Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

Metaphysics and Ultimate Questions

Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

Metaphysics and Ultimate Questions

Article excerpt

  Sure he that made us with such large discourse,   Looking before and after, gave us not   That capability and god-like reason   To fust in us unused. (1) 

AT THE HEART of the gravest crises our societies face today lies culture. And at the heart of that culture one finds a growing mistrust among humans of their own humanity, of what it means to be a human being, and a consequent loss of the affirmation, the joy, and the creativity that being human should entail; so said Blessed John Paul II in his famed speech to the General Assembly of UNESCO in Paris, on June 2, 1980 (cf. n. 13). (2) It may be recalled that in his first encyclical, Redemptor hominis (cf. n. 15), he had expressed concern about whether "man qua man" (as one says ens qua ens), in the midst of the progress of knowledge in so many fields, did indeed progress and become more conscious of the dignity of his own humanity, or rather instead regress and become degraded in his own humanity. (3) In Fides et ratio, the concern, more specific still, was our present mistrust of the powers of reason, which makes much contemporary philosophy abandon metaphysical study of the ultimate human Questions--"the deep-seated distrust of reason which has surfaced in the most recent developments of much of philosophical research, to the point that there is talk at times of 'the end of metaphysics'" (n. 55; cf. 83, 84, 61). (4)

Although John Paul seems to go even farther than they do, he does echo in that regard some of the best philosophical minds of the twentieth century. A clear instance, of course, was Husserl, for whom the greatest historical phenomenon of all is, in a striking phrase, "the struggle of humanity to understand itself." In his great book, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, Husserl also made the point that "merely factual sciences make a merely factual humanity." "In our vital need," he adds, science "has nothing to say to us." For "it excludes in principle precisely the questions which man, given over in our unhappy times to the most portentous upheaval, finds the most burning; questions of the meaning or meaninglessness of the whole of this human existence. Do not these questions, universal and necessary for all men, demand universal reflections and answers based on rational insight? In the final analysis they concern man as a free, self-determining being." Positivism has dropped all questions "vaguely termed ultimate and highest," so-called "metaphysical questions," which, taken broadly, "surpass the world understood as the universe of mere facts" and which "all claim a higher dignity than questions of fact." Thus in a manner of speaking, positivism "decapitates philosophy." For philosophy "implied a meaningful order of being and thus of problems of being. Accordingly, metaphysics, the science of the ultimate and highest questions (der Metaphysik, derWissenschaft von den hochsten und letzten Fragen), was honored as the queen of the sciences; its spirit decided on the ultimate meaning (letzten Sinn) of all knowledge supplied by the other sciences." The enigma of all enigmas is indeed "the deepest essential interrelation between reason and being in general." (5)

No less apposite, though perhaps less known, are the following remarks by Bergson in his Huxley Lecture, delivered at the University of Birmingham, May 29, 1911 (I quote from the original English): "What are we? What are we doing here? Whence do we come and whither do we go? These, it seems, are the essential and vital questions, the questions of supreme interest, which first present themselves to the philosopher and which are, or should be, the very cause of philosophy's existence. But not at all. ... Either I am much deceived or the future belongs to a philosophy which will give back to these problems their rightful place--the first--which will face them in themselves and for themselves, directly." (6)

One should also recall here Whitehead's denunciation of what he very aptly called the "fallacy of misplaced concreteness," which is what we commit when we mistake our abstractions for concrete realities. …

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