This essay is part of Public Discourse’s Who’s Who series, which introduces and critically engages with important thinkers who are often referenced in political and cultural debates, but whose ideas might not be widely known or understood. The series previously considered the life and work of Antonio Gramsci, Jacques Maritain, Michael Oakeshott and Harry V. Jaffa and Allan Bloom.
In his 1998 encyclical letter Fides et Ratio, St. John Paul II enjoined Catholic philosophers to recover the “sapiential” dimension of philosophical inquiry. This dimension means viewing the various realms of human knowledge with an eye to the ultimate principle of intelligibility in God. The sapiential dimension privileges the contemplative over the practical, and, within the practical order, moral reasoning over technical or productive thought. As exemplars of this kind of thought, John Paul mentioned John Henry Newman, Jacques Maritain, and Vladimir Soloviev. He might well have mentioned Charles De Koninck, whose work embodied the sapiential dimension of philosophy to a rare and powerful degree.
Alas, De Koninck’s thought is less well known than it should be, although his name has appeared more frequently in recent debates on contemporary political and cultural issues. His most important work was published fragmentarily and in somewhat out-of-the-way venues. It’s known to a relatively small group of specialist philosophers. Beyond those circles, he’s known for participating in an acrimonious debate about the character of the common good and Catholic personalism in the mid-1940s. This is unfortunate because that debate clarified less than it might have, and it distracted attention from De Koninck’s more general perspective on modernity that we very much need. It has also encouraged observers to pick sides between De Koninck and Jacques Maritain, the supposed target of De Koninck’s book on the common good. This too is unfortunate, for we need what both great thinkers have to teach us.
De Koninck’s Life
Charles De Koninck was born in Belgium in 1906. His family emigrated to the United States when he was a child and he spent seven years in Detroit. He returned to Belgium to finish his schooling, which focused on natural science and literature. He studied Thomistic philosophy with the Dominicans and might have joined that order but for health problems that plagued his early life. He continued his philosophical studies at Louvain, where he earned a doctorate in 1934. Shortly after that he was appointed as a professor of the philosophy of nature at Laval University in Quebec and remained there for the rest of his life, serving as dean of the philosophy faculty from 1939 to 1956 and again from 1964 until his untimely death in 1965.
De Koninck wrote his doctoral dissertation on the thought of the English physicist Sir Arthur Eddington. His enduring intellectual interests concerned the relationship between the philosophy of nature and the achievements of modern science, especially of mathematized physics. Many partisans hold that one must choose between ancient and modern thought because the two worldviews are supposedly incompatible. But De Koninck pursued a project of integration. His intent was always to preserve what was most important in the premodern view of things against various forms of reductionism, especially the premodern view that the commonsense experience of the world and of human affairs really did reveal truths. At the same time, he accepted and admired the achievements of modern science, especially of physics. He aimed to set them into a more comprehensive context by defending the continuing relevance of a classical philosophy of nature that cannot be reduced to experimental science.
For De Koninck, modern people believe that science has simply replaced the premodern understanding of nature because it offers a superior worldview. While he recognized the value of modern scientific achievements, he insisted that key aspects of the premodern view still held—and that the modern view was limited in certain respects. For example, he noted that modern science focuses on specific aspects of experience—a focus enabled by the symbolic language of mathematics—and enables the manipulation of nature to serve a variety of human purposes. He accepted all of this. But he also held that quantified analyses of reality should not be mistaken for proof that reality only consists of atoms rather than objects of normal human experience. He wanted to defend both.
Moreover, he was also concerned that the practical aims of science tended to neglect prudence and eschew moral supervision. He aimed to see prudence, art, and scientific reasoning in the context of the contemplative perspective of metaphysics. As helpful as the practical results of modern science are to human life, knowing the highest things remains the highest vocation of man.
De Koninck’s work was articulated in many lectures and articles. While he never completed any grand synthesis of his view, his Whidden Lectures, delivered at McMaster University in 1959, and published in 1960 as The Hollow Universe, survey aspects of his view applied to mathematics and physics. The book’s third lecture, “The Lifeless World of Biology,” observed that the discipline had developed in such a way that it was no longer clear how it related to life itself. Biologists’ attempts to explain life through basic units (such as molecules) that are unintelligible through normal human observation was one example of modern science’s tendency toward reductionism. By contrast, a sound philosophy of nature informed by Aristotle’s teachings could reconnect modern experimental science’s valuable achievements with the world of human experience and, ultimately, with a sense of the cosmos as an ordered whole.
Defending the Common Good
De Koninck’s sapiential approach to all areas of reality is also behind the writings for which he is most often invoked today, those defending the primacy of the common good against the personalism of the mid-1940s. But the results of these efforts are more ambiguous. In his 1943 essay, On the Primacy of the Common Good against the Personalists, De Koninck was concerned that personalist philosophical currents building since at least the 1920s had imported dangerous confusions into Catholic thinking. Though they have a variety of distinct views, personalists shared a desire to defend the dignity of the human person in the face of the political threats posed by both right- and left-wing forms of totalitarian politics, themselves often enabled by modern technology.
The error of the personalists who were the object of De Koninck’s criticism in the essay was that of thinking the common good is for the sake of and subordinate to the individual person’s good. They often wrongly took the common good to be the good of society understood as a kind of superperson and thus at odds with the good of individual human persons. The personalists were anxious to see the common good as instrumental to the happiness of individual persons. This meant that persons should simply be seen as their own ends. Some might even understand the beatific vision to be an essentially private good. This stems from the idea that the person is a kind of supreme end valued above both the order of the universe and political society. The result of such misunderstandings would be either destructive individualism—“individualism” might be a better term for what De Koninck rejected than “personalism”—or its opposite, Marxist collectivism. Either way, far from protecting human dignity, personalism threatened it profoundly.
De Koninck refrained from naming the “personalists” he aimed to criticize, save for a few minor figures. But because Jacques Maritain, the most famous Catholic intellectual in the world at the time, had been associated with personalism since the 1920s, many assumed he was the principal target. He may have been, although it is more likely some of his less careful followers provoked De Koninck’s criticisms. What is most important is that Maritain himself certainly did not hold the views De Koninck condemned. Unfortunately, one of Maritain’s friends, Dominican Father I. T. Eschmann, complicated matters by writing a defense of Maritain as holding the views De Koninck rejected, though Maritain never actually held those views. De Koninck published a coruscating reply that was longer than his original book. (Eschmann’s defense of Maritain and De Koninck’s reply are both reprinted in Ralph McInerny’s second volume of writings by De Koninck.) Maritain clarified his own views in his 1946 book, The Person and the Common Good, but there was never any direct confrontation with De Koninck.
De Koninck’s basic points are all important truths: the transcendence of the common good and its status as part of the proper good rather than external to it, the nature of the common good as a final cause, and its superiority to purely private goods. His decision to criticize a highly abstract and anonymous “personalism,” however, was less salutary. As noted above, there are many personalisms and the one De Koninck condemned was not Maritain’s. This is even more important to keep in mind when one considers the personalisms of thinkers like Dietrich von Hildebrand and St. John Paul II. Moreover, De Koninck was not primarily a political philosopher. The relevance of his ideas to politics is not always clear, save in the case of his discussion of Marxism, which he had studied carefully.
Sometimes De Koninck has been thought to have held far-right political sympathies. There is no evidence for this. De Koninck supported the Free French cause in Quebec. At some cost, he publicly denounced antisemitism in 1943, for which he was congratulated by Maritain himself. He was a proponent of freedom of conscience and supported the existence of nondenominational schools in Quebec, where the education system was, as in Ireland, essentially a monopoly of the Catholic Church. Asked to give his opinion of a draft law on child welfare, De Koninck criticized the proposal on the grounds that it violated the natural law by going too far in potentially violating the rights of parents. He served as an expert advisor to the Tremblay Commission, empaneled in 1956 to study the relationship of Canada’s federal government to those of the provinces. De Koninck produced a substantial paper defending the limits of the national government and the liberties of the provinces on Aristotelian grounds. In all of these practical matters, his views were not far from those of Maritain and Yves Simon. They were also consistent with De Koninck’s views about modern science, and his efforts to interpret modern democratic institutions through the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition. Therefore, he certainly didn’t reject democratic institutions. What he did reject was both Hobbes’s individualistically-grounded statism and Marxist collectivism.
Charles De Koninck died in Rome in February 1965. He was there as a theological advisor to Maurice Cardinal Roy at the Second Vatican Council. He left behind Zoe, his wife of thirty-two years, eleven children (a twelfth died at birth), and many grateful students. Among the most distinguished of De Koninck’s students was Ralph McInerny, who taught at the University of Notre Dame for fifty years and, shortly before his own death, translated and edited two volumes of his teacher’s writings. McInerny also directed the Jacques Maritain Center at Notre Dame for many years—additional evidence that we need not choose Maritain or De Koninck.
We need Maritain’s understanding of democracy, human rights, and pluralism, as Daniel Philpott and Ross Douthat have recently reminded us. We also need De Koninck’s philosophy of nature both as an aid in understanding the achievements of modern science and as a bulwark against reductionism. After all, reductionism is just as dangerous to human dignity as atomistic individualism and collectivist totalitarianism—all of which he and Maritain condemned in the name of the common good.
Photo credit: Image from the frontispiece of Armand Gagné (ed.), Mélanges à la mémoire de Charles De Koninck (Québec: Presses de l’Université Laval, 1968).