Analytic Theology: A Humble Method? Bah, Humbug (sort of).

Just a quick response to Alec's well written piece on the implications of analytic methods for the value of human reason. Will try to keep it to three points!

  1. I think it probably worth clarifying that analytic enquiry in and of itself doesn't have a view of human reason at all. As has come up several times on this blog, it's important not to make sweeping statements (positive or negative) about certain disciplines on the basis of purported general features, not least because those general features need not have specific necessary consequences. This holds true here as well: though analytic enquiry aims at a certain sort of precision, this needn't commit the person pursuing analytic enquiry to any particular valuation of human reason. Analytic philosophers and theologians, meanwhile, can think many different things about the possibilities of human reason. Russell, for example, can have a fairly high estimation of it. Alec and Bill, meanwhile, can just as consistently hold analytic discipline to be something important for the fallen intellect to accept as capable of preventing it from falling into certain sorts of error.
  2. Within this, however, it is also worth noting that there can be a particular sort of pride attached to asceticism, whether one dealing with appetites or reason. For a full rundown on this, I'd advise reading Busch's 'Karl Barth and the Pietists', which includes a survey of Barth's most penetrating critiques of the Pharisaism of (among other things) the tax collector. Briefly though, one can become prideful as an ascetic in assuming that one has somehow overcome bodily weakness by human means: even insofar as the practise assumes bodily weakness, it presumes enough strength on the part of the body to overcome that weakness through specific practises, which is its own type of self-glorification. This is also possible on an intellectual level, and we can actually conflate the trust we place in our reason's corrective abilities with trust in Christ. I don't accuse Alec of this (he doesn't go this far), but it is worth making explicit the fact that asceticism in itself does not entail humility. It is also worth noting that what ultimately saves us is grace, not logic: after all the Logos was not revealed in the form of first or second order propositional logic! (This is not to say that logic and reason have no role to play in our theological reflection: I mean, I'm pretty sure I'm a fideist (if that word means anything), but contrary to popular belief I see no reason why fideism means we should thereby think we can throw reason out the window.)
  3. To this end, I would also make the point again that non-analytic methods of philosophy are not actually characterised by imprecision and unclarity: they are characterised by their different understandings of what constitutes precision and clarity in certain cases. I entirely agree with Alec's assessment of Milbank's writing, but I would claim that its laxity stems not from its being non-analytic, but from its being a poor example of its own style (just as Williamson picks up on the poor practise of analytic philosophy. And in any case, can we please pick someone other than Milbank: I mean, what if I were to only focus on John Searle as the sole representative of analytic thought?). And I would also claim that these different understandings of precision and clarity can be helpful when analytic asceticism does veer towards pride, e.g., when the need to clearly define what one is trying to say stops being an attempt to avoid unnecessary error and starts manifesting itself as the claim that human reason is capable of laying its hands on a very concrete and very non-existent form of definition.

In general conclusion, I agree with Alec that analytic theologians can use their methods in the spirit of humility and responsibility. I think that this humility is undermined, however, if it is thought to follow necessarily from analytic methods in and of themselves, and not the spirit in which the individual employs them; that it can become a false humility, much as fasting can become a source of pride. Finally, I think that this is consistent with there being other forms of philosophy which can serve as possible correctives against a potentially hubristic asceticism, sometimes by reminding us that clarity and precision are not the sole preserves of nor necessarily guaranteed by analytic methods. As confessional (though, for my part, amateur) theologians, moreover, we can always make recourse to prayer, something hinted at in Alec's other excellent post from today. And this is something I think Augustine, Aquinas, Barth, and maybe even Swinburne can agree on.



4 thoughts on “Analytic Theology: A Humble Method? Bah, Humbug (sort of).

  1. 1. While different analytic philosophers can have different estimations of human reason, there does seem to be a sense in which analytic philosophy is structurally committed to modesty. If we thought reason were all that great, we wouldn’t bother setting out our argumentation as minutely as we do. At the very least, there’s some deeply wrong with the general critique of analytic methodology that I consider. No, analytic theology as such is not committed to a high view of human reason; if you yourself have a low view of human reason, then analytic methods should commend themselves to you because of the strict way they discipline reason.

    2. One can take a sinful pride in overcoming intellectual weakness, as in overcoming bodily weakness. But just believing that intellectual weakness has been overcome is not itself prideful. I was troubled particularly by ‘it presumes enough strength on the part of the body to overcome that weakness through specific practises, which is its own type of self-glorification’. Perhaps this isn’t quite what you wanted to say, but in it’s face it’s a rather odd and implausible point. Roger Bannister overcame the weakness of his bod by specific, human training regimes and ran a four minute mile. Of course this could have induced pride in Bannister, but it was no sin, of itself, to believe that he had run a four minute mile. Indeed, it evinced a virtuous respect for the good of truth to believe so, given the overwhelming evidence. But of course I affirm that asceticism does not entail humility and that grace, not logic, saves us.

    3. Yes, the inference from ‘John Milbank makes some sweeping claims at the beginning of one article’ to ‘Non-analytic approaches to theology are necessarily bad’ is atrocious, and the way my piece was constructed served to encourage that inference in a rather hypocritical way. I didn’t mean to be making that point, but I didn’t do enough to avoid insinuating it. But I think we come across a similar issue as above. If you’ve really hit upon a successful definition, there’s no (necessary) pride in writing a paper about it. Nor is it clear to me why seeking a definition of, say, knowledge is inherently prideful. Maybe there is a definition, maybe there isn’t: assuming that there isn’t one before investigating the matter (not that that’s what you’re doing) seems to be itself prideful. Things do get more complicated when turning to theological matters, though: I’ll gladly concede that Eunomius was proud.


  2. 1) I think you’re right about there being something deeply wrong with the critique you consider, and I think it’s one I myself would have been guilty of making a year ago (though that’s not so much changed because I’ve come to think of analytic philosophy as inherently virtuously, but as I’ve been reminded time and again that it undermines my own case to say that it’s inherently prideful!). That said, I think you do take a very particular approach to the relationship between humility and minutae: you’re certainly right that it’s a prideful view of human reason to think we can dispense with precision, but it can also be prideful over-estimate the power of that precision (in the same way we’d (though perhaps rightly) pride the ability of a microscope to show certain otherwise invisible structures). For my part, I think Analytic philosophy can lend itself to that kind of pride, and as you know, I think it can try and focus on something so minutely that it actually ends up blurring the picture! But these are not due to intrinsic features in analytic methods.

    2) I quite agree with that re. Roger bannister. To show I’m not entirely against precision, then, let me clarify by saying that it can be prideful to think that the overcoming of an intellectual weakness in and of itself leads to the overcoming of a spiritual weakness, that the former can perhaps be achieved in certain circumstances, but that this need not have any necessary effect on the latter: that the intellectual weakness in question is not so much a question of improvement but intrinsic capability (put another way: Bannister could run a mile in four minutes, but he couldn’t run to heaven). The asceticism of an analytic philosopher might be prideful then insofar as they believe theselves to have overcome this intrinsic weakness by intellectual (or, indeed, any) means. I actually think that that’d be in line with Aquinas and the Thomistic tradition, so long as we were careful to make clear that this didn’t therefore absolve us of intellectual responsibility.

    3). Not much I can disagree with in this paragraph. Most frustrating. Probably a good thing to have people engaged in the same endeavour who are inclined to seek different results, so long as they don’t take each other to be idiots for doing so!


  3. “I’m pretty sure I’m a fideist..” Would you mind saying more (or even writing a whole post!) on what you mean? I’d be very interested to hear more.


  4. I’ll try and work something out on that theme… Basics, I think that belief in God cannot be justified by reason, and so has to be accepted as faith (though this is not to say, as above, that we cannot articulate the content and/or role of that faith using the means provided by rational systems, which is where I think a philosophical analysis of theological subjects becomes interesting for me, both when it comes to systematics and liturgy). This, ofc, leaves a lot to be said…

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