Restoration of Reason: The Eclipse and Recovery of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. By Montague Brown


Pp. 261 , Grand Rapids , Baker Academic , 2006 , $21.99.

This is a book whose ambition is, quite literally, to return the West to its roots in a natural law conception of substantive rationality. And as one might expect, a book with an enormous ambition such as this risks the production of an equally proportionate failure or disappointment. Brown's book succeeds on one level: it does offer a program of recovery to the comatose and moribund western metaphysical traditions. But on another level his book fails because its prescription to the West is simply to simplistic, amounting to nothing more than ‘return to premodern Thomistic metaphysics or continue wallowing in a malaise of skepticism and nihilism’.

Brown, who teaches at Saint Anselm College, a Catholic college in New Hampshire, seeks to restore to reason the full sweep of disclosure it was once deemed to possess by the ancient and medieval traditions, most notably its capacity to yield knowledge of the true, the good, and the beautiful, immaterial realities foreclosed to us by modernity's metaphysics. Brown himself is an unabashed Thomistic metaphysician who is utterly convinced that the West took a wrong turn when it allowed the late medieval nominalists and voluntarists to drain all of creation's intelligibility into one sovereign source, viz., God. As Brown sees its, the nominalists and voluntarists effectively undermined all legitimate metaphysics by sequestering into the Godhead what Aquinas and other recognized as the intrinsic intelligibility and hierarchal demarcations of creation's natural order, leaving human beings with no natural access to them. From this forfeiture of direct realism arose a growing suspicion of the lifeworld, an inability to trust our direct perceptual access to creation's effects. The rising sciences furthered the mistrust of the lifeworld through their ousting of formal and final causes from the cosmos, their rigorous empirical and abstract mathematical methodologies, and their deployment of new observational technologies. In Brown's view, it is precisely this abandonment of the direct realism of the hierarchal and normative metaphysics of medieval Thomism that is fundamental to understanding our contemporary culture's inability to take truth, goodness, and beauty seriously.

Following on the spectacular successes of the emerging sciences, the early modern philosophers were seduced into believing they could delimit reason to a single first principle that could be operationalized into a universal, omni-competent, methodology. But Brown agrees with a tradition that stretches through Aquinas and Augustine, all the way back to Aristotle and Plato, in which reason's reach exceeds what any single methodology can manage. Reason has three self-evident, irreducibly distinct yet mutually inclusive first principles, each of which, in turn, requires distinct methods - one arising from each distinctive domain of the intellect's operations in knowing the true, the good, and the beautiful. The premoderns were able to recognize, unlike the moderns who succeeded them, reason's multidimensional reach into the real and to embrace the irreducible and immaterial ontological integrity of reason's three transcendental domains of the true, the good, and the beautiful. So an important step in Brown's prescription for recovery from modernity's malaise is to give up the project of brandishing a single method by which to dominate reality. Only by acknowledging reason's three first principles will we regain the ability to respect reality's triune dimensions with methodologies contoured to their irreducible essences. Be assured, however, this is not an embrace of the profligate pluralism of postmodern jouissance. Rather, it is a metaphysical recommendation to at once liberate reason's reach from the straight jacket of modernity's fundamentalist methodology and to corral postmodernity's carnivalesque ontologies into a transcendental analogue of the triune Godhead.

A large portion of Restoration of Reason is devoted to a selective and insightful history of thought from Galileo to Bernard Lonergan. Brown shows that the failure of both the British empiricists' (Bacon, Locke, Berkeley, and Hume) attempt to upgrade matter-in-motion to meaning through inductive methodology alone, and the continental rationalists' (Descartes, Spinoza, Malebranche, and Leibniz) attempt to bridge the ontological chasm between thought and thing through deductive methodology alone, had dire consequences epistemologically (skepticism) and ontologically (solipsism). In short, western thought was left utterly incapable of taking seriously the fundamental objects of human reason - viz., the transcendental triad of the true, the good, and the beautiful.

Kant, Hegel, Whitehead, and Lonergan are, for Brown, thinkers whose ideas can lead us in the direction of recovery. Although Kant and Hegel are still beholden to the project of Bacon and Descartes, allowing method to supersede content and giving the knowing subject pre-eminence over known object, they nonetheless are acutely aware of empiricism's and rationalism's limitations, and make some headway in recovering reason's reach towards its distinct yet mutually inclusive first principles. Alfred North Whitehead and Bernard Lonergan, S.J. are other more recent thinkers whose ideas can help further restore reason's reach, although they too ultimately fall prey to what Brown calls the hallmark of modern thought, i.e., a constriction of reason by an overextension of method's competency. All four philosophers make some progress in reason's restoration; however, they all four introduce distortions into reason's operations by not observing Aristotle's simple yet profound insight that distinct subject areas require distinct methods. According to Brown, there is no single transcendent method capable of circumscribing reason's legitimate reach towards reality.

Brown makes some very interesting observations, claims, and arguments throughout his book. For example, he contends that the recovery of reason is predicated on a return to a robust (Aristotelian) direct (participatory) realism concerning those things (substances) we encounter in our most basic dealings with the world. Thus scientific realism - i.e., the view that only entities the sciences acknowledge in their theorizing possesses ontological status - must go. He observes that the sciences arise out of, and subsequently rely upon, the implicit ontology of our first access to things; scientific theories cannot therefore legitimately call their existence into question. Another interesting claim Brown makes is that representational theories of knowledge must be rejected. We, by our very nature as rational animals, always already know many things before we set out to justify our beliefs; we don't infer our way to knowledge of things through a prior and more certain knowledge of their effigies in our minds. To believe otherwise, Brown insists, will end us up, like Descartes, Locke, and all modernity's other indirect realists, encountering the aporia dubbed ‘the bridging problem’ - a sound observation it would seem, especially in light of the fixation on skepticism typical of contemporary epistemology whose sympathies arise from the commitments and ideals of modernity's project.

This book does become frustrating at times, mainly because of what it leaves out. For example, there are plenty of worthy challenges to the idea that we all have immediate access to self-evident and universal first principles that can be called upon to underwrite our beliefs' epistemic justification. Yet Brown fails even to acknowledge these challenges, despite his project's dependence on a foundationalism of first principles that light up with self-evidence upon reflection. Another frustrating lapse on Brown's part is that notwithstanding the bold metaphysical project his book pursues, he never betrays an awareness of, let alone a concern to situate itself within, the many postmodern critiques of metaphysics as a veiled form of violence.

One final frustration I'll mention arises in the contrast of Brown's book to Charles Taylor's Sourcesof the Self, a book that also pursues a restoring to reason some of its former premodern glory. Brown's book, unlike Taylor's, pursues reason's restoration through a literal return to a natural law tradition, one rooted in a distinctly premodern hierarchal normative metaphysics. Here I think Brown presumes too much on the part of his readers' credulity. Does he honestly believe that such a perspective will be experienced as a live option by anyone other than Catholic academics like himself? In regard to this, it is interesting that although Brown supplies a historical background to the overthrow of premodern metaphysics in his second chapter, he never explains why the nominalism (and voluntarism) that set the stage for the rise of modern natural science and its technological imperative succeeded in ultimately undermining premodern hierarchal ontology. He coasts right over the challenges that the Thomistic synthesis faced and finally failed to adequately address – the very factors that gave nominalism its compelling appeal. Brown doesn't offer any explanation as to why Thomistic metaphysics didn't rise to the challenge and, through its presumably superior explanatory resources, burlesque nominalism's appeal. Surely the fact that such a revered metaphysical tradition couldn't hold its own against nominalism, an outlook that was taken up in modernity and that has become orthodoxy in postmodernity, warrants some suspicion as to its promise for dealing with our contemporary malaise - especially given the weight a return to Thomism is to play in Brown's proposal? In contrast, Taylor's Sources offers, from a perspective nuanced by postmodern sensitivities, a detailed genealogy of the transition from the premodern to the modern episteme, showing the losses and the gains this transition brought, as well as the reasons why the gains outweighed the losses.

Yet there is much to be learned from Brown's book. His clear and sometimes provocative discussions of a number of modern philosophers are enlightening. His Herculean efforts to render all finite reality intrinsically intelligible under the auspices of reason's triad of first principles are impressive, if not almost convincing. I have no doubt that all but a few will walk away from reading this book having learned a great deal. But I am equally convinced that only aficionados of Thomism will find his recipe for reason's restoration at all to their tastes.