the imaginative conservative logo

Just as the good philosopher needs to be a master of the Christian philosophical tradition and adept at the dialectical, analytical, synthetic, and imaginative skills with which his trade is plied, the good Christian college also requires a rigorous and sophisticated curriculum and pedagogy firmly rooted in the Christian philosophical tradition…

As Alasdair MacIntyre has shown, human knowledge is both “tradition-constituted” and “tradition-dependent,” as well as “tradition-transcendent.” And as he suggests in his latest book, God, Philosophy, Universities: A Selective History of the Catholic Philosophical Tradition, that institution most indispensable for the preservation, sustenance, and development of human knowledge, or, in MacIntyrean terms, an intellectual tradition, is the college or university. For, as Dr. MacIntyre writes,

Philosophy is not just a matter of propositions affirmed or denied and of arguments advanced and critically evaluated, but of philosophers in particular social and cultural situations interacting with each other in their affirmations and denials, in their argumentative wrangling, so that the social forms and institutionalizations of their interactions are important and none more so than those college settings that have shaped philosophical conversation, both to its benefit and to its detriment.

The philosopher is created, nourished, and perfected in and by the college or university, for it alone can effectively preserve, sustain, develop, revise, and transform a philosophical tradition; the college is its institutional embodiment and the primary locus of philosophical practice, with the individual philosopher serving as the tradition’s personal embodiment, as well as apprentice, interlocutor, and custodian. In short, Christian colleges and universities have served as the philosophical guilds in which the Christian philosophical tradition has been passed on from masters to apprentices, for it is only through, in, and by colleges and universities that apprentices become masters. It is no different today, except for the fact that the typical modern college has become a guild for careerism and sophistry, not philosophy, and the guild-character of the college is vehemently denied by both its so-called masters and apprentices. Nevertheless, today’s Christian philosopher requires a good Christian college for not only his philosophical flourishing but also for his very existence qua philosopher; and, conversely, the Christian college requires good Christian philosophers, for no institution can survive, let alone flourish, absent the personal influence, participation, and oversight of its personal practitioners.

Openness to the Other 

Putting aside the good-philosopher/good Christian college, chicken/egg paradox for now, we turn to the characteristics of the good Christian philosopher. As Cardinal Newman taught, the fullest embodiment, the culminating fruit of the liberal-arts college is the philosopher—not necessarily the academic or professional philosopher, but that humble lover of wisdom with a properly “enlarged” intellectual vista and a distinctly “philosophical cast of mind.” He is also, as MacIntyre insists, first and foremost a servant of the “plain person,” translating the non-philosophers’ commonsensical and informal—though still vital and profound—philosophical questions into formal and rigorously examined philosophical questions, giving these questions philosophically rigorous answers; and then translating these philosophically purified questions and answers back into that commonsensical and informal, vital, and profound, and existentially satisfying and intellectually intelligible discourse appropriate for the vast majority of non-philosophers in the world (thank God!).

So, exactly how does one become this sort of philosopher? Indispensable, of course, is an apprenticeship to a master philosopher, as Plato was to Socrates, St. Augustine to Plato, St. Thomas Aquinas to St. Augustine and Aristotle, Etienne Gilson, Jacques Maritain, and Alasdair MacIntyre to St. Thomas Aquinas, and we to them. But, as important are the erudition, skill, modeling, and experience only personal guidance can impart to the philosopher, it is to no avail apart from a certain philosophically-indispensable existential attitude or condition: What might be called metaphysical courage, or existential openness. The good philosopher must possess a radical existential openness to the incompleteness, myopia, and errors in his present philosophical understanding, and a metaphysically courageous orientation of the soul towards all aspects of being; one that evokes and sustains a perpetual desire for further inquiry, revision, and even conversion. He must cultivate a deliberate, relentless, and lifelong vulnerability to refutation, and an unquenchable passion for dialectical exchange with and enrichment by the philosophical “other.” As David Walsh puts it in his recent book, The Modern Philosophical Revolution: The Luminosity of Existence, “Socratic wisdom is indeed the deepest available to us, only now grasped as an existential condition rather than simply an attitude toward existence. It is because, we now recognize, that reason cannot contain itself that it possesses an openness toward being.” For, as he writes, “Speculation is not a separate avenue toward what is, but rather the result of a prior existential awareness.” Philosophy is, above all, an ethical way of life.

The identity of this “other” for the aspirant Christian philosopher is not necessarily someone outside the Christian philosophical tradition, but it is precisely that person, idea, argument, or tradition of argument most resistant to becoming merely a confirmatory mirror image of one’s present philosophical understanding, that which is eminently immune to being narcissistically assimilated and sophistically manipulated by the philosopher. Now, while this openness is bound up with a perpetual readiness to be corrected, it in no way excludes a robust confidence in the truth of one’s present understanding—as long as truth is secured and justified by rigorous and humble philosophical inquiry.

Partial Truth, Relative Absoluteness

But why be so open to this so-called “other”? Why seek to be in a state of perpetual, potential refutation? Does not such an attitude, taken to the extreme, amount to mere neurotic vacillation and intellectually cowardly skepticism? And wouldn’t such openness lead the Christian philosopher, for example, to go outside his robust and more-than-adequate Christian philosophical tradition to encounter this elusive “other”? Why should a Thomist, for example, someone blessed to be a member such a grand philosophical tradition, act in such an ungrateful, foolish, and even traitorous fashion? It is simply that encounters with the “other” often can help us best obtain the personal existential depth that is required clearly to see and effectively to appropriate the truth we have in our tradition to the fullest possible extent, to know it in all its myriad facets, elusive embodiments, and subtle implications. Pace the anti-modern traditionalist, such salutary encounters with other traditions have been rendered vastly more accessible and intellectually fruitful precisely in virtue of our modern, secularist, pluralistic modern culture, notwithstanding the grave intellectual spiritual dangers such pluralism can also involve. As we all know, the deep pluralism of modernity, with its sectarian, gnostic, and solipsistic spirit, can also, in its practically atheistic structure, become a virtually impenetrable bulwark towards the salutary “other,” for our culture, while providing the opportunity of stepping out of our intellectual shoes, so to speak, so as to make a better fit of our own, also permits many to “hide out” indefinitely in “safe,” same-thinking enclaves, precluding the experience of existentially mind-stretching encounters and turning one’s personal grasp of reality into a hall of soul-mirrors. In this sense, modernity is both the disease and the cure for the aspirant philosopher.

Holistic Thinking

In addition to existential openness and metaphysical courage, the Christian philosopher, notwithstanding his quite warranted and robust confidence in the truth the Christian philosophical tradition embodies and proclaims, and in his eminent ability to find and know truth through this tradition, must be eminently aware of the ineluctable “partial thinking” in his and others’ present understanding of the truth. For our inveterate tendency, and perhaps St. Thomas Aquinas was among the very few who were spared from this, is to construe a partial truth as the whole truth. Because the good philosopher realizes this tendency, he recognizes the indispensability of engaging—and sometimes even embracing, at least provisionally—radically alternative perspectives that are often existentially uncomfortable and even quite painful to inhabit. For he knows that sometimes only this kind of philosophical ascesis can effectively render his partial perspective a holistic one. Dr. MacIntyre writes: “In philosophy the most that we are all of us entitled to claim for any conclusion or argument is that it is the best supported conclusion so far or the best argument so far…We have to remain open to possible correction even by those with whom we are in fundamental disagreement.”

The particular beliefs we hold to be absolutely true, the ideas we consider indisputable, the facts we deem self-evident, the allegiances to which we are unwaveringly committed, the traditions we solemnly revere, the authorities we unquestioningly obey, the customs we most cherish, the attitudes we have long-ago adopted—in short, the overall picture we possess of God, man, and the world and the practices that embody this picture, although perhaps quite true and good in an absolute and universal, objective sense, are, nevertheless, ineluctably relative and particular—that is, partial—in a subjective sense. As the postmodernists have taught us, in spite of the insanity that undergirds much of their project, our beliefs, even if universally true beliefs, are, in their genealogy and intelligibility, inevitably bound to a particular historical and cultural tradition. We do not discover our beliefs, on our own, as much as we inherit and receive them from and through others in community. We do not obtain knowledge autonomously, as isolated individuals, and in abstraction from that which is relative and particular in our lives, but in solidarity with others, as members of concrete communities, and as embedded members of relative and particular histories and cultures, that is, traditions. Contra the Enlightenment, there is no “view-from-nowhere” to which we can climb, no “tradition-independent” rationality we can exercise, no “universal reason” we can access to enable us fully to escape the relative and particular character of human knowledge. We are historical and social, as well as rational and spiritual beings; we are tradition-transcending in virtue of our spirits, yet we are tradition-bound in virtue of our bodies, and our bodies and spirits are inextricably integrated and unified in our knowing persons.

So, if the philosopher were to see the tradition-constituted nature of his ideas and beliefs, his hold on his particular picture of God, the world, and man might, of course, become weaker, but this is a good thing!—because it is a weakness that is actually a great strength, because prompted by and resulting in intellectual humility. The good philosopher, then, is willing to let his opinions go, as it were, some only just provisionally, and even those opinions—excepting Christian dogma, of course—the truth of which he is firmly and justifiably convinced, in order to subject them to public, dialectical enquiry. It is not because he thinks they will be shown to be false, but because he knows that it is highly likely that his understanding of their truth leaves something to be desired. Thus, the good philosopher becomes very interested in discovering whether those from whom he inherited his present picture of the universe are indeed trustworthy benefactors, whether the picture with which he has been interpreting reality for decades is indeed still adequate to reality. He takes a step back from his mind, as it were, without any fear that in doing so he must become a skeptic, relativists, or historicist. The good philosopher thus places himself, as often as he can, in the best position to enable grace to convert him more fully to the Truth he loves, and of which he is perpetually in search of a deeper understanding.

Paradoxically, then, in becoming a “temporary relativist” with respect to the genealogy of his own ideas and beliefs, the good philosopher enables these ideas and beliefs to become truly absolute with respect to their truth in his soul. For, from a perspective of the absolute absoluteness of truth it would seem philosophical suicide to do anything that might render our ideas and beliefs vulnerable to refutation; thus, we would tend to avoid those dialectically vulnerable discussions and arguments that might reveal to us errors in our understanding of those true beliefs. And from a perspective of the absolute relativity of truth, it would appear pointless even to search for the truth at all. But as Dr. MacIntyre writes, “It is only insofar as someone satisfies the conditions for rendering him or herself vulnerable to dialectical refutation that that person can come to know whether and what he or she knows.”

The Christian College: The Philosopher Institutionalized (So to Speak)

Well, perhaps philosophers do need most of all to be institutionalized, especially the “good” ones, at least to protect the emotional well-being of everyone else! But that’s neither here nor there. The qualities of the good Christian college are analogous, as I say, to the qualities of the good Christian philosopher. Just as the good philosopher needs to be a master of the Christian philosophical tradition and adept at the dialectical, analytical, synthetic, and imaginative skills with which his trade is plied, the good Christian college also requires a rigorous and sophisticated curriculum and pedagogy firmly rooted in the Christian philosophical tradition. Taught without sufficient rigor, the liberal arts become jejune exercises in sentimentalism or self-expression, philosophy becomes sophistry, and theology becomes soft-blasphemy. But just as one’s commitment to Christianity, philosophical erudition, and dialectical skill, without the proper philosophical attitude of metaphysical courage and existential openness, cannot render a philosopher a good one, so a Christian college cannot be good without the right institutional ethos and telos. The perfection of the intellect, in that Christian sacramental and virtuous culture in which alone the emotions and the spirit can be effectively perfected, is the proper telos for which college disciplines should be taught, around which they are hierarchically integrated, and in the light of which pedagogy is ordered. Taught without the right telos, philosophical disciplines become sophistical and rhetorical linguistic skills to gain power for oneself and over others. If the college is Christian and orthodox, but if its telos has an exclusively spiritual or moral orientation and focus on moral formation, at the expense of a robust intellectual life, then one ends up with a suffocating Christian moralism, a world-contemptuous and suspicious Jansenism, or an anti-philosophical fundamentalism. If the college is secularist in foundation, this same misguided telos results in something like secular fundamentalism or political fanaticism. St. Thomas Aquinas himself forbade a religiously fundamentalist notion of education, as Dr. MacIntyre points out:

Intellectual enquiry, like all other secular pursuits, is taken to have no worth whatsoever in itself, but to be worthwhile only as a means to salvation. Contrast Aquinas, for whom many secular pursuits and, notably, intellectual enquiry are worthwhile in themselves and as such to be offered to God as part of that offering that is the path to our salvation.

The ability to think clearly, accurately, deeply, and comprehensively about reality so as to come to a knowledge, and continue to do so throughout one’s life, of the essential truths about the universe in both their unity and diversity is the point and purpose of a Christian college. The Christian college is not meant to destroy souls, as it would appear to be the case when observing many contemporary Christian colleges and universities; but the proper antidote to its soul-destroying tendency is not to react by turning the college into a retreat center or moral training ground, even though moral and spiritual formation are higher goals than intellectual formation. For, when the primary intellectual end of the Christian college is eclipsed, ignored, or denied, through religious fanaticism or power-pragmatism, the liberal arts lose their character as true arts, philosophy becomes sophistry, and theology becomes something unholy.

A philosophically good attitude with respect to curriculum is also essential to the good Christian college. The liberal arts are ends in themselves, surely, and should be taught as such, with literature taught in a primarily poetic, not philosophical, mode, but not all liberal arts are equal, and this should also manifest itself pedagogically: grammar must be ordered to logic, grammar and logic to rhetoric, the trivium to the quadrivium, all seven liberal arts to philosophy, and philosophy ordered to and practiced in the light of revealed theology. In turn, theology must be fecundated, enlivened, purified, and penetrated by philosophy and dialectics—indeed by all the liberal arts— else the queen of the sciences becomes rigid, dogmatic, graceless, fundamentalist, anti-liberal, and enslaving. That which is “lower” than theology should not be glossed over and given short shrift due to immoderate religious zeal or an orthodoxy-at-all-costs mentality, for this suggests a fanatical and eminently unphilosophical mindset. If either Socrates or Christ is banished from the curriculum and pedagogy of the Christian college or the soul of the philosopher, the result is theological totalitarianism or a dictatorship of relativism, on the one hand, and fanaticism or dilettantism, on the other. Both extremes display an anti-dialectical, reactionary, “answers without questions” ethos, whether the answers are the true ones of Divine Revelation or false ones of secular ideology. Such a college, if Christian in affiliation and confession, may offer true answers to its students, but at the expense of the necessary dialectical questioning and Socratic ethos that is indispensable to render true answers the answers to real questions in their hearts. Similarly, on the personal level, such a philosophical “answer-man” might possess true answers, but they would be poisonous to his soul, a bulwark for his spiritual pride and gnostic, “inner circle” certainty. Neil Postman suggests the right balance:

Knowledge is produced in response to questions; and new knowledge results from the asking of new questions; quite often new questions about old questions. Here is the point: Once you have learned how to ask questions—relevant and appropriate and substantial questions—you have learned how to learn and no one can keep you from learning whatever you want or need to know.

Just as philosophy and theology must be held in the right balance, the curriculum must also hold in fruitful tension the poetic and the philosophical. The liberal arts must neither become mere poetic fodder for the “real” intellectual food of, for example, Aristotelian philosophy or Thomistic theology, nor must poetic knowledge become hegemonic and all-encompassing, with philosophy dismissed as so much useless and pride-inducing abstract speculation, only good for the poetic meat one can glean from its otherwise scanty bones. To secure the right balance of the poetic and the philosophical is a complex matter, as Plato’s ironic yet unassumingly sophisticated and nuanced treatment of it in the Republic reveals, but, as Peter Redpath has suggested, without the right balance, philosophy becomes neo-Protagorean, mythopoetic sophistry under the aegis of political ideology, and poetry fails its charge to keep both systematic philosophy and theology in touch with the earthly realities of man’s senses, through which all human knowledge has its origin and in the absence of which the human intellect becomes unmoored, delusional, and dangerous.

Lastly, the pedagogy of the college must be properly ordered and balanced, with pride of place being given to Socratic seminar over lecture. The lecture mode of teaching, though appropriate and even necessary on certain occasions and with certain subjects, must never be the primary mode of teaching for the liberal-arts and philosophy in general. When lecture predominates the class becomes one of teacher-derived-and-promulgated questions, answers, and arguments, with the students serving as mere passive receptacles of “catechetical” knowledge, completely bypassing and repressing the vital student-derived and initiated questions and aporias that must precede and evoke any definitive answer or resolution. Of course, excessive, impertinent, and, well, bad seminar teaching can result in an educational ethos of “questions without answers,” resulting in misology and skepticism, and a false sense of intellectual sophistication and self-sufficiency in the students. However, Socratic seminar when done correctly is the preeminent path to wisdom.

In conclusion, what our anti-philosophical culture of death needs most, besides mass conversion and spiritual healing, is the reappropriation, rejuvenation, and rearticulation of the Christian philosophical tradition—and as a Catholic Christian, I would emphasize the Catholic aspects, which both presupposes and requires a refounding of our Christian colleges and universities firmly and integrally on this tradition. As we have discussed, our Christian philosophical tradition cannot flourish without integrally Christian and, I would add, integrally Platonic-Aristotelian, Augustinian-Thomistic, Newmanian/MacIntyrean, that is, colleges steeped in the philosophia perennis. But such colleges, in turn, require an already flourishing Christian philosophical tradition to inform them and render them good! It’s quite a paradox, yes, but it is one that should not leave us without hope, as long as there are a few Christian philosophers in the world!

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreThe Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."

Please leave a thoughtful, civil, and constructive comment: