Thinking. By Adriaan Peperzak


Pp. xiii, 178 , New York , Fordham University Press , 2006 , $22.00 .

Sub-titled From Solitude to Dialogue and Contemplation, this is an unusual work, in places highly complex and difficult to follow, but in other places lucid and inspirational in its simplicity. In reading it, one feels in the presence of a great person, one who is simultaneously immensely wise and deeply learned, while also being humble, respectful and compassionate. The book moves back forth between cool and sometimes abstract reflections about the nature, style and scope of thinking and then the author's underlying passion and intensity of feeling burst through, demonstrating he is touch with the suffering of the world and the pain of existence. Reading the book is an exercise, not in accumulating new data or theories, but in entering into the mystery of the relationship between particularity and universality. On the one hand, Peperzak shows that for any communication to be effective, the speaker must take properly into consideration the uniqueness of the person he wishes to address, and allow for their individual appropriation of what he seeks to convey. On the other hand, he also brings out the desire we all have that what we hold/believe/think can be, in some way at least, sharable; we want our interpretations to be more than merely idiosyncratic; we want them to possess some degree of communicability with the rest of humankind.

Perperzak is a Dutch philosopher, currently a Professor at Loyola University, Chicago. He has published prolifically in modern philosophy, always showing a deep appreciation of the whole range of philosophy, including ancient, patristic and medieval, through to modern and contemporary philosophy. He shows the compatibility between and mutual openness of philosophy and theology and the enrichment each can gain by embracing – without seeking to control or swallow – the other. In this book he concentrates on the relationship between thinking, speaking and adoration. Chapter One explores the self-conception of modern philosophy. Chapter Two analyses the phenomenon of speaking. Chapter Three meditates on philosophy as conversation. The final chapter connects thinking with prayer.

The act of speaking is put centre stage. ‘Thinking is learned by being exposed to speaking and the necessity of responding’ (p. 85). P makes a crucial distinction between speaking about and speaking to. Speaking about seeks objectivity and is in danger of stripping thinking of links with traditions, communities, commitments and affiliations. Thinking in the modern era sought to be free of such limitations on freedom; it sought to be individual, neutral, detached and impersonal, relying on no authorities outside itself. ‘The laboratories of ‘pure reason’ have been secured as bunkers against the intrusions of the heart, because their officials were afraid that ‘subjective feelings’ would disable their basic certainties’ (p. 119). P quickly shows that thinkers do not in fact operate in such splendid isolation and autonomy. They belong to a community with ‘its own founders and heroes, traditions and authorities, standards and standard arguments, canon and orthodoxy, method and exemplary practices’ (p. 20). Furthermore, he shows that our thinking, far from being initiated by us, is always some kind of response to what has already been given to us. Even when we reject what has been addressed to us, this is still a form of response to it.

For Peperzak, we have attended insufficiently to how thinking and speaking are oriented to particular people who need their particularities to be taken account of; we have emphasised the universal dimension of thinking (a valid dimension) to such an extent that we have neglected the particular dimension of communication, the aspect of speaking to others. Speaking to others requires of us certain virtues: attention, respect, patience and humility (p. 45). It should force us to acknowledge that we have already been spoken to and without proper appreciation of the cumulative effect of having been addressed, we will misread where our thought begins and how much it owes to others, even how much it is only possible because of their contribution. ‘Without the challenge of a ‘you’ who provoked that development, my conscience would not awaken to its own responsibility’ (p. 52). Speaking to particular others should press us to bear in mind what we share with them and how we differ from them – for example, in regard to language, culture, a social milieu and ethical assumptions (p. 101), circumstances, stories or style of life (p. 105).

If speech is a response to the prior communication of others to us, then faith is a response to God's prior approach to us. Even our receptivity to this approach is a given rather than an achievement. Our response to God should include trust, gratitude and hope. The same priority of speaking to over speaking about applies in our relationship with God. Thus prayer and liturgy, as contexts for hearing from and replying to God, are essential – despite their corporeal, social, worldly and historical features (p. 157). In speaking to and being spoken to we allow ourselves to be opened up to, rather than establish control over, the infinite beyond us.