The Modernist as Philosopher: Selected Writings of Marcel Hebert

The Modernist as Philosopher: Selected Writings of Marcel Hebert

by C. J.T. Talar


Usually ships within 6 days


Roman Catholic Modernism, in France, was prominently represented by scholars whose interests were, in significant measure, historical. Notable examples are Louis Duchesne, Alfred Loisy, and Albert Houtin. Where philosophy was concerned, Maurice Blondel, together with his collaborator Lucien Laberthonnière, grappled with the legacy of Kant and the problem of the subjectivity of human knowing. Marcel Hébert (1851 — 1916) stands at the confluence of these two tendencies.

Hébert's appreciation of the exegesis of scripture and its subsequent development in church tradition was importantly shaped by both Loisy and Duchesne. And like Blondel and Laberthonnière, he felt the insufficiency of scholasticism to speak to minds formed by modernity, to formulate an adequate response to the philosophical legacy of Kant. He acknowledged his debt to Duchesne and Loisy in history, but regarded himself, though an autodidact, their superior in philosophy. As Loisy may represent a case study of how modern historical consciousness impacted a mind formed by the traditional Catholic theology and piety, so Hébert may serve as a case study in the impact of modern philosophical consciousness on one also formed by traditional Catholicism.

This volume, the first to be published in English about Hébert, is essential for a full understanding of Catholic Modernism. The articles translated in this volume show Hébert's early attempt to find common ground between Aquinas and Kant, the impact of Kant on a symbolist reading of dogma intended to "save" dogma for Catholics coming to terms with modern exegesis and modern philosophy, the radical lengths to which he took that symbolist reading, and his eventual break with Catholicism when the Church failed to be receptive to this program.

Included here are selected articles, the entire second of edition of Pragmatisme, William James's review of the first edition and Hébert's response to it, and a review by Eugène Ménégoz.


C. J. T. Talar is professor of systematic theology at the University of Saint Thomas. He has served as co-convener of the Roman Catholic Modernism Seminar and has worked on John Henry Newman and modern French Catholicism. He is coauthor of By Those Who Knew Them: French Modernists Left, Right, and Center, and editor of Modernists and Mystics, both published by the Catholic University of America Press. The work is co-translated by Elizabeth Emery of Montclair State University.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780813218793
Publisher: Catholic University of America Press
Publication date: 11/21/2011
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.70(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

C. J. T. Talar is professor of systematic theology at the University of Saint Thomas. He has served as co-convener of the Roman Catholic Modernism Seminar and has worked on John Henry Newman and modern French Catholicism. He is coauthor of By Those Who Knew Them: French Modernists Left, Right, and Center, and editor of Modernists and Mystics, both published by the Catholic University of America Press. The work is co-translated by Elizabeth Emery of Montclair State University.

Read an Excerpt

The Modernist as Philosopher

Selected Writings of Marcel Hébert

The Catholic University of America Press

Copyright © 2011 The Catholic University of America Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8132-1879-3

Chapter One

Thomism and Kantianism

Paper Read to the Société de Saint-Thomas d'Aquin

The encyclical Aeterni Patris could be called the generative act of our society. Hence I do not need to defend it before you. But we should not forget that a considerable number of intelligent and influential men see in the "restoration of Thomism" merely an abuse of ecclesiastical power and the triumph of retrograde ideas. This is a deplorable misunderstanding that can perhaps be remedied by highlighting a few passages of the celebrated document.


The mere idea of a traditional philosophy outrages certain modern thinkers. Philosophy and tradition; are not the two words contradictory? Philosophy is free, autonomous, ever-open exploration; tradition is blind, servile, and sterile submission. And does not Leo XIII unmistakably condemn "this new pursuit," that is to say, progress?

No, we reply; what the Holy Father condemns is the violent break with the past that occurred in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a wrongful, irrational break; for there is a choice: either human intellect had not yet succeeded in resolving any difficulty, an untenable hypothesis; or it was already in possession of certain truths, that it was not allowed to take into account. Leo XIII is thus correct in blaming those who treated their predecessors with such disdain and regarded pagan and Christian wisdom as null and void, "who, throwing aside the patrimony of ancient wisdom, choose rather to build up a new edifice rather than to strengthen and perfect the old." "To build up a new edifice," to have the ambition to construct the philosophical edifice anew, from the ground up, with materials absolutely unknown previously, is the "new pursuit" the Sovereign Pontiff rejects; but what he is calling for prayerfully is to enrich the old patrimony with new ideas, new perspectives, to formulate the eternal problems better and to direct a brighter and more penetrating light into their deep mysteries. "[T]o strengthen and perfect the old": there has never been a more correct or more striking expression of the idea of progress. And to make sure of being understood: "In saying this," he adds, "we have no intention of discountenancing the learned and able men who bring their industry and erudition, and, what is more, the wealth of new discoveries, to the service of philosophy; for, of course, we understand that this tends to the development of learning." Finally, at the very point at which Leo XIII most warmly recommends "the golden wisdom of Saint Thomas," he says, "we hold that every word of wisdom, every useful thing by whomsoever discovered or planned, ought to be received by a willing and grateful mind."

There indeed is the broad and comprehensive philosophy understood by Saint Thomas: "It is necessary," he says, "to accept the opinions of the ancients as they are. This is helpful for two reasons. First, what is said well we will accept from them insofar as it is helpful for us. Second, what is poorly enunciated we will be cautious of." Elsewhere he expresses the same thought: each one, he says "looks at that which has been acquired from his predecessors and adds something. And by this means additions are made to knowledge. In the beginning these additions were moderate, but as time went by, in many diverse ways, little by little these additions progressed greatly. One felt free to expand the thinking of one's predecessors by adding what was lacking."

Much later, this was the constant preoccupation of Leibnitz: to find a system that could "unite Plato with Democritus, Aristotle with Descartes, the Scholastics with the moderns, theology and morality with reason; to take the best from all sides and go still farther on.... This would be perennis quaedam philosophia." A magnificent statement, but one no more illuminating than that of Leo XIII: "to strengthen and perfect the old."

Is it possible to carry this out? Is there not an incompatibility of temperament and necessary divorce between the moderns and the Scholastics? Is one not obliged to be entirely one or the other? Here one sees the shrewd smile of an Italian, of Leo XIII himself, if he heard this question asked: Ah the French spirit, which tolerates neither middle terms, nor compromises, and will accept only all or nothing in philosophy, in theology, and in many other things!

Is it not more sensible, more honorable for the human mind to affirm that, in every spiritualist system, ancient or modern, a thinker can and must seek and discover a portion of truth?

This would be all too easy to demonstrate by taking Descartes or Leibnitz as an example; we prefer to choose a philosopher, Immanuel Kant, who is in bad odor with many people but who exerts at present a purportedly exaggerated, but in any case incontestable, influence.


Why, then, should not the German philosopher too add his share of ideas to the "perennial philosophy"? Admittedly, he has broken with tradition; he seeks nevertheless to benefit from the work of his predecessors. This is apparent in the way he speaks of Wolff and Hume, and moreover, did he not write these significant lines: "There is no possible use of our powers, however free, and no exercise of reason either that would not lead to unhappy consequences if each of us had always to start from first principles, and if others had not preceded us on the same path, not in order to reduce their successors to (servile) imitators, but in order to help us through their experience to seek out the principles in ourselves and thus to follow in the same path but with greater success."

This is not, we hasten to say, the famous distinction between theoretical reason and practical reason that we consider an assured acquisition of philosophical thought. Scholasticism has been accused of creating abstractions; never has a more artificial and more dangerous abstraction been created than this division of reason into two other reasons, the first infallible, the second illusory. At the least we must take into account our philosopher's intentions.

Far from being a skeptic, Kant wanted, like Descartes, to strike a blow at these skeptics, these "nomads who abhor all permanent cultivation of the soil," a blow from which they would never recover; like Descartes, he had recourse to a desperate approach, that he wrongly presented as the only true and legitimate method. On the contrary, it is only an argument ad hominem that forces the skeptic to rely on his honesty, and from there to admit his belief, believing in duty, that is to say in freedom and good, thus in the soul and in God. As an argument ad hominem Kant's approach possesses and will retain an incontestable value; never will a better nor a more decisive argument against materialists and positivists be found.

To what extent, then, has Kant contributed to philosophical progress? To what extent has he influenced the direction of human thought in a real and enduring manner? In our humble opinion, it is above all with regard to the problem of knowledge and of certitude.


The Kantian theory of knowledge differs less from the Thomist theory than is generally believed. For both sides sensible knowledge is the point of departure, the necessary condition for intellectual development. Let us note clearly, in fact, that Kant is not a skeptic relative to the existence of the external world, as is generally believed. He even devotes a six-page paragraph to refuting Berkeley's idealism. His true thought was not understood even in his own time, and in his preface to the Critique of Practical Reason he inserted the following note: "The names given to the groups into which philosophers have been divided have always given rise to a good deal of misapprehension so if someone said, N (Kant is here alluding to himself) was an idealist because, although he insists that real objects, external things, correspond to our representations of external things, he nevertheless holds at the same time that the form of intuition of these objects does not depend at all on the objects themselves but on the human mind." Here is the best response to the widespread opinion that Kantianism is the ever-gnawing worm of modern philosophy, the casting off of all scientific character and is, in fact, a dream, an intellectual game that signifies nothing and relates to nothing. No, human thought is not a dream; it does not function in a void; Kant repeats over and over that it cannot function thus and that it does not come into play unless "sensible intuition" provides "matter" for it; this matter is "given" by experience, it is, as a result, objective and does not lose this character just because it is subsequently submitted to the work of the intellect from which it receives its form. Do not the Scholastics also admit the action of the agent intellect on sensible representation? According to the most plausible interpretation, this means that sensation determines the higher intellectual faculty of the soul to produce in itself, by a virtue proper to it, the abstract general representation of the object of sensation. This new representation is not drawn materially from sensation; it is engendered by the mind itself and yet conserves an objective value, since the point of departure, sensation, corresponds to something real. Very well, but the same conclusion must be drawn for Kant's theory, which also places experience, "intuition," at the beginning of all knowledge.

It is true that Kant preferred to speak of an intellectual "spontaneity" acting according to certain laws that he termed a priori forms, categories, ideas of reason instead of an agent intellect completely engendering abstract ideas, but that is only a secondary point; what is important is that the intellectual spontaneity, the active thought only exerts itself over the data of experience; thus knowledge has its objective foundation.

We have said: active thought. There are two possibilities: either intellect is a purely passive capacity, incapable of reacting, a "tabula rasa" as the sensualist school would have it: one thus sees knowledge as reproducing the object as it is, without the slightest modification, as a faithful, but inert mirror; or the intellect is active, hence, since all activity is subject to laws, the intellectual act is complex since it is determined simultaneously by external influence and by the laws that govern the activity of the thinking subject. What are these laws? We do not have to state them here; it suffices to have shown that Kant distinguishes with good reason the matter and the form of knowledge, and that he might willingly subscribe to the formula of Saint Thomas: "the manner of knowing a thing conforms to the state of the knower, which receives the form in its own way."

But, if the intellectual act is complex, it can and must be subject to a rigorous analysis in order to distinguish, to separate as much as possible, what comes from things and what comes from the mind. Kant did not waver before so arduous an enterprise, and even if complete success did not crown his efforts, nonetheless it is to his credit that he tried. Henceforth, in fact, philosophers must critique thought: to avoid it, under one pretext or another, is to admit one's inadequacy.

Shall it be said that this sort of method leads to skepticism? Pretty nearly, we shall reply, just as the experimental method leads to materialism. The best and most legitimate of things can be abused; induction, analogy, syllogism are abused, but is this a reason to condemn them?

It is too easy, moreover, to avoid a discussion by disqualifying one's adversary with such an accusation of skepticism. The objection is sincere, we know, for certain minds, but it may stem from confusing two things that are very distinct: the affirmation of the existence of a thing and the knowledge of its nature. For example, to doubt the existence of an external world is incontestably skepticism; but to acknowledge one's ignorance about the intimate nature of bodies, what Leibnitz termed so well "the inner nature of things," is proper and sincere humility.

And yet, Kant's objections and negations bear upon the second point and not the first; we have shown this earlier relative to the external world; it would be simple to prove it for the psychological world: "In the synthetic original unity of apperception," he says, "I do not know myself such as I am in myself, but am only conscious that I am. Now, since the knowledge of ourselves requires, in addition to the act of thinking that brings the various elements of every possible intuition to the unity of apperception, a determinate sort of intuition, through which these various elements are given, my own existence is not indeed appearance (let alone mere illusion), but the determination of my existence can only occur in correspondence with the forms of inner sense and according to the particular way in which these various elements that I combine is given in inner intuition, and I therefore do not know myself as I am, but only as I appear to myself. The consciousness of oneself is therefore far from being a knowledge of myself...."

And yet Saint Thomas also established precisely this distinction between the fact of the soul's existence and knowledge of its nature. "[T]he intellect knows itself not by its essence, but by its act. This happens in two ways: In the first place, singularly, as when Socrates or Plato perceives that he has an intellectual soul because he perceives that he understands. In the second place, universally, as when we consider the nature of the human mind from knowledge of the intellectual act.... There is, however, a difference between these two types of knowledge, and it consists in this, that the mere presence of the mind suffices for the first, and the mind itself being the principle of action whereby it perceives itself.... But as regards the second kind of knowledge, the mere presence of the mind does not suffice, and there is further required a careful and subtle inquiry. Hence many are ignorant of the soul's nature and many have erred about it."

It is apparent that Saint Thomas does not in any way admit that the soul knows its own nature directly, through an immediate intuition. It establishes only the fact of its existence. But, one may say that the saintly Doctor admits "a careful and subtle inquiry" which can lead us to know the nature of the thinking principle. Yes, and here we get to the heart of the problem. "[T]he judgment and force of this knowledge, whereby we know the nature of the soul, comes to us according to the derivation of our intellectual light from the Divine Truth which contains the types of all things as above stated." Here is the well-known passage to which Saint Thomas alludes: "[T]he human soul knows all things in the eternal types, since by participation of these types we know all things. For the intellectual light itself which is in us, is nothing else than a participated likeness of the uncreated light, in which are contained the eternal types. Whence it is written (Ps. IV. 6, 7), 'Many say: Who showeth us good things?' Which question the Psalmist answers, 'The light of Thy countenance, O Lord, is signed upon us,' as though he were to say: By the seal of the Divine light in us, all things are made known to us."

The Angelic Doctor could not adopt another theory. How, in fact, would the nature of things be known to us? Would we read, so to speak, essences in the divine intellect which thinks them? Saint Thomas rejects this hypothesis. And would we have the intuition in the things themselves which are their realization? Saint Thomas does not admit this either. We have just seen that, according to him, the soul does not perceive its nature directly. As for material objects, Saint Thomas often repeats that the senses stop at accidents and do not penetrate to substance. Substance, as the very name indicates, remains hidden under accidents, which are still, at this point, so distinct from it that divine power, according to the Scholastics, can maintain them as separate. Saint Thomas also teaches that substantial forms are not known in themselves: "substantial forms ... in themselves are unknown to us," which would not be the case if we had the intuition of substances.

We could highlight the striking resemblance between the substantial forms in themselves unknown to us and Kant's noumena; let it suffice to conclude that since the essences can neither be known directly in the entities that realize them nor through the intuition of divine ideas, a single resource remained for Saint Thomas: to acknowledge a special power of divine origin responsible for manifesting essences to us: this is the "intellectual light," the "seal of the Divine light in us [through which] all things are made known to us." This mysterious power is activated each time an object makes an impression upon our senses, and it then represents this object to us as it is "in the divine types."

It is always necessary to be suspicious of special powers; ordinarily these are but ingenious hypotheses that cover over difficulties instead of resolving them. In similar cases, it is best to abandon abstract discussion as soon as possible, and to reason about a concrete example.


Excerpted from The Modernist as Philosopher Copyright © 2011 by The Catholic University of America Press. Excerpted by permission of The Catholic University of America Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface vii

Introduction C. J. T. Talar 1

Part 1 Articles

1 Thomism and Kantianism 27

2 Memories of Assisi 49

3 The Last Idol: Study of the "Divine Personality" 70

4 Anonymous or Polyonymous: Second Study on the "Divine Personality" 85

5 The Bankruptcy of Despotic Catholicism 106

Part II Pragmatism: A Study of Its Various Forms, Anglo-American, French, and Italian, and of Its Religious Value

Foreword 135

1 Mr.Peirce's "Pragmatism" 137

2 Mr.James's "Pragmatism" 149

3 Mr.F. C. S. Schiller's "Humanism" 161

4 Pragmatism: "A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking" 179

5 Religious Pragmatism 193

Notes 217

Appendix I Pragmatism and Aesthetics 217

Appendix II Pragmatism and Morality 217

Appendix III Notes on J.-J. Rousseau and Chateaubriand 218

Appendix IV What Pragmatism Means to M. Le Roy 221

Appendix V Origins of Pragmatism according to M. R. Berthelot 223

Appendix VI The Social Pragmatism of M. Durkliei 225

Mr. James's Response (William James) 226

Author's Reply 233

Part III Review of Hébert's Le Pragmatisme

1 Pragmatism Eugene Menegoz 241

Bibliography 247

Index 251

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews