Fragments The concept of philosophy

English translation of fragments of ‘Het begrip Wijsbegeerte’

by Susan Verkerk-Wheatley / Anne-Marie Bos  


The concept of philosophy (fragments)




Word of thanks and congratulations

Philosophy is first and foremost self-culture

It is not without joy that I appear before you this morning, by way of introduction in the Week of Philosophy, to set out some principal ideas about the concept of philosophy itself, for which you in such great number appear to have interest, and more than interest, love and longing for finding out more. Those who have taken the initiative and invited us here to acquaint you more closely with philosophy in a few broad outlines, have well understood that longing and have not in the least miscalculated the love and interest in philosophy which evidently existed more widely. Thus, first and foremost, a word of thanks to them. First of all, your attendance here in such great number will be gratifying to them and a guarantee that they have done a good job.

After this word of thanks, a word of welcome to you all, who have come together here, driven by a desire to deepen your knowledge and a growing appetite to reflect on the problems that accumulate all around us in the world. Welcome to this gathering in which we shall gladly make a feeble attempt to initiate you into the primary and usually the most prominent issues of philosophical thinking. And this word of welcome is also a word of congratulations, not in the first place because you have the opportunity in these three days to listen to our explanations and through these learn something in mutual conversations, but because the longing for reflection and deepening is awakened in your heart and in your mind, and you have already grasped this primary concept that, from time to time, the great issues must be deeply and seriously considered. We do not ram this concept into you, we will not turn you into a philosopher, we can only favourably influence in you the development of that which, potentially, lies hidden in your cognitive and emotive faculty. God has created and disposed your nature for the sake of knowledge of the truth and the good, and for the love of that. I consider you fortunate, that you have become more vividly conscious of this disposition and understand that we all too superficially skate over many things into which the human being, with his mind, could penetrate far more deeply. That we may strengthen and affirm, nurture and develop in you that understanding, that consciousness, that longing and that love, is for us no small joy; not in order to mould you into our image but for you to become more and deeply who you are.

We do not impart philosophical knowledge to you, because you must first and foremost develop it in yourselves. There is no discipline in which swearing on the word of the master is more in conflict with the essence of that discipline, than philosophy. Certainly, also here, the significance of a master who guides you is not to be underestimated, and it gladdens us that you come to listen to us instead of consulting with those who, in our opinion, hold to a less correct standpoint, but in the end we do nothing more than direct your gaze to the things in and around you, point you to that which radiates in those things so that the light itself enlightens you, and you yourself assimilate that light towards your development and enlightenment. We do not ram the truth or knowledge of the truth into you, we only draw on the wondrous passion for knowledge of what is true, which lies hidden in you; we draw on your capacity to see through the ontological order of things, to search out in the realm of reality the potentiality and, on the other hand, the transcendental condition of all that is, that it is cognizable, rationally cognizable, although it is the object of immediate sensory perception.


Twofold aspect of our knowledge

Independency and dependency

The language of being

It is not in the least my intention to anticipate what is going to be said this afternoon about human knowing, yet I cannot delineate my concept of philosophy for you if, from the outset, I have not pointed to the twofold aspect that our knowledge has: something that is of us and something that is not of us; how in knowledge the first antithesis already reveals itself to us, how the thesis of the self encloses the antithesis of the not-self, and that we should not too prematurely seek to reconcile the self and the not-self because we simply live in antitheses and are unable to simply equate everything. Awareness of our independence goes hand-in-hand with that of our dependence, the absolute cannot be set apart from all connections.

We Dutch have always had a down-to-earth mind and kept ear and eye open to reality. We do not allow ourselves to be driven to extremes and so, in general, we are less open to concepts of our human knowledge in which the object is assimilated into the subject or, vice-versa, the subject is assimilated into the object. At this moment I can neither provide a delineation of monistic systems nor a rebuttal of them. I simply direct a moment of your attention to their existence so that you are able to see more keenly and vividly the indissoluble antithesis of potential and actual knowledge, implicitly implied in this concept of knowledge, which founds actual knowledge on knowable truth. The object of knowledge allows itself to be confined to the subject only in the infinite subject; for the finite intellect, the knowable extends itself as a world open to its discoveries, but unable to grasp and understand in its totality.

Thus, there is truth to discover; thus, being speaks its own language, to which we listen; thus, there is, founded in the infinite being, a world of potentialities and relations, from which we ourselves endeavour to form an image and always only acquire an imperfect image.

The potentiality reveals itself in reality. Reality is the first object of our knowledge. But not all reality – although it may ultimately be the object of knowledge, of something knowable – is with regard to our cognitive faculty an object adjusted to that. Our intellectual knowledge develops out of the sensory and is to be thought of as a deepening of this, in the sense that we have the capacity to discover in what is known to the senses, an element of what is intellectually knowable, a form of being. It is that wondrous capacity of abstraction that enables us to delve more deeply into what we can observe with our senses, and herein see a richly differentiated order of being shining back on us.


Superficiality of the human being

Necessity for deeper insight

The thirst for knowledge of the truth

But although our eye is able to survey the world around, and the eye of the mind can delve more deeply into this, we go through life all too superficially. Through a lack of focus on [the world around] from our side, a great deal that is to be seen has no chance of imprinting an image of itself in us, and whenever a sensory image arises then all too often we neglect to direct the eye of understanding to it and to assimilate into us the image of the order of being which shines on us in this. We amble unconsciously through a world which presses in on us from all sides and would willingly leave its impressions in us, deep enough to permeate our consciousness.

Fortunately, in our good moments, when we allow the truth to speak to us, we form dispositions and habits that we keep and to which we hold fast. We act in the power of them, although we are only partly conscious of that, in conformity with the truth that we know and this still guides us in our life, but because of our superficiality there arises all too often such an erroneous and incomplete image that the lack of insight causes us to lose our way, at least to wander around. This also becomes embedded and habitual and is not incorrectly referred to as a second nature.

Thus, we are tossed to and fro, and we see that the way through life is not only unclear and indistinct to us, but that our entire view of the world is obscured and deformed by many gaps and blind spots.


God as the deepest ground of all being

Culmination of our capacity to know in the contemplation of God

The concept of God, the copestone

But I cannot end this short reflection without, next to the Cosmos, looking for a moment at the ground of everything, the eternal Being, the Theos, who may be exalted high above everything and yet has set down in all that exists, traces of his essence, of his love, of his power, so that we should find Him there. Here also we should not deistically exaggerate the antithesis. It is in this that human understanding should culminate, that it manages to permeate as deeply as possible to the essence of things. It is not sufficient that in the sensory we see exposed before us what is rationally knowable; it is not sufficient that in the form of being which lies before us, we learn to discern the transcendental qualities of being, the more detailed definitions of the form of being through the various predicaments; it is not sufficient that we have, more in the particular, and alongside the absolute which hides in things, an eye for the relative, and that we see things, all things, in the many thousand mutual relationships in which they stand with each other, the entire world as a great whole, in which all parts are as they are, because the others are as they are, and each part therefore implies a connection to each other part; we must, first and foremost, manage to see the most fundamental relationship of dependence on God in the things, and see his working shining on us in all beings. God created them, that is to say, He still creates them, that they still only exist because He desires their existence, that He permeates everything and fulfils everything with his working, thus with his being. Our abstraction must extend so far that we see this dependency on God as a defining essence in all the finite and [that we see] in everything a reflection of his Being. Thus, the concept of God is the copestone of the dome which, through the contemplation of our intellect or rather through right contemplation and fathoming of the reality, curves over us like a glorious vault under which we know ourselves to be safe and which, in the dark night of this world and of our knowledge, sparkles back with stars from far away, of which we only see a faint radiation, but which nevertheless radiates and guides in the perils of [our] roaming around.

Thus, seeing deeply, more and more deeply into the essence of things and seeing on this foundation, order and unity, that is the fruit of philosophy.

May this fruit be the result of your endeavour and may you all be seers of the truth and the good that lies spread out before us as a gift of eternal Wisdom and Benevolence itself, to Whom it must once again be traced back.

That God may grant it.


  1. Fragments from the opening lecture of the Week of Philosophy, 13-15 June 1932, in Nijmegen. For the original text see: [Het begrip Wijsbegeerte]. See also comment by Marc De Kesel: [Titus’ Self].


Translated from Dutch by Susan Verkerk-Wheatley and Anne-Marie Bos, 2019.

© Titus Brandsma Instituut, 2020