In 1990, at the behest of the International Institute of Philosophy, French philosopher Dominique Janicaud wrote an essay accusing the “second generation” of French phenomenologists of having moved the field in an explicitly theological direction. Janicaud claimed that Emmanuel Levinas, Jean-Luc Marion, Michel Henry, and Jean-Louis Chrétien had corrupted phenomenology by each introducing a transcendent dimension into phenomenological reflection and study—whether by explicating the absolute alterity of the Other (Levinas), developing a philosophy of donation (Marion), articulating a foundational autoaffectivity that undergirds consciousness (Henry), or seeming to mix explicitly theological reflections into otherwise rigorously phenomenological analyses (Chrétien).
Janicaud believed this cabal to have forsworn its proper analytical realm—that of immanence—for an otherworldly transcendence. He took their work to pose a heretical question: whether there is a “paradoxical revelation of Transcendence in a source at the heart of phenomenality.” The debate that opened in 1990 continues to work itself out today, a growing interdisciplinary literature in the murky space between phenomenology and theology notwithstanding.
What makes the field of phenomenology—and continental philosophy generally—uniquely susceptible, even vulnerable, to religious claims and concerns? Philosopher-theologians such as David Bentley Hart have remarked on its natural openness to theological styles of questioning and dialogue. According to a new book by Edward Baring, the purported “theological turn” in French phenomenology is hardly unprecedented, and may even activate currents that are endemic to the movement itself. That’s because, Baring argues, Catholicism is the reason for the movement’s spread and establishment as “continental philosophy” in the first place.
The central argument advanced in Converts to the Real is that phenomenology’s rise in the early twentieth century was dependent on the work of Catholic philosophers who engaged with it, wrote translations and introductions to bring it to new contexts, and developed arguments that would be picked up and used by later non-Catholic thinkers against different targets within the discipline. While a variety of nationally focused histories have brought local reasons for phenomenology’s adoption and success to the fore, Baring’s purports to be the first to argue for a transnational explanation—one that challenges the working assumptions of intellectual history as a discipline.
“The peculiar nature of conversion informs my methodological approach,” Baring writes. Rather than allow context to determine the meaning of the texts he examines, he makes the conscious beliefs of his subjects a point of thematic focus. Belief motivates the kinds of intellectual exchange that result in conversion, and the multidirectional conversions he takes up in Converts to the Real “mark the point where institutional or political explanations of conceptual change break down.”
Not that the institutional settings are unimportant: They provide essential contexts for the individual dramas of belief and conversion Baring documents. He begins in 1879 with Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Aeterni Patris, in which Leo called for the restoration of the glory of Catholic philosophy under the aegis of St. Thomas Aquinas. By the turn of the twentieth century, after two decades of institution and network building, neo-Thomism had become arguably the largest and most widespread philosophical movement in the world. Leo XIII’s vision was to give Catholic theology a philosophical foundation that could help it to engage with the main currents of modern thought. The spirit of recrudescent Thomism authorized by Aeterni Patris was missional, its goal the intellectual conversion of modernity.
Here Baring introduces a community of thinkers whose contributions during this period have been obscured. Progressive neo-Thomists who embraced the spirit of the philosophical revival included Désiré-Joseph Mercier, a future cardinal in Belgium who confronted positivism and Kantianism with arguments for the objectivity of judgment and access to mind-independent reality, codified in his doctrines of “Criteriology.” Progressive neo-Thomism would give Aquinas’s philosophy an epistemology and a concomitant sense of method, examining the subjective side of knowing while holding to an objective reality accessible to the mind. Some, like the young Martin Heidegger, sought an “evolution” of Thomism that would better suit it to its new intellectual context. The problem was that few outside Catholic circles seemed to notice.
Then came Edmund Husserl’s Logical Investigations, published in two volumes in 1900 and 1901. Its emphasis on intentionality—the idea that consciousness is always directed, that it is always consciousness of something—came to Husserl through empirical psychologist (and wayward Catholic) Franz Brentano, who had adapted it from medieval sources. Neo-Thomists saw in Husserl’s version of the doctrine a reopening of modern thought to an objective mind-independent world, and this raised the prospect of both a fruitful dialogue and a useful cobelligerence. By 1910, neo-Thomists would begin to discuss and debate these new ideas through their international network. Baring estimates that Catholic philosophers produced around 40 percent of the early literature—including translations, surveys, and introductions—that brought phenomenology into a variety of new national contexts.
The inevitable betrayal came, Baring writes, in 1913, with the publication of Husserl’s Ideas, a book in which the Master radicalized some of his earlier work in an openly idealist direction. The epoché, a suspension of the naive natural attitude necessary to firm up eidetic insights into the realm of ideal objectivities, gave way to a more radical bracketing meant to clear a path to “the purity of transcendental consciousness.” In this stage of Husserl’s work, the real world becomes “dependent” on transcendental subjectivity. The door he had opened from modern critical philosophy to realism appeared to have closed.
Pope Leo XIII had been succeeded by this point, too, and his successor, Pius X, embraced a more hostile antimodernism that left little room for philosophical dialogue. Strict or “paleo” Thomists such as Étienne Gilson and Jacques Maritain enter Baring’s narrative here, advancing staunchly traditional ontological arguments against their progressive counterparts. Compromised by their dalliances with Husserl’s nascent idealism, the progressive neo-Thomist proponents of a “critical realist” vision began a long descent into intellectual obscurity, leaving their “paleo” counterparts to take up the mantle of twentieth-century Thomism for themselves alone.
Then, in the late 1920s, a French thinker named Gabriel Marcel converted to Catholicism and began attending Jacques Maritain’s discussion group in the Paris suburb of Meudon. Over a period of several years, Marcel would struggle against the body of philosophical dogma his friend Maritain represented, eventually breaking with Thomism and founding his own study group. Here begins a second essential stage of the Catholic transmission of phenomenology in Baring’s account: Marcel would come to characterize his own position as “Christian existentialism,” and in his living room the phenomenologies of “Husserl, Heidegger, and Scheler” began their uptake into France through the work of such participants as Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Paul Ricoeur, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty.
Baring documents a variety of intellectual debts each of members of this group owes to the Catholic convert Marcel. French existentialism was so closely associated with Christianity in the 1930s that thinkers like Jean Wahl dedicated themselves to finding a secular articulation that could resist the gravitational pull of religious faith, an effort that would culminate in Sartre’s aggressive arguments against Marcel and his ilk in a 1945 lecture, “Existentialism Is a Humanism”—a curious outcome, considering that Sartre privately acknowledged deriving salient features of his philosophy from Marcel’s work.
A wild, generative ferment characterizes the period Baring studies. Edith Stein, a Catholic convert who entered the “magnificent cathedral” of scholastic thought by way of a phenomenological portal, contributed a chapter to Husserl’s 1929 festschrift that editor Martin Heidegger initially rejected on the basis of its unusual form, which was an imagined late-night encounter between the Master and St. Thomas in which Aquinas recommends scholastic realism as a corrective to Husserl’s idealism. Around the same time, Marcel refused to defend the principle of identity during a study group with Maritain, a repudiation that Maritain’s wife, Raïssa, “compared to Peter’s disavowal of Christ.”
Many of Baring’s narratives hinge on dramatic reversals. Max Scheler became the figurehead of a traditionalist Catholic youth movement in 1920s Germany before embracing panentheism and then dying in 1928. In the 1930s, some among Scheler’s followers would embrace fascism, and others oppose it, on the basis of his baptized Nietzschean vitalism. A peculiar indeterminacy on the level of phenomenology’s basic conceptual character has left it open to drastic revision and reinterpretation in each generation, and this indeterminacy has precipitated wildly contradictory political applications as well.
Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time led dialectical theologians and strict neo-Thomists to interpret his thought in exactly opposed ways, each side arguing that his atheism resulted from flaws that were directly sourced from their theological opponents. Baring himself provocatively argues for a consistency in emphasis between Heidegger’s habilitation thesis on Duns Scotus in 1916 and his Being and Time in 1927—a consistency that becomes apparent when one takes Heidegger’s background in progressive neo-Thomism into account.
Baring quotes Ricoeur as saying, “Phenomenology is in large part the history of Husserlian heresies”—“heresies” being an apt word. Baring’s history of phenomenology is itself phenomenological in its attention to hundreds of dramas of belief, the outcomes of which—contextualized but not determined by the Catholic Church—helped imprint the continental philosophy of the twentieth century with the strangeness of their unforeseen patterns.
The product of almost a decade of research, Converts to the Real lucidly and succinctly captures the essential points of contention in rarefied local debates across Europe, and the hundred-plus pages of notes contain citations that refer to a breadth of national philosophical literatures. Even so, some voices are left out or underdeveloped. Edith Stein and Karol Wojtyła, phenomenology’s pair of saints, are introduced for illustrative purposes only, and their own philosophical contributions are inessential to Baring’s larger narrative. More surprising within the main story is the absence of Maurice Blondel and Henri Bergson, the former of whom makes several passing appearances in the lives of his students and colleagues but whose important preliminary contributions to the story Baring tells are never quite elaborated. But given the enormous archive he worked with, these absences are understandable and do little to detract from the book’s core insights.
In his lament over the conversion of phenomenology, Janicaud expressed regret for its opening to accommodate the transcendent, but perhaps it was never closed in the first place. In this, phenomenology reflects an aspect of the more general project of knowledge in the humanities, which many thinkers are attempting to move in both postsecular and postcritical directions. By tempering the institutional and political explanations of individual belief with an attention to the dynamic role of conversion in the first decades of phenomenology, Converts to the Real locates itself in the postsecular project while demonstrating that project’s potential to extend historical knowledge.
Like the lives of Baring’s subjects, the postsecular project shows that the story of phenomenology really could have turned out in a variety of ways. Husserl’s famous motto for the movement he started was “To the things themselves!” As Baring demonstrates in this rich, deeply researched book, those things are almost never what we first expect them to be.