The Catholic Reception of Continental Philosophy in North America
- ISBN: 9781487506490
- Published By: University of Toronto Press
- Published: February 2020
The principal project of both philosophy and theology in contemporary academic settings reflects a specialist approach to examining an idea or set of ideas and (perhaps) whatever new ideas they may provoke in us. Periodically, it is a great good to reflect on the circumstances— contextual and historiographical, intentional or by chance—that coalesce to make possible extraordinary advances at the traditional boundaries of disciplines.
The Catholic Reception of Continental Philosophy in North America, edited by Gregory P. Floyd and Stephanie Rumpza, is a significant contribution to this style of reflection for Catholics working at the intersection of philosophy and theology or religious studies in North America for several reasons, but the one that appears most obvious is that with it we have reached a working harmony (if not a full agreement) that continental philosophy provides a wellspring of questions that are well-served from the methodological approaches traditionally thought of as confined exclusively to either philosophy or theology. In the introduction to the volume, Rumpza defines continental philosophy for the unacquainted as “the philosophical traditions emerging in the wake of Husserl and Heidegger, including most notably phenomenology, existentialism, hermeneutics, deconstruction, and (to some extent) critical theory.” (3) To put it squarely, this collection of essays, formulated by scholars who have themselves played significant roles in the development of continental philosophy of religion (CPR), either by working in Catholic universities and/or through their own study within them, demonstrates that the boundary between philosophy and theology has always been a place of liminality, one in which new and important questions have in recent history become worthy of exploration.
While each of the essays included in this volume is deserving of extended reflection and further discussion, especially regarding how each examines different facets of continental philosophy of religion springboarding from the traditions noted above, I will necessarily limit this review to a few common themes and highlight two noteworthy contributions. For religious studies scholars and theologians who are not aware of (or who may have dismissed or ignored) this intersection of thought for some time, one obvious point of departure is to raise a question: Why has continental philosophy found a home (and in some cases become the dominant approach) in philosophy and theology departments in Catholic universities in North America, where the majority of philosophy departments tend to take the analytic approach?
As John D. Caputo, well known for his own work in continental philosophy and as a key organizer of pivotal conferences while at Villanova University and Syracuse University, explains in his own contribution to this volume, “American Catholic philosophers in the middle of the twentieth century, whose philosophical sensibility proved to be uniquely attuned to the existential, phenomenological, and hermeneutical motifs in Continental thought” were largely dissatisfied by the attempt to divorce philosophical thinking from lived experience. (90). Many of the visionary thinkers who found themselves in Catholic universities in North America in the mid-twentieth century had completed their graduate work in France, Italy, and Germany and were both informed and formed by the methods of phenomenology and existentialism. A significant proportion of those who would go on to teach throughout North America’s Catholic universities were able to work for some period at the Université catholique de Louvain (prior to its division 1968), which was home to the Husserl Archive. This was enormously consequential, as the essay by Daniel O. Dahlstrom suggests.
Dahlstrom’s essay, “The Reception of Phenomenology and Existentialism by American Catholic Philosophers: Some Facts and Some Reasons,” is especially helpful in tracing the history of how phenomenology and existentialism found their home in North American Catholic universities. While Dahlstrom readily admits that the data to create a complete picture are incomplete, the reader is presented with a clear account of how the approach and methods of phenomenology and existentialism took shape. As scholars returned to North America, they arrived with an array of unexplored questions based on the approaches they discovered during their European studies; at the same time, they found their homes as professors in the philosophy departments of major Catholic institutions, such as The Catholic University of America, Georgetown, Fordham, Boston College, Duquesne, Notre Dame, DePaul, Loyola Chicago, Marquette, and St. Louis University (where Dahlstrom received his PhD). Following Dahlstrom’s lead, it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to extrapolate further; subsequent generations of philosophers formed at the institutions noted above in the 1960s through the 1980s found their place at these and many other smaller Catholic universities.
For example, when I began my undergraduate studies at the University of Scranton (a smaller Catholic university), all but one of the full-time professors in the philosophy department completed their doctoral work at the larger institutions cited by Dahlstrom, thus furthering the influence of continental philosophy. As a complement to these expanding degrees of influence, Dahlstrom also notes the role of visiting scholars from Europe taking up part-time appointments in North America, the role of Vatican II in aiding the “increasingly invigorating synergy between departments of philosophy and theology” beginning in the mid 1960’s, and the effect of the Cold War and the Vietnam War on the reception of phenomenology and existentialism (38).
The concluding section of Dahlstrom’s essay highlights the significance of the work of Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger during this period. Dahlstrom points to Husserl’s “intentional analysis and method of reduction [as holding] considerable promise for understanding religious experience” (42) and Heidegger’s “dialogue with the history of philosophy, invariably with the view to unearthing the lasting legacy of previous interpretations of existence” (45) as contributing to an expansion of possibilities for conceiving truth, most significantly within CPR.
Bruce Ellis Benson’s essay “How Continental Philosophy of Religion Came into Being and Where It Is Going” is a fitting piece to conclude with, since it expands upon much of this historical backdrop by highlighting how “new” this conception still is within continental circles. Notably, after tracing more recent contributions to CPR, which he suggests “in North America is largely expository in nature” (236, emphasis in original), Benson suggests that to make CPR constructive, it would be worthwhile to approach future projects as hospitably open to engagement with analytic philosophy of religion, where both approaches can “learn from each other’s strengths” (240). I have been critical of this suggestion in another review, but perhaps Benson’s essay here, and moreover this volume as a whole, reveals a great strength of being open to the other: there is much that philosophers and theologians alike can learn by periodically examining the history of ideas.
Joseph D. Strubeck is a part-time instructor in philosophy at King’s College, Pennsylvania.Joseph D. StrubeckDate Of Review:May 31, 2023