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Born at Bergélez-Fauquemont, 26 November, 1800; died at Louvain, 15 February, 1875, was for a quarter of a century the chief protagonist of the Ontologico-Traditionalist School of Louvain. In 1830, while professor of philosophy at the lower seminary of Rolduc, he was called to Louvain, which under his influence became a centre of Ontologism. In 1846 he undertook the editorship of the "Revue catholique", the official organ of Ontologism, in conjunction with Arnold Tits, who had taught with him at Rolduc and joined him at Louvain in 1840, and Lonay, professor at Rolduc. La Forêt, Claessens, the Abbé Bouquillon , Père Bernard Van Loo, and others followed the doctrines of Ubaghs. But opponents soon appeared. The "Journal historique et littéraire", founded by Kersten, kept up an incessant controversy with the "Revue catholique". Kersten was joined by Gilson, dean of Bouillon, Lupus, and others. From 1858 to 1861 the controversy raged. It was at its height when a decision of the Roman Congregation (21 Sept., 1864) censured in Ubaghs's works, after a long and prudent deliberation, a series of propositions relating to Ontologism. Already in 1843 the Congregation of the Index had taken note of five propositions and ordered M. Ubaghs to correct them and expunge them from his teaching, but he misunderstood the import of this first decision. When his career was ended in 1864 he had the mortification of witnessing the ruin of a teaching to which he had devoted forty years of his life. From 1864 until his death he lived in retirement.
The theories of Ubaghs are contained in a vast collection of treatises on which he expended the best years of his life. Editions followed one another as the range of his teaching widened. The fundamental thesis of Traditionalism is clearly affirmed by Ubaghs, the acquisition of metaphysical and moral truths is inexplicable without a primitive Divine teaching and its oral transmission. Social teaching is a natural law, a condition so necessary that without a miracle man could not save through it attain the explicit knowledge of truths of a metaphysical and a moral order. Teaching and language are not merely a psychological medium which favours the acquisition of these truths ; its action is determinant. Hence the primordial act of man is an act of faith ; the authority of others becomes the basis of certitude. The question arises: Is our adhesion to the fundamental truths of the speculative and moral order blind; and, is the existence of God , which is one of them, impossible of rational demonstration? Ubaghs did not go as far as this; his Traditionalism was mitigated, a semi-Traditionalism; once teaching has awakened ideas in us and transmitted the maxims ( ordo acquisitionis ) reason is able and apt to comprehend them. Though powerless to discover them it is regarded as being capable of demonstrating them once they have been made known to it. One of his favourite camparisons admirably states the problem: "As the word 'view' chiefly expresses four things, the faculty of seeing, the act of seeing, the object seen, e.g. a landscape, and the drawing an artist makes of this object, so we give the name idea, which is derived from the former, chiefly to four different things: the faculty of knowing rationally, the act of rational knowledge, the object of this knowledge, the intellectual copy or formula which we make of this object in conceiving it" (Psychologie, 5th ed., 1857, 41-42). Now, the objective idea, or object-idea (third acceptation), in other words, the intelligible which we contemplate, and contact with which produces within us the intellectual formula (notion), is "something Divine" or rather it is God himself. This is the core of Ontologism. The intelligence contemplates God directly and beholds in Him the truths or "objective ideas " of which our knowledge is a weak reflection. Assuredly, if Ubaghs is right, skepticism is definitively overcome. Likewise if teaching plays in the physical life the part he assigns to it, the same is true of every doctrine which asserts the original independence of reason and which Ubaghs calls Rationalism. But this so-called triumph was purchased at the cost of many errors. It is, to say the least, strange that on the one hand Ontologistic Traditionalism is based on a distrust of reason and on the other hand it endows reason with unjustifiable prerogatives. Surely it is an incredible audacity to set man face to face with the Divine essence and to attribute to his weak mind the immediate perception of the eternal and immutable verities.
Ubaghs's principal works are:
- "Logicae seu philosophiae rationalis elementa" (6 editions, 1834-60);
- "Ontologiae sive metaph. generalis specimen" (5 editions, 1835-63);
- "Theodicae seu theologiae naturalis" (4 editions);
- "Anthropoligicae philosoph. elementa" (1848);
- "Précis de logique élémentaire" (5 editions);
- "Précis d'anthropol. psychologique" (5 editions);
- "Du réalisme en théologie et en philosophie" (1856);
- "Essai d'idéologie ontologique" (1860);
- numerous articles in the Louvain "Revue catholique".
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