30 April 2002

I said I'd say something about Jack Caputo's second talk that happened the week before last, a seminar with the philosophy faculty and majors.

The talk basically presented much of the content of "Philosophy and Prophetic Postmodernism: Toward a Catholic Postmodernity" an article Caputo had in the American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly (Autumn 2000), which was, in turn, a transcription of a lecture he had given to a consortium of Catholic colleges in Europe. In large part it was a historical overview of the nature and practice of philosophy among Catholic institutions in the United States over the past century or so, arguing that Catholic departments have something to continue learn from Continental philosophy (and postmodernism in particular), that they should not abandon Continental philosophy for the aridity of the Anglo-American analytic tradition, and that these are important considerations if Catholic intellectuals want to retain a prophetic voice in our culture.

First, let's go back a century or so. In the wake of Pope Leo XIII's encylcical "Aeterni Patris" and in the midst of controversies with Marxism and Modernism, American Catholic institutions had circled the wagons and plunged themselves headlong into hard-core (neo-)Thomistic philosophy, rejecting thereby what were (rightly) seen as the deep errors of the Enlightenment. Here at La Salle, for example, well into the late 1950s all students, whatever their major, were required to take 18 credits of Thomistic philosophy and barely cracked open someone so wrong-headed as Descartes.

On the continent, however, things had begun to open up (this is me talking now, not so much Caputo). Philosophers like Joseph Kleutgen, Maurice Blondel, and Erich Przywara had simultaneously returned to a more authentic study of the church Fathers and medievals along with engagement with Continental trends, particularly emerging from Hegel, German idealism, and existential-phenomenology. Theologically these trends came be developed in various directions by the nouvelle theologie (e.g., de Lubac, von Balthasar) on one hand and by transcendental Thomists (e.g., Marechel, Rahner, Lonergan) on the other (for more on this divide, see my essay "Rahner and de Lubac on Nature and Grace"; this way of dividing things, of course, neglects the contributions of the "Lublin Thomism" of the Poles, which has, I think, a closer affinity with that of the nouvelle theologie).

What Caputo suggested is that the study of Thomistic philosophy, in some respects, especially prepared Catholic philosophy in the United States for appropriating the philosophy of the existential-phenomelogists (e.g., Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Marcel) in service to Catholic philosophy. In part this was the result of growing scholarship regarding St. Thomas Aquinas himself, freeing him from the various nominalistic accretions that date back at least to Saurez and were perpetuated by the 19th manuals. Thus scholars like Gilson (and later Chenu) did much to overcome the essentially ahistorical neo-Thomism of the 19th century, situating Aquinas in his 13th century historical context, treating his work as an organic whole, and exploring the deep influence of Christian neo-platonism (Augustine, Pseudo-Dionysius) on his thought.

The Aquinas that emerges from this historical reconstruction is one that is significantly closer to phenomenology, who sees the "essence" of a thing in terms of dymanism towards particular ends, who is interested in the whole range of lived human experience, and who defines the human person in terms of an essential openness and orientation towards God. Not only are these themes deeply resonant with those of existential-phenomenology, that philosophical movement itself share many of Catholicism's suspicions with regard to the Enlightenment project and the Cartesian paradigm. Thus it should be no surprise that some of the earliest American translations and discussions of Heidegger, Husserl, and so on, emerged from Catholic institutions of higher learning (e.g. James Collins of St. Louis University or William Richardson of Fordham University and later Boston College).

What worries Caputo is the turn that Catholic philosophy and institutions of higher learning have taken since the 1970's. In particular, he is distressed by the dismissal of postmodernist philosophers such as Foucault and Derrida and an increasing turn towards Anglo-American analytic philosophy as somehow more consistent with the rigors of scholastic methodology.

Caputo argues that there are two tendencies at work within postmodernism: a more Nietzschean or Dionysian theorization of differance as violence and a more Levinasian theorization of differance as alterity. While the former may pose problems for Catholic philosophy, the latter, he suggests, is an indispensible tool, rooted within the biblical narrative, and providing for a prophetic stance towards the world (see, for instance, in the work of Jean-Luc Marion). Even if Derrida's early work may have celebrated a more Dionysian play upon difference, in the past 15 years (and indeed, running all the way back to his early essay "Violence and Metaphysics"), he has emphasized the latter notion. Indeed, some of Derrida's more recent work is explicitly religious in tone (e.g., Circumfessions).

Caputo's talk ended with an analysis of the phenomenology of "the impossible"--the absolute future, the unforeseeable that shatters our horizon of expectation. While modernism was often preoccuppied with the conditions and limits of possibility, what is definitively given and made present, the postmodern is interested in the excess of givenness beyond every possible attempt to contain it, perhaps beyond the possibility of ever being given as "present" in a final way.

The impossible, conceived in this phenomenological manner, is, for Caputo, the condition for the possibility of prayer, for the fiat of the Blessed Virgin who gives herself over to the God of the impossible. The impossible is the sphere of the three theological virtues: faith, hope, and love, where faith believes what is incredible, where hope "hopes against hope" (Rom 4:18), and love embraces the utterly unlovable.

From this standpoint, Derrida's "deconstruction of presence" can be seen as continuous with the biblical polemic against idols, in favor of a God who surpasses all we would think to ask for or to imagine. It critiques merely human virtue as constrained by the possible and self-possessed, in favor of faith, hope, and love in which we are possessed by that which is greater than ourselves.

In these ways, then, postmodernism can be a deeply Augustinian retrieval of the distinctively Christian and Catholic, filling out Catholic philosophy's earlier Thomistic appropriation of existential-phenomenology. And in this Catholic philosophy can also once again become a prophetic voice.