October 04, 2005


A few philosophers did point to this other dimension of human awareness. Shortly after Descartes Pascal's assertion "Que la raison a des raisons, que la raison ne comprend pas" would remain famous if unheeded, as would Vico's prediction that the new reason would give birth to a generation of brutes -- intellectual brutes, but brutes nonetheless. Later Kiekegard would follow Hegel with a similar warning. None of these voice would have strong impact while the race was on to "conquer" the world by a supposed omni-sufficient scientific reason. But as human problems mounted the adequacy of reason to handle the deepest problems of human dignity and transcendent purpose came under sustained questioning and more attention was given to additional dimensions of human capabilities.
One might well ask which comes first, the public sense of human challenge or the corresponding philosophical reflection. My own sense is that they are in fact one, with philosophical insight providing the reflective dimension of the human concern. In any case, one finds a striking parallel between social experience and philosophy in this century. To the extreme totalitarian repression by the ideologies of the 1930s there followed the progressive liberation from fascism in World War II, from colonial exploitation in the 1950s and 60s, of minorities in the 1970s and from closed societies in the 1980s. Throughout, like the new tooth the emergence of the person has been consistent and persistent.
Thus, Wittgenstein began by writing his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus[v] on the Lockean supposition that significant knowledge consisted in constructing a mental map corresponding point to point to the external world as perceived by sense experience. In such a project the spiritual element of understanding, i.e., the grasp of the relations between the points on this mental map and the external world was relegated to the margin as simply "unutterable". Later experience in teaching children, however, led Wittgenstein to the conclusion that this empirical mental mapping was simply not what was going on in human knowledge. In his Blue and Brown Books[vi] and in his subsequent Philosophical Investigations[vii] Wittgenstein shifted the human consciousness or intentionality, which previously he had relegated to the periphery, to the very the center of concern. The focus of his philosophy was no longer the supposedly objective replication of the external world, but the human construction of language and of worlds of meaning.[viii]
A similar process was underway on the continent in the Kantian camp. There Husserl's attempt to bracket all elements, in order to isolate pure essences for scientific knowledge, forced attention to intentionality and to the limitations of a pure essentialism. This opened the way for his understudy, Martin Heidegger, to rediscover the existential and historical dimensions of reality in his Being and Time.[ix] The religious implications of this new sensitivity would be articulated by Karl Rahner in his work, Spirit in the World, and by the Second Vatican Council in its Constitution, The Church in the World.[x]
For Heidegger the meaning of being and of life was unveiled and emerged -- the two processes were identical -- in conscious human life (dasein) lived through time and therefore through history. Thus human consciousness became the new focus of attention. The uncovering or bringing into light (the etymology of the term "phe-nomen-ology") of the unfolding patterns and interrelations of subjectivity would open a new era of human awareness. Epistemology and metaphysics would develop -- and merge -- in the very work of tracking the nature and direction of this process.
For Heidegger's successor, Hans-Georg Gadamer,[xi] the task becomes the uncovering of how human persons, emerging as family, neighborhood and people, by exercising their creative freedom weave their cultural tradition. This is not history as a mere compilation of whatever humankind does or makes, but culture as the fabric of the human consciousness and symbols by which a human group unveils being in its time.
The result is a dramatic inversion: where before all began from above and flowed downward -- whether in structures of political power or of abstract reasoning -- at the turn of the new millennium attention focuses rather upon the emerging upward exercise of the creative freedom of people in and as civil society as a new and responsible partner with government and business in the continuing effort toward the realization of the common good.

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