Wojtyla on the “Task of Christian Philosophy” (1976)

The Catholic University America, Archives, 1976

In 1976 Karol Cardinal Wojtyla was approaching the prime of his powers. He was a distinguished international philosopher, known among the students of phenomenology, a leading Churchman, who left his mark on the documents of Vatican II and Humanae vitae, and an veteran of the Catholic struggle against communist rule in Poland. After presenting a paper at a conference in phenomenology in Europe, Wojtyla came to Philadelphia to attend the Eucharistic Congress, and then he visited the Catholic University of America to present a paper in philosophy to faculty and students. Dean Jude Dougherty soon thereafter published one of these talks in the Review of Metaphysics; he decided to leave out the first few paragraphs which were aimed at a Catholic audience. These paragraphs were eventually published in the American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly (you may read them here.) The short work is very insightful and revealing about Wojtyla’s and the future Pope’s project. A few comments would be in order.

“The problem of man’s subjectivity is today of paramount importance for philosophy. Multiple epistemological tendencies, principles, and orientations wrestle in this field and often give it a diametrically different shape and sense. The philosophy of consciousness seems to suggest that it was the first to discover the human subject. The philosophy of being is ready to demonstrate that, on the contrary, the analysis conducted on the basis of pure consciousness must lead in consequence to its annihilation. It is necessary to find the correct limits. according to which the phenomenological analyses, developed from the principles of the philosophy of consciousness, will begin to work to enrich the realistic image of the person. It is also necessary to establish the basis of such a philosophy of person.”

It has significant opening sentence. Thomism prides itself on being an objective philosophy, a realistic epistemology, focused upon reality. Chesterton, by the way, has an insightful account of this in the book Thomas Aquinas: Dumb Ox. Cartesianism, the plague of modernity, starts with subjectivity and gets lost along the way. Wojtyla, by laying down the problem of subjectivity as of paramount importance, is signaling some kind of shift in the task of Christian philosophy. Since philosophy departments at most Catholic universities have now been all but hijacked by the Cartesians and deconstructionists, this hardly seems novel, and perhaps a clear wrong turn. But not so fast. First, he then offers a counter point from the standpoint of a “philosophy of being”  arguing that “the analysis conducted on the basis of pure consciousness must lead in consequence to its annihilation.” We must find “correct limits” to the claims of subjectivity — phenomenology is certainly of great assistance here. For there is something to be discovered that will “enrich the realistic image of the person.” And the great task is “to establish the basis of such a philosophy of person.” What does he mean by this? That Thomism has not established it? or not sufficiently established it? Maybe. One could argue that principles are there in St Thomas, but the method overlooks, by design, the subjective and phenomenological.  Thomas is indebted to Augustine for many things. The Augustinian turn, done rightly not in the Cartesian fashion, could well be the thrust Thomism needs to “establish the basis of such a philosophy of person.” From the exterior to the interior, from the inferior to the superior. (Gilson’s formulation for Augustinian method) Augustinianism can prepare Thomism to be enriched by the authentic intellectual themes of modernity. And Thomistic philosophy of being in turn will correct the deep distortions and ultimate timidity of modern philosophy.

As Pope John Paul II will later say about modern culture: “Yet the positive results achieved must not obscure the fact that reason, in its one-sided concern to investigate human subjectivity, seems to have forgotten that men and women are always called to direct their steps towards a truth which transcends them. Sundered from that truth, individuals are at the mercy of caprice, and their state as person ends up being judged by pragmatic criteria based essentially upon experimental data, in the mistaken belief that technology must dominate all. It has happened therefore that reason, rather than voicing the human orientation towards truth, has wilted under the weight of so much knowledge and little by little has lost the capacity to lift its gaze to the heights, not daring to rise to the truth of being. Abandoning the investigation of being, modern philosophical research has concentrated instead upon human knowing.” Fides et ratio §5 Wojtyla was not about to abandon his St. Thomas, the investigation of being, and the daring of metaphysics.

To return to the article. The second paragraph also opens with a bold statement defining Wojtyla’s project: “Apart from this, the problem of the subjectivity of the person, and especially this problem in relation to the human community, imposes itself today as one of the central questions concerning the world outlook (Weltanschaung). This is at the basis of the human “praxis” and morality (and consequently ethics) and at the basis of culture, civilization, and politics.” Again, subjectivity must be understood because it is central to the world view of modern man, the man to be (re-) evangelized. But Wojtyla learned from some of the (post) moderns, subjectivity intrinsically relates to community. We must understand human action (praxis) in light of the subject acting — and he sees this as the basis for culture, civilization and politics. He is making more than a claim about modern man, but about the structure of human affairs — that the subject and the “acting person” is the ontolological basis, as well as methodological basis, for the cultural. 

We are getting glimpse of a profound thinker, in between, Gaudium et spes on the one hand, and Redemptor hominis on the other. He was writing the Acting Person. He beat the Marxists at their own game, and he was well on his way to doing the same for the liberal west. What is freedom? What is true human fulfillment? What is the basis for human rights? He would peer into the soul, along an Augustinian line, and find the trace of God and the abyss of conscience.

In Wojtyla’s mind, philosophy is the key to the engagement with modern culture: “Here, exercising its essential function, philosophy takes the floor as the expression of basic understanding and ultimate justification.” The crisis of our times demands a full response of the mind through philosophy. The search for wisdom has always been an authentic movement of man towards God, but philosophy is needed more than ever today.  “his need becomes especially acute at moments, such as the present, of great crises and confrontations regarding man and the very sense of man’s existence, and in consequence regarding the nature and meaning of his being.”

Now is not the time to reduce the influence of philosophy in the Catholic university. Sadly to say, it has been greatly reduced in most of them all. .

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