Intellectual history Think Piece

“An Historical Approach to Self-Knowledge: Fr. Joseph Maréchal, SJ as a Jesuit Thinker”

By Andrew Barrette

By Andrew Barrette

Fr. Joseph Maréchal, SJ (1878-1944) is known for his work in philosophy and mysticism. He is often cited as a pioneer of so-called transcendental Thomism, a movement that influenced twentieth century thought, especially in the Catholic world. This epithet, not of his choosing, indicates a turn to the subject characteristic of modern, specifically Kantian philosophy. Its use also sometimes implies a solipsistic sense, as if such a turn must remain within this subject here and now. In this piece, I do not offer philosophical arguments against this understanding but rather set the stage for its development by suggesting how Fr. Maréchal’s lifework is marked by cooperation and collaboration with other Jesuits, intellectuals, and cultures. Indeed, in this, there is a method for increasing self-knowledge through conversation and historical reflection.  

Josephus-Marie-François Maréchal was born to Elie Joseph Maréchal and Marie Caroline Duerinckx in 1878 in Charleroi, Belgium. Before he graduated from the College du Sacre-Coeur, in 1895, he entered the Society of Jesus as a novitiate and took his first vows in September of 1897. He went to Leuven to study philosophy until 1901, after which he began working toward his doctorate in Biology. The influence of Maurice Blondel (1861-1949) at this time is often noted, quite correctly, though Fr. Maréchal himself claims to have encountered his thought after 1902. His attention instead to the dynamism of life came from his own study, which likely allowed him to better appreciate Blondel’s genius for this fact. Indeed, already during these years of study, Fr. Maréchal noted the inadequacy of the “manual” tradition of Scholastic philosophy that he experienced in his formation, which reproduced the theses, rather than the texts and thinkers themselves. The emphasis on memorization was not bad in itself, of course, but it tended to overshadow understandings of how authors communicated their thoughts, and often failed to move the imagination and intelligence of readers. He thus felt the need for a renewed approach to philosophy and theology, not at odds but in accord with a tradition in which reading and conversation was so important.

Along with his priestly responsibilities, Maréchal began teaching biology at the Jesuit College of Louvain while studying theology in 1905. By 1908, the year of his sacerdotal ordination by Cardinal Désiré-Joseph Mercier, who had recently founded the Higher of Institute of Philosophy in Leuven, Fr. Maréchal had already done considerable research in the psychology of religious experience. However, in August of 1914, when German forces advanced into Belgium, the Society sent him, with a small group of others, to Oakwood Hall in Romiley, a relatively short-lived Jesuit Seminary just outside Manchester in the United Kingdom. There, he was tasked with teaching the history of philosophy rather than his usual classes in biology and experimental psychology. Without a large library or any manuals to disseminate to the students, he began drafting his great Cahiers or “Notebooks” in the history of philosophy, for which he became so well-known. In these, we find an attempt to present the history ideas as data for self-discovery, taking the history of philosophy as a guide through that labyrinth.

These Cahiers bear the main title and subtitle, The Point of Departure of Metaphysics: Lessons on the Historical and Theoretical Development of the Problem of Knowledge. There is a key to their aim in the title’s distinction between “Historical” and “Theoretical.” Although Fr. Maréchal had, by his admission, worked out the mainlines of the philosophical position before he wrote them, he had not yet traced their development through history: his method was to go through the history of philosophy in order to find the basic possible epistemological positions and show how they impacted metaphysical and theological doctrine. Still more, he aimed to bring the reader, the student through these positions in their interior life to become increasingly aware of both their practical operation and their theoretical formulation. The lessons were, in the first sense, “experimental,” taking as data great thinkers of the past and one’s own mind at work.  

So, in the Cahiers, one is guided through one’s own thinking by scholars in the history of philosophy. But these guides were not all the same. Instead, Fr. Maréchal encourages the student to relate them to each other and judge their positions according to the adequacy of their own mind at work. In that way, the positions become theoretical, aimed toward making judgments about what it meant to know at all. As he distinguishes in the “Introduction” to Cahier I, “[W]e shall only borrow from the progressive history of philosophical ideas the essential phases, which are expressed in the work of the most eminent thinkers. They will present to us, according to a sequence at once logical and historical, a very typical series of attitudes in front of the fundamental problem of epistemology.”[1] This was not mere memorization but historical self-reflection.

During Fr. Maréchal’s lifetime, there were four Cahiers published, namely, the first, second, third, and fifth. This latter one, with the subtitle, “Thomism before Critical Philosophy,” is the one for which he was perhaps most remembered and which likely brought him to be called a “Transcendental Thomist,” as it relates Kantian with Thomist thinking. This sentiment may have been reinforced with the posthumous publication of the fourth Cahier, which also dealt with the post-Kantian systems. Unfortunately, a sixth Cahier was never completed, though it is currently being edited, with the subtitle, “Comparisons with some recent philosophy.” This volume may have addressed some of his aims for the history of philosophy, for it was not only a reckoning with Kantianism or even modern philosophy, but an attempt to contribute to on-going philosophical conversation.

We must also recall that these Cahiers were written during a time when the Catholic Church was especially wary of “modernism.” The encyclical of 1906, “Pascendi Dominici Gregis: On the Doctrine of the Modernists,” evidences this sentiment well. Indeed, another Belgian Jesuit and friend of Fr. Maréchal, Fr. Pierre Scheuer, SJ (1872-1957), had himself been under suspicion of having sympathies with modernism. Although he was able to clarify this was not so, he taught and published less, instead giving direction to members of the society and the College. He also kept in close contact with Fr. Pierre Charles, SJ (1883-1954), who was working especially hard at the time on activities involving missions, formulating philosophically what this meant in his “missiology.” Fr. Maréchal often notes how his work benefited from conversations with these members of the Society, as well as other leading lights at the time, like Gaston Berger, Gaston Fessard, SJ, Étienne Gilson, Ephrem Longpré, OFM, Jacques Maritain, and the list goes on. Each of these thinkers share the sentiment of the social significance of philosophy. Fr. Maréchal’s thought includes an attempt to become increasingly aware of how they related to others, both at present and through history, which meant taking seriously other’s hearts and minds at work.

In this respect, there is an important collection of notes Fr. Maréchal wrote in response to a question about the contents of the Cahiers (pp. 369-370).  The reply includes a list of which passages to study further, in order to understand the general lines of the argument, but it also includes a few points about which he says were not yet published: “1. Deepening of the process of critical reflection; 2. Existentialism, control by critical reflection; 3. Introduction of the notion of “person” in the finality of the human psyche (possession, love, friendship, supernatural charity).” These points he had sketched for inclusion in his sixth Cahier. But they can also be glimpsed in his other work, much of which he published in his lifetime.

We find, for example, voluminous work on religious experience. Through continued teaching duties, which now included the history of philosophy, Fr. Maréchal wrote on the Abrahamic, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions and their relations. As a rule, his comparative work understood religious phenomena to appear within a “doctrine,” a historical set of meanings and values.[2] While it is true that one could not merely enter into another’s existential horizon, if one was not living in it, participating in it, he thought others could be understood according to the basic fact of human communication, as meaning and values were being lived out through a “psychological factor,” as he says in the Introduction to the Study of Mysticisms and Mystics. Thus, his theoretical work on how knowing and feeling took place gave a critical foundation for deepening this reflective work of interpretation and comparison. Moreover—and importantly—what he learned from the genius of other cultures and traditions helped him understand further dimensions of human experience and understanding. 

However, in May of 1940, it was necessary to leave Belgium, once again, due to an outbreak of war. This exodus did not last long, however. Shortly after returning, there was a fire at the Jesuit College in Eegenhoven, just outside Leuven. With some of his writings lost and the end of his teaching due to poor health, he wrote shorter essays and correspondences with the support of his confrères. In his last years, his students recognized the need to ask him about his influences, which he was glad to discuss. In these, he frequently notes the importance of other members of the Society as supporting and furthering his understanding; he expresses a distinctive way of allowing individuals to flourish with their particular potential, skills, talents, and gifts while being guided by the needs of the community. Indeed, in his historical reflection on his own life, we find him discovering a sort of self-knowledge that his life shows us, namely, that to understand ourselves, we must take seriously understanding each other. 

[1] Joseph Maréchal, The Point of Departure of Metaphysics: Lessons on the Historical and Theoretical Development of the Problem of Knowledge. Cahier I: From Antiquity to the Late Middle Ages: The Ancient Critique of Knowledge, my own translation, forthcoming; originally published as Joseph Maréchal, Le Point de Départ de la Métaphysique: Leçon sur le développement historique et théorique du problème de la connaissance. Cahier I : De l’Antnquité a la fin du Moyen Age : La Critique Ancienne de la Connaissance, (Bruges : Museum Lessiaum, 1922). An edition of this volume is currently in preparation at the Institute for Advanced Jesuit Studies at Boston College.

[2] Joseph Maréchal, “Introduction to the Study of Mysticisms and Mystics,” my own translation forthcoming, also with the Institute for Advanced Jesuit Studies at Boston College; originally published as, “Introduction a L’étude des mysticisms et de la mystique,” in Semaine D’Ethnolgie Religieuse (27 Août-4 Septembre, 1913): 215-221.

Andrew Barrette is a visiting professor of philosophy at Boston College. He is also an associated fellow of the Lonergan Institute and of the Institute of Advanced Jesuit Studies, where he is working especially as the General Editor of the Collected Works of Joseph Maréchal.

Edited by Jacob Saliba

Featured Image: Arnold Bocklin, “The Isle of the Dead” (1880), Wikimedia Commons.

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