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Michel, Florian. La pensee catholique en Amerique du Nord: Reseaux intellectuels et echanges culturels entre l'Europe, le Canada et les Etats-Unis (annees 1920-1960).

MICHEL, Florian. La pensee catholique en Amerique du Nord: Rdseaux intellectuels et echanges culturels entre l'Europe, le Canada et les Etats-Unis (annees 1920-1960). Preface by John T. McGreevy. Paris: Desclee de Brouwer, 2010. 630 pp. Paper, $109.--Why would contemporary philosophers be interested in this history of the influence of French and Belgian Aristotelians in North America? The names Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson and, increasingly, Yves Simon may be recognizable to many, but what about Charles De Koninck, Jacques de Monleon and M.-D. Chenu, a theologian also discussed by Michel? Perhaps unintentionally, this magisterial study shows why we have yet to benefit from all the help the Aristotelian revival can give us.

Michel's narrative is organized around events at a few institutions, which makes the story more interesting. Although meticulously researched, this is not just academic history. It is an exciting intellectual and personal drama. Using abundant quotations from personal correspondence, Michel gives us the sense of being there as the action, including academic in-fighting within and between institutions, unfolds.

At the University of Chicago in the thirties, due to Maritain's influence on Mortimer Adler and others, Aristotelianism was the exciting avant-garde, challenging established pragmatism and naturalism's perceived superficiality. Aristotelians became part of a titanic faculty struggle Adler called a "civil war." The lasting impact of Aristotelianism is seen in the creation of Chicago's distinguished Committee on Social Thought, where Simon flourished. Still, the establishment won the "Chicago Fight" and, ultimately, prevailed on the continent as a whole. When Maritain went to Princeton years later, and a good translation of The Degrees of Knowledge was belatedly available, he was considered a philosophical reactionary.

It would be naive to think the anti-Catholic feelings Michel documents played no role in the defeat. But Aristotelians themselves were also to blame, due to the kind of internecine disputes that Michel cites. Those disputes turned graduate schools toward teaching correct textual interpretation, rather than how to write philosophy. (Ironically, it is now becoming appreciated that traditional interpretations made by working philosophers like John Poinsot were often better.)

At Laval, De Koninck and Monleon attacked Maritain and Simon on the epistemology of metaphysics and natural science, and on political philosophy, Maritain on ethics, and Gilson on Aristotle. Letters of Anton Pegis reveal the antipathy toward Maritain at the Gilson-founded Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies in Toronto. (After the period Michel covers, this reviewer showed that the antipathy was due in part to Gilson's overlooking key texts of Maritain and Poinsot.) Michel records all the courses Maritain taught at PIMS. They were philosophical, but otherwise that milieu oriented students toward historical commentary.

Textual interpretation is important in itself, and Aristotelian graduate schools produced excellent scholars, but scholars who almost always wrote commentary, not philosophy. The Aristotelian revival's original intent, however, was to use that tradition's insights to help solve modern philosophical problems.

Michel relates how the three currents intersected at Notre Dame in the fifties and sixties. This reviewer, who holds graduate degrees from Notre Dame where he knew De Koninck and took his courses, and Toronto where he knew Gilson and attended his lectures, witnessed the effect--namely, the decline of Maritain's influence among philosophers--that Michel associates with those intramural conflicts. With one exception, professors at neither place required graduates students to read Maritain or Simon, who were benighted "secondary sources" in the textual commentator's eyes.

The author chronicles an infamous dispute in political philosophy where De Koninck claimed those he identified only as "personalists" were opposed to the "primacy of the common good." Responders usually took him to mean Maritain. (We have since learned that Maritain anticipated De Koninck's position on the common good in 1921, and that Aquinas taught that persons are the only goods loved for their own sake, all other goods, and so common goods, being loved for the sake of persons. That is how pointless many of those internecine disputes were.)

The book focuses on the intramural combat in political philosophy, rather than epistemology and the philosophy of science, for a reason. Michel wants to show, against the background of too often justified accusations of antidemocratic tendencies in Catholic Aristotelianism, how Maritain and Simon used Aristotelian principles to develop new defenses of democracy and human rights (more substantial defenses than pragmatism's). Thus, the American experience enriched Aristotelianism, while Aristotelians enriched us.

Still, Michel's superb research illustrates why we have been without modern Aristotelianism's most helpful epistemological insights--namely, Maritain's and Simon's. (Maritain was not always the clearest writer, but see, for example, Simon's "The Conformity of Knowledge with the Real" on the Internet) Internecine squabbling drove those insights underground. Graduate students could not develop what they barely knew. The moral: prophets are often ignored by their own people. And Gresham's law still operates. In the Middle Ages, Arabs, Jews and Christians benefitted by rediscovering lost insights of Aristotle. Today, we all can benefit by recovering lost insights from Aristotle's best linear descendants. This fine book might spark that recovery.--John C. Cahalan, Methuen, MA.
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Author:Cahalan, John C.
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2012
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