Friday, November 5, 2010

Christian & Western Thought: A History of Philosophers, Ideas, and Movements

By Alan G. Padgett and Steve Wilkens, 388 pages, Intervarsity Press.

Christian & Western Thought, Padgett and Wilkens show that twentieth-century philosophy was deeply marked by the violence of 2 world wars and the rejection of the Christian past. The violent political and economic anarchy led many thinkers to reject any wide-ranging belief system. Skepticism of religion and philosophy itself became the byword.

Early in the century many philosophers, such as members of the Vienna School, adhered to scientism, according to which, "Science is the best, or only, form of rational knowledge," Padgett and Wilkens write. This group also believed in logic as a "pure instrument" to analyze language.

This exemplifies how philosophy became more and more enamored, even obsessed, with humans, and less concerned about God, eternal truth, and the meaning of creation and of life itself. These overarching questions were rejected for human-related concerns such as the relationship between language and reality.

Throughout the twentieth century, the scientific outlook influenced the way people thought. The social sciences, such as sociology and psychology, claimed to be sciences. They asserted that humans are a scientific rather than metaphysical subject to be studied like any other thing from nature. Philosophy led the way in the objectification of humans, though many Catholic thinkers such as Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson opposed this.

Christian & Western Thought gives a sneak peak at Catholic thought, especially Thomism, though the book's authors are unfortunately more enamored with secular thinkers. A longer discussion of papal thinking, such as John Paul II's Fides et ratio, which explores the tension between faith and reason, would have enriched the analysis.

The 2 world wars led to a drastic change in thinking. The French philosopher Albert Camus based his outlook on the belief that life is absurd; our only choice is rebellion. Like many thinkers of the century, he rejected the Enlightenment's idea that reason and science could solve all our problems, as Padgett and Wilkens note:

"Absurdity is what happens when this irrational world is inhabited by humans who attempt to subject it to rational thought. Our reason strives for understanding and unity, and the world thwarts this desire."

Christian & Western Thought sketches Martin Heidegger's life and philosophy quite well. Heidegger illustrates the struggles of philosophy, especially in its relationship with the tumultuous twentieth century. He joined the Nazis, probably fully aware of their murderous program, and saw himself as its spiritual or philosophical mind. He struggled throughout the 1930s with their violence, and later claimed that he knew nothing of their real plans. After the war, he isolated himself in his mountain chalet, focusing on mysticism and writing dense, unclear works.

Yet at bottom his concerns were the same as many: he rejected the technological reordering of society. First his solution was Nazism, and then withdrawal from academia and the world. In both decisions, we see the hopelessness of a philosopher who has rejected his society's Christian roots, which is an undercurrent of much of the philosophy discussed in Christian & Western Thought.

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