Dietrich von Hildebrand, What is Philosophy? Steubenville: Hildebrand Press, 2021; 254 pages. ISBN: 9781939773173.

Reviewed by Timothy B. Jaeger, Boston College.

Continuing in its arduous task of bringing the works of Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889-1977) and the school of Christian Personalism to the masses, the Hildebrand Project has brought forth a new edition of Hildebrand’s definitive work on epistemology, What is Philosophy? The text, and Hildebrand’s work as a whole, which is rooted in Munich Phenomenology, has proven incredibly influential in the development of personalism. Initially published in German in 1950 and translated into English ten years later, What is Philosophy? provides readers with the epistemological foundation to Hildebrand’s large body of philosophical and spiritual works, all of which are grounded in the belief in objective truth and the reality of objects. Firmly rooted in the realist phenomenological tradition begun by his teacher, Edmund Husserl, and expanded upon by the likes of Adolf Reinach, Max Scheler, and Hedwig Conrad-Martius among others, Hildebrand offers nothing short of a crusade against the relativism and denial of objectivity he witnessed in his time. Bookended by a wonderful introduction by Robert Sokolowski and the introduction to the 1991 edition by Josef Seifert, this new conclusive edition of one of Hildebrand’s most important works provides one of the most passionate defenses of not just objectivity, from a phenomenological perspective, but of the philosophical life as something important-in-itself; something which is needed now more than ever. 

Hildebrand’s introduction sketches the aims and methodology of the work, a major component of which, like all of Hildebrand’s work, is his usage of dichotomy and dialectic: the act of showing what the object of inquiry is not in hopes of illuminating what it is. In addition, he frames his project in opposition to a number of trends in 20th century philosophy, namely logical positivism, Kantian/post-Ideas Husserlian transcendental idealism, and all forms of relativism. (1) He sees these schools of thought as fundamentally missing the purpose of philosophical inquiry. More significantly, however, their methodologies ensures that the discovery of philosophical truths is all but impossible. Elaborating on this point, Hildebrand writes:

We must realize that this type of inquiry, claiming for itself the designation “philosophy,” is in reality a poor imitation of certain methods of the natural sciences and forces us to turn in a direction in which many fundamental data can never be found. These “philosophers” erect, from the very beginning, an arbitrary border and then deny the existence of objects which they do not find within this border. (4)

This trend of subordinating philosophy to the natural sciences greatly limits the scope of knowledge which can be acquired by philosophy. Much like a chemist studies the chemical make up of living beings and physicists study the physical forces which govern the universe, modern philosophy is characterized by a compartementalization that constricts what can be found, which, for Hildebrand, means being shut out of Being itself. This trend can be found in logical positivism through that school’s rigorous application of the scientific method to philosophy. Additionally, these compartmentalizing trends and presuppositions can be seen in other schools of thought such as the Frankfurt School and the Structuralists, which reduced Truth to mere exercises of power through social structures and systems, and French Existentialism, which saw the human person as a blank slate, lacking an essence, drifting in an indifferent universe whose only recourse was to create Truth for himself as opposed to being receptive to Truth external to oneself. Hildebrand, by describing the general ethos and essence of much of modern thought, manages to show not just how much he is opposed to it, but how these modern trends lack any philosophical credibility. 

The first three chapters deal with the concept of knowledge itself, beginning with a general overview of what knowledge is and concluding with specific types of knowledge and the important distinctions between them. Before any distinctions in the forms of knowledge can be made, there is one significant presupposition Hildebrand presents the reader: knowledge is presupposed by the ability to come into direct contact with reality and Being itself on the object-side (19). Being reveals itself before us leading us to ascertain it and listen to it. Invoking Husserl’s concept of intentionality when discussing the act of taking cognizance, Hildebrand states, “in every act of taking cognizance, be it a simple perception of red or an insight into a state-of-affairs, an object discloses itself to me: I receive knowledge of it. My intention goes, as it were, from the object to me: I listen.” (16) This intentional direction flowing out of the object to my person is keenly distinct from subjectivism and transcendental idealism both of which posits the notion that the mind creates external forms, and that we are, therefore, barred from any meaningful contact with being itself. Hildebrand, building on this notion of direct contact, elucidates the character of knowledge that allows philosophy to occur. Ultimately, knowledge must be meaningful and intentional. With regards to meaningfulness, the most profound and intriguing concept he introduces in relation to it is the concept of superactuality, or that type of knowledge that deeply forms our personality. It sits in the background of our lived experience and is characterized by its static nature, which remains unchanged and perpetually important to us no matter how much time has passed. This static character allows it to have a continual impact on us as persons. It is not merely a potential form of knowledge like memory, meaning that memories lacking importance-in-itself are pushed to the periphery of our mind, simply waiting until something triggers it back to the forefront before fading again into obscurity. Without this static character of superactuality, we would lack the grounding and the full range of interior experiences necessary to be a fully developed human personality. (27) 

Though, as human persons, we inherently possess dignity and importance, to become truly authentic selves we need to possess transcendental experiences (in the sense of moving-beyond, not in the Kantian sense), which shapes us as unique individuals. These experiences take the form of superactual knowledge, which colors, but doesn’t distort, the way we encounter reality. His discussion of intentionality in these chapters, which also groups together meaningfulness, is centered around the concept of Thematicity. This tendency, by which knowledge acquisition is focused and is absolutely essential for philosophical analysis, is a critical focus on the essence of Being/states-of-affairs with the express purpose of acquiring knowledge about said states-of-affairs. (36) 

Spanning nearly 90 pages, the fourth chapter, entitled “The Object of Philosophical Knowledge,” is arguably the defining chapter of the book. It is here that Hildebrand lays out what exactly philosophy is supposed to do; and what it is supposed to analyze and describe, in opposition to the natural sciences. First and foremost, the central object of philosophical inquiry is a priori and consists of three central characteristics: strict necessity, incomparable intelligibility, and absolute certainty. (59) These traits give the a priori an irreducible, self-sufficient character that stands apart from the self, allowing us to gaze at it and ascertain it absolutely. What sets Hildebrand apart from other similar analyses is his tacit suggestion that existence alone is insufficient for true objective knowledge. When dealing with the a priori, it is not necessary that one considers a really existing instantiation to know them with certain knowledge; but for Hildebrand real existence is also fully knowable. Here, he is concerned with the essences of states-of-affairs, regardless of whether they have an empirical existence or not. When discussing the truth of a statement about the nature of willing, he additionally addresses one of the more common rebuttals to realism, the nature of dream states, by saying that:

The truth of this proposition does not depend on my apprehending a real willing rather than an imagined one, or on my being awake rather than dreaming. If in a dream I clearly and distinctly comprehend the essence of willing as such that I understand as self-evident the state-of-affairs to be essentially rooted in this essence, then my knowledge is just as valid and as certain as it would have been if I had been awake. (70) 

This essentialism allows us to see the nature of things, to use Hildebrand’s terminologies, “from within” as opposed to “from without.” We do not require a scientific analysis of something like willing or morality to ascertain the truth behind the nature of willing or the reality of moral values.

From seeing their essence, we can see their inner stability through what Hildebrand calls their unity. Echoing his three categories of importance from his magnum opus, Ethics, he describes three types of unity, starting with the least meaningful and proceeding to those which are endowed with the most meaning. The first unity is the chaotic unity which lacks any sort of meaning whatsoever. It is purely random and arbitrary, like a pile of rocks. Next, there are unities of a genuine type which present us with greater meaning than mere chaos but which do not quite reached the pinnacle of meaningfulness. This category of unity is largely the concern of the natural sciences. Subjects such as chemistry lie within it due to the fact that the objects of chemistry are not a priori in nature; it impossible to see them “from within,” which is why scientific experimentation is required. Morphic unities, such as animals, are also included here, since their form is endowed with meaning but lacks the static nature of the third type of unity given the nature of things such as sexual dimorphism and genetic mutations. The final unity is the necessary essential unity. These are completely devoid of arbitrariness and all we require is one interaction with them in order to have them imprinted on our minds. To this point, he states that “in the case of necessary unities, the species emerges on its own. It does not have to be ‘built up’ out of combining individual experiences, but it impresses itself as such upon our minds.” (102-3) These kinds of unities are capable of standing independently of our minds as a result of their individual solidity and strict necessity, providing us with a clarity of vision not found with the other unities.

The final chapters deal with the nature of perception and the experience of engaging with truth. It is in these sections where Hildebrand elaborates on the exact means by which we acquire knowledge as well as the profound significance this method has for philosophy as a whole. Firstly, he describes what he terms the notional and the contemplative themes. The notional is  concerned with perception as such, whereas the contemplative follows the initial acquisition of the object and is concerned with how the object of knowledge affects us in actuality or superactuality (167). What tool must philosophers use in order to acquire knowledge in the first place? To that question, Hildebrand answers simply: Intuition. Intuition has already been presupposed throughout the text given the nature of the a priori, but Hildebrand makes sure to clarify the term to differentiate it from the common vernacular. He posits that “the intuitive element consists in the full unfolding of an essence before our mind” (198). Intuition has two different characteristics: a broad sense which corresponds to perception, and a narrower sense which is intellectual in nature and corresponds to necessary essential unities. It is with intuition that we are able to penetrate things from within to have a meaningful contact with essences. It is this purpose that makes intuition, for Hildebrand, indispensable to philosophy as a discipline.

Coupled with his Ethics, What is Philosophy? stands as one of Hildebrand’s most significant works of philosophy and a seminal text in the field of phenomenological realism. Its passionate defense of objective truth feels far more relevant in the modern intellectual environment where thinkers like Richard Rorty proclaimed that philosophy and Truth itself are dead, coupled with a general social trend towards relativism that has continued to make Truth conditional to the human ego as opposed to an objective contact with absolute Being, even more so than when Hildebrand was writing the text in 1950. While not the most accessible of his works, What is Philosophy? is essential reading for those interested in phenomenological realism and epistemological objectivity. Hildebrand’s writing style and comprehensible prose allow for a deep exploration of the nature of knowledge itself all the while not being mired in the esoteric and obscure language of some of his German phenomenological counterparts. However, some readers might be taken aback at the boldness of Hildebrand’s claims with what appears to be insufficient proof. The objective realism that Hildebrand espouses will continually be subject to doubt from Idealism, relativism, postmodernism, etc., however, his assurance that if we let down our guard and our preconceived biases, and let Truth reveal itself to us, we can trust in its intrinsic intelligibility to grant us certainty, which is a powerfully humble sentiment that all can learn from.