Maurice Blondel: A Philosophical Life

Maurice Blondel: A Philosophical Life

by Oliva Blanchette (Illustrator)




French philosopher Maurice Blondel had a tremendous impact on both philosophy and religion over the first half of the twentieth century. He was at once a postmodern critical philosopher and a devout traditional Catholic, trying not only to reconcile these two seemingly disparate factors in his own mind, but also to prove to others that the two must go together. / In the first critical examination of the philosopher’s life Oliva Blanchette tells the story of Blondel’s stormy life confronting an Academy dismissive of religion and a Religion uncomfortable with rational philosophy. This book not only follows his biographical history, but also presents his systematic philosophy, from the beginning of his journey to the culmination found in Philosophical Exigencies of Christianity, the book for which he signed the publishing contract the day before he died. / Maurice Blondel is part of the Ressourcement: Retrieval and Renewal in Catholic Thought series, edited by David L. Schindler.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802863652
Publisher: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
Publication date: 04/16/2010
Series: Ressourcement: Retrieval and Renewal in Catholic Thought (Rr
Pages: 836
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.90(d)

About the Author

Oliva Blanchette is professor of philosophy at BostonCollege. His books include The Perfection of theUniverse according to Aquinas and the award-winningPhilosophy of Being: A Reconstructive Essay inMetaphysics.

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Maurice Blondel

A Philosophical Life
By Oliva Blanchette

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2010 Oliva Blanchette
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8028-6365-2

Chapter One

Breaking into the Intellectual Scene

A new mode of religious thinking was in the offing, launched as a philosophical dissertation on Action at the Sorbonne. Before we go into this mode of thinking as it appears in L'Action of 1893, it is interesting to note how Blondel first presented himself to the University and how it first reacted to him and his claim to establish supernatural religion as a legitimate and necessary domain for philosophical inquiry.

Blondel first came to Paris in November 1881, at the age of twenty. He had gained admission to the highly touted École Normale Supérieure through a rigorous competitive exam that was carried on in France every year. He came from the provincial city of Dijon. He was from a well-established family of lawyers and notaries, professional people who gave their children a good bourgeois and Christian education, an example of work well done, a concern for doing the right thing, and even a certain taste for discreet but active proselytizing. He had done his studies at the Lycée of Dijon, the regular state-run school, and not at a Catholic school, and had spent his last year in intense preparation for the very competitive national admission examination that was the only way of access to the École Normale, then and still considered a Mecca for intellectuals in France.

At the École Normale, Blondel was to learn to think. Henri Bergson and Émile Durkheim had just finished the year before he came there. Victor Delbos and Pierre Duhem, along with many others less well known, were to be his classmates. What he was to learn, however, was not exactly congenial to his way of thinking or to his convictions. Among the faculty he found a deep-seated rationalism that was essentially anti-religious, though two, Émile Boutroux and Léon Ollé-Laprune, were themselves avowed Christians who supported him in his religious interests. Among the student body, he found a general skepticism derived from Renan, and from a waning scientism as well as a loss of confidence in the power of reason to deal with concrete questions of the meaning of life. Philosophy seemed to be fixated on sensations and ideas as if they were "realities cut up into pieces and stabilized" where, as he was to put it later on, Blondel "could not help but see in them something pseudo-concrete, artificially solidified abstractions" (1928a, 19).

Blondel tells of an incident on the very first day of his stay at the École Normale that typifies how he was received and how he was to respond. The school was run as a closely regimented fraternity at the time and, at registration, newcomers were put through all sorts of initiation rites by the upper classmen. Among the questions one had to answer was that of religious affiliation, to which Blondel declared that he was a practicing Catholic. This was of some consequence for the discipline of the school, since practicing Catholics were allowed to leave the school at a certain time on Sunday mornings in order to attend mass at a nearby church, whence they got their nickname, les talas, which was short for ils vont à la messe. Blondel, who was just arriving from the province and from his family, was somewhat taken aback by the reaction of one of his classmates upon hearing his declaration: "Well now, how can a boy who seems intelligent still call himself tala (catholic)?"But he was not at a loss for an answer. "Thank you for the compliment and for the added quip," he said. "I have every intention, not just of seeming, but of being intelligent" (1928a, 2021). It is this intention, as he adds, that he would try to actualize in his life at the school, in keeping with a need to see clearly, even as a tala, according to an aim that is radically philosophical. For Blondel it would become important to think, not just religiously, but also in a philosophical mode, as he was to learn at the École Normale.

In order to bring this intention to fruition Blondel realized that he had not only to push reason further forward into a consideration of the religious question, but also to pull it back to a more concrete consideration of life itself in action. It is thus that, at the beginning of his second year at the École Normale, on November 5, 1882, as he recalled quite precisely (1928a, 34), he began to focus on action as the subject for his dissertation. In doing so he was going back to Aristotle, for, as he also recalled, he was pulling together various texts in the Metaphysics and the Ethics in which action (to ergon) was spoken of as that which unifies in a way that is supra-discursive and charged with the infinite, as well as that which adds precision and perfection to a being (1936, 324-25). But in doing this he was reintroducing into the discourse of philosophy a term or a reality that had long been lost sight of at the end of the nineteenth century in France. In fact, when the classmate sitting next to him in study hall saw his notes, he could only exclaim: "A thesis on Action, great scot! What could that be? The term action does not even appear in the Dictionnaire des sciences philosophiques of Adolphe Franck," the only one available at the time (1928a, 34). Blondel's readiness to innovate in philosophy was not lost on this classmate.

But this readiness to innovate was not as readily accepted by the University. When Blondel came to register the subject for his thesis, which appeared to him all the more justified by reason of the astonishment it was provoking, he was told by the secretary, after consultation of the competent authorities, that no one saw how there could be in action matter for a philosophical thesis. A more sympathetic observer, Lucien Herr, who was librarian at the École Normale and a specialist in Hegel, would later remark on how few proper names would figure in such a thesis, since it would have to be cut out of whole cloth as an original pattern, which was exactly what Blondel had in mind (1928a, 35). Thanks to the intervention of Boutroux, with whom Blondel had discussed his project and who agreed to serve as patron for the thesis, the subject was finally accepted and Blondel was ready to begin making his point for a philosophy of religion as something supernatural.

He finished his work at the École Normale in November 1884, armed with the Aggrégation, which entitled him to teach at the level of the Lycée. After short stints in different places, he ended up in October 1886 as professor of philosophy at the Lycée of Aix-en-Provence, where he stayed until July 1891. This was a time for working on the dissertation as well as for teaching. But in October 1891 Blondel took time off from teaching in order to devote himself exclusively to work on his dissertation. He retired to an old farmhouse owned by his family in the wine country of Burgundy and began pulling together preliminary notes and drafts in view of what was to be the final draft. This was a time of intense concentration for him in which he drew his inspiration, not just from the philosophy he had learned in school, but also from spiritual authors such as St. Bernard, St. Paul, and Pascal, with whom he was personally familiar. From these as well as from Leibniz, of whom Blondel was especially fond and on whom he was writing his secondary Latin dissertation, he learned not only how to examine his conscience, but also how to reflect on the order of intelligibility and discipline to be found in any genuinely human action and conduct of life.

The Beginning of a Confrontation

Among the notes he wrote early on in this process is one, apparently addressed to his teacher Ollé-Laprune, that is especially revelatory of how he was approaching his subject. It reads as follows:

There is something to be defined, something that seems to be properly Christian; and it is in a way that is very concrete, through an analysis, not of the will, not of activity, but of action, that I would like to try to do this. It is true that in order to act we must think well; it is truer still, and more evangelical, to say that in order to think well we must act well. To this are connected, through a link that I can barely grasp at the moment, different thoughts on passion, on the letter (of a law), and the possibility or the usefulness of a revelation. (Notes Semailles 1886-87)

The movement of the thought is clearly religious in its origin, but the effort is to bring it back to a clearly defined philosophical discourse by a critical reflection on characteristically human action and all that it implies rationally. In the final product of his reflection Blondel hardly mentions this evangelical dimension of his inspiration at the beginning. He chooses rather to call it an Essay on a Critique of Life and a Science of Practice, which is more in keeping with the philosophical nature of the work. It is only in the end that he argues for a necessity of the kind of supernatural he had in mind from the beginning. But it was this ending that was to pull his readers in the University up short and stiffen them in their fear for reason in the face of this reappearance of religion as a necessary dimension of life in philosophy.

Blondel submitted his dissertation to the Sorbonne in May 1893, not in person but by mail from Dijon. From the distance of the province he could not realize the full extent of the reaction it would provoke in Paris. It was only when he arrived in Paris shortly before the defense, scheduled for Wednesday, June 7, 1893, that he began to feel the opposition he was to encounter. Boutroux had been the only reader of the manuscript, and the one to approve it. He explained to Blondel the bitter criticisms he had drawn upon himself from his colleagues by this approval. These colleagues were so irritated upon reading such an unusual dissertation, that he advised Blondel to try by all means possible to visit the other members of the jury at their homes, before the defense, so that they could vent their anger in private rather than in public.

Blondel had encountered this kind of irritation once before in his academic career, at the time of the final aggregation exams of the École Normale, when he, along with the leader of the class, was refused passage twice, because their dissertations were thought to be too personal and too doctrinal. Blondel in particular was accused of being a voltigeur, one who flits from one question to another too quickly. According to one commentator, the candidates had made the mistake of not sticking close enough to an elementary pedagogy, such as is expected from a teacher at the level of the Lycée. But this time, with his doctoral dissertation, there was more at issue than just style. There was also the question of what he was advancing.

Blondel did make the rounds of the board as suggested by Boutroux. He tells of one member taking umbrage at the fact that this entire thesis had been prepared without his having been apprised of it, and spoke for others when he wondered where Blondel was coming from. "Here is what people would like to know: are you all by yourself, coming in from the wild, or are you the spokesman or even the instigator of a concerted campaign against the conception we have here of philosophy and its role?" (1928a, 48-49). Blondel was so genuinely surprised by the question or the suspicion, that his interlocutor saw immediately what he was in fact, not a loner coming in from the wild, but simply someone who was candid about what he thought. His ingenuousness earned him another ally on the board, who would later remark that he too, along with Boutroux, was becoming a martyr for Blondel.

What actually happened in private with the other members of the board we do not know. But we do know what happened in the public defense of the thesis, from a long report on the Soutenance published in 1907 under the name of J. Wehrlé, a classmate of Blondel at Normale who had left to enter the seminary and become a priest, but based on notes originally written by Blondel himself on the day after the defense itself. The notes themselves have recently been published alongside the published text of 1907 in the first volume of Blondel's Oeuvres Complètes (1995, 691-745). Blondel himself wrote the revision for publication as well as the original notes, even though he had it published under his friend's name, who added only one remark of his own at the end of the conclusion concerning their recently deceased teacher, Ollé-Laprune. Blondel seems to have decided to publish this account of the defense in the heat of the Modernist controversy we shall speak of later, in order to remind his Catholic accusers about what side he was on and where he was coming from.

In this report we learn that the defense lasted from three until seven-fifteen in the evening, somewhat longer than such exercises usually went at the time, and that it was more than usually well attended by an interested public. The discussion itself, though heated at times, was carried on well within the bounds of philosophical civility. Though the report gives no indication of it, Blondel seems to have led off with a few introductory remarks, the tenor of which we can gather from handwritten notes on a neatly folded sheet of paper still to be found at the Archives, in which Blondel explains what he was about in his thesis — remarks that lead spontaneously to the line of questioning with which Boutroux appears to begin rather abruptly in the published account. In the introductory remarks, he goes immediately to the point of the supernatural. "My aim has been to constitute a philosophy which, though quite distinct from the supernatural order, would be its natural and necessary underpinning. There has to be one, and there is none." The point is carefully worded in order to take into account the exigencies of both philosophy and theology with regard to the idea of the supernatural.

In order to constitute such a philosophy of the supernatural, Blondel sees himself as having to steer a course between two philosophies very much in vogue in his day, Thomism and Kantianism. While recognizing the force of the Thomistic synthesis, especially for believers, he did not think it met the exigencies of modern thought because it threw too many questions, religious, philosophical, and scientific, into the same pot, without confusing them to be sure, but still without recognizing the reciprocal suspicion that existed among them. At this time Blondel saw Thomism as proposing only a juxtaposition of these three elements, a descriptive anatomy that found its persuasive force in the solidity and the amplitude of its exposition. But it did not meet the preoccupations of modern thought, which had been turned around by Kant's Critique. Whatever Thomism was responding to in the thirteenth century was no longer the spirit or the approach of thoughtful people in his day and age. What was once a method of proof had become only a method of exposition and confirmation for truths now called into question.

On the other hand, however, Kantianism, with its substitution of moral life for Hellenic intellectualism, which some had thought of as the definitive arrival of the Christian spirit in thought, was even less of an answer to the philosophical question of the supernatural than Thomism. This was not the way for Christian truth to go. For Blondel what had to be found was a way between intellectualism and fideism that would determine a perspective at once absolutely natural and absolutely in conformity with the supernatural order, so that, without minimizing the validity of nature and of reason itself, one could also be brought to see the necessity of the supernatural order within the natural, in such a way that the natural order would then be viewed as subordinated. "Between these two orders there is neither a simple juxtaposition, nor an opposition, nor yet a continuity. Independent, the two are in solidarity for man; impossible to get along without them both and impossible to arrive at them. The natural order exists, and yet the supernatural order penetrates it; to refuse to rise to this higher order is not only to renounce a free gift, it is to deprive and to mutilate oneself" (1995, 691-745).


Excerpted from Maurice Blondel by Oliva Blanchette Copyright © 2010 by Oliva Blanchette. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


I. Breaking into the Intellectual Scene....................3
II. Awakening to the Divine Light in Human Action....................25
III. The Original Philosophy of the Supernatural....................63
IV. The Vocation to Philosophy....................95
V. Discourse on Method for Philosophy of Religion....................122
VI. Crisis of Modernity for Catholic Apologetics....................167
VII. The Broader Social Involvement....................210
VIII. The Philosopher of Aix....................261
IX. The Philosophical Itinerary....................322
X. The Question of a Catholic Philosophy....................357
PART TWO The Systematic Summation....................413
XI. The Question of Thought....................420
XII. The Responsibilities of Thought....................453
XIII. Ontology of Consolidation in Being In, Through, and Of Itself....................493
XIV. Action as Cooperation with the First Cause....................547
XV. The Original Philosophy of Action Revisited....................595
XVI. The Expanded Philosophy of the Supernatural....................657
XVII. Symbiosis of the Human and the Divine in History....................724
XVIII. Christian Spirit and Historical Civilization....................774
Index of References to Blondel's Works....................804
Name Index....................812
Analytical Index....................816

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