The Personalist Project

A question from a reader for the philosophers:

I just “happened” upon your website and applaud your efforts to promote a
personalist agenda (particularly rooted in Christian metaphysics).

I’m wondering if you can point me in some directions? I am keenly
interested in Christian personalist expressions and have read material from
different approaches: Martin Luther King Jr., Bowne, Norris Clarke, Dietrich
von Hildebrand, Josef Seifert and John Crosby come to mind. I have been
helped by all of these authors to see that human dignity is objectively
grounded in the perfections contained in being a person (ultimately
reflecting the ultimate person). Unfortunately, here in Canada it is
sometimes hard to get my hands upon good material, particularly from the
school of phenomenological realism. I sense that this particular school has
a good approach to epistemology (an area I’m very interested in) and is a
good antidote to skepticism. I’ve been particularly interested in good
rebuttals of Descarte’s spiritus malingus argument.

Any help you might be able to give, either in dialouge or pointing me
towards written material, would be wonderful.

Comments (8)

Jules van Schaijik

#1, Jul 8, 2009 2:38am

The author’s you mention are all great.  (To my mind Crosby’s Selfhood of the Human Person is the best, most balanced, and most readable introduction to Christian personalism.  It will introduce you to many great author’s in that tradition.)  One name you did not mention is Karol Wojtyla.  His Love and Responsibility should be on your short list (not easy).  Then there is Josef Pieper, whose Leisure the Basis of Culture is a modern classic.

On epistemology: did you read Seifert’s Back to Things Themselves and von Hildebrand’s What is Philosophy?  The first is a very thorough and convincing refutation of the epistemologies of Kant and (the later) Husserl.  The second contains some highly original contributions to the problem of a priori knowledge (see chapter 4).  These are not the sort of books you would bring to the beach however.  Brace yourself for some serious reading.

As to the spiritus malignus argument, what do you think of Descartes answer?

Has this been helpful?


#2, Jul 9, 2009 7:11am

Jules, thanks for responding to my query. Yes, I have read Crosby’s Selfhood and Personalist Papers. I have also read as many of Seifert’s publications as I can, including Back to Things Themselves. I have tried to get my hands on a copy of von Hildebrand’s What is Philosophy? but to date the copies are either scarce or expensive. I will continue to try and locate a copy for further reading.

Regarding Descartes’ answer, I have found it unsatisfying. To hook one’s confidence in the external world to the veracity of God seems to me awkward and not fitting reality. Although I can’t put my finger yet on a piece of writing that reflects my intuition, I suspect a better answer might be that there is something self-authenicating within our sense experience itself that better answers the question. Any leads or directions you might have would be appreciated.

Thanks again. You have been most helpful.

Jules van Schaijik

#3, Jul 9, 2009 8:32am

>To hook one’s confidence in the external world to the veracity of God seems to me awkward and not fitting reality.<

I agree.  It is an unnecessary and unsatisfactory detour.  The problem, I think, is that Descartes is looking for a kind of certainty (namely apodictic certainty) that is impossible with regards to our knowledge of the contingent world.  Only necessary essences (as von Hildebrand shows) can be known in that way.

Of things in the real world (e.g. that my wife, Katie, truly exists, or that I have sinned against her) I can be absolutely certain but not apodictically, since these things are not necessary.  (My own existence is a separate case as Descartes shows with his cogito sum.)

I will have to think a bit more about the type of writings you are looking for.  I suspect that Josef Seifert could mention a few of the top of his head.  (Or he could write one almost as fast.)  One book I admire on this issue is Newman’s Grammar of Assent.  But that does not offer, perhaps, the kind of philosophical argument you are looking for.


#4, Jul 14, 2009 1:16am

Very interesting!

I’m not sure if this would be helpful, but here is a work by St. Bonaventure: “Disputed Questions on the Knowledge of Christ.”

A good deal of this pertains to the epistemology of natural reason. At the very least, I think, it is very interesting reading. Bonaventure is a very sharp, scholastically trained mind. But, he does not have the same Aristotelian epistemology as St. Thomas. Neither is he a copy of Plato. His epistemological point of view is fascinating, rigorous, and I’m not sure, but perhaps there are some points of resonance with von Hildebrand?


#5, Jul 16, 2009 11:32am

Thanks, Scott.

I have read Bonaventure’s “The Journey of the Mind Into God.” I find Bonaventure to be an original thinker and almost inspiring in his creativity. And there are a few essays on Seifert’s IAP site that make fascinating connections between Bonaventure and von Hildebrand.

I have been reading Bonaventure of late, asking myself “what would Bonaventure say to Descartes about how he has constructed his epistemology? What corrections would he make?”

Any speculations on what the answer might be? Thanks.

Jules van Schaijik

#6, Jul 16, 2009 3:54pm

Is the essay you read written by Katerina Fedoryka?  It is the only one I know in the connection between Bonaventure and Hildebrand, and it is very good.

But I do not recall the issue of certainty with regards to the contingent, external world being discussed by Bonaventure.


#7, Jul 17, 2009 12:58am

Well, I’ll toss out a few things, John.

First, let me highly recommend an article. John White, of Franciscan University of Steubenville, published an excellent article on Bonaventure’s epistemology. The article is, “The Illumination of Bonaventure: Divine Light in Theology, Philosophy and History According to Bonaventure.” It was published in the journal, Fides Quaerens Intellectum, vol. 1, no. 2 (2001). I’m not sure if the journal is still published, but you might be able to access this article through a university library with significant holdings of Catholic theological journals.

My meager comments are significantly influenced by an undergraduate course I took from Dr. White back in 2001. I haven’t read the Katerina Fedoryka article that Jules mentioned. So, I do not know what she focused on.

In Bonaventure’s Disputed Questions on the Knowledge of Christ, his theory of knowledge is revealed especially in question 4. In this question, Bonaventure traces out an epistemology that is neither that of supernatural illuminationism, nor that wherein the mind’s contact with the sensible world needs no participation by God to derive stable knowledge (i.e. Thomistic epistemology).

Here was the huge quandary for B: He was convinced, from his experience of human life, that human beings do indeed have certain knowledge about some things—including things where the source of knowledge does not come through faith (i.e. from supernatural revelation). There are things of which we can attain certitude apart from the knowledge that comes through faith. This we can call philosophical knowledge. But B wanted to know: how do we ever attain philosophical certitude in our mind when the mind of the knower (the human mind) and the object known (a contingent created entity) are both mutable??? In other words, there can be no such thing as truly certain (i.e. stable, unchanging) knowledge in the human mind unless, somehow, there is immutability in the object known. Only an immutable object can produce certainty in the knowing mind.

We see this in the following quote from question 4: “There can be no certain knowledge except where there is immutability on the part of the object known and infallibility on the part of the knower.”

B solves this problem via his epistemology, which is a kind of illuminationism. But, it is a very nuanced illuminationism. It is not simply a direct spiritual vision of perfect ideals. It is not a special supernatural implantation of knowledge from without. White describes it as a natural illumination. [Note: I am sticking here only to natural knowledge; I do not consider here theological knowledge that begins in supernatural revelation. White’s article includes treatment of the latter.]

Here are some snippets from John White’s article:

[T]here is no divine infusion of knowledge in natural illumination. Rather this sort of illumination is closer to a learning how to see a light which is already present in the cosmos.


[T]he basic cognitive situation includes not only an object and a knowing subject, but also a third term, namely, the divine light. In this respect, the light symbol should be interpreted as that by which one “sees.” . . . At the same time, this “light” is not something which is “turned on” by illuminating grace or by a divine act: it is a light ever present in the cosmos. In this context, Bonaventure posits a mode of knowing which he terms “contuition”, a concept which suggests a “co-intuition” of both specific nature in a sensuously perceived object and the divine Idea in terms of which this object was created and according to whose intelligibility this object is thereby known.


Illumination is not a new activity performed by God; it is a purification of the intellect so that one can see what is already there.

If you can, do get the article and read the whole thing.

Here is how I sketched out Bonaventurian natural illumination in a paper I wrote for Dr. White’s class:

This involves a kind of concomitant and harmonious dual vision—one that sees in the eternal reasons (in the mind of God) by the light of Christ, the Logos; and another that sees in created reason (the finite natures of the created realm) by a power to attain to created essences from sense data. This simultaneous action of vision cooperates together, one with the other. The higher part of man’s spirit sees by the light of Christ into the realm of eternity; the lower part of his spirit (the soul) sees by abstraction into the temporal realm. This cooperation of the two working together is contuition. Very important to properly understanding Bonaventure is to realize that even though that aspect of cognition which sees in the eternal reasons in God transcends the finite created realm, this vision is a natural, not a special or supernatural, power of the human mind. This vision in the light of the Logos is available to all persons, without the necessity of faith and without any special act of God.

And here is one more excerpt from my paper [“eternal reason” is the uncreated exemplar in God]:

Though [Bonaventure] assigns eternal and created reason both integral roles, I do not believe they produce two resulting ideas [in the mind of the human knower]. Unlike with Henry [of Ghent], Bonaventurian contuition in my interpretation does not issue in two distinct exemplars—I believe only one, unified idea corresponding to the nature of the thing known is produced. There are eternal and created principles at work, but they produce a single, coherent idea by which knowledge is gained.

Dr. White made an approving comment by the margin of this last excerpt, which I think means he agrees with my take on this.

I hope this is at least interesting if not helpful. Sorry for the length.

For now, I leave up to you to speculate how B might have critiqued Descartes. I would just note that B, if I am correct, held that by careful observation and reflection upon how one’s own mind works, every person comes to the conclusion that the human mind indeed does have the natural power to know at least some things with certitude (everyone instinctually realizes this before undertaking to deliberate explicitly about it).


#8, Jul 18, 2009 5:25am

Jules and Scott,

Thanks for your follow-up. Jules; yes the article is by Katerina Fedoryka. And no, the article did not discuss certainty in regard to the contingent world. But it does appear to me to leave lots of jumping off points for further speculation.

Scott, thanks for the generous number of insights you shared regarding Bonaventure. They have been both interesting and helpful.

Here’s a question (or questions) for both of you to ruminate about. Is there something within sense experience itself that is self-authenticating and which can only point towards a robust realism? Authors of a Thomist persuasion would say that the form of the known is in the knower, thus guaranteeing realism. Those who follow a more Augustinian tradition (like Bonaventure?)talk a great deal about essence and how certain knowledge is contained within our experience of the world. Both types of thinking seem to require “the world” for the proper grounding of epistemology. And perhaps within our experience of the above, we gain the self-authenticion I seem to be grasping at.

In contrast, someone like Descartes seems to be saying (in his spiritus malingus argument) that knowledge can be just “plunked down” into someone’s conciousness. (the modern version would be the “brain in the vat” argument). In this fashion, a thorough-going deception can take place. It seems that some Thomist authors would say that this simply can’t take place because of the form of the known actually needing to be connected to the knower. Likewise, authors like Seifert talk about how the cogito defeats even radical skepticism.

Any help or insights you could provide on the above rambling would be greatly appreciated. I have no formal training in philosophy, but it has been my passion for several years and I’ve tried to read as much as I can in order to augment my faith. Accordingly, I do greatly appreciate the time you’ve taken to respond to my wide-ranging queries. Thanks again.

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