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Return to Philosophy

Return to Philosophy, by Thomas Molnar, New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1996. 113 pp.95.

IN THIS, HIS MOST RECENT BOOK, Thomas Molnar calls for a “return to philosophy” that would broaden its scope and simplify its discourse. Narrowness and complexity have ruined much of philosophy, he stresses, and a restoration is needed. The issues he raises are therefore quite basic: What is philosophy? What does it deal with and how?

Where have we strayed, that a return is needed? And why does it matter? Such questions call for grandness of perspective. In little more than a hundred pages the author traces the main themes and phases of philosophy since its emergence among the Greeks, its relation to religious, traditional and non-Western strains of thought, the turns that have led to the present situation, and the response to that situation he thinks appropriate. While the perspectives and concerns are continuous with those in Professor Molnar’s previous writings, they are presented here with broader sympathy for a variety of positions, a greater sense of freedom to follow insights and arguments where they lead, and a lesser inclination to marshall materials to prove a thesis. Now more than ever, the author views philosophy as free inquiry, always new and never completed, and the philosopher as the man with his own view of things, who “does not know on awakening to what extent he will have to modify his world-picture before he goes to bed that night.”

The effort to renew philosophy is necessary in an age that has grown doubtful about truth. It is also impossibly ambitious for the philosopher; a lifetime is not nearly enough to carry it out, and whatever the approach objections are inevitable. No matter how great the striving for universality, one man’s understanding of philosophy and its needs must be a personal one. The philosopher is therefore a man who after a lifetime of thought and study “gathers up courage to be personal—but at the same time to set down the main lines of wisdom intended to be final.” Such are the paradoxes of trying to speak comprehensively of a world of which we are part and which we cannot fully grasp.

Philosophy is an attempt of human reason to understand man and the world in the most general terms. Such attempts, the author tells us, can neither reach a final conclusion nor even progress fundamentally. The radical incompleteness of human thought is a consequence of several things: human limitations, the richness of the world, and the circumstance that we ourselves are among the things to be explained. Nor is the necessary incompleteness of our thought wholly bad, since without it we could not make sense of ourselves or our situation. Perfect understanding would deprive us of freedom if it fixed our actions, while if it left them indeterminate it would make our choices arbitrary and therefore meaningless. Meaningful decision requires that our understanding be real but partial.

In the author’s view, the current situation in Western thought results from an attempt to make philosophy a completed system. That attempt has led to repeated efforts to reduce the world to human thought, and human thought to a single system of principles. A necessary part of the project has been the abolition of the great irresolvable dualisms—mind and body, subject and object, One and many. The lines of thought now in the ascendent thus include those pioneered by Democritus, who banished mind from the world by basing everything on chance, Mandeville, who eliminated the moral dualism of “higher” and “lower,” and Kant, who (in effect) abolished all realities other than our own experience.

The purpose of the attempt was to grasp the world as a whole, and so destroy human limitations. Complete knowledge, it was thought, would allow comprehensive control of nature and the construction of utopia. In fact, however, the attempt made it impossible to make sense of the world or even our own actions. Complete control includes the ability to change the nature of things, which deprives them of any significance of their own. The modern project therefore strives for a world in which we can have what we want but there is nothing worth wanting.

Following Kant, modern thought treats as real what we construct. The only things accepted as given are formulae that tell us nothing about reality, but state arbitrary relations among phenomena that are useful for manipulation. Acceptance of modern thought has therefore meant belief in the omnipotence of technology in the physical world, while in the intellectual and social world it has meant faith in power politics, ideological language-games, and the rationalization of social life through markets and bureaucracies.

Such views have encountered decisive difficulties that are leading many to abandon them. Perhaps the central problem is that constructing the world includes constructing ourselves. In the end the modern aspiration is that man become a self-existent being, cause of himself and of all else besides. Such an aspiration is of course futile, and soon seen to be so. If we do not make ourselves, however, the remaining possibility is that we are made, which for scientifically-minded moderns means that we come into being in accordance with inscrutable relationships among events of an unknown nature. On such a view we become dependent variables determined by unknown forces to which personality cannot be attributed. Our thought and activity thus become epiphenomenal; the human person, deprived of genuine agency, loses reality and becomes a dispensable interpretation placed on the structures—physical, social or even grammatical—viewed as the true factors ordering the world. We thus become unable to understand our own actions, and fall into paralysis, mindless hedonism, or pointless struggle in the midst of chaos.

The attempt to make philosophy a comprehensive and rigorous system thus leads to catastrophe, and the author’s concern is to undo the disaster. The failure of modernism to win complete victory even in thought eases the way forward. Philosophy in a sense always remains the same; no way of thinking ever triumphs altogether, and perspectives believed outmoded go underground but never disappear. As Molnar points out, rationalism provokes mysticism, the decadence of philosophy and natural science lead to appeals to a Great Tradition that precedes and embraces both, and in a secularized world religion may become the possession of fanaticized sects but it does not die out.

To return to philosophy is to allow suppressed tendencies of thought to renew themselves and flourish. For such a restoration we need only accept that the world is something apart from us that we will never dominate or fully understand: “The condition of philosophizing is the acceptance of the … unbridgeable distance, neither wide nor narrow but distance nevertheless, which separates reality from observing and acting man.” Acceptance of the otherness of the world would renew our openness to wonder, but require us to give up such illusions as absolute knowledge and the impartial spectator. Such notions lead us either to give up all hope of knowledge, since absolute standards can never be met, or to attempt to reduce the world to our private possession. Experience has shown that either way lies madness.

The key to our prison thus lies in our hands. We may refuse to leave for a time because of “a ressentiment vis-a-vis the idea of a foundation in which things and concepts have roots … aimed, principally, at the absolute foundation that would be God.” Eventually life will force us to face things that are more important than our own ressentiment, however. The fear that something metaphysical might limit one’s will is a concern of the thoroughly secure and comfortable, and comfort and security do not last forever.

Return to Philosophy explores a vast territory that much recent thought has declared “off limits,” and it provokes the reader to further explorations. For this reader, one topic the book raises that deserves further examination is the role of philosophy itself. The author treats it as an autonomous activity, “[t]he … neverending exploration of the universe and man, experience and the new lights and insights it provides, the confrontation of reality and appearance, the inexhaustible relationship between self and world and the others.” It is mistress of the sciences. We can sense but have no knowledge of things that exceed it; in philosophical exploration, the author tells us, “there are human limitations … but not limits because we never know whether we reached them. What is beyond, we cannot assimilate, yet its very invitation to us becomes part of our inner perspective.”

Molnar’s exalted view of philosophy sits uneasily with its necessary incompleteness, and he does not explain how to accommodate the two. Philosophy is not poetry. Its goal is not merely adventure, insight and vision, splendid though those things may be, but wisdom—adequate knowledge of the highest things. We have philosophy, the author tells us, because “the Western mind cannot help speculating in universalist terms.” He also tells us, however, that “we cannot really and realistically transcend our philosophical (and cultural) nucleus.” Inevitably we view things from a particular perspective. But what does philosophy become when it recognizes that it can neither reach nor even progressively approach its goal of universality?

In modern times we have seen one possibility, the degeneration of philosophy and its replacement by a different universalism, the one we have now, “technology, the passionate ambition to mechanize the environment, life, language, the human self.” How can a similar result be avoided if we treat philosophy once again as queen of the sciences?

Since the fundamental commitment of philosophy is to wisdom, and thus to the whole, its radical incompleteness means that for its own sake it must accept completion by something else. If human reason falls short of the realities with which we must deal then it seems that faith, “the evidence of things not seen,” is more necessary to our understanding of the world than philosophy itself. Molnar notes that in a sense only the Greeks have been philosophers; medieval philosophy was the handmaid of theology and modern philosophy that of science. For reasons that are not made clear this very important issue seems to drop from sight with respect to the renewed philosophy of the future.

Further, the situation the author describes suggests a more specific remedy than faith in general. As he observes, philosophy is a Western enterprise, and Christianity is the religion that has grown up with it. If philosophy has not existed outside the West, and can not be self- sufficient, the relationship with Christianity may go very deep. After all, it is Christianity, by affirming the goodness of reason and the world while denying their self-sufficiency, that gives philosophy the setting of partial knowledge it needs for its perpetual explorations. In such basic doctrines as the Creation and the Incarnation it is distinguished by “strong dualism and … equally strong harmonization of the two principles, divine and human.” Unlike modern thought, it does not try to reduce us to matter, nor does it try to separate us from the materiality that previous systems had declared inferior and sinful.

Attacks on Christianity, as the author observes, have taken the form of attacks on dualism. The rejection of dualism that has ruined philosophy can therefore be understood as a specific rejection of Christianity. Heresies aiming at a structureless society were the ancestors of Utopia, the modern rejection of the dualism of church and state. Weariness with Christian morality and its dualism of body and soul has led either to gnostic denial of the body or to denial of the soul and reduction of morality to social science, technology, Darwinian mysticism, and the like. If abandonment of philosophy has had specific religious implications, however, so may return to philosophy.

Rather than discuss the relation of Christian orthodoxy to the philosophical needs of the times, Molnar presents two criticisms of Christianity that like others are in essence attacks on Christian dualism. The first, associated with the European New Right, critiques the transcendent side of Christianity. Transcendent monotheism, the argument goes, desacralizes the world of experience; God becomes increasingly distant and unknowable until he becomes useless, and we end by giving our devotion to pragmatic secular powers and become this- worldly totalitarians. The second is a criticism of the immanent side of Christianity prompted by Islam and the Eastern religions. While the Church intended to penetrate and transform the world, the reality (or so it is argued) is that the world has done so to the Church. The author presents both lines of criticism sympathetically, but does not point out their conflict with each other, their similarity in kind to previous attacks on Christianity, or the answer to each within Christianity that the other suggests. In an earlier book, God and the Knowledge of Reality (New York: Basic Books, 1973), he had proposed a personal deity as a needed corrective to both an excessively transcendent and an excessively immanent view of God. The significance of his silence on the issue here is unclear, although the last page hints that his position may not have changed radically.

If this book gave a pat answer to every question it raised it would of course refute itself. What it offers is more important, a broad and generally persuasive analysis of our present situation, and hope inspired by a sense that philosophical decline has run its course and a new and constructive age may be coming. Aspects of the author’s outlook are reminiscent of Pascal. Everything can be doubted, but universal doubt is impossible. The world is never completely ordered or completely disordered, and our fundamental task is always the same. The excellence of man is to doubt and believe well, as that of a horse is to run well, and philosophizing is one of the foremost modes of realizing that excellence. In his writings, and in this book, Thomas Molnar presents us with an example of that mode for our time.

The preceding review appeared in the Spring 1999 issue of Modern Age.

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