Spring 2011

Why We Need Maurice Blondel

Oliva Blanchette

"Blondel saw that it was necessary in philosophy to raise the question of a supernatural religion, even if it cannot be answered within the scope of philosophy or of reason alone."

Maurice Blondel was deeply invested in the Christian philosophy debates that took place in France in the early 1930s. He touched off the debate with articles on the retrieval of St. Augustine as a Catholic philosopher, rather than only a theologian, on the occasion of the fifteenth centenary of the saint’s death.1 He contributed to the debate more than anyone else, as can be seen from the table of contents of the recently published collection of articles from the debate, edited and translated by Gregory B. Sadler.2 In fact, Blondel was himself at the center of the debate as he defended an idea of Catholic philosophy that was not only in opposition to those who were against the very idea of Christian philosophy, but also to those Christians who allowed for a loose idea of Christian philosophy for the medieval period on historical grounds, but only by a denomination extrinsic to the idea of philosophy conceived as a rational discipline. At stake in the debate was Blondel’s own conception of a properly Catholic philosophy, which he was preparing to lay out in a set of systematic works that would include three volumes on Philosophy and the Christian Spirit. This was a conception he had had to defend at the beginning of his career as a philosopher in the French university system, in a dissertation that had brought to the center of philosophical attention the very idea of a supernaturally revealed religion and religious practice, the idea that was clearly associated with Catholic religion.

In many ways this Christian philosophy debate came at a pivotal point in Blondel’s career as a philosopher. He had recently retired from teaching for reasons of deafness and blindness, and he was looking for ways to finish the systematic works he had been contemplating for years while busy with teaching and with administrative work as senior chair holder in philosophy for the region of Aix-Marseille. The idea of proposing a Catholic philosophy that any rational agent would entertain not merely as plausible but even necessary for the fulfillment of human aspirations, was still uppermost in his mind. In fact it had been bolstered and emboldened through extensive reading of Augustine, whom he read as no less a philosopher than Aquinas, rather than merely as a man of authority in the Church to whom believers had to defer.

In the essay translated and published in the present volume, “On the Need for a Philosophy of the Christian Spirit,”3 which was written a year or two before the debates that began in 1930 though not published until after Blondel’s death, we find him ruminating on this question of the good and the usefulness of studying the Christian mysteries from a philosophical standpoint as a resumption of the work he had begun over thirty years earlier, and which he was still thinking of completing with a more explicit reference to the Christian mysteries. In fact, it was through his reflection on the Gospel mysteries that Blondel arrived at the project of rethinking the whole idea of philosophy in terms of action in the concrete, and of human destiny as a whole, as we know from the spiritual diaries he kept while working on his dissertation.4 The later essay is a first draft of what he had in mind to do in his later philosophy and how he intended to proceed, what questions he intended to explore in speaking of what he calls the philosophical exigencies of Christianity. The essay speaks of a certain need to probe philosophically into the Christian mysteries, while recognizing that as mysteries they are beyond the capacity of reason to investigate, to use a phrase from Aquinas, or to penetrate, to use Blondel’s word. This is a need he tries to justify rationally as a philosopher and hermeneutically as a believer, in what remains for him in either case a mystery.


. . . . . . . . . .
To read this article in its entirety, please download the free PDF, buy this issue, or become a Communio subscriber!

1. There were three such articles, all reproduced in Dialogues avec les philosophes: Descartes, Spinoza, Malebranche, Pascal, St. Augustin (Paris: Aubier, 1966): (1) On the original unity and the permanent life of Augustine’s philosophical doctrine, originally published in the Revue de Métaphysique et Morale 37 (1930); (2) On the ever renewed fecundity of Augustinian thought, originally published in Cahiers de la Nouvelle Journée 17 (1930); and (3) on “The Latent Resources of St. Augustine’s Thought,” trans. Fr. Léonard, originally published in A Monument to Augustine: Essays on His Age, Life and Thought (London: Sheed & Ward, 1930), the only piece of writing by Blondel published in English in his lifetime, an abridged version of which also appeared in French in Revue Néo-scolastique de Philosophie 32 (1930).

2. See Gregory B. Sadler, Reason Fulfilled by Revelation: The 1930s Christian Philosophy Debates in France (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2011).

3. “On the Need for a Philosophy of the Christian Spirit,” trans. Oliva Blanchette, Communio: International Catholic Review 38 (Spring 2011). Cf. Maurice Blondel, Exigences philosophiques du christianisme (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1950), I: Le sens chrétien: Introduction, 3–25.

4. See Carnets Intimes, Tome I (1883–1894) (Paris: Cerf, 1961); Tome II (1894–1949) (Paris: Cerf, 1966).