Archives for posts with tag: Reason

Civilization Is A Conversation

The popular philosopher Stefan Molyneux ( often reminds his audience that “civilization is a conversation. ” I read about the same idea before in a blog article by John C. Wright ( about the Great Books. A philosopher himself, as well as a novelist, Mr Wright is an alumnus of St. John’s College of liberal arts. I gather the school’s Great Books program was inspired from the writings of philosopher Mortimer Adler on “The Great Conversation” and his editing work for the Encyclopaedia Britannica Great Books series.

According to classical philosophers and other classical writers who had to know philosophy as a general foundation for their field, philosophy and science, literature and arts, civilization in a word, is a great conversation, and philosophy is its common language. It began to spread from Greece some six centuries before Christ.

Metaphysics, or philosophy properly so called, is the conversation about the fundamentals of everything that is or may be, especially the “why”, the causes. The “how” is more particularly the domain of empirical sciences and mathematics.

Ethics is the part of philosophy that examines the use of practical reason, or moral conscience. Why is there a sense of right and wrong? Why is conscience attracted to the good and repulsed by evil? Why is happiness connected to the good? These are some of the main questions of moral philosophy.

The moral questions are of course paramount also to religion and theology. Philosophy is the greatest achievement of the human mind unaided by faith, since it derives its information from the senses, external and internal. But the self-revelation of God being at the same time the revelation of man to himself (e. g. John 2:25), the Judaeo-Christian revelation is a very reliable source of information for philosophy, particularly for natural theology (or theodicy) and ethics.

Christian theologians, philosophers, and authors of literary or scientific writings were the ones who kept the conversation ongoing and timeless. It is timeless because philosophia perennis, the common philosophy of humanity (as philosopher Jacques Maritain would say), known also as Aristotelian-Thomism, or classical theist philosophy, is true in all essentials and those essentials are not subject to time. True philosophy is therefore capable of organic, continuous development upon this perennial basis.

Up to the 1960s, every generation educated by learned masters had access to the great works of the past and to a common philosophical framework. Scholars and writers could thus contribute to build on and transmit the intellectual and moral treasure of civilization, the treasure of human wisdom.


Conversation Slows Down

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Summary of Preface to Metaphysics

The following summary of Jacques Maritain’s Preface to Metaphysics – Seven Lectures on Being, with some quotes from a couple other books, is not a scholarly work, so there will be no quotation marks or italics apart from those already in the text. Passages between brackets are my comments or paraphrases.

Being As Such
The object of metaphysics is the knowledge of being as such. Being is the first object attained by every man the instant he begins to think as a rational creature, but at this stage it is a more or less confused perception of the concrete being, enveloped or embodied in sensible things. The metaphysician will consider the essence, or nature, of sensible things by abstracting, or disengaging their intelligible values from particularized objects.

The first operation of the mind is thus to apprehend essences (what is universal, what is the nature of the thing), but the term of knowledge is the actual, existing being, the esse in the strict sense. Thomist philosophy does not stop short at essences. It is to existence itself that the intellect proceeds when it formulates within itself a judgment by composition and division (second operation of the mind) corresponding to what a thing is or is not outside the mind.
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Emotion over Truth

John C. Wright wrote the following in his essay Parable of the arbiters (July 13, 2012
“The claim of the Protestant type would take us to the arbitration of the intellect. Oddly enough, Reformers are sometimes criticized (at least in Catholic circles) for their emphasis (we call it overemphasis) on the spontaneous and emotional and passionate nature of their communion with God.
I reject these criticisms as being a misunderstanding of the Protestant mind.”
“All Protestants, even those who reject Puritanism, have a strong inclination toward the ideal of pure worship, a simplicity and purity of rite.”
“It is not emotionalism. It is intellectualism.”

(Science-fiction writer, philosopher, lawyer and technical writer, John C. Wright was raised Lutheran but he was an atheist most of his life; he converted to Catholicism a few years ago.)

My comments (inspired mainly by Maritain’s essay on Luther in Three Reformers: Luther, Descartes, Rousseau and Blessed John Paul II’s Encyclical Fides et Ratio):

These criticisms are perfectly valid, but I grant you emotionalism is an important consequence of the real cause.

“Strong inclination”, “ideal”, “simplicity”, “purity”: if all those words are not moral or aesthetic emotion, I don’t know what they are. Not that they are unjustified, far from it, because love for beautiful ideals, simplicity and purity and all good things is our motivation to be and do good.

“It is not emotionalism. It is intellectualism.”
Our two superior faculties are not intellect and sensibility, they are intellect and will, the coupling of which in the liberty of TRUTH being the image of God in us. Thus the opposite of intellectualism is not emotionalism, it is voluntarism. Of course, decisions of the will are often expressed emotionally, this is why we tend to conflate the consequences and the cause.

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Food of the Intellect

Certain foods are natural for the body, but it takes a fair amount of training and reasoning to choose the right aliments, prepare them properly, and eat quantities suitable for our real needs.

Truth is the natural food of the intellect. We are capable of arriving at truth by correct reasoning, that is, the right use of a trained intellect previously nurtured in truth or, at least, not impeded in its appetite for truth.

In theory, feeding body or mind seems straightforward and easy, but experience tells both are often not done as they should.

French Catholic philosopher Marcel Clément wrote that, in his youth in the 1930s, he was looking forward to studying philosophy. But instead of the traditional introduction to history of Greek philosophy and systematic presentation of basic concepts, he was given the views of various philosophers and schools of thought. Seeing how those philosophers were contradicting each other, he naively remarked: “Which one is right? Which system can we hold true? They cannot be all true, or else philosophy does not exist.” He was answered that he had a dogmatic mindset and that philosophy could do perfectly well without absolute truth.

Then, on the occasion of a dissertation on Greek ethics, he became acquainted with Aristotle and knew for sure that philosophy existed. He devoted the rest of his life to write about and teach philosophy and Catholic thought, particularly the social doctrine of the Church.
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The Meaning of Words

My first university studies were in translation. I never worked in the field because I am not perfectly bilingual, having never lived in English. I read and write often in English, but I speak it only occasionally and I still make mistakes that my readers are welcome to point out to me.

Translators have an unflattering Italian proverb: Traduttore, traditore – “Translator, traitor”. In any translation, no matter how literal, there are things lost, added, interpreted. It is the essential part of the trade to choose the words, phrases or style conveying a meaning as close as possible to the original, but even a very good translation will have a different ring, as both the language and the translator have a different voice and style. A fair translation is usually not quite as good as an original text of high quality, but in some rare cases an original of relatively lesser quality might appear in translation as the work of a genius, like Belloc said about Kipling and Chesterton :
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I wrote the following page a few years ago to accompany GKC’s article “Philosophy for the Schoolroom” included after. It was an answer to a friend’s comment acknowledging doubt as a normal scientific attitude. As a cradle Catholic I never really saw a divide between faith and reason but it seems it has to be explained even to a pious Catholic convert. It was probably a remnant of former agnosticism or Protestant fundamentalism, or both. The philosophical comments inspired from Maritain were written more recently and reworked until now.

 Faith and reason

There is a widely spread state of mind pretending that faith and reason exclude each other and that being skeptical on everything is a fundamental scientific attitude. But, on the contrary, doubting everything is not at all scientific thinking. Science has to question everything. especially its postulates, but a true scientific mind does not doubt everything in the first place. I learned this from the works of French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain. Then I read recently the following article by G. K. Chesterton.
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