' are those who have not had the advantages of an analytical upbringing.”
The difficulty with being a Catholic philosopher in the modern world has nothing to do with, say, proving the existence of God. While some self-professed Catholic philosophers, and indeed many Christian thinkers of all stripes, regard the attempt to offer a logical proof of the existence of God as almost an outrage, within analytical philosophy there is a vibrant strain of philosophical theism running on all cylinders. One need only think of such impressive minds as Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig. Even Quentin Smith, a powerful foe of theism, now believes that analytical philosophy of religion is so strong that philosophers can no longer in good conscience take atheism as the default position in philosophy.
Nor is the difficulty anything to do with Catholic doctrine. For any philosopher willing to do the hard thinking required, it is no more difficult to reconcile faith and reason than it was in the time of Aquinas. This does not mean it is easy, but plenty of good work has been—and is being—done. No Catholic philosopher should shy away from seeking to demonstrate the coherence and non-repugnance to reason of even the most abstruse or unlikely of Catholic doctrines. Haldane gives a fine example in his essays on the Assumption and the Incarnation.
Indeed, analytical philosophy is replete with techniques and concepts that help us show the coherence of Catholic doctrine. That is why, as Haldane insists, a commitment to philosophy as the love of wisdom must not exclude a concern with technical details and conceptual minutiae. Broad brushstrokes are not enough, especially in an age as rotted by skepticism and relativism as our own. When it comes to restoring philosophy's role as handmaid to theology, the angels will be in the detail.
No, the real difficulty for the Catholic philosopher, as Haldane himself notices, lies more in the state of Catholicism than in Catholic doctrine. The finest analytical philosophers of religion are nearly all Protestants of various stripes (a historical irony if ever there was one). The commitment to rigor and logic is absent from many seminaries and self-professed Catholic universities. Indeed, the very idea of Catholic philosophy, especially of a Catholic philosophy, is anathema to most Catholic thinkers and writers. Yet, as Haldane again implicitly recognizes, there is indeed a Catholic philosophy.
There can be no historical doubt that the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas has been canonised as the official philosophy of the Church. The canonisation did not occur in the nineteenth century under Pope Leo XIII; it took place over hundreds of years, from the time of the canonisation of the Angelic Doctor himself. Nevertheless, should there have been any doubt, Leo XIII and his successors made it abundantly clear that Thomism was the official Catholic philosophy, so much so that all Catholic philosophers were required by the Sacred Congregation of Studies in 1914 to subscribe to twenty-four “Thomistic theses” (concerning substance, form and matter, essence and existence, etc.). The 1918 Code of Canon Law affirmed the primacy of Thomism: “Let the professors deal with the study of rational philosophy and theology . . . entirely according to the thought, doctrine, and principles of the Angelic Doctor and let them hold these things as sacred”—not merely as true, but as sacred (“sancte teneant”).
What has changed? The newer version of the code speaks only of “the perennially valid philosophical heritage.” John Paul II, who was never a cheerleader for Thomism, denied in his 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio that there is an “official Philosophy of the Church.” Outside more traditional circles, Thomism is not taught in places of Catholic education, at least not as a systematic body of thought, though it may be referred to as a phase in the history of Catholic thinking.
Does this mean Leo XIII was wrong, or that St. Pius X, Benedict XV, Pius XI, and Pius XII were mistaken in their repeated affirmation that Thomism is the philosophy of the Church? Haldane doesn't seem to think so. Too much was and is at stake for us to say now that Thomism was a mere episode in the history of Catholic thought. As Haldane argues, “A Catholic may be a good philosopher without being a Thomist and without practicing ‘Catholic Philosophy'; but it is worth such a person considering why they would wish to resist the possibility of harnessing their reason to their faith.”
Of course, one could seek to harness reason to faith as a Scotist, say, or as an Augustinian, and the more one examines the history of Scholastic philosophy, the more various—and less exclusively Thomistic—it appears. We also know how eclectic Aquinas himself was in the authorities he cited or exploited in the development of his own ideas. So it is not as though the Church has ever placed a philosopher outside the pale merely for not being a Thomist. Still, the Church does have an entrenched view of Thomism as the exemplar of philosophy, and as the philosophy least likely to lead one astray. That very general rule leaves plenty of room for particular disagreements. For example, Aquinas, following Aristotle, denied that one could prove by reason that the world had a beginning; St. Robert Bellarmine differed—being a Thomist did not mean he had to believe every single thing St. Thomas taught.
John Haldane nails his colors firmly to the mast of the Thomist barque. The result is impressive. He covers a range of philosophical topics, with insightful pieces on Alasdair MacIntyre, the nature of orthodoxy, infallibility, ethics, politics, tolerance, Chesterton, education, aesthetics, architecture, and the environment. All of the essays are imbued with a fine historical sensibility, attention to detail, and charity to those who hold opposing views. Sometimes that charity leads Haldane to an excessively irenic view of challenges to the Church. In articles such as “Critical Orthodoxy,” Haldane seems to suggest that the only thing that divides orthodoxy from its opponents is a simple and easily corrected misunderstanding. If dissidents could only be made to see how far they depart from Catholic doctrine, they would quickly return to the fold. Perhaps Haldane believes this, or perhaps he is simply too polite a philosopher (compared, say, to Peter Geach or Elizabeth Anscombe) to describe the full gravity of the situation.
One might have wished for more combativeness on Haldane's part. But then, it may be that the state of Catholic philosophy is so poor that all a Catholic philosopher of good will can do is to state and restate perennial truths and their supporting arguments, in the hope that true devotees of faithful reason will hear and understand. A polemical dialogue with the deaf will achieve little. Better perhaps to draw on the consolations philosophy has to offer, so beautifully expounded by Boethius and elegantly analyzed here by Haldane. As long as there are Catholic philosophers, indeed philosophers generally, who care about mankind and its future, about the state of society and the place of God within it, and who can discuss and expound the eternal verities with grace and understanding, the profession of philosopher will never be a badge of shame.
D.S. Oderberg is professor of philosophy at the University of Reading and the author of many books and articles on metaphysics, ethics, and other philosophical topics, including Moral Theory and Applied Ethics, both published by Blackwell.