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What is Philosophy?

A review by Paul St. John Mackintosh.

I will spare you the time and trouble of reading Hildebrand’s book, or even this article, by giving you his answer to the title question straight off: “Philosophy fulfils its highest mission by levelling the way for religion, by preparing for it and serving it. Philosophical knowledge has its climax in the knowledge of the existence of God and of His attributes as grasped by the natural light of reason”. There you are. Prejudice or insight may now already have turned you away from Hildebrand (or even turned you toward him); but believe me, you need go no further than to know this. However, I will put in my quota of words by setting out how, and why, a man was making such statements in 1960. Josef Seifert, who introduces and partly edited the book, states that “Hildebrand’s occasional references to his religious faith should neither prejudice the reader against his book nor for it.” I disagree. Certain attitudes and assumptions common to Christianity and to certain types of philosophy pervade Hildebrand’s work, in my view, and one cannot address his philosophy without considering his religion.

What is Philosophy? comes printed on thick paper, perhaps to make it appear weightier than it actually is. On its imprint page it bears the imposing legend:

Censor librorum

Archbishop of Milwaukee
March 20, 1960

Myself, I find the very idea of a censor librorum innately objectionable; and that a 20th-Century philosopher could wish to submit his work to such a figure, or seek to obtain a NIHIL OBSTAT or an IMPRIMATUR, is almost enough to damn his work ipso facto in my eyes. I am not ruling on Catholic doctrine, simply pointing out that most of Hildebrand’s contemporaries do not operate within such strictures, and that consequently his thought is likely to diverge considerably from what we term ‘philosophy’ c.1960 and come closer to theology. Yet Hildebrand, born the same year as Wittgenstein and Heidegger, began his career in the mainstream of 20th-Century philosophy, studying from 1909 under Husserl as part of the Munich-Göttingen phenomenological circle. How did he arrive at a position so far from his contemporaries?

Hildebrand’s eventual conclusion is perhaps not so surprising when we recall his starting point; remember just how dogmatic, how neo-Platonist early phenomenology was. In his Logical Investigations, Husserl offered his students a refuge from the relativism and subjectivism that had dogged philosophy since Hume and Kant, a return to the absolute certainty of logical truths so beloved of philosophers from Plato to Descartes. ‘To the things themselves’ was the rallying cry of phenomenology, leading its followers back from the nihilism of relative perceptual states from which objectivity had been forever banished, but the ‘things’ in question included the entire panoply of absolute Ideas, ‘purely logical essences’. To quote from Josef Seifert’s introductory essay: “Such essences, Husserl claims, are strictly necessary, universal, timeless, objective and wholly independent of human subjectivity.” Husserl’s espousal of such essences eventually led him to a species of idealism far more radical than those he had originally criticized, but many of his followers, including Hildebrand, elected to remain true to the ‘early Husserl’.

Hildebrand’s need for Husserl’s early thesis can be best appreciated in the light of his own estimation of essences: “The absolutely certain insights into necessary essences which are bathed in a luminous intelligibility are the blows that topple all relativistic theories of knowledge…a priori knowledge is the basis which no methodic doubt can shake. It is a serene, eternal gate which bars for all time every form of skepticism, subjectivism, relativism and subjective idealism.” (p.140) What is Philosophy? is a work of propaganda for these ‘necessary essences’ which constitute the ‘a priori knowledge’ that allows Hildebrand to posit an absolute standard against which any appearance, argument or evidence must be judged – hence the theological tinge to the above statement. I say propaganda rather than exposition firstly because Hildebrand adopts the bad-tempered tone of polemic, laying about him at those “who actually betray the very nature and role of philosophy”, responsible for “the miserable role that many philosophers themselves consign to philosophy” (p.4), constantly speaking of ‘true philosophers’ with a clear implication that there are other, false philosophers. This defect of tone accompanies a deeper defect of method, to whit: Hildebrand evades rather than engages with the sallies of his enemies.

Hildebrand’s evasion is a process of stepping round the ground of critiques of the Platonic/Aquinian doctrine of essences. He identifies the propositions of his ‘a priori knowledge’ by “three unmistakable marks: (1) their strict intrinsic necessity, (2) their incomparable intelligibility, and (3) their absolute certainty.” (p.64) Such propositions “possess a special dignity in knowledge.” (p.64) “These necessary unities are the only genuine ‘essences.’…They are the source of all ratio, the highpoint of intelligibility.” (p.116) Talk like this simply fails to engage with the methodological and conceptual changes which have put such essences in doubt: the kind of arguments Hildebrand presents, the degree to which they are developed, and the pitch of thought which they embody simply do not do enough to justify epithets such as ‘source’ and ‘highpoint’.

How, for instance, would Wittgenstein have criticized such claims? Doubtless by pointing out that the three qualities cited of ‘essences’ stem from the grammar of the kinds of terms Hildebrand uses of examples, that the order of necessity, intelligibility and certainty in question is purely linguistic. That is, propositions such as “Moral values presuppose a person” meet Hildebrand’s three criteria because both sides of the proposition presume each other as part of their definition. Such statements will always appear necessary, intelligible and certain because the system of rules conferring meaning on them requires them to be so.

Hildebrand’s answer to this approach is to insist on the distinction between an ‘essence’ and a concept: “We must, therefore, keep ourselves completely free from the misunderstanding which would regard certain absolutely certain and essentially necessary propositions as merely analytical or tautological.” (p.79) “The concept of the subject is emphatically not the same thing as the essence to which the subject refers.” (p.80) Concepts may yield tautologies, all may perhaps come down to tautologies, but essences do not, runs Hildebrand’s refutation. And Wittgenstein would have agreed, if Hildebrand had meant something like ‘thing’ and ‘name’ by ‘essence’ and ‘concept’. But Hildebrand’s examples of ‘essences’ are of exactly the kind which Wittgenstein regarded as products of philosophical puzzlement: colour, number, statements such as “moral values presuppose persons”. Colours, for instance, exist as attributes of things, properly describable only by adjectival constructions; the treatment of them as nominalized entities ranges from, at best, a convenient conceptual shorthand to, at worst, rank error. It is true to talk of orange things, even of orange light; it is false to speak of ‘orange’ if we mean by this an intangible yet real entity of which all actual examples of orange are simply imperfect reflections. Numbers likewise: Wittgenstein never tired of pointing out that one could well and truly use numbers in counting, speak of two objects, but that to regard ‘two’ as real in its own right was simply to mistake a term for an entity; to carry over Augustine’s childhood habit of positing a thing for every name into wildly inappropriate realms.

Hildebrand avoids this entire line of argument, being possessed by sublime faith in his medium. For since philosophy, like poetry, is made not from ideas but from words, the status of language must be considered in the matter of what philosophy can do. Not for Hildebrand. For instance, take willing: “We do not look at the concept of willing, nor at the meaning of the term ‘willing’ and its characteristics. On the contrary, we turn to the unity of willing, not to its accidental features but to its very essence. We look at the intuitively revealed necessary and essential unity of willing.” (p.217) Not only does he insist on the absolute priority of his ‘essences’, he also declares that they are to a degree incommunicable, that their significance can only be understood by an ‘intuition’: “Intellectual intuition is the way in which we analyze objects with these necessary essences” (p.183); “In most cases intellectual intuition is the only way of acquiring philosophical knowledge.” (p.218, author’s italics) Furthermore, such ‘intuition’ renders its results invulnerable to disproof by argument. Seifert: “How is this claim to be verified? Ultimately through an immediate cognition of the sort which Aristotle has declared to be the foundation for all arguments. There is no demonstration or proof for this claim because it is given in a superior form of cognition than argument: by insight.” (p.xlviii) Those who do not have it can only yield to the authority of those who do.

Such reference to a sphere outside the realm of discourse is similar in form but entirely different in intention and result to Wittgenstein’s “Don’t think: Look.” Wittgenstein always regarded showing as the final arbiter of saying: one based one’s argument on what could be seen in public, demonstrated to all men, what was there. In the last resort, one could always point. Hildebrand, conversely, refers only to inner ‘intuition’: “If there is an insight into an essentially necessary and absolutely certain state of facts, there is no question of observation of actual being.” (p.75) This in-sight is by definition incommunicable, as it is an internal state which can only be emulated, not transferred.

By now it should be clear that Hildebrand’s desire to maintain the priority and authority of ‘essences’ is, for him, one and the same as the desire to maintain the priority and authority of his Christian faith over the attacks made against it by philosophers, and indeed over everything. Regard the adjectives in his definition of ‘essence’: “strict intrinsic necessity”, “incomparable intelligibility”, “absolute certainty”; all those terms of intensity, whose degree is taken by Hildebrand as the criterion of truth, but which at the same time is elevated beyond the realm of disputation. What distinguishes absolute from relative certainty is, for Hildebrand, only ultimately realisable in the private ‘prise de conscience’; so there can be no argument about it.

Some may find this deeply conservative attempt to salvage traditional verities instructive. Phenomenologists may value it as a sidelight on the evolution of their speciality. Platonists may be comforted in the knowledge that someone shares their views. Theologians interested in Christian existentialism would be better advised to turn to Kierkegaard or Unamuno, or simply retire to their Bibles. For any other student of philosophy, this book has interest only as a symptom. There is a lot more silliness in it than I have bothered to dig out. In comparison with what Heidegger did with a title like What is Philosophy? – the radical refoundation performed in that exposition – this volume is simply a non-starter. Josef Seifert may disagree, but if you read Hildebrand, I do not think you will. Then again, life is short: find yourself some philosophy, instead of theology in fancy dress.

© Paul St John Mackintosh 1992

What is Philosophy? by Dietrich von Hildebrand, is published by Routledge at £12.99 paperback.

Paul StJohn Mackintosh is a poet and writer, with a special interest in classical East Asian philosophy and culture

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