Charles De Koninck, Jacob Klein, and Socratic Logocentrism

The bi-lingual Quebecois journal Laval théologique et philosophique, has recently uploaded its archives to the web. This was the organ of Laval School Thomism, and the early issues contain lots of fascinating material by Charles De Koninck, the school’s most distinguished thinker, as well as pieces by his students and colleagues. Laval School Thomists have a somewhat ambivalent attitude toward writing and publishing. In the spirit of Socrates’s critique of writing in the Phaedrus,1 they are wary of the ways in which writing can aggravate the tendency of words to lose their connection to things. De Koninck argues that philosophy is rooted in the common conceptions which human reason forms “prior to any deliberate and constructive endeavor to learn.” These common conceptions are the most certain knowledge, but they are vague, indistinct, “confused.” As Aristotle puts it at the beginning of the Physics, “What are first obvious and certain to us are rather confused, and from these, the elements and principles become known later by dividing them.” The role of philosophy, then, is to make clear what is already contained in common conceptions. De Koninck was a great enemy of philosophic “systems” in which concepts are rendered intelligible by their function in the system, rather than by their rootedness in pre-scientific logos. Among his disciples one gets a sense that the problem with writing is that it lends itself to the development of a “technical” vocabulary from which such systems are formed. De Koninck  was especially opposed to any system which would use not words, which by their nature intend the world, but symbols, which replace what they represent. He pointed out the absurdities that followed from conceiving of thought as a method of manipulating symbols according to rules– of replacing “logic” in the ancient sense with philosophical calculus, or characteristic, or symbolic mathematical logic; all of which are not so much logic as grammatology.

In this De Koninck agrees with a philosopher of a quite different tradition: Jacob Klein. A student of Husserl and Heidegger, Klein did not follow his teachers. He understood philosophy in a way very similar to De Koninck. He looked to the Greeks whose account of philosophy he summarizes as follows:

The literal and correct Latin translation of logos is ratio, which implies that speaking about something is understanding it, although the understanding may not be perfectly clear. The task of philosophy, according to the Greeks, is to make the speaking which is common to everyone perfectly clear. (‘Modern Rationalism,’ p. 58)

This implies that there is no strict separation between mind and world: “mind is very emphatically the receiving of the world and nothing but that.” (Ibid. p.58) The means of this reception is logos, speaking; to speak something is to understand it. This understanding is very certain, but at the same time it is vague and confused, and it is the task of philosophy/science to make distinct and clear what is always already contained in the logos: “In Greek science, concepts are formed in continual dependence on ‘natural,’ prescientific experience, from which the scientific concept is ‘abstracted.’” (Greek Mathematical Thought and the Origin of Algebra, p. 120) The nature of this “abstraction” is of course conceived of quite differently by different thinkers—for Platonists what is really going on is a kind of “reminder” of the eternal forms, whereas for Aristotle forms present in concrete things are literally “abstracted” and received into the mind. But the important point is that for all of them “scientific concepts” are something “received” from reality. For all Greek thinkers abstraction is something very different from what it comes to mean in modern thought.

Klein’s book on the origin of algebra is about the great change in conceptualization that was achieved by Descartes’s transformation of mathematics from a contemplative looking at form, to a method for manipulating symbols. Cartesian symbols are something unknown in Greek mathematics–they do not “intend” any concrete object, but are “indeterminate” quantities that are treated as determinate objects. Klein expresses this by saying that they are second intentions treated as first intentions, but Sean Collins has argued that they can better be understood as the kind of intentionality that the mind has when it is not apprehending the order of being, nor of its own act, nor of the moral acts of the will, but rather the order that it makes in artifacts, external things of which it is the cause. “Symbolic representation… signifies that which has existence through the very act of symbolizing.” (John Brungardt has a helpful discussion of Collins, Klein, and De Koninck here).

The reason why Descartes introduced this new conceptualization was that the order which man produces in external things was his main interest:

For [new conceptions in physics] opened my eyes to the possibility of gaining knowledge which would be very useful in life, and of discovering a practical philosophy which might replace the speculative philosophy taught in the schools. Through this philosophy we could know the power and action of fire, water, air, the stars, the heavens and all the other bodies in our environment, as distinctly as we know the various crafts of our artisans; and we could use this knowledge – as the artisans use theirs – for all the purposes for which it is appropriate, and thus make ourselves, as it were, the lords and masters of nature. (Discourse on the Method, Part 6)

As Klein writes, “modern science is not so much the understanding of nature as the art of mastering nature.” (“Modern Rationalism,” p. 60) It does this by applying symbolic mathematics to the world through measurement.

And Descartes and his followers thought that this was the only true science, the mathesis universalis. Hence in modernity all of thought is conceived of as symbolic calculus. Thus the problem of intentionality becomes acute: how does one know that the symbolic system corresponds to any “objective” reality? The symbols always “supplant” the reality of which they are supposed to be signs. This is problem is a key to understanding much of recent philosophy–both in the analytic tradition, played out most powerfully in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus; and in continental philosophy, brought to its limits by Jacques Derrida. Derrida’s Of Grammatology is perhaps the most profound working through of the implications of the abandonment of  logo-centric for gramma-centric thought.

But Derrida underestimated the extent of to which Descartes’s innovation was really innovative; Derrida reads it as merely a step towards revealing what was always really going on in Western thought. Derrida  does indeed see a shift in Descartes, caused by the rise of the new science, but only the shift in the location of the presence–it is no longer found in the world or the divine, but in the self (from which the presence of the world is then deduced). But Derrida thinks that the new science merely aggravated something that was always present in mathematics:

Within cultures practicing so-called phonetic writing, mathematics is not just an enclave. […] This enclave is also the place where the practice of scientific language challenges intrinsically and with increasing profundity the ideal of phonetic writing and all its implicit metaphysics (metaphysics itself ). (Of Grammatology, p. 10)

As Joshua Kates put it, in an unusually  illuminating book on Derrida,

That science, or theorein, becomes the kind of merely symbolic and instrumental inquiry that Klein takes to be characteristic of modernity, a development that both he and Husserl believe is corrigible, for Derrida is a possibility inherent in all scientific knowledge and theoretical truth from the first. (p. 142)

Klein would actually not disagree that all science is threatened by the possibility of a separation from its roots in pre-scientific logos–in fact, he claimed that late scholastic science was so separated–but his claim was that Cartesian symbolism made this separation more thorough and complete than it had ever been before. Derrida, however, argues that already Plato’s privileging of speech over writing is based on an illusion–the illusion of logos, of real presence in the word. Derrida’s claim is that all of philosophy from the pre-Socratics to Heidegger is determined by a logocentrism that is based on illusion and is therefore tyrannical. But now this illusion has exhausted itself; it is time to give up on logos and embrace the shifting play of grammata. That is a slight exaggeration; Derrida, unlike his less cautious followers, is clear that is is never entirely possible to escape the metaphysics of presence.2

But Klein does not take the Derridean route. Klein thinks that the modern development is corrigible. He wants to restore a truly Socratic logocentrism. And thus there is an ambivalence toward writing in his work as well. As Eva Brann notes in the preface to a book on Klein and Husserl, Klein came to see the practice of the Socratic method in the great books discussions that he helped to form at St. John’s College (he began teaching there soon after the beginning of the “new program”) as his primary form of philosophical practice. Nevertheless, he did continue to write a little occasional essays and commentaries on Plato. He took Plato himself as a model of a kind of writing that honors, rather than threatens, logos. If one reads Klein’s writings, and those of his students in the St. John’s Review, one finds a very Platonic style–a playful style that uses questioning and aporia and irony to “de-sedimentize” the clichés of our language. “It is thus that the written word repays its eternal debt to the spoken word.” (“The Problem and the Art of Writing“)

The Laval School Thomists also wrote a bit (as the archives of Laval théologique et philosophique show), but their philosphical model is rather Aristotle than Plato. They adopt Aristotle’s marvelous discipline of thought, his patient attention to common conceptions, and his painstaking, almost pedantic, unfolding of what is implicit in them. De Koninck himself is not the best example of this, since he had an impulsive temperament, and a taste for polemic. A better example is his student  Duane Berquist.

As it happens, my own alma materThomas Aquinas College in California, has been heavily influenced by both De Koninck and Klein. It was founded by a group of philosophers who had studied under De Koninck at Laval, but had then gone on to teach the “Integral Program” at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, CA, which was explicitly based on the curriculum of St. John’s. TAC took from St. John’s the method of Socratic discussion, and much of the curriculum–including a mathematics program heavily influenced by Klein. (Eva Brann of St. John’s calls TAC “our Western look-alike”). And from the Laval School TAC took a devotion to St. Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle, and their method. One don’t think, however, that one can say we TAC alumni have developed a writing style that synthesizes Laval and St. John’s. If one reads the articles in The Aquinas Review (only partly online), one finds that most are written in the style of Laval, and a few in the style of St. John’s. I wonder if a synthesis would be possible.


  1. “At the Egyptian city of Naucratis, there was a famous old god, whose name was Theuth; the bird which is called the Ibis is sacred to him, and he was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his great discovery was the use of letters. Now in those days the god Thamus was the king of the whole country of Egypt; and he dwelt in that great city of Upper Egypt which the Hellenes call Egyptian Thebes, and the god himself is called by them Ammon. To him came Theuth and showed his inventions, desiring that the other Egyptians might be allowed to have the benefit of them; he enumerated them, and Thamus enquired about their several uses, and praised some of them and censured others, as he approved or disapproved of them. It would take a long time to repeat all that Thamus said to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts. But when they came to letters, This, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit. Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.” (Phaedrus 274c-275b) 
  2. “Of course, it is not a question of ‘rejecting’ these notions; they are necessary and, at least at present, nothing is conceivable for us without them. […]  Perhaps [the age of the sign] will never end. Its historical closure is, however, outlined. […] Within the closure, by an oblique and always perilous movement, constantly risking falling back within what is being deconstructed, it is necessary to surround the critical concepts with a careful and thorough discourse—to mark the conditions, the medium, and the limits of their effectiveness and to designate rigorously their intimate relationship to the machine whose deconstruction they permit; and, in the same process, designate the crevice through which the yet unnameable glimmer beyond the closure can be glimpsed.” (Of Grammatologypp. 13-14)

10 thoughts on “Charles De Koninck, Jacob Klein, and Socratic Logocentrism

  1. ” The role of philosophy, then, is to make clear what is already contained in common conceptions.”

    A perfect summary, and a great way to put why I don’t like writing (especially essays!). Philosophy is done in class, and writing should at best help folks who weren’t there “re-live” the classroom, whether it looks like more Platonic playfulness or Aristotle’s attentiveness to the common (I have probably written more St. John-looking things in my life…I plagiarize Joe Sachs more than I ever realize!…but I have written a few Laval-esque pieces as well).

    I think a figure who may, in a small way bridge the gap between the two writing styles is Josef Pieper.

    Liked by 1 person

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