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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.

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Mr. Ramos --Thanks for calling our attention to this book.Maritain apparently didn't think much of Blondel, considering him to be "anti-intellectual" (a mortall sin for Maritain). Would you say that this was a correct estimation? Certainly the title of Blondel's major work "Action: A Critique of Life and a Science of Practice" indicates that scientific thinking was indeed of value to him.Given what little I know of Blondel (I haven't read any of his works myself), I tend to think of him as a sort of proto-existentialist and, therefore, not too enamoured of reason. Would you say this is fair?Certainly Blondel's interest in action theory put him a couple of generations ahead of his philosophical time. Maybe his time to be appreciated has come, though if he didn't appreciate reason I don't suppose those in the analytic tradition will ever warm to him.

Ann (8/6 1:44 PM):

Given what little I know of Blondel (I havent read any of his works myself), I tend to think of him as a sort of proto-existentialist and, therefore, not too enamoured of reason.

I don't have any idea what "proto-existentialist" means, but if he was highly skeptical of reason, he may have been a man of our times. Scientists are, I believe, beginning to formally take notice that man is much less rational and much more emotional than it's been generally thought to be the case.

David -- Perhaps that is news to the contemporary scientists, but philosophers have generally been aware of that fact at least since Plato. Specifically, they have been aware that our feelings can mess up our reasoning processes, not to mention memory playing a paradoxical distorting function is trying to arrive at truth.

Ann, I guess my very non-intellectual point (and so maybe out of place here - though I hope not) is that the mind is of a piece - there's no Chinese wall between logic and emotion. If Blondel foregrounded the inability of the logical mind to decide anything independently of the emotional mind, he sounds to me rather modern. Reason and logic are extremely important to humans, but they don't "rule".There's an instructive story in David Brooks' The Social Animal about a man whose affective brain (I don't remember how that was qualified) had been badly damaged. He was able to reason perfectly well, but it had become extremely hard for him to make decisions.

What about Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor?

Santiago, Thanks for this post. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on Alasdair MacIntyre's book on Edith Stein (whose feast day is today). My take on the book is that MacIntyre sees Stein as just such an example of a life lived philosophically, which as Plato tells us, is a preparation for death.

"What about Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor?"Timothy B. --I don't make a connection here. Why do you mention them?

Ramos says he can think of only two Catholic philosophers, Anscombe and Finnis, who are used as resources "by a public figure or commentator who is trying to make sense of the American scene." I think he should have included MacIntyre and Taylor on that list.

Oops -- Thank you, Timothy.Michael Dummett, who is mainly a philosopher of logic, math, language, and metaphysics, has written about immigration and refugee moral issues. His work in this area was part of the reason he was knighted in England. This part of his work doesn't seem to be well known here. Maybe it should be. He is one of the most highly respected contemporary philosophers, Catholic though he is. (He's also the world's authority on the game of tarot. Oh, those English eccentrics :-)

[...] Maurice Blondel and the Shape of Life – CommonwealAug 5, 2011 … Oliva Blanchette’s Maurice Blondel: A Philosophical Life* is … [...]

Dear Santiago Ramos,this is only my first comment on what you said about Blondel and his potential American readers. At the moment, I would just like to point to the interest Blondel might hold for readers and interpreters of Heidegger, as he is kind of a contemporary thinker on the philosophy of religion and equally great. As far a I know there are lots of Heidegger readers in the US, and Blondel will help them to deepen whatever interest in the philosophy of religion they might have. Heidegger himself was convinced Blondel was a great philosopher of his time. I also like to hint at the philosophical importance of Blondel, even beyond what might be called philosophy of religion. He doesnt lag behind Heidgger in that regard.

Dear Mr. Ramos,referring to some of the comments on your article let me say that Maritain was clearly wrong in deeming Blondel an anti-intellectualist`. Blondel never repudiates science, all he is interested in in his early days is kind of a super-science that integrates intellect, volition and practice. In his thesis he takes up the guiding motif of determinism to get beyond the realm of the natural sciences, without ever belittling them at all. Developing some kind of higher determinism` he makes clear how much he is indebted to the rigour of the sciences. In his later career the idea of determinism` recedes into the background in favour of what might be regarded as his greatest philosophy. To get into touch with the greatest ideas of Blondel you should apprach his later work.

Dear Mr. Ramos,as regards Blachettes philosophical biography, it is undoubtedly a marvellous book, and I devoured each and every line of it. It should be stressed, however, that Blanchette reads Blondel very much as a Christian philosopher and thus possibly underrates the importance of his philosophy as such, which is huge by any standard. In times like ours it might be useful and highly interesting to present Blondel as an independent philosopher. One would find out that his conception of philosophy as such is deeply original and leads philosophy onto untrodden paths. To just throw in a keyword, I would locate him within a framework to be described as beyond ontocracy`, but far beyond thinkers that want to transcend ontocracy in theology, such as Marion and others.