Colin Wright is the editor and translator of two new important books by Pierrre Marcel on Herman Dooyeweerd. He graciously agreed to be interviewed here.
Colin could you please tell me something about yourself?
I took my degree in Mechanical Engineering (Birmingham, 1966), about as far from philosophical studies as you can get!
When I became a Christian just before my final year at university I began the life-long task the Scriptures refer to as metanoia or changing one's mindset (wrongly and disastrously translated in English versions as repentance). After working in industry (making grinding machines) for a couple of years I decided to go to Bible college where I discovered two recent additions in the library that opened up a whole new avenue of thought. They were Francis Schaeffer's Escape from Reason and Hebden Taylor's Christian Philosophy of Politics, Law, and the State.
But the atmosphere there was not conducive to such thought and I could carry it no further. Sometime shortly after (the details after all this time are now very hazy) I found myself listening to Arthur Jones, who had recently been awarded his PhD at Birmingham. His Lecture had a profound and striking effect upon me. For clarity, precision and cogency it was light years from anything I had ever heard (and still is). As a result I began investigating. From somewhere I obtained an early typewritten copy of what was later published as Dooyeweerd's Roots of Western Culture and by the early seventies I was poring over the New Critique.
I would regard my own thought as in some respects quite distinct from Dooyeweerd. I also have a profound respect for Rousas Rushdoony (who is vastly underestimated in reformationalist circles in my opinion) and Cornelius van Til. If I slavishly follow Dooyeweerd in anything it is in his insistence that no one follow him, that we all think out our own solutions within a broad community, listening to and learning from each other.
I should add that career-wise I became a maths teacher, then a bookseller and ended up with my own computer software company.
I am now retired and looking for moments of quiet study in between the demanding attention of three wonderful grandsons.
Who was Pierre Marcel and why your interest in him?
Marcel spent most of his career as pastor of the Reformed church in Saint Germain en Laye, north-west of Paris. He wrote and published mainly practical theological works, a number of which have been translated into English. I knew of these works, especially his book on Infant baptism, long before I discovered his Dooyeweerd studies. A serious biography is sadly lacking but there appears to be no interest; maybe I should try it myself!
How did you first become interested in him?
My good friend Jean-Marc Berthoud of Lausanne not only told me about Marcel's Dooyeweerd studies but kindly obtained copies for me. When I told him of my plans he was extremely encouraging and supportive, and put me in touch with a number of people who were able to help in various ways.
How did the translation project come about?
Really quite by accident. Originally my sole intention was to produce a translation in Word document form for my own use. But to do this I needed a reliable French text. All that was available was a poor photocopy of Marcel's original typed theses. So I set about creating an edited French text. I got it into my head somehow that it might be a good idea to share this with others, especially as Marcel had so much to offer to French Christians, who were unlikely ever to get a translation of the WdW or NC in their own language.
What were the highlights and low lights of the project?
This was an exhilarating project in every way.
-The translation itself forced me to think much more carefully and deeply about Dooyeweerd because there was no way to translate Marcel without fully understanding what every phrase, let alone sentence, meant. I had to make constant reference to the New Critique and the WdW, comparing them with each other and with Marcel. I made some interesting if not intriguing discoveries and my own grasp of Dooyeweerd's thought was deepened significantly.
-I have been told I should feel proud of the achievement but what I really feel is an intense satisfaction, especially at having been involved in completing Marcel's project for him. I hope he would have been pleased with it. It is a pity he did not live to see it.
-On such a huge undertaking, even someone of Marcel's stature has to take shortcuts, and he did it where it was, seemingly, least likely to matter...in the footnotes. Unfortunately his reliance on Dooyeweerd's footnotes was a trust badly placed. In this area at least, Dooyeweerd seems to have taken little care to be accurate. Sometimes he even quotes his own work wrongly! I had to spend an inordinate amount of time checking references and expanding them; sometimes spending as much as a couple of days on a single footnote.
-The project kept opening up new vistas and it has been frustrating having to limit what I could do. I think it would have been a much better work, in English and French, if I had had the time and resources to research archives in Amsterdam, Aix-en-Provence and elsewhere. I do not doubt that there is a substantial correspondence that took place in the writing of the theses. Marcel's aim was to give the French the WdW in their own language. Lecerf had put him up to it and secured grants to enable him to go to the Netherlands to study with this as the sole aim. His interest in Marcel's progress surely did not stop there. Also, Marcel must have consulted Dooyeweerd on such a major undertaking.
-I would have liked to include a short biography in the first volume, with something of the history and development of Marcel's project. I did approach someone eminently suitable to do this for me but he was unfortunately far too busy to even contemplate it and, as I have said, I had neither the time nor the resources to do it myself.
How was Marcel's work received originally?
Marcel appears to have made no effort to get these theses published. He gave copies to a few friends, but his pre-occupation was more theological than philosophical, more ecclesiastical than academic. He wrote and published a great deal on practical theological issues. Those who did look into his Dooyeweerd theses, such as Pierre Courthial, remarked on how brilliant they were.
How do Marcel and Dooyeweerd differ?
In his theses Marcel went out of his way to present a truly faithful exposition of Dooyewerd's thought, doing so in Dooyeweerd's own words as much as possible. He offers no critique or criticism of the Master. His intention was to bring Dooyeweerd to the attention of his fellow Frenchmen, not to teach his own slant on it. His only remark was to the effect that in so far as he understood Dooyeweerd he was in full agreement with him.
If Marcel were alive today what would he say to the church?
I haven't a clue. This is one if the many questions that could have been answered if research into the archives had been possible. There is an untold story here that opens up possibilities for research by postgraduate students of French church history.
Why should we read Marcel?
To the French I would say, this is about as near as you will get for a long time to Dooyeweerd's authentic voice in French. It is not complete, Marcel never got around to the sections on epistemology and individuality structures.
To the English I would say, don't expect anything novel here, but you will find a much better written book than the New Critique on the topics it does discuss (the transcendental critique and modal theory). If Marcel had been Dooyeweerd's editor, I believe the WdW would have been a much better book. Marcel not only carefully selected all the truly salient features; at times he quietly rearranged them and presented a much better argument.
How can we get hold of the books?
Easiest is through Amazon. In the UK that means through their subsidiary Book Depository for the best deals.
Are there anymore projects in the pipeline?
Yes, for sure. Marcel wrote a prize winning 'essay' when he was only 26. It has never been published either, and the only copy I can find is in the VU library. I am trying to get a copy to edit and translate. I have also had an ongoing project in the background for some years translating Pierre Duhem's ten volume Systeme du Monde that I would like to complete. And if God spares me, and I can get my German up to scratch, I would like to tackle Anneliese Maier's brilliant works on medieval science (also 10 vols!). Why this work has never appeared in English is one of the great mysteries - and scandals - of our time.
For more details on the books see here.