Why Saint Benedict Center Insists on a Philosophical ‘Platform’

(The following two articles, written by Larry Koralewski, a long-time student of Brother Francis, will be the first of a number of installments to come, most of which will deal with the Saint Benedict Center courses on Philosophy.)

Why Saint Benedict Center Insists on a Philosophical “Platform”

Anyone who has read the news knows about political platforms. It is a statement which gives the aims and principles of a political party. Brother Francis insisted that the Center also has a platform — not one that is political but a philosophical platform. It is a collection of ideas that are clearly understood and provide a standard against which other ideas can be compared and contrasted. The Center’s platform consists of about one hundred concepts which are introduced and clarified by Brother in his courses of philosophy. Once established firmly in the mind of the student, they act as a beacon that illuminates every book or article he reads, every talk show or commentary he listens to, and every newscast or documentary he views. More importantly, the platform can be defended successfully in all these instances.

For example, one essential “plank” in our platform is that God exists. Brother Francis approaches this affirmation in various ways. Over time the student becomes convinced that not only does God exist but, most importantly, that He is a loving God whose mandate for us, His creatures, is to work out our salvation, which also turns out to be our only source of true happiness.

Another essential concept is the spirituality and thus the immortality of the human soul. The student learns that this idea, in addition to being part of Divine Revelation, was also discovered by the careful reasoning of ancient pagan Greek philosophers. In fact, throughout the courses, Brother insists that there can be no contradiction between good natural philosophy and the Truths of Revelation. This logical meshing of the natural and divine provides a strength of conviction that is not possible by any other means.

The Saint Benedict Center philosophy course also stresses the freedom of the will. In some ways this truth is so obvious, nevertheless, it is more difficult to prove. It is especially confusing when we compare ourselves to the irrational animals which, in so doing, requires us to make very careful distinctions and observations. Again, after close examination, we come to realize not only do we have free will; we are the only living material beings with it.

Brother insists on the “fact of knowledge.” Like all axioms it cannot be “proved” in a formal a priori sense. There is nothing we can refer to which precedes this most fundamental concept. Again, after careful examination, we determine that knowledge is indeed possible because its possession is a fact that is self-evident. In fact, no living being with sense powers could survive long without it.

Ultimately, the two standards that allow us to evaluate new ideas accurately are Common Sense and Divine Revelation. Brother teaches us that, should something go against one or both of these, it is to be rejected. For example, Emmanuel Kant contends that we cannot know anything for certain. After we have waded through his arguments and find that they contradict common sense, we are free to reject them.

As noted above, there are about one hundred fundamental concepts that are defined, compared, contrasted, and clarified in Brother’s courses of philosophy. But our platform does much more. It unites us with the greatest philosophers and theologians in history. It deepens our Faith and affords us the ability to meditate with greater profit than ever before. It provides us with the foundation necessary to understand the deepest Catholic theological principles. It prevents us from being prey to modern false philosophies. It unites us into a common school of thought from which we gain strength and confidence and helps us to be true soldiers of Christ and remain loyal to the Center’s doctrinal crusade. It allows us to evaluate anyone’s proposals, ideas, arguments, and writings with speed and accuracy. Like Brother says, with a sound philosophical education, we are like honey bees who can go into the heart of thistle and pull out the nectar while avoiding all the thorns.

In conclusion, the Saint Benedict Center insists on its philosophical platform for all of the reasons above and many more. Most of all, a solid set of ideas of which we are firmly convinced and which we can successfully defend helps us to remain stable and balanced — ideologically, morally, even mentally, in a world that is awash with incorrect ideas, faulty reasoning, false conclusions, and never ending enthusiasms. In subsequent articles I will discuss additional elements of the platform as well as other thoughts and insights from Brother’s wonderful courses on philosophy.

Don’t Be Fooled by Phantasms

In his courses, Brother Francis teaches that philosophy often employs words that occur in ordinary usage but it uses them in a way that is more precise. (A more in depth discussion on this will be the subject of a future article.) One of these words is “phantasm.” In ordinary speech, we think of it as a ghost, a spirit, or an apparition. In philosophy it means something quite different and more specific: a phantasm is a sense impression — nothing more and nothing less. Understanding this word correctly is fundamental to getting everything else right in philosophy.

“Gee, that was not so difficult,” you say? Well…that is what this article is all about. The difficulty is that most modern philosophers confuse a phantasm with an idea, effectively denying that ideas exist at all. Or they contend that all we know is our ideas and we cannot be sure of anything else, effectively denying the fact of knowledge. For those interested in the pursuit of wisdom it is essential to know the difference between phantasms and ideas and how they relate to the world outside of us.

The phantasm, a sense impression, comes first — before the idea. Immediately after the phantasm is received by one of the senses (sight, hearing, touch, taste, or smell), it is stored in the brain. Instantly, the mind abstracts the essence, the “whatness” of the thing, from the phantasm. This abstraction is the “idea”. An idea is a medium of knowledge by which the intellect grasps the essence (the “whatness”) of a thing.

For example, the very first time I see a thing with a trunk, branches, and green leaves a sense impression has been formed. From that sense impression my mind immediately grasps an abstraction — an idea. It conveys to my mind the essence of this thing I have just encountered. There is no name for it yet but my mind has grasped “treeness.” Eventually I will associate a word with the concept when someone else points at the thing for which I already have an idea and says, “Tree.” Anyone who has been around a very small child has watched this happen. By the time he begins to talk the little one is exploding with ideas and is very eager to express them in words.

It is essential to understand that we do not know our ideas; we know things outside of us by the medium of our ideas. If we knew only our ideas, we would remain locked inside of our own heads. This erroneous belief is held by many modern philosophers (Kant, Descartes, etc.) and is called “subjectivism” — we know only our ideas and can never be sure if they accurately represent the outside world. Subjectivism gives us the ethics of relativism: what is right for you may not be right for me.

Another group of modern philosophers believes the phantasm and the idea are the same thing. These thinkers claim we are no different from all the other animals because, like them, we know the outside world by means of sense impressions and nothing more (Hegel, Marx, etc.). By denying the existence of ideas these philosophers profess a type of materialism. They maintain, prescinding from whatever specific differences, that we and the monkeys, the chipmunks, the mosquitoes, and all other sentient beings are essentially the same, i.e., sensate animals. This error leads to an ethics of hedonism and ultimately to a denial of the immortality of the human soul with all its familiar and tragic consequences.

Brother Francis said many times, one of the best ways to clarify a concept is to compare and contrast it with other concepts. Now that you have the general notion of phantasm and idea, let’s apply his technique.

  1. The phantasm is to the senses what the idea is to the intellect. They are both media of knowledge. The phantasm is the medium by which physical knowledge is grasped by the material senses. Phantasms are concrete and individual. The intellect abstracts an essence from the phantasm; this is called an idea. The idea is abstract (spiritual) and universal. The intellect is a faculty that is supra sensible (beyond the senses).
  2. What the phantasm is in the order of sense, the idea is in the order of intelligence. The act of perceiving is subjective, but the thing perceived is objective. We do not know our phantasms; we know objects BY MEANS of them. The same is true for the ideas. We do not know our ideas independently of prior sense experience; we know the objects BY MEANS of our ideas. Both are media of knowledge. The phantasm is entirely concrete; the idea, because there is no physical organ involved in its abstraction, is spiritual and universal.
  3. Intellection begins where sense experience ends. There is nothing in the intellect which did not somehow arise from the senses. The intellect does not grasp phantasms directly. It abstracts essences from them.
  4. The senses grasp the concrete, the material and the individual, while the intellect abstracts the universal essences.
  5. Every act of knowledge (cognition), whether it uses a phantasm or an idea, is both objective and subjective. When we perceive an object outside of us (objective), the means by which we perceive it is entirely inside of us (subjective). We cannot have one aspect without the other. Even if the phantasm or idea is retrieved from the memory, it originally arose from the sense perception of an object outside of us.
  6. Ideas are not perceived by, nor stored in, the brain. Although they arise from matter, they are entirely outside of matter. Our souls use the brain when we think, but it is the mind that does the thinking and not the brain. Just as our soul uses the eye to see. The eye does not “see”. WE see through the eye. WE think through the brain. (A computer analogy might help. We use a computer for complex calculations, sending e-mails, etc. Though we need the computer to perform these functions, WE are doing the calculations, writing the e-mails, etc. The computer does not do them by itself; we use the computer in order to perform these functions.)

At first this may seem like a lot to digest, but the basic notions are simple: Phantasms are sense impressions. Ideas are not sense impressions; they are abstractions. Phantasms are concrete, individual impressions; they are stored in the brain. Ideas are universals and are stored in the intellect. Ideas and phantasms both provide knowledge of the world outside of us, but ideas and phantasms are not the same thing.

Now here is the hard part (“Oh, THIS is the hard part!?” I hear you exclaim.): Because the process of forming ideas is such an integral part of our human nature, it requires a good deal of reflection to understand the proper relationship between phantasms and ideas. It is one of those things where, after you have thought about it for a while, you “get” it, but unfortunately you lose it almost as quickly as it came to you. But with a bit of patience you will soon be quite comfortable with their differences and similarities.

For a complete discussion of the topic, I strongly encourage you to listen to Brother’s courses on Logic, both Minor Logic (study of the art of correct reasoning) and Epistemology or Major Logic (the study of knowledge itself)..

Happy thinking!

Br. Francis’ Philosophy Course