Thursday, November 11, 2010

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

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

This vast survey of twentieth-century Western secular and Christian thought gives the feeling that philosophy, having long ago shelved its Christian guide, is drifting and pointless. It no longer believes in anything, even in itself, as witnessed by thinkers such as Richard Rorty, who advocated an American pragmatism critical of any claims to truth.

In dealing with the succession of tragedies to hit the Western world in the last century, including 2 world wars and the deepening loss of faith, philosophers seem to have gone in circles, discarding much of tradition, including previous philosophical insights.

Christian & Western Thought shows how philosophers seem to have specialized in the same transient way of thinking that motors consumerism and marketing. They have become less serious and more faddish. Some thinkers, such as Jean Paul Sartre, pop stars in their day, quickly fell from the popular and academic imagination, to be replaced by the next round of thinkers hoping to cast aside Western civilization in another supposedly novel way.

Rather than the love of wisdom, philo-sophia, we have an anti-wisdom, a constant attempt at “correcting” the civilization in which philosophers no longer believe. Padgett and Wilkens keenly identify this “loss of the center” and “sense of anarchy” in philosophy.

The Frenchman Henri Bergson (1859-1941), the most famous philosopher of his day, has largely been forgotten. Influenced by Edmund Husserl, he tried to combine science with a vague post-Christian spirituality, as noted by Padgett and Wilkens:

“By intuition we grasp the dynamic, temporal aspect of reality which mathematics and science are incapable of communicating. This intuition is qualitative, while intelligence is quantitative. Intuition grants us knowledge of the most basic aspect of reality: its constant flux.”

This grew into the existentialism of other thinkers, but in its own right attempted to make sense of a world profoundly and rapidly changed by science and technology. People looked less and less to Christianity for answers, and fused science, philosophy, and spirituality. Bergson's thought, foreshadowing twentieth-century philosophy, contains an uneasiness with scientific and industrial progress, which led him to identify other forms of knowledge besides scientific without having to return to the old Christian model.

Philosophers such as the Englishman Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) rejected the all-encompassing German-inspired philosophical systems of the nineteenth century and turned to the close analysis of language, “to the circumstances in which truth can be expressed,” Padgett and Wilkens note. Russell was a famous atheist, penning the essay, “Why I Am Not a Christian” in 1927.

Yet he couldn't escape the need for certainty, and chose logic, math, and science to replace God. He limited his thinking about the world to one possibility, a rational, scientific worldview that did not consider any higher or spiritual forms of thinking. This typifies most of the century's philosophers.

Russell also attacked religion from a moral perspective, claiming that belief slows progress in scientific knowledge and in ethics, pointing to the Church's condemnation of Galileo and to the Crusades. These ideas eventually became widespread among the general public, and dominate the intellectual landscape today through the writings of such atheists as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. Russell (like Dawkins) refused to admit that science had been used for evil, especially in his century.

Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), widely remembered for his adherence to Nazism, has often been called the father of existentialism, though he disliked other existentialists. Influenced by his Catholic upbringing, he focused on Being in his writings, coming to the now-widespread belief that “Neither philosophy nor science is pure, abstract or neutral.” This challenged Russell's hopes for certainty in the sciences and logic.

This limited view of the sciences led Heidegger to a more spiritual search for the truth, but one that followed the Western emphasis on the individual. For Heidegger, “there is no 'generic' form of being.... Rather, each person owns their particular way of life, their own Dasein, within the manifold possibilities for human Being.”

Christianity & Western Thought is at its best in simplifying the complex, abstract, easily misunderstood thinking of philosophers such as Heidegger.

Heidegger also turned to the notion of authenticity, something that Sartre and other existentialists would likewise do. As individuals, we are confronted with choices that make us authentic or inauthentic: We either follow the herd or become our own independent person.

This idea led Sartre to dwell on the fearsome notion that we are alone in the universe and that freedom means that there is no true essence to being. Thus, modern philosophy reaches an absurd degree of separation between the individual and society, to the point where British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher would, years later, remark, “There is no society,” and where Sartre himself had written, “Hell is other people.”

Unhinged from the truth of its Christian past, Western philosophy also unhinged the individual from society and tradition, something sketched out quite well in Christianity & Western Thought. The book concludes with the French deconstructionists Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida.

Foucault saw illegitimate power coursing through history, rather than seeing structures that maintain community. Society's very institutions were about power alone, the hospital and the prison looking similar because they are both power institutions. Following Nietzsche and the “will to power” mentality, “Foucault makes the radical claim that divisions between truth and untruth, good and evil, pleasure and unhappiness, are always already implicit systems of power and individuation,” the authors note.

Padgett and Wilkens offer readers a good analysis of the modern/post-modern drift into nihilism and the fragmentation of culture at its highest levels.

Christianity & Western Thought includes much on the Christian perspective, including those theologians such as Karl Barth and Karl Rahner, who were at pains to speak to modern philosophy in their own theological reflections. While Padgett and Wilkens include a section on Thomistic theologians, such as Etienne Gilson and Jacques Maritain, they give this discussion short shrift, considering how important John Paul II's Fides et ratio has become to modern Catholic thinking. Catholic thinking just might end up being the ticket out of the West's intellectual morass, and needs to be developed further.

Except for this too-limited view of the wealth of Catholic philosophy in the century, the book is a hearty introduction to a most important, influential topic.

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