Le Point de Depart de Maréchal

Topica, Number 1, September 2001

by dgboland © 2000

Pope John Paul II says in Fides et Ratio: "Abandoning the investigation of being, modern philosophical research has concentrated instead upon human knowing". (para. 5) This feature of modern philosophy can be traced back to the Cartesian cogito. However, the modern philosopher who most readily comes to mind is Immanuel Kant.

Thomism is a philosophy that before all else is founded upon the investigation of being. Kant frankly denied the possibility of investigating being (things in themselves) and believed that the problem of knowledge should be approached by a method of investigation of human knowing to which he gave the name "transcendental".

Transcendental Thomism is the name given to a certain school of thought that derives from Joseph Maréchal who considered himself a Thomist, yet at the same time advocated the adoption of Kant's transcendental method.

He believed, however, that Kant had not taken his method far enough and had stopped too short, as it were, in this line of transcendental enquiry. A similar view of Kant's position was taken by those major philosophers who followed him, such as Fichte, Schelling and Hegel. But they ended up in Idealism. Maréchal believed that the full and proper use of the transcendental method would take us instead to Realism. He thought that it did not necessarily amount to an abandonment of the investigation of being, and thus was compatible with Thomism.

Thomists generally looked rather askance at this claim. The basic issue with Transcendental Thomism, then, is whether Maréchal has made out his case for demonstrating the realism of our knowledge by the use of the transcendental method. He certainly produces a plausible argument. But I do not think that it succeeds in being convincing. Why is this so?

The gist of the transcendental method is that when we examine knowledge, and its necessary conditions on the side of the subject knower, we find that there are sources or influences underlying what we know directly, or the objects of knowledge. There is, as it were, a subjective underlay, an order of causes that transcend the obviousness of the object. There is an internal dynamism in human knowledge that is required to account for it. This is not something that Thomism is unfamiliar with, but it looks at it principally in terms of the activity of a power or faculty called the agent intellect.

The issue is not whether the analysis or "deduction" of these sources or causes operative in knowledge is unnecessary or wrong but whether it is sufficient to establish the realism of our knowledge so far as the external world is concerned. Are not things presented to us through our senses? Is not the activity of the external world somehow a cause of our knowledge, so that human knowledge has a necessary passive or receptive quality?

Kant did not believe so. But he was operating upon the basis that Hume had destroyed the causality of things. Indeed, Descartes had prepared the ground in this regard by denying the activity of material things. But St. Thomas, following Aristotle, teaches very clearly the reality of their activity and causality and that our knowledge is in a fundamental way passive to material things external to our powers of knowledge. Besides the agent intellect, it is necessary for us to have a "possible" or receiving intellect. And it is only this side of our intellectual life, as it were, that actually knows.

"The intellect made in act, acts". This refers to the intellect that is potential to knowledge. But the full explanation of this requires a twofold level of activity, that on the part of the knower or subject, the spiritual activity of the intellect, particularly the agent intellect, and that on the part of the thing or object, the psycho-physical activity of the external world. If things were totally inert we would not know them, no matter how active our (agent) intellect was. How these two sources of our knowledge are co-ordinated, or rather how one is sub-ordinated to the other, is explained in a masterly manner by St. Thomas.

The originality of Maréchal's position is that he believes we can fully justify the objectivity of human knowledge by reference to an investigation of the spiritual activity of the knower alone. What we can thank him for is the re-emphasis of this spiritually active side of our knowledge. For in concentrating on the passivity of our intellectual knowledge there is a danger that we lose the lustre and vitality of intellectual life and reduce our thinking to mechanical and lifeless forms.

It is a valiant attempt on Maréchal's part and no one can doubt his seriousness of purpose, or the sincerity of his subjective faithfulness to St. Thomas. But it is not possible, as all have realised throughout the history of philosophy, from Plato to Kant, to establish the objectivity or reality of the external sensible world purely from the analysis of our internal spiritual activity. It is one thing to defend the existence of such internal activity and dynamism, and its essential role in the production of knowledge in us. But it is another to attempt to dispense with the external activity and dynamism of the material things of the world, and their equally essential, if not equally noble, role in the production of our knowledge.

Where in particular lies the fault in Maréchal's reasoning? In thomistic terms, how does he get an awareness of Reality from the pure activity, or dynamism, of the intellect? First and foremost, I believe he imports, illegitimately, into this internal dynamism or constitutive activity, whether it be from the agent intellect or in the possible intellect, notions that belong to the possible intellect, but which are there only indirectly and consequentially, such as Absolute, Infinite Being, God. These are all expressions of supreme reality, but he tends to equate them with the notion of being in common. Since he believes that these can be discovered, as it were, by transcendental deduction from our knowledge as such, without reference to things outside, then we have access to reality in this way.

St. Thomas does say that God is operative in and through the illuminative power of the agent intellect and that we are in a way aware of God, or the Absolute, in all that we know. But he is careful to say that this is not an explicit or direct knowledge, but implicit or indirect. He has after all insisted upon the necessity of proof of the existence of God from the things that we know. In any case there is nothing actually known in the agent intellect, even though it is a source of all our understanding. Even first principles, that we know to be true "naturally", are not known in the agent intellect. The mysterious influence it has is compared with that of a light that is invisible to our sight until reflected, as it were, in some bodily thing, which is what is directly seen. Take away the opaque object and we cease to see anything. Correspondingly, there can be nothing understood by us, in our present condition, if we have no information from the material world, even though understanding is something spiritual.

This all bears of course upon the beginning of our knowledge, not its end. With God's help we can enjoy a direct knowledge of Infinite Being or the Absolute. But we ought not to import ends immediately into beginnings. Maréchal tends to mix the two in his analysis and thus confuse ultimate ends with proper objects. God is not directly within the concept of being in common. Similarly, God or the Absolute, is not directly within the formal object of Metaphysics.

An incidental feature of Maréchal's analysis is the absolute priority he gives to judgement over the concept. But propositions, including first principles, are not the products of the first acts of the (possible) intellect; concepts are. His procedure in this regard tends to exaggerate the activity of the intellectual process relative to its dependence upon the external activity of things. Kant made a similar switch from that of Aristotle in his treatment of the categories.

What are the dangers of dispensing with the dependence of our knowledge upon the existence and activity of sensible material things? They are considerable. Not least must be the false sense of power and freedom it gives us with regard to the constitution of the world within which we live. It is not surprising that Pragmatism comes marching in behind Kant. It is not to be thought, however, that Maréchal succumbed to such a danger. For he proposed the transcendental method simply as another way in addition to the traditional thomistic method of defending the realism and objectivity of knowledge. In no sense, then, can he be considered a kantian.

He believed, nonetheless, that the "modern" way of approaching philosophy through an investigation of human knowing did not necessarily mean, as it had done, an abandonment of the investigation of being. He seems to have sincerely believed that there could be some sort of rapprochement between the transcendental deduction of Kant and the metaphysics of Aquinas. In that I believe he was mistaken.

by dgboland © 2000


Don Boland is a lecturer at the Centre for Thomistic Studies, in Sydney, Australia.

This article posted September 2001. It was published in Topica, No. 1 (2001).
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