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Accessed on July 18, 2018 - 11:45:02

Contra Fr. Barron on modern philosophy

Katie van Schaijik, Sep 22, 2012

I've been preoccupied for the last couple of days with a lively discussion over at Ricochet about a talk by Fr. Barron that a member there linked.  I clicked and listened, expecting to like it.  I don't know very much about Fr. Barron, but practically everyone I know admires him, so I was ready to too.  I'd seen a few of his You Tube clips, which I found mostly sound and engaging, if not particularly deep.  He's plainly a thoughtful, sincere, orthodox Catholic priest with a gift for apologetics and a sympathetic openness to contemporary culture—which is ideal for the New Evangelization.  I was happy when I heard he'd been named Rector of Mundelein Seminary in Chicago.

But I thought this was a terrible talk—deplorable even—revealing and communicating serious blunders and confusions about modern philosophy and modernity as a whole, delivered with an air of special wisdom and erudition completely belied by the content.

Here it is. It starts about 13 minutes in.

I wish I had the time and leisure to offer a line by line critique.  But since I don't, here are a few quick points contra, which I'd be happy to take up in more depth if anyone wants me to.

1)  Events, including above all the Protestant Reformation and the "discovery" of the scientific method, are more the "cause" of the modern world than any single thinker, much less Descartes.

2) Descartes was not a subjectivist.  His methodological doubt was conducted in search of an indubitable starting point for knowledge, which he found in the cogito.  To say that Descartes sought to bring all claims against "the tribunal of subjective experience" is false to the point of libelous.  

3) Modernity is not to be confused with the heresy of modernism.  Modern philosophy is not all bad; nor did the medieval synthesis (great as it was) have all the answers to the questions of the modern world.  It's not for nothing that it broke up.

4) "Dualism" is not an unmixed evil.  It's not wrong to distinguish between body and soul.  They are different things, after all.

5) Considered as a philosophical proposition, the cogito is true.

Maybe the most egregious confusion of the talk was Fr. Barron's definition of subjectivism as "a privileging of the interior over the exterior."

Isn't "privileging of the interior over the exterior" something the Catholic Church does?  Isn't it something we ought to do?  Moreover, didn't Karol Wojtyla/Pope John Paul II, explicity identify the "turn toward subjectivity" as the central achievement of modern philosophy?  Didn't he propose that the excessively "cosmological" tendency of the Aristotelian tradition calls for correction and completion by a new emphasis on "the irreducible in man," that is, his interiority, his lived experience of himself as a self?

Take the following passage from his crucial essay, "Subjectivity and the Irreducible in Man."

But as the need increases to understand the human being as a unique and unrepeatable person...as the need increases to understand the personal subjectivity of the human being—the category of lived experience takes on greater significance, and, in fact, key significance.

Wojtyla is here speaking about a felt need of modern man—a need not addressed in the medieval synthesis, because it hadn't yet come into being in the world.  John Crosby, in the essay we commissioned for this site, expresses it this way:

The men and women of our time are ever more aware of themselves as persons.  We experience as never before the incomparable worth of each person.  We are alive to our inviolability, that is, we know in a new way that none of us is ever rightly used and destroyed for the good of others.  We are more sensitive than our ancestors to all the forms of coercion that threaten our personhood.  We reject the ancient distinction between Greek and barbarian; we know that the birthright of a person belongs not to a select few but to every human being.  This awakening of human beings to personal existence is an epochal event, a sea-change in the way we understand ourselves.

Needless to say, (I hope!) Wojtyla doesn't see the modern emphasis on interiority and subjectivity as negating anything true in the tradition.  Rather, it complements the "cosmological" approach.  But, he goes on to say, in philosophical treatments of the person, "the irreducible", i.e., interiority, subjectivity, is not only a valid aspect of our study; it should have a certain priority.

...given the variety of circumstances of the real existence of human beings, we  must always leave the greater space in this cognitive effort for the irreducible; we must, as it were, give the irreducible the upper hand when thinking about the human being, both in theory and in practice.

If we want to understand the person rightly, we need to, as he puts it, "pause at the irreducible".

What does it mean to pause cognitively at lived experience?  This "pausing" should be understood in relation to the irreducible.  The traditions of philosophical anthropology would have us believe that we can, so to speak, pass right over this dimension, that we can cognitively omit it by means of an abstraction that provides us with a specific definition of the human being as a being, or, in other words, with a cosmological type of reduction (homo = animal rationale).  One might ask, however, whether in so defining the essence of the human being we do not in a sense leave out what is most human, since the humanum expresses and realizes itself as the personale.  If so, the the irreducible would suggest that we cannot come to know and understand the human being in a reductive way alone.  This is also what the contemporary philosophy of the subject seems to be telling the traditional philosophy of the object. [Emphasis in the original]

Thus far from rejecting modern philosophy, Wojtyla absorbs and assimilates its valid insights, and thereby develops the Christian humanism of the tradition into a new and richly fruitful Christian personalism.

I wish Fr. Barron could learn from Wojtyla to be as open and sympathetic to modern philosophy as he is to contemporary culture.  If he were, he would be a much deeper and more potent force in the New Evangelization.