Titus’ Self. Comments on ‘The concept of philosophy’

Comment (English) on ‘Het begrip Wijsbegeerte

by Marc De Kesel

Titus’ Self. Comments on ‘The concept of philosophy’

Marc De Kesel[1]

It depends on what you understand by philosophy and theodicy;
can I help it that God bears witness to himself in all things?[2]

“We will not turn you into a philosopher”

On 13 June 1932, Professor Titus Brandsma opens the ‘First Philosophy Week’, an initiative of the Nijmegen Students’ Union Carolus Magnus. He gives a long and probing lecture on ‘the concept of philosophy’. Does this concept need to be introduced? After the friendly words intended for his public, Brandsma does indeed ask the question. Does the massive attendance at this three-day symposium actually not point to the very opposite? In any case, as he addresses himself directly to his audience, it shows that:

the longing for reflection and deepening is awakened in your heart and in your mind, and [that] you have already grasped this primary concept that, from time to time, the great issues must be deeply and seriously considered.[3]

His audience already has a ‘first concept’ of what philosophy is. They do not need to be convinced of the necessity to ‘seriously and deeply consider the great questions’. So why, then, a lecture on ‘the concept of philosophy’?

The sense and necessity of such a lecture: this is the first point Brandsma raises – being aware, as a philosopher, that this could possibly undermine his very lecture. Yet, he knows it will not turn out that way. No, I am not going to teach you philosophy, so the philosopher declares (referring, without mentioning him by name, to one of philosophy’s founding fathers, Socrates).[4] Philosophy does not lend itself to being the object of teaching. It is something you can only ‘learn’ yourself. And, strictly speaking, ‘learning’ is still too great a word, since philosophy teaches you what you basically always already know. The quoted passage from Brandsma’s lecture continues:

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.[5]


And further on:

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.[6]

Is the professor of philosophy making himself and his colleagues completely redundant at the start of the ‘Philosophy Week’? Titus, however, doesn’t let it come to this.

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.[7]

According to Brandsma, as far as philosophy is concerned, you have to do it yourself, but that does not make us, teachers in that discipline, redundant because we can help you. How? We ‘direct’ your gaze to the ‘things in and around you’. First and foremost, to the things ‘around you’, to the world outside. We help you to see how a ‘light’ is at work there. Not only in the sense that the light is there, that it exists and dwells in the world, but also and especially that it ‘shines’ on you and that because of that, you are yourself illuminated. Your ‘self’, the only master that you listen to when you do philosophy, receives its light from the outside. Your ‘self’ will absorb that light. The light that, in and through your philosophy, you shine on the world, perceives in the world a light, and discovers in this way that your light on the world and the light in the world are the same. Your light on the world is the light that, from out of the world, you assimilate into yourself.

‘What do teachers of philosophy do?’ Titus asks himself. They exploit the ‘wondrous passion for knowledge’ of their listeners/students and they exploit ‘the transcendental quality of all that is’. The ‘transcendental condition’: it is Brandsma’s term for the light that, from out of the essence of the things that we observe empirically, shines on us and that is also the light that we incorporate into ourselves and, by so doing, we shine our light on reality. Teachers themselves do nothing substantial, they only help us with the method by which we arrive at true knowledge. The essential qualities of things ‘transcend’ themselves, emanate above themselves, just as we also emanate above (and outside of) our ‘self’: through this collective capacity for transcendence, knowledge is possible. What allies us to reality is, if you like, an analogous ‘self’. Receiving the light that shines out of the things themselves, feeds the self that we are and thereby enables us to understand the self of ‘all that is’. In this process, the teacher of philosophy is, at the very most, a ‘vanishing mediator’.

“Indissoluble antithesis of potential and actual knowledge”

A few lines further on, when he takes hold of the actual theme of his lecture and begins to ‘unfold’ the concept of philosophy, he sets out the method for [acquiring] true knowledge, again in an abstract way but not without clarity:

[…] 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.[8]

In human knowledge there is ‘something that is of us’ and ‘something that is not of us’: there is the subject and the object. Should both of these connect harmoniously together and ‘equate’ with each other, then our knowledge would have a very solid basis. It would be grounded directly in reality. We would – solely on our own authority – be able to discover truth itself in things outside of us, because the self of things connects with that of ourselves.

Brandsma’s intention is undoubtedly to assign a solid basis to our knowledge, but he warns not to all too quickly take an ‘equation’ ‘for granted’. The antithesis that lies hidden in knowledge – between knower and what he knows, between subject and object – is something that we should not all too quickly regard as being reconciled. We should ‘not too prematurely seek to reconcile the self and the not-self’.

That is what ‘monistic system[s]’ do, and, so Brandsma adds, ‘we Dutch’ are altogether too down-to-earth for that. Yet, he finds it necessary to once more explicitly mention the possibility of such ‘monistic systems’. A few lines further on, we read:

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 [infinite] 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.[9]

The ‘indissoluble antithesis of potential knowledge and actual knowledge’: it is the central thesis of Brandsma’s lecture. Our actual knowledge and the potential knowledge of reality can never simply connect with each other; the human subject can never fully enclose the known object in its understanding. The antithesis between knowing subject and known object is indefeasible. Never? There is one exception. It does not apply to the infinite subject: God. God knows the infinite object as Himself. For the human being, the infinite object lies before him in the shape of a never totally explored, boundless universe. But it is precisely the finite character of his knowledge, his incapacity to know the unifying essence behind the essences of things, that is for the human being a finger pointing at God. It is God’s infinite goodness which ensures that the human being, despite his finitude, is in a position to know and to be able to tune into the essence which lies at the foundation of all things.

God knows the infinite as Himself. He knows the ‘self’ of each thing in the infinite universe. And He knows our human ‘self’ as well. The self of the things and the self of us are placed in relation to each other in such a way that we are able to explore the universe of things, searching for their essence. ‘Searching’, indeed: because the great Self that supports all that is behind the self of all individual beings, continues to withdraw itself from our grasp – and together with it, the deep mystery of things does the same. Attuned to the essence of things, our knowledge remains marked by the indefeasible incapacity to truly grasp hold of it.


Whoever is familiar with the history of philosophy, will easily recognize in this line of thought – and in the development of Brandsma’s entire lecture – the strong influence of neo-Thomism, which was in vogue in Catholic intellectual circles at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. Opposed to the dominant trend in modern philosophy, which keeps its distance from any kind of essentialist concept of knowledge, neo-Thomism seeks to maintain the pretence that human knowledge is indeed in a position to touch the essence of what it wants to know. Kant had declared the ‘Ding an sich’ – or, what amounts to the same, the essence or ‘self’ of things – ‘Unbekanntes’. Physics had reshaped itself along entirely Newtonian lines and had therefore shoved to the side all questions concerning the (ground of) ‘being’ of its objects as ‘metaphysical’ and therefore as ‘unscientific’. Unfortunately[10], Brandsma does not enter into discussions with this modern reversal in western thinking and defends a ‘concept of philosophy’ that comes close to the medieval thinking of Thomas Aquinas. According to the latter, human knowledge draws on the essence of things, and discerns in them the universal essence of being in general, that is to say, the creator of ‘all that is’. Just like it was for the thirteenth century Thomas, for Brandsma, the ground and goal of all knowledge is God, and the practised philosopher therefore discerns the divine hand in the tiniest phenomena. His philosophical ear perceives in all beings the voice of their creator speaking. And although he acknowledges the relative independence of modern scholarship, he nevertheless believes that, ultimately, the latter can – and must –have an eye for God who hides deep within the studied phenomena and speaks out of their essence. Brandsma’s explanation of ‘the concept of philosophy’ ends then with the anticipated ‘copestone’:

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.[11]

To close and at the same time to open up

And yet, according to Brandsma, God does not fit into a ‘monistic system’, that is to say into a theory of knowledge that defends the possibility of direct access to the essence. According to Brandsma, a dissolution of the difference between subject and object, a ‘synthesis of self and not-self’ is beyond human capacities. In other words, God stands also and especially for the ‘the indissoluble antithesis of potential and actual knowledge’. Even being its ‘copestone’, God prevents human knowledge from being absolute. Our knowledge does, for sure, search after the essence of reality but, in so far as it is human, it will never be able to grasp that essence. ‘God’ is the term for that ambiguity, for the caesura in the human search for truth. He stands both for the ‘copestone’ and for an irrevocable split at the heart of human knowledge. In the case of the divine Self, all essences connect with those we catch sight of in the reality, but that Self functions at the same time as that which keeps the self of those essences – including our self – at a distance.

That doubleness is not a coincidental characteristic of Brandsma’s philosophy. In fact, for him, philosophy can only be maintained in and through that doubleness. The time of God spontaneously speaking through nature and of natural science emanating out of God and returning back to Him, has definitely gone. Since the origin of modernity in the seventeenth century, that voice can no longer be taken-for-granted. Since Newton and Kant, (natural) science has pursued a totally different way. In nature, which our knowledge seeks to fathom, God excels in silence.

Brandsma’s neo-Thomism does, however, consider itself capable of hearing God in that silence. God has created human knowledge as finite by nature and has denied it ultimate access to the essences. Yet, through this very silence, He provides a hint of Himself: that is to say of the great Self that carries and holds together the infinite universe. God’s Self bars us from access to the self of things, as well as to our own self. But that very ‘bar’ is God’s way of keeping things and ourselves open to Him. It keeps them – as well as ourselves – open to the One whom later generations will call ‘the wholly Other’.

Neo-Thomism dominates Catholic thinking during the first half of the twentieth century. With the cultural revolution of the 1960s it then goes on to make way, also within Catholic intellectual milieus, for thinking about God as the Other: as the keeper, not of the great Self that supports reality, but as the name for ‘difference’, for what ‘makes the difference’, for that which makes every so-called identity differ from itself. That difference, inherent in all that is, can be seen as an openness that we, when we connect that to God, can describe in negative theological terms.[12] Instead of Ground and Self, God stands here for Difference and Promise. He breaks open any presumed identity of the here and now and orientates us to a future which shall never cease coming towards us, coming out of a side that will never be other than the ‘Other side’.

Titus’s idea of God is still entirely dominated by the logic of essence and ‘self’. At the same time, however, he defines the divine ground of every self as that which makes each human self and the self of reality inaccessible. Little is needed to translate that inaccessibility to the ultimate Self in terms of openness to the ultimate Otherness. In that sense, Titus’ Self is perhaps not so much in opposition to the Other that will dominate theology a few decades later. It is not the place, here, to develop the history of twentieth-century Catholic philosophy, but it would be interesting to delve into how, within this sort of philosophy, this early twentieth-century Self turned into the late twentieth-century Other. And perhaps the outcome would be that the Other primarily functions as a Self, as a copestone that does not so much solve the problem that is posed – how to think of God in a time in which He no longer speaks out of the reality – but rather defuses or exorcises it.


  1. Translation of: Marc de Kesel, ‘Titus’ Zelf. Aantekeningen bij ‘Het begrip wijsbegeerte’ in: Anne-Marie Bos (red), Titus Brandsma. Spiritualiteit dichtbij in veertien teksten, Baarn 2018, 105-112, revised and enlarged by the author.
  2. Cited in: Piet Schoonenberg, ‘Bij Titus Brandsma’s “Godbegrip”, in: Kees Waaijman and Frans Maas, De spiritualiteit van Titus Brandsma. Hoe de tijd ons Godsbegrip bepaalt, Kampen 2008, 77.
  3. Titus Brandsma, Het begrip wijsbegeerte, in: Titus Brandsma a.o., 1e Nijmeegse philosophische week, Nijmegen-Utrecht 1932, 3. Fragment I
  4. See for example, the Gorgias and the Meno of Plato.
  5. Titus Brandsma, Het begrip wijsbegeerte, in: Titus Brandsma a.o., 1e Nijmeegse philosophische week, Nijmegen-Utrecht 1932, 3. Fragment I
  6. Titus Brandsma, Het begrip wijsbegeerte, in: Titus Brandsma a.o., 1e Nijmeegse philosophische week, Nijmegen-Utrecht 1932, 4. Fragment I
  7. Titus Brandsma, Het begrip wijsbegeerte, in: Titus Brandsma a.o., 1e Nijmeegse philosophische week, Nijmegen-Utrecht 1932, 4. Fragment I
  8. Titus Brandsma, Het begrip wijsbegeerte, in: Titus Brandsma a.o., 1e Nijmeegse philosophische week, Nijmegen-Utrecht 1932, 4. Fragment II
  9. Titus Brandsma, Het begrip wijsbegeerte, in: Titus Brandsma a.o., 1e Nijmeegse philosophische week, Nijmegen-Utrecht 1932, 5. Fragment II
  10. Just to cite one of the reactions to Brandsma’s lack of discussion with modernity: ‘He does not write a single word concerning an intrinsic interwovenness of this crisis [the fact that modern man ‘is no longer able to see God’] with what accrued to Western culture – including its metaphysics, mentality etc. -, and not even concerning certain insights from the mystics. In Titus’ orations, Descartes, Spinoza, Kant count as lightweights or as lost souls who have contributed to the degeneration of philosophy. To Nietzsche’s proclamation of the death of God, fruit of an anticipating the (coming) Western spirit of the times, around forty years before Titus’ speech, one hears no resonance, although he has seen through the atheism – the theoretical and practical atheism – of National Socialism and finally experienced it. […] The professor in history of modern philosophy could discover almost nothing of value in the great philosophers of the last 500 years.’ C.E.M. Struyker Boudier, ‘Van God’ verlos ons Heer!’, in C.E.M. Struyker Boudier (ed.), Titus Brandsma, herzien – herdacht – herschreven, Baarn 1993, 16-17.
  11. Titus Brandsma, Het begrip wijsbegeerte, in: Titus Brandsma a.o., 1e Nijmeegse philosophische week, Nijmegen-Utrecht 1932, 16. Fragment IV
  12. Consider, for example, the thinking of Michel de Certeau and more specifically his book (published for the first time in 1969), L’étranger ou ‘union dans la difference (introduction and compilation Luce Giard), Paris 2005. Dutch translation: Michel de Certeau, De vreemdeling. Eenheid in verschil (introduction Inigo Bocken), Amsterdam 2019.


Translated from the Dutch by Susan Verkerk-Wheatley and Anne-Marie Bos, October 2019. The translation has subsequently been revised and enlarged by the author and therefore differs in places from the original article in ‘Titus Brandsma Spiritualiteit dichtbij in veertien teksten’ (2018).

© Titus Brandsma Instituut, 2020.