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

Preface

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

Preface

Article excerpt

AS THOUGH POINTING to the veracity of the claim made by Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman in The Idea of a University that the circle of knowledge is "mutilated" and in need of reform when theology is dropped from it, there have been several recent claims that in postmodern thinking the category of the theological "has now returned with a vengeance," and that we are witnessing in several notable contemporary philosophers a "'turn to religion' and to monotheism in particular." (1) Few participants in the contemporary discourse concerning the nature of the human person and the origin and idea of human culture have reasserted the continuing vitality of Christianity more powerfully than Rene Girard.

Girard's publications have been primarily in the area of literature, mythology, and anthropology, beginning with a book in 1961 on Cervantes, Stendhal, Flaubert, Dostoyevsky, and Proust, translated into English in 1965 as Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure. In 1999, looking back at the course of his career, Girard observed: "Great literature literally led me to Christianity. This itinerary is not original. It still happens every day and has been happening since the beginning of Christianity." (2) But that itinerary does not describe the path travelled by the most famous scholars of literature during the rise of literary theory in the 1960s and 1970s, making Girard's academic accomplishments all the more remarkable. He has been actively engaged with many of the most prominent intellectual movements in the humanities from the 1960s through today, but throughout that time he has become increasingly direct and persuasive in his assertion of the truth of biblical revelation in our efforts to understand all areas of human culture and to find salvation from the violence that is deeply ingrained in it. In this engagement, Girard has shown himself to be an important proponent of the Catholic intellectual tradition.

We can trace Girard's engagement with contemporary thinking in the humanities back to his position as one of the coorganizers of an important international conference in Baltimore in 1966 while he was a professor at Johns Hopkins University. That conference, titled "The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man," marked the academic ascendance of French structuralism and the establishment of the hope that the structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure could provide a new basis for the humanities as the interdisciplinary study of all of human culture understood as a structure of signs. Such an approach promised nothing less than a new basis for the production and organization of knowledge in the human sciences, offering a new system of thought on the basis of which the various disciplines in the humanities could become cooperative partners in explaining all of culture as a vast semiotic system. Since the basis for this new understanding of the human sciences resided in the capability of the human person to make and use signs in accord with the recently discovered structuralist principles of sign systems, a new understanding of all claims to truth made by texts and other cultural products throughout cultural history, including religions and religious rituals, could now be pursued.

Jacques Derrida gave a brilliant presentation at this conference in an essay titled "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences." Derrida claims that the new understanding of all of culture as a semiotic system has introduced a new historical epoch, indicating in a historicist mode that the emergence of this new knowledge of the human person as inevitably caught within the production of semiotic systems that had no ground or foundation outside of the operation of the system itself has inevitably changed the possibilities of human knowledge. Derrida speaks in a prophetic mode at the conclusion of this essay as he ponders the emergence of a radically new cultural epoch now that we have finally come to understand ourselves as in a sense both producers and products of the systems of signs through which all of human culture has always been generated:

  Here there is a sort of question, call it historical, of which we
  are only glimpsing today the conception, the formation, the
  gestation, the labor. … 
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