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In memoriam: The extraordinary life of a Catholic philosopher who never ceased to ask questions


UB photo by Douglas Levere

Fr. Bonaventure Chapman, OP - published on 07/22/21

Remembering Jorge J.E. Gracia, SUNY Distinguished Professor Emeritus and Samuel P. Capen Chair in Philosophy and Comparative Literature.

The “rags to riches” trope is generally not applied to philosophers, but it certainly could be so applied to one of the great and yet lesser known Catholic philosophers in the 20th century, who passed away last week (July 13) after an extremely distinguished and improbable career. 

Professor Jorge J.E. Gracia, the late SUNY Distinguished Professor Emeritus and Samuel P. Capen Chair in Philosophy and Comparative Literature at the University of Buffalo, was a model Catholic philosopher. Born in Cuba, he immigrated to the United States in 1959, dressed in a cassock along with a number of seminarians, coming with no knowledge of English and no money (except for his mother’s diamond ring), as he describes in his autobiography, With a Diamond in My Shoe (2019). With the help of various extended family and some new friends, Gracia managed to get into Wheaton College, then carry on with graduate work in philosophy at the University of Chicago, the Pontifical Institute for Medieval Studies, and finally at the University of Toronto, where he earned his Ph.D in Philosophy, focusing on the Scholastic metaphysics of the Jesuit Francisco Suaréz. After Toronto, Gracia joined the Philosophy Department at SUNY Buffalo, rising through the ranks until his appointment as Distinguished Professor and Capen Chair, a perch from which he effected numerous interventions in American philosophy. All of these interventions, it must be said, were deeply Catholic. How so?

First, in their subject matter. Gracia’s early and consistent interest was metaphysics in the great Medieval and Scholastic tradition. He not only studied and translated Aquinas, Scotus, Suaréz and others in their particular context, but he brought their insights into conversation with the very best of modern analytic metaphysics. “The history of philosophy is useful only if it is transformed to deal with our current needs and concerns.” In fact, he himself practiced not only historical philosophy focused on the medievals, but philosophy itself in advancing a number of key claims through his works Individuality: An Essay on the Foundations of Metaphysics (1988) and Metaphysics and Its Task: The Search for the Categorical Foundation of Knowledge (1999). Gracia’s near-countless articles, chapters, and books brought the metaphysics of the medievals into contemporary philosophical discussions.

Second, by style, for if the Catholic intellectual tradition is known for one practice, it is the disputatio, the scholastic debate on particular questions where every side is heard and appreciated before a determination is made. Many of Gracia’s books produced symposia and conferences filled with challenge and criticism, with disputatio. And Gracia loved it: “A teacher of mine told me once that he always hesitated to write a book because its publication seemed to mark an end to inquiry and the beginning of apology. I am afraid I do not agree. The writing and publication of a book is rather a new beginning, the opening of doors to public criticism of what before were most likely private views.”

Third, according to tradition, since one of the interventions Gracia made in the philosophical community regarded philosophical history and tradition. Gracia practiced as a historian and a philosopher for some time before reflecting on precisely how these two fields related and were essential to each other. “It always surprises me that contemporary philosophers pay so little attention to the issues that can be raised concerning the relation of philosophy to history.” Gracia was not to be one of these philosophers, for he produced the monumental Philosophy and Its History (1992), as well as his 2003 Aquinas Lecture, Old Wine in New Skins: The Role of Tradition in Communication, dealing explicitly with the constitutive role that tradition and history play in philosophy.

Fourth, by universality, for Catholic (kata holos) means “of the whole,” and Gracia’s work certainly was of near universal reach. Not content to publish numerous studies on metaphysics and philosophical historiography, Gracia published on textual criticism and hermeneutics (A Theory of Textuality, 1995; Texts: Ontological Status, Identity, Author, Audience, 1996); Hispanic and Latino Philosophy (Hispanic/Latino Identity: A Philosophical Perspective, 2000; Latinos in America: Philosophy and Social Identity, 2008); race, ethnicity, and nationality (Surviving Race, Ethnicity, and Nationality in the Twenty-First Century, 2005); and even the philosophy of art and literature (Images of Thought: Philosophical Interpretations of Carlos Estévez’s Art, 2009; Painting Borges: Philosophy Interpreting Art Interpreting Literature, 2012; and Thirteen Ways of Looking at Latino Art, 2014). His intellectual breadth was nothing less than Catholic in the very best sense.

Fifth, and relatedly, we might refer to as Gracia’s “Thérèsian” inclusivity, after the Little Flower who famously said “My God, I choose all!” As Gracia put it in his autobiography: “The key is to avoid the temptation to reduce some things to others, a temptation that most philosophers fall prey to.” Resisting the cheap thrills of reductionism, he sought to accept as much as needed to be accepted with a common sense realism in even the deepest aspects of metaphysics and philosophy. Are the basic categories of reality real things, or concepts, or merely words? Gracia says “I choose all” and defends neutrality. Some are real, some are concepts, some are words! Is racial or ethnic identity a matter of beneficial pride or is it problematic? Yes, depending on the specifics of the case. This inclusivity is no mere relativism (against which Gracia fought in numerous articles and books), for it is a robust philosophical inclusivity always determined by the rigorous conceptual analyses that make Gracia a genuine philosopher and not merely a historian of philosophers.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, Gracia was a Catholic philosopher according to the essence of Catholic philosophy: the search after nothing less than the truth, as opposed to idols and mere partisanship. “I have never sold my soul to another philosopher, although I have learned much from particular philosophers, but I have always maintained intellectual independence . . . . Philosophy is not about authority or intellectual loyalty, but about the pursuit of truth. When philosophers lose their commitment to truth, they cease to be philosophers, becoming something less altogether.” Fyodor Dostoevsky famously wrote that “if someone proved to me that Christ is outside the truth, and that in reality, the truth were outside of Christ, then I would prefer to remain with Christ rather than with the truth.” Although he credits much in his personal Christian commitment to Dostoevsky, Gracia spent too long working philosophically with reality to think that such a dichotomy was possible, and we are all indebted to this late and great Catholic philosopher for showing us how far faithful reason is able to extend. Professor Jorge J.E. Gracia, requiescat in pace.

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