Jacques Maritain’s Habitus

In my last post I spoke about the problem as posed by Aristotle in the Posterior Analytics. I’d like to expound on this problem as posed elsewhere by Aristotle, this time in Book VI of the Nicomachean Ethics:

“If, then, the states of mind by which we have truth and are never deceived about things invariable or even variable are scientific knowledge, practical wisdom, philosophic wisdom, and intuitive reason, and it cannot be any of the three (i.e. practical wisdom, scientific knowledge, or philosophic wisdom), the remaining alternative is that it is intuitive reason that grasps the first principles.”

Nicomachean Ethics, 1141a 5 ff.

Here we find that intuitive reason that we saw before. The greek used here is nous, one of the watchwords for our current endeavor. What does Aristotle mean by nous? While I am not by any means ready to venture a global definition of the term at this point (indeed, a life spent solely in attempting to understand what nous is would not be ill spent), in De Anima we find Aristotle describing it in a limited way regarding its role in “intuitive reasoning” as follows:

“I call nous that faculty by which the soul reasons (dianoeitai) and
comes thereby to belief.”

De Anima, 429a 23

While there is some controversy over the issue, it seems clear to me that, based on the way Aristotle frames the role played by nous in Posterior Analytics, it must be this sort of faculty rather than just a deeper level of induction as Bolton argues in the paper cited above.

So we again return to the question from the last post: what kind of intuition could this be? One possible answer is to be found in Jacques Maritain’s Preface to Metaphysics. In the 3rd lecture of the book, Maritain describes a sort of intuitional or mystical experience that can provide one knowledge of the first principles. Maritain calls it an experience of the ens in quantum ens, or “being as such.” (p. 27)

Before proceeding, we must explain the role habitus plays in fertilizing the garden from which this moment of intuition can spring. Maritain thinks that, required for any such experience, one must attain to a certain capability or readiness in order to access the real. The section is worth quoting at length:

“As you know, to each science there belongs a distinctive intellectual virtue. There is, therefore an intellectual virtue proper to the metaphysician. And this virtue, or habitus, corresponds to being as the object of the intuition just mentioned. We must therefore distinguish two “Lights” in scholastic parlance, one pertaining to the object, the other to the habitus, or intellectual virtue. The characteristic mode of intellectual apprehension or eidetic visualisation — the degree of immateriality, of spirituality in the manner in which the mind grasps the object and conforms to it, demanded by the very nature of trans-objective reality as it presents to the mind as its object a particular intelligible facet — constitutes what the ancients termed the ratio formalis sub qua, the objective light in which at a given degree of knowledge objects are knowable by the intellect. At the same time proportionate to this objective light there is a subjective light perfecting the subjective activity of the intellect, by which the intellect itself is proportioned to a given object, fitted to apprehend it. That is why Thomists say that the habitus is a lumen, a light, not in the objective but in the effective order. For it is concerned with the production or effectuation of the act of knowing.” 

Jacques Maritain, Preface to Metaphysics (p. 26-27)

One possible way of conceiving the role of habitus is brought out nicely in Professor David Walsh’s magisterial book The Modern Philosophical Revolution: The Luminosity of Existence. Walsh ingeniously teases out a grand narrative from a litany of modern thinkers which all point to the absolutely essential role that the luminosity or mystery of the self plays in understanding the basis and proper limits of philosophy. Without a certain openness to the unutterable profundity of personal existence, philosophy becomes a useless academic exercise (or worse, a tool for justifying evil) rather than a means for understanding reality.

Habitus consists in a growing-toward this realization, an “opening up” to the contents of what is there for us in philosophy as a properly lifelong practice. Yet while the habitus paves the way in a sense for the moment of access to being itself, the experience of intuition is ontologically prior to the habitus. This flash of insight, made possible by habitus, is in a way kept alive after the fact as the metaphysician undergoing this process perceives the nature of reality with more and more clarity.

Proceeding to the actual experience itself, I again quote Maritain at length:

“We are confronted here with a genuine intuition, a perception direct and immediate, an intuition not in the technical sense which the ancients attached to the term, but in the sense we may accept from modern philosophy. It is a very simple sight, superior to any discursive reasoning or demonstration, because it is the source of demonstration. It is a sight whose content and implications no words of human speech can exhaust or adequately express and in which in a moment of decisive emotion, as it were, of spiritual conflagration, the soul is in contact, a living, penetrating and illuminating contact, with a reality which it touches and which takes hold of it.”

Maritain describes an experience in which one is able to apprehend being itself in one gargantuan and overflowing, sublime, yet fleeting moment. This sudden stroke of inexpressible knowledge, a flash “pregnant with ontological realism,” to use Maritain’s phrase, is akin to a mystical experience. It cannot be accessed through any technique or process. It comes not from superior technical knowledge of philosophy or any other subject. It is a stroke of genius, a moment of insight, a singular instance of absolute knowledge that allows one to know for the rest of his life that “I am a self… [and that I have access to] the reality of my being, the profound first principle which makes me exist outside nonentity.” (p. 28)  According to Maritain, from this foundation we can continue to cultivate the habitus into higher levels of knowledge through the continued practice of philosophy as a way of life.

Reading between the lines and other Straussian thoughts

Previously, I wrote about Strauss’s method of “reading between the lines.” After searching around for a link to a page that would explain this idea, I found that there were very few places on the internet where it is actually explained. To rectify this problem, I’d highly recommend reading Leo Strauss’s Persecution and the Art of Writing. It is a magnificent book.

But if you don’t have time to read it, I’d like to provide a quick précis of the idea. Essentially, Strauss explains that, oftentimes in history, writers are under certain constraints while writing. This may take a cultural form, as in Maimonides’ The Guide of the Perplexed, written under the constraints of Jewish hermeneutic tradition, or a legal form, as Spinoza felt in his critique of the relation between philosophy and theology Theologico-Politcal Treatise (apparently under threat of persecution by the Church). Whatever constraints an author may be under, they often are led to “hide” their “true” teaching behind layers of contradiction, ambiguity, obfuscation, or misleading emphasis. Thus, it is up to the reader in a sense to familiarize herself with this tendency and dive into a study of the historical, personal, linguistic, formal and cultural details related to a work.

Strauss breaks out two levels of a book that can be analyzed, the exoteric and the esoteric. This leads us to Strauss’s hermeneutic approach to literature, and what were, for me, the reason for reading the book in the first place. Tools like these are extremely important for any student of the humanities, particularly for the student of politics.

The exoteric is the level of the obvious, the level that at which most of us engage when we watch the average action/adventure/comedy film, read the news or an entertaining listicle on the internet. It’s for those moments when all we want is a good, entertaining story or “just the facts.” As Strauss points out, it’s also the level that Spinoza and many other Enlightenment thinkers wanted to popularize in order for the masses to advance into the daylight of widely-known scientific knowledge. Strauss calls this intelligible as opposed to hieroglyphic writing. Spinoza seems to want to make all writing intelligible so that everyone who cares to read any book can immediately (i.e., without mediation) understand it. According to Strauss, Spinoza wanted to end the practice of hieroglyphic writing to effect this change, even to the point of rejecting the entire tradition of political philosophy in the Tractatus Politicus.

However, when it comes to reading old books, including the work of Spinoza himself, this is only half the picture. Strauss spends a substantial portion of Persecution showing how Spinoza uses hieroglyphic techniques to mask what he really wants to say. And, in fact, Strauss argues that the real aim of the Theologico-Political Treatise was to articulate the relation between reason and revelation while providing practical suggestions for how the two should inform the political (p. 200).

Thus we are left wondering, is intelligible writing really even possible? Thinkers like Derrida and Gadamer hold that we are always involved in language in such a way that access to a sense of what the author meant or how he engaged with his social, intellectual and political milieu is not even possible. Strauss, on the other hand, holds that access of this kind is possible and that it in fact opens up a whole new level of understanding (esoteric) for the reader willing to do this type of intellectual heavy lifting.

This opens up the paradox for the writer trying to do this type of analysis who comes across writers like Spinoza who assert the possibility of intelligible, exoteric writing. In Strauss’s words,

“Historical understanding, the revitalization of earlier ways of thinking was originally meant as a corrective for the specific shortcomings of the modern mind. This impulse was however vitiated from the outset by the belief which accompanied it, that modern thought… was superior to the thought of the past. Thus, what was primarily intended as a corrective for the modern mind, was easily perverted into a confirmation of the dogma of the superiority of modern thought to all earlier thought. Historical understanding lost its liberating force by becoming historicism… (p. 158)

There was a meeting between Gadamer and Derrida on this point. I need to read it to get a better sense for how these thinkers understand this problem.