Dietrich von Hildebrand: Giving the Heart Its Due (Part 2)

An Interview with Hildebrand Legacy Project Director

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By Andrea Kirk Assaf

ROME, JULY 23, 2010 ( When searching for a way to dialogue with modernists, Catholic philosophers would be wise to study and utilize the thought of phenomenologist Dietrich von Hildebrand, says John Henry Crosby, the founder and president of the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy project.

Last month, phenomenologists and other academics related to von Hildebrand’s work converged in Rome to take part in a conference live-streamed on the Internet, organized by the legacy project.

In the wake of that event, ZENIT sat down with Crosby to discuss the continuing and even growing contribution of von Hildebrand’s thought within the Church and secular culture.

In Part 2 of this interview, Crosby explains how von Hildebrand restores the heart to its rightful place as the greatest among equals.

Part 1 of this interview appeared Thursday.

ZENIT: Why should we read Von Hildebrand and phenomenology today?

Crosby: Von Hildebrand is a great thinker to know because he is distinctly modern in many ways. He made traditionalists a little nervous because on the one hand he was one of their greatest proponents when it came to the Latin Mass; he wrote passionately in defense of the Tridentine Mass and grieved its loss yet at the same time, while the typical traditionalist was a strict Thomist, he was a cutting edge philosopher out of this modern movement of phenomenology. It’s also useful that he’s got all the right credentials — you can go to Harvard or Princeton or Yale and they have to accept that with von Hildebrand you’ve got a really serious person. Aquinas is a blip in their weak sense of history but here’s a person whose colleagues were Edith Stein and Heidegger. And you have the witness of his life — philosophical beliefs sealed in heroic living.

Adolf Reinach, whom Edith Stein and von Hildebrand saw as their true master while Edmund Husserl is known as the father of the phenomenology movement, wrote an essay on phenomenology in which he says that phenomenology is a certain way of doing philosophy — a willingness to look deep into experiences, to take concrete cases seriously. Von Hildebrand defined it as the systematic unveiling of one’s prejudices, so that one went into a subject by cleansing oneself not just of moral prejudices but of intellectual prejudices, of assumptions and inclinations. What that expresses is an ardor for truth that defined every other aspect of his work, a readiness to make any sacrifice for it, whether personal or giving up his career.

That radical pursuit of truth at all costs defines the man and his character as a thinker. One of the extraordinary things about him is the unity of thought and life — the great intellect and the heroic witness, especially at that time in history. The idea that you have to put your life on the line for your philosophical beliefs is nobody’s preference, it wasn’t his either, but he didn’t think twice about doing it. When he was at Vienna all his Catholic colleagues opposed him, they all wanted to find ways to make it work with Hitler — «building bridges» they called it. He had a willingness to go alone out of this dedication to truth, and a trust that God would honor that. He once said he could never justify a physical risk for adventure but the moment it involved a possible assassination for what he thought was right, the consequences could never be too high.

ZENIT: What is distinctive about his thought?

Crosby: In terms of his thought, it’s not as if there are things he says that no one else has said because with philosophy all thinkers build on and borrow from one another, but von Hildebrand, certainly more than any medieval thinker and even more than most modern Christian thinkers, was very intent on giving the heart its due in the understanding of love, the subject of our Rome conference. He thought the traditional focus on the will was totally inadequate, that love is ultimately an expression of the heart, and the traditional distinction of man between intellect and will just doesn’t hold true to experience. In literature, in poetry, even in biblical faith, the heart is always used as a way to express the deepest in man but in philosophy it has a kind of «stepson status.» From a philosophical point of view it starts to look irascible, unreliable, fleeting…Von Hildebrand said we have to think of man as having three different centers — intellect, will, and the heart, with the heart being the deepest of them. Then he has some very beautiful things to say about how, when we think of it this way, the heart expresses our nature the most deeply because the deepest experiences we have, whether they be joy, freedom, or peace, are expressions of the heart, not experiences of the will. They are states of being that are expressed in a felt way and they are all gifts — you can’t seek joy as an object and have joy, it just won’t be granted in that way. You can’t love someone simply to be happy, you won’t find happiness that way. The fact that all the deepest experiences are fundamentally received is very telling, it reflects our status as finite, dependent beings. Rather than complaining about that, he sees all the experiences of the heart fundamentally as gifts and a philosophy of the gift arises from that. Some people have done research on how this links up with the thought of John Paul II and his writings on the philosophy of gift.

You could say that, as a matter of principle, von Hildebrand sees the human person as fundamentally oriented to being fulfilled only by receiving all of what is most essential to human fulfillment as a gift. So in that sense it goes against the naturalism of Aristotle that says if you know the right goods you can pursue them and therefore reach a state of flourishing. With von Hildebrand it’s a little bit more complicated — we have to live in right order to the good but our happiness in one sense is super added, it’s not directly in our control. I would say that the retrieval of the heart is one of his greatest contributions.

ZENIT: Contemporary culture seeks to appeal immediately to our emotions. Can the work of von Hildebrand engage the emotions-based secular philosophy that is so predominant today?

Crosby: I recently spoke to a Catholic man who was very upset with the Church for its lack of attention to the heart in its preaching and presentation of the Gospel. He said there are Catholics in California who will go to the Catholic Mass on Saturday evening and then to the mega churches for their emotional sustenance on Sundays — they meet the requirement one day and then get their nourishment the next day. He said this is a failure of the Church to meet the affectivity of the person. I think von Hildebrand would agree in principle with this because the heart has to be engaged. He had none of the distrust of the emotions that we sometimes find in certain cultural traditions in which we stifle emotions or at least think that what is really serious is what is in our heads, not our hearts.

Von Hildebrand is trustful of the heart but also seems to understand all the different deformations of the heart; you can see in his writings that he’s trying to understand that we have to form the habits of discernment to know when we are being swayed by our concupiscence. As a Christian he didn’t at all think that we should trust any impulse. He’s not saying that anything we want we should have because the heart is good, rather he’s observing that most of the really important, deep experiences we have in life are precisely in the heart.

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