The Value of Philosophy

True philosophy throws light on all other forms of knowledge, revealing their relation to each other…with philosophy underpinning them all. Especially does it help in the study of sacred theology, the supreme science based on God’s special revelation to the human race.

Some seminarians see philosophy as a purgatory to be endured in order to enter the heaven of theology. They judge it to be too dry and abstract, removed from real life and from the pastoral work they will do as priests. The disagreements among philosophers may lead the seminarian to wonder if much certainty is attainable in this field.

A young C. S. Lewis, talking to his friends, Owen Barfield and Bede Griffiths, referred to philosophy as “a subject.” “‘It wasn’t a subject to Plato,’ said Barfield, ‘it was a way.’ The quiet but fervent agreement of Griffiths, and the quick glance of understanding between these two, revealed to me my frivolity. 1

Philosophy, as traditionally understood, is the study, by the use of reason, of the deepest realities. It deals with the nature of the material world, the nature of man, the existence of God. It defends our capacity to know the truth; it explores the transcendentals of truth, goodness, and beauty; it shows the way of life that rational beings should follow. In the study of logic, it prepares and strengthens the mind to analyze arguments, and distinguish truth from falsity.

Its starting point is the spontaneous, commonsense knowledge we all have (to the degree that indoctrination has not robbed us of it). Philosophy clarifies, strengthens, and deepens our natural, healthy perceptions.

True philosophy throws light on all other forms of knowledge, revealing their relation to each other: the physical sciences, mathematics, politics, and economics are seen as parts of a whole, with philosophy underpinning them all. Especially does it help in the study of sacred theology, the supreme science based on God’s special revelation to the human race. This is the reason the Church requires at least two years of philosophy as a preparation for sacred theology in seminaries.

Take the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity. While we can have but an extremely limited understanding of this sublime mystery, the concepts of person, nature, and relation are essential for some penetration into the mystery. But they are philosophical concepts.

Or take the other supreme mystery of the faith: the Incarnation. How can a being be God and man at the same time, with no diminution of either nature? What modes of knowledge exist in his human nature? How are his divine and human wills united? Did his temptations differ from ours? To get light on these questions, without going astray, a sound knowledge of metaphysics and philosophical psychology is required.

The doctrine of transubstantiation is another example of the need for philosophy. What may otherwise seem, at best, an enigma, and at worst, an absurdity, will be viewed quite differently if we have a philosophical grasp of substance and accidents; especially of the fundamental accident which is quantity.

The doctrine of transubstantiation is another example of the need for philosophy. What may otherwise seem, at best, an enigma, and at worst, an absurdity, will be viewed quite differently if we have a philosophical grasp of substance and accidents; especially, if we grasp the fundamental accident which is quantity.

While the truth of these dogmas is known only through revelation, an understanding of what God is telling us is heavily dependent on the knowledge that philosophy affords us. Consequently, the better we understand philosophy, the better we will penetrate the divine mysteries.

Ethics, or moral philosophy, is an essential underpinning for moral theology. So close is the relationship, that the basic content of the Ten Commandments is found in natural ethics. Likewise, such principles, as that of the “double effect,” belong to natural ethics.

Pope John Paul II’s “theology of the body,” which he developed through an analysis of texts in Genesis, is also based on St. Thomas Aquinas’s analysis of human nature, and the key Thomistic understanding of man as a composite of matter and spiritual form.

But to be formed in the truths of reason is to have a sound philosophy; such philosophy is almost universally absent from current Western thought. The relativism and subjectivism of which Pope Benedict speaks are dominant in almost all universities, and in the thinking of most of the shapers of opinion. The very foundations of thought are attacked by many who call themselves philosophers, resulting in a barren postmodernism.

Were I to recommend to a young person (unless he were an exceptional case) that he major in philosophy at a typical university, I would be guilty of mortal sin, for in following my advice, he would be exposing himself to the loss of both faith and reason.

Almost every pope—from John XXII in the fourteenth century to Benedict XVI—has recommended St. Thomas Aquinas as a sure guide in philosophy. In his encyclical, Fides et Ratio, Pope John Paul II says of St. Thomas: “In him the Church’s Magisterium has seen and recognized the passion for truth, and precisely because it stays consistently within the horizon of universal, objective and transcendent truth, his thought scales heights unthinkable to human intelligence.” 2

Proving God’s Existence
If most philosophers today are asked whether the existence of God can be proved, they will answer in the negative. Yet, the fact is that it not only can be proved by reason, but its denial logically involves denial of the supreme principle: the principle of noncontradiction. Let us examine that statement as a concrete example of the certitude philosophy affords. Any of St. Thomas’s five ways could be used; I’ll take the third way.

This argument states the obvious fact that some things can either be, or not be, for they pass into, and out of, existence; existence is not necessarily bound up with what they are. But, if all things were like this, existence would be unexplainable. To explain how existence got into the system in the first place, as it were, we must see that there is a being who is different from all others, in that, whereas they receive existence, he is pure and unreceived existence.

To deny this, is to say that things be without any reason for why they be. But this implies a contradiction. To say something is, without a reason for why it is, is to imply that it is and is not – “the lack of a reason for being” is precisely why something is not. Logically, denying this argument for God’s existence, is to implicitly deny the supreme principle of all reality, and all thought: the principle of noncontradiction. To deny that principle, is to make thought and speech impossible.

That is an extremely brief glance at an argument that could be studied at book length, with an exploration of the self-evident principles involved, and the corollaries that follow concerning God’s nature. I have two reasons for introducing it abruptly here.

The first is to note the feeling one can easily get, that this kind of argumentation is unreal, and that there must be a catch somewhere. The remedy for this is to become versed in the principles involved, which leads to a perception of their cogency. But, the fact that this feeling does, so often, arise in a beginner to philosophy, is one reason why the beginner may find philosophy uncongenial. The principles seem unreal. We’ll come back to that.

My second reason for writing of the argument from contingency is that, once its meaning is seen clearly, it has exciting implications for our lives. God is infinite existence (infinite esse), and the cause of the being of all else: he bestows being on them simply by willing that they be; he makes all things out of nothing. So they depend on him utterly—not only to get started, but for their continued being; everything, ourselves included, is just as dependent on an infinite will, holding it above nothingness, as creation was in its first instant.

Of course, we know this from revelation. Genesis tells us: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” 3 In the second book of Maccabees, the mother of the seven brothers encourages her youngest son to endure martyrdom by reminding him that God made all things out of what did not exist. 4

But this revealed truth is also shown with certainty by reason, and the rational argument for it brings out, very forcefully, the utter dependence of all things on God’s continuing will to hold them in being. It reinforces St. Paul’s point that we have nothing that we have not received. 5

The truth of the creation of everything from nothing excludes two opposed errors: deism and pantheism. A God, so intimately present to the world that his will alone holds every element in being, from moment to moment, is no remote deistic figure. Nor is pantheism possible, for he, who is subsistent being, must infinitely transcend all that has no being from itself. So the truth of creation from nothing shows God as both intimately present, yet infinitely transcendent.

Penetrating the Principles
I argued above that to deny the proof of God, based on the contingency of things, is implicitly to deny the principle of noncontradiction. That statement will seem, to many people, to be far too extreme, even though they are unable to refute it. They will be left unconvinced. They will feel the same with answers to numerous other philosophical questions.

This very understandable difficulty arises from unfamiliarity with the mode of thinking proper to philosophy, a mode of thinking which sees deeply into the principles, seeing reality in the light of those principles. That sort of thinking would require effort in any age, but is particularly alien to the superficial, secular culture in which we are immersed.

Facility in philosophy comes only after much pondering on its key concepts. It requires adherence to the perennial philosophy proposed by the Church. Those who teach it, must accept that perennial philosophy, and they must be competent teachers. Given those conditions, the dislike noted at the beginning of this article will not be common. The situation varies from seminary to seminary; in the best of them, most students find their philosophy courses worthwhile and enjoyable.

Philosophy should be presented as a development of the commonsense knowledge native to all mankind, even when we journey into the highest realms of metaphysical being. The better versed we become in philosophy, the stronger should be our common sense, and the more readily we should be able to grasp the thoughts and difficulties of ordinary people. Fr. Victor White, O.P., noted the last point in a brilliant talk to Dominican students in 1944, a talk reproduced in his widely read booklet, How to Study.

He says that: “In my own limited experience, it is especially in trying to deal honestly and understandingly with the genuine personal problems, doubts, and perplexities of the less sophisticated, that one needs to be able to probe matters to rock-bottom.” 6

For the true philosopher, philosophy is an integral part of his life, not just “a subject.” As Jacques Maritain says of this Thomistic metaphysician: “He must be keenly and profoundly aware of sensible objects. And he should be plunged into existence, steeped ever more deeply in it by a sensuous and aesthetic perception, as acute as possible, and by experiencing the sufferings and struggles of real life, so that aloft in the third heaven of natural understanding, he may feed upon the intelligible substance of things.” 7

In his book, St. Thomas Aquinas, G. K. Chesterton makes many acute observations, including this contrast between the pragmatist and the Thomist: “The pragmatist sets out to be practical, but his practicality turns out to be entirely theoretical. The Thomist begins by being theoretical, but his theory turns out to be entirely practical. That is why a great part of the world is returning to it today.” 8

Chesterton wrote this in 1933, during a Thomist revival. After the Second Vatican Council, there came, among other extraordinary things, a great falling away from the perennial philosophy, despite the Council having endorsed it. 9 But at present, a renewed interest in St. Thomas is again evident, an interest that may well accelerate in the coming years.

Philosophy Is of Incalculable Importance
In his encyclical, Fides et Ratio, Pope John Paul II made it clear that philosophy is of incalculable importance. He notes that: “All men and women…are, in some sense, philosophers and have their own philosophical conceptions with which they direct their lives.” 10 He speaks of the influence philosophy has on the development of culture, and on personal and social behavior, and its powerful influence on theology. 11 He declares: “Philosophical thought is often the only ground for understanding and dialogue with those who do not share our faith.” 12 Addressing those responsible for priestly formation, he encourages them “to pay special attention to the philosophical preparation of those who will proclaim the Word of God to the men and women of today…” 13

John Paul II laments the fact that the Magisterium’s insistence on the study of St. Thomas has not always been followed, and that there has been, since Vatican II, a diminished sense in Catholic faculties of the importance of philosophy. He continues: “I cannot fail to note with surprise and displeasure that this lack of interest in the study of philosophy is shared by not a few theologians.” 14

These words of John Paul II sum it up: “I wish to repeat clearly that the study of philosophy is fundamental and indispensable to the structure of theological studies, and to the formation of candidates for the priesthood. 15

 

  1. C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (London, 1959, Fontana Books), 180.
  2. John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, 1998, n. 44.
  3. Genesis 1:1.
  4. II Macc 7:28.
  5. I Cor 4;7.
  6. Victor White OP, How To Study, (London, 1960 edition, Aquin Press), 34.
  7. Jacques Maritain, A Preface to Metaphysics (London, 1945, Sheed and Ward), 23f.
  8. G. K. Chesterton, St Thomas Aquinas (New York, 1956 edition, Doubleday), 157.
  9. Vatican II: Decree on Priestly Training, nn. 15,16.
  10. John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, n. 30.
  11. Ibid., n. 100.
  12. Ibid., n. 104.
  13. Ibid., n. 105.
  14. Ibid., n. 61.
  15. Ibid., n. 62.
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avatar About John Young

Mr. John Young, B.Th. is associated with the Cardinal Newman Catechist Centre in Merrylands, N.S.W., Australia. He has taught philosophy in four seminaries and published many articles. He is the author of Reasoning Things Out (Stella Maris Books, Fort Worth, Texas), an introduction to philosophy. His latest book is The Natural Economy (Robert Schalkenbach Foundation, New York).

Comments

  1. Mr. Young,

    I completely sympathize and agree with much of your article – certainly with your deep respect and love for the discipline of philosophy. However, I cannot assert that it is of great effect, in helping many of the many people today whose premises and beliefs are radically different from our own. You quote Blessed John Paul II who wrote, rightly, “Philosophical thought is often the only ground for understanding and dialogue with those who do not share our faith.” (Fides et Ratio, #104) Yes, it is often the only ground, but it is also often not a ground that both can stand on.

    You write, “Philosophy, as traditionally understood, is the study, by the use of reason, of the deepest realities,” and then later, “Its starting point is the spontaneous, commonsense knowledge we all have (to the degree that indoctrination has not robbed us of it).” Herein lies the problem as I experience it – the deep and wide chasm that divides men of faith and reason from the many who have been robbed of, or have discarded, “the spontaneous, commonsense knowledge” that could be our bridge. We are divided in what are “the deepest realities,” indeed, in what is reality itself, in whether “reality” exists in a real sense. Objective existence is so blurred in many persons, inseparable and indistinguishable from subjective perception, that rational discussion itself hangs on a thread thin as the stuff of a spider’s web. Philosophical realism is an artifact of the past, to modern man.

    St. Paul saw it in his day; we see it today, painfully and commonly: a denial of reality in preference for, the sake of, disordered desires:
    Rom 1:21 for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened.
    …….
    Rom 1:24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves,
    Rom 1:25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever!

    This tragic “exchange” seems to describe well our times, and presents a profound challenge to Catholics, indeed to all of faith. May the Lord give us His grace.

  2. avatar Diffal says:

    I would like to thank Mr. Young for his teaching career. As a seminarian lucky enough to study solid Thomistic philosophy with orthodox Dominicans I have developed an appreciation of the discipline I scarcely imagined possible. I wholeheartedly believe that in order to evangelise our postmodern world and to defend our teachings in the public square, the perennial philosophy will be indispensable. Thank you once again Mr. Young for your teaching career.

  3. avatar Martin Drew says:

    Logic Metaphysics natural Philosophy transcendentals first principles forms common sense philosophy are words that all seminarians should study and be completley known. I studied these in addition to Moral and doctrine for 7 years from the Jesuits Vincentians and lay profs. It was star power. This by Mr Young is on target. I have also taught the above. Martin Drew Dallas

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