This is the first installment of the three-part essay “Integrating Philosophical Paradigms toward Theological Unity” by Deacon Tracy Jamison, OCDS, PhD. Click here for the introduction. Click here for part 2.

Two distinct philosophical paradigms that are co-essential to natural human understanding are: 1) the dogmatic order of first principles and scientific demonstration, and 2) the hermeneutic order of phenomenology and existentialism. They are often set in opposition in ways that give rise to entrenched polarizations.

Most philosophical and theological observers agree that the mentality of Pope Francis is oriented primarily to the personalistic order of phenomenology and existentialism, as opposed to the dogmatic order of metaphysics and natural law. Francis grants pastoral priority to calling the world to an existential encounter with Christ, and many Catholics agree with that priority and consider it commendable. Many other Catholics, however, disagree with it and consider it dangerous, insisting that pastoral priority should instead be given to defending moral principles and calling the world to repentance. This disagreement has become a serious problem for many in the worldwide Catholic communion, and it threatens to become a schism. In the interest of promoting peace and harmony, Francis offers the path of synodality, which clearly belongs to the phenomenological-existential order and seems to beg the question in favor of its priority.

In order to appreciate not only the potentialities but also the limitations of phenomenology and existentialism, we should attempt to understand their development in the 20th century and their relation to the sciences of metaphysics and ethics.

Grace integrates and perfects natural human understanding through the gift of faith, which needs suitable cultivation in order to grow toward maturity. This maturity happens dogmatically and theologically in the human mind, and affectively and existentially in the human heart.

In Carmelite theology, both of these developments of faith are regarded as essential to spiritual maturity. The dogmas of divine revelation contain the truths which they signify. In the act of divine faith, the human intellect is illuminated by actual grace in the encounter with Christ.Thus, it attains union with Jesus, as he is present intentionally in the revealed word that is heard.

All Christians agree that faith comes by hearing the word of God. The supernatural deposit of faith and morals—above all in Sacred Scripture —is the word of God. This word contains God intentionally, though not substantially. On the other hand, according to Catholic doctrine, the Blessed Sacrament is the God of the word and contains God substantially.[1] To better illustrate this, the Carmelite mystical theologian Saint John of the Cross uses the analogy of silvered gold to explain the intentional presence of God in his propositionally revealed word. The perceived silver and the hidden gold which it contains cannot be separated. Existential union with God goes beyond dogmatic principles and attains what they signify, but it does not do so apart from those principles or without assent to their objective truth.

As explained by Blessed Marie-Eugene of the Child Jesus, OCD, God progressively imparts to all peoples and cultures a supernatural, obscure, indirect, and non-conceptual form of knowledge through the grace of faith and infused contemplation.

With respect to the deposit of faith and morals, the Church engages in doctrinal recollection and formulation, thereby making explicit what she already knows implicitly, and demonstrating truths which necessarily follow from it. The Church as a whole is guided by the Holy Spirit to interpret correctly the revealed content of the deposit of faith and morals. Existential and communal union with God is essentially prior to and more basic than doctrinal formulation, but true mystics and contemplatives habitually submit their infused knowledge to the teaching authority of the Church of Christ, whose divine mission is to guard and transmit the deposit of faith and morals. In this sense, doctrinal formulation is prior to and more basic than existential union with God.[2]

Carmelite doctrine thus seems well-suited to overcoming unnecessary oppositions between the essential ends of both orders. Priority is given to the personal-existential-communal order over the conceptual-propositional-scientific order, but never without the congruence and integration of the two.

In this three-part series, I attempt to make the enduring relevance of the Carmelite contribution and integration more evident and applicable. In this first part, I aim to offer a summary of traditional Aristotelian metaphysics and epistemology and then situate modern phenomenology and existentialism in relation to that general medieval paradigm. Then, I examine two perennial temptations in philosophical formation: pan-objectivism and pan-subjectivism.

Hopefully, the Carmelite integration of medieval and modern thought that I am here suggesting will be a contribution to the synodal process toward a better understanding of the magisterial pastoral synthesis of truth and mercy that is currently being recollected and drawn from within Catholic Tradition for us by Pope Francis. Perhaps by the grace of God we will receive an intuitive “overflow” that will overcome the prevailing false oppositions and move us toward a dialectical reconciliation of contending truths, as described by Francis in Let Us Dream.[3]

Epistemological Prerequisites

We must begin with the classical Aristotelian paradigm and then integrate it with the modern existential paradigm. The human person is by nature a consubstantial union of an animal body and a rational soulHowever, it also has a subjectivity which is irreducible to that objective nature. In any program of education—specifically in Philosophy—the curriculum should therefore be structured to affirm both the objective dimension and the subjective dimension of human existence and conduct. Emphasizing either dimension of the human person to the exclusion of the other always has negative consequences and generally fails to facilitate philosophical maturity in students.

The epistemological foundation of any adequate Philosophy curriculum must reflect a sound anthropology. A sound anthropology is one that effectively employs an integrated philosophical vocabulary. In order to attain a comprehensive scientific understanding of the nature of any being, it is necessary to distinguish the various aspects of that being and to investigate them individually according to the relevant paradigms of explanation. The overall goal should be to integrate them, though.

As emphasized by Jacques Maritain and Saint John Paul II, we distinguish in order to unite, and we analyze in order to synthesize.[4] This two-stage procedure is required for the full comprehension of the essence of any primary substance, including the nature of the human person. Truth is symphonic, and realism entails that the conceptual paradigms of understanding which are thus employed are not totally incommensurable.

According to the Aristotelian paradigm of explanation, the substantial form which is understood by a scientific investigation exists through the first act of its incommunicable subject but also exists as an integrated set of potentialities. This is what makes the subject to be the kind of thing that it is. Whenever a subject possesses and actualizes the power of sensory cognition, we must understand it not only as an ontological subject but also as the subject of knowledge and affectivity.

Every agent acts toward an end, but not every agent is alive, sentient, or intelligent. Let us explore what is meant by “alive, sentient, and intelligent.” The act of living is an exercise of the specific power that makes a substantial form to be a soul as such. The act of sensing is an exercise of the specific power that makes a substantial form to be a soul of the animal kind. The act of understanding is an exercise of the specific power that makes a substantial form to be a soul of the human kind. Every ontological subject is a primary substance, but animals are also cognitive and affective subjects, and their proper activities must be understood teleologically as natural means ordered to essential ends.

In making the real distinction between act and potency on the basis of induction, Aristotle hands us the perennial key to understanding the nature of being and knowledge. A material being is a composite of form and matter, and cognition is the immaterial reception and possession of the form of another.[5] Change is essentially the gain or loss of either a substantial form, an accidental form, or an intentional form. In the act of sensory or intellectual cognition the knowing subject is changed by receiving the substantial or accidental form of another being into its psyche immaterially and thus becoming that thing formally and intentionally. It is just as necessary to posit intentional species in the cognitive faculties as it is to posit substantial forms and prime matter in material substances. Knowledge is a kind of union in which a subject ontologically remains what it is but intentionally becomes what it is not. Sensation is the power that makes a living subject to be a cognitional subject. Common terms such as “self,” “interior,” and “world” have qualitatively distinct and analogical meanings when they are applied not merely to physical forms existing in themselves but to the intentional content of a cognitional subject in which the forms of other things exist subjectively.

In order to avoid confusion and anthropomorphism, we must clarify the analogical use of subjective terms. Since there is “something that it is like” to be a sentient agent, we are inclined to attribute a rudimentary “selfhood” to non-human animals, and we naturally regard them as possessing an “inner world” of sensory knowledge and desires. We recognize that a non-human animal has a subjectivity which is not only ontological but also cognitional, and that a human animal has a cognitional subjectivity which is not only sensorial but also intellectual. Every animal can be said to be a dispositional and attitudinal subject and to have a personality insofar as it has a unique intentional content and affectivity in relation to its perceptions, but only the human kind of animal can be said to be a person and to have conceptualization, intellectual induction, and reflexive self-knowledge. In the absence of impediments and in the presence of a linguistic community, the human subject acquires a conceptual cultivation and thus becomes conscious of itself as a self, while the non-human animal subject does not. Non-human animals obviously possess minds and feelings in the sense of having sensorial cognitive contents and sensitive responses, but their souls lack the reflexive powers of intellection and volition. Upon mastery of a fully syntactical language, the “inner world” of the specifically human self contains a qualitatively higher content in the form of universal concepts, propositional episodes, and rational inferences. Human intersubjectivity and community are properly linguistic and intellectual, but non-human animal intersubjectivity and community are based solely on non-linguistic and non-intellectual forms of representation, communication, and appetition.

The human power to understand things and the human power to understand intentions have materially different objects and are therefore two distinct intellectual powers. For this reason, Saint Thomas Aquinas proposes that the most fundamental division in the sciences is based on whether the sciences constitute knowledge of things insofar as they exist in themselves, or knowledge of the forms of things insofar as they exist intentionally in the human faculties.

Now, I mean by the “intention understood” what the intellect conceives in itself of the thing understood. To be sure, in us this is neither the thing which is understood nor is it the very substance of the intellect. But it is a certain likeness of the thing understood conceived in the intellect, and which the exterior words signify. So, the intention itself is named the “interior word” which is signified by the exterior word. Indeed, that within us the intention aforesaid is not the thing understood is clear from this: It is one thing to understand a thing, and another to understand the intention itself, yet the intellect does so when it reflects on its own work. Accordingly, some sciences are about things, and others are about intentions understood. And that the intention understood is not the very intellect within us is clear from this: The act of being of the intention understood consists in its very being understood; the being of our intellect does not so consist; its being is not its act of understanding.[6]

Just as there are many different sciences which are directed toward real essences that exist in themselves as potencies apart from our intellects, so also are there many different sciences which are directed toward the intentional contents that we subjectively possess. If human cognition is an act in which an object materially existing in itself begins to formally exist also in the faculties of the knowing subject, then the object can be investigated and understood either directly in its actual existence or indirectly in its intentional existence. The object is first perceived and understood in itself by the subject formally and directly in the act of cognition through a percept and a concept. Then, these formal signs are retained by the faculties of the subject and can themselves be objects of research and contemplation through the recollective power of the memory and the reflexive power of the intellect. Aquinas thus grants the human intellect two natural sources of science: the essences of substances and accidents known directly and abstractly as first intentions, and the acts and contents of the cognitive faculties themselves known indirectly and reflexively as second intentions.

Percepts, concepts, and memories are not copies of material objects but are formal signs through which the objects are present and directly known. The senses, the memory, and the intellect contain signs which are formally identical to what they signify: the objects actually existing in themselves regardless of whether they exist in knowledge. Cognitive faculties are able to know transcendent objects by possessing them immanently and formally as existing within themselves intentionally. Direct cognition is spontaneous, while reflexive cognition involves volition and attention to the natural formal media of direct cognition. Formal signs are not spontaneously the direct objects of ordinary knowledge, but in the human soul they are able to become objects of knowledge indirectly and reflexively due to the immateriality of the human intellect. The human person has an immanent “world” which can be systematically explored and described by the subject through dialectical recovery and recollection. Reflexive knowledge is an indirect apprehension and comprehension of the contents of percepts, concepts, and memories, which are forms existing intentionally. Forms spontaneously impregnate the human faculties with percepts, concepts, and memories, which can themselves be understood and clarified reflexively as acts having intentional contents.[7]

The various sciences can therefore logically be divided between those which are direct, ontological, and causal versus those which are reflexive, phenomenological, and existential. The latter are ordered to the acts of cognition and appetition by which substances and their essences and accidents inform and activate our faculties with intentional beings. In our ordinary acts of perception and intellection in everyday cognition—and more systematically in our demonstrative use of the scientific method—we gain direct knowledge of the essences and accidents of material substances as first intentions. In our reflexive acts of intuitive cognition, we are able to recollect and make known to ourselves explicitly and clearly that which we have already grasped and sought implicitly and obscurely by the ordinary means of the spontaneous operations of our cognitive and affective powers together. This is more systematically true in the science of logic and in our dialectical use of the phenomenological method, refined and taught in the early 20th century by Edmund Husserl and his many disciples, including Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), OCD. Formal logic is only one of many sciences of second intentions.

Phenomenological and existential knowledge can be obtained when we direct our intellects to the dialectical recollection and conceptualization of our own subjective acts of sensing, perceiving, judging, understanding, valuing, remembering, imagining, and meaning. Our external and internal senses cannot sense their own acts, but our intellects by contrast are able to understand their own acts of understanding, along with our other acts of cognition, and thus we can conceptualize and formalize them as second intentions. The unique reflexive power of the intellect is what enables us to employ our memories and imaginations in the activity of recognizing our own cognitions.It also allows us to re-evaluate our own valuations and attitudes in order to cultivate our comprehension and appreciation of truth and goodness, and to guide our practical decisions. Phenomenological and existential reflection is thus what makes philosophy practical.

We cannot integrate the paradigms of Aristotle and Husserl without employing the vocabulary of Aristotle and Husserl. According to Thomists, Scotists, and other Aristotelian realists, phenomenological and existential investigations always presuppose the direct cognition of actual objects and their essences and accidents as it is employed in ordinary reasoning and in the ontological sciences. The ontological sciences include the modern empirical sciences but also the Aristotelian philosophy of nature and metaphysics. Ontological knowledge is fundamental and therefore does not presuppose phenomenological reflection, but phenomenological reflection is supplemental and always presupposes ontological knowledge. Phenomenology can assist the ontological sciences and open a path to metaphysics, but it cannot replace or substitute for them. Similarly, modern psychology is indispensable to understanding the human person, but it presupposes and cannot replace the more fundamental Aristotelian faculty psychology which preserves the rationality and objectivity of science as such.

The ontological sciences are directed toward essences in themselves, but the phenomenological sciences are directed toward essences only insofar as they are known and enter into our lives intentionally.Eidetic intuition in phenomenology involves the reflexive conceptualization of typicalities, regularities, and necessities,[8] just as direct cognition in scientific theory involves associations, empirical generalizations, and abstractive inductions.However, the proper object of an eidetic intuition is a psychological, conceptual, or existential necessity, while the proper object of an ontological induction is a physical, metaphysical, or moral necessity. The human act of eidetic intuition primarily utilizes the faculties of memory and imagination, whereas the human act of ontological induction primarily utilizes the faculties of sensation and intellection, but every real necessity present in our ideas and discernible by intuition presupposes a necessity present in essences already understood by simple apprehension. In the same way, the reflexively intuitive recognition of the identity of a substantial whole, which transcends both the filled intentions of it in its presence and the empty intentions of it in its absence, is possible only if we have already directly grasped not only its existence but also its subsistence. Phenomenologists often fail to recognize that the noematic content which the reflexive phenomenological attitude makes known to us explicitly and consciously is formally identical to the perceptual and conceptual content which the natural ontological attitude has already placed in our cognitive faculties implicitly and intentionally.

Furthermore, at the level of first principles founded directly on the concept of being, abstractive induction in nous and synderesis is infallible in both speculative and practical reason, as implicitly taught by Aristotle. No one is mistaken, for example, to follow the principle of non-contradiction or to believe that good ought to be done and that evil ought to be avoided. Such principles are the rational foundation of all knowledge and practical endeavors. Those who irrationally deny first principles consciously are at odds with what their own intellects know implicitly and with what their own wills pursue spontaneously.

Two Perennial Temptations in Philosophical Formation

The American philosopher John Wild (1902–72) often emphasized that there are two perennial temptations that must continually be resisted in both philosophy and theology: pan-objectivism and pan-subjectivism. Pan-objectivism is the human tendency to ignore or suppress the cognitional subjectivity of the human person and to reduce all human knowledge to objective concepts and principles. Reductive programs of this kind can be found in medieval scholasticism no less than in modern positivism. On the other hand, pan-subjectivism is the human tendency to ignore or suppress the ontological objectivity of the human person and to reduce all human knowledge to subjective mental states and propositional attitudes. Reductive programs of this kind can be found in medieval conceptualism no less than in modern forms of idealism. The universal bipolar human tendency toward pan-objectivism and pan-subjectivism makes apparent the perennial psychological difficulty of maintaining the proper reflective equilibrium between that which is essentially true by nature or identity and that which is existentially true by culture or orientation. Both dispositions are apparent in every age in literary works of philosophy and theology, and individual persons and cultures are usually dominated by one tendency to the exclusion or suppression of the other.[9]

Catholic educational institutions tended toward pan-objectivism in the first half of the 20th century following Vatican I, and then in the second half of the 20th century they tended toward pan-subjectivism following Vatican II. As the Roman pontiffs since Vatican II have repeatedly emphasized, however, the true love of wisdom is manifested in the maintenance of proper balance and integration and in the avoidance of false opposition and segregation. It is unfortunately human-all-too-human to forget that there need not be any real opposition between ontological truths and existential truths. In governing the Church, bishops who tend to emphasize existential truths are typically opposed by those members of the clergy and laity who tend to emphasize ontological truths, and bishops who tend to emphasize ontological truths are typically opposed by those members of the clergy and laity who tend to emphasize existential truths. The integrating approach taken by John Paul II was resented by Catholics at the time who were inclined toward existentialism and thus regarded his defense of natural law as fundamentalist.

Nowadays the integrating approach taken by Pope Francis is often resented by Catholics who are inclined toward a pan-objectivist interpretation of natural law and thus regard his existential qualifications and pastoral considerations as suspicious. There is a widespread concern that the authentic magisterium of Francis compromises moral truth. Catholics who emphasize instead the subjectivity of the human person expect Francis to implement a progressive agenda of moral pragmatism, and they sometimes even propose that pastoral ministers should not directly oppose anyone’s conscience as erroneous. Catholic educational institutions are often internally divided between the strict and the lax, and the two groups tend to demonize and marginalize each other. The same socio-psychological dynamic is apparent in secular culture as well.

In the basic attitudes of many Christian philosophers and theologians of the 20th century we find a similar false opposition. Aristotelian scholasticism often attempts to suppress all forms of phenomenological existentialism, and phenomenological existentialism often attempts to suppress all forms of Aristotelian scholasticism. The truth is that these two paradigms are not totally incommensurable, and that an adequate anthropology must include both by holding them in continuity. The antagonism is unnecessary, unfortunate, and counter-productive. The modern existentialist opposition to medieval faculty psychology is just as problematic as the Aristotelian opposition to modern existential psychology. We can grant that phenomenological existentialism can be a path toward a sound metaphysics, but only when it remains adequately grounded in a sound metaphysics.[10] Whenever the phenomenological sciences oppose and attempt to replace traditional Aristotelian metaphysics and epistemology, they saw off the branch on which they are sitting, so to speak. We can also grant that the Aristotelian metaphysics of being as such does not onto-theologically presuppose what it attempts to prove; rather, it ascends to contemplating analogical truths about the transcendent essence of God as pure Act through the first principles of being as such, which are known through themselves by abstractive induction. The lessons that Aristotle taught us must not be forgotten.

The Aristotelian philosophical framework is not merely one scientific paradigm among many; rather, it is the prerequisite of scientific understanding itself. Even Saint Bonaventure understood its perennial value and did not intend to condemn it as such in his polemics against those who were putting it to heretical purposes.[11] Those who abandon Aristotelian philosophy of science inevitably fall into positivism, pragmatism, or relativism. The various relevant paradigms of explanation employed by the magisterium of the Catholic Church down through the ages are fundamentally commensurable.

Carmelite anthropology has always understood this realist requirement, which is the reason why modern Carmelite theologians such as Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), Blessed Marie-Eugene of the Child Jesus, and Saint John Paul II preserved traditional faculty psychology and carefully integrated the essential insights of modern phenomenology and existentialism into the Aristotelian medieval synthesis achieved by theologians such as Saint Thomas Aquinas and Blessed John Duns Scotus. The Aristotelian epistemologies of Aquinas and Scotus both developed directly from Saint Augustine’s earlier Neoplatonist synthesis of faith and reason and can easily be integrated. The hermeneutic of continuity is a realist hermeneutic of integration, not a pragmatist or relativist hermeneutic of disintegration. It is long past time for us to set our aside our differences and to attend to what we have in common, as the synodal process of Pope Francis is requiring us to do.

In the second part of this essay, I will describe and recommend the anthropological synthesis of Lublin Thomism as a model of integration and offer an interpretation of Pope Francis’s liberation theology of the people which maintains its continuity with Saint John Paul II’s mystical theology of the body.

Click here for part 2.


[1] Karol Wojtyła (John Paul II) “The Question of Faith in St John of the Cross,” in Carmelite Studies: Contemporary Psychology and Carmel, edited by John Sullivan, OCD (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1982), 223-73.

[2] Marie-Eugene of the Child Jesus, OCD, I Want to See God, Volume I of A Practical Synthesis of Carmelite Spirituality, translated by M. Verda Clare (Notre Dame, IN: FIDES/Claretian, 1953), 491–517.

[3] Pope Francis in conversation with Austen Ivereigh, Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2020), pp. 81–9.

[4] Jacques Maritain, The Degrees of Knowledge, translated under the supervision of Gerald Phelan (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995), ix–xiv.

[5] John Peifer, The Mystery of Knowledge (Albany, NY: Magi Books, 1964), 50–62.

[6] Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra gentiles, translated by Charles J. O’Neil (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1956), IV, ch. 11, 6; quoted in Peifer, 163.

[7] Peifer, 12, 33, 43, 91, 152, 155, 163–64, and 209.

[8] Robert Sokolowski, Introduction to Phenomenology (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 33–41, 177–84.

[9] John Wild, The Challenge of Existentialism (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1966), 57–63.

[10] This principle has been confirmed historically by the work of Edward Baring in Converts to the Real: Catholicism and the Making of Continental Philosophy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019).

[11] Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI), The Theology of History in Saint Bonaventure (Providence, RI: Cluny Media, 2020), Chapter Four, 111–50.

Image: By Jacopo Ruphon – http://reader.digitale-sammlungen.de/de/fs1/object/display/bsb10635243_00003.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60536586

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Tracy Jamison is a Catholic deacon in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, Ohio. He is also a secular Carmelite (OCDS) and a professor of Philosophy at Mount St Mary’s Seminary & School of Theology (MTSM). Tracy and his wife Joyce met in a Protestant seminary and have been happily married for over thirty years.

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