Philosophy against Misosophy


Jacques Maritain



Essays by Me

Essays by Others

From On the Use of Philosophy: Three Essays by Jacques Maritain, Princeton University Press, 1961, 24-29. 


Can Philosophers Cooperate?

Jacques Maritain


Some years ago I was asked whether in my opi-nion philosophers can cooperate.  I felt rather embar-rassed by this question, for on the one hand if philosophy is not a search for truth it is nothing, and truth admits of no compromise; on the other hand if philosophers, that is, lovers of wisdom, cannot coop-erate, how will any human cooperation be possible?  The fact that philosophical discussions seem to con-sist of deaf men's quarrels is not reassuring for civilization.

My answer is that philosophers do not cooperate, as a rule, because human nature is as weak in them as in any other poor devil of a rational animal, but that they can cooperate; and that cooperation bet-ween philosophers can only be a conquest of the intellect over itself and the very universe of thought it has createda difficult conquest indeed, achieved by intellectual rigor and justice on the basis of irreducible and inevitably lasting antagonisms.

A distinction, moreover, seems to me to be relevant in this connection.  The question can be considered either from the point of view of doctrinal exchanges between systems or from the point of view of the mutual grasp which various philosophical systems can have of each other, each being taken as a whole. 

From the first point of view, or the point of view of doctrinal exchanges, each system can avail itself of the others for its own sake by dismembering them, and by feeding on and assimilating what it can take from them.  That is cooperation indeed, but in quite a peculiar senseas a lion cooperates with a lamb.

Yet from the second point of view, and in the perspective of the judgment which each system passes on the other, contemplating it as a whole, and as an object situated in an external sphere, and trying to do it justice, a mutual understanding is possible which cannot indeed do away with basic antagonisms, but which may create a kind of real though imperfect cooperation, to the extent that each system succeeds (1) in recognizing for the other, in a certain sense, a right to exist; and (2) in availing itself of the other, no longer by material intussusception and by borrowing or digesting parts of the other, but by bringing, thanks to the other, its own specific life and principles to a higher degree of achievement and extension.

It is on this genuine kind of cooperation that I would like to insist for a moment.

If we were able to realize that most often our mutually opposed affirmations do not bear on the same parts or aspects of the real and that they are of greater value than our mutual negations, then we should come nearer the first prerequisite of a genuinely philosophical understanding: that is, we should become better able to transcend and conquer our own system of signs and conceptual language, and to take on for a moment, in a provisional and tentative manner, the thought and approach of the other so as to come back, with this intelligible booty, to our own philosophical conceptualization and to our own system of reference.

Then, we are no longer concerned with analyzing or sorting the set of assertions peculiar to various systems in spreading them out, so to speak, on a single surface or level in order to examine what conciliation or exchange of ideas they may mutually allow in their inner structure.  But we are concerned with taking into account a third dimension, in order to examine the manner in which each system, con-sidered as a specific whole, can, according to its own frame of reference, do justice to the other in taking a view of it and seeking to penetrate it as an object situated on the outsidein another sphere of thought.

From this standpoint, two considerations would appear all-important: the one is the consideration of the central intuition which lies at the core of each great philosophical doctrine; the other is the consideration of the place which each system could, according to its own frame of reference, grant the other system as the legitimate place the latter is cut out to occupy in the universe of thought.

Actually, each great philosophical doctrine lives on a central intuition which can be wrongly concep-tualized and translated into a system of assertions seriously deficient or erroneous as such, but which, insofar as it is intellectual intuition, truly gets hold of some aspect of the real. Consequently, each great philosophical doctrine, once it has been grasped in its central intuition and then re-interpreted in the frame of reference of another doctrine (in a manner that it would surely not accept), should be granted from the point of view of this other doctrine some place considered as legitimately occupied, be it in some imaginary universe.

If we try to do justice to the philosophical sys-tems against which we take our most determined stand, we shall seek to discover both that intuition which they involve and that place we must grant them from our own point of view. Then we shall benefit from them, not by borrowing from them or exchanging with them certain particular views and ideas, but by seeing, thanks to them, more pro-foundly into our own doctrine, by enriching it from within and extending its principles to new fields of inquiry which have been brought more forcefully to our attention, but which we shall make all the more vitally and powerfully informed by these principles.

Thus there is not toleration between systemsa system cannot tolerate another system, because systems are abstract sets of ideas and have only intellectual existence, where the will to tolerate or not to tolerate has no partbut there can be justice, intellectual justice, between philosophical systems.

Between philosophers there can be tolerance and more than tolerance; there can be a kind of cooperation and fellowship, founded on intellectual justice and the philosophical duty of understanding another's thought in a genuine and fair manner. Nay more, there is no intellectual justice without the assistance of intellectual charity.  If we do not love the thought and intellect of another as intellect and thought, how shall we take pains to discover what truths are conveyed by it while it seems to us defective or misguided, and at the same time to free these truths from the errors which prey upon them and to re-instate them in an entirely true systematization?  Thus we love truth more than we do our fellow-philosophers, but we love and respect both.