Alec Siantonas writes in his Oriel Theology manifesto (which is probably close enough to the character of the whole to warrant the name) that a striking feature of the theology taught at Oriel is its attempted rigour, and that this rigour is part of the reason it can be though if as ‘Analytic’ theology. Now, I’m not going to try and argue that theological inquiry should not be rigorous. I am, however, going to claim that the account of rigour which seems to be applied within the Analytic tradition is itself often insufficiently rigorous; that a rigorous account of rigour would recognise that it is it a vague concept, even and especially when it is applied with all the precision which Analytic philosophy seeks to demand, and that this has certain methodological consequences. On this basis, I’ll try to suggest that if Oriel Theology is indeed rigorous, then this need not entail its being exclusively Analytic.
I’m going try to make this argument over the course of four sections. The first will be a brief historical account of the origin of the concept of rigour employed by Alec (and then Brendan) in the Analytic tradition. The second will suggest an immediate methodological problem which has plagued ‘Analytic’ rigour from its origin. The third will be a look at what the demand for clarity as a feature of rigour entails. I’ll then conclude by making some observations about what these claims, if they are true, might entail for the study of theology and philosophy, as well as for the character of Oriel Theology.
At one point in his manifesto, Alec broadly categorises Analytic Theology as a theological method of inquiry which finds its origin in the form of thought developed by Gottlob Frege. I think Alec is correct about this, though I think to Frege one can also add the names of Russell and the early Wittgenstein. Now, as I understand it, Frege, Russell, and the early Wittgenstein were primarily motivated by a desire to place philosophy on an epistemic foundation as firm as that of mathematics, for various reasons. To this end, they sought to demonstrate that mathematics and philosophy were both grounded in the same logical forms and principles; the thought ran, or so it seems to me, that if mathematics and philosophy shared the same foundation, then we could claim them to be epistemic equals possessed of the same sort of certainty.
This, it seems to me, is an intuition characteristic of much modern Analytic thought, borne witness to by certain stylistic and methodological presumptions (e.g. the tendency of Analytic writing to be cast in a certain semi/pseudo-mathematical style, a preoccupation with the possibility of deriving contradictions within systems of thought, a general belief that ideal thinking should be rigidly axiomatic (these are obviously not true of all Analytical thinkers)). And it is this historical intuition which, I believe, informs Alec’s use of the term ‘rigour’: explicitly or otherwise, he seems to me to be using ‘rigour’ with mathematics (under the guise of logic) as his paradigm. This in turn (if true) informs what he means when he says that we should be ‘offering definitions, drawing distinctions, and employing some formal apparatus’: as I’m reading him, this points towards the thought that an ideal philosophical claim has the same clarity as a mathematical proof that 2+2=4, and that a philosophical mistake should be made to be as easy to spot as in the statement ‘2+2=5’.
2. An Immediate Problem
Now, there is an immediate problem here, relating to the fact that logical arguments must be linguistic. This problem can be expressed as follows: a logical argument can only be as rigorous as the terms it employs, but the terms of language lack the ideal properties of exactness demanded by the forms of logical argument.
Let us try to clarify with a metaphor: even though the blueprint for a building might be absolutely perfect, the building itself can be no more solid than the materials out of which it is built, and even if we use the strongest materials we have, everything under the sun is eventually subject to decay. The blueprint might aim at an ideal of solidity, but in reality the building will be subject to decomposition, not to that ideal. Just substitute ‘blueprint’ for ‘expression in the language of propositional logic’ and ‘materials’ for ‘words’, and we have the intended image: for the expressions of propositional logic certainly aim at an atemporal certainty, but the words we use to flesh them out when we use them to make claims about the world are too worldly to meet this formal demand.
Now, this is not necessarily an immediate problem for mathematics: after all, its terminology is (again) the very paradigm of rigour: to carry the metaphor a bit further, the formal language of pure mathematics might as well be titanium. Philosophy and theology, however, must employ (or at least borrow) the terms of ordinary language, and these are more like play-doh: they are far too malleable and changeable for the purposes of pure logic. We can, of course, use them to express a perfectly valid argument: the soundness of that argument, however, will always be contingent upon the character of the terms employed, not the formal purity of its abstracted logical structure.
Now, this is not in the least bit a new problem or an original claim; indeed, it informs the efforts of Analytic philosophers to either develop synthetic languages closer in character to mathematics or to account for meaning in ordinary language by means of pseudo-mathematical systems (c.f. Frege, Carnap, Kaplan). I’m not going to wade into these efforts here, though I will note that several giants of the Analytic tradition (Wittgenstein, Austin, Quine, and Davidson) have argued from the basis that there is no language which escapes decay (the later Wittgenstein even argued (convincingly, in my view) that the language of mathematics, which had earlier served as his paradigm for timeless solidity, is subject to the same types of contingency as ordinary language, though in a far less obvious fashion: that even blueprints and ‘pure’ concepts are subject to time and human convention, among other things). I am instead going to note one difficulty that any effort to create a titanium language will come across, relating to the ideal of clarity in Analytic philosophy.
I am taking clarity to be a requirement of rigour (one made explicit by Brendan in his response). I understand it as follows: a clear account is one which gives as accurate and perspicuous account of what it seeks to give an account of as possible (perhaps even to the point of near transparency).
I understand the problem for Analytic thought to be as follows: in taking mathematics/logic as our paradigm of rigour, we take mathematical/logical formulations of expressions as our paradigms of clarity. The clarity of mathematical/logical formulations of expressions, however, follows from the nature of their supposed objects, namely, numbers and logical functions. These are supposed to be, by nature (and here we touch upon an instructive point of contention, namely, whether numbers or logical functions have natures) the paragons of rigid and rigidly definable structure. In short, the clarity of the terms of mathematics/logic has metaphysical implications: their language(s) presuppose/follow from objects whose essence is such that they can be completely and rigidly defined (I think Alec will agree with me on this; that even the logical positivists made metaphysical claims in their semantic proclamations).
Not all things, however, are ideal mathematical objects: most importantly, there are vague phenomena, and a part of philosophy is to treat of these vague phenomena (these are both empirical claims). A clear account of a vague phenomenon, however, will (according to the understanding of clarity above) be vague; a clear account of an indefinite phenomenon will be formally indefinite (just as a clear sketch of a blurred image will be blurred).
In terms of examples, Analytic Philosophy itself furnishes a rather beautiful one: Analytic Philosophy is such a vague thing that a rigorous account of its character should be vague, as opposed to a general formal definition. Alec himself gives such a rigorous account, though even his seems to me to ignore the importance of Austin and (perhaps more tellingly) G.E. Moore for the character of the Analytic tradition, and we can also find similarly vague characterisations of Analytic thought elsewhere (c.f. Deconstruction as Analytic Philosophy, Groundless Grounds, and an anthology entitled Classics in Analytic Philosophy. The first of these even characterises an Analytic philosopher as one who has been trained to employ and recognise a particular notion of clarity!). And this is right and proper: any more precise formulation would in fact be less clear, as it would exclude things which shouldn’t be excluded by tracing sharp lines over blurred and shifting edges.
Beyond Analytic Philosophy itself, I would contend that such things as knowledge, belief, meaning, truth, existence, orthodoxy, salvation, grace, and rigour are similarly vague phenomena, such that if we are to give clear, rigorous accounts of them then these accounts must carry within them elements of vagueness. In virtue of this, I would contend that the practise of ‘offering definitions, drawing distinctions, and employing some formal apparatus’, if such practises are understood within the paradigm of mathematics, actually serve to muddy the waters of discussion; that the attempt to express a vague phenomenon by means of a titanium language will in fact distort or hide the truth, instead of reflecting it. Because of this, it seems to me that if we are to do philosophy rigorously then we should be willing to commit ourselves to the use of materials other than those demanded by the ideal blueprints of mathematical logic.
Now, the disciplines Alec refers to need not of course be practised mathematically: we can still offer definitions, draw distinctions, and employ some formal apparatus without treating mathematical propositions as our paradigms of clarity or rigour. The fun thing here, however, is that this is precisely what thinkers like Derrida and the later Wittgenstein do; namely, they treat language like play-doh on the basis that (among other things) it both is and refers to things which are subject to decay and essentially indefinite. As such, they seek to rigorously and methodically demonstrate the inherent vagueness and brittleness of our attempts at precise formulation. To put it another way, both thinkers rigorously seek to demonstrate the vagueness inherent to rigour, by rigorously seeking to show that a rigorous investigation of philosophical topics can, and in some cases must, yield vague results (out of which we can of course sometimes derive contradictions if we want to, to take one material consequence which is frequently exploited by those practising deconstruction). Their work as a whole can thus be thought of as a practical demonstration that a) philosophical and theological arguments and statements can only be as solid as the materials which philosophers and theologians use, b) that if these materials are to be true to the world then they will neither always nor often (perhaps even ever) measure up to the ideal of exactness sought by Russell, Frege, and the early Wittgenstein, and c) that if our arguments, thought, and writing are to be rigorous then they should clearly reflect these facts.
(There are arguments supporting this beyond the an appeal to the vagueness of clear accounts of vague phenomena: I’m thinking in particular of arguments for the fact that reality underdetermines convention (even mathematical and logical convention) and the effect of context on meaning. These, however, are for another time.)
4. So(,) What?
I hope that it is clear that I am not strictly trying to disagree with Alec or Brendan when they say that theology should be clear and rigorous: I’m just trying to point out one way in which the concepts of clarity and rigour that they employ need not entail a commitment to the Analytic style of thought that they’ve espoused. I am, as such, trying add a qualification to their accounts, the main import of which is, in my mind, the claim that attempts to formally define the terms of our debate at the outset by drawing rigid distinctions in the context of a given system can actually serve to distort, not clarify, what we are trying to say.
Now, the substantive import of this claim relates to the natures of the worlds that different accounts of language presuppose: for example, the language of Frege, Russell, and the early Wittgenstein (implicitly or explicitly) presupposed a world where anything true had to have an essential structure comparable to the structure of a mathematical proposition (which in their minds meant that truths in reality had to have a logical structure). The language of the later Wittgenstein and Derrida presupposes a world where such a structure is not only inessential to truth, but where the presupposition of such a structure as the basis of our meaningful utterances is inimical to our efforts to express those truths. I believe that if there is a metaphysical debate to be had (and it would be a debate), then it is probably over this question: the question of whether or not the grammar of our languages must map isomorphically onto a mathematical or logical structure given in reality if they are to be meaningful and we are to be able to use them to express truths.
The methodological import, meanwhile, seems to me as follows: that insofar as at least two different answers to the above question are prima facie defensible, neither side can lay immediate claim to either clarity, rigour, or orthodoxy as a specific or uniquely distinctive characteristic. Rigour is instead a vague term which can be truly applied to both approaches, and theology can be constructively and rigorously pursued according to both views.
(For my part, I believe that the later Wittgenstein and Derrida are right, and I believe that Frege, Russell, and the early Wittgenstein were wrong. I also believe that this can be (and has been) demonstrated. Wherever you stand, however, it seems to me any claim that clarity and rigour are the distinctive characteristics of Analytic philosophy, as opposed to other modes of thought, should be treated as dubious to say the least. I also believe that it would be lazy in the extreme to read non-Analytic thought, theological or otherwise, and claim that it either isn’t or can’t be rigorous if it does not employ or rely on formal definitions, choosing instead to pursue clarity according to a different set of presuppositions.)
Now for the promised positive contribution: in part on the basis of the above, I would claim that, insofar as it is anything, the ‘Oriel Theology’ which Alec describes is a vague entity which can serve as a space for specific debates between (among other things) divergent foundational views, as opposed to a means for us to promote our preferred approach to those debates. I would claim that if it is to be rigorous at all then it should be rigorously committed to the exploration and development of various styles of thought and writing, such that a clear and rigorous account of Oriel Theology allows (demands, even) that there should be an equal place for non-Analytic forms of inquiry. I would also claim that if it is to be rigorous at all, then it should be rigorous enough to avoid falling into the trap of judging anyone who is reticent to begin discussions by offering up formal definitions as therefore guilty of poor thinking. In short, I would claim that if Oriel Theology is to be anything, then it should be neither an inquisition nor an ideology committed to a single set of clearly defined methodological principles, but a forum characterised by respect, curiosity, and, above all, a mutual commitment towards trying to navigate the absurdly tricky waters of theological thought.
(There is obviously more to be said re. Alec’s manifesto, not least engaging with what it means to make it as easy as possible for someone to disagree with you: another time!)