Kicking off my Book Tour in National Library Week

notre dame hesburgh library christian philosophy debates 1930s blondel gilson maritain religion faith reason
Nearly a week and a half of busily packed days have passed since I officially started the tour for my book Reason Fulfilled by Revelation: The 1930s Christian Philosophy Debates in France  at our own Charles Chesnutt Library at Fayetteville State University.  I didn't realize until I started putting my presentation together precisely how appropriate an occasion and location that was.  The story that I'm going to tell, reflect upon, draw some implications from, and conclude with an argument about resources and policies - - the story of my research and the book that eventually emerged from is also the story of a library, the University of Notre Dame Hesburgh Library, a library of a certain type that unfortunately seems to be at risk for gradually dwindling away, faced with the twin pressures of a digital age and the costs of maintaining library stacks.

I'm not going to talk much about my book in this entry, other than to say that I'll be adding a video (to My New Book) discussing how it is intended to make contributions to scholarship in several respects somewhat different than and complementary the volumes of secondary literature -- or even original groundbreaking work in Philosophy, Religion, History, Political Theory, or Rhetoric -- the disciplinary circles in which I move and appreciate the works of my peers.  What I will note first about Reason Fulfilled By Revelation is that were it not for the existence nearby of a certain kind of library, a certain form of repository of human knowledge, of intellectual striving and dialogue, the research that I carried out would have been. . . . well, not entirely inconceivable, but practically speaking rendered impossible


I had only vaguely heard of a "Christian philosophy debate" -- note the singular -- back in 2002, when having defended my dissertation on the French Catholic philosopher of action, Maurice Blondel, I chose an academic path less traveled.  Instead of casting out a wide and desperate net of as many job applications as I possibly could, I relocated my (now ex-)spouse and our newborn daughter to Jasper county in rural northwestern Indiana, where my larger family had built houses and held land -- a plot that had dwindled from the hundreds of acres I used to traipse through during my childhood stays, but which still held fields, meadows, woods, deer trails, flower-beds, lilacs, and berries of profuse variety gone wild.  I applied to every institution within a 200 mile radius, and was offered my first full-time teaching job teaching Philosophy and Religious Studies for Ball State University at Indiana State Prison. 

That experience is a fitting topic for other entries.  Suffice it to say that, although I enjoyed the wide range of courses my position afforded me to research, develop, and teach, as well as my interactions and friendships with the inmates who were my students, I needed other scholarly work, stimulating in different manners that what could be carried out in a maximum security prison setting.  After I had been teaching at ISP for a short while, a packet arrived from France, sent to me by a young English student at the Institut Catholique of Paris, a guy who I had met at a conference and then brought into a short-lived journal started with money from my inheritance, Catholic Horizons.

The packet contained several hastily photocopied documents, on that sort of French paper slightly longer than the standard size Americans are accustomed to:  the 1931 meeting accounts of the Societe francaise de Philosophie -- which included a letter in which Blondel criticized Etienne Gilson, who delivered the main presentation; a short piece from another earlier SfP meeting, in which Blondel responded to the modernist philosopher and Bergson disciple, Eduoard Le Roi; and an article from the Revue néo-scolastique de philosophie, in which Blondel criticized the Louvain Thomist Fernand Van Steenberghen's position against Christian philosophy.  "Why don't you translate these?" my colleague, Adrian Papst, suggested -- not a bad idea, since relatively little of Blondel's extensive corpus is in fact translated, and almost nothing of his later works.

I had already busied myself in the meantime with some writings on Aristotle, Anselm, and Hobbes --after finishing and defending a dissertation, many scholars find themselves needing to set its topic and figures aside for a spell --  and I set his packet atop one of the stacks of papers in my basement office space.  Eventually, I decided to give them a good read, and was amazed by what I found.  High-level thought and debate about the possibility and the nature of Christian philosophy was taking place in that SfP meeting, and five thinkers (Gilson, Maritian, Bréhier, Brunschvicg, and Blondel) staked out complex, articulately argued, though in some cases incompatible positions on the subject.

In his presentation, Gilson actually discussed and criticized three positions opposed to Christian philosophy, only one of which -- rationalism -- was represented in that S.f.P session.  Blondel's Revue n.s. article was aimed against a main representative of another of those positions, neo-Scholastic Thomist philosophers.  But Blondel's position, though arguing for the notion of Christian philosophy, was just as strongly directed against Gilson's (and by extension, Maritain's position, as it was against the rationalists or neo-Scholastics, and this meant that the "Christian philosophy debate" took place between an number of different sides.

After reading through the account of the S.f.P session and the Blondel pieces, I became fascinated by this idea of Christian philosophy, and sought out what literature was readily available at St. Joseph College's library just down the road -- works that had already been translated, among them Gilson's The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy and his Christianity and Philosophy (which I already had in the original, and now decided to actually read); they also had Maritain's An Essay on Christian Philosophy -- later I'd discover that he continued reworking his position throughout the 1930s in other books long ago translated -- the relevant volumes of Emile Bréhier's History of Philosophy, and later works such as Maurice Nédoncelle's Is There A Christian Philosophy? and Claude Tresmontant's The Origins of Christian Philosophy On one of my visits to the Ball State main campus, I also checked out the Redepmtorist Joseph Owen's Towards a Christian Philosophy.

The views that could be pieced together from these windows into the debate were very partial, and as it would turn out, somewhat misleading.  The "1930s Christian philosophy debate" was construed principally as a contest between the Thomists Gilson and Maritain, arguing for Christian philosophy, and either the rationalists or the neo-Scholastics opposed to Christian philosophy.  Blondel's position was strongly and unfairly criticized by Maritain, and Gilson remained almost entirely silent on it after his disagreements with Blondel. Nédoncelle got Blondel's position more than half wrong, and Owens uncritically relied upon Nédoncelle.  The end result was that the positions of Blondel, and all of the other philosophers and theologians -- many of them Thomists-- were almost entirely unknown or overlooked by English language scholarship on the debates.


touchdown jesus notre dame hesburgh library christian philosophy debates 1930s blondel gilson maritain religion faith reasonAdrian Papst had also sent me a photocopy of Henri de Lubac's book chapter on Christian philosophy, more accurately surveying and synthesizing a good portion of the positions in the debates --  available in English translation, as it turns out, but apparently unread by many Anglophone Gilson and Maritain scholars commenting on Christian philosophy.  Through its bibliographical references, De Lubac's piece placed in my hands a still partial, though much better map, one which I began to follow out and fill in in much greater detail -- and this is where my story moves to a new location, the University of Notre Dame Hesburgh library.

I had been on Notre Dame campus several times before for conferences, but had never visited the library.  After printing out for myself the locations of the journals I intended to examine, I made the hour and a half drive out to South Bend, and went to the Touchdown-Jesus-emblazoned tower that comprises one of the better research libraries in the Midwest.

The Hesburgh library has two entire floors devoted to Philosophy and Religion -- with appropriate symbolism located at the penultimate levels, the 12th and 13th -- and another floor dedicated to its Medieval collections, the Medieval Institute and the Jacques Maritain Center and archives.  I started my first of many visits by following out the bibliographical threads I possessed thus far.  What that meant was going into the stacks where entire collections of bound journals were housed and paging through them to find the articles mentioned, then riding down to one of the other floors to photocopy the old leaves, sometimes resilient after all seven decades passage, sometimes brittle enough to require careful handling.

But before I picked up the stack of journals and lugged them downstairs for a hour or so of selective reproduction, I started on something that reopened these debates for me (and for other scholars) in ways previously unimagined -- a practice I could have only carried out fully in a certain kind of library -- something seemingly simple:  sitting before a shelf of bound journals, and leisurely paging through them, year by year, ranging back to the 1920s and forward to about 1940, looking for any references to or discussions of Christian philosophy -- and as my knowledge base grew, to any of the other books or articles focused on Christian philosophy, to any of the figures engaging in the debates (whose extent I was only beginning to dimly grasp).

I started with the Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale, one of the central forums early on during the debates, before the topic, issues, questions, and positions began to disseminate widely throughout the Francophone intellectual world. I discovered new articles of which I had been ignorant, like Brunschvicg's 1935 “Religion et Philosophie.” I discovered that there were other philosophers who nobody mentioned, like Michel Souriau, who had written on the topic and who had responded directly to the already well-known players. I started to uncover traces of the pre-history of the debates, for instance in certain articles devoted to Augustinian philosophy in 1930, the 1500 year anniversary of his death.

After spending about two hours going through the Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale -- an indulgence in time and of reading I would later repeat with that journal, occasionally finding some clue, some bit of information, even some article I'd previously missed -- I turned to the Revue Néo-Scolastique de Philosophie (nowadays, Revue philosophique de Louvain), and spent about another hour again going through the volumes from about 1927 to 1940. And, again, I not only found those articles and thinkers I had originally come to the library to locate and photocopy, but also many other ones, more voices, new perspectives -- personages I had never heard of but whose thought I would get to know better over the next several years -- Léon Noël for instance, whose “La notion de philosophie chrétienne," aligning both Thomism and Husserlian phenomenology against Christian philosophy, I would later translate and include in Reason Fulfilled by Revelation.

I needed to go down to the 12th floor to find Vie Intellectuelle articles by Antonin Sertillanges and Bruno de Solages of which I knew from De Lubac's mention.  But before I did that, I decided I would linger a while in the corridor formed of stacks containing further bound collections of French and English-language philosophical journals, scholarly periodicals which had not been mentioned in the bibliography I had built to that point. But, who knows -- I reasoned -- if I had discovered several new leads, unsuspected pieces that filled in but also expanded the borders of the puzzle I was now working to solve, in those two French journals, perhaps paging through the 1930s in the others might reveal some interesting pieces discussing Christian philosophy.

That turned out to be the case, and not only that first trip.  Nearly every trip I made to the Hesburgh tower of texts in the next several years turned up at least one additional hidden jewel, which I then added to my growing collection of inter-referential photocopied texts.  Of course, once I discovered a few articles and works which contained extensive, fairly comprehensive bibliographies of the debate, I possessed invaluable leads to follow out: just series of names and listings at first, labels for realities I then tracked down to pages of journals, of book chapters or sections, of proceedings from conferences and congresses, of Festschriften.  But almost every each time I zeroed in on that call number, that shelf, that volume, I took the opportunity, I spent my leisure, I doled out the coin of curiosity against time, to read around, to explore.  It was not only a matter of following out a desire that imperceptibly transmuted into semi-obsession.  It also became a question of thoroughness.  After learning by experience that a long unopened volume might contain a piece from these debates, how could I just walk past those that did not happen to be on my list for that day (and usually, night), without dipping into them for a few minutes, just to be sure?

I will recite only a much shortened version of the litany of French (not to mention the Italian, Spanish, German, and . . . . ) journals thus perused and mined for a hoard of articles eventually overflowing an entire file cabinet drawer.  I scoured decades of Esprit, Études Philosophiques, Études Théologiques et religieuses, Archives de philosophie, Bulletin de Littérature Ecclésiastique, Bulletin ThomisteRevue Thomiste, Revue de Philosophie, Revue Apologétique, Revue des Questions Historiques, Revue d’Histoire et de Philosophie, Revue de Théologie et de Philosophie, Nouvelle Revue Française, Nouvelle Revue des Jeunes, Recherches Philosophiques, Recherches de sciences religieuses.

There is no real substitute for being able to hold volumes in your hands and page through them, for being able to rove and hunt the stacks, for allowing your eyes to be attracted into lingering over spines and titles of volumes you did not intend.  Doing that effectively, doing it well, is not something one can learn in an information literacy session, in an introduction to the library orientation, let alone through some specifically designed web 2.0 module.

Don't get me wrong.  I'm no Luddite or advocate of old-school methods for their own sake. They too have to meet the demands of effectiveness, of fruitfulness, of being worth the cost one pays, just as much as any contemporary innovation does.  I made extensive -- and grateful -- use of the numerous electronic resources available.  I am certain that many more would be available to any young, eager, upcoming scholar who wanted to research a similar topic -- the digitization of so many of these journals is a prime example.

But, I remain convinced that to carry out this sort of research well, it requires not only having extensive library holdings of actual volumes, not only a topic which one can explore in depth and unfold from those pages, and not only a willingness to while away time delving into the stacks -- it requires researchers to have spent enough time at leisure in research libraries that still keep the faith represented by volumes out on the stacks, that resist unnecessary shifts from actually inscribed paper to electronic substitutes. The researchers have to have put in their weeks and months of hours, engaged in a bibliophilic equivalent of games on the playground, at times aimless and times earnest -- they have to develop the familiarity that only comes to places where you almost live, where if someone needs to know where you are, another person can recommend that you'll likely be found there.

Learning your way about a library is very alike to learning woodsmanship.  You can't really do either to the extent significant research requires in preserves that are simply too small, too restricted.  You need a place large enough to lose your path so that you have to find it, after you have explored others.  And, this knack, this implicit but actualizable knowledge cannot be acquired remotely, through the computer terminal, the database, the digitized collection -- that can be a portion, a great auxiliary, but it cannot become the whole or even supply the half part.

I realize that the stance I am outlining here may seem highly quixotic -- especially in this time of declining fortunes, revenues, and thus library appropriations.  But, having reflected upon it, the book I was afforded to write -- and even more the participation I enjoyed in brilliant controversies and debates, largely dormant but reawakened as the pages were opened anew to eyes hungry for the story's next chapter, next exchange, next character or quip -- would simply not have happened were places like the Hesburgh not still in place.  So, out of a sense of something deeper than mere gratitude, an awareness perhaps that such libraries have become a portion of the fiber of my being as an intellectual, something to which I have become connatural, I owe it to speak that piece, as I do here, and as I did in this videotaped presentation.