Entry 0311: Why Any Philosophy Needs a Reasonable Point of Reference
A Reflection on
the Encyclical Letter Fides et Ratio
The is no doubt that the examination into the harmony of faith and reason conducted by John Paul II in the encyclical letter "Fides et Ratio" has extended our understanding of and called our attention towards a universal philosophy, a philosophy which transcends all cultures, particular times, individual thinkers, and the thoughts and lives of all men and women who sincerely seek the truth. (See John Paul II, Encyclical Letter "Fides et Ratio," 14 September 1998, in "Acta Apostolicae Sedis" 91 : pp. 5-88. The introductory line of the present paper is a paraphrase of a line from Hilary Putnam's "Mathematics, Matter and Method" [
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003],
pp. 83 and 93.)
In "Fides et Ratio" Pope John Paul II singled out the doctrine of the 'actus essendi' as the grounding of the fundamental elements of knowledge, the body of knowledge which serves as an in progress, universally valid, meta-historic point of reference for the different philosophical schools.
What the encyclical defends is an appeal to the philosophy of being in order to show that it is possible to move from the historical and contingent circumstances which necessarily envelop philosophical production to the point of reaching the fundamental elements of knowledge produced by the "natural philosophy of the human mind," a philosophy transcending those circumstances and particular insights. (See Jacques Maritain, "An Introduction to Philosophy" [New York: Continuum International Publishing, 2005], p. 54.)
No one questions that the historical unfolding of philosophical speculation is intricate and complex. Yet the proliferation of philosophical systems with their claim of universality is no guarantee that they are actually universal and true. Many of them are patently false. And in fact almost any 'combination of color' can be found in the philosophical positions that thinkers have advanced throughout the centuries.
Can one then conclude that philosophers are free from constraints because a point of reference for philosophical speculation is nowhere to be found?
The issues involved here are fundamental ones and cover a tremendous amount of ground. It is indeed possible to argue at the level of the particulars involved in the different philosophical positions. But the general outlines of an answer can and should be given. And this is what "Fides et Ratio" does.
It is on the basis of methodology that the philosophy of being is credited in "Fides et Ratio" with a completeness, a balance, a depth, a clarity, a fidelity to the truth, in one word, with a token of infallibility, to be found in no other philosophical system.
With the caliber of a philosopher and the authority of a teacher John Paul II stresses that "The philosophy of being is strong and enduring because it is based upon the very 'act of being' itself ('ipse actus essendi'), which allows a full and comprehensive openness to reality as a whole."
And to explain this dynamism and this openness of the philosophy of being John Paul II points out that "The basis and source of this openness lie in the fact that this is a philosophy of the 'actus essendi,' it is the philosophy of the proclamation of being. It is from this affirmation of being that the philosophy of being draws its power to justify itself from the methodological point of view, as a branch of knowledge that cannot be reduced to any other science whatever, and as one that transcends them all by establishing itself as independent of them and at the same time as bringing them to completion in regard to their true nature. Only in this way does the intellect feel at ease (as it were 'at home') and therefore it can never abandon this way without abandoning itself."
"In so far as methodology is concerned," the Pope continues, "it would be hard to exaggerate the importance of this discovery for philosophical research, as indeed also for human knowledge in general."
Then the Pope asks this question "Is it to be feared that by favoring the philosophy of being one will undermine the right to exist that is enjoyed by different cultures or hinder the progress of human thought?
"Such a fear would clearly be groundless," he concluded, "because the methodological principle invoked implies that whatever is real has its source in the 'act of being' ('actus essendi'); and because the perennial philosophy, by reason of that principle, can claim in advance, so to speak, all that is true in regard to reality.
"By the same token, every understanding of reality, which does in fact correspond to reality, has every right to be accepted by the philosophy of being, no matter who is to be credited with such progress in understanding or to what philosophical school that person belongs.
"Hence, the other trends in philosophy, if regarded from this point of view, can and indeed should be treated as natural allies of the philosophy of being, and as partners worthy of attention and respect in the dialogue that is carried on in the presence of reality. This is needed if truth is to be more than partial or one-sided" (John Paul II, "Address at the Angelicum," in "L'Osservatore Romano English Weekly Edition" [17 December 1979]: pp. 6-8; in "Angelicum" 57 : pp. 133-146; and referred to in "Fides et Ratio," nos. 60 and 97.)
Endorsement and laudatory words directed towards a philosophical system such as the ones expressed by John Paul II in "Fides et Ratio" are rare: with unmistakable clarity the Pope has directed attention towards the most profound perfection existing in everything that exists, namely, to the proper, internal, incommunicable participation of each existing thing in the metaphysical principle of the 'actus essendi.'
There is no question that in favoring the philosophy of the act of being, the Pope is identifying the school of sound thinking.
Reason itself takes care of disqualifying a philosophy.
Evidently, this disqualification does not come from wrong reason. It comes from right reason, from reason's capacity to attain the truth.
"Once reason successfully intuits and formulates the first universal principles of being and correctly draws from them conclusions which are coherent both logically and ethically, then it may be called right reason or, as the ancients called it, 'orth(o-)s logos,' 'recta ratio.'"
In other words, through the metaphysical principles of the real and the ability to speculate, the human intellect has produced a rigorous mode of thought. The most precious fruit of this process is the notion of 'actus essendi' which carries with it an intrinsic and inseparable methodology. (See "Fides et Ratio," nos. 4 and 97.)
On a daily basis, the use of the methodology of the 'actus essendi' amounts to hearing the command, 'Ground the first principles of intellectual knowledge in the act of being of the things of nature.' Not to abide by this command is to go against the ethics of thought.
In other words, in the dynamism of acquisition, conception and articulation of knowledge, a deviation from the order things themselves possess, is simply a poorly grounded inference because the intellect of every human being functions with a natural inclination towards first principles. And since actuality in being cannot be denied -- it is the very first principle unfailingly available to us all -- a tacit affirmation of the methodology of the 'actus essendi' is always at work in the mind of every person.
The tacit awareness of the real, however, can be easily misplaced by the intervention of the imagination and the passions and other powers and circumstances and free will in such a way that one can also easily credit with the strength of principle a premise which in reality cannot serve that purpose.
Thus, even if explicitly rejected, the methodology of the 'actus essendi,' in its implicit mode, cannot be rejected. It is there unfailingly implied, and sooner or later it will make manifest the absurdity of the rejection.
On the other hand, when explicitly affirmed, the methodology of the 'act of being' shows itself up in the coherence of the assumptions.