Does Analytic Enquiry Have a High View of Human Reason?

This comes out of another conversation I had last night. Someone speculated that one ground for mainstream suspicion of analytic theology is that analytics are committed to a high view of human reason. That strikes me as plausible; but it’s an interestingly ill-founded suspicion. In what follows I will largely be expanding on a point that Bill has made already in response to Ed.

Analytic enquiry, contrary to what fallen reason might lead one to suppose, has a modest view of human reason. We assume that our reason is weak and apt to err. That is why we subject it to the discipline of formal calculi. A good analytic argument is like Ariadne’s thread: we know that we will lose ourselves in the labyrinths of thought, so we clearly mark out every intellectual step that we may return to the point of our error and try again.

Of course, this an optimistically modest view of reason: we can pick our way back, find the error. But this is just to suppose that human reason is not beyond salvation, an assumption that no Christian theologian has any business denying. How is it saved? By logic, which is of the Logos. Besides which, unless critics of analytic theology came by their critiques through direct divine revelation, they will also be relying on reason, while hubristically refusing to submit that reason to analytic discipline.

I turn again to Timothy Williamson, who, as I have said before, shares Bill’s view of analytic methodology. In the Afterword to The Philosophy of Philosophy, he has a paragraph making the very point Bill makes in ‘Analytic Theology as a Way of Life’ about precision, disagreement, and humility. What interests me now, however, is the preceding paragraph:

Much even of analytic philosophy moves too fast in its haste to reach the sex bits. Details are not given the care they deserve: crucial claims are vaguely stated, significantly different formulations are treated as though they were equivalent, examples are under-described, arguments are gestured at rather than properly made, their form is left unexplained, and so on. A few resultants errors multiply and send inquiry in completely the wrong direction. Shoddy work is sometimes masked by pretentiousness, allusiveness, gnomic concision, or winning informality. But often there is no special disguise: producers and consumers have simply not taken enough trouble to check the details. We need the unglamorous virtue of patience to read and write philosophy that is structured as perspicuously as the difficulty of the subject requires, and the austerity to be dissatisfied with appealing prose that does not meet those standards. The fear of boring oneself or one’s readers is a great enemy of truth

Williamson is offering, or so it seems to me, a positively Pascalian critique of the current state of analytic philosophy. Philosophers are mired in intellectual vice, going astray out of a kind of intellectual lust for ‘the sexy bits’, a disordered desire for lesser goods – profundity, novelty, cleverness – than truth. Sometimes philosophers just prefer their own comfort to responding seriously to truth’s demanding call. Not for nothing does Williamson describe this epilogue as a ‘sermon’.

What might we say, in the spirit of both Williamson and Pascal, about the Milbank article I attacked recently? It’s terribly exciting to hear talk of the approaching end of modernity; it’s flattering to be told that the benighted standards of Enlightenment reason are inapplicable to you. And so are we tempted to accept Milbank’s conclusions: conclusions he has reached precisely by reasoning about intellectual history, epistemology, metaphysics. We are seduced to forget the weakness of Milbank’s fallen reason, and value the finite good of dramatic, self-vindicating narratives over the infinite good of truth, which is God.

Instead of Milbank’s easy assumptions about what constitutes an appropriate standard of truth or rationality, we can take the hard ascetical path of considering counter-examples, examining closure principles, and making minute distinctions. Acknowledging our weakness, we put no confidence in the flesh, but trust in the mind of the Christ the Logos. For this is the momentous theological consequence of Frege’s argument that the laws of logic are the laws of truth rather than the laws of thought: they are divine rather than human laws. The analytic pursuit of logical rigour is, from a theological perspective, nothing less than the submission of our minds to Christ’s. Such is the way analytic theology offers.


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