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Out of a Kantian Chrysalis?

reviewed by J Ziegler

Ronald McCamy, Out of a Kantian Chrysalis?: A Maritainian Critique of Fr. Maréchal
(Peter Lang Publishing, 1998) ISBN 0820437220

Out of a Kantian Chrysalis? is, first, an account of a critique of Maréchal by Maritain in the pages of the Revue Thomiste in the nineteen twenties. Secondly, it is a continuation and extension of that critique from what is clearly a Maritainian point of view.

Why, at this distance in time from what might be thought a forgotten controversy, should the book have been written?

The occasion of its writing is as a rejoinder to several works of Fr. Gerald McCool:

McCool's conclusion, with regard to the outcome of the controversy surrounding theological pluralism at Vatican II is: ‘The conservative side in the debate, with which Maritain was associated, was the losing side, and the negative stance toward theological pluralism which Pius XII's Humani Generis had taken was not confirmed.’... Especially in theology has the de facto ascendancy of the transcendental approaches of Karl Rahner and Bernard Lonergan become apparent vis-à-vis any Maritainian counterposition. Nonetheless, one may still encounter in the theological literature the occasional appreciative reference to Maritain's critique of contemporary thought. (p. 31)

But the reason for the book’s being written is a conviction that Maritain was right, and that it is important today:

What followed from Maréchal's initial endeavors is ... quite well known. That result was the profound ... twentieth century watershed within Thomistic thought: the divide between transcendental Thomism on the one hand, and a more ‘traditional’ or ‘conservative’ Thomism on the other. Thus, there is a contemporary relevance to the issues at stake in this early twentieth century philosophical exchange. Indeed, the powerful catalytic effect of the Maréchalian project upon the later direction of Catholic thought would be difficult to deny. Vatican II has been seen by some as the theological Waterloo of the Maritainians. The consensus, it seems, is that the Maréchalian wave has swept away its more conservative competitors. The present pluralistic climate has clearly followed on the heels of earlier storms of controvery. (p. 6)

Pluralism is the notion that theological truth can be expressed in more than one philosophical ‘conceptual framework’. Since, however, a philosophical ‘conceptual framework’ goes down to fundamentals concerning truth, the outcome of pluralism must be the acceptance that truth is not absolute, but relative to the knower. One might remark that pluralism is reminiscent of the doctrine of the Two Truths raised during St. Thomas’s time, and against which he wrote.


The question at issue has its genesis in two things: the issuing towards the end of the nineteenth century of Leo XIII’s encyclical Aeterni Patris, and the philosophical opinions of Immanuel Kant.

The former was an appeal to Catholic philosophers to rally to St. Thomas, and had as its effect the Thomistic Revival at the end of that century and the early decades of this. Since that time, there has been a desire on the part of those Catholic philosophers in the forefront to be, or at least to claim to be, Thomistic.

Kant’s opinions, insofar as it is question here, centre on his ‘transcendental critique’. According to Kant, the central problem of epistemology is not how the mind knows truth, but whether it knows it. In line with Descartes – "I think, therefore I am" – the first fact for Kant is the existence of thought. Descartes had vainly sought, in the celebrated phrase, a ‘bridge from ideas to things’, at length taking refuge in the assertion that God would not deceive us in our conviction that we know things as they are. To this, the retort has been made that in that case appeal to God leaves unanswered the question of how one could have the evidence that God exists as a reality outside thought. Kant, for whom things indeed exist, merely said that they ‘in themselves’ were unknowable, since the mind imposed its own forms on what it received from the senses. For Kant, then, knowledge is essentially distortive of its object.

The wave of Kantianism, and its logical outcome Idealism -- which holds that because, (according to Kant’s principles) we cannot know things in themselves, we have no reason to assert their existence -- for a time carried most of the philosophical world before it.

Clearly, no philosopher claiming to be realist, that we know things as they are, can together be a follower of Kant, and of course anyone claiming to be Thomist understood that.

However, it is perhaps not surprising that some thought to try to reconcile Kant with Thomas. Maréchal was important among these, and as such has been called the ‘father of Transcendental Thomism’.


Maritain takes Maréchal to task over what he says in his five volume work The Point of Departure of Metaphysics. To a Thomist the very title should raise questions, since its topic is actually epistemology. Thus to imply that epistemology, science of our knowledge of reality, is the same as metaphysics, the science of reality itself, should make it suspect insofar as it came from the hand of one professing Thomism.

The author of Out of a Kantian Chrysalis? gives a detailed account, from newly translated sources, of the resulting controversy between Maritain and Maréchal. The latter insists that he is just as much a Thomist in his doctrine as Maritain. To understand his position and Maritain’s reason for criticising it we will need to refer to a text of St. Thomas in Summa Theologiae I, 84, 6. St Thomas asks in that article ‘Whether Intellectual Knowledge is Derived from Sensible Things?’ The body of the article ends with:

According to [Aristotle’s] opinion, then, on the part of the phantasms, intellectual knowledge is caused by the senses. But since the phantasms cannot of themselves immute the possible intellect, but require to be made actually intelligible by the agent intellect, it cannot be said that sensible knowledge is the total and perfect cause of intellectual knowledge, but rather is in a way the matter of the cause.

Maréchal’s reading of this last sentence is Kantian. Kant’s doctrine amounts to this: that the ‘thing in itself’, presented by sense to intellect, is the matter of what we know; but that the form is provided by the intellect. That is to say that we know, as to its content, only what the mind provides. Maréchal read that passage of St. Thomas to mean that Aquinas was saying something of what Kant meant.

Maréchal wishes to reconcile this with realism. Consequently, he must, like Descartes, having taken thought – the idea – as his starting point, find a ‘bridge’ to things. This, too, he does in a manner like that of Descartes. The human mind, he says, having no contact with reality in the concept, somehow attains it in the judgment. Had not St. Thomas taught that truth is attained in the judgment? Very well, then, in the judgment there must be, says Maréchal, because of the mind’s natural striving for the Absolute, the attaining of truth. And this, without the concept reflecting reality. On the other hand, Maritain replies that the judgment, which has concepts as its elements, could never attain truth did the concept not already grasp reality. Furthermore, reference to other texts of St. Thomas shows that the passage was not intended to be read as Maréchal reads it.

Because of this, later writers were to refer to two schools of thought among Thomists: those who reposed first contact with reality in the concept, and those who denied it to the concept but reposed it in the judgment. (What others have referred to as the ‘conservative’ -- ‘traditionalist’ –- school, and the ‘transcendental’ school.)

Moreover, later ‘transcendentalists’, writing as theologians, were to emphasise various aspects of this claimed striving for the Absolute: so we have (p 157):

Once the epistemological onus is off the concept, progress in pluralism is possible in all quarters. The influence in Lonergan's work is readily apparent. For example, in Method in Theology, he discusses the centrality of religious experience in getting beneath the conflicting beliefs of various religions. (My emphasis)

And the author quotes from McCool (p 156):

‘The same dialectic between man's categorical objective knowledge and his conscious, unobjective drive to God, elevated now by the ‘supernatural existential', supplies the indispensable grounding for Rahner's theology of the anonymous Christian and of the salvific character of the non-Christian religions.’ (My emphasis)

On p 160 he has:

The Maritainian problem with pluralism has more to do with an erosion of the credibility of any claim to Truth. Theology is fully scientia, a science in which revelation provides the principles required to bring us a body of knowledge. Theology does not fabricate various contradictory systems of merely human conjecture.

He goes on to quote Maritain:

‘This would mean that revelation does not help us to know anything at all, which is absurd, and that the truths of faith are nothing but fictions or 'myths' which the religion of Agnosticism throws out to us as food, to direct our actions.’

He quotes from Fr. Roland-Gosselin, writing about the same time on the crux of the issue:

‘But will we agree with Fr. Maréchal on the manner of understanding the abstractive activity of the intellect? In order to avoid empiricism on the one hand, and, on the other, ... intuitionism, ... will we take away from the intellect forming the species the privilege of 'seeing' through it ... real being and its necessary relations? And, lacking this 'vision,' must we base the metaphysical objectivity of the mind on the natural appetite that urges it toward the absolute; no longer on the original power in virtue of which the good of this natural appetite is the true? We believe that Thomist intellectualism will be profoundly modified by accepting these conclusions, and without decisive reasons.’ (p. 141)

He gives Maritain’s verdict:

‘Fr. Maréchal strives ... to overcome the dualism of this 'transcendental critique' and of the 'metaphyscial critique' and to make them converge. In reality the 'transcendental' critique would not be tamed by realism; it can only be rejected because it goes wrong from the start.’ (p 162)

Accordingly, he quotes from Maritain:

‘can a Kantian caterpillar be truly transformed and emerge from its chrysalis a veritable scholastic butterfly?‘ (p 6)

At the end, our author again quotes from Maritain. Maréchal had taken exception to being criticised as though it were something personal. Ronald McCamy finds Maritain saying later and elsewhere:

‘The conviction each of us has, rightly or wrongly, regarding the limitations, deficiencies, and errors of others does not prevent friendship between minds. In such a fraternal dialogue, there must be a kind of forgiveness and remission, not with regard to ideas -- ideas deserve no forgiveness if they are false -- but with regard to the condition of him who travels the road at our side.’

"It seems", adds McCamy, "a fitting conclusion."

The book is important, and in verdict upon it one is inclined to quote from the review on its cover:

Ronald McCamy's book will prove a valuable resource for students of Thomistic philosophy in the twentieth century as well as for anyone interested in epistemology. McCamy's brilliant investigation of the confrontation between Maritain's critical realism and Maréchal's transcendental Thomism calls our attention to how subtle the divide is between realism and idealism.


John Ziegler is a lecturer at the Centre for Thomistic Studies, in Sydney, Australia.

This article posted May 2000. It was published in Universitas, Vol 3 (1999), No. 1.
Permission is granted to copy or quote from this article, provided that full credit is given to the author and to the
Centre for Thomistic Studies, Sydney, Australia.
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