Oct 24, 2010

Why It's Been Quiet

A short post, just to wiggle my toe in the blogging waters (actually have a few posts currently parked and waiting the time and energy to be finished).  In addition to CLA matters aplenty, committee work, teaching classes, and readying presentations, this month has been given over to finishing one stage of what has been so far a 6 year project, and starting another stage.

About six years ago, two years into teaching Philosophy and Religious Studies classes at Indiana State Prison, just two years out of grad school, Adrian Papst, a young, earnest English Catholic guy who was studying at the Institut Catholique de Paris (and whom I'd met at the stimulating Continental Philosophy of Religion conference in Lancaster, where the Radical Orthodoxy types squared off against the Pomos / Derridians), sent me a packet of photocopied documents.

He knew of my love for Maurice Blondel's thought and (largely still untranslated) works, and he mailed me several accounts of meetings of the Société Française de Philosophie, in which Blondel had been involved, accompanied by some other Blondel documents from the early 1930s.  These turned out to be key writings of Blondel during the 1930s Christian Philosophy Debates, which ran roughly from 1931-35 or 36 (depending on how you want to draw the historical boundaries), but I did not know it at the time, until I started reading through the pieces he had sent, and following up with some research and photocopying of my own.

Over here in the US, most Anglophone scholars remain unaware of how extensive and deep-running these debates were.  They know them as sparring matches between the Thomist and historian of Philosophy Etienne Gilson and the rationalist Emile Bréher, or between Gilson and the neo-Scholastic Louvain-based Fernand Van Steenberghen.  Blondel was involved in some sort of way, they sometimes know, but their focus tends to be on Gilson or on his compatriot Jacques Maritain.

I spent three years off and on, when I could spare time after work, digging through every French, German, English, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and yes even Latin periodical or work available in the Notre Dame University library, looking for any works that might be part of that set of debates.  I even used the nights of my Erasmus Institute Summer Faculty Fellowship, which permitted me two weeks of intensive study along with 9 other scholars in a seminar with Alasdair MacIntyre, to carry out my philosophical/ theological scavenger hunt.

And it paid off richly.  I found extensive bibliographies, then went beyond them to create my own.  I photocopied more than an entire file cabinet drawer of articles either about or actually part of the debates.  I went online to Abebooks and bought Blondel's 1932 Le problème de la philosophie catholique, and the accounts of the Société Thomiste's first two meetings.  Each time I came away from a trip to the library with a few more hastily photocopied sources, I felt like an archeologist who has taken a small step to bringing a whole civilization back to life, if only in the imagination.

Selecting some of the most important documents from the debates -- almost nothing of which has been translated -- I began translating them, and I pitched the idea of a book of those translations accompanied by a lengthy historical and thematic introduction and a chronological bibliography to Catholic University of America Press.  There were setbacks, many of them, which I won't recount here and now, but I slogged through them.

The book comes out this Spring, and this month, I am working on the index, the final step on my part.

Today, I created a website on my faculty page, a site devoted specifically to the Christian philosophy debates.  Not to the CLA, or any other pedagogical projects -- those are all good, my bread and butter, what I get paid to learn, work with, and teach.  But here I am following my real passion, research, philosophical detective work, reconstructing and interpreting engagements by scholars who were at the absolute top of their game 75 years ago, arguing with brilliance and erudition, and even sometimes spleen about issues of perennial importance.

The website -- which starts small, but which will blossom over the months and years to come -- is a new beginning in this project, one with which I believe I will be involved for the rest of my life.  Here it is: 

I'll write more -- much much more -- about these debates and the joys and heartbreaks I found in the work later on when the semester is starting to slow down and I have the four presentations I need to give in the next three weeks behind me.