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Subjectivism Opens the Door to Relativism


Catholic News Agency

November 18, 2014

The older I get, the more dissatisfied I am with the labels that historians of philosophy paste on thinkers’ back. Granted that it greatly facilitates their work, it can, however, be very misleading: a philosopher can be called an “existentialist,” and be put in the same category as another “existentialist” with whom he thoroughly disagrees on all essential questions.

To illustrate my point: The great French philosopher, Gabriel Marcel, was once asked: “Are you an existentialist?” With the lightning speed typical of the Latin mind, he replied: “If Sartre calls himself one, I am definitely not one.”

Many years ago, Dietrich von Hildebrand gave a talk in Frankfurt. After his speech, a man came to him to comment on his lecture. To the speaker’s utter amazement, he said to him, “You are clearly a disciple of Spinoza.” This talented Jewish philosopher happened to be one of my husband’s philosophical betes noires. Recovering from the shock this remark triggered in him, he said to his interlocutor: “What can you possibly mean?” The man replied: “... In the course of your talk, you used the words ‘sub specie aeternitatis’ (under the aspect of eternity), which, as is well known, are dear to Spinoza.” Comments are unnecessary.

There are moments that one cannot but help recalling the famous words: “Against stupidity, the gods contend in vain.” Clearly this man wanted to impress the speaker by his “scholarship”, and in so doing made a fool of himself.

Dietrich von Hildebrand did not fare much better when later, he once again lectured in the same town. After his talk, Paul Tillich a famous Protestant theologian, came to him and accused him of “dishonesty” for, he added, “more than once, you used the word ‘God’ in the context of your talk; it did not belong there.” Apparently to refer to God in a philosophical talk deserved to be censured. It would have been a pure waste of saliva to remind him that he would be hard put to find a single philosopher, starting with the Greeks, who did not use it. 

Those whose name appears in print should be ready for that sort of attack. When Dietrich von Hildebrand’s religious classic Transformation in Christ was translated in English, Thought Magazine (at Fordham University) published a book review. This great book was moderately praised, but the author remained speechless upon reading that his book had “Kantian overtones.” This “great” German thinker—not the only “genius” poisoned by his un-baptized intelligence—claimed that the human mind’s knowledge was limited to the “phenomenon.” That is, reality as interpreted by his mind, and was therefore denied knowledge of the “Ding an Sich”(thing-in-itself)—did not fare much better than Spinoza in Dietrich von Hildebrand’s estimation. He valued thinkers not according to their “genius,” or fame, or originality, but according to whether or not their works unveiled a truth that had not been perceived in the past. Apparently the reviewer justified his claim because the author had used the word “categorical”—often to be found in the Kantian vocabulary! Unfortunately the word is also to be found in any dictionary.

In his valuable work, The History of Phenomenology, Spiegelberg briefly mentions Dietrich von Hildebrand’s name (even though Edith Stein refers to him explicitly as belonging to the Koryphees of the early Husserl’s student). Possibly the author had heard Husserl’s remark upon being told that one of his favorite students had become Catholic. He exclaimed: “Alas, a great philosophical talent is lost. Dietrich von Hildebrand became a Roman Catholic.”

Granted that the latter wrote several religious books, this certainly did not justify Spiegelberg’s omission of his many important “philosophical” contributions.

Once a person is labeled as “Catholic”, he is ipso facto denied the noble title of philosopher!  He is, at best, “only” a religious thinker. Late in his life, Dietrich von Hildebrand published Das Wesen der Liebe (The Nature of Love). It was the fruit of a lifelong loving dedication to a topic which, already as a budding philosopher, he considered to be of crucial importance.

Before Hitler came to power in January 1933, Dietrich von Hildebrand was highly appreciated in Germany, and frequently invited to give talks all over the country. But from 1933 on his name and works were “anathematized.” For this reason the Swiss publisher, Benziger, refused to publish Transformation in Christ, unless Dietrich von Hildebrand agreed to use a nom de plume (pen name): Peter Ott. It was set as a conditio sine qua non (indispensable condition) for the book published under the author’s name, it would inevitably have been prohibited in Germany where most of Benziger’s clients resided.

After Hitler’s defeat, von Hildebrand did not regain favor with the German public: the climate of the time was definitely not favorable to someone obstinately defending the objectivity of truth. He was, as throughout his life, going against the Zeitgeist. Today he is still little known in that country and still less appreciated if one is to judge by the mini royalties collected for The Nature of Love. No one is a prophet in his own country.

Surprisingly however, Das Wesen der Liebe was reviewed, but the reviewer wrote that this work did not deserve to be read: for in a book dedicated to love, Freud’s name was mentioned only twice (as a matter of fact it was mentioned only once). How can one forgive such a shocking omission! Indeed, the reviewer was right: there is an impassable abyss between a “thinker” convinced that sex is a key to love, and one deeply convinced that it is love and love alone that can shed light on the mystery and beauty of the intimate sphere.

Any seasoned professor will tell you that is it not always easy to sustain students’ attention when speaking about substance and accident, potency and act, being and becoming; but if the magic word “sex” is mentioned, somnolent students suddenly wake up and are all ears. McDonald’s is fast food; sex is fast fun. This can at times explain the popularity of some speakers: this magic word must be included in the title of the book or of the lecture.

But to go back to some book reviewers: there are times, when one wishes to add to the list of litany: “From some book reviewers, deliver us, O Lord.” Their main concern is to impress the reader by their scholarship and at times very little light is shed on the content of the work being reviewed. Although it is fully legitimate for a book reviewer to praise certain thoughts, and to challenge those which are misleading and erroneous, he should refrain from going off track for the sake of drawing attraction to himself.

What I have written should not be interpreted to mean that “labels” should be discarded altogether. It does make sense to call Protagoras a “subjectivist.” “Man is the measure of all things: things that are that they are; and things that are not that they are not.” Subjectivism opens the door to relativism.

It does make sense to call Hume an empiricist, even though this philosophical disease takes different forms. Kant is an “idealist” but it is worth remarking that Fichte, while claiming to be his disciple, was disavowed by the “master.” This scenario was repeated shortly afterwards when Schelling—viewed as Fichte’s favorite disciple—was radically rejected by him: “Schelling never understood my philosophy” (Gilson, The Unity of Philosophical Experience, 243).

Marx certainly deserves to be called a “materialist,” but do all materialists agree on the nature of matter. The question deserves a deeper analysis that the one I can offer in this context.

Are all the Catholic philosophers who claim that St. Thomas is the Catholic philosopher par excellence of one mind while proclaiming his crushing superiority over the Augustinians? Do they all agree on how to interpret the thought of this great Dominican? The true disciples of St. Augustine reject emphatically Luther’s claim that he was inspired by the great bishop of Hippo.

How beautiful that in Dante’s Paradiso, St. Bonaventure, a Franciscan, praises St. Dominic, and that St. Thomas, a Dominican, is the one who sings the praise of St. Francis. This is truly “Catholic” in the deepest sense of the term: what unites and should unite all men is truth, for truth is “universal,” and therefore offered to all men and should be shared by all men. The key question should always be: “Is it true?” and not “Who said it?” There is one exception: the official teaching of the Holy Catholic Church, coming all the way down from Christ and given to His apostles. In this case we can joyously say: Roma locuta est; causa finita est (Rome has spoken, the cause is finished).

We should be wary of people who call themselves disciples of (obviously) a famous man. This applies particularly when the “master” is no longer alive, and consequently is not given a chance of endorsing or disavowing this “disciple’s” claim. But by calling oneself a disciple of a great man, one benefits from his fame. One becomes “somebody.” I am far from denying that there is such a thing as true discipleship, but it is always desirable to have the endorsement of the “master.” Jonathan Swift’s masterpiece Gulliver’s Travels generously shares with us the treasure of his wit by shedding light on this tricky question.

In book three, Gulliver lands in the country of amazing mathematicians—people of such genius that thanks to subtle mathematical calculations, they can recall people back to life. Gulliver, deeply impressed, requests that both Homer and Aristotle be called back to life and make their appearance at the head of their commentators. The latter were so numerous that not all of them could enter the room and had to stay outside. A ghost whispered to Gulliver that in the lower world, these scholars were so ashamed of having misrepresented these two great men that they wisely kept as far away from them as possible.

This superb marriage of wit and cynicism should give us food for thought. Is it easy to be a true disciple? To generously quote another author, and to praise him abundantly does not guarantee as yet that one has truly understood his thought and deserves to be called his faithful disciple. Words are very mysterious: they can have different meanings and nuances opened to very different interpretations.

I am touching on a huge topic, and wisely will refrain from passing a final judgment on what discipleship truly means. In this context, however, it is worth quoting the witty Kierkegaard who claimed that a disciple “is the greatest of all calamities” (Walter Lowrie, Kierkegaard, 381).

This leads me to the core of this brief article. Millions and millions of people accept the Bible as a holy book. But when it comes to interpreting this sacred treasure, it must be sadly acknowledged that the disagreements between theologians and scholars are huge. Limiting myself to the case of Luther: early in the sixteenth century, he broke away from the Church and became the father of “Protestantism”— that is those who protest and reject the teaching and authority of the Holy Catholic Church.

Being responsible for this radical break, this tragic figure witnessed in his lifetime that his “reform” led to more reforms, his “protest” to more protests. He was followed by Calvin who, while also protesting, introduced new changes; Zwingly followed suit. And now Protestant sects since the sixteenth century amount to thousands. One dies and is promptly replaced by another one.

One of the interesting culture-shocks I experienced when I first came to the United States was the huge variety of denominations which I found in New England where I spent a summer shortly after my arrival. On the one hand, I could not help but feel that the United States was definitely a very religious country, but I was both puzzled and troubled by the variety of “religious menus” offered to the public. Coming from a Catholic country where all churches (with the exception of one built for the convenience of the British enjoying Belgian luxury hotels thanks to the strength of the British Pound and the weakness of the Belgian Franc) were united by one and the same faith. Protestants are united by “protesting”: apart from that, each sect is going its own separate way. This was inevitably the consequence of their “free” interpretation of the Bible recognized as the only source of valid information: sola scriptura. It also struck me that when Protestants moved from one town to another, they often shifted from one denomination to another usually because the pastor of this other church was a better speaker or had a warmer and more attractive personality.

The dogmatic content is definitely not prominent.

This discovery brought me great spiritual “benefits”: first and foremost, it gave me a deeper appreciation and a greater gratitude for belonging to the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church whose divine teaching goes back all the way to Christ Himself through His apostles.

At the end of my life, I wonder how many sons and daughters of the Church fully realize the blessing it is to have a Magisterium—that is, an authority coming from Christ Himself and given by Him to the holy Catholic Church. Thanks to the Magisterium, the faithful are granted absolute certainty concerning the most crucial questions of human existence.

How many of us get up in the morning thanking God for this unfathomable gift? May He, on my deathbed, give me the grace to say to Him: “Thank you, O Lord, for the Magisterium.”


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