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  • Converts to the Real: Catholicism and the Making of Continental Philosophy by Edward Baring
  • Jude P. Dougherty
BARING, Edward. Converts to the Real: Catholicism and the Making of Continental Philosophy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2019. 493 pp. Cloth, $49.95

At one time in the English-speaking world, "Continental philosophy" was a term of abuse. The name designated those European philosophers who did not fit the Anglo-American mold. Edward Baring, early on in Converts to the Real, notices the anomaly, the designation of one philosophy by its predominant mode, the other by its geographical reach, that is, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, and Spain.

"In the first decades of the twentieth century," Baring writes, "neoscholasticism was by any reasonable norm the most influential philosophical movement in the world." It was this loosely defined network of like-minded philosophers that promoted the rapid spread of phenomenology, first within Europe, and subsequently to the Americas. Baring finds that the first conference devoted to phenomenology outside of Germany was hosted in 1932 by the Societé Thomiste in Paris. Enrico Castelli, a Catholic, organized in 1946 the first international conference on existentialism (by then regarded as a form of phenomenology), a meeting that ended with a papal audience at the Vatican.

In what he calls "a preliminary report," Baring reveals that self-professed Catholic philosophers, in the period before World War II, produced more than 40 percent of all books and articles on Husserl, Heidegger, and Scheler that were written in French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch. After 1945, Catholic philosophers were overshadowed by other proponents. Phenomenology's methods and [End Page 134] discipline, Baring observes, attracted agnostics and atheists, as well as Protestants and Catholics.

Martin Heidegger and Alexandre Kojève are cited as prime examples of atheists making use of Husserl. Baring finds that Catholics contributed to the phenomenological awaking of other atheists, such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Beauvoir was educated at the College Saint-Marie in Neuilly and the Institute Catholique in Paris. Sartre studied Being and Time with Marius Perrin, a priest who had arranged for the book to be smuggled into the German camp where they were both imprisoned.

In sum, Baring finds that, starting from its home base at the University of Munich, phenomenology spread along Catholic networks throughout most of Europe within reach of the universal church, bypassing only the strongholds of Scandinavia and the U.K. Early representatives of the phenomenological movement in America were James M. Edie and Joseph Kockelmans. Neither claimed to be Catholic, but both were trained at Catholic centers, Edie at Louvain, Kockelmans at Rome.

After World War II, Heidegger's existential version of phenomenology became the center of a European-wide debate over the relationship between political efficiency and freedom. Baring provides an insightful account of the exchange between Geovanni Gentile, a Facist, and Christian thinkers like Luigi Stefanini, Enrico Castelli, and Augusto Guzzo.

At one point Baring is obliged to ask: Is there something that can be labeled "Catholic philosophy?" Following the promulgation of Leo XIII's encyclical Aeterni Patris (1879), it was assumed by many that Thomism had become the official philosophy of the Catholic Church, disciples of Scotus, Augustine, and Descartes notwithstanding.

As Pope Leo was confronted with the materialisms and skepticism that followed the Enlightenment, with the French Revolution shortly to erupt, he was aware of the need to defend the rationality of the Catholic faith, aware that some philosophies obviously open one to the Catholic faith while others close it as an intellectual option. Leo recognized that philosophy can be fought only by philosophy. Aeterni Patris endorsed what was then a fledgling Thomistic movement in Jesuit circles, a movement that expanded dramatically after the pope's intervention. Thomism was more a recovery of classical philosophy, specifically that of Aristotle, than the advancement of a new philosophy.

In response to his question Baring finds a variety of answers. Emile Brehier took the position that philosophy is a purely rational affair. Insofar as philosophy takes any of its principles from sacred scripture, it becomes a theology. Christian philosophy for Brehier is a contradiction in terms. Maurice Blondel believed that philosophy could...


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