Catholic Metaphysics and the Collapse of the Enlightenment

Catholic Metaphysics and the Collapse of the Enlightenment

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Metaviews 087. 2000.10.08. Approximately 13,060 words.

Below is a report on a Vatican conference on Metaphysics for theThird Millennium, which took place in Rome a month ago. The reportis written by David Murray and followed by the text of one of thepresenters, Nicholas Capaldi., a Professor of Philosophy and Law atthe University of Tulsa, Oklahoma. The title of his talk isCatholic Metaphysics in the Wake of the Collapse of theEnlightenment.

The chapter length essay by Nicholas Capaldi below (12,474 words!) ischallenging and controversial. It will also be hard going for thosenot familiar with the history of Western Philosophy.

Capaldi contrast Aristotelian/ Thomistic/ Enlightenment metaphysics(wanting to locate the form in matter) with various iterations ofPlatonism (wanting to find form beyond matter). In the end, he callsfor a Copernican metaphysics, which I’ll let him define in his ownwords below.

Pulling for heat as well as light, Capaldi equates the logic of theEnlightenment with the tendencies toward Postmodernism. The finallogic of the Enlightenment Project, writes Capaldi, is post-modernnihilism; post-modernism thinks of itself as a critic of theEnlightenment Project, but is in fact its last gasp.

Capaldi also has it in for Neo-Thomistic metaphysics. Reintroducingthe teleology [into modern biology] becomes a form of metaphysicalsleight-of-hand, in practice a form of obsessive natural theologycondemned to potentially endless embarrassment, and intellectually atransparent anthropomorphic projection.

The sweeping drama of the Capaldi’s review of intellectual historytakes an unexpected turn. Reason always presupposes faith; faith isalways the ground of reason; there is no strict dichotomy of faithand reason or of philosophy and theology, writes Capaldi. All welland good, but then he continues: What connects the metaphysics, theaccount of the pre-conceptual, to morality, the explication ofpractices, is a narrative. In the beginning was the story.Neither space-time, nor matter-energy, nor any privilegedepistemology, but rather, stories were and are the fundamentalmetaphysical/ ontological/ epistemological category. In ahermeneutical sleight-of-hand, Capaldi notes that Explication, then,presupposes the existence of a cosmic order. Unless, of course, onechoose to plot the grand story as meaningless, which of course isanother kind of cosmic order/disorder.

Which stories then are the sacred stories to be elevated above allothers? For Capaldi and his audience at the Vatican conference, theStory is obviously the Christian story of Jesus Christ and hisChurch. This Story can never be established by force of argumentalone. Norms do not form a deductive system, notes Capaldi, butare embedded in practice… [and] The logic of explication isinherently conservative, for the explication of practice is parasiticupon practice itself. We are all embedded in some kind oftradition; there is no immaculate perception for Capaldi though thereis the evolution of traditions and the possibility of Divine grace.So what then is metaphysics? Capaldi writes:

Metaphysics as narrative is the search for analogical unity amidstthe diversity and plurality of historical situations. The resultantnarrative does not entail specific duties; rather, our duties canonly be determined through the conversational reappropriation of theinstitutions within which we live.

Along the way, Capaldi is in conversation with 20th Centuryphilosophers (MacIntyre, Adorno and Horkheimer, Gadamer, Foucault,Derida, Husserl, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Voegelin, Jaspers,Vahanian, Van Buren, Quine, Kuhn, and Feyerabend, to name some ofthose referenced in no particular order) along with earlierphilosophic greats (Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Averroes, Aquinas,Hegel, Kant, and Hume). It is a lot to digest and would be fun todebate noting especially where the conversation would break down andhow we might get beyond those metaphysical impasses.

— Editor

From: David G. MurraySubject: Metaphysics and the Science-Religion Dialogue

The Metaphysics for the Third Millennium Conference, held in Rome,September 5-8, 2000, as an official Jubilee event organized for theuniversity community worldwide, attracted professors from twenty-fivecountries representing a broad spectrum of outlooks and approaches,both Christian and non-Christian. The Conference sought to takestock of the status of traditional metaphysical perspectives at thispoint in history and examine some of the possible routes for thefuture development of this fundamental area of thought in relation toscience, religion, and culture.

A key conviction in this undertaking is that the renewal ofmetaphysics as a culturally viable conceptual framework is crucial tomeaningful dialogue between science and religion, since authenticmetaphysical insights and formulations are vital to grounding bothscientific and religious discourse. In the final analysis,metaphysics offers a common ground for exchanges between scienceand religion.

We would like to share with others a contribution by ProfessorNicholas Capaldi which addresses many of the fundamental topicsproposed for the Rome Conference. Though evaluating some aspects ofthe philosophical debate from a Catholic standpoint, ProfessorCapaldi deals broadly with the panorama of modern and postmodernthought and the insufficiencies connected with the EnlightenmentProject which point to the need for a new understanding ofmetaphysics and its role.

Some current proposals for the reformulation of metaphysics wereconsidered at the Conference. Professor Capaldi refers, for example,to the thought of Fernando Rielo, who proposes the geneticconception of the principle of relation (cf. http://www.rielo.comfor an initial contact with this vision).

This contribution forms part of the Conference Proceedings and hasalso been sent out on the Conference list:

to which readers are invited to subscribe.


Nicholas Capaldi ( is the McFarlin EndowedProfessor of Philosophy and Research Professor of Law at theUniversity of Tulsa, Oklahoma. He presently teaches in thedepartments of Philosophy & Religion and Political Science, as wellas the Law School. His principal research and teaching interest isin public policy and its intersection with philosophy, religion, law,and economics.

He received his B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania and hisPh.D. from Columbia University. He is the author of 6 books, over 60articles, and editor of five anthologies. He is a member of theeditorial board of six journals and has served most recently aseditor of Public Affairs Quarterly. He presently serves on theeditorial board of Christian Bioethics.

Professor Capaldi has prepared a far-reaching commentary on thehistorical process which has led to the postmodern conundrum inphilosophy and general culture, with special reference to the genesisof scientism in the contemporary debate, and is convinced that, inboth Catholic and non-Catholic western thought, the limiting effectsof Aristotelian naturalism must be superseded in order forauthentic metaphysical perspectives to emerge anew, through aprofound rediscovery of the significance of interiority.

In relation to contemporary exchanges between the realms of empiricalscience and transcendent faith, the historical-critical precis ofphilosophy offered by Capaldi helps us to grasp the pivotal functionof metaphysics in regard to all interpretations of experience andknowledge. In a word, he helps us perceive both the challenge and thesingular opportunity afforded by this moment in history.

This paper is a most fitting introduction to our metaphysicalstock-taking at the turn of the millennium, and we are grateful toProfessor Capaldi for his interest and effort. You are cordiallyinvited to send any comments to

David G. Murray

Conference website:



Nicholas Capaldi

Introduction: Contemporary Crisis

The condition of contemporary moral and political thoughtstands in stark contrast to over two thousand years of priorunderstandings. Unlike the syncretic culture of the Greco-Romanworld, in which one understood that the practice of virtue, law, andright conduct was situated within an enveloping and dominantframework of cultural and moral expectations, or Christianity’straditional univocal understanding of metaphysics and morality,contemporary moral and political concerns are set against fragmentedmoral visions and competing metaphysical accounts. The Christianmoral vision and its foundational metaphysical account are fadingfrom Western Europe and North America. Moreover, modern philosophicalassumptions about reason’s ability to establish a community of allpersons has been brought into question. Indeed, there areinstitutional bases which sustain contrary metaphysical foundationsand thus understandings of proper moral deportment. Prime amongthese institutions in the West is the Roman Catholic Church, whichthough diminished in secular authority, remains a strong viablecounterweight to the various secular moralities of our time. Primeamong the issues at stake are foundational understandings of themoral significance of birth, copulation, and death, expressed indebates regarding abortion, third-party assisted reproduction,assisted suicide, and euthanasia.

Three recent encyclical letters of the Pope signal recognition ofthis significant change in the metaphysical assumptions underlyingculture. They raise broad foundational issues as well as specificconcerns regarding morality. In Veritatis Splendor, the Popecharacterizes the anti-traditional character of much of contemporarymoral reflection as marked by an overall and systematic calling intoquestion of traditional moral doctrine, on the basis of certainanthropological and ethical presuppositions (1993, p. 8). InEvangelium Vitae, John Paul II places this difficulty within themajor contemporary cultural crises and shifts in the metaphysicalpresuppositions of moral theory. In the background there is aprofound crisis of culture which generates skepticism in relation tothe very foundations of knowledge and ethics and which makes itincreasingly difficult to grasp clearly the meaning of what man is,the meaning of his rights, and his duties (1995, p. 21). The resultis, as John Paul II recognizes, a transformation and fragmentation ofculture, a fragmentation he ties to the de-Christianization touchingEurope and the world. Such fragmentation sets the stage for theemergence of foundational moral differences that divide the field ofethics as well as reflection upon our social and political rights andobligations into not merely different, but mutually antagonisticaccounts of freedom, responsibility, and proper decorum.

In Fides et Ratio (1998), the Pope has called attention to the crisisof rationalism, a distrust of reason in contemporary thought whichhas led to the abandonment of the metaphysical study of humanquestions. Too many thinkers find reason hostile to faith; too manyreligious apologists embrace a faith shorn of reason. So much ofcontemporary Western culture has denied, destroyed, or limited theinfluence of traditional metaphysical assumptions that we now findourselves in the depths of the culture wars.

These three encyclicals are invoked to suggest the significance ofour contemporary cultural disarray; yet such difficulties were notborn of the last few years. Rather, the disruption in Western culturedue to the Reformation was in some measure considered healed by anunderstanding of reason that could bind all in a shared understandingof moral community. General secular reason in the EnlightenmentProject was held to be able to ground unambiguous andnon-idiosyncratic metaphysical foundations for common moralcommitments. This is no longer considered to be the case. Since thecollapse of the Enlightenment Project and the emergence of apost-modern nihilism, the development of this significant rupture inWestern culture between an emerging secularity and the traditionalcommitments of Christianity has taken on substance and force. It hasonly recently been forcefully expressed in significant debatesregarding medical ethics as well as the foundation and limits ofstate moral authority and personal freedom.

The Marginalization of Metaphysical Thinking

The most powerful intellectual movement during the last twocenturies has been the Enlightenment Project. (1) The EnlightenmentProject comprises both the view known as scientism, namely, thatscience is the whole truth about everything and that it is the groundof its own legitimation, as well as the program to transcend thehuman predicament by gaining complete technological mastery of thephysical and social environment. It is a project that was originallyformulated by French philosophes in the last half of the eighteenthcentury, was preserved by positivist movements in the nineteenthcentury, and has dominated universities in the twentieth century.

What room is there for metaphysics in such a view? The only versionof metaphysics permissible is secular Aristotelian naturalism. Theeveryday world is self-explanatory. Metaphysics is thus no more thanthe most comprehensive and most general characterization of existentthings. As a form of knowledge, Aristotelian metaphysics is arrivedat by abstraction from the specialized sciences. Hence, metaphysicsis a kind of empirical super-science, the philosophy of physicalscience. One consequence of this naturalism is that modern secularAristotelians do not speak so much of metaphysics, but prefer tospeak about ontology. The question of ontology, namely, whatconstitutes the most general features of reality, is tied inAristotelianism to epistemology, understood as the study of the basiccategories or concepts used for describing and explaining theeveryday world. Reality is said to consist of individual orparticular things or substances. A substance (thing) is somethingmore than its properties, and it is ultimately, thoughproblematically, identified grammatically as the subject-matter ofdiscourse. In Aristotelian metaphysics there is a tendency to reducemeaning to reference. It is in this sense that Aristoteliansapproach their metaphysics through epistemology.

We can understand Aristotelianism as the denial of Platonism. Insecular Aristotelian metaphysics there is a denial that there is atranscendent realm over and above the empirical sciences and thus adenial that the first principles of the special sciences need to bededuced from or explained by a transcendent or transcendental realm.Rather than being a distinct and logically self-contained body ofknowledge, metaphysics is an examination of the most comprehensiveand general characteristics of existent things. Like all forms ofmetaphysics, Aristotelianism has a comprehensive vision, but itscomprehensive vision is a totalization in which all parts of thesystem flow into each other in homogeneous fashion.

What happens to religion and faith in such a worldview? Theanswer is that it is either denied any meaning or, if it is treatedcharitably, it is as a form of experience to be explained in socialscientific fashion. The Enlightenment Project sees physical scienceas the paradigm of all knowledge; to the extent that humanity can bethe object of knowledge, it must be as the object of social analysiswhere such analysis is derivative >from physical science. That is,the social sciences are modeled along the lines of the physicalsciences. Religion and theology disappear as modes of knowledge withtheir own integrity and are replaced by what university cataloguesdescribe as religious studies.

Most of the major Protestant theologians of the twentieth centuryincluding Barth, Bultmann, Jaspers, and Tillich have caved in topositivism and turned to faith alone as a justification ofChristianity. (2) The death of God movement in the 1960s (3)officially marks for Protestantism the onset of a post-Christian eracharacterized by a kind of religious atheism, or even what LouisDuprˇ has called a humanism beyond atheism.

We maintain that the intellectual origin of this crisis is theEnlightenment Project.

The Enlightenment Project was specifically intended todelegitimate all traditional forms of culture, to delegitimate andreplace religion, and to obviate the need for metaphysical thinking.Attempts to realize the project in practice resulted in the mosttotalitarian, barbaric, and dehumanizing regimes in world history (itis what Voegelin calls the immanentization of the eschaton, theinevitable result of the Aristotelian tendency to want to locate theform in matter). The final logic of the Enlightenment Project ispost-modern nihilism; post-modernism thinks of itself as a critic ofthe Enlightenment Project, but is in fact its last gasp.

The Window of Hope and Opportunity

The most significant intellectual event in the last half of thetwentieth century has been the collapse of the Enlightenment Project.(4) The rationale for scientism was that scientific statements couldbe empirically confirmed. It turned out that science itself did notmeet this standard. In his attack on the Two Dogmas of Empiricism,Quine undermined traditional empiricism by asserting (a) that thereis nothing independent of different conceptual schemes (ontologicalrelativism) and (b) that different conceptual schemes are alternativereadings of experience. The significance of Kuhn’s work The Structureof Scientific Revolutions is that it used the history of science tofurther discredit the original positivist conception of scientifictheories as experimentally confirmable or disconfirmable. As Kuhnshowed, scientists operate with paradigms, understood as a frameworkof background assumptions which structure the way in whichexperiments are interpreted. Kuhn’s work was followed by the moreradical views of Feyerabend, who extended Kuhn’s thesis in AgainstMethod to argue that paradigms were more than just frameworks withinscience. Paradigms constituted the entire cultural pre-theoreticalcontext within which theoretical science operated. Science couldnot, therefore, serve as the arbiter among competing paradigms orpre-theoretical contexts.

There were two immediate responses to the relativistic implicationsof the work of Quine, Kuhn, and Feyerabend. One response was thereassertion of the positivist conception in more sophisticatedguises. However, it became increasingly and painfully clear thatthis amounted to no more than scientistic fideism coupled with aprogressivist historicism about what the future of science wouldshow. The historicism turned out to be a theory at another level forwhich no experimental confirmation was conceivable.

A second response to the relativistic implications of Quine, Kuhn andFeyerabend was to embrace and to extend the relativism, to wit, theincommensurability and incivility theses to moral and politicalphilosophy. If science is radically relativistic, then everything isradically relativistic. Relativism is a view that had long beenasserted on other grounds, but the demise of the positivistconception of science gave relativism a new lease on life. It isimportant to note this because relativist deconstruction is too oftenroutinely and mistakenly dismissed as if it were anotherself-refuting version of skepticism. Unlike earlier existentialistphilosophers, the contemporary French ‘deconstructionist’philosophers Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida do not rejectscientism, but argue that mathematical science is the best and onlydefensible ideal construct for thinking. They see only the need tointerpret the implications of the situation to which the scientificideal has led.

Curiously, what the two responses share is an appeal to scientism, anappeal to the view that physical science is the model to be followedand standard by which all other forms of thinking are to be judged.Scientism is the commonly shared paradigm that simultaneously permitsscientistic fideism and relativism in every other dimension ofcultural and intellectual life.

The significant difference between the two contemporary responses isthat whereas scientistic fideists still cling to the notion of ascientifically accessed cosmic order, deconstructionists consignscientism to the same trash bin as metaphysics, religion, andtradition-that is, deconstruction denies the existence of a cosmicorder which is not another human construction. Deconstructionistsare more consistent than scientistic fideists because the former see,as the latter do not, that scientism is a humanly constructedparadigm. Whereas advocates of scientism appeal to a ‘mythic’progressive historicism, advocates of deconstruction see in history agradual emancipatory move away from the notion of a cosmic order.Scientism was just one of the latest stages in the greatemancipation. It is for this reason that Quine, Kuhn, and Feyerabendare among the unlikely heroes of the deconstructionist narrative.The advocates of scientism, having delegitimated everything butscience, now found themselves delegitimated with their own arguments.Postmodern nihilism is the last gasp of scientism.

In summary, it is important to recognize that the presumeddelegitimation of metaphysics by scientism was fed by two sources:one source was the spectacular growth and success of science andtechnology, and the second source was a host of intimidatingtechnical arguments. However, it is important to see that theaccumulation of useful information does not constitute an explanationand therefore cannot serve to confirm scientism. We also know thatthis information creates moral problems about its own use that it isnot able to solve or even render intelligible. Moreover, those whohave gone to the trouble to examine the technical arguments havereadily seen that scientism is intellectually indefensible.Apparently, the way is now open to a return to substantivemetaphysical thinking.

Waning of Catholic Metaphysics

If the way is open, why have Catholics not been able to makeprogress on it? The answer is that for historically accidentalreasons Catholics have been restricted by an officially sanctionedmetaphysics that shares too many of the same assumptions ofscientism. The great roadblock to the future of Catholic metaphysicsis Leo XIII’s Aeterni Patris (1879) in which he ordered a return tothe Scholastic philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas. (5)

Under Kleutgen’s influence, (6) Thomism was first divorcedfrom the tradition of thought and practice out of which it hademerged and was presented as a finished system. Next, Thomism waspresented as primarily an epistemological doctrine addressing theissues of modern epistemology generated by modern science.

The trouble with this approach is that it is ultimatelyrooted in the same Aristotelian metaphysical tradition that is at theroot of scientism. The commitment to the Aristotelian model ofmetaphysics effectively reinforces the scientific-naturalisticparadigm. What I mean by this is the following. It presumes firstthat there is an order or structure in nature independent ofcognition; it presumes that human beings can grasp or abstract thatstructure in a purely naturalistic way since human beings arethemselves a part of the natural order and to be understood largelyin the same manner; finally, it presumes that a study of the naturalorder leads naturally to an understanding of the supernatural behindthat order. The common philosophical assumption is that we firststart with the intelligibility of nature and then move progressivelyto the understanding of ourselves and then God. It assumes that howwe understand the world is primary and how we understand ourselves issecondary. It assumes that an understanding of God is gained throughan understanding of the natural world. Christianity is reduced tothe status of an ingenious hypothesis within the scientific game.

Even aside from Kleutgen’s misrepresentation, Thomism is ametaphysical dead-end. Aristotle’s metaphysics is an impropervehicle for Christianity. The purely naturalistic reading ofAristotle was a problem even within medieval Christendom. Averroesof Cordoba, for example, an Arab commentator on Aristotle, exercisedenormous influence on the early introduction and understanding ofAristotle in the West. Averroes maintained that 1) God is soself-contained that individual human actions are not guided by divineprovidence, 2) the material world is eternal and not created, 3) thematerial world is further governed by an internal necessity under theinfluence of celestial bodies, 4) there was no first human being, 5)the individual soul dies with the body, and 6) the human will actswithin material necessity.

Where Did Traditional-Official Catholic Metaphysics Go Wrong?

The Thomistic-Aristotelian conception of metaphysics is defective fora number of reasons. To begin with, Aristotelian metaphysics isrooted in a particular scientific conception of the world, namely,one in which the categories of teleological biology are primary.Once science departs from that model and embraces another, such asNewtonian mechanism, or even indeterminism, the metaphysics hasbecome anachronistic. Reintroducing the teleology becomes a form ofmetaphysical sleight-of-hand, in practice a form of obsessive naturaltheology condemned to potentially endless embarrassment, andintellectually a transparent anthropomorphic projection.

Second, revived Thomism, especially in the works of Maritain (7) andGilson, blocked serious consideration of the Copernican turn soprominent in nineteenth and twentieth century German Catholicthought. Because of Thomistic Aristotelianism’s intransigentobjection to the Copernican Revolution in Philosophy, many importantcontributions of post-Kantian German Catholic philosophy, especiallyphenomenology, have been marginalized. It has thereby blockedadequate consideration of interiority or the inner domain.

Third, the Thomistic-Aristotelian conception of metaphysicsobfuscates the very nature of metaphysical discourse. In a kind ofauthoritarian and imperialistic way it declares itself the hegemonicproprietor of the very term ‘metaphysics’ so that not to be a Thomistis not to have a metaphysics at all. Much of value in theAugustinian-Platonic and neo-Platonic tradition has been neglected.Any survey of the history of the term ‘metaphysics’ will show notonly that there are conflicting metaphysical positions, but there areconflicting views about what metaphysics itself is. Even the meaningof the term ‘metaphysics’ is difficult to divorce from substantivemetaphysical positions. Although this is an obstacle, it also tellsus something important about the attempt to abstract form fromsubstantive beliefs.

Before turning to those other conceptions of metaphysics, let us notea fourth defect of Aristotelian metaphysics. A static metaphysicsthat denies the possibility of new forms becomes in practice adefense of the status quo. Ptolemaic astronomy, feudalism,agrarianism, and the mindless opposition to market economies suddenlybecome features of Christianity rather than historical accidents. Wesoon forget that Christianity does not entail a particular economicor political system.

A fifth defect of the Thomistic-Aristotelian metaphysical system isthat it transforms morality into an intellectual exercise, theapplication of theory to practice or morality as the reflectiveobservance of rules or ideals. Emphasis is put upon having a correctand defensible theory rather than on how to act. The ideals tooquickly turn into obsessions. Inevitably, moral sensibility isinhibited or even eroded in favor of an elaborate casuistry. Theobject seems to be to observe a rule instead of behaving in a certainconcrete manner. It achieves the appearance of stability at theprice of imperviousness to change. When change can no longer beresisted, it occurs as a revolution rather than as an evolution.Obsession with rigid deductive structures, a preoccupation withlogical systematicity, has been destructive of both historicalunderstanding and rational criticism.

Rediscovery of a Richer Metaphysical Tradition

In an endeavor to start with a more generic sense of the term’metaphysics’, let us begin by noting that, from its inception inancient Greece, philosophy has always striven to provide acomprehensive or total vision of the world. The belief in thepossibility of doing so is part of the original definition ofphilosophy. There are, of course, conflicting visions both of whatthe total picture is and of what constitutes a comprehensive vision.When we use the term ‘metaphysics’ here, what we shall mean is 1)what one identifies as the fundamental truths, 2) the status of thesetruths, 3) the referent of these truths, and 4) how the philosopherunderstands his relationship to those alleged truths

Three generic metaphysical traditions have emerged within the historyof Western thought. Those traditions can be labeled as Platonism,Aristotelianism, and Copernicanism. We have already discussedAristotelianism, so let us now turn to the other claimants.

Platonic Metaphysics: In the Platonic tradition (e.g., Plato,Plotinus, Porphyry, Augustine, Descartes, and Leibniz, to mentionjust a few), it is claimed that how we understand ourselves isdifferent from how we understand the world and that how we understandourselves is fundamental, whereas how we understand the world isderivative. Hence, the world of everyday experience cannot beunderstood on its own terms. As a consequence, a distinction isintroduced between the world of appearance (or everyday experience)and ultimate reality. Platonic metaphysics is marked by a series ofderivative dualisms.

In its modern form, it is claimed within Platonism that althoughscience can account for the world of appearance, science cannotaccount either for itself or for ultimate reality. Hence,metaphysics is a kind of non-empirical pre-science. Ultimate realityis conceptual or logical, (consisting of forms, ideas, or universals,etc.), not a system of physical objects. The conceptual entitiesthat comprise ultimate reality are related to each other in logicalfashion. Platonism, moreover, rejects any distinction between athing and its properties. A thing is a particular set of properties(ideas, forms, etc.). Platonists do distinguish between essence(meaning) and existence (reference) as well as insist upon theirreducible and fundamental nature of meaning. The distinctionbetween meaning and reference is derivative from the distinctionbetween ultimate reality (which is conceptual) and the world ofeveryday experience. Finally, Platonists insist upon the dualism ofsubject and object, a dualism in which the subject’s knowledge ofitself is more fundamental than the subject’s knowledge of objects.

This Platonic version of metaphysics has a great advantageover the Aristotelian in that it places the emphasis on the person,on how we understand ourselves. Unfortunately, its greatdisadvantage is that it cannot characterize ultimate reality exceptin empty tautological fashion. As Rielo points out, this sterilemetaphysics originates in Parmenides and is the original sin ofmetaphysics.

Let me characterize this original sin of metaphysics further. Let usbegin with those who suffer from metaphysical blindness. There arethose like the subscribers to scientism who fail to distinguishbetween our conceptualization of the world and the pre-conceptualground of conceptualization. That is why they are oblivious tometaphysics. They, of course, have a metaphysics, but they are notself-conscious of it. In fact, self-consciousness and self-referenceare things of which they are unaware or find unintelligible. Whenforced to come to terms with their preconceptions what they discoveris gnosticism or modern pelagianism. They believe they can transcendthe human condition by reducing it to its physical body and thenoffering the hope of total body control. Unfortunately, what they canno longer explain are the criteria for bodily control.

The first great divide is between those who are blind to thepre-conceptual and those who recognize the pre-conceptual. Thesecond great divide is between those who think they can conceptualizethe pre-conceptual itself and those who realize that thepre-conceptual cannot be conceptualized. The trouble with bothPlatonic and Aristotelian metaphysics is that they both attempt toconceptualize the pre-conceptual, that is, they come to think thatultimate reality is itself a structure or abstraction of some kind.

To believe, mistakenly, that the pre-conceptual can be conceptualizedis to believe as well that reason can be autonomous, that it canstand freely outside of every frame of reference, that it can justifyitself, that it can sit in judgment of everything else. To believethat reason is autonomous is to believe, mistakenly, that there is adichotomy between intellect and will; it is to misconceive therelationship between theory and practice as one in which theory isauthoritative by being wholly autonomous of practice; it is tobelieve, mistakenly, that there is a dichotomy between reason andfaith; it is to believe, mistakenly, that the imagination is adistorting force rather than a creative force and a source ofillumination and insight and communication.

There is a third great metaphysical tradition: CopernicanMetaphysics: The Copernican Revolution in philosophy, as introducedby Hume and Kant, offers a third or alternative vision ofmetaphysics. According to this view of metaphysics, the ultimatesource of reality and intelligibility is neither the experience ofexternal physical objects nor a supersensible conceptual world.Rather, the source is the everyday pre-theoretical world constitutedby the interaction of human beings with each other. Copernicanism canbe understood both as a rejection of Aristotelian realism and as ahumanizing of Platonism. For example, Copernicans do not equatemetaphysical realism with epistemological realism. That is, whileCopernicans can recognize that there are objects independent of humanbeings (this meaning of realism is unobjectionable), Copernicans denythat knowledge is the abstraction of an external structure. UnlikeAristotelianism, Copernicanism sees discourse (and epistemology) ascultural in the sense that it denies that structure can be explicatedapart >from agents. As in Platonism, Copernican metaphysicians insistupon the distinction between, and the irreducibility of, subjects toobjects; but, unlike Platonism, the subject is seen as rooted in thepre-theoretical world of everyday practices.

Copernicans can see both traditional forms of Aristotelian andPlatonic metaphysics as themselves anthropomorphic forms of thoughtin which classical thinkers understandably projected onto the worldor cosmic scale the most unified and important bodies of knowledgeavailable to them: Plato projecting Greek or specifically Pythagoreangeometry and Aristotle projecting teleological biology. Laterthinkers follow the early lead simply because that is what is madeavailable to them. Extreme forms of rationalism always believe theyare starting with a clean slate and using reason in an autonomousfashion, but in fact they are always selectively choosing from theirown immediate frame of reference.

It is important to tell this story of the history of philosophycorrectly. It was Hume, Kant, and Hegel who first called attention tothe Copernican Revolution in philosophy. What positivism andneo-scholasticism share is a reaction against the CopernicanRevolution in the name of Aristotelian realism. In the twentiethcentury, the reassertion of the Copernican Revolution againstpositivism is to be found in Wittgenstein’s later work and thereassertion against neo-scholasticism and Husserlian transcendentalidealism (another form of realism) is to be found in Heidegger. ThatWittgenstein and Heidegger are both engaged in the sameepistemological enterprise was recognized by Gadamer. (8)

Our epistemological argument is as follows. The current moral crisisis rooted in an epistemological dispute that goes back at least tothe eighteenth century. The great divide is between pre-Copernicansand post-Copernicans. We maintain that the post-Copernicans have wonthe epistemological debate: epistemological realism is anindefensible position for it relies upon an Aristotelian metaphysicalbiology that hardly anyone any longer accepts. Aristotelian realiststhemselves now concede the epistemological point and try to defendtheir position by claiming that without epistemological realism wecannot have moral realism, and without moral realism we end up in thecontemporary crisis. This is not an adequate defense of realism buta restatement of it. Copernicans are not epistemologicalrelativists, but even if they were epistemological relativism doesnot imply metaphysical relativism, and even epistemological moralrelativism does not imply metaphysical moral relativism. On thecontrary, to the extent that one ties metaphysical realism toepistemological realism, metaphysical realism has been put at risk.

Copernicans can be metaphysical realists. Metaphysical realism canonly be a product of a transcendental argument. It is from thetranscendental that we arrive at the transcendent, but thetranscendent does not consist of physical things, rather it consistsof beings or persons.

The Aristotelian realist gives the following self-servingaccount of the contemporary moral crisis. Ethics is a matter ofhaving the right theory and then applying that theory to practice.If there are conflicting theories, then there will be different orconflicting practices. The current nihilistic crisis results fromthe perception of conflicting theories and the belief that no theorycan be independently validated. The only solution is to find theright theory or at the very least assert its existence.

There is, however, an alternative account of the crisis.What history shows is that this insistence on the final, definitivetheory led to endless theological controversy and to religious wars.The Enlightenment Project could only trump Aristotelian realism byadopting its insistence on finding the final, definitive theory andmaintaining that science would lead us to it. What science failed todo it, post-modernism came into being. The root of the problem isthe insistence that ethics is a matter of having the right theoryfirst and then conforming practice to it. It is Aristotelian realismthat is the intellectual source of the contemporary moral crisis. Itis only when we divest ourselves of its misguided conception of therelationship between theory and practice that we can even begin torespond to the crisis.

Retrieving a Catholic Vision of Metaphysics and Morality

How can we retrieve a Catholic Vision of Metaphysics and Morality?We do so by embracing the Copernican Revolution. In Copernicanmetaphysics: How we understand ourselves is fundamental; how weunderstand the world is derivative. How, then, do we understandourselves? We understand ourselves as derivative beings; we have nodirect consciousness of our consciousness; our very consciousness ofourselves and its meaning is the product of a pre-conceptualtranscendent domain; Philosophy brings us to the recognition of thisdomain and to its own inability to conceptualize the pre-conceptual;the attempt to conceptualize the pre-conceptual is the original sinof metaphysics; any account of our genesis out of the pre-conceptualcan only be an imaginative and analogical act of reconstruction andoften best expressed in poetic and contemplative terms; here Ibelieve myself to be echoing the views of Fernando Rielo.

We understand ourselves as self-conscious beings (we understandourselves as persons interacting with other persons; instead ofattuning ourselves to an invisible and impersonal order, Christiansopen themselves to the revelation of God’s grace). All suchunderstanding is dialogic (reading, writing, praying, conversing,thinking by internal conversation). The appropriate metaphor for allforms of intercourse is the conversation. To learn is to beinitiated into a conversation in which we either recognize orimaginatively reconstruct the voice of others; this requires us tolearn to listen, to express ourselves appropriately, to enter intothe thoughts of others, even to submit to censure.

We understand ourselves as practical beings. Practice does notconsist of conformity to a theory; there are no internal structuresto practice which can be the object of theorizing; practice precedestheory; theory can at best only be an imaginative explication of thenorms inherent in the practices with the hope of guiding futurepractice; there can be no rules for the application of rules;(morality is not, then, a set of rules, deduced from a metaphysicaltheory; the inherent norms are themselves another manifestation ofthe pre-conceptual).

We understand ourselves as historical beings. This helps us toanswer the question: What is the relation of the account of thepre-conceptual to practice? Let us begin with what it is not. Basedon our repeated insistence that the pre-conceptual cannot beconceptualized, it is clear that the relationship is not one ofentailment. Reason always presupposes faith; faith is always theground of reason; there is no strict dichotomy of faith and reason orof philosophy and theology. What connects the metaphysics, theaccount of the pre-conceptual, to morality, the explication ofpractices, is a narrative.

Saving and Explicating the Phenomena of Christianity

What are the phenomena of Christianity of which we seek toprovide an account? The phenomena fall into two categories:a. The experience of transcendence (multifaceted)b. The practices of Christian community

For reasons that shall become clear later, I shall begin with thepractices of the Christian community. To explain such practicesrequires explication. (9)

Explication is a mode of understanding social practices. Itpresupposes that all social practices function with implicit normsand that to explicate a practice is to make explicit the inherentnorms. In explication we try to clarify that which is routinelytaken for granted, namely our ordinary understanding of ourpractices, in the hope of extracting from our previous practice a setof norms that can be used reflectively to guide future practice.Explication attempts to specify the sense we have of ourselves whenwe act and to clarify that which serves to guide us. We do notchange our ordinary understanding but rather come to know it in a newand better way. Explication is a way of arriving at a kind ofpractical knowledge that takes human agency as primary. It seeks tomediate practice from within practice itself.

Explication is a form of practical knowledge and presupposesthat practical knowledge is more fundamental that theoreticalknowledge. It is not Aristotelian phronesis, for Aristotle presumesthat practical knowledge ultimately presupposes theoreticalknowledge. Explication presupposes that efficient practice precedesthe theory of it. All reflection is ultimately reflection onprimordial practices that existed prior to our theorizingabout them. Language is a good example. Natural languages were andare spoken prior to the explication of their grammar.

Intellectuals in general and philosophers in particular havetrouble with this idea because they are part of an institution thatis meant to be almost exclusively reflective. It is easy to losesight of the fact that reflection is, ultimately, a reflection not onother reflections but on actions in which human beings engaged priorto theorizing about them.

(1) How we understand ourselves is fundamental and how weunderstand the non-human world is derivative. (10)

(2) Negatively, this amounts to the claim that we cannot,ultimately, understand ourselves by reference to physical structures.(11) How we understand the non-human world is derivative from how weunderstand ourselves, but it is a continuing mistake to seek for thehidden structure behind our structuring.

(3) Positively, we understand ourselves by examining ourpractices. A practice is an action informed by an implicit culturalnorm.

(4) To say that the norm is cultural is to say that it issocial and historical. To say that it is social is to say that theexistence and nature of the norm cannot be establishedepistemologically by an individual without reference to a largercommunity.

(5) To say that the norm is historical is to assert thatlater practice evolves out of earlier practice and can be revelatoryof a better understanding of the norm. (12)

(6) To say that the norm is implicit is to assert,epistemologically, that it is discovered internally in action ratherthan as an external structure.

(7) No practice can be judged by norms external to thepractice except when those norms are themselves recognized as part ofa more encompassing practice. Metaphysically, such a norm reflects auniversal insofar as persistent or enduring norms reveal somethinguniversally true about ourselves. The denial that norms reflectexternal non-human structures or the denial that there is aforeseeable closure to norm articulation is to deny two particularversions of universality not the existence of all universality. Itis the recognition of some universality that saves explication fromthe threat of nihilism or the charge of historicist relativism.Explication, then, presupposes the existence of a cosmic order.

It would be a mistake to try to understand this process ofnorm articulation from either a natural scientific or socialscientific perspective. The objection to viewing this process as,say, simply organic is that it fails to do justice to the historicalor temporal dimension. We might be mistakenly tempted to think interms of adaptation to the environment, but such adaptation will berestricted to individuals or, when viewed socially, mistakenlyconstrued as a form of progressive social development. Realhistorical development is much more precarious and in no senseunilinear.

Explication is an intrinsically historical activity preciselybecause a practice is an on-going historical event. To explicate isto explain what we have been doing, specifically what we have beentrying to do or aiming to do. Explication, then, sees the present asa development out of the past; explication does not see the presentas an imperfect vision of the future and the past as an imperfectvision of the present. Another way of putting this is to say thatexplication sees the evolution of practices not the progress ofpractices; or, alternatively, it is a progress from not a progressto. To believe in progress to is to be concerned with thealleged existence of how the world really is independent of uswhereas to believe in progress from is to be concerned with how theworld is relative to ourselves. How the world is relative to uscannot be understood independent of our interaction with the worldand how we have acquired along the way our way of thinking and acting.

If a practice evolves, and if the norm that informs thepractice is implicit, then we should be able to distinguish among andidentify:

(a) some originating practice,

(b) the understandings of that original practice,only one of which is authoritative,

(c) the circumstances that prompt or demand theevolution of the practice,

(d) the process by which we extend our understandingof the practice, and

(e) the understandings of the process of (d), onlyone of which is authoritative.

Let us begin with (a) the notion of an originating practice.The originating practice or set of practices is communal life. Thepractice is fundamental; the explication of a practice that appearsin a text is derivative. Practices are not texts. Texts orinterpretations of texts do not overrule practices but try to help usto understand the practice. The accuracy or legitimacy of a text orwritten interpretation of a practice is by reference to how thepractitioners understand themselves.

(b) How are we to understand the originating practice?

Explication presumes that at least some of the time we canrecapture the original or earlier senses of a practice. This is whatmakes possible the understanding of some historical texts. Sometimesthe texts even help us to identify the practices. The originatingpractice is to be understood by reference to the explication that theoriginal practitioners gave to their practice. Any critique of anoriginating explication can only be by reference to anotheroriginating explication. The originating explication that serves asthe critique of all other explications or interpretations is theauthoritative explication. For convenience sake we shall refer tothe scholarly attempt to recapture the explication that theoriginating practitioners gave to their practice as antiquarianism.

The claim that we can never recapture the original sense of apractice would, from the point of view of explication, annihilate allsubsequent understanding, i.e., lead to nihilism. If this claim isthat there was an original sense but we cannot get it, then the claimis self-contradictory for it presupposes that we know in some sensewhat we cannot know in another sense. If this claim is that therewas no authoritative understanding of an originating practice then itis either (empirically) pointing to the existence of conflictingunderstandings or (logically) denying the existence of standards ornorms internal to a practice or set of practices. The empiricalclaim that there are or have been conflicting understandings cannever by itself establish that there is no authoritative explication.It is always open to say that some of the participants have missedthe point of the practice. In real life we do this all of the time.

The logical claim that there are no standards or normsinternal to a given practice cannot itself be understood or taken tobe an intelligible remark unless there is another more authoritativecontext of practices from which a subordinate practice is beingexplained or condemned. The claim that all practice lacks aninternal standard is unintelligible or self-contradictory. Hence,there is always some authoritative context. Understanding this lastremark is the first step toward understanding what philosophy is allabout.

It is important to stress that, from the point of viewof >explication, it is a mistake to explain a practice or theinterpretation of a practice by reference to an alleged substructure.The appeal to substructure (which is an exploration) misses theoriginal point of what it means to understand ourselves.

There are several kinds of criticism that can be made fromwithin the antiquarian enterprise. First, some practitioners can becriticized for failing to see or to follow the implicit norms of apractice. Second, any practice can be criticized by reference to amore fundamental practice with which it might be in conflict. Third,the antiquarian who really understands the norms internal to a set ofpractices might expose the existence of conflicting practices, eachof which is internally consistent, but which conflict with each otherin a way that cannot be resolved by appeal to a higher level practice.

There is a fourth kind of criticism in which we reveal aconflict between the norms internal to an originating practice orset of practices and a later set of practices within the sameculture. This is an important and meaningful kind of critique but itstill presupposes that there is an authoritative explication both ofthe originating practices and the subsequent development of a set ofpractices in the light of new circumstances. We shall address thisshortly.

There is a fifth kind of criticism in which we reveal aconflict between the norms internal to a set of practices andanother set of practices in a different culture. Again thispresupposes that there can be an authoritative explication of bothcultures!

(c) How do we understand the circumstances that prompt anevolution in a practice or set of practices?

Every set of practices can confront novel circumstances(economic, political, aesthetic, religious, legal, moral, etc.),including but not limited to data or information that challengespreexisting beliefs. We are reminded that practice always precedesthe understanding of the practice, and that even artificiallyconstrued practices are parasitic upon a background of practices thatpreceded the understanding or articulation of those practices. Thecircumstances are novel in that the originating practice alwaysreflects or is always a practice within a particular historicalcontext. Agents within an originating practice are always reflectingupon what they as practitioners in a specific set of circumstanceshave been doing. The demand for a more universal articulation of theimplicit norms or for a final and definitive articulation of thenorms can now be understood as part of the recognition that theexplication of the originating practice is never sufficient toaddress changing circumstances.

(d) How do we understand the process by which we extend ourunderstanding of the practice?

The norms that inform our practice cannot be applied in adeductive way to the novel circumstances. The relationship betweenthe originating practices and the novel circumstances is not logicalbut analogical. To extend the norm or to come to understand it in abetter way as a result of applying it to novel circumstances is anact of moral insight that cannot explained by reference to anythingelse. This is what is meant by saying that the pre-conceptual cannotbe conceptualized; this is what is meant by saying that noexploration can explain an explication. The pre-conceptual cannot beconceptualized because thought is a reflection upon practice; tobelieve that it is possible to conceptualize the pre-conceptual is tosee practice as the reflection of some thought where thought isunderstood to be a picture of some structure, i.e., to see practiceas informed by a sub-structure. The application of a norm to novelcircumstances requires a consensus among the practitioners, and thecultural activity by which we work toward achieving this consensusamong practitioners is itself a practice informed by norms of thehighest order. (13)

Perhaps a helpful analogy would be with the common law. Thelaw certainly has to be rethought and deepened for its applicabilityto new contexts. From the point of view of explication, it isbizarre to say that there is no norm and that judges merely fabricatethe law (we have already addressed this possibility above indiscussing those who deny that there are norms); it would be equallybizarre to say that earlier decisions are hypotheses about later andcompletely unanticipated cases (thus making law a form ofexploration); and it would also be bizarre to say that there is acunning in the law such that the changes in the law are progressivelymoving toward a final closure (Hegelian).

(e) How do we account for the evolving meaning of our practices?

The account of the evolution of the explication of the normsinherent in a practice or a set of practices is an historical accountof the meaning of those norms. This is what constitutes the historyof a practice. It comprises (i) an antiquarian account of each stageof the process, (ii) an account of the novel historical circumstanceswhich routinely might have nothing to do directly with that practice,and (iii) an account of the qualitative transformations of the normas it is applied to the novel historical circumstances. At eachstage it requires the capacity to discern the authoritativeexplications. Everything that we have said above applies to thisprocess of writing the history of a practice. It is not possible totranscend the past; we can move beyond it but only by firstcomprehending it.

When such an account is used to justify or to buttress thefurther extension of a norm to novel circumstances then we areengaged in philosophy per se. This is what constitutes philosophy.If the extension is limited to a specific domain then we are engagedin the philosophy of (e.g., mathematics, law, etc.). If theextension requires consideration of the coherence of our entirecommon life or our most fundamental norms then we are engaged inmetaphysics proper.

It is possible and useful to distinguish among 1) theactivity of providing the historical background, 2) the activity ofmaking the extension, and 3) the activity of using the historicalbackground to justify the extension. Although it is possible toteach the standards of scholarship with regard to history, i.e. (1),it is not possible to construe the extension of the past into thepresent, i.e. (2), as a specifiable decision procedure. This is theelement of truth in the distinction between knowing the history of apractice and engaging in a practice. It is nevertheless clear thatthe history, i.e. (1), is integral to philosophy, i.e. (3). Onecannot do the latter without doing the former.

In order to engage in an extension (2) it is necessary toknow the norms implicit in a practice, and this will require somehistorical knowledge of the practice or accepting some authoritativeaccount of a practice. If one were engaged in extending a norm inthe law or in mathematics then one would need to know the history ofthe law or the history of mathematics or accept some authoritativeaccount of those practices. It follows that if one were to engage inthe extension of a norm in the practice of philosophy then one wouldneed some historical knowledge of philosophy or some authoritativeaccount of philosophy. Is it possible to provide an authoritativeaccount of any practice without implicitly appealing to the historyof that practice? We think not.

Norms do not form a deductive system but are embedded in practice.That is why they can never be definitively articulated. AsWittgenstein put it, we can never definitively circumscribe theconcepts we use. This does not reflect ignorance on our part butrather that there is no real definition of those concepts. Thisis, ironically, a repetition of Frege’s point that we mustdistinguish between a rule and the principle of application. Inaddition, norms can conflict. However, the conflict can only bediscovered retrospectively. Even the resolution of the conflict canonly be by reference to other implicit norms, not by appeal toanything outside of prior practice. The logic of explication isinherently conservative, for the explication of practice is parasiticupon practice itself.

There are two important points to be made about the explication ofthe original practices of Christianity. First, the earliestChristian communities did not articulate themselves in Greekphilosophical terms. Those communities were characterized by theirfaith in Jesus Christ and in their hope of his return. They did nothave or require a formal philosophical rationale. It took twocenturies before the force of circumstance, the need to defendthemselves and to engage in proselytizing, required them to adopt thehabits of an alien intellectual world.

Second, whereas the discovery of the psyche by the classical Greeksled them to seek attunement with an invisible and impersonal orderbeyond the visible order, Christians went beyond that in openingthemselves to the revelation of God’s grace. From the beginning then,it can be said that Christianity distanced itself from Greekphilosophy. It is interesting to note that Christianity’s naturalallies in contemporary moral debate, namely, fundamentalists,Orthodox Jews, Muslims, and Orthodox Christians, all eschew theclassical philosophical context.

Earlier we distinguish explication of the practices of a religiouscommunity from the experience of transcendence. This leads to twoquestions: What account can be given of transcendence or thepre-conceptual (God)? Second, what is the relation of this accountto the explication of the practices?

Working backwards from the practice to the pre-conceptual we find thefollowing: explication of the practices identifies norms; the normsare rooted in originating experiences and events (revelations) andconstitute the pre-conceptual. (14) Here is where we are confrontedby a puzzle: if there are no external structures, and no hiddenstructure to practice, then how can reason perform the explication?The answer is that if we have an impoverished conception of reasonthen it is not possible to understand the process of explication.The explication is an imaginative act. One presumes here that Godhas an imagination as well as counterparts to the more traditionalfaculties of reason and will.

Here again the classical models are obstacles. Prior to theeighteenth century the imagination was considered a negative facultyas opposed to reason the positive faculty for grasping an independentstructure. The content of a set of practices can only be conveyed inthe form of meanings; the practices are re-created throughappropriation; one of the most important ways in which we utilize ourimagination is in reconstructing the thought of others who engaged inthat practice.

There are two kinds of accounts of the pre-conceptual domain oftranscendence: philosophical and poetical. The best philosophicalaccounts that embody the Copernican perspective thatself-understanding or the understanding of selves is primary arephenomenological. At the beginning of the twentieth century theclearest examples of the phenomenological description of thetranscendent were William James’ Varieties of Religious Experienceand Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy (1917). Otto was a colleagueof Husserl. It was Otto who first proclaimed that the transcendentpre-conceptual could not be conceptualized however much reason playsa part in religion. Otto’s insights were developed by Max Scheler,especially in On the Eternal in Man, where he proclaimed that we mustdeliver the kernel of Augustinianism from the husklike accretions ofhistory, and [employ] phenomenological philosophy to provide it witha fresh and more deeply rooted foundationˇ. Only a theology of theessential experience of divinity can open our eyes to the lost truthsof Augustine. (15) Two important thinkers influenced by Scheler andwho take up his challenge to capture the person and release it fromthe confines of subjectivity were Edith Stein (16) and Dietrich vonHildebrand. Another important figure in this development was KarlRahner who both sought to integrate traditional Thomistic metaphysicswith phenomenology and who made clear that we gain access to thetranscendent through the transcendental.

The impact of this rejection of neo-positivist and classical thinkingand the embrace of a reexamination of religious experience and theimportance of the historical and interpretive aspects of thatexperience were not lost on Vatican II. One of the best expressionsof these insights was to be found in the work of Bernard Lonergan.Even a changed conception of natural theology emerges from thisliterature, especially in John Macquarrie’s In Search of Deity (1983).

The philosophical account, beginning with practice reveals theexistence of the pre-conceptual domain. It discovers that thepre-conceptual cannot itself be conceptualized; it discovers that thepre-conceptual is the domain of the person; it recognizes thatpersonhood is a product of communication and that communication is animaginative act. This is where the philosophical account comes to anend. What succeeds it is the poetical account. The other account ofthe pre-conceptual domain of transcendence is the poetical.

The most important expression of this insight and initiation into itis to be found in the work of Fernando Rielo. Imagination goesbeyond reason in the narrow sense. It is not possible for reason toprovide a comprehensive account of the whole; that is what is meantin part by saying that the pre-conceptual around which reasonconstantly circles cannot itself be conceptualized. The world is notsuch that a comprehensive view of the whole can be achieved. It isonly in the imaginative act, in poetical vision, that we intimate atotality when only the parts are perceived. Imagination properlyunderstood is not sheer autonomous creativity (which only God canpossess); imagination is the source of the discovery of objectivereality. This insight has been obscured if not obfuscated by theclassical insistence that all structure is external; rather, it isthrough the transcendental that we arrive at the transcendent.

The Explicatory Moment in Contemporary Catholic Metaphysics

We come now to the most important metaphysical issue. Whatis the relation of the account of the pre-conceptual to the practice?

If there is no conceptualization of the whole, then there cannot be acomprehensive conceptualization of the relationship between practiceand theory such that if one had such a conceptualization one coulddictate future practice. It is important to see that the purpose ofmetaphysic is not to lead to an ideology. Without denying either theimportance or the inescapability of the practical dimension of life,it is important to stress that the practical domain is not the onlyor even the most important domain of human existence. By stressingthe extent to which the transcendent is also apprehended in a poeticact of contemplation, we escape the illusory domination of ourpractical concerns. Who amongst us has not learnt and constantlyrediscovered that worldly success is always an illusion?

I do not mean to deny that recognition of the transcendent aspre-conceptual norm within practice can be a form of revelation. Onthe contrary, precisely in those situations in which we findourselves with the courage to sustain ourselves in defense of a normor its implementation in the face of great personal cost and evenwhen a part of us does not want to pay the price, it is here that weunderstand ourselves to be the recipient of grace.

What connects the account or expression of the pre-conceptual to ourpractices is a narrative. How we understand ourselves is primary;how we understand the world is derivative. We cannot understandourselves without an historical or genealogical narrative. Allcultures have had historical/genetic accounts of themselves. Thosetheorists who deny the intrinsic role of narrative supplement theirallegedly timeless accounts with an historical narrative. Eitherthey give an historical account of why earlier thinkers failed tograsp the alleged timeless truths, or they provide a speculativehistory of how we are marching toward that timeless account or theygive an historical account of how once the timeless insights havebeen articulated later thinkers have allowed those insights todegenerate.

The Christian Narrative is the story of Christ and later revelationsto the Saints. The narrative is re-enacted in the practices of theChristian community, of which the most important is the Mass. Partof that narrative is the connection drawn between the Old Testamentand the new Testament stories of Christ. Christianity is itselfbased upon a unique historical event.

In the contemporary age, three immediate objections will bemade to the notion that it is a narrative that connects the accountof the transcendent with the explication of communal practices.First, it will be said that such narratives are stories we invent toplacate our anxieties. This kind of objection can now be seen asfatally flawed. It assumes that we can give a hidden structureaccount of what humanity is, a social scientific account. However,if physical science is not self-legitimating, then social sciencemodeled after it cannot be self-legitimating; and, if thoseintellectual activities themselves require explication of the humanpredicament, then the human predicament cannot itself be explained intheir terms.

Second, it will be said that stories can be deconstructed. But thedeconstruction of stories is just bad social science, thereforecontradictory and incoherent. Moreover, the propounders of suchdeconstructive narratives always present their own narratives asnarratives of liberation. Yet, liberation narratives arequestion-begging, for they supply no context in which liberation isever made clear. (17)

Third, and perhaps most important, it will be asked: How do wechoose among competing narratives? There are five criteria of goodnarratives:

(a)They must be true to the facts.

(b)They must be consistent with experience of the transcendent,including the mystical – the narrative does not generate theexperience; nor has religious experience declined; much in organizedreligions has failed to provide an adequate expression of it.

(c)They should illuminate other social practices: elevate anddignify social practices by placing them within a narrative thatexhibits a spiritual quest. (18)

(d)They should be narratives of healing, hope and redemption butnot utopian.

(e)They must be fertile source of adaptation – not a rigiddoctrine; the great strength of the Roman Catholic Church has beenits ability to be such a source; it is self-critical, characterizedby its striving for universality, has as its great strength the powerof assimilation, and it is a fertile source of adaptation of what hasbeen and still can be absorbed from other historical cultures. It is,after all, the longest-running show in town.

One of the most promising of the contemporary narratives is to befound in the work of Max M¸ller. (19) It is M¸ller who begins byreiterating that the pre-conceptual cannot be conceptualized and whorecognizes being is always historically conditioned. Metaphysics asnarrative is the search for analogical unity amidst the diversity andplurality of historical situations. The resultant narrative does notentail specific duties; rather, our duties can only be determinedthrough the conversational reappropriation of the institutionswithin which we live.

Central to M¸ller’s narrative is the transformation of spirit intofreedom. The traditional meaning of freedom is autonomy meaningself-rule or self-governance. In the classical world this wasexplained by reference to conformity to an external structure,specifically the inherent telos of the world. Modern thoughtrecognizes no such telos. In the absence of telos and in the absenceof guiding external structures, what is to be made of the concept ofautonomy? It is all too easy for adherents of traditionalAristotelian metaphysics to see in this only the sin ofself-assertion or self-definition. On the contrary, self-rule isstill possible but it is not to be understood as following specifictimeless and contextless dictates; rather it a matter of consistencyand coherence with what it means to be free. Self-rule can beunderstood in ascetic terms, and the ascetic experience can lead toan experience of transcendence. But in the modern world, self-rulecan also mean infusing the work of the world with a spiritualdimension. It is not exactly we who are free, rather it is freedomwhich is lodged in us; it is never consistent with heteronomy(including exploiting others) and it is not only compatible with buteven requires God’s grace. This view of freedom is the presence ofthe divine in the culture of the Germanic invaders in the form ofGeist. It is what has enabled those invaders to reinfuse the divinein the Latin culture of the Mediterranean. It is a perfect exampleof how the Christian narrative is a continuous source of fertileadaptation. It is a model of what might lie in the future as theChristian seriously confronts the transcendent in other cultures.


What is an authoritative statement of principle? It is anillumination of revelation and liturgy. It cannot be focused onproviding a conceptualization of the pre-conceptual or a final anddefinitive formulation. What we maintain is that every attempt toconceptualize the pre-conceptual is internally incoherent bothbecause it represses the truth of the soul and because itsineffectiveness in practice leads to forms of barbarism andinhumanity in which those who pretend to provide completeconceptualization destroy themselves as well as others.

Retrieving our tradition is not a simple matter of an uncriticalreturn to the past. Instead, it is the re-identifying of somethingthat is a permanent part of the human condition even though it isalways expressed in specific historical contexts. The fact thatthese universal truths are always contextualized means that the actof retrieval through explication inevitably involves a reformulation.To encompass the past is to make it our own in some fashion. Itwould be a singular example of the lack of Christian faith to adhereto the belief in a set of conditions that relieved us of theresponsibility of reappropriation. A tradition is not a rigidstructure but a fertile source of adaptation that not only evolvesbut expands to incorporate things that might from an earlierperspective even seem alien. Christians are intellectually andmorally obligated to engage in a perpetual retrieval of theirtradition. Since the universal truths are moral truths and sincetheir apprehension is not solely an intellectual act, we should nownot be surprised that there is (a) no definitive articulation of thedivine order, (b) inevitable controversy over its articulation, and(c) a necessary act of faith in its continuing apprehension.Controversy is not a problem to be solved but an inevitable conditionthat requires a moral response.


(1) See Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (1981); Nicholas Capaldi, TheEnlightenment Project in the Analytic Conversation (1998); T.W. Adorno andM. Horkheimer, Dialectic of the Enlightenment (1990); and J. McCarthy,Modern Enlightenment and the Rule of Reason (1998). Eric Voegelin, NewScience of Politics (1951), calls the Enlightenment a form of gnosticism.

(2) Karl Jaspers, Philosophie (1931); Bultmann and Tillich were influencedby Heidegger’s Being and Time.

(3) See Gabriel Vahanian, The Death of God (1960); Bishop John A.T.Robinson, Honest to God (1963); see also the works of Thomas Altizer andPaul Van Buren.

(4) Nicholas Capaldi, Scientism, Deconstruction, and Nihilism,Argumentation 9: 563-575, 1995.

(5) My critique of Aristotelian realism is not meant to deny or obscurethe fact that both Aquinas and Aristotle were among the wisest philosophersever to have lived or written. But it is necessary to distinguish betweenthe specific insights of great philosophers and the system into which theyembed those insights. One can recognize the defects of the system withoutdelegitimating the insights.

(6) Alasdair MacIntyre, Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry (1990), pp.72-76.

(7) Jacques Maritain, The Degrees of Knowledge (1932). Gilson has beendefended against this charge by Emerich Coreth, Metaphysics (1968). Thisdefense along with the renaming of New Scholasticism as The AmericanCatholic Philosophical Quarterly marks the beginning of the decline ofThomism and the reclamation of the Copernican turn.

(8)H.-G. Gadamer, Philosophical Hermeneutics, trans. And ed. David E.Linge (Berkeley: University of California, 1976), p. 174.

(9) Elimination. When we theorize from an elimination point of view,there is an explicit substitution of new ideas for old ideas. Eliminationis a form of radical replacement through innovation. All forms ofreductionism are forms of elimination. Elimination is most characteristicof physical science and technological thinking. Some examples would be theelimination of Ptolemy’s geocentric view of the universe and itsreplacement by Copernicus’ heliocentric view of the universe. Anotherexample would be the elimination of traditional theories of disease by thediscovery of microbes. Elimination is a form of technological thinkingwhich seems to make sense if there is some prior agreed upon framework interms of which we can judge that one new theory is better than an oldtheory.Early positivism subscribed to the view that all correct thinking iseliminative thinking. Certainly in the early Russell and in the positivismof the Vienna Circle one sees an optimism about how science is thesuccessful elimination of superstition and nonsense and how philosophy isthe overseer of the transition period to a totally scientific world view.The major difficulty with elimination is that there must be someindependent criterion in terms of which we can judge an elimination to besuccessful. Positivists believed, originally, that science bore theempirical mark of its own validity. Therefore, in order to decide when onetheory has successfully eliminated another we can look to science itself.Within physical science we would, presumably, find examples of successfulreductions of one theory to another or eliminations of one theory in favorof another. So it would seem to be the case that it is a simple matter toextract the criteria for such success. Unfortunately this turned out notto be the case. Instead of being a minor technical problem of specifyingwhen reduction-elimination was successful, it turned out that there was noconsensus on when elimination was successful. In logic, in mathematics,and in science there are a priori elements (semantic notions, conventions,appeals to common sense or to intuitions, etc.) which cannot be eliminatedin a straightforward and unambiguous fashion. Turning to the largerquestion of how science progresses from one theory to another we find aneven greater mystery.Exploration. In exploration we begin with our ordinary understanding ofhow things work and then go on to speculate on what might be behind thoseworkings. In time, we come to change our ordinary understanding. The newunderstanding does not evolve from or elaborate the old understanding,rather it replaces it by appeal to underlying structures. The underlyingstructures are discovered by following out the implications of somehypothetical model about those structures.Exploration is a mode of thinking found in the physical sciences and isexemplified, for example, in the use of the atomic theory to explainchemical behavior or the behavior of gases. But exploration is alsopreeminently the mode of thought of academic social science. By allegedanalogy with physical science, the social sciences have persistently soughtto discover the hidden structure behind the everyday understanding ofsocial activities. From Durkheim to Marx, Freud, the functionalists,Chomsky, etc. social scientists have persistently sought to reveal astructural level of which we are not immediately aware. Exploration, then,stresses the search for structure rather than for meaning, the search forthe formal elements underlying the everyday world rather than believingthat the everyday world can constitute its own level of understanding.The problem with exploration is the same as the problem with elimination,namely, there is no way to confirm or disconfirm an exploration. We areunable to choose among competing explorations. Denied formal criteria orextra-systematic criteria for evaluating their own hypotheses, theoristscan only fall back upon aesthetic and/or informal criteria. As aconsequence immense prestige is accorded to those individuals skillful informulating clever, ingenious, and sometimes bizarre hypotheses. Ingenuitybecomes the benchmark of success, and like present day movements in thearts leads to sudden shifts in fashion. Another dead-end is the appeal tointuition so that rival explorers claim that their hidden structurehypothesis better captures some intuition about our ordinaryunderstanding. There is, of course, no independent way of establishingthis. The failure of foundationalism in science and epistemology leadswriters like Richard Rorty to a kind of despair and to the speculation thatperhaps philosophy is an interminable conversation of incommensurablevoices (i.e., in our terms, unconfirmable explorations about otherexplorations).

(10) The notion that self-understanding is primary was articulated byPlato as early as the Phaedo.

(11) The qualification ultimately should be taken seriously. Explicatorsdo not deny that we can use physical science to understand the world andto understand the human body. But understand has to be understoodrelative to a larger and more fundamental framework which can only beexplicated. We can treat parts of our body as if they were mechanisms aslong as we do not forget that we are not mechanisms and that it is thewe who are employing the model of a mechanism.

(12) Plato’s notion that our practice imperfectly copies the Good, theJudeo-Christian notion that God cannot be fully conceptualized, Heidegger’snotion of retrieval, and Wittgenstein’s assertion that we can nevercircumscribe a concept are all alternative ways of making this point. Theassertion of a pre-conceptual domain is treated by advocates of scientismas a form of mysticism.

.(13) The recognition that (a) we cannot deduce future applications butmust rely upon a kind of intuition and (b) we cannot conceptualize this actof intuition have led some to argue or to suggest that the process issimply a power struggle (e.g., Foucault). What is missed in the latterclaim is that such a claim amounts to an exploration of the pre-conceptual.Hence, the claim amounts to a denial of (b). If there is a denial of (b),then there must be some way of choosing among rival explorations. If, aswe have maintained, there is no way to make such a choice without appeal toanother explication then the denial of (b) either reflectsmisunderstanding, failure to carry the point far enough, or thedisingenuous attempt to impose an elimination disguised as an explorationor as an explication.

(14) Working in the Anglo-American philosophical tradition, thephilosopher who best seems to capture this point is D.Z. Phillips,influenced by Wittgenstein. See his Faith and Philosophy (1970). See alsothe work of Alvin Plantinga.

(15) Max Scheler, The Eternal in Man (New York: Harper, 1960), p. 13.

(16) Edith Stein, Die Kreuzeswissenschaft Studie ˇber Joannes a Cruce (1985).

(17) MacIntyre (1990): The post-modern’s exemption of her own speech fromcriticism is self-indulgent. Her ironic distance means that she cannotgive an account of herself in terms of an un-ironic relationship to a pastwhich she disowns; more important, it makes it impossible for her toacknowledge in her past any failure especially guilty failure. WhatMacIntyre has shown is that the very project of masking and unmaskingpresupposes a narrative, that acts of disowning make sense only in terms ofa self-narrative. Behind the post-modern’s narrative of disowning there isalways a shadowy self-congratulatory narrative. There is no guilt, noremorse, no repentance. The post-modern project presupposes, but does notacknowledge the continuity of self that narrative and moral accountabilityimply. The self of post-modernity is a fragmented and dissipated self heldtogether by an empty notion of autonomy. It can justify anything; it ismorally self-complacent. The post-modern assume[s] the contours of a givenmask and then discards it for another, without ever assenting to themetaphysical fiction of a face that would give continuity and unity tothis sequence of appearances.

(18) E.G, Michael Novak, The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism(1993), provides a narrative in which social justice is not incompatiblewith free market economies.

(19) Max M¸ller, Existenzphilosophie. Von der Metaphysik zur Metahistorik(1986).

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