Maritain’s Response: Willing Being

In her book The Life of the Mind, Hannah Arendt provides us with this fascinating quote by Maurice Merleau-Ponty: “To reduce perception to the thought of perceiving . . . is to take out an insurance against doubt whose premiums are more onerous than the loss for which it is to indemnify us: for it is to… move to a type of certitude that will never restore to us the ‘there is’ of the world.” (p. 49)

This indeed is the central philosophical problem since Descartes; and, I argue, the central political-theoretical problem of our time. The problem of truth is today a political problem.

Let’s explore one possible response to the problem posed by Descartes and reframed by Hegel. Jacques Maritain in Preface to Metaphysics:

“No sooner do we possess the intuition of intelligible extra-mental being, than it divides, so to speak under our eyes, into two conceptual objects. On the one side there is being as simply existing or capable of existence, as simply given to the mind, or, if you prefer, as a ‘thing’ in the modern sense of the word… On the other side, in another concept which is still being, but under a different aspect, being is perceived as involving certain exigencies and certain laws, or, if you prefer, as recognized, admitted, affirmed by the mind — or as perfection and determination. These two complementary aspects of being are apprehended by the mind, distinguished, in a purely ideal fashion, as two different concepts expressed by the same word.” 

Maritain thus acknowledges the same problem that Hegel points out in Phenomenology of Spirit. That there is a split in being at the moment of apprehension is taken as a given in philosophy. The question becomes what we do with this split.

Maritain’s approach is to recognize that in the event of perception, the mind “intuits” that between the two eidetic manifestations of this “split in being,” it is “thinking the same thing.” It is, in effect to will the identity principle:

“Then the mind intuits that in these two functionally different notions it is thinking of the same thing. It sees intuitively the first principle of all which it will formulate thus: each being is what it is. Here ‘each being’ is being given to the mind and ‘what it is‘ is its intelligible determination, being as affirmed by the mind. Being thus, if we may say so, duplicates itself. To its aspect as posited in existence it adds its aspect as intelligibly determined, as an essential quality.”

In an earlier post, I pointed out the necessity of the habitus and the moment of access to ens in quantum ens for comprehending the identity principle in all of its philosophical richness. It is what Maritain thinks makes this willing of the identity principle possible.

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.