Monday, June 25, 2007

Von Hildebrand... What do We Make of Him?


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Dr. Romero,

Much has been written and said about Von Hildebrand and his opera, and many traditionalists have been exposed to his books. What do we make of him, this "20th-century Doctor of the Church"?


-Good question! Who was Von Hildebrand? What is phenomenology? How is it incompatible with Thomism?
First, the basics. Dietrich Von Hildebrand was a Catholic phenomenologist who studied under some of the originators of the phenomenological movement, such as Husserl and Scheler. To be precise, he followed the early phenomenological movement, which was a "realist" phenomenological movement. Phenomenology is a modern philosophical school of thought that attempts to solve the Kantian epistemological problem in a very peculiar way; realist phenomenology is the early part of the movement which attempted to reach knowledge of reality, but this realist project was later abandoned by the phenomenologists, who ended up being idealists, for the most part. All of this needs to be explained for the benefit of those who are not familiar with any of it; so, I will first deal briefly with Kant's epistemolgy, then phenomenology, then realist phenomenology, then Von Hildebrand, then his school and its future.

Kant.
Kant had made a distinction between a) phenomena (appearances), which exist in our minds and which are ultimately formed by our minds; and b) noumena (things themselves), which lie "behind" the phenomena, out in the world. The senses do not give us the forms of things, out of which we abstract their intelligibility (as in Aristotelian realism); but rather, they give us bare, formless perceptual stuff ("the matter of perception" as he calls it)--like a blob of colors and shapes and sounds and smells, etc., which have no intrinsic meaning--and we impose the meaning into it, dividing the world mentally into distinct "things," such as houses, dogs, apples, etc. The matter of perception plus the mentally-imposed form equals the phenomena. Consequently, the phenomena, according to Kant, tell us nothing about the world or the noumena because all of their meaning is arbitrarily imposed by the mind itself. So Kant was stuck. The noumena were unknowable in themselves, and the phenomena were worthless because they were unreliable; so he concluded that the only thing left for us to know is what is in the mind already. Hence, his Critique of Pure Reason, which is a philosophical exposition of the principles of the mind itself. This was the core of his idealism, that is, of his philosophical worldview based on ideas as the primary object of knowledge. (He also believed that, in addition to reasoning, the mind could perform certain affective acts and value judgments and, therefore, there should be a study of these "judgments." He wrote a book on them, and called it the Critique of Judgment. There he claimed that these value judgments could perhaps give us better access to the noumena than the phenomena themselves.)

Phenomenology. Kant had revolutionized philosophy forever. After more than a hundred years of Kantian scholars attempting to find a way to reach the noumena, the school of phenomenology arose (founded by Edmund Husserl, pictured). The phenomenologists wanted to purify experience (phenomena) in order to study it and "reach," in a way, the noumena. If we don't allow our own minds to impose its own meaning onto the experience; if we allow experience to speak to us, then--they thought--we will be able to discover the truth hidden underneath appearances. In other words, they wanted to open their eyes and simply receive the blob of colors and shapes and sounds and smells, etc., without imposing onto that picture any concepts, such that they no longer see houses, dogs, or apples, but only sense white, fluffy, sour, etc. By performing that sort of analysis they could let the purified phenomena tell them something about the hidden noumena.

Realist Phenomenology. This was, at least, the early attempt of phenomenology to reach reality via the phenomena. It has been called "realist" phenomenology. There were later "brands" of phenomenology which did not attempt to reach reality. They are, instead, more "idealistic"; they represent the mainstream of contemporary phenomenology, such that the term "realist phenomenology" would normally seem like an oxymoron to a mainstream contemporary phenomenologist. But, historically, phenomenology began as a "realist" attempt. Husserl at first worked on this realist phenomenological project, but he ultimately got frustrated because he found no epistemological grounds for it. He ultimately gave up and gave in to idealism. That is, he abandoned his attempt to reach the noumena; he concluded that a science of things themselves (noumena) could not be grounded through phenomena. So he began analyzing phenomena for their own sake, eventually relapsing into idealism. Other thinkers, especially a few of his disciples, took this "realist" project and ran with it. Von Hildebrand was one of them.

Dietrich Von Hildebrand. Von Hildebrand was very different in his philosophical temperament from his teacher, Husserl. Husserl was a pedantic logician at heart; Von Hildebrand was an existentialist. Husserl spent his entire life trying to find the epistemological grounds for claiming that we could know things themselves; Von Hildebrand was never truly worried about the nuts and bolts of the whole thing, and simply wanted to take off with his thought. So, although Von Hildebrand wrote a few books on logic, on the philosophical/phenomenological method, and on epistemology, his true fortes were ethics and philosophical psychology. In these works, the reliability of experience (not just sense-experience, but also the affective sort of value-judgment that Kant had spoken of) remains unquestioned. He trusts that experience (thus broadly-construed) will give him a direct intuition into reality. He can get acquainted with the essence of a thing simply by attaining a rich experiene of it. There is no need for syllogistic reasoning, logical abstractions, or metaphysical conceptualization; we can reach the essences of things through this direct intuition. This is what they call intentionality: the mind's natural "reaching out" to things and their essences. Thus, Von Hildebrand eliminates the whole of Thomistic epistemology (abstraction, internal senses, intelligible species, agent and passive intellects) by simplifying the process to a mysterious direct intuition. He acknowledges the distinction between the first, second, and third operations of the intellect (I don't think he'd call them that), but he downplays the importance of defining, judging, and reasoning. You can easily imagine him saying something like "a definition does not help you reach reality; experience does."

In ethics, Von Hildebrand sought to make contributions based on phenomenological insights. Instead of ethics being based on the common good, he thought it should be based on "value." We don't experience the metaphysical concept of good. Rather, what we experience is value. What is a "value"? Well, in his hundreds (thousands?) of pages where he speaks of value, I dare say he never defined it (definitions are no good, remember?). If I were him, I would have to define value as a non-naturalistic quality in things that demands an adequate spiritual response on our part. I say "non-naturalistic quality" because it is a quality that is not reducible to any physical or ontological quality of a thing (like "6 feet-tall" or "red"), or to any combination of these (like "well-arranged" or "holding together"). Rather, it is a moral sort of quality that is rather independent of the physical/natural qualities of the thing in question (sort of like Platonic forms). So persons have value, and it is this value which means I have to respond in such a way that I treat that person with respect, "like an end-in-itself and not like a mere-means." In the most basic moral controversies, especially in the area of sexual ethics, Von Hildebrand ultimately reached more or less the same Catholic moral conclusions about the morality of physical acts that Thomists reach (contraception, abortion, etc. are intrinsically wrong; capital punishment is not intrinsically wrong), but he gets to those conclusions by using strange arguments (phenomenological analyses of experience) and the psychologial attitude he says should accompany those physical acts seems a bit rigoristic (e.g., sexual intimacy should always be accompanied by an attitude of response-to-persons, such that the married couple should always be thinking of the fact that everything done in that act is an act of self-giving).

Speaking about love, Von Hildebrand, inspired by Kant, adds to the traditional duo of intellect and will a third spiritual faculty whereby the soul gets in touch with things: "the heart." The "heart" is the affective "sphere" in man, whereby he affectively responds to the world. I don't only know my mother (this is the intellect, he would say), and chose to be good to my mother (through my will); I also love my mother. And this "love" is not a choice, so it is not done by the will; rather, it is an affective response to a "value," and it is done by the "affective sphere," or "the heart." Thus, Aquinas and the entire 700 year-old Thomistic tradition, which based its views, not on experience, but on Aristotle's logic, was too blind to see that, in addition to the intellect and the will, we also have a third "sphere," the heart. Their logic prevented them from seeing that over and above knowing and choosing, we can also love.

Thus, Von Hildebrand set about to correct all of Catholic philosophy by discarding whatever in it could not be corroborated directly with experience and by rewriting all of its conclusions so that they match our experiential perspective on the subject.

However, it must be acknowedged that Von Hildebrand had some intellectual virtue--and this may account for the fact that Pius XII calle him the "20th-Century Doctor of the Chuch." For example, his book, Liturgy and Personality, although vaguely founded on questionable philosophical grounds, is a profound meditation on the psychological aspects of the Sacred Liturgy and is, therefore, solid contribution to the earlier liturgical movement (before Bugnini showed up). Also, even though his philosophy was not exactly traditional, he nonetheless was very traditional in other respects; for example, dogma. He did not have the philosophy to understand or to explain dogma, but he did revere it and held it to be unchangeable. That is why he was outraged by the changes that took place during and after Vatican II, and that is why he became one of the first "traditionalist Catholics" and wrote two of the most powerful traditionalist books against the Vatican II novelties (The Devastated Vineyard, and The Trojan Horse in the City of God)--his widow, Alice, is an active promoter and writer for the traditionalist Catholic movement. So the Von Hildebrand legacy is not entirely negative; just his philosophy.

Von Hildebrand's School. Whatever his merits or demerits, Von Hildebrand has never been known worldwide as a great philosopher. Even "realist phenomenology" itself is a bit of an enygma within the secular philosophical world. But two other realist phenomenologists have contributed to making their school--and, therefore, Von Hildebrand--famous within the Catholc world: St. Edith Stein and Pope John Paul II. Edith Stein was a phenomenologist when she converted to Catholicism from Judaism. She converted to Thomism at the end of her life, but her work was mainly within the realist phenomenological school. Also, Pope John Paul II was a phenomenologist and, before becoming pope, wrote many articles "correcting" traditional Thomism as hard-headed and incomplete; even as pope, his speeches, writings, and even encyclicals, were permeated with the language, style, and assumptions of realist phenomenologists.
These three figures--St. Edith Stein, Pope John Paul II, and Dietrich Von Hildebrand--form the holy trinity of the realist phenomenological school today. A saint, a pope, and a man who was called by Pope Pius XII the "20th-century Doctor of the Church" give Catholic phenomenologists the confidence to continue ploughing over the ruins of Scholastic Thomism by questioning/denying well-established, Magisterium-sanctioned scholastic doctrines (they call them theories) and reinterpreting the dogmas that imply them so that they no longer mean Scholasticism is true.

For example, Thomists hold a hylemorphic view of man (where man is a rational animal made up of a rational soul/form and a body/matter, the two forming one substance). This is what the Council of Vienna meant when it defined the soul as "the form of the body." But realist phenomenologists hold a "personalist" view of man, where man is first and foremost a person, and his personhood is a spiritual reality--after all, it is this spiritual side of man that we primarily experience as "us," whereas from our subjective perspective the body seems like a thing out there. So they conclude that man is primarily a spiritual reality. In the words of Karol Wojtyla (future John Paul II): "I am not my body; I have a body." Put in scholastic terms, their view is that essentially we are souls/persons, and the body is an accident of that substance. The soul is loosely connected to the body, and it is certainly not its "form," at least in the sense that we've always understood it. Hence, the "personalist" view seems to run counter to the Council of Vienna's definition. It should be added that Von Hildebrand never went this far--he had a deep respect for dogma--even if he seems to assume this doctrine throughout his writings.
Another example, this time in metaphysics. Ever since St. Augustine--and one could argue that since Plato and Aristotle--the whole philosophical world has believed that evil is a privation of being that should be there (e.g., blindness is not a positive entity in the eye, but a lack of something positive that should be in the eye). This view is further reinforced theologically by the consensus of theologians and by its proximity to the definition of the Council of Florence that God created all things good, and that there is nothing positive that is evil in itself. But the phenomenologists (especially Crosby and his colleagues) say that the only reason why we believe evil is a privation is because we want to get away from the problem of having a good God creating evil in the world. By saying that evil is nothing and that, therefore, it doesn't need a Creator--they claim--we are just by-passing a very thorny issue in the easiest way possible. But they claim there is no justification for claiming evil is a privation other than that. If you examine evil in itself (phenomenologically) you will see--they continue--that evil in itself is not merely an absense, but a presence; not a negation/privation, but a positively evil entity. In fact, they say, non-being is not evil; only being can be evil. So our very experience of evil--think Hitler--corroborates the view that evil is a very positive evil thing, lurking there, present, as an antithesis to good, destroying good. How do they deal with the Church's dogma? Somehow they reinterpret it, such that it does not imply the evil-as-privation doctrine (which they call the "privation theory")--I forgot their contrived explanation about how it doesn't mean that.

The Future of Realist Phenomenology. Happily, this school is slowly dwindling. As with all things within the post-Vatican II Church, they don't last too long after they cease being "in style." The current lust-for-novelty that we are suffering from in the Church does mean one positive thing: everything but the most traditional will surely die out eventually.

Realist phenomenology (especially its doctrine called "personalism") is still a threat, but it is not, and will never be, as big a threat to Catholic thought as are other modernist philosophies and ideologies that haunt theology departments throughout the world. It used to be the reigning philosophy at the University of Dallas. At Franciscan University it is still strong, where it attracts many of the young, passionate Catholic minds of the US. (I was one of them.) It is also strong at the International Academy, which is very small, but does attract a handful of otherwise traditional Catholics which somehow think their traditionalism is compatible with their philosophy. Other Catholic universities (e.g., Catholic University, Ave Maria University, Angelicum, Fordham University--where Dietrich taught for some time) have each featured at least some aspect of realist phenomenology, in varying degrees.

Sadly, traditionalist Catholics tend to be ignorant of philosophical issues and find no problem in giving these philosophers their support--financial or otherwise--by buying and reading their books and passing them on as "solid Catholic literature"; by allowing them to publish in traditionalist Catholic publications, such as Latin Mass Magazine; by letting them speak in traditionalist Catholic conferences; etc. The best example of one of these philosophers who gets a whole lot of help from the trad movement is Alice Von Hildebrand (widow of Dietrich). She is one of the most popular faces in the movement and, therefore, gets a good ear in the trad movement, whether she speaks of the traditional Mass (on which she can give a good talk) or of philosophy (of which she cannot).

Let's make an effort to inform ourselves of the basic tennets of this school of thought, of its arguments and presuppositions, so we can help everyone to avoid its errors and better defend Scholastic Thomism as the philosophy of our Holy Mother, the Church. After all, Pope Pius XI (1923) said, ite ad Thomam, not ite ad Husserl.
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