by Andrew Barrette


In my last piece for the Journal of the History of Ideas Blog, I suggested that the Belgian Jesuits Joseph Maréchal and Pierre Scheuer provide a method and model for increasing self-knowledge through historical reflection. Turning again to them and their confrères, I highlight the significance of “communication”in that task. By doing so, I qualify the concept of “knowledge producers,” the use of which means to include all meaning and value in the storehouse of knowledge, where, for a long time, entry was restricted by those who were gathering it. Without careful consideration, however, the paradigm of knowledge producer can lead us into some significant abstractions and even into further fragmentation between persons. These Jesuits show us that, rather than individuals or individual groups producing units or sets of knowledge, we are engaged in a greater, intergenerational conversation. If we abstract away from this, if we become motivated by products sheered from their personal context, we keep ourselves and each other from promoting the conditions for further knowledge and further communication.

We take our initial clue from Pierre Scheuer, who gained something of a mythical status in the school of Louvain Jesuits. Born near Brussels in 1872, he began teaching in 1915–16, about a decade after Joseph Maréchal. Not long after beginning his teaching career, Scheuer was appointed to an administrative role at the Jesuit College (perhaps due to some controversies within the Church conflict of modernism at the time). He spoke, for example, in support of Pierre Rousselot’s recent work, The Eyes of Faith, and took Immanuel Kant rather seriously; both were under heavy suspicion at the time. Yet, as testament of his recognition and strength of personal presence, he still gave retreats and remained a spiritual director during his administrative duties at the College. In a way, this may have increased his influence on the young men in the College, as his energies, diverted from the demands of publication, were instead directly focused upon their lived formation.

Maréchal himself, though only six years younger than Scheuer, considered it a great blessing to be brought under his elder’s direction in the philosophy faculty. Indeed, near the end of Maréchal’s life, he told students that Scheuer possessed an original philosophical mind and that conversations with him sustained philosophy at the College. As a matter of fact, these two Jesuits were in close contact for much of their vocational lives. Memories of the pair can be found throughout the lifework of generations of students; some even recall their walks together through Leuven, something like Plato and Aristotle walking through the agora of Athens. Nevertheless, they never ventured to comment at any length about how their thought was impacted by each other. Of course, their students still speculated on points of relation and influence, but most often, they themselves simply acknowledged the other’s virtues and expressed gratitude for their friendship. Even in the decade of Scheuer’s life after Maréchal’s 1944 death, he apparently remained silent on these matters, recommending instead that others study his confrères work. In a way, their relationship presents a proximate model for knowledge communication, about which we must presently say more.  

The Pairing of Production and Communication in Intelligence

Maréchal and Scheuer find human intelligence to be both productive and communicative. To make sense of such a claim, it is helpful to distinguish straightaway between spontaneous and reflective self-knowledge.[i] Properly speaking, the latter is the way in which we come to know the most about ourselves; but it is not the most intimate sense of ourselves. To get nearer to that, these thinkers ask: “What are the conditions of knowing at all?”

It may seem, at first glance, that this question is plainly inspired by the philosophical turn to the subject in modernity—a turn which, historically speaking, also brought some suspicion upon these Jesuits and played a part in Scheuer being suspended from teaching. In some sense, this is true, for, with this question, we are led to the subject as subject (Scheuer, An Interior Metaphysics, 78-79; also, Maréchal, Cahier V, 54–5). By this phrase, they mean to indicate a spontaneous presence to ourselves that is acondition of any knowledge: without this conscious self-presence, there is no objectivation, no reflection, and, indeed, no subject as such. But they also go to great lengths to show the foundation for this position in the work of the mind of Thomas Aquinas.[ii] For by intelligent consciousness they mean, with Aquinas, the luminosity of intelligent awareness itself.  Upon this, there is not some other light for us to throw in order to objectivate it, and then another to throw upon that, and so on, ad infinitum; rather, intelligence is itself a principle of knowledge of reality. Now, to be sure, we can come to know something about our conscious awareness by objectivating it via intelligent reflection, which is a process that usually begins by way of an intelligent guide who mirrors our own capacity for intelligence. But in its most intimate lived-sense, it exceeds our objectivation. Since the human subject is in the process of becoming through history such that there is an aspect according to which it is not yet, that is, essentially “to come,” its reality can only be indeterminately sketched out in our reflective objectivation. In other words, our lights reach only so far and, even then, reach only to a more or less probable future that our actions play only a part in shaping.  

“Self-knowledge” is thus at once immediately luminous yet also opaque. So, unlike the Absolute Idealism of some Hegelians, at least those who thought the goal was to raise themselves to “the mind of God,” these Jesuits recognized the essential limits of human nature. Indeed, it is not just that we not yet know who we are to become but that we do not have the ability here-below to make completely clear what we are (Maréchal, “La Notion Psychologique de Subconscience,” 302–32). We are, as whole, “imperfect,” in the sense that we are not yet completely made and are not able to make oneself all at once. Nevertheless, these Jesuits press us to notice that each instance of knowledge of each individual and group plays an instrumental role in realizing the form of human being as a whole (Scheuer, An Interior Metaphysics, 44 and 159). In fact, the more we come to know, the very range of possible knowledge increases. This occurs in an intelligent communication, which happens through history across generations.

It is the science of metaphysics as first philosophy that names the entire universe of being as the term of our intelligence. And this science is, in an important sense, a “production”—following the Greek sense of ποίησις—of intelligent subjects. In this respect, students of Scheuer note how he taught them that “metaphysics makes us poets,” meaning that the active intellect, the νοῦς ποιητικός, illuminates its own position in the order in the universe (André Hayen, “In memoriam Pierre Scheuer, S.J,” 139-142). Metaphysics, in this sense, casts light on the matter of fact that human knowledge of being is no more ready-made than the human subjects who find themselves in it. For these Belgian Jesuits, ours is an historical being that is wayward in a universe that is also becoming ever richer in being. To have an adequate account of human being in the world, we must take care not to abstract from the process of producing knowledge.

Indeed, much of the post-modern talk about the “end of metaphysics,” which is rightly concerned about a static conception of being, overlooks a dynamism of intelligence at work within the process itself. In contrast, for Scheuer, as for Maréchal, an “interior” metaphysics, as their students, such as Daniel Shine, Gaston Isaye, or Andre Hayen liked to say, grounds the science of being on an understanding of the dynamism of intelligence that desires to know being (André Hayen, La Communication de L’être d’Après Saint Thomas d’Aquin; 1957). The science of metaphysics, as Jesuit theologian Bernard Lonergan would later put it, yields an integral heuristic structure of all that is to be known by intelligence.  

Regarding the sense of communication here, it is important to make two basic distinctions. In the first place, there is a communication within oneself, in the discursive process of knowing. In lieu of a lengthy analysis of this process, we might simply highlight here the sense of discourse, which, as Scheuer points out, indicates a talking with oneself about the truth and goodness of something (Scheuer, Interior Metaphysics,78 and 84).[iii] When we ask questions and deliberate, we are speaking inwardly, as it were, communicating with ourselves about the sufficiency of evidence needed in order to determine the object as really and truly what we think it is. Such discourse is, in the second place, intertwined with socio-historical realities: for, put negatively, one does not produce the language with which one discourses with oneself, nor does one generate much of the conceptual content in this learned language, even if one does generate the concepts themselves, nor does one produce the world through which these concepts are communicated and in which the discourse is moved by data. Instead, put positively, behind all this, there is a communication, not only of concepts, but of ways of being, of habits, of styles, of ideals, and, indeed, our nature, sine qua non. In short, subjects differ from objects and subjects differ from each other,but these relations are not without communication.

Moreover, there is a communication in the luminosity of our intelligence itself. This is not something we give ourselves, though we do play a role in raising our awareness to it. It is, rather, a communication of the sort captured in the phrase from St. Thomas Aquinas, “Ipsum enim lumen intellectuale quod est in nobis, nihil est aliud quam quaedam participât slmilituda luminis increati” (Summa Theologica, I. 84. 5, c): “For the intellectual light itself which is in us, is nothing else than a participated likeness of the uncreated light.”[iv] Ultimately, then, these Jesuit thinkers find that there is the communication of being itself, as our being is the sort that desires to know being by its nature.

Now, such a communication of being does not mean that we know everything by nature. These Jesuits mean, rather, that we are oriented to it by way of a communication that calls us to it. Indeed, the proper end of the desire to know is not only that which is proportionate to our finite capacities, but that which absolutely exceeds our capacities. Such absolute transcendence is not something unintelligible, however, but rather an infinite intelligibility—a mystery that exceeds the finite intelligences that desire it. The first principle of our knowledge thus moves us to fuller knowledge of that principle.  

Some Differences in the Models of Knowledge

From these points, we can understand that human beings are not only knowledge-producers but also knowledge-communicators. In the field of the sciences, for example, the difference comes to light: researchers not only produce but communicate knowledge to other researchers, even as subjects of research not only produce knowledge but communicate it. Moreover, these same subjects are engaged in discursive acts of understanding, the products of which set the conditions for communicating knowledge across generations, thereby expanding the communication of human beings through history. Without such communication, there would exist only little storehouses of facts, to which no one returns, and by which no one is moved. An inadequate conception of knowledge makes it seem as if this is the case. And in the arms race of data production, it may seem that we are nearing this state of things as a matter of fact.

Yet, as these Jesuits taught, human beings cannot extinguish intelligence.  As we are pressed on by the light of our intelligence that we did not give ourselves, seeking to know more than we knew before, so too can we continue to ask about the conditions for the possibility of this process. Indeed, with such reflection we might find that no human being is merely a knowledge producer, just as no society merely produces knowledge, but rather that human beings are—when realizing and not failing to be what they are able to be—in communication. In this respect, it is worth highlighting the fact that, above all, these Jesuits themselves were teachers: duringdark times, amidst violence and scarcity that seemed to threaten the dimming of intelligence, they took up that delicate task of finding the best angle to hold the mirror of history in order to reflect the luminosity of their student’s own intelligence. I find that there is much yet in their work worthy of reflection.  

Andrew Barrette is assistant professor of the practice in the Philosophy Department at Boston College. He is also an associated fellow of the Lonergan Institute and of the Institute of Advanced Jesuit Studies, where he is working especially as the General Editor of the Collected Works of Joseph Maréchal, S.J. His work has appeared in peer-reviewed journals including The British Society for Phenomenology, Eidos: A Journal for Philosophy of Culture, and Continental Philosophy Review.

Edited by Jacob Saliba

Cover Image:  Jan Wildens, Frans Francken II, “Landscape with Mercury and Herse, via Wikimedia Commons.

[i] See Joseph Maréchal, S.J., Collected Works of Joseph Maréchal, S.J., ed. and trans. by Andrew Barrette (Boston: Jesuit Sources, forthcoming 2024), Chapter 2; also, Pierre Scheuer, An Interior Metaphysics: The Philosophical Synthesis of Pierre Scheuer, S.J., ed. and trans. Daniel Shine, S.J. (Wester: Weston College Press, 1966),184.

[ii] See also, Summa Theologiae, I, q.117, a.1, c, “There is in every man a certain principle of knowledge, the light of the acting intellect, through which certain universal principles of science are naturally known immediately from the beginning.” the metaphorical presentation in Summa Theologiae, I, q.79, a.3.

[iii] See also Joseph Maréchal, Le point de départ de la métaphysique: Cahier V (Brussels: Editions du Museum Lessianum, 1926), 207 and 253.

[iv] See Joseph Maréchal, “Au seuil de la métaphysique: abstraction ou intuition,” pts. 1–3, Revue néoscolastique de philosophie 31 (1929): 27–57; 121–47; and 309–42, esp. 315; in Maréchal, Cahier VI, Chapter 8, where Maréchal says, “In its origin, the active function of the agent intellect is nothing other than the natural communication of ‘divine light’ to our intelligence, according to ‘first principles.’”