Monday, October 29, 2007

On the Meaning of Being


~Food for thought this Monday morning from Fr. James Schall, S.J.
"Philosophy means reflecting on the entirety of what is encountered in experience from every conceivable standpoint and with regard to its unique meaning. The philosophizing person is thus not so much someone who has formed a well-rounded worldview as he is someone who keeps a question alive and thinks it through methodically." -- Josef Pieper, "Tradition: Its Sense and Aspiration"
The citation above from Josef Pieper concerns what it is we philosophize about. In a passage that might otherwise seem innocent enough, Pieper has really targeted those whose definition of reason is limited to what can be known by mathematically based "science" or "reason" taken in its most narrow sense of excluding almost anything that does not come under our own power of making or calculating. In his Regensburg Lecture, the pope called this latter restriction the "self-limitation" of reason. He implied that this "limitation" was a "self-imposed" one, not something that corresponded to the full nature of things. John Paul II called it "reductionism"; that is, we accept the method's own presuppositions; to wit, only that part of reality will be admitted as real that is amenable to a method based on matter and mathematics. Not all of reality is composed of matter.

Scientific reason is legitimate enough in its own area, of course, but it is not coextensive with all of reason's scope, with all we really know and can know. Before there is reason (the same faculty) that calculates and orders, there is reason that intuits, that sees directly into things. Pieper is cautious about a "well-rounded" intellectual worldview. He is aware of how easy it is to close everything off because our system seems to be so complete, so coherent by our reckoning. All human knowing, with its search for knowledge of the whole, with its love of wisdom, awaits and expects a new light from what is. Even when we know--and know that we know--we are aware that we do not yet see even the tiniest thing in its fullness. The fact that we do not know everything by our methods does not mean that we know nothing by them. What we do know does not necessarily militate against what we seek to know, but incites us to seek more light.

Elsewhere, in discussing Plato, Pieper observes that at any moment something unexpected--something we know nothing about--can come crashing into our self-contained world: a person, an idea, a crime, a book, a song, a sickness, a love, or even the Word of God itself. It makes us vividly aware that we are not in charge of everything, a knowledge that can, in fact, be a consolation. This newness of being can utterly undermine our own "worlds." Yet, in being so "undermined," we become more aware of a reality that we did not anticipate with our theories.

We are pleased that, after all, there is something more of reality than we at first suspected. All loves are really of this nature, as are all gifts, which in their essence are signs of love, of giving oneself. The greatness of being a human, I sometimes think, is the fact that, though we know much, we still remain aware that we do not know everything. The mystery is that we still want to "know" and experience everything. Why is this? How did such a being as ourselves ever come to be in the first place?

Philosophy means not only that all of our experience, all of what is (not just some of it), is the object of our knowing powers, but it includes "reflecting" on this reality. We do want to understand what it means, where it came from. Indeed, reality does not seem sufficiently real or complete unless someone understands it, unless in the universe itself a being exists with a power to do so. We assume that if the universe was created by God, He appreciates it. But that is no more than saying that God knows Himself and His works. If God created the universe solely because He just wanted to see it, as it were, floating out there, there would be no real reason for Him to create it. He must have had something else in mind.

Aquinas explains what it means to cite from "authority." It means, to be sure, that if someone like Plato, Aristotle, or Augustine said something, we should pay attention because each of these men knows what he is talking about. But more profoundly, it means that we should be familiar with the argument that is being cited and its relation to the point of our concern. The author is not especially important--but his argument is. And arguments are not themselves merely spectacles or displays of intellectual finesse. They are designed to know the truth; they are designed to be settled. And what settled argument means, at bottom, is to arrive at the truth of what is.

One of the principal sources of what we come to know, or at least of our personal coming to know it, is through the guidance of others who have thought through an issue often before we ourselves were ever born. We must be "teachable." We really can learn from others if they know how to teach us and have something to say. But what they are teaching us is not their personal doctrine or possession but what is true--what is. We do not go to college to learn the opinions of the professors. We go to the university to learn the truth of things, in the pursuit of which, hopefully, the opinions of professors are helpful. They are not always, to be sure. If I assist a student in arriving at the truth of something through his own reflection so that he sees the point for what it is, he does not end up knowing "my" truth, but truth itself. Truth is free. No one "owns" it. This is the glory of our kind. This is why, ultimately, we can all live in the same world that we did not make. Indeed, this is why we can ultimately be "given" all things.

After Aquinas tells us about the status of authority, which is useful and helpful, or can be, in knowing the truth, he goes to the heart of the matter. What is important finally is "how things are in reality." We do well to ponder such a phrase. It says, in effect, that what exists out there in reality is already there without our having anything to do with it.
Read the whole thing.

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