To save public debate, we must rescue academic philosophy from its self-induced irrelevance.

Earlier this month, I took part in a lively panel discussion concerning polarization in the church and civil society during the 2018 Catholic Social Ministries Gathering in Washington, D.C. A person in a job like mine is often called upon to take part in events like this. As a result, I often find I am repeating myself, though I may be the only one in the room who knows it. After all, how many fresh insights into faith and public life can one individual have? Still, from time to time, something new hits me—not exactly an epiphany, perhaps, but some greater clarity about a problem.

Just a few minutes into our conversation about the causes of polarization, as I surveyed the crowd of 300 or so Catholic ministers, it dawned on me that one of the primary causes of polarization is the almost instinctive belief that it is something that is mainly caused by someone else. It seemed that few of us in the hotel ballroom thought that we might in some way be a part of the problem, by what we have done and failed to do. Our presupposition was that polarization was something that was happening to us, rather than something we might be causing. And we were quick to point the finger at various suspects, President Trump chief among them. But while Mr. Trump is an uncommonly cynical manipulator of polarization—and its principal beneficiary—he is not its primary cause.

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The first causes of polarization, as well as of the fierce ideological partisanship that fuels it, antedate Mr. Trump’s political ascent by decades. It reminds me of something the late W. Norris Clarke, S.J., used to tell me during my philosophy tutorials: Moral crises are preceded by metaphysical and epistemological confusion. In other words, the cause of the present lies in our past: more tectonic social changes; previous shifts in our collective and individual understandings of the nature of the world and how we come to know it. What I like about this way of thinking is that it is inclusive. These social and political phenomena, in other words, are not things that merely happen to us, but events we actively participate in and are responsible for. It puts the “we” back in “we the people.”

These social and political phenomena, in other words, are not things that merely happen to us, but events we actively participate in and are responsible for.

There is also a “we” in the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” As the late John Courtney Murray, S.J., observed, that famous phrase involves an important philosophical presupposition—namely, that truths exist and that we hold some of them. If they are self-evident, moreover, then these truths are objective realities; they exist independently of whether we think they do. In recent decades, however, an important socio-cultural shift has taken place. More and more we now live in a world where truth, rather than something we discover, an objective reality that presents itself to our subjective judgements, is instead something individuals make and determine for themselves. If that is the case, then the claim that there are self-evident truths that we collectively hold becomes meaningless, and the public argument descends into a cacophony of emotive self-assertions, which lend themselves to polarization.

You see the problem. The solution is not so clear. A recovery of the philosophical milieu of the Declaration of Independence seems unrealistic. Still, even if the solution is unclear, the method of devising the solution is well established. It is called philosophy. By philosophy I do not mean wearing a black turtleneck, smoking clove cigarettes and wondering whether trees dream. I mean rather the art and science of argument, which exposes the deeper meaning, coherence and relevance of various propositions, like “all men are created equal.”

What’s clear to me is that the public debate is devoid of such rigor and that we must restore it if we are to discern a collective path forward. In order to do that, however, we must first rescue academic philosophy from its largely self-induced irrelevance.

Here is where Catholic schools especially can make a difference. “The truest boast of the Catholic university,” Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C. once wrote in America, “is that they are committed to adequacy of knowledge, which in effect means that philosophy and theology are cherished as special ways of knowing, of ultimate importance.”

Of course, one can be an informed and engaged citizen without philosophical training. Most of us are. But without public intellectuals trained in philosophy and its methods to guide our public argument, chaos will surely ensue. “As a public philosophy,” Father Murray wrote, “the American consensus needs to be constantly argued. If the public argument dies from disinterest, or subsides into the angry mutterings of polemic, or rises to the shrillness of hysteria, or trails off into positivistic triviality, or gets lost in a morass of semantics, you may be sure that the barbarian is at the gates of the city.”

J Cosgrove
1 week 6 days ago

But while Mr. Trump is an uncommonly cynical manipulator of polarization—and its principal beneficiary

A polarizing comment!

What caused the polarization? Not Trump!!! As much as many of us may dislike Trump, sometimes intensely, he did not cause the polarization in the country. He is a result of it. I would look to identity politics as the main cause as it pits one group as a whole against the majority. If you add up all the so called aggrieved groups it turns out to be pretty large and polarized.

More and more we now live in a world where truth, rather than something we discover, an objective reality that presents itself to our subjective judgements, is instead something individuals make and determine for themselves...

I mean rather the art and science of argument, which exposes the deeper meaning, coherence and relevance of various propositions, like “all men are created equal.”

Is America, the magazine, an example of this?

I agree we need more evidence and rationale in arguments and less emotion and vitriol. I recently made an argument on America based on evidence/data and Aristotelean logic and was told by an author it was an unusual method of argument. No attempt to point to a fallacy or a lack of relevant evidence despite the fact that the same argument had been made by others very familiar with the issue discussed. So if philosophy is to enter the debate, why not Aristotle.

One way for America to foster this is to stay clear of emotional or charged comments. For example, never say or call anyone a racist. Or never make a recommendation without providing both sides of an argument. There is almost no attempt by America to provide points of view that run counter to their world view. If you want Catholic authors who could do this, I am sure many of the readers could recommend a few.

If the public argument dies from disinterest, or subsides into the angry mutterings of polemic, or rises to the shrillness of hysteria, or trails off into positivistic triviality, or gets lost in a morass of semantics, you may be sure that the barbarian is at the gates of the city.

I agree. But how many of the articles on America live up to this?

MGTOW 2
1 week 1 day ago

"There is almost no attempt by America to provide points of view that run counter to their world view..."
Such is undesirable as it might interfere with the preening virtue shaming of those who know better, than to allow any counterpoints to spoil their self congratulation party.

Randal Agostini
1 week 6 days ago

Fr. Matt - Really enjoyed this article, especially coming from someone probably with an opposing point of view.
I am glad that you also referred to Theology? It would seem that the Founders went to great pains to establish our common Bona Fides - "Natures God." This was much easier in an age where there was almost, in America, a universal understanding that we are beholding to a Christian God, in an environment of Faith.
How is it possible to begin a discussion when you present your credentials as being a Child of God? There is unfortunately no longer any common ground, except if one is a Child of God.
You also mention Catholic Schools, which is probably the only place where we can re-create an Environment of Faith.
People still come to America, because they seek something larger than themselves - call it opportunity, or if they like what America stands for, call it - Freedom. Whatever the drawing card people need to be motivated. The only way that we will recreate an Environment of Faith is for existing Christians to behave like Christians - the light and the source for others to seek.

Nora Bolcon
1 week 6 days ago

It is true Catholicism if it chose to be daring and decided to take a good look at some of its serious philosophical flaws regarding women, the treatment of LGBT people and people in general, it could convert its heart into something powerfully Christian and become the World Leader and Teacher of Real Philosophical Love. Our Church has the power within it to change the world's ways and convert the hearts of billions and quickly but our leadership does not want this. They are still thinking in selfish and arrogant and controlling and oppressive ways. The biggest barrier keeping Catholicism out of the Moral Leadership Role is that our leaders don't still understand there is something fundamentally in error with the statement, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Until our Pope is willing by his actions and treatment of women in our church to prove himself and our Church a reasonable and responsible moral guide by ordaining and treating all women same as men, until he is willing to spearhead the debate that this phrase is biased and unjust because it leaves out half the human population, we remain in the land and church of the polarized. There simply is no substitute for authentic equity and justice.

Jim Lein
1 week 6 days ago

And of course the Creed as written states that Jesus came "For us men and for our salvation." Some of us men (and probably most women) omit "men" when we read this sentence aloud in church, but probably most guys leave it in. And then three lines down, we read "and became man," with some of us changing "man" to "human."
Is the church unaware of the importance of words?

Kyle James
1 week 6 days ago

This comment is so frustrating! The word 'man' can be used in a gender neutral sense and has been for a while. And I dare say that most practicing Catholic women do not replace that word or you would hear it clearly since on average at least half the congregants are women at Mass. (If that's the case at your parish, it certainly isn't in many other places.) There are entire languages were the masculine plural form of words is understood to also be gender neutral in certain cases eg. French 'ils', Spanish 'ellos' and all the gendered adjectives. Of course, there is a male-dominated history behind that but where we stand today those words can be used to mean everyone - male and female. This is especially distressing since we say the creed aloud together as a sign that we are united in our beliefs as Church. What does it mean then when we choose to make up or insert our own words?

Pax Christi

Jim Lein
1 week 5 days ago

There is certainly a male-dominated history in the church. And the Creed was more uniting when we said "We" to begin it. Not that long ago this was changed to "I" -- a change that was instituted shortly after I was at a weekend oblate retreat where the abbot talked about how uniting the "We" was. A very inspiring presentation whose effect was weakened by the word change.

Kyle James
1 week 1 day ago

As much as the use of 'We' as opposed to 'I' does express unity, it isn't the principle of our unity. Our unity as Church comes from God through our common baptism and our sharing in the Eucharist. In my humble opinion, the profession of the creed together still serves an effective witness to the unity of the Church. What we profess is more important in establishing unity than the pronoun with which we begin the profession. It's also important to note that feeling united and being united aren't exactly the same. Also, important to note is that the unity of the Church is a supernatural unity not a superficial one.

Nora Bolcon
1 week 2 days ago

First of all I thank you for your attitude of justice. It is funny that you bring this up. I have had a previous pastor who just left out the word men and you could tell if you listened very carefully during mass. He was from over a decade ago - I miss him. I had a debate with a different pastor later on when they were putting in the Pope Benedict XVI changes to the creed, and I asked him why don't they finally take out men and just end the phrase at "us" instead since we believe Jesus saves women too? He was a friend but he kind of gruffly answered "Nora men includes women and it always has!" Years later, it dawned on me, that he is rather correct. God, when he addresses most things to men, even in the Old Testament, He is including women, unless the text specifically says not to include women somewhere. So when God says priest are chosen from among men, or the sons of Aaron, while it never states women can't be priests, even in Leviticus, since everything is written this way, with the assumption it is also inclusive of women and daughters, there was nothing really keeping women from priesthood under the law as long as they were a Levite.

Kyle James
1 week 1 day ago

I think it is unfair to call the changes to the creed the 'Benedict XVI' changes. The new translation of the Mass was worked on by a team of persons trying to get the vernacular English translation to be more a literal match of the Roman Missal which is officially in Latin. Whatever you think about that idea aside, this was a movement that began under John Paul II. Vernacular translations and re-translations are not and were not a unique feature of the Benedict XVI pontificate. Look at the re-translations of the Our Father that are being looked at and instituted now e.g. in France.

As to your second point, if you can find examples of Levite women who served as priests in the temple I would be interested to know of them. To differentiate between the gender neutral and male-only meanings of the word 'men', context is key just like with determining the meaning of all other words. Just because the use of the 'men' in the English translation of the creed is gender neutral doesn't mean you can extrapolate to all cases. You can think that, but without evidence or context clues showing that to be the case it's just conjecture.

John Walton
1 week 6 days ago

Thanks for writing this, Fr. Malone.
Would you please inveigh against those who continue to prevent Fordham College undergrads from wearing Philosophy Robes.

Frank Lesko
1 week 6 days ago

I agree that the distancing from the classic liberal arts is partly to blame for the polarized society we're in. On the inside, academia has lost its footing fighting internal battles over multi-culturalism vs a classic liberal arts approach. On the outside, there are many political forces that downplay the classic liberal arts for exactly the reasons stated in this piece: trained critical thinkers are a threat to their agenda. These people push for a vision of education which is more "technical training" and "job preparation" than it is to form citizens who can think critically.

Adeolu Ademoyo
1 week 6 days ago

Thank you Fr. Matt for trying to bring back the good "old school" spirit of critical and objective inquiry into our public discourse here in the United States of America and in the world at large. My take on your essay is to re-emphasize the key points in your essay. You claim that (1) Moral crises are preceded by metaphysical and epistemological confusion." This means if I look someone straight in the face and without a single shred of evidence I assert for years that he or she was not born in the United States and therefore not a native born American citizen, and a sizable population in the country believe my assertion without proof, then I and those who believe my assertion are in a "moral crises" that has been preceded by "metaphysical and epistemological confusion." You assert that by philosophy (2) "I mean rather the art and science of argument, which exposes the deeper meaning, coherence and relevance of various propositions, like “all men are created equal.”" I like this point in your essay because I have heard, read and been told a statement like this: "My argument is that he was not born in the United States of America..." Then I will gently and peacefully point out to my interlocutor that his statement is not an argument. Then my interlocutor will get upset at my temerity in saying his statement is not an argument. Then I will say "yes your statement is not argument because an argument is a series of propositions where one of the propositions is a conclusion and the rest are structured as premises deployed to logically support the proposition which is purported to be the conclusion-such that there is a logical relation between the premises and the conclusion." Then I will respectfully ask my interlocutor to on the basis of this account of an argument "show me how your statement is an argument..." Rather than respond and show me how his statement is an argument, my interlocutor descends "into a cacophony of emotive self-assertions! -(your words)" by saying and repeating "all I know is that he was not born in the United States of America believe me, believe me, believe me! (3) Finally, you assert that "If they are self-evident, moreover, then these truths are objective realities; they exist independently of whether we think they do..." With your third claim, it means facts are facts, we cannot have alternative facts or alternative truths which depend on each person's state of mind or calculation-otherwise it will be a "sound" and "valid" "argument" to say without a single evidence as it was said of President Obama's birth that "for me X was not born in the United States of America, he is not a native born American, believe me, believe me" and a sizable population in the country actually believed and still believe! But this statement is a belief, it is not even an argument and we cannot apply the criteria of validity and soundness to it! My interlocutor does not know that a belief is not an argument! Mode of thinking like that of my interlocutor and those who believe my interlocutor and act on this belief shows that they are in a "moral crises" preceded by "metaphysical and epistemological confusion." Thank you Fr. Matt. I am a proud Christian. I take my faith in Christ and my Catholicism seriously. Your essay has made me proud. God bless you and your ministry. May the living Christ who is our Lord and savior continue to teach us the right way.

Mary Tillman
1 week 6 days ago

Fr. Malone writes in his Feb. 8 article: "There is also a 'we' in the Declaration of Independence. 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.' As the late John Courtney Murray, S.J., observed, that famous phrase involves an important philosophical presupposition—namely, that truths exist and that we hold some of them." May I gently add another important philosophical presupposition contained in that famous phrase? It is that "we" are all men.

Nora Bolcon
1 week 2 days ago

Amen sister!

Rhett Segall
1 week 6 days ago

Jefferson's point about "hold"(ing) is vital. A mother holds her child's hand while walking in a crowd so that the child not slip away or someone snatch him/her; so too we "hold" on to evident truths so that others do not snatch them from us by propaganda or we lose them by mental laziness. This is where your point, echoing Murray, about the importance of argumentation is critical. Perhaps an asceticism for lent might be the work of disciplined thinking and argumentation and the avoidance of an ad hominem.

Patrick Eicker
1 week 6 days ago

It is true that you are false.

Al Cannistraro
1 week 5 days ago

As a practical matter, asserting a "truth" to be self-evident and therefore not grounding it preempts argumentation and signals a disinterest in further discussion.

Rhett Segall
1 week 5 days ago

If one seeks to "ground" the evident then one has to ground the ground, ad infinitum! Take the statement that women have equal dignity with men. In America can anyone assert that women's equality with men is a debatable point that needs argumentation? Lets accept the assertion and consider its implementation. E.g. does equal dignity mean that on the Titanic it was wrong for women to be given priority over men in access to the life boats?

Al Cannistraro
1 week 3 days ago

Rhett Segall: Thank you for reading and replying to my comment. Actually, what I originally wanted to comment on was this paragraph in Fr. Malone's essay:

Here is where Catholic schools especially can make a difference. “The truest boast of the Catholic university,” Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C. once wrote in America, “is that they are committed to adequacy of knowledge, which in effect means that philosophy and theology are cherished as special ways of knowing, of ultimate importance.”

I take Fr. Hesburgh to be referring to the perspectives of Scholasticism and Thomism regarding what is of ultimate importance. My understanding of Scholasticism and Thomism is that church fathers figured a way to incorporate and fine-tune certain ancient Greek philosophical concepts as intellectual foundations for the theological concepts that were evolving at the time. Scholasticism and Thomism were not as intellectually and philosophically arguable in pre-modern times as they are today.

So I disagree with Fr. Malone's suggestion that traditional Catholic philosophy-theology (the kind I studied as an undergraduate in a RC liberal arts college in the late 1960s and which appears to me to have been only slightly expanded today) offers any sort of solution. Better that the RC church come to better grips with Americanism and Modernism philosophically and theologically, as well as with modern and objective historical method in studies of the Old and New Testaments.

When I was an undergraduate, Roman Catholic intellectuals and academic leaders seemed to me to be holding their own in the world of ideas. Today, not so much. In fact, they seem not to even be engaging with their colleagues outside the ever-shrinking and decreasingly diverse Catholic bubble. More mere assertions of the ideas of Thomas Aquinas are not going to turn things around, in my opinion.

John Campbell
1 week 5 days ago

Upon reading the editrial and the comments to date, I am as convinced as Fr. Malone that we need a fresh take on epistemology and metaphysics. Academia may be able to help, but we surely can"t rely on our fragmented and polarized clerical leadership to point the way. Obviously women and men both, lay and religious, will be needed, but I sense that it will be a very long time before we find a synthesis of epistemology and metaphysics that is adequate ground.

Charles Erlinger
1 week 4 days ago

I think I get the yearning for a more widespread respect for, and more frequent experience of, the art and science of argument. One of the most missed characteristics, in this connection, is the respect for the making of rational distinctions when relevant. Another missed characteristic is that of persuasiveness. Shear logic seldom has achieved agreement. Nor have the inane rhetorical tricks, witnessed daily in our political discourse, made disagreements more tractable. But if it is to academic philosophy that we should be looking because “we must first rescue academic philosophy from its largely self-induced irrelevance,” perhaps we should be more informed about exactly what happened in the academy and why you think the academy is so irrelevant now. It has been about 65 years since my last formal philosophy course and irrelevance is the last word I would have used to describe it.

Beth Cioffoletti
1 week 4 days ago

I believe I witnessed this at the recent Fordham sponsored debate between Dr. Massimo Faggiolo and NY Times columnist, Ross Douthat. They were respectful of each others position and listened carefully. Each made their case. We need more of this in the public square.

David Cruz-Uribe, OFS
1 week 4 days ago

Here, I believe is the foundational concern driving Fr. Malone's argument:

"What’s clear to me is that the public debate is devoid of such rigor and that we must restore it if we are to discern a collective path forward. In order to do that, however, we must first rescue academic philosophy from its largely self-induced irrelevance."

And here is the stereotype which supports this assertion:

"By philosophy I do not mean wearing a black turtleneck, smoking clove cigarettes and wondering whether trees dream."

He provides no other evidence for his assertion that academic philosophy has made itself irrelevant, so the reader (or I, anyway) is forced to conclude that this stereotype is the reason for the supposed sorry state of philosophy. The problem is that I do not believe I have ever met a philosopher who smoked clove cigarettes or who wore a black turtleneck. I assume this is supposed to create a generic image of a 60's French existentialist or post-structuralist, sitting in a cafe in Paris discussing Foucault and Sarte while ignoring the "real world." The problem with this is its total lack of grounding in reality. Though an academic mathematician, I have known many philosophers and they come in many shapes and styles. None were concerned with whether trees dream. (Though a one colleague in the intersection of philosophy and neuroscience, did dwell on sentience and wondered what aspects of sentience, if any, were shared by plants.) As for the French stereotype, Fr. Malone seems to forget that French philosophers have a long tradition of public engagement, and you are more likely to read an essay by a French philosopher in Le Monde or some other French journal than you are to read one in the NY Times or Washington Post.

If philosophy has been rendered irrelevant, then I would suggest this has been caused by the same external forces that have rendered the liberal arts irrelevant, if not viewed with open hostility by broad parts of the American public (primarily though not exclusively on the right). In this regards, Mark Noll's trenchant analysis in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, though targeted at American evangelical Protestantism, is worth considering, as is Richard Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. We need to invigorate philosophy, but blaming philosophers is not the solution.

Andrew Wolfe
1 week 3 days ago

Polarization is the ongoing project of the Democrats and the Left since the 1960's.

Unfortunately, confusion about truth has been a project of many Jesuits since about the same time - notably Fr Drinan winning a Congressional seat and voting for abortion "rights."

The two projects converged in the scandalous vilification accusing non-Leftist Catholics and Evangelicals of conducting an "Ecumenism of Hate."

Yes, indeed, Father, it is common to look at "others" as the sources of division. Perhaps America Magazine can stop.

Michael Macauley
1 week 2 days ago

I enjoyed this article because it made me think. I enjoy any article that makes me think. I am not a cleric, or a philosopher, or a theologian. But, I think the answer to the questions posed by Fr. Matt regarding the breakdown in civil discourse may perhaps be much simpler than he thinks. My experience as a husband, father, grandfather, and business owner is that you can trace the current chaos in the realm of public discussion directly to the advent of the Internet. We are experiencing what I call "Gutenberg II". Think about what happened to public discourse with the invention of the modern printing press. Public communication exploded! And, it often exploded in highly emotional and polemic ways. But, the ability to really "mass" communicate was still greatly limited - - by education, by financial resources, etc. Now, with everyone having access literally to the world via the smartphone in their hand, or the inexpensive computer at their home, and everyone having an equal need and desire "to be heard", the end result is what we have now - communication chaos. Could it be any other way?

Realistically, I believe it will take generations for people to really "learn" how to use this incredibly powerful new communication tool that has emerged in the last 20 years. And, unfortunately, we may have to experience quite a bit of social upheaval and pain in the process. But, just as the Gutenberg press ushered in a wonderful new age, I believe the Internet and social communication platforms will do the same, after the growing pains are dealt with.

Carol Stanton
1 week 1 day ago

Yes, Michael, thank you! Out of the chaos is coming some kind of new creation, I agree. It is exciting and a little frightening at the same time.

Fr. Malone, I think, is looking to the ways of thinking that emerge from a liberal arts education to provide a level of civility in the public square (s) of our time. Yet, one of his previous Jesuit confreres, Walter Ong, wrote presciently of how we shape and are shaped by technology and how technology changes our very consciousness and way of thinking. So perhaps the old tools will not fit these new wine skins. As with Gutenberg I, we probably need new cosmologies, new ways of understanding our world, and new ways of socialization. You and I are grandparents and can watch the new literacy developing before our eyes. These children have always had that image of the earth from the moon in their minds and watch rockets (we are in Florida in sight of the launches) take off that will someday go to far space. Their cosmology is already different, as is their scientific grasp of their world. You and I are learning with them, I suspect. And yet, they still reach out to us with their questions about knowledge, about how to act, about what words are ok and which are not. Socializing children today is so entirely challenging and completely different from even one generation past. Science and technology are fabulous but I guess the question is whether or not they are sufficient grounding for what is to come. I guess part of the growing pains you write about will be the challenge to all of us to be conscious of how we are being changed by our new creations--for good and not so good! Buckle up; it is going to be quite a ride!! Thanks again for your post.

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