Laberthonnière, Lucien (1860–1932)

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Lucien Laberthonnière, the French philosopher of religion and a leading figure in the modernist movement in the Roman Catholic Church, was born at Chazelet (Indre). He studied for the priesthood and was ordained as an Oratorian in 1886. He then taught in various institutions, mainly in the college at Juilly, where he became rector in 1900. Laberthonnière was influenced by philosophies of life and action; he mentions Maine de Biran and Étienne Boutroux as the two philosophers who had most impressed him. Maurice Blondel's philosophy of action was another important formative factor, although Laberthonnière later found it moving too far toward intellectualism. He himself not only advocated a pragmatic point of view but also had an intense distaste for intellectualism and speculative philosophy. In particular, he had no sympathy for the attempted Thomist synthesis of faith and reason, believing that the task is not to conciliate these two but to choose between them. His teachings brought him into conflict with ecclesiastical authorities, and his principal writings were put on the Index in 1906. In 1913 he was prohibited from further publication.

Laberthonnière was not concerned with merely speculative philosophy that is constructed apart from life. He believed that the purpose of all philosophy is to give sense to life, and this motivation underlies even metaphysics, whether or not the metaphysician is aware of it. In the long run, the test of a philosophy must be its viability or its aptness for life, and the criterion of philosophical truth is a pragmatic one. We mistake the character of philosophy if we think of it as a theoretical enterprise resulting in a system of propositions linked together by abstract logical principles. A philosophical doctrine has a moral as well as an intellectual character, so that a worthwhile philosophy has to be worked out by living. The test of its truth is whether it can be illuminating when brought to bear on the problems of life.

Although Laberthonnière apparently held that all philosophy has a pragmatic or existential motivation, even if this remains unconscious, he also believed that some philosophies have been much more successful than others in relating to life. The theme of one of his principal writings, Le réalisme chrétien et l'idéalisme grec (Paris, 1904), is the contrast between two supposedly extreme cases, Greek philosophy and Christian thought. Greek philosophy was concerned with abstract essences, conceived God as static and immutable, and proposed the life of pure contemplation as its ideal for man. In contrast to such idealism or intellectualism, Christianity is presented as a realism. Its concern is with the concrete life of action, and God himself is conceived as active, the living God of the Bible. Hence, the truth of Christianity cannot be reached by intellectual contemplation, as if it were something external to us. Such truth as Christianity teaches is concrete and intrinsic to life, so that we grasp it only in living and in re-creating this truth in ourselves. These ideas about religious truth had already found expression in Laberthonnière's Essais de philosophie religieuse (Paris, 1903), where it is maintained that the doctrines of religion are to be understood not as general truths of the same kind as scientific truths but as concrete truths that must be brought into experience and realized if we are to understand them and know their value.

Although these views lean strongly toward pragmatism, Laberthonnière did not think that religion could be reduced to a purely practical affair or that it could be adequately explicated in naturalistic terms. It is significant that in spite of the harsh treatment that he received from the Roman Catholic Church, he remained devoted to it and believed his philosophical views to be compatible with its teaching. If he went far toward abolishing the traditional distinction between the natural and the supernatural, this is not to be understood as the reduction of the latter to the former. Rather, it was Laberthonnière's conviction that the natural is itself already permeated by divine grace. Thus, we should look for God not in some upper or outer realm but in the immediate world, where he is active, and especially in the depth of human life itself.

See also Blondel, Maurice; Idealism; Maine de Biran; Modernism; Pragmatism; Realism; Thomism.


In addition to the writings mentioned above, Laberthonnière published Positivisme et catholicisme (Paris, 1911). His other work, including an important study of Descartes, appeared posthumously in Oeuvres, 2 vols. (Paris, 19481955).

See also M.-M. d'Hendecourt, "Laberthonnière," in Revue de métaphysique et de morale 63 (1961).

John Macquarrie (1967)