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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
"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 
"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 
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" . But the best life is not the political
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
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.
 Robert Sokolowski, Phenomenology of the Human Person
(Cambridge: University Press, 2008), 311. (ISBN 978-0-521-71766-3, 345 pp,
 Ibid., 14.
 Ibid., 317.
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James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown
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
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies,
and news in the Church!
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