Phenomenology’s Influence in the West

A fault line has run through Western philosophy for a hundred years. In the Anglosphere, philosophy is a thoroughly academic affair and goes by the name “analytic” or “Anglo-American.” Devoted to the clarification of concepts, it is a modest discipline. It thinks of itself as a handmaiden to scientific inquiry, helping biologists, physicists, or brain scientists refine their language and causal theories. Critics of analytic philosophy think it arid, ahistorical, and insular. Its debates (and there are many) do not percolate through to the popular consciousness.  

When Jordan Peterson, Roger Scruton, Russell Brand, Slavoj Zizek, or Alain de Botton bring philosophy to our homes through Youtube.com, it is the other side of the divide we learn about:  Continental philosophy. While few thinkers in the analytic tradition are household names, Continental philosophy has given us Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Hannah Arendt, Simone de Beauvoir, Karol Wojtyla/John Paul II, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, and Martin Heidegger. Frequent readers of Law & Liberty also know about Leo Strauss, Pierre Manent, and Carl Schmitt. You come across references to this style of philosophy in novels, newspapers, curator notes at fashion, art, and museum exhibits, when you visit your psychoanalyst, and at church, too.    

Continental philosophy is housed in Europe, with a few exceptions. It is the exceptions that kick off the argument of Edward Baring’s Converts to the Real: Catholicism and the Making of Continental Philosophy. Baring, who teaches history at Drew University, observes that philosophy in the British Isles, in Scandinavia, and in America’s vast university system, is mostly analytic. The exceptions in the United States are Catholic universities and seminaries, where Continental philosophy is typically taught. 

Now you have the clue. Baring’s thesis is that Continental philosophy has its geographical reach because adopted by professors at Catholic institutions. Where Church institutions are thick on the ground, so is Continental philosophy. It is an implication of the thesis that in the 20th century, the upper reaches of European culture have been sustained by Catholic intellectuals.

Converts to the Real, with its 100 pages of footnotes, details the myriad interactions between Catholicism and phenomenology in Germany, France, the Netherlands, Italy, and Spain. The philosophers named above were all influenced by phenomenology, but the story begins with a philosopher of mathematics, Edmund Husserl (1859-1938). In his Logical Investigations of 1900, Husserl sought to reassert the objectivity of knowledge. 

Why was this effort required?

In the ancient and medieval worlds, the belief was that we were integrated in a cosmos. To most readers, this old approach will seem obviously right: We have a direct access to the world about us because we are part of a natural order. However, ever since Rene Descartes (1596-1650), Western philosophy has struggled with subjectivism, the idea that reality is a projection of human consciousness. To some, this will just seem silly. Surely, we live in a world not of our making? Yet, even a little reflection makes us wonder. Elders lament youth too absorbed in their phone screens; some of us live in cities where our everyday experience is exclusively with the man-made; and even the climate is now widely believed to be so saturated by us that we must save it through collective action. Erwin Schrodinger’s famous cat is a legacy of Descartes, as is the belief that we are all free to choose our gender.

Carefully surveying our mental acts, Husserl set about distinguishing within experience the changing psychological aspects and the abiding logical relations and structural attributes. He called this act of close attending, ideation. It is the core of phenomenological method; exploring the character of the act of close attending, and the contents it reveals, is what phenomenologists do. Over the last century, ideation has clarified remarkably the contours of our bodily, scientific, artistic, and religious experience. Discerning the abiding shape of objects, ideation delivers objectivity. Yet, given that in 1900 there were a good number of philosophical options doing the rounds, what accounts for Husserl’s being picked up and becoming the cornerstone of 20th century European thought? This is where Catholicism comes in, contends the author.   

A historian of ideas, Baring documents how the early reception of Husserl was predominantly not only in Catholic circles, but very specifically amongst Thomists. Catholic intellectual life had taken a battering ever since the French Revolution, which began a process of Catholic universities being taken over by the state, very much as had happened in England earlier under Henry VIII. Pope Leo XIII (1810-1903, and pope from 1878) demanded intellectual reengagement, urging Catholic philosophers to revivify the metaphysics of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). 

To some, this might sound crazy. Why would anyone think a medieval monk could speak to modern issues? But the soil was well-prepared, in fact.

If Cartesian subjectivism was about the projection of human reason, it had hit significant bumps along the road. The French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon left a bad taste and the Industrial Revolution spread squalor. Widespread was the belief that human willfulness brought ruination, and Romanticism potently encouraged the idea of a return to the ideals of nature, community, and craft culture last seen in the West in the Middle Ages. Thomistic metaphysics strongly affirmed a sacral universe, and the hunt was on in Catholic circles for an intellectual partner to help update Aquinas and bring his basic insights into conversation with the modern sensibility.  Husserl’s method of inquiry and desire to reaffirm objectivity seemed to fit the bill perfectly.

Seemed to, is an important part of the story. Catholics started to teach Husserl’s phenomenology in their colleges, but there would arise a problem. One of the truly great philosophers, Husserl was productive until the end of his life. And in his later work, he backtracked, thinking Descartes was right, after all. Husserl was also inspirational, and radically influenced two Catholics, Heidegger and another German philosopher, Max Scheler (1874-1928). Together, this triad make the core of phenomenology. To this day, their thinking is the benchmark of Continental philosophy. The problem for Catholicism, as wonderfully explained by Baring, is that Heidegger and Scheler did not remain Catholic. The Church had made common cause with a method that seemed to attract Catholics and then promptly alienate them.

In Baring’s lengthy telling, Continental philosophy is the working out of an intense but unstable relationship between phenomenology and the Catholic faith. The book introduces readers very ably to major and minor phenomenologists and Thomists, and to the primary debates in European philosophy from the 20th century until now. Despite the number of intellectuals who fell away from the Church, and once-Catholic countries, too, phenomenology and Catholicism still move hand in hand. A potent illustration given by Baring is the fact that Karol Wojtyla/John Paul II wrote his dissertation on a German thinker (Scheler) just a handful of years after Germany had laid waste to Poland. No one in Polish Catholic circles seems to have minded at all. St. John Paul II has definitively shaped Catholic social thought and, in consequence, contemporary Catholic political engagement is rooted in a fusion of phenomenology and Thomism.

It is worth pointing out that this book is about Catholic philosophy, not theology. Phenomenology has been just as important to Catholic theology as to philosophy, but Baring’s is an intellectual history of Continental philosophy. Well-written and direct, Converts to the Real is bold and well worth reading by all interested in philosophy or Catholicism.