Experience in the Early Thought of George Tyrrell

Human, Religious, Christian, Catholic

by Lawrence J. Donohoo (Author)
©2022 Monographs XII, 392 Pages


This study undertakes a comprehensive inquiry into the concept of experience in the thought of George Tyrrell from his earliest writings to 1900. No aspect of experience is passed over in its human, religious, Christian, and Catholic inflections. Tyrrell pursued a vast array of subjects and addressed them in often novel ways, even in his formative years, and at every stage of his thought he encountered the question of experience wherever he roamed. A study of experience in Tyrrell’s early works thus effectively offers a sweeping survey of the full gamut of his early thought. In the beginning we see that he came to recognize only gradually the significance of this category for all his inquiries. While scholars have traced experience in Tyrrell’s mature thought and researched its role in such targeted fields as ecclesiology and fundamental theology, the early writings by contrast have been largely passed over. This suggests a need for an unrestricted search at the origin of Tyrrell’s thought that tracks his discovery, formation, and evolution of this concept. We discover that its flexible and enigmatic character shapes and unifies the various questions that Tyrrell addressed over the years, thus marking his mature theology with a distinct character that was passed on to others in the universe of experience.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • List of Abbreviations and Citations
  • Introduction: Theme, Method, Scope, and Life
  • A. First Essays of a Maverick Thomist
  • 1. Mortal Arguments for Immortal Life: A Critique
  • 2. Prescriptions for Intellectual Indigestion
  • 3. Past as Prologue: The Thomistic Revival and Theological Renewal
  • 4. The Lens of Defamiliarization
  • B. Engaging Newman and Ward: Toward a New Apologetics
  • 1. Conscience and the “History of the Human Heart”
  • 2. The Apologetics of Desire: Critiquing Disinterested Objectivity
  • C. Conclusions
  • A. Arthur Balfour and the Apologetics of Belief
  • 1. The First Part: Critically Assessing Contemporary Philosophy
  • a. A Critique of Naturalism
  • b. A Critique of Transcendental Idealism
  • c. Advances in a Philosophy of Human Experience
  • 2. The Second Part: Grounding Natural and Religious Belief
  • a. Clearing a Space for Religion
  • b. Religion, Experience, and Authority
  • c. A Momentous Distinction: Beliefs and Formulas
  • B. Further Assaults on Empiricism
  • 1. The New Sociology and the Old Criticism
  • 2. The Old Naturalism and the New Criticism
  • C. Conclusions
  • A. A Brief Excursion into Sacramental Theology
  • B. Animal Rights and Logical Wrongs
  • C. The Thomistic Revival Revisited
  • D. A Prolegomenon to the New Apologetics: A Change of Ways
  • E. Conclusions
  • A. A Look at the Sources
  • 1. Thomas’s Theological Metaphysics of the Beautiful
  • 2. Edmund Burke’s Psychology of the Beautiful
  • 3. Vincenzo Gioberti’s Postulation of the Aesthetic Imagination
  • B. First Principles for a Theology of Aesthetics
  • C. Art and Experience: Moral Dimension and Trans-Moral Ethos
  • D. Aesthetic Experience and Ecclesial Life
  • E. A New and Old Aesthetic Theology
  • F. Conclusions
  • A. The Mutual Interplay of Spirituality and Experience
  • B. Six Matrices of Experience
  • 1. Methodology: Progressivism and Particularity
  • 2. Ontological Evaluations: Appraising the World
  • 3. Anthropological Teachings
  • a. Knowing and Loving
  • b. Passivity and Activity
  • c. Instinct
  • 4. Moral Perspectives: Habit, Action, and Development
  • 5. Religious Experience: Human Responses to Revelation
  • 6. A Theology of Revelation: Grounding the Category of Experience
  • C. Conclusions
  • Appendix: Tyrrell’s Writings as Treated by Chapter and Sub-chapter
  • Index

←viii | ix→


When I first met Prof. Dr. Peter Neuner on the occasion of my first visit to the University of Munich, he was looking for an English-speaking student to undertake a study of George Tyrrell’s teaching on experience. I was looking for a Doktorvater. We closed the deal instantly. Ever since I have admired and sought to emulate the balance of rigorous scholarship and creative thought in both Irish Jesuit and German professor. I am deeply grateful for Peter’s assistance over the years in helping me to understand Tyrrell the man and Tyrrell the theologian, and for his invaluable criticisms of my manuscript. I gladly dedicate this work to him.

I owe a large debt of gratitude to Ursula Stein, who supported me in every way possible during my work on the project in Bavaria. I spent long hours with this fervent Catholic Christian widow speaking on theological questions both theoretical and practical. Her classroom was the chapel and her desk was the dining room table. Like Tyrrell, she instinctively understood instinct and sensed that there is nothing more practical than good theory. Like C. S Lewis, she understood that the blessed life here and the blessed saints there are thick and solid, and I’m sure she’s enjoying their company.

Meagan Simpson and Jackie Pavlovic at Peter Lang have supported me from beginning to end with their competence, encouragement, and lavish patience.←ix | x→

In some sense, Jean Snow is co-author of this work. There is no one in the world with whom I have spent more time speaking about the truths of the natural and supernatural domains. As the only person who has understood all my thoughts, even when they were confused, incipient, or ambiguous, Jean helped me to bring them to words that could instruct my students and move my congregations. Several times she read through the manuscript and caught things I missed and saw things I was still looking for. Like Peter and Ursula, Jean understands that theology is not true if it is not free, and it is not free if it is not mine.

←x | xi→

Abbreviations and Citations


FMGeorge Tyrrell, Faith of the Millions
HSGeorge Tyrrell, Hard Sayings
NRSVNew Revised Standard Version
NVGeorge Tyrrell, Nova et Vetera
STSt. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae


Since Faith of the Millions is a published collection of Tyrrell’s articles that first appeared in journals, the various articles cited from this work will not be preceded by FM. However, pagination is always that of this two-volume collection since it is more readily accessible.

Nova et Vetera (NV) is a collection of 273 meditations. The names of these meditations, which are never abbreviated, are given in the respective notes.

Introduction: Theme, Method, Scope, and Life

With more than a century between us and his untimely death, now is a good time to return dispassionately to George Tyrrell, S.J. (1861−1909), the theologian who was arguably the greatest thinker and most prescient visionary of the group of scholars and friends known as the Modernists.1 He aroused strong responses during his lifetime and long afterward among those who knew him or his thought, and among those who supported or opposed what they assumed he thought. The controversies that made him famous and the polemical works that reflect them are weighted toward the end of his life, and it is this period of his life that is most studied and amply referenced. Yet Tyrrell is greater than his polemics and his legacy is greater than simply his last works. Because he generously documented his intellectual development and wrote much in little time, his thought deserves an inquiry that begins at the beginning in order to see better where he was going and judge more clearly his lasting contributions.

Since Tyrrell wrote on an ample variety of topics in an extensive array of genres—books, essays, reviews, prefaces, correspondence, and even autobiography—what is needed is a work of exposition that encounters the totality of his thought and chronicles its evolution. But life is short, even in the world of ideas, so a theme of unification with contemporary relevance is called for—according to a standard dear to his heart. To that end, this study in the ←1 | 2→form of an exposition is guided by a theme broad enough to embrace the various subjects Tyrrell engaged and of vital interest today: experience in its interrelated forms as human, religious, Christian, and Catholic. But here I can only hope to begin. This is the first installment of a planned multi-volume exploration of Tyrrell’s complete thought through the lens of experience set at a very wide angle. Intimately bound up with his project of renewal and occupying him from start to finish, this theme is ideally suited for engaging an achievement that views and values the panoramic sweep of reality by way of the viewer and evaluator.

In contemporary philosophical and theological circles the concept of experience is as familiar as it is central—and more or less complex depending on the author. Like many ethical concepts, this idea is double-edged from the start since it points to both object and subject, and their relation, yet it is wider than ethics by emphasizing the mode of being acted upon as well as acting. And experience is elastic because it is ambiguous, bearing a variety of senses in different thinkers who treat it and even lurking in the thought of those who reject it. Formal reflection on experience is often associated with progressive thought, but in fact it is a trans-ideological category. Without visa it freely crosses boundaries dividing progressive from conservative thought in both religious and secular domains.2 Everyone uses experience and many reflect on it to one degree or another, and even those who deny its validity as a formal category are often working from their experience, intellectual or otherwise. Despite widespread acceptance today as a major category for interpretation, this concept or tool or method or vision is at once vague, controversial, multifaceted, and ubiquitous. But no matter who discourses on experience, this obvious and elusive “reality” enjoys the status of corrective to the abstract, the extraneous, the ideological, the obsolete, and the inauthentic.

But it was not always so. Given the prominence of experience as this unavoidable yet opaque phenomenon at the core of our lives, theories, and cultural consciousness, it is urgent that we explore its historical roots. For the principle that the origin of a thing helps reveal its character is no less true for concepts than things. As an exercise in concrete, integral, reflective, relevant, and authentic thinking, the retrieval of the sources of experience can sharpen our present understanding and appreciation of it. This inquiry into the thought of George Tyrrell seeks to contribute to that retrieval by examining one thinker who happened upon experience in a variety of contexts at a time when this concept was gradually coming into its own.3

In mainstream Catholic theology of the late nineteenth century, experience was a largely undefined philosophical and theological concept mostly restricted ←2 | 3→to epistemology and morality. Included along with sensation and memory as preconditions for art and science, experience is defined in Aristotle’s Metaphysics simply as “knowledge of individuals” as opposed to universals.4 When the inductive gathering of data successfully arrives at ethical conclusions, it is identified with good common sense or even as a rudimentary practical wisdom. In the world of techne, experience denotes a functional familiarity with the way things are and how they work; it does not include knowledge of causes and so cannot be taught. In both worlds of praxis and techne, it implies the private and incommunicable, and so was not traditionally welcome in the formal company of method, system, and theory.

In the nineteenth century, however, the situation began to change. Post-Kantian Continental philosophy, particularly in the realm of philosophy of religion, began a more intense inquiry into the subject, thus deepening a concern that stretched back to the late Middle Ages. In association with such related concepts as freedom, historicity, and individuality, it soon became a category in its own right. When certain Catholic thinkers of this period began to absorb new advances in science and history and acquaint themselves with complex approaches to consciousness and subjectivity that appeared in modern philosophical currents, experience was introduced to the religious and theological arenas. A concept that had been largely relegated to modest assignments was suddenly charged to serve as a tool for exploring new domains as well as old ones in new ways, including the work of reconciling traditional understandings with contemporary insights. Address mattered here, for diverse assessments of experience were advanced by thinkers in various countries working from different intellectual and cultural backgrounds.

George Tyrrell was one such thinker in this period whose prolific writings over a span of some twenty years reveal an increasing preoccupation with the category of experience. Despite or rather due to the variety of subjects he addressed, there is scarcely a text of his where this idea is not either explicitly or implicitly engaged. Over and above the sheer abundance of texts engaging this theme in manifold ways, experience is critical for grasping Tyrrell’s thought as a whole because it forms a flexible web that connects a vast sweep of themes disparate in content and presented in diverse genres over an extended period of time. Moreover, his teachings on experience provide us with a philosophical and theological treasure trove because his expansive treatments of the subject underwent a rapid development in a relatively short space of time. This was largely due to an increasing awareness of the roles that experience plays in religion in general and Christianity in particular. Since this development mirrors the very nature ←3 | 4→of experience itself as it meanders through time to the cadences of life, Tyrrell’s unfolding thought on this subject rewards the student with a more realistic grasp of its time-bound nature. We should be neither surprised nor disappointed if this development will show fits and starts, produce many rough drafts, and be burdened with exaggerations and errors in a rising crescendo of writings that peaked toward the end of his career. But Tyrrell’s pioneering work in hoisting experience to a central category of theology bequeaths a lasting contribution to securing its place in mature and thoughtful forms of life, religion, and the Christian faith.

This study undertakes a comprehensive inquiry into the concept of experience in the thought of George Tyrrell from his earliest writings to 1897. It is intended to be comprehensive in the sense that no aspect of experience is passed over in its human, religious, Christian, and Catholic inflections. My original intent was to examine experience in Tyrrell’s entire corpus in a single work, but it soon became clear that the law of reasonable bounds demanded that either the notion of experience be limited to one or two perspectives or that the time period of his writings be shortened. I chose the second option because other students of Tyrrell have worked through the implications of experience for specific questions, particularly in the settings of ecclesiology and fundamental theology, and especially in his later works. By contrast, his early writings have been mostly passed over.

More importantly, a broad investigation of experience appeared the better subject for study since Tyrrell only gradually came to recognize the centrality of this category for his thought. For while his lifelong interests freely ranged across a vast array of subjects and pursued with often unconventional methods, it was especially in the formative stages of his thinking that he happened upon experience in various questions in different ways. Indeed, a study of experience in Tyrrell’s early works effectively results in a survey of almost all of his maturing thought since it shows up nearly everywhere. Not only does this extensive search help uncover the very meaning of experience, it reveals how this idea roams freely among the various arenas of human endeavor and binds them together in new ways.

By concentrating on experience, this inquiry consciously avoids giving center stage to various topics in Tyrrell’s writings through which other scholars have evaluated his thought, such as philosophy of religion, revelation, Church, authority, modernism, and doctrinal development. Experience implicates these themes, but it is both wider and different from all of them. In its multifaceted senses it runs against the grain of the more familiar categories, sometimes in bold relief, other times barely visibly. As a concept that can stand both with and against ←4 | 5→other concepts, experience in Tyrrell binds some familiar categories in new ways and loosens others from their accustomed conceptual grids in his attempts to interpret matter and mystery in new and startling ways. Tracing experience in Tyrrell’s thought, then, is not the presentation of simply one more concept among many, even if a novel one, but rather of a “meta-concept” which infuses all the various domains of his thought. Many of the identifiable themes in Tyrrell’s writings will then be encountered here, or perhaps re-encountered, but from a distinct vantage point.

This situation creates a number of challenges. The first to be faced is how to investigate an apparently unwieldy idea in a wide-ranging thinker whose myriad interests led him to address many issues in vastly different fields of knowledge. If experience is everywhere, and if Tyrrell wrote on nearly every conceivable topic in theology, how can we avoid a study of nearly everything while perhaps still missing our quarry through the sheer density of material? The truism comes to mind that there must be some idea of the object to be sought at the start, for the appearances of experience are subtle in the earliest writings when Tyrrell appears to be mostly unaware of its presence. Here it would be tempting to succumb to the urge to read experience from later texts back into earlier ones, but this prejudices a recovery of origins by a hasty recourse to outcomes. So back to the past: it is better to bracket Tyrrell’s future, even if it past to us, in order that later developments, dependent on earlier insights, can show more mature forms in due season of what earlier appeared in embryonic form. But no reason to bracket our ordinary engagement with the issues Tyrrell presents, for that is exactly what he expects. And more formal methods can supplement an ordinary reading, such as examining the contexts where “experience” appears, tracking questions that resurface where experience is present, and isolating themes that traditionally have attracted reflections on this concept.

Once underway, the challenge is less one of identifying the trail than of not straying too far from it in quest of more oblique expressions or fascinating subjects. For experience even in its purer senses is sufficiently diffuse and analogical so as to admit of many meanings and even more connotations. Consequently, it runs the risk, like “being” and “love,” of connoting so much that it denotes very little. Much of our early labors, then, are devoted to the pursuit of its clearer forms. As we progress chronologically through Tyrrell’s rather copious writings, the bounty of our wide search gathers up the various aspects of experience that may be increasingly distinguished from each other. At that point it appears reasonable to refine our approach by showing some flexibility with chronology in order to group writings implicating experience by subject matter.←5 | 6→

A second challenge, already hinted at, concerns the very character of experience itself which, unlike most ideas, does not readily yield to conceptual formation. For the “being” of experience is more exactly the act of experiencing, more a verb than a noun, and more a never-ending process than a permanent outcome.5 It is a continuum that cannot be isolated from its origin, trajectory, and relational character that binds the experienced and experiencer. In this sense experience is different from most ideas whose abstractive character represents the familiar world of definable beings and even of concepts themselves. It belongs rather to a small group of ideas whose referents, like those of particularity, process, potentiality, and presence, are not easily arrested in the “still life” or “snapshot” of the concept.6 In fact, these four ideas may be seen as components of experience. Like particularity, it is inseparable from the specific act of a particular person in a particular context; like process, it refers to an end result that is not isolated from the way that leads to it; like potentiality, it emerges from a source and points to an actualization greater than itself; like presence, it describes an interactive relational reality in the nexus of receiver and received, agent and acted upon.

A brief examination of particularity and process as aspects of experience allows us to see the difficulties more clearly. Like them, experience can only survive the ordeal of abstraction if its non-abstractable element is retained (paradoxically) as the referent.7 Otherwise the idea of experience would be a mere abstraction (as opposed to the appropriate abstraction of a concrete being), which is the precise opposite of its intended sense. This hazard is most apparent in the final moment in the act of knowing when the knower returns to the particularity of a concrete being that is understood through the abstracted concept. In this act of “reparticularization,” the concept formed in the act of knowing is then applied to the being now grasped in its singularity and “standing thereness,” which were necessarily bracketed in the earlier moment of abstraction while the being’s assumed nature was universalized in a concept. This apparently complex procedure is performed by us all day long in the flash of an eye: “Is that a rock or a cow over there on the hill?” “Let’s get closer. . .it’s a rock.” The question and answer here truncate a more involved process: (1) encountering an unknown sense object; (2) pulling two likely candidates from the library of stock concepts for identifying the object; (3) interviewing both candidates for application to the object; and (4) applying candidate “rock” to the object after gaining some adequate evidence. But when one returns to reparticularize the concept of experience after an abstraction, the temptation is to be satisfied with a generalization of some kind that glosses over the particularity belonging to the experience as such. As a result, the act of abstracting experience from experiences can either lead to a ←6 | 7→misleading reification since the idea has an elusive referent when it returns to be concretized, or the concept of experience simply becomes one more unapplied abstraction that fails to return to earth. These traps can be avoided, but they require some work.


XII, 392
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2022 (July)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2022. XII, 392 pp.

Biographical notes

Lawrence J. Donohoo (Author)

Lawrence J. Donohoo has taught philosophy, fundamental theology, and systematic theology in several colleges and seminaries for nearly three decades. He is currently completing the next volume of his comprehensive study of George Tyrrell’s thought.


Title: Experience in the Early Thought of George Tyrrell
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