Newly translated Garrigou-Lagrange essays cover wide range of topics

A review of the collection entitled Philosophizing in Faith: Essays on the Beginning and End of Wisdom, collected and translated by Matthew K. Minerd.

Réginald Marie Garrigou-Lagrange, OP (1877-1964), was a prolific author and a leading neo-Thomist of the 20th century. (Images: Wikipedia and Cluny Media)

Thanks to the fine work of Matthew K. Minerd a score of previously untranslated essays by Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P. (1877-1964) are now available in English. The collection, entitled Philosophizing in Faith: Essays on the Beginning and End of Wisdom, is published by Cluny Media and is the fifth volume in its Thomist Tradition Series edited by Cajetan Cuddy, O.P.

Following the lead of many of his predecessors in the Thomistic tradition, Garrigou commented extensively on the texts of St. Thomas and developed his thought. Garrigou saw in Thomas an exceptional guide to truth and he sought to teach others what he learned from Thomas. Garrigou’s Dominican confrère Marie-Rosaire Gagnebet writes of him that his “long life had been an ardent pursuit of divine Truth and a constant effort to aid in its influence on the people of today.”i

Garrigou spent the majority of his career teaching at the Angelicum in Rome. He was also a prolific writer. A bibliography complied by Benedetto Zorcolo, O.P. in 1965 lists 772 items between 1904 and 1964.ii Les sens commun (1909), Dieu: Son existence et sa nature (1914), De Deo uno (1938), and Traité de théologie ascétique et mystique (1938) are among his best-known works.

Like any good Thomist, Garrigou was equally at home in theology and philosophy. The essays collected in Philosophizing in Faith are for the most part philosophical. They were selected by Minerd himself and span almost the entirety of Garrigou’s career. The earliest, “Apologetics Directed by Faith,” is from 1919, and the latest, “The Encyclical Pascendi and Phenomenalism,” is from 1958 (five years before Garrigou’s death). Minerd has organized the book thematically, dividing it into five parts. Part I deals with logic, Part II with questions about knowledge, Part III with moral and political philosophy, Part IV with problems in modern and early twentieth century philosophy, and Part V with philosophy, faith, and theology.

Besides providing a general introduction to the book as a whole, Minerd provides as well a separate introduction to each of the parts. There are also dozens of translator’s notes offering commentary on a range of issues from the translation itself to philosophical, theological, and historical context, to related texts in Garrigou’s oeuvre, etc. The extensiveness of these editorial interventions almost constitute a book-within-the-book and will be of great value both to people already versed in Garrigou’s thought and to people who are new to it.

The essays selected by Minerd were written for an academic audience. Most are fairly technical and assume, among other things, a knowledge of Aristotle and St. Thomas, a background in the history of philosophy, and a familiarity with the Scholastic lexicon.

There are twenty-one essays in total. I cannot go through each of them in this review but will instead briefly discuss a few of the ones that have especially drawn my attention. What follows, then, is only an apéritif.

Is there anything out there?

Ancient and modern skeptics have challenged our natural certainty about the existence of a world “outside” of our minds. Immanuel Kant claimed that until his time (the late eighteenth century) no one had succeeded in producing a satisfactory proof of the existence of the extramental world and regarded this as a “scandal.”iii Thus, he tried to construct a proof of his own and added it to the second edition of his Critique of Pure Reason (1787).iv Dismissing Kant’s concerns, Martin Heidegger would later say in Being and Time (1927) that it was a scandal rather “that such proofs are expected and attempted again and again.”v As I read him, Heidegger’s reason for saying this is that, on his view, there is never a world independent of us because the world is something we “project” by our interests or concerns and so the problem of proving an extramental world should never really arise.vi Heidegger’s way of dealing with skepticism about the extramental world is, arguably, quite dubious. One of its problems is that it assumes and does account for the existence of the projectors themselves (i.e., us).

Garrigou addresses the skeptical challenge in a secondary way in an essay in Part II entitled “There Cannot be a Genuine Sensation without a Real Sensed Thing” (1938).vii His primary concern is to clarify Thomas’s teaching on our cognitive contact with the material world in response to what he takes to be a misinterpretation by his fellow Dominican Umberto Degl’Innocenti.viii As Garrigou shows (conclusively I think), Thomas’s view is that, as the title of the essay itself tells us, we cannot sense anything unless some real thing acts on our senses. In other words, I cannot see (or hear or smell, etc.), unless something to be seen affects my sight and thereby causes me to see it. If that does not happen, no seeing will occur. Unless, say, a tree or some other visible object appears to me, I will not see anything. Thomas’s point could be put negatively as well: a non-existent sense object will never cause sensation in me.

Thomas distinguishes between external and internal senses. And his thesis is about our external senses. Our external senses are sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. Our internal senses are imagination, the common sense, the cogitative power, and memory. It is evident to all of us that there is a difference between hearing someone play Chopin’s nocturnes and “hearing” them again in our imagination when no one is actually playing them. How we might describe that difference is another question. What is important is that we all recognize it.

Naturally, in response to Thomas’s insistence that sensation depends on some real thing that is sensed, skeptics will ask about such things as dreams and hallucinations. In these, Thomas explains, our external senses are not being acted upon. It is rather our internal senses that are at work. But it couldn’t be otherwise, for again, if there is nothing acting on our external senses, they will not sense.

Thomas could be described as a “realist” about sense perception. The objects of our external senses are really there. If they were not, no sensing would take place.ix By bringing out this point and the reasoning behind it, I think Garrigou shows us how Thomas can fruitfully contribute to a longstanding debate in epistemology.x

It might be noted that Thomas’s position is close to that of John Searle, a contemporary American philosopher. Sense illusions, says Searle, are not perceived by us in the way that we perceive things that are really there. Hallucinations and the like can only be used as evidence against realism about sense perception, Searle points out, by treating perception in an equivocal way, that is, by glossing over the differences between sense illusions and what triggers a real (external) sense perception.xi

Before the Cogito

Garrigou takes up a related topic in an essay in Part IV entitled “The Thomist Critique of the Cartesian Cogito” (1937). The French philosopher René Descartes is famous for having said “I think, therefore, I am.” This statement first appeared in his Discourse on Method (1637). Sometimes the Latin translation is quoted: Cogito ergo sum.xii While a lot of people are familiar with the phrase, not everyone knows what Descartes means by it.

Descartes wants to show that there are some things about which we can be certain and that these certainties are the ground of our knowledge. He claims that one thing that we cannot rationally doubt is the fact of our own existence. Anytime I am aware that I am thinking I can be certain that I exist because it would be impossible for me to think if I did not exist. So, if I am thinking (and that includes doubting), then I must exist: Cogito ergo sum. Note well that Descartes is not saying that his thinking causes his existence. What he is claiming is that his thinking is evidence for his existence.

In the Discourse Descartes tells us that the Cogito is the first principle upon which he will build his philosophy. The suggestion is that there is nothing more fundamental upon which we can base our knowledge.

It has often been noted that St. Augustine had already hit upon the Cogito argument, or something very much like it, many centuries before Descartes. In answer to the suggestion that he could be mistaken about his existence, Augustine says Si fallor sum – “If I am mistaken, then I exist.” This must be the case, says Augustine, because “a non-existent being cannot be mistaken.”xiii

But Thomas had also beaten Descartes to the Cogito. In the De veritate he writes: “No one can assent to the thought that he does not exist, for in thinking something, he perceives that he exists.”xiv

Unlike Descartes, however, Thomas does not take our awareness of our own existence as the first principle of knowledge. And it is precisely here that Garrigou wishes to show us an important disagreement between Thomas and Descartes.

Thomas holds that everything we know can be “resolved” into being. What this means is that all our knowledge is in some way knowledge of being. This is so because everything that we know is a being of some sort, that is, it exists in some way. If it did not exist in any way, we could not know it. It would not be an objection to this thesis to note that we can know something about fictional creatures such as dragons. Fictional creatures are not entirely without existence since they at least have existence in our imaginations (and the material out of which we construct them comes originally through our external senses).

Furthermore – as should be obvious to anyone who thinks about it – there can be nothing “outside” of being. Something apart from being is not something at all. If I am thinking or talking about something that does not exist – something allegedly apart from being – then I’m not thinking or talking about anything.

From these considerations, we can conclude that whatever “laws” belong to being, they will govern whatever it is we can claim to know. The first such law, according to Thomas (who also finds this teaching in Aristotle), is the law that nothing can both be and not be in the same way and at the same time. This is what we have come to call the law or principle of non-contradiction (which is often referred to simply as PNC). If you are reading these words right now, then it can’t be the case that you are also not reading them right now. If you say, “Well, that’s obvious,” Thomas would agree with you. He thinks that we all have a basic knowledge of being that allows us to recognize immediately the truth of PNC once we understand the meaning of the terms. We cannot help but have this basic knowledge because everything we cognize has being in some way.

Garrigou observes that if we are uncertain of PNC, then there will be nothing about which we can be certain, for then everything could be the opposite of what we take it to be. But the truth of PNC is blindingly obvious and so we can be certain of it. Realizing this, however, we can also see a problem with the status of the Cogito in Descartes’s epistemology. If we cannot be certain about anything if PNC does not hold, then the Cogito can’t be the first principle of knowledge. On the contrary, PNC must be the first principle. On the priority of PNC over the Cogito Garrigou quotes his colleague at the Angelicum Édouard Hugon, O.P.:

Obviously, the first fact, “Cogito,” from which is inferred, “Therefore, I am,” holds only if it is contradictory to think and not to think at the same time, which holds from the principle of non-contradiction.xv

Although we can be certain about our own existence from our awareness of our thinking, this cannot be the basis of all knowledge. Logically speaking, PNC comes before the Cogito because the compelling force of the Cogito depends on it.

Politics and perfection

We now move from epistemological questions to political ones. The next essay I will comment on is from Part III and is entitled “The Subordination of the State to the Perfection of the Human Person According to St. Thomas” (1949).

Garrigou points out two opposed errors in modern politics. On the one hand, there is the individualism of liberalism, which regards protecting the rights of individuals as the state’s raison d’être. On the other hand, there is the statism of communism (but he might also have mentioned fascism), which sees individual rights as being totally subordinated to the rights of the state.

For Garrigou, the problem with liberal individualism is that it undermines the temporal common good of the political community. He suggests that the temporal common good is living well in accord with legal justice and equity.

The problem Garrigou sees with statism is that it effectively divinizes the state and, in so doing, threatens the citizens’ ability to serve the true God, who is himself the supreme and transcendent common Good – beyond all temporal common goods – and our finis ultimus.

Garrigou presents Thomas’s political vision as an alternative both to liberal individualism and to statism. The purpose of the political community or state, as Thomas understands it, is to promote conditions favorable to living virtuously or, as Garrigou puts it, to promote conditions favorable to the perfection of the human person. This is a non-negotiable part of the common good of any state. It is something that the freedom of individuals can never trump. But neither may the state itself – or, more particularly, the government – endanger it. It is in this respect, then, that the state itself is subordinated to the perfection of the human person. On this point Garrigou is concerned that he not be misunderstood.

I do not say [that the state is] “subordinated to the human person,” for he at times acts on his whims, but rather, [that the state is] “subordinated to the intellectual, moral, and religious perfection of the human person” according to natural law.xvi

This clarification is crucial. If there were any confusion about how Garrigou’s Thomistic position differs from liberal individualism, this statement makes the difference clear.

Philosophizing in faith

The last essay I’m going to look at helps us understand why Minerd has called this volume Philosophizing in Faith. It comes from Part V and bears the title “On the Relationship between Philosophy and Religion” (1936). The essay is a contribution to the 1930s debate over the idea of “Christian philosophy.” This is not the place to sort out the various positions in this complex debate, which involved so many of the great Catholic thinkers of the twentieth century (e.g., Maurice Blondel, Étienne Gilson, Henri de Lubac, Jacques Maritain, A.-D. Sertillanges – it was a very French debate!). Here I will only note the sense in which Garrigou believes that philosophy might properly be styled “Christian.”

Drawing on the ideas of Maritain, Garrigou suggests that there are two forms of assistance that a philosophy can receive from Christianity that would constitute that philosophy as Christian. The first is an “objective form of assistance” that comes “especially from the supernatural revelation of the natural truths of religion.”xvii St. Thomas and the First Vatican Council taught that there are some truths relevant to religion that are naturally knowable to us that, nevertheless, because of the difficulty we have in grasping them, are restated by revelation. Revelation doesn’t provide the philosophical demonstration of these truths but merely draws our attention to them and affirms them. Philosophizing Christians can then provide them with purely philosophical demonstrations. The existence of God, the immateriality of the human soul, free will and so on are some of the truths that Garrigou is talking about in this context.

The second form of assistance that philosophy can receive from Christianity is “subjective.” It is “caused by the infused virtue of faith and by the very act of faith.”xviii This faith, which is a supernatural gift, can “confirm from on high,” as Garrigou puts it, truths about which we already have a philosophical certitude.xix So, supernatural faith reinforces our natural assent to some truths accessible to unaided reason.

In theory, Christian philosophers need never advert explicitly to either of these two forms of assistance that they receive from faith. They can be really present but quietly in the background since neither one need ever enter in as a formal element of a philosophical argument. Borrowing a concept from the philosopher of science Michael Polanyi, we can say that the assistance that faith provides in Christian philosophy can, and often does, belong to the “tacit dimension” of that philosophy.

The situation of Christian philosophy, however, is not unique in this respect. For everything that we do there are enabling conditions or causes that do not necessarily enter into or need to be thematized in the activity itself. Suppose, for instance, that you taught me how to garden and that I then teach somebody else how to garden. Can I teach that person without disclosing who taught me or would that simply be impossible? Of course, it does not belong to gardening itself that it can only be done if the teacher of the gardener is invoked. Similarly, philosophy that is in some way helped by Christian faith – even when this help is positively decisive – does not need to invoke this faith in the arguments it develops. It may do this but it is not a formal requirement. (Just as it is not a formal requirement whenever I make an argument that I mention the professors who taught me philosophy.)

Some of the essays in this book touch on clearly Christian topics but others do not. Yet in either case we can understand Garrigou to be “philosophizing in faith” insofar as he relies on Christian faith for objective and subjective assistance in his philosophizing.

Tolle lege

Philosophizing in Faith should be of interest to all Catholic philosophers and theologians (including aspiring ones). It is not always easy going but if you are willing to work at it, I think you will find it rewarding. But then again, that’s really the case for any good that’s worth pursuing, isn’t it?

I am grateful to Prof. Minerd for making these essays available in English. I should mention that this is not his only translation of Garrigou’s writings. He has three other translations to his credit: The Sense of Mystery: Clarity and Obscurity in the Intellectual Life (Emmaus Academic, 2017), The Order of Things: The Realism of the Principle of Finality (Emmaus Academic, 2020), Thomistic Common Sense: The Philosophy of Being and the Development of Doctrine (Emmaus Academic, 2021).

Endnotes: 

i “L’oeuvre du P. Garrigou-Lagrange: itineraire intellectuel et spirituel vers Dieu,” Angelicum 42 (1965): 7. There are two informative books in English on Garrigou’s life and thought: Richard Peddicord, O.P.’s The Sacred Monster of Thomism: An Introduction to the Life and Legacy of Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2004), and Aidan Nichols, O.P.’s Reason with Piety: Garrigou-Lagrange in the Service of Catholic Thought (Naples: Sapientia Press of Ave Maria University, 2008).

ii “Bibliografia del P. Garrigou-Lagrange,” Angelicum 42 (1965): 200-272. Minerd notes in his introduction that Garrigou often republished things (p. iii). So, a section in a book might also, for instance, be published as a journal article. But, as any academic knows, this is not an unusual practice and pretty common among authors with extensive bibliographies.

iii Critique of Pure Reason, trans. P. Guyer and A.W. Wood (Cambridge University Press, 1998), B xxxix.

iv Critique of Pure Reason, B 274-275.

v Being and Time, trans. J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), 249.

vi Being and Time, 255.

vii This essay had been previously translated and published by Thomas DePauw and E.M. Macierowski in Studia Gilsoniana 4 (2015): 165-179.

viii Garrigou only mentions the skeptical problem at the very end of the essay.

ix This doesn’t mean that we cannot make mistakes about their qualities. What it does mean is that they must exist and that we can be certain about this.

x Thomas’s psychology of sense perception is probably not driven by worries about skepticism. He usually seems concerned only to offer an accurate account of what is going on when we perceive things. Nevertheless, his account can be used to respond to skeptics.

xi Seeing Things as They Are: A Theory of Perception (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 20-29. Thomas’s and Searle’s psychologies of sense perception aren’t exactly the same. But their understandings of what constitutes real sense perception are pretty close to each other.

xii The Discourse was originally published in French and a Latin version did not appear until 1656, several years after Descartes’s death. At that time Latin was still the common language of scholars and if you wanted your book to have a wide readership, you wrote it in Latin or had it translated into Latin.

xiii De civitate Dei, XI, c. 26.

xiv De veritate, q. 10, a. 12, ad 7.

xv Philosophizing in Faith, 268. I have adjusted the translation to fit the language I am using. The translation has “principle of contradiction” rather than “principle of non-contradiction.”

xvi Philosophizing in Faith, 190.

xvii Philosophizing in Faith, 375.

xviii Philosophizing in Faith, 377.

xix Philosophizing in Faith, 377.


If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.


About Joseph G. Trabbic 13 Articles
Joseph G. Trabbic is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Ave Maria University. He has published in various academic journals, including Religious Studies, International Journal of Philosophy and Theology, and New Blackfriars. He is also a contributor to Thomistica.net.

1 Comment

  1. This is the precisely the kind of reasoning that sends ‘woke-ites’ into a spin and lather, captive as they are to media slogans and grabs. It also puts the lie to latter-day rationalists who dismiss the Catholic faith as an anachronism and superstition.

1 Trackback / Pingback

  1. Edward Feser: A whole lotta links

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

All comments posted at Catholic World Report are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative or inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.


*