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The Walker Percy Project

Walker Percy's Triad: Science, Literature and Religion


John Desmond is a Professor of English at Whitman College and President of The Walker Percy Society. He is the author of At the Crossroads: Ethical and Religious Themes in the Writings of Walker Percy. Re-printed with permission from Renascense: Essays on Values in Literature 47.1 (Fall 1994) 3-9.

Walker Percy's novels, essays, and interviews express the views of a writer interested in developing an integral vision of what it means to live as a human being in the disordered twentieth century. As a thinker, Percy found himself placed in a world in which ways of knowing — scientific versus poetic, empirical versus intuitive — had come to be seen as separate if not entirely antithetical. For Percy, this situation was due mainly to the pervasive influence of a corrupt form of science, called "scientism," in all areas of life. The task he set about in fiction and in his discursive writings was to demonstrate, directly and indirectly, the epistemological coherence that he believed was attainable by the modern mind through the study of the human use of language. This attainable coherence would make possible a reunification of an authentic scientific viewpoint and the arts. In one sense, Percy's whole career can be seen as an attempt to undermine the regnant ideology of scientism on the one hand, and, on the other, to heal the rift between science and the arts by demonstrating that, although they approach the truth in different ways, science and the arts are wholly compatible because they share an integral metaphysical foundation. Both science and the arts are concerned with the search for truth, and truth, Percy said, echoing the Scholastics, cannot contradict itself.

In his 1989 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, entitled "The Fateful Rift: The San Andreas Fault in the Modern Mind," Percy offered one way to heal this rift when he suggested that contemporary social scientists should emulate the artist's approach to the study of human experience. Speaking of literature in general, he said:

...these "sentences" of art, poetry, and the novel ought to be taken very seriously indeed since these are the cognitive, scientific, if you will, statements that we have about what it is to be human. The humanities, in a word, are not the minstrels of the age whose role is to promise "R and R" to tired technicians and consumers after work. Rather are the humanities the elder brother of the sciences, who see how the new scientist got his tail in a crack when he takes on the human subject as object and who even shows him the shape of a new science (Signposts, 288).

Percy's claim for the cognitive, scientific value of literature as a norm for the fully human was rooted in his belief in man's uniqueness as a creature who symbolizes. Human beings are namers who are capable of discovering truths about reality, which exists independent of mind and can be defined with reasonable accuracy. Yet literature and science approach truth in different ways. The goal of the scientist, Percy argues, is to express a "general truth" about things and events. However, science cannot express the truth about a unique existence. "The great gap in human knowledge to which science cannot address itself by the very nature of the scientific method is, to paraphrase Kierkegaard, nothing less than this: what it is like to be an individual, to be born, live, and die in the twentieth century" (Signposts, 151). The individual writer, however, can address this question because he "finds himself in league with the individual, with his need to have himself confirmed in his predicament" (151). Still, Percy's insistence in the Jefferson Lecture on the "cognitive, scientific" value of literature implies a single metaphysical foundation for the two ways of knowing and expressing truth. In effect, Percy's Jefferson Lecture was a call for a radical reintegration of science, the arts, and — I believe — religion, by a reconsideration of their epistemological root in the nature of being itself, discoverable through the study of language. Paradoxically, Percy saw this reintegration as possible for some educated citizens only after a thorough absorption of the scientific method: "it is only through, first, the love of the scientific method and, second, its elevation and exhaustion as the ultimate method of knowing that he becomes open to other forms of knowing — sciencing in the root sense of the word — and accordingly, at least I think so, to a new kind of revival of Western humanism and the Judeo-Christian tradition" (Signposts, 192). Percy's belief in the possibility of this revival underpins his own epistemological journey as philosopher as well as the whole monumental effort of his writing career.

To understand Percy's argument for reintegration, certain basic terms need to be clarified. Like his philosophical mentor, Charles Sanders Peirce, Percy understood the term "science" and the act of "sciencing" to mean any search for knowledge about being and existence with the aim of uncovering demonstrable truth (Peirce, 189-94). "Science" in the sense that Percy often used it has as much to do with ontological perspective as it does with a specific method; specific method is governed by the first principles or assumptions from which it derives. Percy wished to reaffirm this basic notion of "science" against the degenerate "scientism" that claimed authority in all areas of life. In his essay "Physician as Novelist" he distinguished "between scientism as an all-pervading ideology and the scientific method as a valid means of investigating the mechanisms of phenomena" (Signposts, 192), while in an earlier essay, "Culture: The Antinomy of Scientific Method," Percy noted how allegiance to scientism precludes consideration of science's deeper, ontological basis: "once the scientific method is elevated to a supreme all-construing world view, it becomes impossible to consider a more radical science, the science of being" (Message, 235). Scientism exists as one of the major idols of the modern Western world, manifested particularly in popular interest in the occult and the magical. This interest, for Percy, represented "a loss of interest in science in favor of pseudo-science" (Signposts, 323). But paradoxically, he believed that one "happy outcome of this turn of events may well be a new alliance of science and religion, such as existed in medieval times against the old and new Gnosticism which periodically threatens the openness and catholicity of both science and Christianity with its appeal to the occult and mystical powers of the elite few" (323).

As for the terms "religion" or "religious," Percy shied away from using them whenever possible because he believed such traditional terminology had become devalued almost beyond usefulness. In fact, near the beginning of the Jefferson Lecture he argued that the "sciences of man are incoherent" and that "the solution to the difficulty is not to be found in something extra-scientific, not in the humanities nor in religion, but within science itself" (Signposts, 271). Percy wished to avoid grounding his argument for a "new anthropology" in a crippling dependence on conventional, worn-out definitions of science, religion, and the arts. But characteristically, he turned to language — particularly etymology — in his attempt to reaffirm their authentic relationship. Just as he referred to the root meaning of the word "science" (scio=to know) to affirm its true sense, so also in the Jefferson Lecture he defined "incoherence" in its root sense as "not sticking together." Following Percy's strategy, I would argue that the term "religious" understood in its root sense — "to bind fast or hold together" — is both appropriate and necessary to understand the kind of integral vision of art and science Percy wished to describe, in spite of his claim that the solution to the "incoherence" in modern social sciences is not to be found in religion.

More importantly, I believe his proposed reintegration of science and art would itself be incoherent without the synthesizing power of a religious perspective — and a specifically Christian perspective at that. Percy's claim that genuine science's coherence does not depend on religion is accurate in the strict sense, it seems to me. But since he goes on to argue that coherence can be found through semiotics — the study of man as a language user — the question of the ontological roots of language, hence the religious, is inevitably raised. That is, the question of language's ultimate source and authority to define being must be addressed if the notion of "coherence" is finally to have any validity.

Percy's triadic view of language and his indebtedness to Charles Sanders Peirce are by now so well known that restatement seems unnecessary, but a few ideas crucial to this discussion bear emphasizing. Peirce's semiotic philosophy is a modern version of the position of the realists in the critical nominalist-realist debate over language that took place within medieval Scholasticism. Realism, as James Feibleman notes,

is predicated upon the equal reality of the ideas and of actuality. There are ideas apart from the things that partake of them...The ideas are not mere abstractions; they are essences, essences being only another name for intelligible and incorporeal ideas...Names are intended to show the nature of things (Feibleman, 446).

Nominalism, on the other hand, is "predicated upon the superiority of actuality. Man is the measure of all things...There is no principle in name. Names as truth are nonsense..." (447). In his essay "The Principles of Phenomenology" Peirce vigorously attacked the nominalist position and in response offered his own concept of Thirdness to defend the validity of universals, a concept derived in part from the realism of Duns Scotus. As for Percy, although he does not say so explicitly, it is obvious from his allegiance to Peirce's semioticism in the Jefferson Lecture and other essays, and from his satirical attacks in fiction against the confusions wrought by the modern inheritors of nominalism (especially in Love in the Ruins and The Thanatos Syndrome) that he regarded it as a major symptom of the "incoherence" in the modern mind. Language, Percy remarked, is the pathology of the twentieth century.

The realist position on language is an essentialist one that affirms human language as the medium between mind and independent existent reality, whose intelligible form can be known — indirectly — and named. According to the Scholastics, knowledge of essences is mediated by symbols. In "The Mystery of Language," Percy noted that "The Scholastics...used to say that man does not have a direct knowledge of essences as do the angels but only an indirect knowledge, a knowledge mediated by symbols. John of St. Thomas observed that symbols come to contain within themselves the thing symbolized in alio esse, in another mode of existence" (Message, 156). The realist position is thus a spiritualist one that affirms the non-material as both real and definitive of being. Percy insisted repeatedly that the act of naming — the mysterious joining of object, namer, and word-sign by a copula — is a real, non-material act. In the Jefferson Lecture, he went on to argue that Peirce's triadic theory, based in realism, offers a solution "within science itself" to the present incoherence in the social sciences because its emphasis on man as symbol-maker offers a unique, integral perspective from which to examine and gauge human behavior. Percy does not in the lecture trace out the links between Peirce's semiotic theory, the realism of medieval Scholastics, and the theological roots of language, but if he had, he would have arrived at a point where the affirmation of the Divine Logos as the absolute ground for the realist position would have been inevitable. In the Jefferson Lecture he wished to remain strictly within the purview of science. But from an epistemological viewpoint the realist position — that universals name real essences which exist independent of mind — is finally insupportable without affirming the reality of an ultimate source of Being and human knowledge. The validity of universal concepts, and their knowability, rests ultimately upon their participation in the original forms of ideas in the mind of God. This, is seems to me, is the religous core, the "that which binds together," of Percy's entire argument.

More specifically, Percy's linguistic realism is at the core of his belief in the intrinsic link between Christianity, a genuine scientific method, and the practice of literature, and hence at the center of his hope for a reintegration of science, religion and the arts. In "Another Message in the Bottle," he insisted on the theological and historical connection between Christianity and novel-writing:

It is no coincidence that in the very part of the world where novels have been written and read, the presiding ethos, the central overriding belief, is that the salient truth of life is not the teaching of a great philosopher or the enlightenment of a great sage. It was, rather, the belief that something had happened, an actual Event in historic time. Certainly no one disagrees that one great difference of Christianity is its claim — outrageous claim, many would say — that God actually entered historic time, first through his covenant with the Jews and then through the Incarnation.

...What concerns us here is the peculiar relevance of this belief for novel-writing. I could also speak of its relevance to other art forms — drama and poetry for example — and to the genesis of science [My italics] (Signposts, 365).

Percy's statement suggests the intrinsic connection between his semiotic realism, his Christology, and his view of science and novel-writing. Under nominalism, a universal concept such as a definable "nature of man" is meaningless. One implication of this is that the notion of a union of human nature and the divine nature in the Person of Christ also becomes meaningless. Nominalism effectively separates nature from supernature. A second consequence is that, in the realm of science, nominalism separates natural science from any metaphysical assumptions or ultimate principles; science is "liberated" from any such assumptions to deal with phenomena on their own terms. Stated in theological terms, nomialism ultimately undercuts the sacramental character of reality. Percy's realism, on the other hand, affirms the hypostatic union of divine and human in the Person of Christ, whose entry into history links the divine Word with words. In "Why are you a Catholic?" Percy argued that there are only two signs in the postmodern world that have not been consumed by scientistic theory. One sign is the self; the other is the presence of the Jews:

The only other sign in the world which cannot be encompassed by theory is the Jews, their unique history, their suffering and achievements, what they started (both Judaism and Christianity), and their presence in the here-and-now. The Jews are a stumbling block to theory. They cannot be subsumed under any social or political theory...The great paradox of the Western world is that even though it was in the Judeo-Christian West that modern science arose and flourished, it is Judeo-Christianity which the present-day scientific set of mind finds the most offensive among the world's religions (Signposts, 312).

By the present-day scientific set of mind, Percy, of course, means scientism, and he contrasts its exaggerated claims with the aims of legitimate science: "...the scientific method is correct as far as it goes, but the theoretical mind-set, which assigns significance to single things and events only insofar as they are exemplars of theory or items for consumption, is in fact an inflation of a method of knowing and is unwarranted" (Signposts, 313). Consequently, Percy sees the Judeo-Christian belief as not only compatible with the legitimate aims of science, but in fact a source and gaurantor of its epistemological coherence. In the Jefferson Lecture and in the essay "Is a Theory of Man Possible?" he proposes a new anthropology based on the science of semiotics, a semiotics rooted historically and ontologically in the Incarnation.

For Percy, then, the hypostatic Event — the coming of the divine Word into history — validates man as a symbol-maker who uses language both as scientist and as artist in his quest for truth. It is the specific event in history that gives ultimate ontological meaning to both the scientific and artistic enterprises. Percy frequently underscored this point, especially with reference to literature.

The fact that novels are narratives about events which happen to people in the course of time is given a unique weight in an ethos that is informed by the belief that awards an absolute importance to an Event which happened to a Person in historic time. In a very real way, one can say that the Incarnation not only brought salvation to mankind but gave birth to the novel....In a word, it is my conviction that the incarnational sacramental dimensions of Catholic Christianity are the greatest natural assets of a novelist. (Signposts, 366).

And just as he saw a danger in the predominant influence of theory in the social sciences, he saw a similar potential danger for literature being subsumed by theory. "It is not too much to say, I think, that though most current novelists may not be believing Christians or Jews, they are still living in a Judeo-Christian ethos. If, in fact, they are living on the fat of the faith, so to speak, one can't help wonder what will happen when the fat is consumed. Perhaps there are already signs. Witness the current loss of narrative of character and events in the post-modern novel" (Signposts, 366).

What is unique about the novel, Percy argued, is its "narrativity and commonplaceness," and these unique qualities are everywhere affirmed by the Judeo-Christian view. In the last analysis, then, Percy's linking of realist semiotics to the Judeo-Christian event was the religious core that bound together genuine science and the arts as two aspects of the human search for meaning within the ordinary events of the world.

Works Cited

  • Feibleman, Charles. Introduction to Charles Sanders Peirce's Philosophy. New York: Harpers and Brothers, 1946
  • Peirce, Charles Sanders. Essays in the Philosophy of Science. Ed. by Vincent Tornas. New York: Bobbs Merrill Co., 1957.
  • Percy, Walker. Signposts in A Strange Land. Ed. by Patrick Samway, S. J. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1991.
  • _________. The Message in the Bottle. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975.