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Desire for the Real: De Koninck et al.

Pierre-Alexandre Fradet. Le désir du réel dans la philosophie québécoise. Montréal: Nota Bene, 2022. Paperback, 246pp; $26.95. (Translations in this review are the responsibility of the reviewer; parenthetical numbers refer to the printed edition.)


Pierre-Alexandre Fradet’s book, Le désir du réel dans la philosophie québécoise (The Desire for Reality in Québécois Philosophy), surveys themes from Charles De Koninck, Thomas De Koninck, Jacques Lavigne, Charles Taylor, and Jean Grondin on “the question of the real” (18) in comparison to the contemporary current of “speculative realism” (some background here and here). Like the five philosophers whose work is the substance and inspiration of Fradet’s reflections, the speculative realists all aim “at one central problem in European thinking: since Immanuel Kant, it had stopped being occupied with reality” (NDPR here). However, many in the philosophical quintet have broader philosophical traditions from which to draw than post-Kantian detritus. While Fradet acknowledges that there are more and perhaps better-known Canadian philosophers, their inclusion together over the course of the book gradually overcomes the appearance of eclecticism while at the same time leaving the reader to wonder about contemporary philosophy’s syncretistic and scattered approach to such central questions as metaphysics has to offer. At the same time, Fradet shows us just how difficult it would be to recover metaphysics in the contemporary academy.

The ambition of the present book is to explain this point [an escape from subjectivity] while remaining sensitive to the idiosyncrasy in each of their thought as well as to the diversity which marks the speculative realist movement. In doing so, it will be a question of killing two birds with one stone, helping to shed light on a group of philosophical reflections born in Quebec, while bringing them into dialogue with other cultural horizons to express their universal scope. Naturally, by establishing dialogues between authors, some of whom have never met, we denounce the refusal to connect philosophies from different epochs and with distinct horizons. This methodological refusal can be seen, among others, in the work of those who consider it illegitimate to propose cross-fertilizations between the arguments developed in the Middle Ages and those conceived today on the subject of the universal or the modal order, in reason that these arguments would appear in incommensurable historical and epistemic contexts. (21)

Indeed, the self-referentially problematic nature of such claims to methodological incommensurability are themselves the philosophical disease to be diagnosed in a “return to the real” beyond Kantian transcendentalist, existentialist, phenomenological, linguistic, or post-structural subjectivity. Given the interests of this venue and the competencies of this reviewer, in what follows we will focus on the chapter about Charles De Koninck and then turn to examine how themes from this thinker ramify throughout the book. (Another review of Fradet’s work can be found online in Philosophiques.)

The Thomist of Laval

The book’s first chapter considers central themes from the realism of Charles De Koninck, characterized centrally as a “discipline” and “an activity” turned towards the real (27–28). Fradet surveys much of less-well-known epistemological and methodological writings of De Koninck. It is striking, however, that these must be introduced with a rather extensive apology for the “Aristotelian-Thomistic” provenance of much of De Koninck’s sources and thought, framed as a sort of oddity in the post-Quiet Revolution Québec, the full results of which De Koninck did not live to see. Fradet assures us that De Koninck did not “profess a dogmatic, caricatured Thomism” and that his thought succeeded, in the end, in “transcenden[ing] at last this simple doctrinal framework [of Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy] and that beyond its historical and pedagogical interest it also possesses—at least at times—true philosophical virtues.” (27)

On the one hand, this judgment is jarring. Alasdair MacIntyre has observed that “Charles De Koninck is the major author of the most important development of Thomism in the 20th century, often referred to as Laval Thomism.” Is this what Fradet means, that De Koninck manages to transcend the simplistic or the dogmatic Thomism averred to exist in those days? After all, De Koninck himself once wrote: “I hope to know St. Thomas sufficiently so as to remain ever a disciple who believes in his master [[J]’espère connaître suffisamment saint Thomas pour ne rester toujours qu’un disciple qui croit en son maître]” (Charles De Koninck, “The Problem of Indeterminism” Writings, 1:359 trans. mod.; Œuvres, I-1:300), a line whose admitted ambiguity has been mistaken to convey the opposite sentiment. Is not the very point at issue a perennial return to a realist philosophy, one which, at least by repute, Thomism claims to provide? On the other hand—and this is what I think is Fradet’s meaning—is it the case that contemporary antipathy towards any such ressourcement is so strong that one must make such awkward advances ad captandum lest readers ignore any points that follow?

This apologia seems to be intended, as the connections between De Koninck and contemporary neo-realist scene would otherwise seem too disjoint. Thus, the arguments of Meillassoux or Grant—about the possibility of knowing what exists “in itself” and not just what exists “for us”—are explained before comparing them to positions of De Koninck, “who himself aspires to know speculatively that which is beyond the limits of the mind, yet without adhering to naïve realism” (39–40, my emphasis). The naïve or “dogmatic realists” are those “who commit the error of passing over in silence their mode of access to the real” (30). By this standard, De Koninck is no naïve realist, of course, and yet he also quips “I am sitting, therefore I am” (“Sedeo, ergo sum” 1950: 346). His very method and principles stand in contraposition to the problem which the new realists set out to solve, and for this reason—it seems to me—Fradet must very gingerly lead his readers into De Koninck’s intellectual ambit.

We are treated to a tour of De Koninck’s similarities to Henri Bergson, to the highlights of De Koninck’s Thomistic synthesis of a massively evolutionary cosmos, to his incorporation of the “dialectic of limits” into Thomistic accounts of knowing and the natural path, and his recapitulation of the philosophy of nature in light of modern science. De Koninck’s strengths over the new realists’s approaches are noted. At the same time, not enough emphasis is placed upon works such as his “Concept, Process, and Reality,” which does, indeed, transcend the narrow confines of any “dogmatic” neo-scholasticism and is reaches perennial truths which De Koninck would say he “felt in [his] very bones” (Thomas De Koninck, “Charles De Koninck: A Biographical Sketch,” Writings, 1:85). In the end of Fradet’s survey of De Koninck, one is left with the impression that his Thomism has been muted for rhetorical and pedagogical reasons. It is unclear that De Koninck’s oeuvre, scattered throughout various journals and conferences and in virtually no monographs, is as full of “twists and turns” as Fradet thinks (68) for its riches (ibid.) are tied to De Koninck’s constant discipleship to St. Thomas. Only later does Fradet call him “an avowed Thomist” (92). If anything, De Koninck’s teaching of so many at Laval in that distinct school of Thomism seems to have followed what he wrote to Adler once: “Throughout the modern period true philosophy has led a hidden life. Cajetan, for instance, and John of St. Thomas, who did very little about their times. What else could they do?” (Charles De Koninck to Mortimer Adler, June 15, 1938)

The Trials of True Realists and Some Conclusions

With the exception of Charles Taylor, the remaining authors may be lesser-known thinkers to many readers. Fradet first turns to consider the oeuvre of Charles De Koninck’s son Thomas De Koninck. Fradet covers his approach to human dignity, human ignorance, common sense, and the relationship between faith and reason. It is especially this last theme which illustrates how the younger De Koninck’s philosophical theology exposes certain excesses and errors among speculative realists (83ff). Fradet’s discussion of Jacques Lavigne (1919–1999) focuses on his work L’Inquiétude humaine, a meditation on the absolute and the human person’s concrete relationship to it, more in the vein of St. Augustine, Pascall, or Blondel, Fradet notes, than Charles De Koninck’s Aquinas (92). Here, too, Fradet must defend his sources, assuring readers of other benefits towards a realist philosophy in Lavigne’s work in view of those of them “who would refuse to interest themselves in Lavigne simply because he has recourse to the name of God” (101). Lavigne’s criticisms of notionalism and systems in modern philosophic discourse too heavily reliant upon the methods of the natural sciences come across poignantly under Fradet’s pen (102–104). Charles Taylor’s work is likewise well surveyed, Fradet pointing out how Taylor avoids the quandaries of being trapped within historically-limited paradigms by pointing to common principles by which a “plural realism” is possible. In this, one senses that the threads of common sense and avoidance of naïve realism are extended, but not to the degree which the De Koninck’s, for instance, might require. Lastly, Jean Grondin’s work is considered, in particular, how it contributtes to “the end of the end of metaphysics” (156). Indeed, the emphasis upon the inevitability of metaphysics, the self-referential impossibility of any denial of its possibility, and its path towards “transcendence and self-transcendence of our language and comprehension” neatly conclude the themes developed in the book.

The conclusion of the book threads together these themes, and, helpfully, brings more of Charles De Koninck’s though to bear. We cannot know the whole of reality, Fradet quotes De Koninck as saying, and yet the thinker surveyed show the natural tendency of the human mind towards such a whole, towards a “metaphysical order which finds expression in the heart of the physical world” (184). The conclusion reinforces, as it were, Fradet’s gentleness in suggesting to post-modern academics that would turn up its nose at talk of “the real” and “God” that it is their own sort of “search” which is in peril. Fradet leaves the reader “free to answer such questions” (192) as his survey raises.

One hopes, indeed, for a stout-hearted return to a philosophy enamored of the transcendent instilled into the heart of the cosmos. Perhaps we can do more about our own times than De Koninck once suspected. For realism is the only perennial philosophy.

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