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"The Agent of Truth on the Margin of the World" | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | June 20, 2008 | Ignatius Insight

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"The kind of life that incorporates intelligence clarifies what life is. We are, therefore, special, after all, in the way we are 'selves.' These are all issues in the philosophy of being. There is no such thing as epistemology separated from metaphysics." -- Robert Sokolowski [1]

"Strictly speaking, nothing more than 'It is snowing' is said about the world when I say 'I know it is snowing,' but something new is said in another dimension on the margin of the world, and specifically on this particular edge that is me as an agent of truth...." -- Robert Sokolowski [2]


Let me begin with the two above-cited passages. The first tells us that incorporating intelligence into his life explains what a rational being is. He is a being who knows what is not himself. He personally is the one who knows and delights in knowing. He is a being whose knowing is metaphysical, is of what is. Knowing what is not simply the mind of the knower really occurs. Moreover, each person who ever existed, in a felicitous phrase, stands at the "edge of the world." As it were, I am myself the "edge" of the world looking out on it, asking what it is that I see. All particular beings who are human, hence their unity, whether living or dead, belong at this "margin" because they do or did something no other being does. They know what they are not. And they tell each other about it in words, pictures, and writings. This very knowing what they are not is itself somehow necessary for the world to be what it is. The world needs to be known by beings who can know. That knowing is what this book is about.

Previously, on Ignatius Insight (March 1, 2006), I commented on Msgr. Robert Sokolowski's incisive and powerful book, Christian Faith & Human Understanding, a book I much admire. Msgr. Sokolowski's new book, Phenomenology of the Human Person, is just published by the Cambridge University Press in England. The book is nothing less than a masterpiece of philosophical clarity and depth of understanding. The book draws on a lifetime devoted to teaching, writing, conversing, and meditating on the great issues and minds--Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Machiavelli, Hobbes, and particularly Edmund Husserl, though not neglecting the moderns before and after him. The great questions are asked: "How do we know?" "What is it we know?" "Why do we know?"

Sokolowski does not think that the task of the philosopher is only to ask questions but also to give as clear and basic, yes, as truthful an answer to them as possible. The purpose of philosophy, as he often says, is to "make distinctions" whereby we can finally understand what is. Fully to understand something is to know its truth. It is also to speak this same truth to others, to listen to others speaking of it. All the while we know that we are not gods. The gods know the truth; we human beings only seek it, love it. But our seeking is not a form of skepticism that denies any possibility of knowing anything. Rather it is a step by step verification of what we do know. Our ignorance comes from too much light, not from no light at all. "Truth is the conformity of the mind with reality," as Aquinas often said. This book explains this sentence.

In a real way, Sokolowski's present work brings together and makes clear the varied reflection that went into his previous studies and academic essays, especially his earlier books, God of Faith and Reason; Husserlian Meditations; Presence and Absence; Pictures, Quotations, and Distinctions; Eucharistic Presence, and Introduction to Phenomenology. We have here a distillation of all he has been thinking about, but also a presentation of how all the separate studies and issues fit together. We see the whole and the parts in the whole.

Let me say in the beginning, lest the book seem too formidable to ordinary reader, among whose membership I include myself, that the exotic-sounding word, "phenomenology," along with other technical words of philosophic jargon that often appear in Sokolowski's works, should not frighten us off. Sokolowski writes, at the same time, both for the ordinary reader and for the scholar, as all good philosophers should. The author patiently tells any sensible reader, in quite clear English, what each word or concept means. He explains why he finds it useful, indeed necessary, to examine the item under discussion. He knows about sense impressions, definitions, propositions, and arguments. He tells us about the relation of words, concepts, and things. He repeats his point, says it in another way. He gives an example, often several examples. He has followed Aristotle, who always gave one focused example of a philosophic point in which the universal or thing discussed could be found. Sokolowski also follows Cicero who, more attentive to us slower learners, often gave ten examples, not one only, just to be sure we got the main point.

Few thinkers have covered the range of philosophy and its history more thoroughly or more directly than Sokolowski, the really remarkable professor of philosophy at the Catholic University of America. Sokolowski's lectures and seminars each semester carefully work their way through the Metaphysics or Politics of Aristotle, or the Leviathan of Hobbes, or something in Aquinas or on faith and reason. In this book the usual academic nomenclature of footnotes, citation, and bibliography is kept to a blessed minimum, still the reader is aware of the massive learning contained in it. This learning is something the author does not keep to himself as if somehow it belonged to himself alone as his private property. He consciously seeks to explain it in clear speech to provide any normal reader the opportunity to understand the issue under discussion. In this sense, this book is a conversation with anybody and anybody who can and is willing just to think. The reading of it is, in a real sense, itself a conversation with Sokolowski, always a delight. But it is a conversation with Sokolowski himself conversing with the philosophers. One of the purposes of the human race, "at the margins of the world" is that such on-going conversation takes place across souls, across cities, across oceans, across time. In this book we talk as much with Aristotle as we do with Sokolowski. We too are at the "edge."

On finishing this remarkable book, my judicious advice to all past and present students of philosophy, or theology, or any thing else for that matter, is simply to drop everything. Read this book! It is a free education in everything you ever wanted to know but never found out where to go to find it. Indeed, it is an education in what you wanted to know even if you did not know you wanted to know it. This book comes as close as any that I know to putting everything together in a concise, intelligible way. It follows the proper order of mind as it seeks to follow the order of being in the things that are. It is a book that will take the reader to other books but with a mind now much better prepared to understand what he is reading.

Sokolowski, like Aristotle, as I mentioned, never gives a principle or point without offering a graphic or typical example of the point he is trying to make. Sokolowski is particularly successful in the individual examples he uses throughout this text. These examples in fact serve as a secondary way of seeing its overall unity. The book has a genius for keeping the ordinary reader informed about what the author is talking about. What is said before is repeated just when we are about to forget what the point is about in the overall argument. Philosophical method is found here in the book's very reading. The philosopher, for whom this book is also written, does not live in a different world apart from the ordinary person.

Philosophy is not for elitists, even though some of our kind are more intelligent than others. Sokolowski knows that the most intelligent are not always the most truthful, which is partly also what this book is about. The truths and "untruths" of the philosophers is largely what is behind the rise and fall of nations. Sokolowski can speak philosophical talk with the best of them, of course. But when he does, he also makes it intelligible to the ordinary man what he is doing. But still, he is also speaking to the philosophers as such about what is philosophy, its range and how it is grounded in our knowing, in our knowing of the truth. The human person, including the philosopher, is an "agent" of truth. He is someone who puts truth before us through his words and arguments.

What continually strikes us about this book, I think, is its marvelous pedagogy. No step is taken without a statement of what is being talked about. Always there is an example. No example stands unexplained or unrelated to our understanding the point. Most examples are repeated in other contexts as the argument proceeds. I would not say that the book makes a teacher superfluous, but I do say that no attentive reader needs to wait for some professor, even Schall, to explain the book to him. Indeed, this book in many ways bypasses the professors who are often the cause of the problems that Sokolowski considers. This situation of getting to the minds that can know is one of the reasons for writing the book in the first place. It provide a place for truth when it is not being spoken among us. Yet, the book is itself a marvelous example of what it says it is, a way to enter the conversations, past and present, with anyone who uses words truthfully and properly, with anyone who also seeks to know what is true. Indeed, it enters into the "untruths" which are themselves part of the discourse of knowing the truth, as Aquinas taught us.

If there is any one problem with which the book is most concerned, it is the so-called epistemological problem. That is, how is it that we can know reality and not our own "image" of reality? How is it that we know that we know and at the same time know that what we know really exists? Sokolowski is at pains to show where this epistemological problem came from in the history of philosophy. He presents a careful thesis about how one is to explain what a philosopher wants to articulate but, in the process, often ends up making things worse. The way we know "things" and not "representations" of things is in some ways the most fundamental problem of particularly modern philosophy.

Sokolowski does not hesitate to address what should be addressed. What is at stake is our unique place in the world itself.


From his early philosophical studies in Louvain, Sokolowski has sought to come to terms with the German philosopher, Edmund Husserl (d. 1938), about whom he has written so much. Essentially, Sokolowski's contribution to philosophy is to explain how the approach to describing real things that is found in Husserl, known as phenomenology, as a way to confront modern idealism, supplements or completes a true metaphysical understanding of things that was found in the classic writers, especially Aristotle and Aquinas.

Sokolowski thus intends to defend Aristotle and Aquinas precisely with the addition of Husserl. He does not conceive himself as rejecting or isolating either Aristotle or Husserl from each other. He does not lapse into idealism but, by carefully describing how it is and how it appears to us, makes the real more real in line with what Aquinas called esse or being. Thus, Sokolowski does not think philosophy, in its basic task, was complete with Aristotle or Aquinas. He does think what they said was true and explained reality. The additions of phenomenology, in the way Sokolowski uses it, only serve to make the initial insights of the classical authors more visible and striking.

This book is first a philosophy book. That is, it is a theoretic or contemplative look the whole, of everything that is. I might add, this is not a theology book, but rather, as Sokolowski shows clearly, say, in his treatment of the "Verbum" in Aquinas, how revelation and theology can and do, in fact, incite philosophy to see and articulate itself better in its own order. Philosophy does this articulation by first having posed to itself its own questions, as we read in Fides et Ratio. Philosophy knows that some things it cannot complete or fully grasp by itself. The "absence" of things thus becomes itself a provocative issue in philosophy. We should not be surprised, as Sokolowski showed in his God of Faith and Reason, that philosophy gains from revelation, while the latter cannot really make full sense to us without the aid of philosophy. This latter position is something Benedict XVI insists on time and again.

The original title of this book was "The Agent of Truth." Evidently, the editors feared that such a title would be seen by too many folks, not as a philosophy book, but as a detective story! Thus, we have the present rather heavy title, Phenomenology of the Human Person. What the human person is, and this is a central thesis of the book, is himself, in his active and inter-related being, an "agent" of precisely "truth." Sometimes, when we read Plato or other philosophers, it seems that they conceive truth as a kind of "abstraction," a separated form. Of course, Plato's "forms" are ultimately to be seen in the "Good" so that they suddenly become less abstract than they might seem. And when Christians like Augustine read Plato, they have little difficulty relating this "Good" to God. Aristotle showed us that the forms are also in things. This is the realism Sokolowski deals with here. The "person," as the "agent of truth," means that truth only exists in a knowing being actively, personally—"I say it is true"—stating the truth based on what is there to be affirmed. Moreover, it must actually be affirmed as knowing.

But Sokolowski, like Chesterton here, is a common man's philosopher. Theoretic philosophy, the mind accurately reflecting on what it does know about the world, is a special function of philosophy. The reminder of the specific purpose of philosophy, its justification in the order of knowing, is a recurrent theme in this book. But before we can talk about philosophy at its highest level of insight, we have gradually to work our way through the simplest of things and how any normal person knows them. What do we know when we know them? In this sense, this book takes us through Aristotle's logical works, his experimental reflections, his practical intellect (ethics, poetics, rhetoric, and politics), and his theoretical intellect that looks at substance, the soul, and being itself. The book takes one step at a time. Each new step is explained in the light of the previous one but adds what is new.


Again, what does it mean to say that the "human person is an agent of truth?" Sokolowski's own approach, as he explains, is different from most modern philosophers, including Husserl, in that he does not begin philosophy from the experience of the solitary person reflecting on himself and what he knows. This isolation is the origin of the epistemological problem, of how does the mind get out of itself. In his reading of Aristotle's Politics, Sokolowski shows that the modern "state of nature" theories of politics somehow posit an imaginary condition of man in which there was no politics. Politics must be argued to; it is not natural. The philosophical problem is to explain how he came to be political. This theory may be all right as a dream theory but it never happened and doesn't explain what it needs to explain.

The modern theory arose because something was lost, namely the primacy of the contemplative life itself. "Machiavelli and Hobbes force the philosophical speaker or writer back into being one of the contenders in the natural attitude and the practical order. For them ruling is the best life, not thinking, and the mind essentially governs and does not contemplate" [3]. But the best life is not the political life.

Aristotle, on the other hand, simply found that already, whenever we encounter him, man was already a political animal making political decisions. What needed to be explained, and this is what Aristotle's Ethics and Politics are about, is how he acts in relation to himself and in relation to others when he lives and acts within a city. This explanation is what Aristotle derived from observation and intelligence in the Politics.

Taking a similar approach, Sokolowski shows that the raw material of knowing is already present in most of us already in our normal conversation. We do not first define something and then rush out and find someone to whom to explain it. We are first speaking with someone about something. We gradually clarify what it is we are talking about. We seek and speak in public. We presuppose "veracity," as Sokolowski calls it. That is, we cannot clarify things unless we are telling the truth and we know we are. Even lying presupposes truth. If everyone is always lying, there is not only no truth but no communication whatsoever.

Some of the most beautiful passages in this book are those in which Sokolowski tells us about how our use of syntax, of identifying, naming, and designating things in order enables us to transcend our immediate experience. Words themselves bear what we speak of and refer back to their origins. Once we have spoken or written or even painted in the world, we belong to the discourse of mankind at its margin. The "edge" that is "me" is the extraordinary fact that I too am capax omnium, capable of knowing all things, which is one of the proper definitions of a mind. Being is not really complete until it is known. It is known in conversation, in the conversation of those who seek to know and explain accurately what they encounter of what is.

The formal philosopher, for his part, is concerned precisely with the whole. He cannot leave aside or out any thing that is. The notion that somehow revelation must be left out on "philosophical grounds" is itself un-philosophical. But when it is encountered, it must be confronted in a philosophic way. The person is, in Sokolowski's haunting phrase, "an agent of truth." This agency includes all truth. Hence it enables him, "me," at the "edge" of the world, to himself be all things by being himself. The one who is at the "edge" is the one who knows as he is thinking of what is there, as he is knowing it. That this position at the "edge" of the world would cause anyone to wonder about the world, about his mind that knows, about his very desire to know what is, to the limits and reach of his own being, can surely be no surprise.

Yet, it is a surprise. It is this "surprise" that each of us is, in our very being, an "agent," that is, an actor in the world that we did not cause to be. Truth, Aquinas said, exists in the "mind." But it is in the mind affirming what is there, what is not in its own mind. Something is there besides ourselves, but we can know it and in knowing it, also know our own knowing and its ways. But knowing involves truth. We all must begin here. This is what Sokolowski's penetrating book is about. This is a book of our time, a time that needs to know that it can know the truth—and that it can also lie to itself if it doesn't.

Ours is a time that needs to know that time is itself under the sway of being, of the metaphysics that begins in wonder and seeks to know the why of things, including the things of itself and those with whom it converses. The human person is an "agent of truth." This is what we are. Something "new" is at the "margin of the world." The something new is indeed "me" who, with all who come to be in their time, stands at the world's "edge" affirming, as Plato said, of what is that it is, of what is not, that it is not. The world itself cannot do this for itself. It needs an "agent of truth" within it.

Phenomenology of the Human Person is a philosophy book. It looks to the whole, When we speak the truth to one another, we are "agents of truth." Sokolowski has initiated us into the conversation with all agents who can speak the truth because they have minds and words. It is the most exclusive city in the world, perhaps because it includes all of us, and the reason, itself personal, why we exist in the first place.


[1] Robert Sokolowski, Phenomenology of the Human Person (Cambridge: University Press, 2008), 311. (ISBN 978-0-521-71766-3, 345 pp, $26.99, paperbound).

[2] Ibid., 14.

[3] Ibid., 317.

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Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning, The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006) and The Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007). His most recent book is The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). Read more of his essays on his website.

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