Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Karol Wotyla, once more with feeling

I will leave the topic of the philosophpy of JPII soon enough, but there is at least one more thing which needs to be said before I go. Walker Percy once said (I only remember this well enough to paraphrase) something like, "Before I die, I want to give a definitive refutation to the mind-body dualism which has infected all of Western culture for 400 years, and write a decent novel. Frankly, I suspect the latter one will be more difficult."

I thought of this, in the context of Peter Simpson's talk at the conference last weekend, in some ways the most profound of of the presentations. His immediate subject was the phenomenology of Wotyla in regard to the foundation of democratic polity. For Wotyla the most important phenomenon is 'I act'. A person's act shapes the person as well as external world. Because there must be some sphere where a person is free to act, in this way he attains his right to self-determination in the philosophical sense. Therefore, a pluralistic polity is in principle legitimate because, in granting a sphere for self-determination, it is true to the anthropological nature of the person.

But, the underlying phenomenology of Wotyla has much wider application than that, arguably even more important ones. The phenomenon 'I act' has priority over 'I think' which is where Rene DesCartes left us. DesCartes said "I think, therefore I am," the cornerstone of mind-body dualism. Ie, the mind and the body are separate things which have some relationship, maybe even a tenuous one, to each other. The problem with this is that in this scenario, it is only the mind which is really alive. To the extent that the body is animated at all, it is animated by the mind and is quicky dead when that source of animation is gone. If this is so, life is a more or less antiseptic flow of ideas and mind-games, which many fear is where we stand today in the West.

But if we follow Wotyla, we see that we are constituted in our acts at least as much as our thoughts. Our bodies define us at least as much as our minds, inasmuch as the two can be distinguished. We truly have the freedom to be whole persons.

As an aside, Prof Simpson claimed at the beginning of his talk that Wotyla was one of the very leading lights of 20th century philosophy. John Haldane spoke later, and denied this. That is, that the contributions of Wotyla were important, and worth discussing, but in the context of 20th century philosophy he was not on the A-list. Neither man elaborated on this in any detail, but my guess is that this is a function of a difference over the nature of philosophy as opposed to a difference over JPII. That is, at one level philosophy is the opposite of utilitarianism. It cares not one whit for the practical application of anything, but rather is an inquiry into the world motivated by the love of truth, and the repudiation of falsehood. But nonetheless this does have utilitarian consequences, because a person armed with the truth can do more things, be a better person even, than one without.

And the application of this different understanding of philosophy relates to this particular subject above. As 20th century philosophers go, Wotyla did not build the complex intellectual edifice of others. Certainly he less influential in the contemporary academy than at least a few (eg, Wittgenstein, Derrida, Heidegger, Rorty, Rawls). But for what his work means for the good of the human person Wotyla is at least the equal of anybody.

1 comment:

Prior Peter, OSB said...

How's Krakow?
Whether JPII is a significant 20th century thinker depends on context. In the academy, he won't cut it. However, we just started a study group here at the Monastery on his writings, and we won't be starting one for Derrida or Foucault any time soon. Obviously, we are not much of a force culturally; but we are most assuredly not alone. Personally, I believe that his 'imprimatur' on personalism, his sustained reflection on the acting person and his defense of reason will influence many future philosophers. Whether they will take over the academy is another issue.