Blondel, Maurice

views updated Jun 11 2018


BLONDEL, MAURICE (18611949), French Roman Catholic philosopher. Blondel was born at Dijon and educated at the École Normale Supérieure, where he was a pupil of Léon Ollé Laprune, to whom he dedicated his thesis, published as L'action, which he presented at the Sorbonne in 1893. He was professor of philosophy at Aix-en-Provence from 1897 to 1927. L'action aroused much interest and controversy because of its originality. Blondel claimed that from purely philosophical premises he had reached theological conclusions. Unlike the positivists, who were dominant in the university, and the scholastics, who controlled the theological schools, Blondel worked from a subtle analysis of what was involved in human experience, and maintained that it pointed to, and in the end required, the supernatural. Thus by what was known as "the method of immanence" he arrived at the transcendent. By "action" he did not mean only activity but all that is involved in the human response to reality, including affection, willing, and knowing.

Blondel was not a lucid writer, and his teaching was regarded as complicated and obscure. He spent the rest of his life in trying to clarify his meaning and seeking to distinguish his ideas from those of others with which they were liable to be confused. He waited for many years before publishing a revised edition of L'action, which, with other works, won for his thought a widespread influence in France. Most important among these other works were Le problème de la philosophie catholique (The problem of Catholic philosophy; 1932), La pensée (Thought; 1934), L'être et les êtres (Being and beings; 1935), and La philosophie et l'esprit chrétien (Philosophy and the spirit of Christianity; 19441949). One of his closest collaborators was Lucien Laberthonnière, but eventually Blondel fell out with him, as he did with most of his contemporaries. He was involved in the modernist movement and obviously desired a renewal of the church's teaching, but he insisted that he did not share the views of modernists such as Alfred Loisy, Édouard Le Roy, and Friedrich von Hügel. Though sometimes threatened with ecclesiastical censure, he avoided it, and indeed received a certificate of orthodoxy from Pope Pius X.


In addition to L'action (1893; reprinted in 2 vols., Paris, 1936), The Letter on Apologetics, and History and Dogma (New York, 1964), and the other works mentioned above, several volumes of Blondel's correspondence have been published. In English there is the Correspondence of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Maurice Blondel, translated by William Whitman (New York, 1967), and Maurice Blondel and Auguste Valensin, 18991912, 2 vols. (Paris, 1957). None of Blondel's major works has been translated into English.

A comprehensive 240-page Blondel bibliography was produced by René Virgoulay and Claude Troisfontaines, Maurice Blondel; Bibliographie analytique et critique (Louvain, 1975). The following works about Blondel can be recommended: Frédéric Lefèvre's L'itinéraire philosophique de Maurice Blondel (Paris, 1928); Paul Archambault's Vers un réalism intégral: L'œuvre philosophique de Maurice Blondel (Paris, 1928); Henri Bouillard's Blondel and Christianity (Washington, D.C., 1970); and René Virgoulay's Blondel et le modernisme: La philosophie de l'action et les sciences religieuses (Paris, 1980). Blondel's work is also discussed in Bernard M. G. Reardon's Roman Catholic Modernism (Stanford, Calif., 1970) and in Gabriel Daly's Transcendence and Immanence: A Study in Catholic Modernism and Integralism (Oxford, 1980).

Alec Vidler (1987)

Blondel, Maurice

views updated May 08 2018


French Catholic philosopher; b. Nov. 2, 1861, Dijon;d. June 4, 1949, Aix-en-Provence.

L'Action. Blondel established himself as a philosopher in French university circles with a ground-breaking dissertation on Action in 1893, in which he crashed through two intellectual barriers common at the time: the confining of philosophy to a consideration of abstract ideas and the exclusion of religion from the scope of legitimate philosophical inquiry. Starting from the question, does human life make sense and does the human being have a destiny?, he argued for a strict necessity of raising the philosophical question of action (vs. dilettantism), a strict necessity of answering it in positive terms (vs. pessimism), and a strict necessity of considering it in subjective as well as objective terms (vs. positivism).

Through critical reflection on the origin of action in consciousness, Blondel distinguished between a willed will, which focuses on determinate objects of willing, and a willing will, which entails an infinite power of willing in search of an object that will be the equal of this power. From this he argued that it is necessary that the will go out of itself into the body, into co-action with others, to the very confines of the universe in search of an object that will be the equal of its infinite power. He showed how, in superstitious action, the will tends to attribute such an infinite value to certain things in the immanent order of human experience, whether it be a totem, a ritual, or even its own subjectivity.

From this reflection on the total phenomenon of action and from his criticism of superstition Blondel came to a twofold conclusion: that it is necessary for action to go out beyond its own immanent order and that it is impossible for it to do so left to its own resources. Hence he argued for the necessity of affirming a totally transcendent Necessary Being and for the necessity of coming to a choice in the face of this Necessary Being. The human being ultimately wants to be God. The choice is to be God with God or to be God without God. Both alternatives have consequences: in the former case, finding fulfillment of one's most intimate desire; in the latter, being totally deprived of any fulfillment. At the core of every human action lies this option which denotes a properly religious attitude, whether for or against God.

In this necessary religious attitude, however, philosophy can only grasp the necessity of saying yes or no to God, not the content of what God might will on His part or how He might choose to fulfill the human being's desire. This is why philosophy cannot replace religion, which has to be from God. Philosophy understands action only from the human standpoint. If it tries to replace religion in answering the question of how human destiny can ultimately be fulfilled, it becomes another form of superstition or immanentism. Philosophy may nevertheless still entertain the idea of a fulfillment that would be strictly from God and yet fulfilling according to the exigencies of human action. Hence the idea of the supernatural is hypothetically necessary for philosophy. As supernatural it is not bound by any necessity of nature in human action. It depends totally on God's free initiative, which ever remains a mystery for philosophy. Yet, if such an initiative is taken by God, even if it be supernatural, it becomes obligatory for human being or necessary as a condition of fulfillment. One cannot say no to it without going against one's most fundamental human desire.

Controversy. In L'Action Blondel went directly to the question of the supernatural as obligatory or necessary for man, as this had always been understood in the Catholic tradition, without passing through any idea of natural religion, which he regarded as another form of superstition based on abstract metaphysical concepts fabricated by man. He managed to convince his examiners of the philosophical validity of his argument, even though they were reluctant to accept any of his conclusions with regard to the necessity of supernatural religion and consequently to grant him status in the university.

On the other hand, Blondel ran into trouble in Catholic circles because he criticized the standard approaches to religion in apologetics as inadequate and as failing to get to the essential point of religion as something super-natural or free on the part of God and yet as necessary or obligatory on the part of human being. It was important for Blondel to show that this was a matter of philosophy and not just a matter of religious conviction, as too many French Catholic apologists supposed at the time. With this end in view he wrote a series of articles in 1896, while he was still looking for a post in the university, under the heading of a Letter on the Exigencies of Contemporary Thought in the Matter of Apologetics and on the Method of Philosophy in the Study of the Religious Problem. It reassured many of his stance as a philosopher but also antagonized many Catholics who began to realize that Blondel was not defending their particular conception of religion.

Thus Blondel found himself in a philosophical noman's land, having to show that his philosophy of religion was indeed a philosophy and not a theology, and having to defend himself against the misunderstanding of those believers who could not accept what appeared to them as an illegitimate intrusion on the part of philosophy into a realm reserved for faith or mysticism. Eventually he was accepted by the university and received the chair in philosophy in Aix-en-Provence (where he spent the rest of his academic career and came to be known as the Philosopher of Aix), but he was left with the problem of having to explain himself in the matter of Christian apologetics and to defend himself against attacks from those Catholics who had no concern with meeting the exigencies of contemporary thought.

Blondel spent the first fifteen years of his career at Aix, from 1898 until World War I, doing battle on two fronts, one with philosophers like brunschvicg and bergson, whose idealism or intuitionism he could not agree with, and the other with mainly theologians who also claimed to be philosophers, at least in the matter of apologetics. Many did try to have his work put on the Index of Forbidden books, during the time of the Modernist crisis, but they did not succeed. Blondel was among the first to spot the problem of modernism and to write against it in an important article on History and Dogma in 1904. The article reemphasized the importance of tradition as something living in the Church and opened the way to a more positive discussion of development in dogma.

Later Philosophical Work. Blondel's interest was always philosophy, not theology nor even apologetics as such. Even while he was addressing the problem of apologetics he published a number of important articles in dialogue with Descartes, Spinoza, Malebranche, Pascal, etc., in which he discussed problems in the philosophy of religion. Early in his career he conceived of a grandiose project in philosophy that would set forth his thought in a more complete way than he had been able to do within the constraints of his dissertation on Action, for he was not satisfied with being thought of as only a philosopher of action. He worked on this project, which was clearly outlined in his mind under the three headings of Thought, Being, and Action, during most of his teaching career, but he was unable to publish any of it before he had to retire from his Chair in Philosophy in 1927 for reasons of blindness. It was only then, under the handicap of blindness, that he was able to complete what he thought of as his philosophical legacy with the collaboration of his faithful and devoted secretary, Nathalie Panis.

In the early 1930s Blondel published several articles on Augustine, on the occasion of the 1500th anniversary of the saint's death. He insisted on the philosophical import of Augustine as a Catholic thinker. This provoked a reaction against the idea of Christian philosophy, not only among non-Christians, but also among many Catholics like Etienne gilson and most Thomists at the time. Blondel defended this idea of Catholic philosophy at some length because he saw that his own philosophy was at stake in it in the same way as his own original philosophy of action had been at stake in the refusal to consider religion as a philosophical problem. He still had a long struggle to organize his thoughts on paper, since he could no longer read the copious notes he had written over the years for the project. Family and friends tried to help, but only when Mlle Panis finally came on the scene in December 1931, did things begin to fall into place. Five volumes followed in quick succession between 1934 and 1937, two on Thought, one on Being, and two more on Action. Blondel also had in mind a three-volume work on Philosophy and the Christian Spirit, two volumes of which appeared before his death while the third remained unfinished. On the day before he died he signed a contract for another volume of essays written earlier on the Philosophical Exigencies of Christianity, bringing out once again certain Catholic dimensions of philosophy that should not be overlooked.

Above all Blondel was a philosopher, something he insisted on all his life, even in the midst of his controversies over apologetics, but a philosopher who had a tremendous positive influence in Christian theology as well as philosophy, not only in France but in many other countries as well, especially Italy, Germany, Spain, Portugal, and Latin America, where his work has long existed in translation. He has also been translated into Japanese and English, albeit at a later date.

Bibliography: r. virgoulay and c. troisfontaines, Maurice Blondel: Bibliographie Analytique et Critique, vol. 1: works by M. B. 18801973; vol. 2: studies on M. B. 18931975 (Louvain 19751976); continuation of secondary literature from 1976 to 1994 in a. raffelt, p. reifenberg, and g. fuchs, Das Tun, der Glaube, die Vernunft, 216238 (Echter 1995). Oeuvres Complètes, vol. 1, 1893. Les Deux Thèses (PUF 1995); vol. 2, 18881913. La Philosophie de l'Action et la Crise Moderniste (PUF 1997). Major works translated into English: Action (1893), tr. o. blanchette (Notre Dame 1984); The Letter on Apologetics & History and Dogma, tr. a. dru and i. trethowan (Grand Rapids 1994).

[o. blanchette]

Blondel, Maurice

views updated May 23 2018

Blondel, Maurice (1861–1949). French Roman Catholic philosopher. His Letter on Apologetics (1896; Eng. tr. 1964) and History and Dogma (1904; Eng. tr. 1964) concern issues raised by the Modernist crisis, though their importance transcends this context.

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