Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Modernism and Kant

First in a Series treating Modernism and Modern Thought
Fr. Joseph Bampton, S.J.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)
Some apology may perhaps be needed to a Catholic audience for discussing the subject of Modernism at all. It might be thought that it is a topic which might well be let alone - let severely alone - in an English Catholic pulpit. The system that has come to be known as Modernism is so largely a matter of metaphysical speculation that it hardly commends itself to the average English intelligence. We flatter ourselves as a race on being practical. We like to be practical in our religion as in other things, and speculative theories on religious subjects possess little charm for our minds and exercise little influence on our beliefs and conduct. It might be thought, then, that Modernism presents little danger to English Catholics. There is some truth in this view if we regard only the actual tenets of Modernism. No doubt, we Englishmen are plain men in our habits of thinking, and to plain men much of the teaching of Modernism is simply bewildering. But underlying the doctrines of Modernism there is the spirit of Modernism. The doctrines of Modernism may not be a danger to us, the spirit of Modernism may. And it cannot be denied, I think, that the spirit of Modernism is abroad at the present time. It infects much of the thought and literature of the day. Catholics need then to be put on their guard against it, and these lectures will have fulfilled their purpose if they serve to warn Catholics against a real danger to their faith.

It may be said with truth that the term Modernism stands not so much for a cut-and-dried system ready-made as for a system in the making. It represents a spirit, a tendency, a method or process of contemporary thought. As such, it is not confined to religion alone. The name Modernism, it has been pointed out, bears the same relation to what is modern liberalism bears to what is liberal, or militarism to what is military, or capitalism to capital, and appropriately enough describes the spirit which exalts the modern at the expense of antiquity, which extols the new because it is new, and depreciates the old because it is old, and which, so far, is a revolt of the present against the past. It does not need any very close observaton to perceve that spirit at work at the present day in other spheres besides that of religion, and in other forms of religion besides the Catholic. Its effect on Catholicity is all we are concerned with.

Even when its scope is thus restricted, Modernism is an elusive thing to deal with. For Modernists differ so much among themselves that it is difficult to pin them down to one coherent set of opinions. But the general drift of Modernism in its bearing upon Catholicity is unmistakable. Its object is quite clear and open and avowed. That object is not ostensibly to set up a brand-new form of Catholicity, but to reconstruct the old on new lines. Its object, as Modernists are fond of sayng, is to readjust Catholicity to the mentality of the age, to reinterpret Catholicity in terms of modern thought.

That sounds at first a perfectly legitimate proposal. But the question is, what "modern thought"? There is modern thought which is sound, and modern thought which is, to say the least, unsound. So, when it is proposed to adapt Catholicity to "modern thought", it is of some importance to inquire what "modern thought" is meant. "Modern thought" is itself a vague term. For our present purpose we may take it to mean the opinions upon serious subjects current among thinking people at the present day, the prevailing mental outlook as regards such subjects, the modern point of view. Now, if there be, as the term "modern thought" implies there is, some tone or temper of mind upon such subjects peculiar to the present time, if there be a distinct wave of thought passing over our own age, it must have had some definite origin, and it ought to be possible to trace it to its source. To try to do so will help us the better to determine what value to attach to what is vaguely called "modern thought".

You know what usually happens before a particular set of views or opinions gains ground and spreads so widely as to help to mould the thought of the day. Some man of genius, student, thinker, scholar, philosopher, scientist - call him what you please - works out some theory in the privacy of his study or laboratory, and then gives it to the world. At first, perhaps, it is understood and appreciated only by the few: his fellow-workers in the same field of knowledge. They recognise its merit at once. They are quick to see its bearings and applications. They help to make it known. It was some scientific or philosophical theory to begin with, but it comes to be translated from technical into popular language; it is made easy of popular access. Through the facilities which modern civilisation affords in such abundance, through the newspaper and periodical press, through such agencies as free libraries, popular lectures, working men's institutes, continuation classes, and the rest, it filters down gradually through the strata of which society is composed. It is popularised. It was at first the creation of one brain, and then the possession of the few. Now it is the property of the many; it is common property. It has passed from the study into the street; it has become part of the thought and speech of the crowd. Henceforth it belongs to "modern thought," though many of those whose minds it has helped to form hardly know the name of a Copernicus, or a Galileo, or a Kepler, or a Newton, or a Faraday, or a Harvey, to whom they owe it. What has come to be "modern thought" may be the product of the brain of one man.

If this be true of the material of thought, of the things that men think about, it may be equally true of the process of thought itself, of habits and modes of thought. And when this is borne in mind it does not seem far-fetched to say that the modern way of thinking about the deeper problems of life is largely influenced by one thinker who lived and taught a hundred years ago. If you ask those most likely to know whom they consider to be the one man who has left the deepest impress upon serious modern thought, nine out of every ten so asked will probably answer, Immanuel Kant. The tenth might say Hegel. But Hegel, it must be remembered, derived his inspiration from Kant. Kant's was the master mind. "Thinking men today," says Auguste Sabatier, "may be divided into two classes: those who go back beyond Kant and those who have received, as it were, their philosophic initiation and baptism from his Critique."

And, as a matter of fact, Kant's influence is clearly discernible in modern thought. Kant is a rationalist, and modern thought is largely rationalistic. Kant, though he does not deny the supernatural, puts it outside the field of knowledge, and modern thought is agnostic, so far as the supernatural is concerned. Kant makes religion a matter of inward, personal experience, independent of any external authority, and modern thought is impatient of authority. Of course, the human mind, whether  ancient or modern, has a natural tendency in these directions, irrespective of the teaching of Kant, or of anyone else; but that only makes it a more congenial soil for the reception and fertilisation of Kantian ideas. And, when these ideas spread from the learned to the simple and are diffused and popularised in the manner just indicated, they are of the very kind to shape and fashion the modern mind already predisposed in their favour. Moreover, they give some sort of scientific and philosophic sanction to certain natural leanings of the human mind, and impart to them an air of respectability they might not otherwise possess. And the result is "modern thought" - modern thought coloured the philosophy of Kant, even in the case of many who have never studied philosophy, and perhaps have never heard Kant's name. The Catholic Church is far-seeing in watching with vigilance the development not only of theological, but also of philosophical opinions. Philosophy, after all, is only the pursuit of the first principles of knowledge. If the first principles are unsound, the whole field of knowledge, sacred and profane, is rendered insecure, not for the philosopher only, but also for the man in the street.

When there is question, then, of interpreting Catholicity in terms of modern thought, we must be on our guard. Modern thought, it has been said, thanks in great measure to Kant, is largely rationalistic. It is a difficult matter to interpret Catholicity in terms of rationalism. Modernism has the hardihood to attempt the task. And herein lies its chief danger. If a religious system is frankly and exclusively rationalistic, ordinary religious-minded men will not give it a moment's consideration. But if it claims to teach the old doctrines, while accepting all the results of modern criticism and research, thus harmonising the old and the new; if it maintains that, to achieve this end, all that is required is not the destruction but the reinterpretation of the old formulas of belief, it is more likely to ensnare the thoughtful among religious people. And if, moreover, while doing this, it claims to make religion more spiritual, more personal, by making it more a matter of inward spiritual experience, by developing its mystical side, it is more likely to ensnare the devout.

But the question is, can it be done? That Catholicity can be reconciled with all that is sound in modern thought cannot be doubted. But the question is, can it be reconciled with that form of modern thought which is imbued with the teaching of Kant, and consequently tainted with rationalism? That such is the question at issue will appear more plainly as we proceed. We said at the beginning that the danger of Modernism lies not so much in its actual teaching as in its spirit. The spirit of Modernism, we shall have to show, is the rationalistic spirit of Kant.

But Modernism is not only an attempt to accommodate Catholicity to modern thought as infected with Kant's spirit. It is an attempt to accommodate Catholicity to Kant's very system. For Modernism is based on Kant's system of philosophy.

And here may I crave your indulgence while I say just so much about the philosophy of Kant as is necessary to render our subject intelligible. This is neither the time nor place to discuss Kant's philosophy as a whole. All we are concerned with is Kant's theory of knowledge. And, for obvious reasons, that can be dealt with only in brief and summary fashion. But that will suffice to show its bearing on our subject.

Kant, then, in his Critique of Pure Reason, lays down this principle, that the human mind cannot have true knowledge of anything but the data of sense experience. In other words, what our senses have no direct experience of, that our mind cannot know. But our senses have direct experience of objects of sense alone, of what we see, and hear, and touch, and taste, and smell. Therefore, these phenomena, as Kant would call them, are all we can know. They, and they alone, are the raw material of knowledge, to be shaped and fashioned into the finished product of knowledge by the action of the senses and the mind, through the medium of "sense forms" and "mind forms" - an action that is purely subjective, that is to say, due to the machinery of the mind itself. Phenomena, appearances, then, according to Kant, are all we know. But are appearances all there is? Is there no reality underneath the appearances? There may be, Kant would say. There may be beneath the phenomena what he calls a noumenon, a thing in itself. And the human mind may surmise its existence. Nay, the mind may go further. It may prompt a man to act for all practical purposes as if that thing did really exist. The mind may hold its existence as a "regulative principle of conduct," as a "practical postulate of reason." But, for all that, the mind cannot know its existence. Why not? Because that thing, that reality, is not matter of the experience of the senses. And Kant's theory of knowledge limits rigidly knowledge properly so-called to the data of sense experience. Knowledge cannot transcend experience, is Kant's dictum. And therefore knowledge cannot penetrate things. Knowledge of phenomena does not help it to do so. For that knowledge neither proves the existence nor manifests the nature of the thing in itself. It is only the product of the machinery of our own mind.

Now, a theory like this seems at first sight repugnant to common sense. For example, I am standing on the platform of a railway station and an express runs through. To say that I know nothing about the train but what meets the senses - the rush of air, or of steam, the roar, the bustle, the speed, the flash of the lights, the rattle of the cars on the metals, the whistle of the engine - seems at first preposterous. But that is hardly a fair and adequate presentment of Kant's theory. That theory is not so easily disposed of. It would be a mistake, a mistake sometimes made, I think, by Catholic opponents of Kant, to travesty Kant's system and then hold it up to ridicule. It is easy to ridicule it, but it needs to be met. Kant was a serious thinker, and, notwithstanding his errors, he was a deep and original thinker. And here we must remember he is occupied with a problem which has baffled some of the acutest intellects the world has ever seen, the problem of what we know and how we know it. That is a question that cannot be settled off-hand. We are not presuming to settle it now. We are only concerned to point out a mistake made by Kant in dealing with it. In working out his theory of cognition, Kant took this as his starting-point: that the laws by which the human mind works render it incapable of knowing with true intellectual knowledge anything beyond the data of sense experience. That was a false start and it vitiated Kant's whole system.

In contradistinction to Kant's philosophy there is what we may call Catholic philosophy. Catholic philosophy agrees with Kant saying that knowledge must have sense experience for its basis. There can be nothing in the intellect that has not come directly or indirectly through the senses. Catholic philosophy agrees with Kant, then, in holding that knowledge begins with the experience of the senses. It differs from Kant in saying that it does not end there. Catholic philosophy holds that the mind recognises that the objects presented to the senses are real things, and that its knowledge regarding them is true knowledge. Opinions may differ as to the process, but all Catholic philosophy is agreed as to the fact.

To sum up, Kant would say: we know phenomena only and, as to the thing itself, at most we can only surmise its existence as occasioning the phenomena we know. Catholic philosophy would say: we know the phenomena and through the phenomena we know the thing; for the phenomena are not the creations of our senses, but the thing itself as manifest to us.

The bearing upon faith of this theory of Kant is obvious at once. Kant maintains that the human intellect knows phenomena, appearances alone. But God and the things of God, the supernatural truths of faith, are not appearances. "Faith is the evidence of things that appear not" (Hebrews 2:1). Are we to say that God and the things of God are incapable of being known by us? St. Paul told the Romans that "the invisible things of God are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, His eternal power also, and divinity" (Romans 1:20). Are we to say that the invisible things of God cannot be clearly seen, cannot be understood by the things that are made? Certainly, say the more thorough-going disciples of Kant. These things are unknowable. And God Himself is the Great Unknowable, the Great Unknown. So spoke that disciple of Kant, Herbert Spencer, the agnostic. And at first sight it would certainly seem that in speaking thus Herbert Spencer was following out the premisses of Kant to their logical conclusion. At first sight the logical conclusion of Kant's system would seem to be agnosticism. But Kant, to do him justice, was not minded to be an agnostic in the strict sense. Kant was what is called in Germany a Pietist, what we should call in England perhaps an evangelical of the Methodist type. But Kant's premisses seemed to lead to agnosticism. Then he must devise some way of escape from such a conclusion. And the way of escape he devised was this. It is true, he said, that God cannot be known by the intellect. But we have another faculty by which God can be attained. That other faculty Kant called the Practical Reason. And so we have Kant's Critique of Practical Reason to supplement his Critique of Pure Reason. Our pure reason, Kant said, our speculative reason, cannot indeed attain to God and the supernatural, but our practical reason can. For our practical reason postulates God as the basis of the moral order. So far our practical reason reveals to us the need of God and bids us tend to Him as our Ideal. And so by our practical reason we can be brought into touch with God, though by pure reason we cannot.

This much it was necessary to say of the philosophy of Kant - perhaps I should apologise for saying so much - as a preliminary to showing that Modernism is founded on Kant's system. Something has been said already about the influence of Kant on those who came after him. That influence may be truly said to have been enormous. He is held to have done much to solve the problem of knowledge which had puzzled thinkers like Descartes, and Spinoza, and Locke, and Berkeley, and Hume. The systems of Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, Schopenhauer, even though they differ from Kant's, owe much to his. Men as widely different in their views as Goethe, John Paul Richter, von Humboldt, Strauss, Renan, and, in our country, Darwin, Herbert Spencer, Huxley, Thomas Carlyle, show traces of his influence. We catch echoes of his teaching even in poetry, in the poems of Schiller in Kant's native land, in the poems of Tennyson in our own. Some of you may remember the lines in Tennyson's In Memoriam:
We have but faith, we cannot know,
For knowledge is of things we see.
That is a poetical rendering of Kant's dictum that knowledge is confined to phenomena. And, like so many others, the Modernists, as will be seen in the sequel, have fallen under the spell of Kant. It is not surprising, then, that their effort to reconcile Catholicity with modern thought should start with an attempt to reconcile Catholic faith with Kant's theory of knowledge. How that attempt was made, and with what success, we shall hope to show in the following lectures.

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