Maurice Blondel and the Shape of Life
Oliva Blanchettes Maurice Blondel: A Philosophical Life* is the first biography of the dynamic French thinker to be written in English, and its publication this year offers an opportunity for American readers to become acquainted with the thought of a nearly-forgotten philosopher. The problem is figuring out just who those American readers might be. Blondel has never had much of an influence in American thought, Catholic or otherwise, but he did make an impression on some of the great minds of the twentieth centuryamong them, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Paul Claudel, William James, and even the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty. However, apart from the Balthasar scholars who naturally would want to learn more about one of von Balthasars seminal influences, it is unclear who would be motivated to read this biography. We should examine this lack of motivation.
Back in 1964, the Catholic commentator Michael Novak could write, in a book titled A New Generation, about the great minds of Catholic renewal, make a list of them, and that list had to include philosophers: Leon Bloy, Charles Peguy, Jacques and Raissa Maritain, Georges Rouault, Ernest Psichari; then Paul Claudel, Gabriel Marcel, Francois Mauriac, Antoine St. Exupery, Georges Bernanos Thats two right thereJacques Maritain and Marcel. Then in Germany, Edith Stein. Stein was an assistant to the great philosopher Edmund Husserl, later became a nun, and was killed by the Nazis. All three of these thinkersMaritain, Marcel, and Steindiffered in areas of focus, methods of inquiry, and even philosophical traditions. They were united, but diverse. All over Europe intelligent and deeply Catholic voices began to be heard, Novak concludes. Among those voices were philosophical voices. Blondel could have made this list, except that he flourished a few decades too early for Novaks tally.Today, we may wonder whether any of the above-named Catholic philosophers, or any other who worked during the very rich 20th century, is ever exploited as a resource by a public figure or commentator who is trying to make sense of the American scene. Not a theologian (not Fr. Gutierrez nor Cardinal Dulles), not an activist (not Dorothy Day nor the Berrigans), not a literary figure (Flannery OConnor, Walker Percy, et al.), not a mystic (Merton or De Mello), not a politician (Sargeant Shriver or Konrad Adenauer), but a philosopher whose dialectics would aid reflection about the experience of our time.I am willing to be corrected, but I can only think of two: G.E.M. Anscombe and John Finnis. Together these philosophers have supplied a new interpretation of Aristotles ethics and the Thomist natural law tradition which has allowed Robert P. George and like-minded writers to make a fruitful (in some aspects) and definitelynoticeable moral critique of American politics and culture. A foundational premise to their critique is that it is always based on practical reason, and not on revealed dogma. Practical reason is accessible to every member of a democracy, and therefore everyone can come to the same conclusions about correct ethical behavior, and the goods that motivate such behavior. It is up to writerstutored in the tradition of Finnis, Anscombe, and their successorsto make this thought clear, and to defend its premises, within the public square.But such a public philosophy tends to favor ethics-talk above everything else. When the only public reason is practical reason, then the only question you can ask in public is, What should I do? This question may lead to certain insights into the goods that human beings seek, but it will never fully approach another desire we have, which can only be expressed with a different question: What am I? That question is important to us, too, the party of Finnis could object. To ask, What am I? is to ask, What is human nature?, and ethics is ordered around the fulfillment and flourishing of human nature.In contrast, Maurice Blondels noveltyand the reason why we should read his biography, as well as his worklies in the different way that he approaches the question, What am I? The subtitle of his most influential work, Action, is A Critique of Life and a Science of Practice, a direct challenge to the dominant thinking of the French academic establishment of his day, whichhaving inherited the Kantian tradition of ethicsdid not allow for the possibility of philosophical speculation about the nature of life as such, and whose ethics consisted only of an analysis of duties considered in the abstract. A Science of Practice is not an ethics, but a study of the essential components of action. Why do we move from singular action to a relationship with another, and why does that relationship always expand into a family, or into some sort of community involvement? What is the logic behind the interior expansion of action, and why, with everything that we desire and subsequently obtain, is there always something left overa little bit of something still to be desired, to be sought after?Instead of articulating a new ethics, and instead of directly challenging the philosophical materialism and positivism of his colleagues (in this work, at least), Blondel sought to study life as such, and action as suchaction being the movement of life in time, the inevitable and dramatic dialogue between freedom and necessity at the heart of every person.As Blanchette recounts in his biography, what inspired Blondel to study action was a conversation in which a friend and fellow philosopher asked him why he should feel obliged to inquire into and take into account a particular fact that took place 1900 years ago in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire, while he glories in ignoring so many [other] great contingent events, curiosity about which would impoverish his interior life. This "particular fact"the obscure life and death and maybe more of a Palestinian woodworkerwas the most important fact in life and in history for Blondel, and his distinctly philosophical approach to defending its importance was not, again, an account of the ethical life. Instead, he attempts to show that reason inexorably leads to the question of lifes ultimate meaning, and that to avoid this ultimate, religious question would mean to betray reason.In order to demonstrate this, Blondel draws out a complete picture of all the ways that human action expresses itself: from perception to self-awareness, from personal action to seeking out another in a relationship, from forming a society to establishing a cultall the essential forms of desire and fulfillment, the different stages of the dynamic of human striving which, if carried out in good conscience, do not end before they become a battering ram thrust against what Blondel calls the religious question. In order to know What am I? and How should I live? I have to have to know the shape of life, the essential components of the drama of life.To say that this type of philosophy is not practical for a pluralistic society is not only untrue, but misses the point. Blondel is a philosopher, not a theologian, and he doesnt appeal to dogma. His philosophy may not be practical, but it is useful. Why shouldnt we ask philosophers to tell us something true about life as such, instead of (or rather, alongside) social or political criticism? There is room for more than one philosophical method, more than one way to look at an object. Are there resources that many of us are neglecting to exploit? Blanchette has opened up a quarry: who would mine it?*Full disclosure: Blanchette has been my professor on two occasions, during two seminars at Boston College.