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Saturday, May 19, 2007

Emmanuel Mounier, Gabriel Marcel, Edith Stein, Dietrich von Hildebrand

I shall focus on the influence that two key modern figures (Descartes and Kant) had on Karol Wojtyla, who was undoubtedly one of the major figures in responsible for articulating a contemporary Catholic understanding of the person...by Anxietas Vox Nova
Without a doubt, inasmuch as he set epistemology before metaphysics and began with methodical doubt, Descartes forever changed the manner in which philosophers do philosophy, however, he had no intention of changing the way theologians do theology. Though he may be considered the father of modern philosophy and the Enlightenment, Descartes was first and remained a loyal son of the Roman Catholic Church and saw himself as taking up and contributing to that tradition through finding a secure and indubitable foundation for it. That foundation, as history famously recounts, was the cogito: Je pense donc je suis! In short, while I can doubt the world, I cannot doubt my-self, my subjectivity. Now, whether or not one agrees or disagrees with Descartes’ philosophical method—in fact, there is grave reason to reject it altogether—one cannot doubt the significance of Descartes’ turn to the cogito, for in so doing, he made a decided turn toward subjectivity and toward a methodical examination of the inner life of the person. No longer considered simply in terms of a ‘rational animal’—a definition given in terms of genus and specific difference and, as such, proper only to things easily categorized by the mind—the human being is now regarded as, at the very least, a "thinking thing: res cogitans." Of course, one may, if he is so inclined, dispense with the problem Cartesian metaphysics at work here, however, what is instructive for us is that we are presented with a phenomenology of our inner life, of our inner activity, in short, with a phenomenology of our very subjectivity.
Descartes’ phenomenology, albeit not the same in method, anthropology, and metaphysical presuppositions, is certainly the same in spirit operative behind a great deal of 20th-century phenomenological thought, including that of a number of phenomenologists who were arguably some of the most monumental figures in Catholic thought and intellectual life, Karl Rahner, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Karol Wojtyla (John Paul II). Here, I shall only focus on the latter. One need only consider the opening passages of Wojtyla’s Love and Responsibility to recognize how indebted he is to the phenomenology spawned by the subjective turn to the self of modern philosophy. In that work (viz., LaR), we are presented with the basic tenants of a Thomistic anthropology, but Wojtyla clearly goes beyond that framework though his consideration of the person in terms of his subjectivity. Wojtyla discusses themes such as "inner self" and "inner life," selfhood, and one’s self as a "center of consciousness." Such a concern for one’s subjectivity finds little counterpart in pre-Modernity, but is easily at home with rationalist thinkers such as Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, et al. And yet equally as influential in Wojtyla’s thought is the ethical thought of Immanuel Kant, another seminal figure in Enlightenment thought.
Kant had taught that the only possible basis for a pure a prior morality is what he called the "categorical imperative." In one of his formulations of that imperative Kant writes, "So act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means" (Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, 4:429). For Kant, a person cannot be considered as an object or a thing, for such can be used merely as a means to an end. Rather, a person is a certain kind of entity bestowed with a certain inalienable dignity and cannot ever be licitly objectified, and action that does so to another or even oneself is a violation of the moral law. Of course, the question one must inevitably put to Kant is: why are persons possessed of such dignity that they can only be considered as an end in themselves? Kant’s answer is because we are rational, possessed of a will that can determine its own end freely. It’s not a great stretch from Kant to Wojtyla’s personalistic norm, which norm states that "the person is the kind of good which does not admit of use and cannot be treated as an object of use and as such as a means to an end" (LaR, 41).
The influence of modernity upon Karol Wojtyla is only one of several examples where contemporary Catholic thought has benefited from the insights of modernity--one could also mention other Catholic intellectuals such as: Emmanuel Mounier, Gabriel Marcel, Edith Stein, Dietrich von Hildebrand, to name only a few. Space and time prohibit us from offering any further examples. We must therefore risk the temptation to a certain "us and them" attitude, which regards all things modern as pernicious innovations of an ungodly age. The Enlightenment was no less godly than the ancient world, and whatever wisdom there may be found contained therein is always ripe for Catholic intellectual picking. But, lest we be like an infant who places anything and everything in his mouth without discrimination, prudence demands that we examine that which we’re consuming so that, at the very least, we can spit out any rotten portions of our plucked fruit. Posted by Anxietas at 7:00 AM Comments (9) Labels:

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