Herbert McCabe: Recollecting a Fragmented Legacy
By Franco Manni Cascade Books, 282pp, £50/$36
This book is the first systematic treatment of the thought of a highly gifted philosopher who deserves to be much better known. Born to a Catholic family in Middlesbrough in 1926 and baptised John Ignatius, McCabe studied philosophy at Manchester University in the 1940s. He was taught by Dorothy Emmett, and was one of a group of student friends who went on to distinction in various fields – Robert Bolt as a dramatist, Frank Kennedy as a diplomat, Robert Markus as a historian, Alasdair MacIntyre as a philosopher. Instead of pursuing a secular career, in 1949 he joined the Dominican Order, taking, as a friar, the new name Herbert, by which he was known for the rest of his life.
In his lifetime McCabe published four books: God and Evil (1957), The New Creation (1964), Law, Love, and Language (1968) and God Matters (1987). But rather than monographs his preferred methods of communication were the lecture and the sermon, as befitted a member of the Order of Preachers. Since his death in 2001 six anthologies of his short pieces have been published, but this book is the first attempt to assemble the fragments into a systematic whole, being the culmination of several years’ work by a mature doctoral student at King’s College London. It is far more lucid and insightful than the average dissertation, and deserves to be widely read. Manni’s continental background, as a one-time student of the Scuola Normale Superiore and of the Gregorian University, also enables him to find parallels for McCabe’s thought in unlikely places.
The book falls into two parts of unequal length. The first 60 or so pages seek to place McCabe in an intellectual context, emphasising the importance of Aquinas and Wittgenstein as the major philosophical influences on his thinking. One chapter contains an album of evaluations of McCabe by those who interacted with him. These are grouped into three classes. There are kindred spirits (Alasdair MacIntyre, David Burrell and myself), and there are disciples (Terry Eagleton, Denys Turner, Brian Davies), and finally there are admirers (Stanley Hauerwas, Peter Serracino-Inglott, Susannah Ticciati, Eugene McCarraher).
The second, major, part of the book sets out McCabe’s thoughts in the order in which they would appear in a scholastic textbook: successive sections deal with ontology, natural theology, anthropology, ethics, revelation and ecclesiology. The structure of the book brings out very clearly that even though he wrote a great deal about God, McCabe was primarily a philosopher rather than a theologian; 152 pages are devoted to natural theology which, as he himself often insisted, is a misnamed branch of philosophy, while only 48 pages concern revealed theology. McCabe’s philosophical theology is extremely apophatic: we have no concept of God, he maintains, and no concept of creation – the best we can do is to stop ourselves talking nonsense in this area.
One of the most interesting chapters of the book is that on anthropology. This brings out Herbert’s conviction that it is through an unconstrained attention to the operation of language that we achieve an understanding of human nature. He owed this insight to Wittgenstein but also to Aquinas. But his own Aquinas is, as he admits, more linguistic than the historical Aquinas was. Whereas Aquinas himself undoubtedly believed that every thought we have can, in principle, be expressed in language, he did not fully grasp that human thought just is the capacity to use language. “We analyse understanding and thinking in terms of human communication, whereas Aquinas analyses communication in terms of understanding and thinking.”
It is to be hoped that readers who owe their first introduction to McCabe to Manni will proceed to read some of Herbert’s own works, because no paraphrase, however accurate, can capture the verve and vigour of his own writing. Manni justly describes his style as “clear, wisely learned, rich in examples and wit, and sometimes even beautiful”. Fortunately the book contains sufficient quotations to whet the reader’s appetite for the originals.
Manni’s admiration for his subject goes a little too far, if he is responsible for the description of McCabe on the book’s cover as “the most intelligent philosopher after the death of Karl Popper”. Of the several people who would have a greater claim than Herbert to that title, I will mention only one, namely Elizabeth Anscombe. I have given joint seminars with both of them, and I can testify that if Herbert was the more congenial companion, Elizabeth was the profounder thinker. But it speaks well of a book if its reviewer’s only criticism is about the blurb.