- Adventures in Philosophy at Notre Dame by Kenneth M. Sayre
This is a valuable account of the transition of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame from one in the 1930s when it served the founding purpose of the university to its heterogenous present. It is more than that for it is also a chronicle of the secularization of a once Catholic university, and at yet another level, the book may also be read as an autobiographical account of Kenneth Sayre’s experience at the university, beginning with his arrival in South Bend in 1958. The story is told focusing upon the contributions of distinguished faculty members who are taken to represent each phase of the transition, beginning with Leo Ward and continuing with Joseph Bochenski, Ralph McInerny, Ernan McMullin, Alvin Planting, Philip Quinn, and Alasdair McIntyre, all somewhat different in their philosophical orientation. Brief biographical sketches are provided for each. There are also a dozen pages devoted to John Jenkins, the current philosopher/president of the University of Notre Dame.
When Sayre arrived at the University of Notre Dame in 1958, the philosophy department was heavily Thomistic or Scholastic in orientation. Having recently completed his doctoral dissertation at Harvard University after previous work at Grinnell College, Sayre found this orientation mystifying. He came with little or no knowledge of the Catholic faith, or of its supporting philosophy and theology. Within Catholic intellectual circles it is common knowledge that some philosophies open one to the Catholic faith, whereas others close it as an intellectual option. It is further acknowledged that there is no such thing as Catholic philosophy, although there may be Catholic philosophers. Sayre makes no attempt to disguise his amazement that any intelligent person would embrace a philosophical position on the recommendation of an ecclesiastical authority. The reference, of course, is to Pope Leo XIII’s Aeterni Patris and its endorsement of a fledgling Thomistic movement for its relevance to both philosophy and theology in their confrontation with the skeptical philosophies of the Enlightenment. Sayre’s “Thomism” is a character of Aristotelian realism that remains perennially vital.
Without doubt it was Ernan McMullin who, as chair, put the department on its quest for respectability in the larger, secular philosophical world. That transition mirrored the changes that many state and private institutions experienced in the early-twentieth century, moving from an Hegelian, idealistic, or religious orientation to a secular or noncommittal one. Sayre was the first non-Catholic philosopher to be hired at Notre Dame. By 1999, only seventeen of the forty-three philosophy professors were Catholic. As a consequence, the department entered the new millennium with no consensus about where it should be heading or what should be taught at the college level. From Sayre’s account one gathers that Theodore Hesburgh as president, more than anyone else, was responsible for the secularization of the University of Notre Dame. [End Page 182]
In the closing pages of Adventures in Philosophy at Notre Dame, Sayre does not disguise his admiration of Jenkins—namely, for the latter’s “steadfast courage” in allowing the Vagina Monologues to be shown and performed at Notre Dame in spite of the disapproval of Bishop John D’Arcy, the local Ordinary. Similarly, he is full of praise for Jenkins’s invitation to President Barack Obama to give Notre Dame’s commencement address in 2009—again, in spite of Bishop D’Arcy’s disapproval, exemplified by his refusal to attend the commencement ceremony itself. Sayre also notes that Mary Ann Glendon, former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, declined to accept the Laetare Medal on that occasion.
Sayre’s personal prejudices and ill-formed judgments, although annoying, do not mar the factual content of the book. Its statistical comparisons of before and after resemble those that chronicle the decline of American Catholicism; indeed, one may say, of the decline of Western culture itself. Lost in the pursuit of ephemeral goals is the pursuit of wisdom, once thought to...