Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Talking Past Each Other

There used to be something of a schism in the domain that is professional philosophy. During the 1960s and 1970s you could find some philosophers who would categorize themselves as "analytic", others who would categorize themselves as "Continental". This dichotomy was predominantly maintained by philosophers working in American colleges and universities, and it had to do, primarily, with macho posturing. Analytic philosophers, for the most part, agreed with Richard Rorty that philosophy had taken a "linguistic turn" sometime in the 1940s or 1950s, and that good philosophy consisted of the careful analysis of concepts and arguments. Continental philosophers, by contrast, used to be portrayed as being less interested in logical rigor (at least of the sort favored by self-styled "analytic" philosophers) and more interested in metaphysics and politics.

This false dichotomy was effectively emasculated by Michael Dummett in his 1996 book The Origins of Analytic Philosophy, in which he shows how the sort of philosophy practiced by both of these groups is descended from a common ancestor. Just as chimps and humans differ only very slightly in their genetic makeup, so, too, analytic and Continental philosophers have more in common then some of them may like to admit. (Some of them don't mind admitting it, just so long as we are straight about which ones are the chimps.) It turns out that most of the differences in this genetic makeup find expression in modes of discourse or, to put it in layman's terms, jargon. Analytic philosophers like to talk about inferences, abductions, modus ponens, punctuated equilibria, epistemological standpoints, defeasible theories, and supervenience. Continental types like to talk about subjectivity, The Other, bracketing of horizons, and manifolds of experience. To the outsider, all of it is gobbledygook, but for those of us who are members of the club, you can tell who the chimps are by their vocalizations.

I was reminded of this false dichotomy this evening after reading through a post by an old mentor of mine, Fr. Robert Connor, who blogs at The Truth Will Make You Free. In a series of posts there, Fr. Connor takes George Weigel to task for "misunderstanding" Benedict XVI's "hermeneutic of continuity". The posts are many and long--I particularly recommend this one, this one, and this one. It seems as though the principal target of Fr. Connor's critique is Weigel's complaint against some aspects of Caritas in Veritate. Other Catholic bloggers have already taken Weigel to task for his apparently schizoid reading of that encyclical, and I won't add to the confusion by taking him on myself. Upon reading Weigel's critique, I did get the impression that he was rather selective with his material, but one thing that he clearly did not get wrong, in my view, is the import of Benedict XVI's famous slogan, the "hermeneutic of continuity". The expression is drawn from the Pope's address to the Roman curia of 22 December 2005, and it refers to the fact that the Second Vatican Council stands in a relationship of doctrinal continuity with the totality of Magisterial teachings of the Church leading up to Vatican II. Although this fact should come as a surprise to nobody, there certainly have been pundits who wished to assert that "Vatican II changed everything", and by "change" they mean that the Council reversed, or else substantively modified, traditional teachings. This view Benedict rejected as the "hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture", that is, these pundits think that many of the Church's traditional teachings--the ones the pundits dislike the most, of course--are not only open to revision, but have, in fact, been revised.

This sort of a view is incoherent, and Benedict was right to contrast it with the proper view of the Church's Magisterium as continuous and unbroken. Weigel has put it this way:
Throughout his pontificate, and in Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI has been at pains to stress the continuity of Catholic life and thought before and after the Second Vatican Council: what he terms a “hermeneutics of continuity,” as distinguished from a “hermeneutics of rupture.” Or, in lay language, the claim that the Catholic Church reinvented itself at Vatican II is simply wrong.
Yet this statement, and others like it, from Weigel is what my old friend Fr. Connor objects to. He says:
It’s difficult not to contradict Weigel with Karol Wojtyla’s profound assessment of Vatican II as crossing the threshold from noetic object to subject. Nothing could be more profound and telling in that it is a reorienting of the entire doctrine of the Church from propositional truth to personal “attitude” of self-gift in the ontological horizon of subjectivity.
I don't know how difficult it is not to contradict Weigel, but I do know how hard it is to make sense of Fr. Connor's objection to Weigel, since I've been trying to do just that for some time now and I can't do it. As I read through Fr. Connor's various posts on this topic, it seems to me that he actually agrees with Weigel that the Church's teachings are consistent from the beginning right through Vatican II; his main point of departure is not on the logical point (which was also Benedict's), but on a more esoteric point that seems to come, not from anything Benedict had to say, but from a decidedly anti-analytic philosophical stance. In short, Weigel and his ilk are the chimps. But are they wrong? Well, about some things they are, but not about the hermeneutic of continuity.

Fr. Connor is surely right to note, as he does in many of his posts, that there is an emphasis in the Magisterium on self-transcendence and the struggle for holiness. Is this new since the Council? Of course not, and Fr. Connor certainly does not say that it is new--indeed, he argues, correctly, that this was one of the central teachings of the Council but that it informs rather than changes what went before (he quotes extensively from Pope John Paul the Great on this point). What Fr. Connor thinks is "new" (though not "really" new) is the emphasis on what he calls the "subjective perspective" that the Church took on at the Council. "Subjective perspective" here is Continentalese for what Fr. Connor sees as a move away from certain kinds of theological questions ("What does this teaching mean?") to certain other kinds ("What sort of a life ought I to be living if I am a member in good standing of Christ's Body the Church?"). All theology, of course, is metaphor, so whether this is new or not is irrelevant to the question of whether the substance of the Magisterium has changed. Certainly perspectives on the Magisterium change all the time--that is, indeed, precisely what gives rise to the continuity of rupture that Pope Benedict so rightly laments. But changes in perspective are not changes in substance, and on this point Fr. Connor and George Weigel are in agreement. The only real change has been in the discourse: that common descendant of analytic and Continental philosophy that Michael Dummett talked about was having its heyday in the mid-nineteenth century, just prior to Vatican I. From the time of Frege and Nietzsche we begin to see the real rift between the analytic and Continental styles of philosophy, with Frege standing at the head of the analytic tradition (it would be a little unfair to put Nietzsche at the head of the Continental tradition, but if anyone tried to do it I would not say him nay). So what was really "new" at Vatican II was a shift away from the old-fashioned Thomistic style of philosophical discourse that had dominated theological pronouncements since before Trent and towards a new style of philosophical discourse that was highly favored by the most important (so-far) of the post-conciliar Popes, John Paul the Great. Whether the Thomists and the Balthasarians are really saying anything different is a question that I will leave to my readers.

1 comment:

Tom said...

Whether the Thomists and the Balthasarians are really saying anything different is a question that I will leave to my readers.

Before we can answer that question, we should ask whether the Balthasarians are really saying anything.

'Cause if anyone's a chimp, it ain't St. Thomas. Booyah!