A second return to metaphysics
Fred Hutchison February 15, 2008 (Letter to the editor of First Things magazine) The book review God Returns to French Philosophy describes the French philosopher Jean-Luc Marion trying to do the hard way what the scholastics and neoscholastics did the easy way.
The scholastics established metaphysics in the West as a basis for rationality and morality. Descartes, Kant, Husserl and Heidegger progressively deconstructed metaphysics. During the Victorian era, there was a return to metaphysics through neoscholastic philosophy. Marion tried to start with our present nihilism and painfully climb back up the mountain from which the West had fallen — as a second return to metaphysics.
The scholastics from Saint Anselm (11th century) to Saint Thomas Aquinas (13th century), started with the Trinity as a given. God is one being with three particular persons — which indicates that universals need not contradict particulars. This realization enabled the Trinitarian scholastic philosophers to solve the problem of universals and particulars — a problem which stumped the Greek philosophers and the philosophers of every other civilization.
Peter Abelard debated with Anselm's disciples and rejected the independent reality of universals while his debating opponents upheld universals. Anselm's disciples embraced the Trinity while Abelard rejected the Trinity of the three persons. Although Abelard was the most brilliant debater of his day, his lack of a Trinitarian foundation caused him to founder on the same issue which stumped the Greeks.
The solution of Aquinas was that: 1) universals independently exist, 2) universals subsist in particulars — giving particulars their essence and meaning, and 3) each particular has eccentric "accidents" so that particulars are something more than the emanation or precipitation of universals, as the Neoplatonists thought.
This solution explains why Western men were able to believe that the body and blood of Christ mysteriously indwells the eccentric particulars of sacramental bread and wine. It also explains why Western men prior to 1750 were uniquely rational, uniquely moral in intention, and uniquely able to express transcendent aspirations in the particulars of art, music, literature and craftsmanship.
The fall from Mount Metaphysics
As touched upon by the book review, Descartes started with the consciousness of his mind instead of starting with the Trinity. He focused upon rational abstractions which were cut off from the particulars of the world around us. Descartes, as a premier mathematician, gloried in dry, abstract conceptions.
Kant came along and effectively said: "Things are really out there but we cannot get at them because reality is hidden within the particular things. Our senses can only inform us of superficial appearances but can tell us nothing of the underlying realities. Therefore, we are limited to what our inner mental abstractions can do with the superficial messages of our senses. We are cut off from reality. Therefore metaphysical speculations are futile."
Husserl said, "If we are cut off from reality, never mind Kant's abstractions. Let us sit all day staring at superficial particular material things which are available to our senses." Then Heidegger said, "Away with Kant's abstractions and Husserl's mindless gazing at material objects. Let us deal with the exterior world with the "intentionality" of our wills. Heidegger brought us Existentialism which is indifferent to universals and rationality and is nihilistic in its implications.
Climbing the icy slopes
Beginning in the valley of nihilism, Dr. Marion boldly climbed beyond the irrational nonsense of Phenomenology and Existentialism. Then he had trouble with the icy slopes of Kant — as we all do. The core his the problem was the question: "Do I have access to the reality of things? Can I look past the surface appearance of particular things and see the essence — what Kant called the numina? Can I do what Kant tells me that I can't do? Can I do what was never contemplated by Descartes' introverted abstract rationalism?
Dr. Marion got more than he expected. He was overwhelmed by the external presence of things — the "saturated phenomena" of his personal experience. These phenomena were overwhelmingly radiant with glory. The experiences were a "shock" and were "destabilizing" and "bedazzling" to the unsuspecting philosopher. Dr. Marian, you wouldn't be talking about a spiritual revelation, or would you?
The phenomena was saturated with what, Dr. Marion? Saturated with Kant's numina? Saturated with Aquinas' essences? Saturated with universals? Saturated with the glory of God? You would not be sneaking back to metaphysics — or would you Dr. Marion? I thought metaphysics and revelation was taboo for a respectable French philosopher.
Sneaking back to metaphysics
As we watch Dr. Marion approach the summit of Mount Metaphysics the air gets thick with entertaining irony. One must smile as one observes Dr. Marion wrestling with deeply ambiguous feelings as he makes his first halting and timorous steps towards St. Thomas Aquinas who sits on the summit. Dr. Marion flinched, fled in horror and published a critique of Aquinas — which he later retracted.
Finally we see the humbled Frenchman, battered and bruised by his long climb out of the valley of nihilism and bedazzled and disoriented by the light of revelation of high altitudes — as he turns once more to the summit. We see him slip sheepishly into the lap of Saint Thomas where he embraces the metaphysics of scholasticism. Our eyes mist over with relief and joy.
Marion had to do it the hard way because he is a tidy-minded Frenchman who was carefully educated by the French academy to scoff at revelation and metaphysics. But against all odds he made it to the summit.
Previous articles by Fred Hutchison: Is conservatism in crisis?
Modernism's war against the past: Freud, James, Dewey, and the conservative reaction in the early twentieth century
A gathering of angels
Abstinence only plus condoms is a contradiction
Looking for a man of principle
The one world cult, Darwin, and Einstein
The babe in the womb is a personClick here for more articles