Out of a Kantian Chrysalis?: A Maritainian Critique of Fr. Maréchal

By Ronald McCamy

McCamy_Kantian_0820437220_m.jpg (4414 bytes)


Navigation hints:


Abstract:  historical investigation and a defense of Thomist realism (such as Maritain's) against the Kantian idealism of the "Neothomists" (such as Maréchal's)

Difficulty: 5 (research)


Bibliographic Data

Ronald McCamy. Out of a Kantian Chrysalis?: A Maritainian Critique of Fr. Maréchal. American University Studies. Serie V, Philosophy. Vol. 182. New York, NY: Peter Lang, 1998.
ISBN: 0820437220
Pages: 180.
Bibliography, index, references to thomistic texts.

Order in the US with Amazon US for $ 24.95 (Paperback)

Order in the UK with Amazon UK for £ 14.84 (Paperback)


Additional Errata not mentioned in the 1998 edition:
On p. 148, the line that immediately follows the quotation should refer to S.T.1, 86, 1 (not I, 84, 1).  Also, later in the same paragraph,  ST I, 87, 4 should read I, 84, 7.




Review by Winfried Corduan

(This review is due for publication in Philosophia Christi)

© Winfried Corduan, Dec. 1998.


Without wishing to sound utilitarian, it should be a safe bet that few of us in the profession of philosophy would pursue our discipline if we were not convinced that subtle ideas often have important consequences. McCamy's book is about one such idea and the far-reaching effects it has had.  The idea in question is the notion of the agent intellect in Thomistic philosophy; the consequence is the legitimation of the pluralism which has come to dominate Roman Catholic theology for the last forty years.  Whereas Protestant theology oftentimes is indifferent to its philosophical foundations, even to the point of disparaging philosophical concerns as an intrusion into theology, Roman Catholic theology has tended to be more forthright about its philosophical underpinnings.   One can interpret this phenomenon as both an asset and a liability for Catholic theology:  an asset for the reader insofar as there is less mystery about a given theologian's conceptual background, but possibly as a liability for the theologian because his assertions need not only pass dogmatic and biblical muster, but must carry philosophical plausibility as well.  For the Catholic theologian simply to decry philosophy when it seems inconvenient has by and large not been an option.

Take the issue of pluralism in theology.  Both Protestants and Catholics have let themselves become more open to the acceptability of diversity, not only among Christian theologies, but even including other religions.  In Catholic theology this openness was endorsed by Vatican II in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium).   One of the leading thinkers behind the Council was Karl Rahner, who ironically was under censure at the outset of the proceedings, but whose inclusivist notions (the "anonymous Christian") ultimately carried the day.  Rahner and likeminded theologians justified their conclusions, not on the basis of a sentimental appeal to God's mercy, but by an intricate philosophical analysis. Underneath this theology lies a particular philosophical anthropology, one that is animated by a Kantian turn to subjectivity.  In a very real sense, epistemology became the mother of a soteriology.

The key to this revolution in theological thought lies in the following philosophical theory.  When a person comes to know something, the process of engendering knowledge is a very complex one which involves both the reception of sense data and the ordering of the perceived data by means of the agent intellect.  The agent intellect is able to establish the being of the perceived object because it always makes reference to the source of all being, viz. God.  Thus human knowledge involves two crucial aspects: subjectivity and reference to God.  Under this analysis, knowledge as human beings have it is not all that different from the knowledge that angels presumably have.   Angels, not having physical bodies, know objects directly by way of their intellect, and ultimately so do people.  Objectivity is created by the final reference point in God, not by the physical objects in the external world.

This epistemological move facilitated pluralism in two ways.  For one, Rahner and others have argued that, since God is such a reference point of all knowledge, all human beings, regardless of their other beliefs, already have an implicit relationship with God, simply by virtue of their humanity.  And second, since all knowledge is rooted in intellectual subjectivity, one cannot say a priori that there is only one acceptable conceptualization of metaphysical or theological reality.  The fountainhead of this form of subjective Thomism was Fr. Joseph Maréchal (1878-1944).  Maréchal, intending to explicate the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas himself, wrote a series of studies, Le Point de départ de la Métaphysique in five volumes (called five Cahiers), which served to combine what Maréchal took to be a corrected appropriation of Kantian subjectivity with an exposition of Thomistic epistemology, thereby creating what is popularly called "transcendental" Thomism.  Maréchal's conclusions were foreshadowed by his historical explications in the first four Cahiers, but ultimately disclosed only in the fifth one.  

Out of a Kantian Chrysalis?, the book by Ronald McCamy, has for its focal point the time period between the third Cahier and the somewhat  delayed publication of the fifth one.  During this time, Jacques Maritain (1882-1973) wrote a work on epistemology using a more traditional Thomistic perspective.  Specifically, Maritain defended the idea that knowledge has to be considered the adequation of the intellect to the object; viz. in order to have objective knowledge, the intellect must reach out to the object of knowledge itself, a move which is only possible if knowledge begins with an intuition of being.  Once one has committed one's epistemology to a Kantian transcendental subjectivity, Maritain argued, it will henceforth be impossible to escape a subjective circle of confinement, even with a well-intentioned reference to God or angels.   Maritain believed that to jettison the objective ontological reference point for knowledge, and thereby also for metaphysics, would rob Christian theology of its uniquely definitive status and open the doors to a suspect pluralism.  

In his book McCamy portrays how this issue was debated briefly by Maritain and Maréchal and how, Maréchal's protests at the time notwithstanding, Maritain's point was subsequently borne out by both Maréchal and his followers.  In the article refered to above, Maritain used Maréchal's deliberations in Cahier III as an example of how Kantian subjectivity can lead to a metaphysical cul-de-sac.  Maréchal protested that Maritain had unfairly used his historical analysis to represent Maréchal's own position which would not be made manifest until the (unfortunately delayed) publication of Cahier V.  Once Maritain would read that forthcoming volume, he would see how Maréchal, though beginning with Kantian subjectivity, had corrected the defects of Kant's own transcendental philosophy in order to defend the identical objective Thomism to which Maritain aspires.  In response, Maritain acknowledged that he might have spoken too soon, but that he was highly skeptical of the possibility of a Thomistic butterfly coming from a "Kantian chrysalis." 

McCamy describes in detail how Maréchal attempted to create an objective Thomism from enhanced Kantian premises, and how he never did surmount the very dangers to which Maritain pointed.  In fact, McCamy brings out the irony of this discussion in his first chapter in which he documents how numerous contemporary Catholic thinkers celebrate Maréchal's triumphant freeing of Catholic theology from the strictures of so-called traditional dogmatic thinking--thereby showing that Maritain was right all along. Maréchal's philosophy, despite his own protestations, did open the door for new (and for Maritain and others, heterodox) forms of theology.  

There are two ways to read this book.  One can simply stick to the main text, leaving the endnotes for each chapter to later.  This method of reading the book has the advantage of making it easier to follow the at times very technical discussion.   But one can also read this book by constantly keeping one finger in the endnote sections and keeping up with the relevant notes at all times.  Reading the book in this way obviously has the disadvantage of making it harder to work through the arguments of the text, but it provides the advantage of getting McCamy's running commentary, which is often illuminative, frequently critical, and sometimes even wry in response to the arguments described in the text. 

This is not an easy book, particularly for anyone not seriously acquainted with the history of Thomism in the twentieth century.  I would like to commend it, though, to my fellow evangelical philosophers because it opens the door to a crucial discussion in modern theology.  Protestant theologians who simply appropriate the conclusions of Vatican II or of twentieth-century Roman Catholic theologians without working through the philosophical presuppositions underlying those conclusions may be consuming fruit which they neither bought nor grew.  This book, by explicating the philosophical foundations of the theological discussion, can help to make the issue clearer to all concerned


© Winfried Corduan, Dec. 1998.

Number of accesses to this page since Jan 21, 1999:

This site is best viewed with Microsoft Explorer 4.




Copyright © 1999 Stichting Europese Apologetiek (Foundation European Apologetics)
Page created: Jan. 21, 1998
Last modified: Apr. 4, 1999