Catholic Metaphysics in the Wake of the Collapse of the Enlightenment

Catholic Metaphysics in the Wake of the Collapse of the Enlightenment

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Introduction: Contemporary Crisis  

The condition of contemporary moral and political thought stands in stark contrast to over two thousand years of prior understandings. Unlike the syncretic culture of the Greco-Roman world, in which one understood that the practice of virtue, law, and right conduct was situated within an enveloping and dominant framework of cultural and moral expectations, or Christianity’s traditional univocal understanding of metaphysics and morality, contemporary moral and political concerns are set against fragmented moral visions and competing metaphysical accounts.  The Christian moral vision and its foundational metaphysical account are fading from Western Europe and North America. Moreover, modern philosophical assumptions about reason’s ability to establish a community of all persons has been brought into question.  Indeed, there are institutional bases which sustain contrary metaphysical foundations and thus understandings of proper moral deportment.  Prime among these institutions in the West is the Roman Catholic Church, which though diminished in secular authority, remains a strong viable counterweight to the various secular moralities of our time.  Prime among the issues at stake are foundational understandings of the moral significance of birth, copulation, and death, expressed in debates regarding abortion, third-party assisted reproduction, assisted suicide, and euthanasia.

Three recent encyclical letters of the Pope signal recognition of this significant change in the metaphysical assumptions underlying culture. They raise broad foundational issues as well as specific concerns regarding morality.  In Veritatis Splendor, the Pope characterizes the anti-traditional character of much of contemporary moral reflection as marked by “an overall and systematic calling into question of traditional moral doctrine, on the basis of certain anthropological and ethical presuppositions” (1993, p. 8). In Evangelium Vitae, John Paul II places this difficulty within the major contemporary cultural crises and shifts in the metaphysical presuppositions of moral theory. “In the background there is a profound crisis of culture which generates skepticism in relation to the very foundations of knowledge and ethics and which makes it increasingly difficult to grasp clearly the meaning of what man is, the meaning of his rights, and his duties” (1995, p. 21).  The result is, as John Paul II recognizes, a transformation and fragmentation of culture, a fragmentation he ties to the de-Christianization touchingEurope and the world. Such fragmentation sets the stage for the emergence of foundational moral differences that divide the field of ethics as well as reflection upon our social and political rights and obligations into not merely different, but mutually antagonistic accounts of freedom, responsibility, and proper decorum.

 In Fides et Ratio (1998), the Pope has called attention to the crisis of rationalism, a distrust of reason in contemporary thought which has led to the abandonment of the metaphysical study of human questions. Too many thinkers find reason hostile to faith; too many religious apologists embrace a faith shorn of reason.  So much of contemporary Western culture has denied, destroyed, or limited the influence of traditional metaphysical assumptions that we now find ourselves in the depths of the culture wars.

 These three encyclicals are invoked to suggest the significance of our contemporary cultural disarray; yet such difficulties were not born of the last few years. Rather, the disruption in Western culture due to the Reformation was in some measure considered healed by an understanding of reason that could bind all in a shared understanding of moral community. General secular reason in the Enlightenment Project was held to be able to ground unambiguous and non-idiosyncratic metaphysical foundations for common moral commitments. This is no longer considered to be the case. Since the collapse of the Enlightenment Project and the emergence of a post-modern nihilism, the development of this significant rupture in Western culture between an emerging secularity and the traditional commitments of Christianity has taken on substance and force.  It has only recently been forcefully expressed in significant debates regarding medical ethics as well as the foundation and limits of state moral authority and personal freedom.

 The Marginalization of Metaphysical Thinking

 The most powerful intellectual movement during the last two centuries has been the Enlightenment Project. [1] The Enlightenment Project comprises both the view known as scientism, namely, that science is the whole truth about everything and that it is the ground of its own legitimation, as well as the program to transcend the human predicament by gaining complete technological mastery of the physical and social environment.  It is a project that was originally formulated by French philosophes in the last half of the eighteenth century, was preserved by positivist movements in the nineteenth century, and has dominated universities in the twentieth century.

 What room is there for metaphysics in such a view?  The only version of metaphysics permissible is secular Aristotelian naturalism.  The everyday world is self-explanatory. Metaphysics is thus no more than the most comprehensive and most general characterization of existent things.  As a form of knowledge, Aristotelian metaphysics is arrived at by abstraction from the specialized sciences.  Hence, metaphysics is a kind of empirical super-science, the philosophy of physical science.  One consequence of this naturalism is that modern secular Aristotelians do not speak so much of metaphysics, but prefer to speak about ontology.  The question of ontology, namely, what constitutes the most general features of reality, is tied in Aristotelianism to epistemology, understood as the study of the basic categories or concepts used for describing and explaining the everyday world.  Reality is said to consist of individual or particular things or substances.  A substance (thing) is something more than its properties, and it is ultimately, though problematically, identified grammatically as the subject-matter of discourse.  In Aristotelian metaphysics there is a tendency to reduce meaning to reference.  It is in this sense that Aristotelians approach their metaphysics through epistemology.

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

What happens to religion and faith in such a worldview?  The answer is that it is either denied any meaning or, if it is treated charitably, it is as a form of experience to be explained in social scientific fashion. The Enlightenment Project sees physical science as the paradigm of all knowledge; to the extent that humanity can be the object of knowledge, it must be as the object of social analysis where such analysis is derivative >from physical science.  That is, the social sciences are modeled along the lines of the physical sciences.  Religion and theology disappear as modes of knowledge with their own integrity and are replaced by what university catalogues describe as religious studies.

Most of the major Protestant theologians of the twentieth century including Barth, Bultmann, Jaspers, and Tillich have caved in to positivism and turned to faith alone as a justification of Christianity. [2]  The death of God movement in the 1960s [3] officially marks for Protestantism the onset of a post-Christian era characterized by a kind of religious atheism, or even what Louis Dupry has called a humanism beyond atheism.

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

 The Enlightenment Project was specifically intended to delegitimate all traditional forms of culture, to delegitimate and replace religion, and to obviate the need for metaphysical thinking.  Attempts to realize the project in practice resulted in the most totalitarian, barbaric, and dehumanizing regimes in world history (it is what Voegelin calls the immanentization of the eschaton, the inevitable result of the Aristotelian tendency to want to locate the form in matter).  The final logic of the Enlightenment Project is post-modern nihilism; post-modernism thinks of itself as a critic of the 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 the twentieth century has been the collapse of the Enlightenment Project. [4] The rationale for scientism was that scientific statements could be empirically confirmed.  It turned out that science itself did not meet this standard. In his attack on the “Two Dogmas of Empiricism,” Quine undermined traditional empiricism by asserting (a) that there is nothing independent of different conceptual schemes (ontological relativism) and (b) that different conceptual schemes are alternative readings of experience. The significance of Kuhn’s work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is that it used the history of science to further discredit the original positivist conception of scientific theories as experimentally confirmable or disconfirmable.  As Kuhn showed, scientists operate with paradigms, understood as a framework of background assumptions which structure the way in which experiments are interpreted.  Kuhn’s work was followed by the more radical views of Feyerabend, who extended Kuhn’s thesis in Against Method to argue that paradigms were more than just frameworks within science. Paradigms constituted the entire cultural pre-theoretical context within which theoretical science operated.  Science could not, therefore, serve as the arbiter among competing paradigms or pre-theoretical contexts.

 There were two immediate responses to the relativistic implications of the work of Quine, Kuhn, and Feyerabend.  One response was the reassertion of the positivist conception in more sophisticated guises.  However, it became increasingly and painfully clear that this amounted to no more than scientistic fideism coupled with a progressivist historicism about what the future of science would show.  The historicism turned out to be a theory at another level for which no experimental confirmation was conceivable.

 A second response to the relativistic implications of Quine, Kuhn and Feyerabend was to embrace and to extend the relativism, to wit, the incommensurability and incivility theses to moral and political philosophy. If science is radically relativistic, then everything is radically relativistic.  Relativism is a view that had long been asserted on other grounds, but the demise of the positivist conception of science gave relativism a new lease on life.  It is important to note this because relativist deconstruction is too often routinely and mistakenly dismissed as if it were another self-refuting version of skepticism.  Unlike earlier existentialist philosophers, the contemporary French ‘deconstructionist’ philosophers Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida do not reject scientism, but argue that mathematical science is the best and only defensible ideal construct for thinking.  They see only the need to interpret the implications of the situation to which the scientific ideal has led.

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

 The significant difference between the two contemporary responses is that whereas scientistic fideists still cling to the notion of a scientifically accessed cosmic order, deconstructionists consign scientism to the same trash bin as metaphysics, religion, and tradition-that is, deconstruction denies the existence of a cosmic order which is not another human construction.  Deconstructionists are more consistent than scientistic fideists because the former see, as the latter do not, that scientism is a humanly constructed paradigm.  Whereas advocates of scientism appeal to a ‘mythic’ progressive historicism, advocates of deconstruction see in history a gradual “emancipatory” move away from the notion of a cosmic order.  Scientism was just one of the latest stages in the great emancipation.  It is for this reason that Quine, Kuhn, and Feyerabend are among the unlikely heroes of the deconstructionist narrative.  The advocates of scientism, having delegitimated everything but science, 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 presumed delegitimation of metaphysics by scientism was fed by two sources: one source was the spectacular growth and success of science and technology, and the second source was a host of intimidating technical arguments.  However, it is important to see that the accumulation of useful information does not constitute an explanation and therefore cannot serve to confirm scientism. We also know that this information creates moral problems about its own use that it is not able to solve or even render intelligible.  Moreover, those who have gone to the trouble to examine the technical arguments have readily seen that scientism is intellectually indefensible.  Apparently, the way is now open to a return to substantive metaphysical thinking.

 Waning of Catholic Metaphysics

 If the way is open, why have Catholics not been able to make progress on it?  The answer is that for historically accidental reasons Catholics have been restricted by an officially sanctioned metaphysics that shares too many of the same assumptions of scientism.  The great roadblock to the future of Catholic metaphysics is Leo XIII’s Aeterni Patris (1879) in which he ordered a return to the Scholastic philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas. [5]

 Under Kleutgen’s influence, [6] Thomism was first divorced from the tradition of thought and practice out of which it had emerged and was presented as a finished system.  Next, Thomism was presented as primarily an epistemological doctrine addressing the issues of modern epistemology generated by modern science.

 The trouble with this approach is that it is ultimately rooted in the same Aristotelian metaphysical tradition that is at the root of scientism.  The commitment to the Aristotelian model of metaphysics effectively reinforces the scientific-naturalistic paradigm. What I mean by this is the following.  It presumes first that there is an order or structure in nature independent of cognition; it presumes that human beings can grasp or abstract that structure in a purely naturalistic way since human beings are themselves a part of the natural order and to be understood largely in the same manner; finally, it presumes that a study of the natural order leads naturally to an understanding of the supernatural behind that order.  The common philosophical assumption is that we first start with the intelligibility of nature and then move progressively to the understanding of ourselves and then God.  It assumes that how we understand the world is primary and how we understand ourselves is secondary.  It assumes that an understanding of God is gained through an understanding of the natural world.  Christianity is reduced to the status of an ingenious hypothesis within the scientific game.

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

Where Did Traditional-Official Catholic Metaphysics Go Wrong?

 The Thomistic-Aristotelian conception of metaphysics is defective for a number of reasons.  To begin with, Aristotelian metaphysics is rooted 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 as Newtonian mechanism, or even indeterminism, the metaphysics has become anachronistic.  Reintroducing the teleology becomes a form of metaphysical sleight-of-hand, in practice a form of obsessive natural theology condemned to potentially endless embarrassment, and intellectually a transparent anthropomorphic projection.

 Second, revived Thomism, especially in the works of Maritain [7] and Gilson, blocked serious consideration of the Copernican turn so prominent in nineteenth and twentieth century German Catholic thought. Because of Thomistic Aristotelianism’s intransigent objection to the Copernican Revolution in Philosophy, many important contributions of post-Kantian German Catholic philosophy, especially phenomenology, have been marginalized.  It has thereby blocked adequate consideration of interiority or the inner domain.

 Third, the Thomistic-Aristotelian conception of metaphysics obfuscates the very nature of metaphysical discourse.  In a kind of authoritarian and imperialistic way it declares itself the hegemonic proprietor of the very term ‘metaphysics’ so that not to be a Thomist is not to have a metaphysics at all. Much of value in the Augustinian-Platonic and neo-Platonic tradition has been neglected.  Any survey of the history of the term ‘metaphysics’ will show not only that there are conflicting metaphysical positions, but there are conflicting views about what metaphysics itself is.  Even the meaning of the term ‘metaphysics’ is difficult to divorce from substantive metaphysical positions.  Although this is an obstacle, it also tells us something important about the attempt to abstract form from substantive beliefs.

 Before turning to those other conceptions of metaphysics, let us note a fourth defect of Aristotelian metaphysics.  A static metaphysics that denies the possibility of new forms becomes in practice a defense of the status quo.  Ptolemaic astronomy, feudalism, agrarianism, and the mindless opposition to market economies suddenly become features of Christianity rather than historical accidents.  We soon forget that Christianity does not entail a particular economic or political system.

 A fifth defect of the Thomistic-Aristotelian metaphysical system is that it transforms morality into an intellectual exercise, the application of theory to practice or morality as the reflective observance of rules or ideals.  Emphasis is put upon having a correct and defensible theory rather than on how to act.  The ideals too quickly turn into obsessions. Inevitably, moral sensibility is inhibited or even eroded in favor of an elaborate casuistry.  The object seems to be to observe a rule instead of behaving in a certain concrete manner.  It achieves the appearance of stability at the price of imperviousness to change.  When change can no longer be resisted, it occurs as a revolution rather than as an evolution. Obsession with rigid deductive structures, a preoccupation with logical systematicity, has been destructive of both historical understanding 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 in ancient Greece, philosophy has always striven to provide a comprehensive or total vision of the world.  The belief in the possibility of doing so is part of the original definition of philosophy.  There are, of course, conflicting visions both of what the 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 these truths, 3) the referent of these truths, and 4) how the philosopher understands his relationship to those alleged truths.

Three generic metaphysical traditions have emerged within the history of Western thought. Those traditions can be labeled as Platonism, Aristotelianism, and Copernicanism.  We have already discussed Aristotelianism, 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 mention just a few), it is claimed that how we understand ourselves is different from how we understand the world and that how we understand ourselves is fundamental, whereas how we understand the world is derivative.  Hence, the world of everyday experience cannot be understood on its own terms.  As a consequence, a distinction is introduced between the world of appearance (or everyday experience) and ultimate reality. Platonic metaphysics is marked by a series of derivative dualisms.

 In its modern form, it is claimed within Platonism that although science can account for the world of appearance, science cannot account either for itself or for ultimate reality.  Hence, metaphysics is a kind of non-empirical pre-science.  Ultimate reality is conceptual or logical, (consisting of forms, ideas, or universals, etc.), not a system of physical objects.  The conceptual entities that comprise ultimate reality are related to each other in logical fashion.  Platonism, moreover, rejects any distinction between a thing 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 the irreducible and fundamental nature of meaning.  The distinction between meaning and reference is derivative from the distinction between ultimate reality (which is conceptual) and the world of everyday experience. Finally, Platonists insist upon the dualism of subject and object, a dualism in which the subject’s knowledge of itself is more fundamental than the subject’s knowledge of objects.

 This Platonic version of metaphysics has a great advantage over the Aristotelian in that it places the emphasis on the person, on how we understand ourselves.  Unfortunately, its great disadvantage is that it cannot characterize ultimate reality except in empty tautological fashion. As Rielo points out, this sterile metaphysics originates in Parmenides and is the “original sin of metaphysics.”

 Let me characterize this original sin of metaphysics further.  Let us begin with those who suffer from metaphysical blindness.  There are those like the subscribers to scientism who fail to distinguish between our conceptualization of the world and the pre-conceptual ground of conceptualization.  That is why they are oblivious to metaphysics.  They, of course, have a metaphysics, but they are not self-conscious of it.  In fact, self-consciousness and self-reference are things of which they are unaware or find unintelligible.  When forced to come to terms with their preconceptions what they discover is gnosticism or modern pelagianism. They believe they can transcend the human condition by reducing it to its physical body and then offering the hope of total body control. Unfortunately, what they can no longer explain are the criteria for bodily control.

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

 To believe, mistakenly, that the pre-conceptual can be conceptualized is to believe as well that reason can be autonomous, that it can stand freely outside of every frame of reference, that it can justify itself, that it can sit in judgment of everything else.  To believe that reason is autonomous is to believe, mistakenly, that there is a dichotomy between intellect and will; it is to misconceive the relationship between theory and practice as one in which theory is authoritative by being wholly autonomous of practice; it is to believe, mistakenly, that there is a dichotomy between reason and faith; it is to believe, mistakenly, that the imagination is a distorting force rather than a creative force and a source of illumination and insight and communication.

 There is a third great metaphysical tradition: Copernican Metaphysics: The Copernican Revolution in philosophy, as introduced by Hume and Kant, offers a third or alternative vision of metaphysics.  According to this view of metaphysics, the ultimate source of reality and intelligibility is neither the experience of external physical objects nor a supersensible conceptual world.  Rather, the source is the everyday pre-theoretical world constituted by the interaction of human beings with each other. Copernicanism can be understood both as a rejection of Aristotelian realism and as a humanizing of Platonism.  For example, Copernicans do not equate metaphysical realism with epistemological realism.  That is, while Copernicans can recognize that there are objects independent of human beings (this meaning of realism is unobjectionable), Copernicans deny that knowledge is the abstraction of an external structure.  Unlike Aristotelianism, Copernicanism sees discourse (and epistemology) as cultural in the sense that it denies that structure can be explicated apart >from agents. As in Platonism, Copernican metaphysicians insist upon the distinction between, and the irreducibility of, subjects to objects; but, unlike Platonism, the subject is seen as rooted in the pre-theoretical world of everyday practices.

 Copernicans can see both traditional forms of Aristotelian and Platonic metaphysics as themselves anthropomorphic forms of thought in which classical thinkers understandably projected onto the world or cosmic scale the most unified and important bodies of knowledge available to them: Plato projecting Greek or specifically Pythagorean geometry and Aristotle projecting teleological biology.  Later thinkers follow the early lead simply because that is what is made available to them.  Extreme forms of rationalism always believe they are starting with a clean slate and using reason in an autonomous fashion, but in fact they are always selectively choosing from their own immediate frame of reference.

 It is important to tell this story of the history of philosophy correctly. It was Hume, Kant, and Hegel who first called attention to the Copernican Revolution in philosophy.  What positivism and neo-scholasticism share is a reaction against the Copernican Revolution in the name of Aristotelian realism.  In the twentieth century, the reassertion of the Copernican Revolution against positivism is to be found in Wittgenstein’s later work and the reassertion against neo-scholasticism and Husserlian transcendental idealism (another form of realism) is to be found in Heidegger.  That Wittgenstein and Heidegger are both engaged in the same epistemological enterprise was recognized by Gadamer. [8]

 Our epistemological argument is as follows.  The current moral crisis is rooted in an epistemological dispute that goes back at least to the eighteenth century.  The great divide is between pre-Copernicans and post-Copernicans.  We maintain that the post-Copernicans have won the epistemological debate: epistemological realism is an indefensible position for it relies upon an Aristotelian metaphysical biology that hardly anyone any longer accepts. Aristotelian realists themselves now concede the epistemological point and try to defend their position by claiming that without epistemological realism we cannot have moral realism, and without moral realism we end up in the contemporary crisis.  This is not an adequate defense of realism but a restatement of it.  Copernicans are not epistemological relativists, but even if they were epistemological relativism does not imply metaphysical relativism, and even epistemological moral relativism does not imply metaphysical moral relativism.  On the contrary, to the extent that one ties metaphysical realism to epistemological realism, metaphysical realism has been put at risk.

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

The Aristotelian realist gives the following self-serving account of the contemporary moral crisis.  Ethics is a matter of having the right theory and then applying that theory to practice.  If there are conflicting theories, then there will be different or conflicting practices.  The current nihilistic crisis results from the perception of conflicting theories and the belief that no theory can be independently validated.  The only solution is to find the right 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, definitive theory led to endless theological controversy and to religious wars.  The Enlightenment Project could only trump Aristotelian realism by adopting its insistence on finding the final, definitive theory and maintaining that science would lead us to it.  What science failed to do it, post-modernism came into being.  The root of the problem is the insistence that ethics is a matter of having the right theory first and then conforming practice to it.  It is Aristotelian realism that is the intellectual source of the contemporary moral crisis.  It is only when we divest ourselves of its misguided conception of the relationship between theory and practice that we can even begin to respond 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 Copernican metaphysics: How we understand ourselves is fundamental; how we understand the world is derivative.  How, then, do we understand ourselves? We understand ourselves as derivative beings; we have no direct consciousness of our consciousness; our very consciousness of ourselves and its meaning is the product of a pre-conceptual transcendent domain; Philosophy brings us to the recognition of this domain and to its own inability to conceptualize the pre-conceptual; the attempt to conceptualize the pre-conceptual is the “original sin of metaphysics;” any account of our genesis out of the pre-conceptual can only be an imaginative and analogical act of reconstruction and often best expressed in poetic and contemplative terms; here I believe myself to be echoing the views of Fernando Rielo.

 We understand ourselves as self-conscious beings (we understand ourselves as persons interacting with other persons; instead of attuning ourselves to an invisible and impersonal order, Christians open themselves to the revelation of God’s grace).  All such understanding is dialogic (reading, writing, praying, conversing, thinking by internal conversation).  The appropriate metaphor for all forms of intercourse is the conversation.  To learn is to be initiated into a conversation in which we either recognize or imaginatively reconstruct the voice of others; this requires us to learn to listen, to express ourselves appropriately, to enter into the thoughts of others, even to submit to censure.

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

 We understand ourselves as historical beings.  This helps us to answer the question: What is the relation of the account of the pre-conceptual to practice?  Let us begin with what it is not.  Based on our repeated insistence that the pre-conceptual cannot be conceptualized, it is clear that the relationship is not one of entailment.  Reason always presupposes faith; faith is always the ground of reason; there is no strict dichotomy of faith and reason or of philosophy and theology.  What connects the metaphysics, the account of the pre-conceptual, to morality, the explication of practices, is a narrative.

 Saving and Explicating the Phenomena of Christianity

 What are the phenomena of Christianity of which we seek to provide 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 the practices of the Christian community.  To explain such practices requires explication. [9]

 Explication is a mode of understanding social practices.  It presupposes that all social practices function with implicit norms and that to explicate a practice is to make explicit the inherent norms.  In explication we try to clarify that which is routinely taken for granted, namely our ordinary understanding of our practices, in the hope of extracting from our previous practice a set of norms that can be used reflectively to guide future practice.  Explication attempts to specify the sense we have of ourselves when we act and to clarify that which serves to guide us.  We do not change our ordinary understanding but rather come to know it in a new and better way.  Explication is a way of arriving at a kind of practical knowledge that takes human agency as primary.  It seeks to mediate practice from within practice itself.

Explication is a form of practical knowledge and presupposes that practical knowledge is more fundamental that theoretical knowledge.  It is not Aristotelian phronesis, for Aristotle presumes that practical knowledge ultimately presupposes theoretical knowledge.  Explication presupposes that efficient practice precedes the theory of it.  All reflection is ultimately reflection on primordial practices that existed prior to our theorizing about them.  Language is a good example.  Natural languages were and are spoken prior to the explication of their grammar.

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

         (1) How we understand ourselves is fundamental and how we understand 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 we understand ourselves, but it is a continuing mistake to seek for the hidden structure behind our structuring.

         (3) Positively, we understand ourselves by examining “our” practices.  A practice is an action informed by an implicit cultural norm.

         (4) To say that the norm is cultural is to say that it is social and historical.  To say that it is social is to say that the existence and nature of the norm cannot be established epistemologically by an individual without reference to a larger community.

         (5) To say that the norm is historical is to assert that later practice evolves out of earlier practice and can be revelatory of 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 rather than as an external structure.

        (7) No practice can be judged by norms external to the practice except when those norms are themselves recognized as part of a more encompassing practice. Metaphysically, such a norm reflects a universal insofar as persistent or enduring norms reveal something universally true about ourselves.  The denial that norms reflect external non-human structures or the denial that there is a foreseeable closure to norm articulation is to deny two particular versions of universality not the existence of all universality.  It is the recognition of some universality that saves explication from the 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 of norm articulation from either a natural scientific or social scientific perspective.  The objection to viewing this process as, say, simply organic is that it fails to do justice to the historical or temporal dimension.  We might be mistakenly tempted to think in terms of adaptation to the environment, but such adaptation will be restricted to individuals or, when viewed socially, mistakenly construed as a form of progressive social development.  Real historical development is much more precarious and in no sense unilinear.

 Explication is an intrinsically historical activity precisely because a practice is an on-going historical event.  To explicate is to explain what we have been doing, specifically what we have been trying to do or aiming to do.  Explication, then, sees the present as a development out of the past; explication does not see the present as an imperfect vision of the future and the past as an imperfect vision of the present. Another way of putting this is to say that explication sees the evolution of practices not the progress of practices; or, alternatively, it is a progress “from” not a progress “to”.  To believe in “progress to” is to be concerned with the alleged existence of how the world “really” is independent of us whereas to believe in “progress from” is to be concerned with how the world is relative to ourselves.  How the world is relative to us cannot be understood independent of our interaction with the world and how we have acquired along the way our way of thinking and acting.

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

                 (a) some originating practice,

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

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

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

                 (e) the understandings of the process of (d), only one 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.  The practice is fundamental; the explication of a practice that appears in a text is derivative.  Practices are not texts. Texts or interpretations of texts do not overrule practices but try to help us to understand the practice.  The accuracy or legitimacy of a text or written interpretation of a practice is by reference to how the practitioners understand themselves.

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

 Explication presumes that at least some of the time we can recapture the original or earlier senses of a practice.  This is what makes possible the understanding of some historical texts.  Sometimes the texts even help us to identify the practices.  The originating practice is to be understood by reference to the explication that the original practitioners gave to their practice.  Any critique of an originating explication can only be by reference to another originating explication.  The originating explication that serves as the critique of all other explications or interpretations is the authoritative explication.  For convenience sake we shall refer to the scholarly attempt to recapture the explication that the originating practitioners gave to their practice as antiquarianism.

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

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

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

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

 There is a fourth kind of “criticism” in which we reveal a “conflict” between the norms internal to an originating practice or set of practices and a later set of practices within the same culture.  This is an important and meaningful kind of critique but it still presupposes that there is an authoritative explication both of the originating practices and the subsequent development of a set of practices in the light of new circumstances.  We shall address this shortly.

 There is a fifth kind of “criticism” in which we reveal a “conflict” between the norms internal to a set of practices and another set of practices in a different culture.  Again this presupposes that there can be an authoritative explication of both cultures!

         (c) How do we understand the circumstances that prompt an evolution 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 challenges preexisting beliefs.  We are reminded that practice always precedes the understanding of the practice, and that even artificially construed practices are parasitic upon a background of practices that preceded the understanding or articulation of those practices.  The circumstances are novel in that the originating practice always reflects or is always a practice within a particular historical context.  Agents within an originating practice are always reflecting upon what they as practitioners in a specific set of circumstances have been doing.  The demand for a more universal articulation of the implicit norms or for a final and definitive articulation of the norms can now be understood as part of the recognition that the explication of the originating practice is never sufficient to address changing circumstances.

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

 The norms that inform our practice cannot be applied in a deductive way to the novel circumstances.  The relationship between the originating practices and the novel circumstances is not logical but analogical.  To extend the norm or to come to understand it in a better way as a result of applying it to novel circumstances is an act of moral insight that cannot explained by reference to anything else.  This is what is meant by saying that the pre-conceptual cannot be conceptualized; this is what is meant by saying that no exploration can explain an explication.  The pre-conceptual cannot be conceptualized because thought is a reflection upon practice; to believe that it is possible to conceptualize the pre-conceptual is to see practice as the reflection of some thought where thought is understood to be a picture of some structure, i.e., to see practice as informed by a sub-structure.  The application of a norm to novel circumstances requires a consensus among the practitioners, and the cultural activity by which we work toward achieving this consensus among practitioners is itself a practice informed by norms of the highest order. [13]

 Perhaps a helpful analogy would be with the common law.  The law certainly has to be rethought and deepened for its applicability to new contexts.  From the point of view of explication, it is bizarre to say that there is no norm and that judges merely fabricate the law (we have already addressed this possibility above in discussing those who deny that there are norms); it would be equally bizarre to say that earlier decisions are hypotheses about later and completely unanticipated cases (thus making law a form of exploration); and it would also be bizarre to say that there is a cunning in the law such that the changes in the law are progressively moving 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 norms inherent in a practice or a set of practices is an historical account of the meaning of those norms.  This is what constitutes the history of a practice.  It comprises (i) an antiquarian account of each stage of the process, (ii) an account of the novel historical circumstances which routinely might have nothing to do directly with that practice, and (iii) an account of the qualitative transformations of the norm as it is applied to the novel historical circumstances.  At each stage it requires the capacity to discern the authoritative explications.  Everything that we have said above applies to this process of writing the history of a practice.  It is not possible to transcend the past; we can move beyond it but only by first comprehending it.

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

 It is possible and useful to distinguish among 1) the activity of providing the historical background, 2) the activity of making the extension, and 3) the activity of using the historical background to justify the extension.  Although it is possible to teach the standards of scholarship with regard to history, i.e. (1), it is not possible to construe the extension of the past into the present, i.e. (2), as a specifiable decision procedure.  This is the element of truth in the distinction between knowing the history of a practice and engaging in a practice.  It is nevertheless clear that the history, i.e. (1), is integral to philosophy, i.e. (3).  One cannot do the latter without doing the former.

In order to engage in an extension (2) it is necessary to know the norms implicit in a practice, and this will require some historical knowledge of the practice or accepting some authoritative account of a practice.  If one were engaged in extending a norm in the law or in mathematics then one would need to know the history of the law or the history of mathematics or accept some authoritative account of those practices.  It follows that if one were to engage in the extension of a norm in the practice of philosophy then one would need some historical knowledge of philosophy or some authoritative account of philosophy.  Is it possible to provide an authoritative account of any practice without implicitly appealing to the history of 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.  As Wittgenstein put it, we can never definitively circumscribe the concepts we use.  This does not reflect ignorance on our part but rather that there is no “real” definition of those concepts.  This is, ironically, a repetition of Frege’s point that we must distinguish between a rule and the principle of application.  In addition, norms can conflict.  However, the conflict can only be discovered retrospectively.  Even the resolution of the conflict can only be by reference to other implicit norms, not by appeal to anything outside of prior practice.  The logic of explication is inherently conservative, for the explication of practice is parasitic upon practice itself.

There are two important points to be made about the explication of the original practices of Christianity.  First, the earliest Christian communities did not articulate themselves in Greek philosophical terms. Those communities were characterized by their faith in Jesus Christ and in their hope of his return.  They did not have or require a formal philosophical rationale.  It took two centuries before the force of circumstance, the need to defend themselves and to engage in proselytizing, required them to adopt the habits of an alien intellectual world.

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

Earlier we distinguish explication of the practices of a religious community from the experience of transcendence.  This leads to two questions: What account can be given of transcendence or the pre-conceptual (God)?  Second, what is the relation of this account to the explication of the practices?

Working backwards from the practice to the pre-conceptual we find the following: explication of the practices identifies norms; the norms are rooted in originating experiences and events (revelations) and constitute the pre-conceptual. [14]  Here is where we are confronted by a puzzle:  if there are no external structures, and no hidden “structure” to practice, then how can reason perform the explication?  The answer is that if we have an impoverished conception of reason then it is not possible to understand the process of explication.  The explication is an imaginative act.  One presumes here that God has an imagination as well as counterparts to the more traditional faculties of reason and will.

Here again the classical models are obstacles.  Prior to the eighteenth century the imagination was considered a negative faculty as opposed to reason the positive faculty for grasping an independent structure. The content of a set of practices can only be conveyed in the form of meanings; the practices are re-created through appropriation; one of the most important ways in which we utilize our imagination is in reconstructing the thought of others who engaged in that practice.

 There are two kinds of accounts of the pre-conceptual domain of transcendence: philosophical and poetical. The best philosophical accounts that embody the Copernican perspective that self-understanding or the understanding of selves is primary are phenomenological.  At the beginning of the twentieth century the clearest examples of the phenomenological description of the transcendent were William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience and Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy (1917).  Otto was a colleague of Husserl.  It was Otto who first proclaimed that the transcendent pre-conceptual could not be conceptualized however much reason plays a part in religion.  Otto’s insights were developed by Max Scheler, especially in On the Eternal in Man, where he proclaimed that we must deliver “the kernel of Augustinianism from the husklike accretions of history, and [employ] phenomenological philosophy to provide it with a fresh and more deeply rooted foundation. Only a theology of the essential experience of divinity can open our eyes to the lost truths of Augustine.” [15]  Two important thinkers influenced by Scheler and who take up his challenge to capture the person and release it from the confines of subjectivity were Edith Stein [16] and Dietrich von Hildebrand.  Another important figure in this development was Karl Rahner who both sought to integrate traditional Thomistic metaphysics with phenomenology and who made clear that we gain access to the transcendent through the transcendental.

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

The philosophical account, beginning with practice reveals the existence of the pre-conceptual domain.  It discovers that the pre-conceptual cannot itself be conceptualized; it discovers that the pre-conceptual is the domain of the person; it recognizes that personhood is a product of communication and that communication is an imaginative act.  This is where the philosophical account comes to an end.  What succeeds it is the poetical account. The other account of the pre-conceptual domain of transcendence is the poetical.

The most important expression of this insight and initiation into it is to be found in the work of Fernando Rielo.  Imagination goes beyond reason in the narrow sense.  It is not possible for reason to provide a comprehensive account of the whole; that is what is meant in part by saying that the pre-conceptual around which reason constantly circles cannot itself be conceptualized. The world is not such that a comprehensive view of the whole can be achieved. It is only in the imaginative act, in poetical vision, that we intimate a totality when only the parts are perceived. Imagination properly understood is not sheer autonomous creativity (which only God can possess); imagination is the source of the discovery of objective reality.  This insight has been obscured if not obfuscated by the classical insistence that all structure is external; rather, it is through the transcendental that we arrive at the transcendent.

The Explicatory Moment in Contemporary Catholic Metaphysics

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

If there is no conceptualization of the whole, then there cannot be a comprehensive conceptualization of the relationship between practice and theory such that if one had such a conceptualization one could dictate future practice.  It is important to see that the purpose of metaphysic is not to lead to an ideology.  Without denying either the importance or the inescapability of the practical dimension of life, it is important to stress that the practical domain is not the only or even the most important domain of human existence.  By stressing the extent to which the transcendent is also apprehended in a poetic act of contemplation, we escape the illusory domination of our practical concerns.  Who amongst us has not learnt and constantly rediscovered that worldly success is always an illusion?

I do not mean to deny that recognition of the transcendent as pre-conceptual norm within practice can be a form of revelation.  On the contrary, precisely in those situations in which we find ourselves with the courage to sustain ourselves in defense of a norm or its implementation in the face of great personal cost and even when a part of us does not want to pay the price, it is here that we understand ourselves to be the recipient of grace.

What connects the account or expression of the pre-conceptual to our practices is a narrative.  How we understand ourselves is primary; how we understand the world is derivative.  We cannot understand ourselves without an historical or genealogical narrative.  All cultures have had historical/genetic accounts of themselves.  Those theorists who deny the intrinsic role of narrative supplement their allegedly timeless accounts with an historical narrative.  Either they give an historical account of why earlier thinkers failed to grasp the alleged timeless truths, or they provide a speculative history of how we are marching toward that timeless account or they give an historical account of how once the timeless insights have been articulated later thinkers have allowed those insights to degenerate.

The Christian Narrative is the story of Christ and later revelations to the Saints.  The narrative is re-enacted in the practices of the Christian community, of which the most important is the Mass.  Part of that narrative is the connection drawn between the Old Testament and the New Testament stories of Christ.  Christianity is itself based upon a unique historical event.

In the contemporary age, three immediate objections will be made to the notion that it is a narrative that connects the account of the transcendent with the explication of communal practices.  First, it will be said that such narratives are stories we invent to placate our anxieties. This kind of objection can now be seen as fatally flawed.  It assumes that we can give a hidden structure account of what humanity is, a social scientific account.  However, if physical science is not self-legitimating, then social science modeled after it cannot be self-legitimating; and, if those intellectual activities themselves require explication of the human predicament, then the human predicament cannot itself be explained in their terms.

Second, it will be said that stories can be deconstructed.  But the deconstruction of stories is just bad social science, therefore contradictory and incoherent.  Moreover, the propounders of such deconstructive narratives always present their own narratives as narratives of liberation.  Yet, liberation narratives are question-begging, for they supply no context in which liberation is ever made clear. [17]

Third, and perhaps most important, it will be asked:  How do we choose among competing narratives?   There are five criteria of good narratives: (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 the experience; nor has religious experience declined; much in organized religions has failed to provide an adequate expression of it. (c)     They should illuminate other social practices: elevate and dignify social practices by placing them within a narrative that exhibits a spiritual quest. [18] (d)     They should be narratives of healing, hope and redemption but not utopian. (e)     They must be fertile source of adaptation – not a rigid doctrine; the great strength of the Roman Catholic Church has been its ability to be such a source; it is self-critical, characterized by its striving for universality, has as its great strength the power of assimilation, and it is a fertile source of adaptation of what has been 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 be found in the work of Max Scheler.  [19] It is Scheler who begins by reiterating that the pre-conceptual cannot be conceptualized and who recognizes being is always historically conditioned.  Metaphysics as narrative is the search for analogical unity amidst the diversity and plurality of historical situations.  The resultant narrative does not entail specific duties; rather, our duties can only be determined through the conversational reappropriation of the institutions within which we live.

Central to Scheler’s narrative is the transformation of spirit into freedom.  The traditional meaning of freedom is autonomy meaning self-rule or self-governance.  In the classical world this was explained by reference to conformity to an external structure, specifically the inherent telos of the world.  Modern thought recognizes no such telos.  In the absence of telos and in the absence of guiding external structures, what is to be made of the concept of autonomy?  It is all too easy for adherents of traditional Aristotelian metaphysics to see in this only the sin of self-assertion or self-definition.  On the contrary, self-rule is still possible but it is not to be understood as following specific timeless and contextless dictates; rather it a matter of consistency and coherence with what it means to be free.  Self-rule can be understood in ascetic terms, and the ascetic experience can lead to an experience of transcendence.  But in the modern world, self-rule can also mean infusing the work of the world with a spiritual dimension.  It is not exactly we who are free, rather it is freedom which is lodged in us; it is never consistent with heteronomy (including exploiting others) and it is not only compatible with but even requires God’s grace.  This view of freedom is the presence of the divine in the culture of the Germanic invaders in the form of Geist.  It is what has enabled those invaders to reinfuse the divine in the Latin culture of the Mediterranean.  It is a perfect example of how the Christian narrative is a continuous source of fertile adaptation.  It is a model of what might lie in the future as the Christian seriously confronts the transcendent in other cultures.


What is an authoritative statement of principle?  It is an illumination of revelation and liturgy.  It cannot be focused on providing a conceptualization of the pre-conceptual or a final and definitive formulation. What we maintain is that every attempt to conceptualize the pre-conceptual is internally incoherent both because it represses the truth of the soul and because its ineffectiveness in practice leads to forms of barbarism and inhumanity in which those who pretend to provide complete conceptualization destroy themselves as well as others.

Retrieving our tradition is not a simple matter of an uncritical return to the past.  Instead, it is the re-identifying of something that is a permanent part of the human condition even though it is always expressed in specific historical contexts.  The fact that these universal truths are always contextualized means that the act of retrieval through explication inevitably involves a reformulation.  To encompass the past is to make it our own in some fashion.  It would be a singular example of the lack of Christian faith to adhere to the belief in a set of conditions that relieved us of the responsibility of reappropriation.  A tradition is not a rigid structure but a fertile source of adaptation that not only evolves but expands to incorporate things that might from an earlier perspective even seem alien.  Christians are intellectually and morally obligated to engage in a perpetual retrieval of their tradition.  Since the universal truths are moral truths and since their apprehension is not solely an intellectual act, we should now not be surprised that there is (a) no definitive articulation of the divine 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 condition that requires a moral response.


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

 [2] Karl Jaspers, Philosophie (1931); Bultmann and Tillich were influenced by 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 and Paul 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 obscure the fact that both Aquinas and Aristotle were among the wisest philosophers ever to have lived or written.  But it is necessary to distinguish between the specific insights of great philosophers and the system into which they embed those insights.  One can recognize the defects of the system without delegitimating 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 been defended against this charge by Emerich Coreth, Metaphysics (1968).  This defense along with the renaming of  New Scholasticism as The American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly marks the beginning of the decline of Thomism 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.  Elimination is a form of radical replacement through innovation.  All forms of reductionism are forms of elimination.  Elimination is most characteristic of physical science and technological thinking.  Some examples would be the elimination of Ptolemy’s geocentric view of the universe and its replacement by Copernicus’ heliocentric view of the universe.  Another example would be the elimination of traditional theories of disease by the discovery of microbes.  Elimination is a form of technological thinking which seems to make sense if there is some prior agreed upon framework in terms of which we can judge that one new theory is better than an old theory. Early positivism subscribed to the view that all correct thinking is eliminative thinking.  Certainly in the early Russell and in the positivism of the Vienna Circle one sees an optimism about how science is the successful elimination of superstition and nonsense and how philosophy is the overseer of the transition period to a totally scientific world view. The major difficulty with elimination is that there must be some independent criterion in terms of which we can judge an elimination to be successful.  Positivists believed, originally, that science bore the empirical mark of its own validity.  Therefore, in order to decide when one theory has successfully eliminated another we can look to science itself. Within physical science we would, presumably, find examples of “successful” reductions of one theory to another or eliminations of one theory in favor of another.  So it would seem to be the case that it is a simple matter to extract the criteria for such success.  Unfortunately this turned out not to be the case.  Instead of being a minor technical problem of specifying when reduction-elimination was successful, it turned out that there was no consensus 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 eliminated in a straightforward and unambiguous fashion.  Turning to the larger question of how science “progresses” from one theory to another we find an even greater mystery. Exploration.  In exploration we begin with our ordinary understanding of how things work and then go on to speculate on what might be behind those workings.  In time, we come to change our ordinary understanding.  The new understanding does not evolve from or elaborate the old understanding, rather it replaces it by appeal to underlying structures.  The underlying structures are discovered by following out the implications of some hypothetical model about those structures. Exploration is a mode of thinking found in the physical sciences and is exemplified, for example, in the use of the atomic theory to explain chemical behavior or the behavior of gases.  But exploration is also preeminently the mode of thought of academic social science.  By alleged analogy with physical science, the social sciences have persistently sought to discover the hidden structure behind the everyday understanding of social activities.  From Durkheim to Marx, Freud, the functionalists, Chomsky, etc. social scientists have persistently sought to reveal a structural level of which we are not immediately aware.  Exploration, then, stresses the search for structure rather than for meaning, the search for the formal elements underlying the everyday world rather than believing that 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 are unable to choose among competing explorations.  Denied formal criteria or extra-systematic criteria for evaluating their own hypotheses, theorists can only fall back upon aesthetic and/or informal criteria. As a consequence immense prestige is accorded to those individuals skillful in formulating clever, ingenious, and sometimes bizarre hypotheses. Ingenuity becomes the benchmark of success, and like present day movements in the arts leads to sudden shifts in fashion.  Another dead-end is the appeal to intuition so that rival explorers claim that their hidden structure hypothesis “better” captures some intuition about our ordinary understanding.  There is, of course, no independent way of establishing this.  The failure of foundationalism in science and epistemology leads writers like Richard Rorty to a kind of despair and to the speculation that perhaps philosophy is an interminable conversation of incommensurable voices (i.e., in our terms, unconfirmable explorations about other explorations).

[10] The notion that self-understanding is primary was articulated by Plato as early as the Phaedo.

[11] The qualification “ultimately” should be taken seriously. Explicators do not deny that we can use physical science to “understand” the world and to “understand” the human body.  But “understand” has to be understood relative to a larger and more fundamental framework which can only be explicated.  We can treat parts of our body as if they were mechanisms as long as we do not forget that “we” are not mechanisms and that it is the “we” who are employing the model of a mechanism.

 [12] Plato’s notion that our practice imperfectly copies the “Good”, the Judeo-Christian notion that God cannot be fully conceptualized, Heidegger’s notion of retrieval, and Wittgenstein’s assertion that we can never circumscribe a concept are all alternative ways of making this point.  The assertion of a pre-conceptual domain is treated by advocates of scientism as a form of mysticism.  .

[13] The recognition that (a) we cannot deduce future applications but must rely upon a kind of intuition and (b) we cannot conceptualize this act of intuition have led some to argue or to suggest that the process is simply a power struggle (e.g., Foucault).  What is missed in the latter claim 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, as we have maintained, there is no way to make such a choice without appeal to another explication then the denial of (b) either reflects misunderstanding, failure to carry the point far enough, or the disingenuous attempt to impose an elimination disguised as an exploration or as an explication.  

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

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

  [16] Edith Stein, Die Kreuzeswissenschaft Studie Fber Joannes a Cruce (1985).

  [17] MacIntyre (1990): The post-modern’s exemption of her own speech from criticism is self-indulgent.  Her ironic distance means that she cannot give an account of herself in terms of an un-ironic relationship to a past which she disowns; more important, it makes it impossible for her to acknowledge in her past any failure especially guilty failure.  What MacIntyre has shown is that the very project of masking and unmasking presupposes a narrative, that acts of disowning make sense only in terms of a self-narrative.  Behind the post-modern’s narrative of disowning there is always a shadowy self-congratulatory narrative.  There is no guilt, no remorse, no repentance.  The post-modern project presupposes, but does not acknowledge the continuity of self that narrative and moral accountability imply.  The self of post-modernity is a fragmented and dissipated self held together by an empty notion of autonomy.  It can justify anything; it is morally self-complacent.  The post-modern assume[s] the contours of a given mask and then discards it for another, without ever assenting to the metaphysical fiction of a face that would give continuity and unity to this 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 incompatible with free market economies.

  [19] Max Scheler, Existenzphilosophie. Von der Metaphysik zur Metahistorik (1986).