Maurice Blondel: On the Reason and Essence of Human Action - St. Bernard's

Maurice Blondel: On the Reason and Essence of Human Action

Apr 23, 2024

Marco Stango, Ph.D.

One of my college professors used to say that philosophers should be happy to embrace the assessment coming from some detractors who claim that, “philosophy talks about the obvious.” What do we mean by ‘obvious,’ if not what is always in front of us and stares us in the face? And what need would we have for a discipline that retells what seems to be in no need of retelling, precisely, the obvious?

But should we really take for granted that what is always in front of us and stares us in the face is something we pay attention to? One could remember here the proverbial joke of the husband who does not notice that his wife has been to the hairdresser. The examples could be multiplied almost indefinitely: Who pays attention to the shape and texture of an orange? Who wonders about the infinite present in the fibers of a small branch? How often do we stop to truly delight in the senses?

French Catholic philosopher, Maurice Blondel, (1861-1949) is one of those great thinkers who paid attention, wondered, and stopped to delight in the great, small mysteries of the ‘obvious’ fact that we are alive. He raised a very simple question: why do we act? Nothing seems more straightforward and evident than the fact that we act. But why? And what is action?

Take for example the fact that there is a sandwich in front of me. Since I am alive and I may get hungry, that sandwich falls within the possible objects of interest for me. Likewise, say that I am working at preparing for a lecture before fixing dinner for my son, and while I am hard at work, the biology in me does its magic, i.e., engages in all those metabolic re-actions that some call ‘life.’ At some point, the chemistry in me tells me that I am hungry. I realize that there is no escape to this chemistry – or is there? I don’t know – call it determinism. I pause for a second. I realize that I also have to go to the bathroom. And hunger is not the only need I am experiencing – nothing would be better than a refreshing glass of water right now. What kind of biological determinism will I choose to follow at this point? I check the time and resolve to fix dinner for my son and to postpone that small part of my life that is my biological hunger-need (not a drink of water and the stop at the bathroom though, the son is old enough to wait for a minute).

Paradoxically enough, as evidenced in this simple example, according to Blondel, determinism and human freedom are not at odds. Rather, freedom presupposes biological determinism and ensues in a higher form of determinism. What determines human freedom to be free? What moves human action?

In a certain sense, love and desire are the key concepts here. What moves us if not that which we love? Putting aside C.S. Lewis’ subtleties about the distinction between loves and likings, it seems fair to say that what moves me in my actions is the object of my love. I can drive out of my way just to get that ice cream that I love. Or, as a student was recently recounting, during a trip to Florida he would organize his days around the unmissable time of the sunset, which he always wanted to witness from the beach. “I just loved it so much!” he said.

Blondel reflects precisely on this point: what must the object of our love be for us to act the way we act? For us pushing our actions to the very limits of the universe? For us coming together in communities? For us creating, inventing, discovering, even at the risk of life? And what must the object of our love be for even our most successful action to be experienced as almost nothing compared to what we aspire to? It seems fair to say that “the problem of life,” as Blondel calls it, will not come any closer to a possible solution when, sooner or later, man will get to Mars or will expand his lifespan. While those will be momentous achievements, they will not necessarily be moments of spiritual awakening. We should rather ask: what is the “mysterious x” that secretly animates and guides my will, that pushes me to act again, to act more, to search for more, and for more than I can ever accomplish?

For the course Classic Texts in Catholic Philosophy, some students and I have explored with much profit Blondel’s work titled, Action, over the ’24 Spring Semester, which raises and tackles the questions that I have briefly outlined here, and many more. It is a text that exemplifies excellently the way in which we try to do philosophy at St. Bernard’s and which thus is a model for me and, I daresay, for us (and we do not need to agree with everything Blondel says in order to recognize him as a master).

In Blondel’s thought we rediscover that life, thought, and action belong together, and that, if an unthinking philosophy seems to be a contradiction, a philosophy that does not flourish into a richer life and action is a mockery; that not even the smallest of my actions or my thoughts can be adequately explained without appealing to the “desire for God;” and that the apex of philosophy is philosophy’s liberating recognition of its own insufficiency.

Dr. Marco Stango is Associate Professor of Philosophy at St. Bernard's School of Theology and Ministry. Dr. Stango did his graduate studies in philosophy at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart of Milan (Italy) and the University of Macerata (Italy). Before coming to St. Bernard's, he was Assistant Professor of Philosophy at DeSales University in Allentown, PA, but he has also worked for other universities, both in the U.S. and Chile. He has articles published in various academic journals, including International Philosophical Quarterly, Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association, The Heythrop Journal, Idealistic Studies, and Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society. He is interested in the Catholic philosophical tradition, the history of philosophy, and all topics lying at the intersection of metaphysics and anthropology.