The Paris Debate: Paul Ricœur’s Public Intervention and Private Reflections on the Status and Meaning of Christian Philosophy in the 1930s and the influence of Pierre Maury and Karl Barth


Paul Ricœur in his early 20s

In 2013 Michael Sohn, Institut protestant de théologie/EHESS (Paris) explored Paul Ricœur’s early writings in the 1930s on Christian philosophy and sought to contextualise both his published and unpublished works from that period within the robust historical, philosophical and theological debates in Paris between the leading intellectuals of the time: Bréhier, Gilson, Blondel, Brunschvicg, Marcel, Maury, de Lubac, and Barth.

an extract from Ricœur Studies, Vol 4, No 1 (2013), pp. 159-169 ISSN 2155-1162 (online) DOI 10.5195/errs.2013.167

The article examines Ricœur’s own position within these debates…..

……….the status and meaning of Christian philosophy engaged the leading historians, philosophers and theologians of the time: Émile Bréhier, Étienne Gilson, Maurice Blondel, Léon Brunschvicg, Jacques Maritain, Gabriel Marcel, Auguste Lecerf, Pierre Maury, and Henri de Lubac. Moreover, the debate took on additional vigour with Karl Barth’s first visit to Paris in 1934 when he lectured in front of many of these French luminaries. An examination of Ricœur’s reflections on Christian philosophy, then, sheds light on the important debates and broader context of his thought during his early formative years. Secondly, and more germane to current Ricœur studies, his public intervention and private writings during this period offer the first glimpse of his critical reception of Barth and his first tentative formulation on the relationship between philosophy and Christianity. While there are now a number of excellent studies that rightly note the deep resonances and affinities between Ricœur and Barth for the purposes of building up a constructive understanding of the nature and task of theology [1] a close examination of the historical reception of Barth by Ricœur remains absent from the current literature……..

The Paris Debate

Debates on the nature and task of Christian philosophy can be traced as far back to the origins of Christianity itself. But that abiding issue was renewed and reinvigorated in the early 1930s in Paris, drawing responses from leading historians, philosophers, and theologians of the day. Initially, the debate was between the two leading intellectual historians of the day – Émile Bréhier and Étienne Gilson – who both wrote influential works on the history of philosophy, but disagreed about the very nature and meaning of philosophy itself. Bréhier’s ambitious, sweeping, three-volume work, Histoire de la philosophie, [2] not only traced the history and development of Western thought, but also sought to show the methodological independence and integrity of the history of philosophy in relation to the history of other disciplines. From an historical approach, then, Bréhier argued that there was no Christian philosophy because Christianity did not substantially influence the development of philosophical thought. The scope of his work is truly vast, but the significance of this point was not lost on others as it drew responses from many, including Gilson. At a fateful session on March 21, 1931 at the Société française de philosophie, [3] Gilson, who was then in the course of preparing his Gifford Lectures on the essence of the spirit of medieval philosophy, offered a counter-argument, precisely on historical grounds, that Christianity transformed the nature of philosophy itself. [4] Aquinas, to take just one example, transformed Aristotelian thought in a way that inexorably altered philosophical notions such as the idea of creation, the idea of the person, and so on. In the eyes of many at the time, Gilson won the debate regarding the historical question as to whether there exists a Christian philosophy. As Henri de Lubac observed: “As quickly as he arrived, Mr. Bréhier found himself nearly forgotten and the defenders of Christian philosophy were busier discussing amongst themselves on their respective conceptions.” [5] What began as a narrow dispute within medieval intellectual history, then, took on broader significance. No longer was the debate about whether Christian philosophy exists, but rather what its precise nature was. Brunschvicg, for instance, argued that while a philosopher may be Christian, it is only accidental in the same manner in which there may be a Christian who writes on mathematics or medicine. Maritain, to take another example, distinguished between the essence and state of philosophy such that while philosophy always uses natural reason, its condition of exercise has changed. Blondel went further by arguing that if philosophy wants to insist on rationality, it must also acknowledge its incomplete character, and that religion shows itself in the extension of philosophy. All the eminent philosophers of the day, it seemed, were weighing in on the debate. Given the context and contestation over the very meaning of Christian philosophy, one can imagine the anticipation and stir that Karl Barth’s first visit to Paris in April 1934 must have created. His reputation had, in fact, preceded him due in large part to the work of Pierre Maury, [6]who spread the new insights of his thought to the French context by publishing his articles [7] and translating his writings. [8] Indeed, Maury presented some of Barth’s ideas on Christian philosophy before the Société française de philosophie on December 23, 1933. [9]

Representing what are now familiar, but what must have been provocative ideas at the time, Maury explains that Barth unapologetically refuses to elaborate a Christian philosophy as there is no point of contact outside of what God establishes. “It is impossible to define philosophically the unifying principle of the thought of Karl Barth,” Maury began the session, “because his thought does not want to be philosophical, but rather theological.” [10] This is all to say that when Barth visited Paris in 1934, it was with much excitement and anticipation. Gilson had just taught a course at the Collège de France on Anselm that ended with a critical discussion of the interpretation proposed by Barth. [11] Yves Congar, the great Catholic thinker, prepared a course specifically on Barth in anticipation of his visit. [12] He would recall later that Barth’s three lectures at the Sorbonne, [13] his lectures at the Faculté protestante de théologie, [14] and his lunchtime discussion at Juvisy would be attended by luminaries such as Gilson, Maritain, Marcel, and Maury amongst others. If Maury prepared the French audience for his provocative ideas, Barth did not disappoint. As Bernard Reymond states of his Sorbonne lectures, “From the first page, one experiences the very clear sense of finding oneself in a combative discourse, sometimes a bit provocative, destined to arouse reactions.” [15] In his first lecture, for instance, Barth insists that revelation is not submitted to philosophical reflection into the conditions for its possibility, but rather it is given freely as the divine sovereign act of God. [16] Theology, then, he proceeded to argue, does not require philosophy to justify or ground its existence since revelation itself is authoritative. Barth’s rejection of the notion of Christian philosophy would be underlined particularly in his third lecture that addressed theology. “Is there nothing more regrettable,” he rhetorically asks in that lecture, “than the attempt, developed over the centuries, to determine a systematic link or, conversely, a systematic distinction between the domain of theology and that of philosophy?. . . It is evident that theology can only become interesting for philosophy from the instant where it renounces interest in it.” [17] What began as a narrow debate within intellectual history became a much broader conversation about the possibility and nature of Christian philosophy that engaged the leading thinkers of the time. By 1936, only five years after that fateful session with Gilson at the Société française de philosophie, it seemed that every major significant figure in French thought contributed to that debate so that Henri de Lubac would write, “Is it a bit late to speak of it again? . . . For roughly five years, everyone was required to respond: Is there a Christian philosophy? And in which sense? And to which conditions?” [18]…….

…..Paul Ricœur’s private reflections and public intervention into the Paris Debate when Ricœur published his article, “Note sur les rapports de la philosophie et du christianisme” in 1936… he was perhaps a little late to the public debate in Paris, but it was, in fact, a subject on which he had reflected for a number of years. His dissertation, which he submitted in 1934 entitled Méthode réflexive appliquée au problème de Dieu chez Lachelier et Lagneau, already gave the first indications of his critique of the doctrine of immanence in reflexive philosophies and his proposal for a Christian doctrine of transcendence.

…..Regarding both the legitimacy and limitation of a synthetic understanding of Christian philosophy, Ricœur quotes Maury in a footnote in the article: “To the extent where it is not usurped, it is not only legitimate, but commanded. We have something to do on earth, for which God has placed us. One must only recognize that all science, like all human activity, tends almost necessarily to be usurped.” [19] The reference to Maury – and indirectly to Barth – is significant because Ricœur seems to tacitly affirm the validity of philosophy that is freed up not in spite of Christian faith, but precisely because of it.

[1] Mark I. Wallace, The Second Naiveté: Barth, Ricœur, and the New Yale Theology (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1990); Dan R. Stiver, Theology After Ricœur: New Directions in Hermeneutical Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001); Boyd Blundell, Paul Ricœur Between Theology and Philosophy: Detour and Return (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010); Luca Posatti, Ricœur face à l’analogie: Entre théologie et deconstruction (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2012).

[2] Émile Bréhier, Histoire de la philosophie, 3 vols. (Paris: Alcan, 1928)

[3] The first Congrès international de philosophie was held in Paris on August 1-5, 1900. A few months afterward the Société française de philosophie was formed as a national association and held its first session on February 7, 1901. Bernard Bourgeois situates the developments of both organizations within the nineteenth century movement towards an open and cosmopolitan society. See Bernard Bourgeois, “La société des philosophes en France en 1900,” in Le moment 1900 en philosophie, ed. Fredéric Worms (Paris: Presses Universitaires du Septentrion, 2004), 63-79.

[4] Étienne Gilson, “La notion de philosophie chrétienne,” Bulletin de la Société française de Philosophie 31 (March 21, 1931): 37-85.

[5] Henri de Lubac, “Sur la philosophie chrétienne,” in Recherches dans la foi: Trois études sur Origène, Saint Anselme et la philosophie chrétienne (Paris: Beauchesne, 1979), 128-129. Originally published in Nouvelle revue théologique (1936).

[6] It was W.A. Visser’t Hooft who first introduced Maury to Barth in 1925. Maury was a significant figure in twentieth century French Reformed Protestantism, becoming editor of Foi et vie and Le Semeur, succeeding Auguste Lecerf as chair of dogmatics at Faculté de théologie protestant de Paris in 1943, and succceeding Marc Boegner as president of the Conseil de l’Eglise reformée de France in 1950.

[7] As early as 1928, Maury requested to translate and publish Barth’s essays into French in Foi et vie where he was assistant editor and later became editor-in-chief in 1930. See Karl Barth and Pierre Maury, Nous qui pouvons encore parler…Correspondance 1928-1956, ed. Bernard Reymond (Switzerland: L’Age d’Homme, 1985), 19.

[8] Karl Barth, Parole de Dieu et parole humaine, trad. Pierre Maury and Auguste Lavanchy (Paris: Société Commerciale d’Edition et de Librairie, 1933).

[9] Pierre Maury, “Quelques grandes orientations de la pensée de Karl Barth,” Bulletin de la Société française de Philosophie 33 (December 23, 1933): 189-217

[10] Maury, “Quelques grandes orientations de la pensée de Karl Barth,” 189.

[11] For more on Gilson and Barth on Anselm, see Bernard Reymond, Théologien ou prophète: Les francophones et Karl Barth avant 1945 (Lausanne: Édition l’Age d’Homme, 1985), 157-166

[12] Yves M.-J. Congar, Chrétiens en dialogue: Contributions catholique à l’Œecuménisme (Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf, 1964), xxi.

[13] For the publication of his lectures at Sorbonne, see Karl Barth, Révélation, Église, Théologie. Trois conférences, trad. Pierre Maury (Paris: Éditions “Je sers,” 1934).

[14] To my knowledge, his lecture at the Faculté protestante de théologie was never published, but his responses to questions put forth by students can be found in Karl Barth, “Réponse à quelques questions,” Le Semeur 37, n.1 (November 1934): 1-10

[15] Reymond, Théologien ou prophète. Les francophones et Karl Barth avant 1945, 141-142

[16] Barth, Révélation, Église, Théologie, 7.

[17] Barth, Révélation, Église, Théologie, 41

[18] de Lubac, “Sur la philosophie chrétienne,” 127

[19] Ricœur, “Notes sur les rapports de la philosophe et du christianisme,” 550n1. Quoted from Pierre Maury, “Quelques grandes orientations de la pensée de K. Barth,” Bulletin de la Société française de philosophie (December 23, 1933): 212.

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