Mercier, Désiré Joseph (1851–1926)

Updated About content Print Article Share Article
views updated


Désiré Joseph Mercier, a Thomist philosopher and Roman Catholic cardinal, was born in the Walloon section of Brabant, Belgium. At the end of his secondary education, Mercier decided to study for the priesthood; he studied philosophy and theology at the Malines Seminary for five years and subsequently at the University of Louvain. Ordained in 1874, he received the licentiate (equivalent to the current doctorate) in theology in 1877. The same year he was named professor of philosophy at the Malines Seminary, where he taught logic and psychology for the next five years.

The famous encyclical, Aeterni Patris, of Pope Leo XIII, urging the restoration of scholastic, particularly Thomistic, philosophy, was published in 1879. In 1882 a chair of Thomistic philosophy was established at Louvain, and Mercier was named to this post.

For the next several years, Mercier taught courses in the various branches of philosophy, always attempting to relate Thomism to contemporary issues; in the course of this effort, Mercier became convinced that the task of making Thomism a living philosophy would require the combined efforts of many specialists. Hence, he conceived the notion of establishing a special institute of philosophy, with the aim not only of offering courses in Thomistic thought but also of providing the staff and facilities for a genuine research center. After considerable difficulty the Institute of Philosophy was established in 1889 as an integral part of the University of Louvain, with Mercier as its first president. The Philosophic Society of Louvain (still active) was founded by Mercier in 1888; in 1894 this organization founded the philosophical quarterly Revue néo-scolastique (still published under the title of Revue philosophique de Louvain ), with Mercier as its editor.

From 1893 to 1906, Mercier's life was intimately bound up with that of the institute. His teaching activity continued; he published widely; and in the face of many difficulties, he worked incessantly to build and maintain the quality of the institute. His success in this area is measured by the fact that Louvain quickly became an internationally recognized center for philosophical work, attracting students from all over the world.

In 1906 Mercier's career in philosophy was interrupted by his being named archbishop of Malines; he was made cardinal the following year. From this time until his death, Cardinal Mercier's immense energies were directed toward the organizational and pastoral duties of his office. The seven volumes of his Oeuvres pastorales (Louvain, 19111928) give some indication of the extent of his writings on pastoral, religious, and theological matters. Chief among his interests were social, political, and scientific questions affecting religious life, the liturgy, and church unity. In 1921, at Malines, he initiated the "conversations" with members of the Anglican Church, which continued at intervals until his death.

World War I broke out during Cardinal Mercier's episcopate, and he became a national and international leader in resisting German imperialism and in articulating the moral rights of peoples and nations during times of war. His death was the occasion of worldwide tributes to Mercier's immense moral stature and influence as an outstanding philosopher, ecclesiastic, and citizen of the world.

Mercier's Philosophy

An examination of the life of Cardinal Mercier makes it evident that one dimension of his importance for the history of philosophy must be related to his key role in organizing and developing the Institute of Philosophy at Louvain. It becomes equally evident, however, that this dimension cannot be divorced from his originality and depth as a philosopher. Moreover, the significance of Mercier as a philosopher can be fully seen only in the context of the state of philosophy among Roman Catholic thinkers and teachers in Catholic institutions in the latter half of the nineteenth century, on the one hand, and in the light of Mercier's response to and understanding of the papal encyclical Aeterni Patris, on the other. Although there were scattered efforts at a renewal of Thomistic thought during this period, philosophy in Catholic circles was by and large eclectic and superficial. Little serious effort had been made to meet either the challenge of Immanuel Kant or the positivism of Auguste Comte and the skepticism of David Hume and the British empiricists. Consequently, Catholic philosophy was generally in serious disrepute.

It is in this setting that the publication of Aeterni Patris must be viewed. This encyclical has been misinterpreted by Catholic and non-Catholic thinkers alike as calling for a return to the letter of thirteenth-century thought and as representing ecclesiastical approval, even sanction, of a particular philosophical doctrine. Recent scholarship has amply demonstrated the falsity of both these views and shows Leo XIII's intent to have been a renewal and articulation of a philosophy organically linked to a great philosophical tradition and compatible with Christian faith but rethought in relation to contemporary problems and issues (see J. Collins in Leo XIII and the Modern World, edited by Edward T. Gargan, New York, 1961, pp. 181209).

No one seems to have caught the spirit of this intent or to have grasped the urgency and challenge of the intellectual crisis of the time more accurately than Cardinal Mercier. Perhaps this can best be seen by a brief exposition of Mercier's thought in three crucial areas: the nature of the philosophical endeavor in itself and in its relation to revealed truth and theology, the relation of Thomistic thought to modern philosophy, and the relation of philosophy to the discoveries of modern science.

For Mercier, philosophy is essentially an effort of reason reflecting on the data of experience. Included in this view is a strong affirmation that philosophy must take its point of departure and find its ultimate grounding in the evidence of the real, objective world, in contradistinction to all forms of idealism and theories of innate ideas. The role of reason is likewise strongly emphasized by Mercier, especially in his opposition to positivism. For him, philosophy must be scientific in the classical Aristotelian sense; the mind is capable of going beyond the contingent order of the factually given and of finding real, general necessity and order underlying the sensibly grasped world. Hence, Mercier makes a strenuous effort to reestablish the viability of a realistic metaphysics in the face of the Kantian critique and the severe limitations placed on reason by Comtian positivism. The doctrine of abstraction and the legitimate use of the analytic and synthetic activity of the mind constitute the operative principles in this effort. Nevertheless, philosophy for Mercier is a highly personal endeavor that must always remain open and be capable of organic growth in the light of new evidence. Thus, Thomistic philosophy is held by him as "neither an ideal which one is forbidden to surpass nor a barrier fixing the limits of the activity of the mind"; rather, it is a source of philosophical inspiration that provides a framework for entering into genuine dialogue with the contemporary situation.

Mercier is in fundamental agreement with St. Thomas Aquinas in expressing confidence in the impossibility of real contradiction between revealed doctrine and philosophically established truth. Revealed truth functions for him as an extrinsic negative norm, but it provides neither the motivation for adherence to a philosophical truth nor a source of evidence or knowledge for the philosopher in his proper task. Thus, Mercier emphasizes the essential autonomy, the rigorously rational character, the intrinsic openness, and the need for internal growth of philosophy.

In his writings Mercier is manifestly impatient with the general tendency of his immediate predecessors among Roman Catholic philosophers to opt for one of two general positionsa superficial eclecticism or a dogmatic and naive realism based on common sense. In sharp contrast to these positions, Mercier felt it absolutely essential to examine the whole of modern philosophy with great sympathy and to integrate its sound insights into an integral and rethought Thomism. This principle did not, however, prevent Mercier from being highly critical of the various contemporary philosophical positions. His polemical writings are directed against fideism, traditionalism (the view that human reason without the aid of revelation necessarily falls into error), voluntarism, sentimentalism, pragmatism, Cartesianism, positivism, and Kantian critical philosophy. He argued strenuously against the Cartesian principle of universal methodic doubt and against Cartesian dualism, undertaking to show that the Thomistic doctrine of the substantial unity of man could overcome the difficulties to which this dualism gives rise.

Positivism and Kantian philosophy, however, occupied most of Mercier's attention, and it was in relation to these views that Mercier developed his own epistemology (in Critériologie générale, 1899), which represents one of his most original contributions to the renewal of Thomistic thought. Against the positivist theories of H. A. Taine, John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer and Comte, which he undertook to refute in detail, Mercier insistently affirmed the primacy of the criterion of reason and the absolute value of "ideal judgments." Although the positivists of his day were his principal adversaries, Kant was probably the modern philosopher whom he most admired. His understanding of Kant was limited, however, to the interpretation of his times, and his criticism centers on what he considered to be the psychological subjectivism, hence relativism, of Kant. In the final analysis, then, he feels that both Kantian critical philosophy and positivism lead to skepticism and agnosticism. His response was an attempt to establish a realistic metaphysics on the basis of a sophisticated epistemological critique and a development of a theory of certitude. In his own systematic thought, it is not clear that Mercier fully succeeded in formulating what he intendedthat is, a middle term between empiricism and rationalismfor his effort begins with a vigorous defense of the absolute certitude of ideal judgments, and from this position he attempts to establish the degree of certitude proper to judgments of experience. In choosing this starting point, Mercier is forced to infer the reality of the external world on the basis of an ideal principle of causality. Nevertheless, it remains a fact that Mercier's epistemology in its attempt to establish a viable, realistic metaphysics represented a major advance in Thomistic thought.

Apart from his epistemology the most original and commanding dimension of Mercier's thought concerned the relation between philosophy and science. In this area he strongly advocates the necessity for philosophy to be intimately acquainted with the findings of modern science. His own efforts in this area were devoted to a synthesis of the new science of psychology and traditional philosophy; the detail with which he undertook to understand the work of such contemporary psychologists as Wilhelm Wundt and the developments in medical psychology were radically new for his time. Although he clearly held that science and philosophy represent two different modes of thought and although he attributed some real autonomy to science, Mercier probably did not fully appreciate the theoretical component of science (this is hardly surprising given the state of the psychological sciences and the philosophy of science in his day). Hence, his synthesis represents an attempt to understand the facts and laws established by science in the light of metaphysical principles. Once again, however partial Mercier's particular solution to this problem may be, it represents a major advance over the earlier tendency of scholastic philosophy to develop in complete isolation from contemporary thought.

Mercier's own philosophical work represents, then, a vigorous and sustained effort to rethink traditional Thomistic thought in the light of contemporary thought on all fronts; moreover, the spirit of this effort was embraced by colleagues whom Mercier chose to staff the Institute of Philosophy. The true philosophical importance of Mercier must be judged by the caliber of philosophical research and writing that has emanated from the Louvain Institute from his day to the present.

See also Cartesianism; Comte, Auguste; Empiricism; History and Historiography of Philosophy; Hume, David; Kant, Immanuel; Mill, John Stuart; Neo-Kantianism; Positivism; Pragmatism; Rationalism; Taine, Hippolyte-Adolphe; Thomas Aquinas, St.; Thomism; Voluntarism; Wundt, Wilhelm.


works by mercier

For a complete bibliography of Mercier's writings, see Revue néo-scolastique 28 (1926): 250258. Mercier wrote extensively for this and other philosophical journals, and much of his polemical writing appears in articles. His major books were written primarily as textbooks and frequently appeared in several mimeographed forms before publication; the published books were revised and frequently reprinted.

The following are his principal works: "La psychologie expérimentale et la philosophie spiritualiste," in Bulletin de la Classe des Lettres et des Sciences Morales et Politiques et de la Classe des Beaux-Arts (Brussels, 1900), which was translated by E. J. Wirth as The Relation of Experimental Psychology to Philosophy (New York: Benziger, 1902); Psychologie, 2 vols. (Louvain and Paris, 1892; 11th ed., 1923); Logique (Louvain and Paris, 1894; 7th ed., 1922); Métaphysique générale ou ontologie (Louvain and Paris, 1894; 7th ed., 1923); Les origines de la psychologie contemporaine (Louvain and Paris, 1897; 5th ed., 1922), which was translated by W. H. Mitchell as Origins of Contemporary Psychology (New York, 1918); Critériologie générale (Louvain and Paris, 1899; 7th ed., 1918).

Mercier collaborated with M. de Wulf and D. Nys in writing Traité Elémentaire de philosophie, 2 vols. (Louvain and Paris, 1905; 5th ed., 1920), translated by T. L. Parker and S. A. Parker as A Manual of Modern Scholastic Philosophy, 3rd ed., 2 vols. (London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1928).

studies on mercier

The definitive personal and intellectual biography of Mercier is by L. de Raeymaeker, Le Cardinal Mercier et l'Institut Supérieur de Philosophie de Louvain (Louvain: Publications Universitaires de Louvain, 1952), which also contains a detailed account of the founding and history of the institute. The best critical study of Mercier's thought is in G. Van Riet, L'epistémologie thomiste (Louvain: Editions de l'Institut Supérieur de Philosophie, 1946), pp. 135178. Also to be noted is L. Noel, "Le psychologue et le logicien," Revue néoscolastique 28 (1926): 125152. Probably the best biography in English is by J. Gade, The Life of Cardinal Mercier (New York: Scribners, 1934).

Alden L. Fisher (1967)