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A Book Review… A Profound And Sweeping Look At Twentieth-Century Philosophy

June 11, 2019 Featured Today No Comments


Baring, Edward. Converts to the Real: Catholicism and the Making of Continental Philosophy. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2019; 493 pages.

At one time — in the English-speaking world — “continental philosophy” was a term of abuse. The name designated those European philosophers who did not fit the Anglo-American mold. Edward Baring, early on in Converts to the Real, notices the anomaly, the designation of one philosophy by its predominant mode, the other by its geographical reach, i.e., France, Germany, Italy, Poland, and Spain.
“In the first decades of the twentieth century,” Baring writes, “neo-scholasticism was by any reasonable norm the most influential philosophical movement in the world.” It was this loosely defined network of like-minded philosophers that promoted the rapid spread of phenomenology, first within Europe, and subsequently to the Americas. Baring finds that the first conference devoted to phenomenology outside of Germany was hosted in 1932 by the Société Thomiste in Paris. Enrico Castelli, a Catholic, organized in 1946 the first international conference on existentialism [by then regarded as a form of phenomenology], a meeting that ended with a papal audience at the Vatican.
In what he calls “a preliminary report,” Baring reveals that self-professed Catholic philosophers, in the period before World War II, produced more than 40 percent of all books and articles on Husserl, Heidegger, and Scheler that were written in French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch. After 1945, Catholic philosophers were overshadowed by other proponents. Phenomenology’s methods and discipline, Baring observes, attracted agnostics and atheists, as well as Christians, Protestants as well as Catholics.
Martin Heidegger and Alexandre Kojeve are cited as prime examples of atheists making use of Husserl. Baring finds that Catholics contributed to the phenomenological awaking of other atheists, such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Beauvoir was educated at the College Saint-Marie in Neuilly and the Institute Catholique in Paris. Sartre studied Being and Time with Marius Perrin, a priest who had arranged for the book to be smuggled into the German POW camp where they were both imprisoned.
In sum, Baring shows beyond doubt that, starting from its home base at the University of Munich, phenomenology spread along Catholic networks throughout most of Europe within reach of the universal Church, bypassing only the strongholds of Scandinavia and the U.K. Early representatives of the phenomenological movement in America were James M. Edie and Joseph Kockelmans. Neither claimed to be Catholic, but both were trained at Catholic centers, Edie at Louvain, Kockelmans at Rome.
After World War II, Heidegger’s existential version of phenomenology became the center of a European-wide debate over the relationship between political efficiency and freedom. Baring provides an insightful account of that exchange, one that involved thinkers of the rank of Giovanni Gentile, Benedetto Croce, and Armando Carlin.
Another debate attempted to clarify the meaning of “Catholic philosophy.” Following the promulgation of Leo XIII’s encyclical Aeterni Patris (1879), it was thought by many that Thomism had become the official philosophy of the Catholic Church, disciples of Scotus, Augustine, or Descartes notwithstanding.
Confronted with the materialisms and skepticism that followed the Enlightenment, with the French Revolution shortly to erupt in its wake, Leo was aware of the need to defend the rationality of the Catholic faith. Some philosophies obviously open one to the Catholic faith while others close it as an intellectual option. Leo recognized that philosophy can only be fought by philosophy.
Aeterni Patris endorsed what was then a fledgling Thomistic movement in Jesuit circles that expanded dramatically after the Pope’s intervention. The movement was more a recovery of classical philosophy, specifically that of Aristotle, than the advancement of something new.
Acknowledging the abundance of Catholic philosophers, Baring asks, “Is there something that can be labeled ‘Catholic philosophy’?” He finds a variety of answers. Emile Bréhier took the position that philosophy is a purely rational affair. Insofar as philosophy takes any of its principles from Sacred Scripture it becomes a theology. Christian philosophy for Bréhier is a contradiction in terms. Maurice Blondel believed that philosophy could demonstrate the “insufficiency of reason” and thus open one to the supernatural. Etienne Gilson accepted the de jure autonomy of philosophy that was purely rational in its principles but argued that European philosophy was de facto inseparable from religion. Flesh and blood Christians, he reasoned, could not separate their faith from their philosophy. Leon Noel, president of Louvain’s Institut Supérieur de Philosophie, held that the dominant Scholastic philosophy in the Catholic Church could not be properly called Christian.
Given the massive amount of material his investigation uncovered, Baring was faced with the problem of organization. He solved the problem by dividing the book into three sections. Each section is almost a book in itself.
Part I is entitled “Neo-Scholastic Conversions.” And there were many in the period covered, 1900-1930, notably Edith Stein, Max Scheler, Aurel Kolnai, and Dietrich von Hildebrand. Malvine, Husserl’s wife, embraced the Catholic faith in 1942.
Part II “Journeys: 1930-1940” discusses the work of Nikolai Berdyaev, Gabriel Marcel, Jacques Maritain, and Augusto Guzzo. Part III “Catholic Legacies” finds two: one institutional [the Husserl Archives]; one intellectual [the new existential phenomenology].
A short review cannot do this very rich book justice. It is both profound and sweeping in its scope; it is almost a history of twentieth-century philosophy: Gilson may speak of “the unity of philosophical experience.” Baring shows beyond doubt that for a period of nearly three-quarters of a century, a large segment of the discipline was unified by a common interest in the work of Edmund Husserl.

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