Bartolomeo degli Erri, St. Thomas Aquinas Aided by Saints Peter and Paul (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

For some years now there’s been a remarkable surge of interest in religion among European philosophers. We can see this in the raft of new works on St. Paul produced by philosophers who are very far from being orthodox Christians, such as Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek, as well as in Jürgen Habermas’s recent “turn” to religion, including his famous debate in 2004 with the future Pope Benedict XVI. From Michel Foucault’s late interest in medieval confessional practices, to Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s exploration of Franciscan spirituality, to the wide-ranging engagement with religious themes on the part of Giorgio Agamben and Jean-Luc Nancy, even the most strenuously secular of philosophers appear to have “found” religion.

This religious turn in European philosophy might seem puzzling, but according to Edward Baring in Converts to the Real, it should not surprise us. That’s because the tradition in which these philosophers work, known as continental philosophy (as opposed to the analytic tradition that dominates in the English-speaking world), was forged in important respects by Catholics in the early decades of the twentieth century. Before that, Baring tells us, European philosophers tended to be siloed in their own national traditions. It was their shared engagement with phenomenology—a careful study of the structures of human experience pioneered by Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, and Max Scheler—that gave birth to a truly continental philosophical tradition. And it did so largely thanks to Catholic philosophers, who transmitted these ideas from their German birthplace to France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland, the Iberian Peninsula, and America. In fact, prior to World War II, 40 percent of all books on phenomenology in French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch were written by Catholics. With a few notable exceptions, such as Edith Stein and Gabriel Marcel, they were by no means the most famous or most important of phenomenology’s many interlocutors. But Baring argues that these Catholics were nevertheless the “single most important” factor in making phenomenology a truly continental philosophy.

How did this happen? Before phenomenology came into its own, the closest thing to a continental philosophy at the time was a Catholic one: neo-scholasticism. It flourished in the second half of the nineteenth century, after Leo XIII called for Catholic philosophers to return to the insights of Thomas Aquinas and medieval scholasticism. By 1914, thanks to the global reach of the Catholic Church, it had become “by any reasonable measure the largest and most influential philosophical movement in the world.” While the church was engaged in a battle against the forces of “modernism” at the turn of the century, a small group of neo-scholastics sought to bridge the gulf between medieval and modern, Catholic and secular thought. These “progressive neo-scholastics,” as Baring calls them, found their man in Edmund Husserl, who had himself studied with Franz Brentano, a priest steeped in the scholastic tradition. What attracted these Catholics to Husserl was his theory of intentionality—the notion that human consciousness is always consciousness “of” something. This appealed to Catholics because it appeared to open a way beyond the idealism of modern philosophy since Kant, which had threatened to undermine the possibility that human beings could possess an objective knowledge of realities outside the mind, including God.

Husserl’s phenomenology seemed to offer a solution to this problem. His promise to return “to the things themselves” sounded to many Catholics like a vindication of medieval scholasticism, which stressed that human beings have the capacity to objectively know reality independent of the mind. This led some Catholics to dub phenomenology a “new scholasticism.” By pointing “beyond” modern philosophy, they hoped that phenomenology could also serve as a path “back” to medieval thought, so that one might begin from the perspective of modern philosophy and end up somewhere closer to Thomas Aquinas. Husserl’s phenomenology thus opened up the possibility that modern, secular philosophy could be converted to Catholicism.

But these Catholic philosophers were severely disappointed when, in 1913, Husserl’s work took a much more pointed turn toward idealism. The result was a fierce debate, fought out within the transnational and multilingual networks of the Catholic Church, over whether phenomenology could be reconciled with Catholic philosophy. While phenomenology did serve as a conduit to religious faith and conversion for some philosophers, such as Edith Stein, Dietrich von Hildebrand, and Max Scheler, there were troubling indications that it could also have precisely the opposite effect. Martin Heidegger was a case in point. He initially approached phenomenology from the perspective of neo-scholasticism and was even a contender for the chair in Catholic philosophy at Freiburg in 1916. But by 1921, he was firmly in the atheist camp. In 1923, Max Scheler also broke with Catholicism.


The pivotal role Catholics were able to play in the rise and spread of phenomenology owes everything to the specific institutions these philosophers inhabited.

Phenomenology thus had mixed results as a conversion tool. And yet, as Baring demonstrates, this was precisely what ensured its widespread and lasting appeal. In the 1930s, critics of neo-scholasticism within the church used Husserl’s idealist “betrayal” as a weapon against their fellow Catholics, and phenomenology became a tool for internal disputes between “progressive neo-scholastics,” “strict Thomists” like Jacques Maritain and Étienne Gilson, and “Christian existentialists” such as Gabriel Marcel. In the process, the ideas of Husserl, Heidegger, and Scheler spread across Europe and came to the attention of mainstream philosophers. But just as Catholic critics of neo-scholasticism turned to phenomenology as a weapon against their intellectual rivals within the church, these secular philosophers were able to exploit the internal disputes within Catholic philosophy to dissociate phenomenology from religion altogether. Baring concludes that, “even though Catholic institutions helped transport phenomenological ideas around Europe, phenomenology could only reenter secular philosophy once it had left those institutions behind,” as it did after 1945. Thus, Jean-Paul Sartre could get up and proclaim, in a famous speech at the Club Maintenant in October 1945, that the only authentic form of existentialism was an atheist existentialism. At this point, continental philosophy took on the secular character with which we still associate it today.

In other words, it was precisely because the fit between phenomenology and Catholic philosophy was never perfect that it could appeal to both Catholic and secular philosophers and convert people to as well as from Catholicism. That this was so is an indication of how porous the boundary between Catholic and secular philosophy was in the early decades of the twentieth century. Many of the leading lights of postwar European thought, including some of the fiercest critics of religion, first discovered phenomenology through the mediation of Catholic philosophers. Jean-Paul Sartre’s reading of Heidegger, for instance, was greatly informed by the work of the neo-scholastic philosopher Alphonse de Waelhens, who wrote the first book on Heidegger’s philosophy in French. Meanwhile, a generation of French philosophers was introduced to phenomenology through the study circle that Gabriel Marcel hosted in the 1930s, whose participants included such luminaries as Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Emmanuel Levinas, and Paul Ricœur. Even Heidegger at one time entertained the idea of becoming a priest, long before he became the high-priest of atheist phenomenology. As a result of this constant traffic across the border between religious and secular thought, the themes at the heart of the Catholic engagement with phenomenology—questions of embodiment, transcendence, humanism, politics, and idealism—also bore their imprint on its secular inheritors. This does not mean that continental philosophy after 1945 was “secretly” Catholic, however, and Baring’s goal is not to vindicate either the secular or the Catholic reading of phenomenology. Instead, his narrative shows how the same set of philosophical arguments could be used for a wide range of purposes, both religious and irreligious, depending on the context.

While he gets much right, Baring perhaps overstates the extent to which these sorts of interactions came to an end after the Second World War. Well into the postwar period, mainstream philosophers like Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, and Alexandre Kojève continued to elaborate their ideas in response to, and in conversation with, Catholic theologians and philosophers. In 1945, for instance, the Catholic journal Dieu Vivant published a debate between the ex-surrealist writer Georges Bataille and the theologian (and future Cardinal) Jean Daniélou, a debate attended by many of the leading lights of postwar French thought, from Sartre and Camus to Maurice Blanchot and Jean Hyppolite. And well into the 1970s and ’80s, the Jesuit priest Michel de Certeau was able to move seamlessly among the worlds of psychoanalytic theory, poststructuralism, and Catholic theology. To argue, as Baring does, that phenomenology had to leave Catholicism behind in order to “fulfill its potential as a continental philosophy” and enter the mainstream is to ignore the many ways that continental philosophy engaged with religious questions throughout the twentieth century, and indeed continues to do so today.


Nevertheless, Baring has achieved something very significant. He has given us a snapshot of the remarkable internal diversity of Catholic thought in the early-twentieth century—something that is sadly missing from most intellectual histories of the period. He shows us the rich intellectual landscape forged by European Catholics in these years, one in which the differences between the various strands of Catholic thought were often as great as those between secular and Catholic philosophers or between those working in different countries. These factions grappled over questions about how we can know the world beyond the mind; about the relationship between reason and faith, philosophy and theology, God and human beings; and about whether Catholics could work with fascist or authoritarian regimes emerging across Europe in the 1920s and ’30s. To answer these questions, they turned both to the resources of their millennia-old Catholic tradition, as well as to those of modern philosophy. Baring recovers this vibrant intellectual world and takes seriously the philosophical questions it posed in a way that remains all too rare among twentieth-century historians.

The other tremendous benefit of his work is to show how and why institutions matter for the history of ideas. The pivotal role Catholics were able to play in the rise and spread of phenomenology owes everything to the specific institutions these philosophers inhabited, beginning with the peculiarities of the university system in phenomenology’s birthplace: Germany. Whereas Catholic philosophers elsewhere in Europe tended to be employed in confessional institutions such as seminaries or Catholic universities, state universities in Germany reserved some philosophy chairs for Catholics. As a result, there were many more opportunities for Catholic and mainstream philosophers to interact in Germany, which allowed Catholics to engage with the ideas of Husserl, Heidegger, and Scheler, and participate in the circles of acolytes they attracted. But these ideas might not have gained much traction beyond Germany if they had not had access to the self-consciously international and multilingual network of institutions and journals formed by neo-scholastic philosophers at a time when most philosophers were more interested in their own national conversations. This is not just a story of ideas, then, but a story of how ideas spread across the boundaries between national communities or between secular and Catholic thought, thanks to the particular institutions in which they take shape. Interestingly, the Vatican and church hierarchy play only a minor role in Baring’s account—an indication of the way Catholic thought often develops independently of the centralized structures of the church hierarchy.

Given the highly specialized nature of Baring’s subject, readers without a background in philosophy admittedly may struggle with some of the book’s more technical discussions. There is much talk of epochés, “noetic-noematic correlations,” and “transcendental reductions,” which can understandably bewilder those uninitiated in the finer points of phenomenological analysis. But it is nevertheless a book that rewards close reading. Baring shows us the complex, multifaceted, and often unexpected interactions between Catholic and secular philosophy, which may well explain why continental philosophy finds itself constantly drawn back to religious questions. If we take Baring at his word, then, the recent “turn” to religion among continental philosophers should really be seen as a “return” to the origins of their tradition.

Converts to the Real
Catholicism and the Making of Continental Philosophy
Edward Baring
Harvard University Press
$49.95 | 504 pp.

Sarah Shortall is assistant professor of modern European history at the University of Notre Dame. She is the author of Soldiers of God in a Secular World: The Politics of Catholic Theology in Twentieth-Century France and co-editor of a volume of essays titled Christianity and Human Rights Reconsidered, both of which are forthcoming.

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Published in the March 2020 issue: View Contents
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