The Philosophical Method of Karol Wojtyla - by The Polish Christian Philosophy in the 20th Century

This chapter, from a larger work on the thought of Karol Wojtyla, is about the philosophical synthesis he created between that of Phenomenology and traditional Thomism. He used this synthesis as a more full approach to that of traditional philosophical and religious questions. When one begins with the human experience, allows oneself to be drawn into deeper reflections about the nature of man, as well as finally being draw into an understanding of God as the Absolute through which we fully understand ourselves... then, and only then, does one have a full picture of reality, of ethics, and of the human person. This is the genius of Pope John Paul II and his attempt to use modern philosophy in a authentic way to bring people towards the truth. 

"An Attempt to Merge the Philosophy of Consciousness and the Philosophy of Being"

In the 20th Century, given the many new strands of philosophical thinking characterizing "Modernity," traditional Thomistic metaphysics was pushed to the side in favor of either of whole new approach or some kind of Thomistic synthesis. These other philosophies included Phenomenology, Kantian philosophy, Positivism, and Existentialism. Philosophy as such was more focused on epistemology, and the act of conscious knowing, than on being itself. 1

Wojtyla himself takes on a type of synthesis between the new philosophies of consciousness, especially that of Phenomenology, and traditional Thomistic realism. Having studied under the great Thomist Reginald Garrigou LaGrange during his doctoral work, he certainly had a firm foundation of Thomism to work from. We can see a sort of first attempt at this synthesis in his doctoral thesis on St. John of the Cross in which he seeks to analyze the mystical experience described by John of the Cross, grounding it in a Thomistic framework. In his later habilitationschraft, or second published doctoral thesis, he took up this type of synthesis more explicitly, replacing John of the Cross with the Phenomenologist Max Scheler. 2

"Taking up the examination of phenomenological ethics, he moved toward what the philosophy of consciousness reveals, but in criticizing the superficiality of the phenomenological approach to the experience of morality and the perception of the person’s agency, he reached beyond the philosophy of being to Thomistic metaphysics." 3

In this work, as well as in his two of his other well known works, "Person and Act" and "The Lublin Lectures," Wojtyla begins with an attitude of criticism towards the limitations of the philosophy of consciousness. Rather, he continues to assert the possibility of a wider knowledge of metaphysics through the framework of Thomistic realism. Later, after the release of these works, Wojtyla then explores how these philosophy can broaden the field of knowledge and actually be an aid to Thomism, offering "... a methodologically new structure of ethics..." - one which is outlined in his work "Man in the Field of Responsibility." 4 "The philosophy of consciousness penetrated what belongs to the subjectivity of man and the philosophy of being that makes up its objective structure." 5

To begin with the limitations of Phenomenology, it is clear that since it begins its search for truth in the conscious experience of the human person it struggles with the ability to make the jump to the metaphysical. It can describe what man experiences, but cannot speak about man's causes or true nature. Thus, Wojtyla is careful to reject the self-imposed limitations of the Phenomenological method and to be open to a wider Thomistic understanding of causation, being, the nature of the human person, and moral and ethical norms that followed from this. The benefit of even attempting a task like this, though, is to prevent one method or the other from becoming too lop-sided or dominating. A balance is necessary between the subjective and the objective. 6 The new input of the experience of man can help deepen and give life to the traditional metaphysical concepts of old, while the metaphysical grounding guides and gives this new data direction and parameters within which to function. 7

"An Attempt to Overcome Empiricism and Apriorism"

Another reason why a synthesis of this type would prove important is the fact that in the early 20th Century philosophy was split in a radical way between Rationalism and Empiricism. Those in the Rationalist tradition rejected the role of the senses as knowing the real world and left everything to the realm of the mind and its apriori judgments, thus leading to a type of moral and anthropological skepticism. On the other hand, the radical empiricists rejected that there was anything of value outside of the sensual realm reducing consciousness and everything else to empirical data. One leading to a radical subjectivism, the other to a radical objectivism. 8

"The above dichotomy, which tears apart the sources of cognition, is accompanied by the dichotomous division of knowledge, the division of sciences into empirical-inductive, formal, analytical and deductive. Here, there is no place for autonomously practiced philosophy, let alone metaphysics. One can only cultivate philosophy as a philosophy of some kind of science." 9

This division played itself out in the moral sphere as well, obscuring any sure footing for morality on either side, whether that was in the relativizing or psychologizing of morality or undermining its rational applicability to real situations. 10 Thus it was imperative for Wojtyla to provide a view in which ethics could be approached not only descriptively but also normatively, taking into account ethical norms grounded in metaphysical realities. 11 Knowing is not simply the act of the mind experiencing some phenomenological datum, nor is it just the reductionist sensory experience of neurons, but rather the mind comes to know the real being of things in a spiritual way. 12

"Thus, the fact of morality or the phenomenon of morality cannot be restricted only to biological, psychological and sociological processes; we should go further and look for their source and justification, look for what is good, and decide that I want to be good as a human being. this is the task to to be fulfilled by ethics and anthropology together with metaphysics." 13

"Moral Experience Vs. Human Experience"

Continuing on the theme of morality. It is clear that a moral grounded in the larger context of being seeks not just for the moral experience but for rational reasons why something is to be done or avoided. These reasons can only be found in the larger context of the nature of the human person. The experience of morality must take us deeper into reflection about what it means to be a person as a whole. We must let it lead us to ask about the deeper foundations by which something is actually good or bad for us. 14

The experience of a good or bad moral action not only is something felt, but involves the deepest parts of the human person, the intellect and the will, the ego and the consciousness. The moral action makes us good or evil in our personhood. Experience and being are connected. Thus, even the act considered apart from this particular situation or person can be classified to an extent as good or evil for persons in general. The conscience stands as the arbiter between the moral norm and the moral action and experience of the person. 15

To reduce the depth of personhood and transcendence of just experience in the moral action is to alienate man from his true self. For man to understand his true self and have an authentic experience of the moral good, he must understand himself in relation to the metaphysical absolute. Only in the light of the absolute does the moral norm and moral experience begin to make sense. 16

"In sum, Karol Wojtyła developed a concept of ethics, which at the starting point describes what is given in the experience of morality, then he interprets and explains morality in the philosophy of man, and finally he incorporates it into an explanation of the philosophy of being, including the philosophy of God." 17

Thus in this synthesis of Wojtyla man begins through his experience of morality as a conscious phenomena, by which he is led to seek an understanding of his objective nature, and finally through which he is pointed towards the absolute through which to ultimately understand himself. It is an incorporation of both the subjective and the objective into a unified whole. To separate these realities out is the work of theories and philosophers, not the real experience of the human person. 18


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