View Articles

Monday, June 23, 2008

0024: Actus Essendi and Personalism

Entry 0024:

As interpretations of the thought and writings of Pope John Paul II proliferate, the words ‘misjudging’ and ‘misreading’ have been used to characterize some of these interpretations. The latest instance I have seen appeared on issue No. 184 of FIRST THINGS (June/July, 2008, p 38) where Professor Russell Hittinger writes,

Some have claimed that John Paul II is subordinating both human action and metaphysics to a philosophy of personalism, but that misjudges [John Paul II’s] steady desire to repristinate what Leo XIII had proposed in Aeterni Patris.
Hittinger’s remark is presented after having pointed out that, throughout John Paul II's Pontificate, the Pope embraced wholeheartedly the responsibility of not only defending the philosophy of being and the doctrine of the actus essendi but also that of showing how relevant Aquinas’ realism was to the practical problems of the present world.

John Paul II’s message that from the methodological point of view, the philosophy of the actus essendi is “a branch of knowledge that cannot be reduced to any other science whatever because is 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,” has not been heard in a variety of circles. The Pope’s fundamental attitude towards the ‘philosophy of being’ is clear and explicit but many interpreters of John Paul II—dazzled by the novelty of Husserl’s phenomenology, Scheller’s personalism, and the philosophy of consciousness—have ended up rejecting that in the Pope’s mind there is one - universal - valid philosophy, the ‘philosophy of being.’ In practice these interpreters are no longer giving priority to the actus essendi.

In A Christian Humanism: Karol Wojtyla’s Existential Personalism (Mariel Publications, New Britain, Connecticut, 1980), Andrew N. Woznicki recognizes that,

Although Wojtyla makes frequent reference in his works to phenomenology, it would be an ‘incredible misreading’ to call his philosophical anthropology a ‘phenomenology.’ Any attempt at combining these two philosophies, i.e., a philosophy of being and a philosophy of consciousness, is out of question, especially with respect to merging the philosophy of being with a philosophy of consciousness, as one that reduces all reality to the subject-consciousness and its contents. In Osoba i Czyn [The Acting Person], such a melding is completely out of question. Hence Wojtyla rejects any notion of merging a philosophy of consciousness with a philosophy of being.
And in a Letter to the Editor entitled, Phenomenology and the Pope: An ‘Incredible Misreading’ (“The New York Times,” 24 December 1978), Alfred Bloch communicates,

Prof. Anna-Teresa Tymienniecka, one of America’s leading exponents of phenomenology, without offering a shred of evidence, claims that a book written by cardinal Wojtyla about 10 years prior to his becoming Pope places him in the ranks of phenomenologists. As authorized translator of the Pope’s book Osoba i Czyn [The Acting Person], I cannot let this incredible misreading and misinterpretation of his philosophical work be left unchallenged. On pages 10 and 11 the Cardinal wrote in the book under consideration as follows: ‘The empirical position accepted by us does not embrace and certainly cannot be equated with the phenomenological concept of experience.’ The italics are his. The Cardinal follows this statement with a series of critical assessments of phenomenology from which this school of thought will find it difficult to extricate itself.
Even in the context of philosophical anthropology John Paul II remains unyielding on presenting the methodology of the actus essendi as the one - universal - valid point of reference to keep philosophical reflection from running aground. In his Address to the International Congress of the Saint Thomas Aquinas Society (4 January 1986) the Pope indicated that “Thomistic anthropology does not end in the abstract consideration of human nature. It shows, on the basis of experience, a striking sensibility, so dear to modern people, for the concrete historical condition of the human person, for—as one would say today—his ‘existential situation.’ It shows a sensibility also for the uniqueness and dignity of the individual person; for his dynamic and moral aspect; for the ‘phenomenology’—we could say in modern parlance—of human existence. To understand the great esteem which the Angelic Doctor has for the reality of the person, we must go back to his metaphysics, in which the greatest perfection is given to ‘being’ understood as the ‘act of being’ (esse ut actus). Here, the person, much more than ‘nature’ or ‘essence’, by means of the ‘act of being’ which sustains him, is exalted to the very height of the perfection of ‘being’ and reality, and thus of good and value.”

I would say that if in his philosophical writings previous to 1978, John Paul II left any doubt about his stance concerning the philosophy of the actus essendi, he certainly closed that argument during his Papacy. As late as 1999, in his Apostolic Letter Inter Munera Academiarum, he insists, “I considered it opportune to revise the Statutes of the Pontifical Academy of St Thomas [Aquinas], so that the metaphysical realism of the actus essendi which pervades all the Angelic Doctor’s philosophy and theology can enter into dialogue with the many directions in today’s research and doctrine.”