TOP 10: Corrections to Peter Kreeft’s Contemporary Philosophy List!

Rembrandt, because I didn't want to use Raphael.

Rembrandt, because I didn’t want to use Raphael.

There are plenty of interesting things on Brandon Vogt’s website. They certainly have given me plenty of food for thought.

For example, I deeply appreciate the G.K. Chesterton video he posted not too long ago. It gave me a new, if somewhat idiosyncratic, vantage point on the always troubled Christian-Muslim relations here (join the conversation).

Brandon also recently posted a list of books that was recommended to him by none other than Peter Kreeft. Kreeft is a wonderful popularizer of classical philosophy and theology. Ancient Athens and Medieval Christendom are where the Boston College philosopher feels most at home. I’d like to argue later that he’s a little bit iffy when it comes to more recent philosophy.

The footnotes in the Summa of the Summa are indispensable.

The footnotes in the A Shorter Summa are indispensable for beginning to understand the Aristotelian-Thomistic idiom. My copy is all marked up. This book is well worth your time.

To see what I mean, take a look at the Medieval lists Kreeft compiled below:

Medieval Philosophy, Basic List:

Medieval Philosophy, Additional List:

"But surely that than which a greater cannot be thought cannot be only in the understanding. For if it were only in the understanding, it could be thought to exist also in reality," say Anselm in the Proslogion. And really, I can't think of the better list than the one given by Kreeft here.

“But surely that than which a greater cannot be thought cannot be only in the understanding. For if it were only in the understanding, it could be thought to exist also in reality,” says Anselm in the Proslogion. And really, I can’t think of the better introductory medieval list than the one given by Kreeft above.

The ancient and modern lists in Brandon’s post are just as solid as this medieval one.

So, I was shocked to read the following list of “contemporary” philosophical texts recommended by Kreeft:

Contemporary Philosophy, Basic List:

Contemporary Philosophy, Additional List

Even the author of Orthodoxy is surprised by this rather unorthodox list.

Even the author of Orthodoxy is a little shocked by this rather unorthodox list of “contemporary” philosophers.

I agree with the choice of Sartre, Marx, and William James for the basic list. Then again, The Varieties of Religious experience is a much more fundamental William James text for both philosophy and the study of religion. In fact, it’s one of the texts that brought serious study of religion back into the mainstream of academic culture. Varieties is still the departure point for most work done in religious studies. It’s the one book you must agree with, or quarrel with.

Pascal belongs in the modern list, whereas C.S. Lewis does not belong at all. Lewis is a first-rate popularizer, but he does not belong on a list of basic or supplementary “contemporary” philosophical texts. This means I’ll have to nominate two replacements for the basic list of contemporary authors. Actually, make that three, because Nietzsche is much more deserving of a position on such a list than Sartre.

  • Nietzsche: You might as well dive into the Nietzsche Reader if you want to understand his influence on key modern thinkers like Sartre, Heidegger, but also upon contemporary theology. The selections in this collection are first rate and Hollingdale writes a mean introduction.
  • Heidegger, Being and Time: Pure and simple, it’s the most important philosophical treatise of the 20th century. What’s even better? Heidegger borrows half of his concepts from theology–and then tries to unsuccessfully conceal them. You may not ignore this book and I must finally read it in its entirety!
  • Henri de Lubac’s The Mystery of the Supernatural is, hands down, the most obvious replacement for Lewis. This tome is perhaps the single most influential theology book of the 20th century. It helped to disentangle theology from modern philosophical adulterations of Thomism. De Lubac shaped the agenda for both Vatican II and the critiques of its implementation with this book and several others.
The Mystery of the Supernatural has influenced you even if you know nothing about it.

The Mystery of the Supernatural has influenced you even if you know nothing about it.

Mill is probably the only second stringer on Kreeft’s additional list that deserves to definitively remain there. We can feel the deleterious effect of his philosophy upon every aspect of our lives. The others, not so much.

Kreeft seems to go on an unjustified binge of analytical philosophers whose books are not terribly important. Chesterton is a figure on the fence–there really are more important books out there, but his philosophical standing is on the rise. So let’s say that leaves us with about four replacements:

  • Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations: Wittgenstein totally revamped the conclusions he reached in the influential Tractatus in the Investigations. What’s more, he has played an important role in reinvigorating theology as Fergus Kerr has argued in his Theology After Wittgenstein, which, by the way, contains one of the most creative and convincing arguments against abortion.
  • Gabriel Marcel, The Mystery of Being, which is divided up into Volume I and Volume II. This unjustly ignored mid-century Catholic existentialist philosopher might turn out to be more pivotal to the history of philosophy than some of the other thinkers mentioned in these contemporary lists. His influence is so ubiquitous, especially among Catholics, that it’s invisible.
  • Kierkegaard, A Kierkegaard Anthology: Kierkegaard, because if you haven’t wrestled with Kierkegaard, then you haven’t wrestled with modern philosophy (and the opportunities it holds for theology).
  • Hans Urs von Balthasar, Glory of the Lord volume I: This book inaugurated a series of reflections that brought beauty back into the fold of both theological and philosophical reflection. It’s in a virtual tie with the de Lubac book I mentioned in the main list for “contemporary” philosophers. On another day, they could switch sides. Karl Barth’s The Epistle to the Romans could also substitute for either one of these books given its immensely positive historical influence.

Now that’s more like it!

As you can see, we’ve culled out most of the analytical philosophy, which is the philosophical and existential equivalent of a glorified New York Times crossword puzzle.

However, if you insist on reading some philosophy of language then you must buy American. Charles Sanders Peirce has been called “the American Aristotle” by Fr. Oakes in a First Things piece that can be found here. It’s best to dip into his selected philosophical writings.

Viola!

Viola!

Finally, Pierre Hadot’s Philosophy as a Way of Life is a book that anyone interested in the discipline must read. It will totally transform your vision of what ancient philosophy was and what philosophy ought to be.

Don’t miss out on the other TOP 10 booklists on this blog: one on religious living poets, one on living religious novelists, one on books about heaven and hell, and finally, one on recent theology books.

Before you get too deep:

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What Does Love Know?

Love is an autonomous form of knowledge.

Love is an autonomous form of knowledge.

Jean-Luc Marion is a Catholic philosopher, some say the greatest living philosopher, who studied under Jacques Derrida. If nothing else, he is one of the best arguments for religious parents not shielding their kids from the “secular” academe. I’ve made this argument borrowing from my own experience here.

After all, the influence goes both ways. Derrida spent the last decade or two of his life engaging Marion and the tradition of negative theology in books such as Acts of Religion or The Gift of Death. In the end the king of deconstruction couldn’t shake the queen of the sciences.

What I’m really interested in for today is how Marion has developed the notion of Pascal’s three orders. In particular, how the third order, love, is a distinct form of knowledge.

He explains these orders of knowing in a short interview that’s available online:

“From the first point of view you see the world as visible, according to bodies, matter and the visible world. In that order, the leaders are the king, the president, the CEO of a corporation, the banking system and so on.

The second order is the order of the spirit. This is the invisible world of rationality. It includes the sciences, philosophy, art and literature. You can be completely unknown in the first order and be the leader in this second order. For example, Archimedes was a prince in the family of a king in Sicily, but he was really a leader as a mathematician. Mathematicians, like Einstein, are the kings of this second order.

The third order is charity, love or what art understands. In that order the saints, lovers and Christ are kings.

The lower orders are not seen by the upper orders. The president of the United States is not supposed to be a scientist or a saint. He has a job as president of the United States, period. The second order does not see the third, but sees itself and the first order. The first two cannot see the third order, but the third can see what is going on in the first two.”

Marion has developed detailed accounts of what love knows, how it knows differently than common sense and rationality, in books such as Prolegomena to Charity and The Erotic Phenomenon.

Pictured: Robert Musil.

Robert Musil: “When she spoke of beauty, he spoke of fatty tissue supporting the epidermis.”

One way to suggest this difference is to take a look at what we could call “order mistakes” in one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, Robert Musil’s, The Man Without Qualities:

“His answers were quite often like that. When she spoke of beauty, he spoke of the fatty tissue supporting the epidermis. When she mentioned love, he responded with the statistical curve that indicates the automatic rise and fall in the annual birthrate. When she spoke of the great figures in art, he traced the chain of borrowings that links these figures to one another.”

The comedy here arises out of a confusion of orders. The male character does not respond to the love shown to him with love. Instead of rising to the third order of knowledge he remains mired in the second order of rationality and thereby fumbles the relationship unfolding in front of him.

In fact, a comical mixing of orders of knowledge opens the book and marks almost every page that follows:

“A barometric low hung over the Atlantic. It moved eastward toward a high-pressure area over Russia without as yet showing any inclination  to bypass this high in a northerly direction. The isotherms and isotheres were functioning as they should. The air temperature was appropriate relative to the annual mean temperature and to the aperiodic monthly fluctuations of the temperature. The rising  and setting of the sun, the moon, the phases of the moon, of Venus, of the rings of Saturn, and many other significant phenomena were all in accordance with the forecasts in the astronomical yearbooks. The water vapor in the air was at its maximal state of tension, while the humidity was minimal. In a word that characterizes the facts fairly accurately, even if it is a bit old-fashioned: It was a fine day in August 1913.”

These are fragmentary thoughts, but if one of you develops it into a conference paper, do cite me in the footnotes!

I’ll close by way of example from my own personal encounter with Jean-Luc Marion as his translator in Poland.

Right before going into the translator’s booth for Marion’s lecture about Descartes in Krakow I remember seeing him talking to my wife on the other side of the room. He had his arm around her. Whatever he was saying was of great import, yet it was said with a lot of warmth.

I suppose in the first order this whole scene might appear to someone as a famous philosopher accosting a young woman. In the second order this might appear to someone’s gaze on the level of fatty tissues or birth rates interacting (my wife was pregnant). In the end, my wife confirmed that Jean-Luc Marion had given her some sincere fatherly advice. But I already knew that.

On the day of his departure from Krakow Marion (middle) was having the best hair day between me and the poet Artur Grabowski.

On the day of his departure from Krakow Marion (middle) was having the best hair day between the poet Artur Grabowski and I (left, POOF!).

Eternity in a Dunghill: Infinity & Perspective

Two spirits preside over the book: Alberti, the Renaissance author on art and architecture, whose passionate interest in perspective and point of view offers a key to modernity; and Nicolaus Cusanus, the fifteenth-century cardinal, whose work shows that such interest cannot be divorced from speculations on the infinity of God. The title Infinity and Perspective connects the two to each other and to the shape of modernity.

Publisher blurb: Two spirits preside over the book: Alberti, the Renaissance author on art and architecture, whose passionate interest in perspective and point of view offers a key to modernity; and Nicolaus Cusanus, the fifteenth-century cardinal, whose work shows that such interest cannot be divorced from speculations on the infinity of God. The title Infinity and Perspective connects the two to each other and to the shape of modernity.

You’ve no doubt encountered Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence.” It begins with:

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

I’ve stepped into a variation upon this theme. It appears in the remarkable work, Infinity and Perspective, by Karsten Harries (who seems to be a former student of Louis Dupre). Take in the full glory of my serendipity with this photo and caption tag-team :

" . . . God's creative power is fully present in every thing: even in the tree we were considering, even in a dunghill, God is fully present." --Karsten Harries

” . . . God’s creative power is fully present in every thing: even in the tree we were considering, even in a dunghill, God is fully present.” –Karsten Harries

In some ways this statement makes Timothy Treadwell’s nature mysticism more palatable and orthodox than it seemed when I first watched Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man (“It’s her life!”):

Now, Infinity and Pespective roots the origins of (post-)modernity and its critique in the thought of Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464). Harries notes how this is due to a shift in metaphor usage (one that encourages my mash-up above) that occurs in the writings of Cusanus (not Copernicus [Kopernik in the Polish original], not Galileo, not Bruno):

“But what about Cusanus’s transference of this metaphor [of an infinite sphere whose center is nowhere and whose circumference is everywhere] from God to the cosmos? I suspect that to Cusanus it seemed only obvious. As a Christian thinker he believed that everything created has its origin and measure in God. As he puts it in book 2, chapter 2 [of On Learned Ignorance] “every created thing is, as it were, a finite infinity or a created god” (II.2, p. 93). Our tree, for example, is such a finite infinity. Like every part of creation it shares, if Cusanus is right, in infinity. It is a contracted infinity.”

Clerics, always up to no good. I recently read one of them also invented the fax machine. Anathema sit!

Clerics: always up to no good. I recently read one of them also invented the fax machine. Anathema sit!

He continues:

“Similarly Cusanus understands the universe as such a finite infinite: like God in its infinity, unlike God in that instead of divine unity, we now have a multiplicity, a manifold spread out in space and time. If both oneness and difference are accepted, not only will the metaphor’s transference from God to the cosmos seem justified; but, since the metaphor joins extension and infinity, it can be said that it does greater justice to the cosmos than to God, who is beyond extension.”

How much more exciting is this than our heresy of the definite, bounded, and measurable?  It is exemplified by words frequently attributed to Robert F. Kennedy (Eternal rest grant unto him!), “What gets measured, matters.”

All in all, I’d like to return to the Orientalization of Poland as Catholiclandia sometime. I’ve already gestured toward my native realm’s “finite infinity” in posts here, and in the comments section of a post here. Might as well start the endless hermeneutic, probably tomorrow.