cynical fideism(?)

A while back, Bill commented on one of my posts asking me to expand on what I meant when I referred to myself as a fideist. A bit delayed, I've tried to put together a post on that question. I'm going to try and do so in a way that is mindful of Alec's completely sound comments about the hubristic melodrama which some writers can use to mask the fact that what they're saying lacks significance (not sure how successful I've been in this…). I'm also going to try and be mindful of the fact that there are few things more annoying- to me at least- than taking a particular description and turning it into a name; as such, I'm going to be writing about cynical fideism, not Cynical Fideism (this may well not be new, but I couldn't find anything on Google scholar, so there we go).

As I understand it, 'fideist' and 'cynic' are both broadly used as pejorative terms. A 'fideist' is taken to be someone who is willing to forswear reason when making their judgements, basing their beliefs instead on unsubstantiated faith in precisely the manner decried by Clifford in The Ethics of Belief.(1) A cynic, meanwhile, is defined by the OED as 'one who sarcastically doubts or despises human sincerity and merit'. It usually carries connotations of selfishness and/or cruelty.

These broad usages are not entirely inaccurate: there are fideists who absolve themselves of their responsibility to think and believe ethically (c.f. creationists) and there are probably cynics who excuse their own cruelty and selfishness on the basis of a general belief in the worthlessness of humanity (though I haven't met too many meself). Even so, I believe that these terms can be combined to describe a point of view which, though it may well be mistaken, need not be understood as so obviously wrong (rationally or morally) that the words could only be used as an insult.


Beginning with fideism: as I understand it, one might count oneself a fideist if one holds a) that explanations and justifications come to end, and b) that the points at which explanations and justifications end cannot be rationally grounded or further justified.(2) I am going to call a point at which explanations or justifications come to an end a grounding explanation.

Now, I would say that a grounding explanation cannot be rationally grounded insofar as that it serves as the measure of the rationality according to which we are trying to call it rational. On the basis that a measure of reason cannot justify itself (on pain of circularity), then if a particular explanation serves as a measure of the standards of reason we are employing, it cannot therefore claim to justify itself by those standards (in much the same way that a metre stick on its own cannot provide us with an accurate measurement of its own length). Even if we then justify one explanation by appeal to another, moreover, we will either a) come to a point where a grounding explanation must be relationally explained by something it was supposed to rationally explain, or b) a point where the grounding justification must rationally justify itself. We cannot escape a vicious circularity, and so at some point must recognise that the point where reason begins cannot itself be declared rational. This is not to say that a grounding explanation is therefore irrational: just that if we are to accept it, then we must accept it without appealing to justification, and that this just is what it means to accept something on faith.

(As quoted in Bill's most recent post, it is broadly accepted that there are at least 3 different sorts of explanation- personal, scientific, metaphysical. I just want to here note that I think this account of fideism is consistent with the existence of these different types of explanation, though each requires a slightly different account of grounding explanation.)

One possible philosophical consequence of this view of fideism (and one which I hold to be true) is that, when we reach a level of grounding explanation, all we have left is description. We cannot further explain or justify what grounds our reason: we can only survey and describe what we're looking at and how, then try to make clear what it is that compels us and how (as well as discerning whether or not what we take for a grounding explanation is indeed what we take it to be, lest we do indeed become unethical in our believing). And in this we can seek to look at points of dialogue between descriptions, observing the differences and commonalities between different modes of thought and life, then exploring how they might understand, criticise, and complement each other.


Which brings us to cynicism. I understand this term in something like a traditional sense, relating to philosophers such as Diogenes. With specific focus on how it might relate to fideism: I take a cynical point of view here to be one which does not believe meaning in language to be determined by ideal concepts (even if these concepts are thought to be just place-holders in the name of theoretical exigency), whether they appeal to essence, substance, logical properties, universal definition, or necessary and sufficient conditions (all of which might be thought of as the same thing).

This holds especially for the terms which constitute descriptions of grounding explanations, and it has important consequences. The first is this; that if the terms of a description are not bound by an ideal concept, then these terms can be correctly taken to have a significance other than that intended by a given speaker or mandated by a given theory. The second is that, if the meaning of a description is not determined an ideal concept, then we cannot rule out the possibility of there being two or more descriptions of the same subject which make use of concepts which are differentiated yet still identifiable(3). These consequences follow from the fact that the absence of an ideal concept encapsulating all semantic possibilities (whether this ideal is supposed to be wholly determined by a physically existent object or not) necessarily allows for a certain level of irreducible multiplicity in terms of both conceptualisation and correct understanding. And lest we fall into subjectivist chaos, this is balanced by the fact that different descriptions (by hypothesis(4)) can still be concerned with a single subject (which need not itself be capable of ideal conceptualisation), entailing that this multiplicity is not sufficient to dissolve all senses of identity across the range of a multiplicity of concepts. This necessary possibility of both conceptual multiplicity and a multiplicity of possible understandings implies that it is always possible for two different meaningful descriptions of a single subject- or different understandings of a single meaningful description- to be equally appropriate and true, such that we cannot come to rest upon a final, fundamental description of a grounding explanation which constitutes our reason; this identity within and across multiplicity, however (which does not itself rely upon an ideal concept), implies that there can also still be false and inappropriate descriptions and understandings of such grounding explanations, such that we cannot just say anything we want, or interpret without responsibility to truth.

The language in the above paragraph is a bit more dramatic than I'd like: all the same, it doesn't come to much more or less than saying that, under a particular type of cynical view, unified concepts can be understood in terms of family resemblance. In saying this, I don't want to divorce language from reality or truth: rather, I want to say that it is characteristic of reality that it can ground this sort of multiplicity within a family of identifiable concepts. This is, in part, due to the complexity and diversity of that reality; a reality which uncontroversially includes matter, society, human beings, forests, emotion, beliefs, language, poverty, suffering, architecture, and philosophy.(5) It is also in part due to the fact that it is essential to just about any given constituent of reality that it can be encountered in many different ways and in many different places, such that across these different places and encounters it can truly be said to be a multiplicity at things all at once, without any one description necessarily taking pride of fundamental place over the others, without that multiplicity threatening the fact of its identity.

To settle on the relevance of this to fideism: this cynical view of meaning should, I believe, cut off the option which a fideist might take wherein they offer a description of what they take to be a final explanation, treat that description as itself final, and so suppose themselves to have laid hold of a fundamental explanation, when they have in fact only got a more or less arbitrary description of what they accept as fundamental. In other words: my hope that a healthy cynicism about ideal concepts should prevent a fideist from supposing that their faith itself can function as a final explanation, and so succumb to logical self-contradiction and hypocrisy.

cynical fideism

Summing up: I understand cynical fideism as a point of view according to which reason eventually finds its limit in some sort of faith (as explanation gives way to description) and within which no single description/explication of that faith can claim absolute primacy. It is not, I hope, a point of view under which the tools of logic and all standards of rigour and clarity are thereby discarded: even if reason does find its limits in faith, this only means that its authority is not absolute; it does not mean that we do not owe great respect to its real and relative authority. Similarly, I hope that it is not a point of view under which anything goes: I don't believe that multiplicity entails irresponsibility, nor do I believe that the fact that explanations have to end somewhere means that we can treat just any explanation we want as grounding. At its best, I would hope instead that the term 'cynical fideist' could be used to describe someone who was aware of the limits of their reason, but conscious of their responsibility to others within those limits. And in this, I hope the description can be thought of as so uncontroversial it doesn't even merit the explication above.


There are, of course, a large number of gaps in this account. I hope the fact that I have been trying to describe a position, rather than argue for it, excuses some of these. All the same, if I were to argue for a cynically fideistic position I think I would need to explicitly broach (at least) the following questions.

  • What are concepts under this view, how are they formed, and how are they supposed to relate to meaning?
  • Is there a normative account of 'grounding explanation' according to which we cannot take just anything to be an explanation. If so, can this be consistent with the above (missing) account of concepts?
  • When would a description be inappropriate and false, and when would we be in a position to declare it as such?
  • What is the point of philosophy, if it is at root a descriptive rather than an explanatory science?
  • How exactly does Christian believe fit with the cynicism outlined above?

These are questions that have been asked before, of varying different schools of thought. To hint at the direction I might go, I will just say that I believe the subjects of faith referenced above are significantly related to Wittgenstein's sense of grammar, and that it is an key element of Wittgenstein's thought that he understood grammatical concepts to be aspective, not ideal or definitive- that is to say, that he believed our most fundamental concepts are aspects, not ideals or definitions. And given that he never (contrary, I think, to popular opinion) gave up the idea that language is structurally similar to reality, such that meaning and essence cannot properly be thought of apart, I believe that this has interesting implications for our accounts of how the world in fact is. Some day I might try and give a clear account of what 'aspect' means here, or find that someone already has and been shown to be completely wrongheaded; not today.

I'll end by saying that I think this notion of cynical fideism feeds very nicely into the overall picture of theology presented by Rowan Williams in The Edge of Words, and that I'll hope to draw this out by focussing on one of his recurring themes: the theological significance of the fact that our linguistic utterances are always dependent on something else for their significance, but that their meaning is not therefore predetermined.

If you've read this far, I hope it's been interesting/worth reading, and I hope it made at least a modicum of sense.

1. I'm taking as my source here Faith Beyond Reason, by C. Stephen Evans.

2. This is a very Wittgensteinian fideism, I think. I'm also pretty sure the first part is perfectly acceptable under abroad Aristotelian view.

3. Identifiable is being used here somewhat confusingly (perhaps illegitimately): I mean to say that the differentiated concepts can be identified both in terms of belonging to the same class/type/family, and at other times identified as being the same concept in spite of their differentiation.

4. It is assumed that this multiplicity is not the absolute death of identity.

5. To take just a small number of the many and various things which make up the 'natural' world.







4 thoughts on “cynical fideism(?)

  1. So I just wanted to clarify something regarding what you mean by “fideism”. You point to the idea that there comes a point at which our explanations cannot themselves be rationally grounded. To me this looks like a more minimal claim than you suggest, and one that many philosophers would endorse who would not normally be thought of as relying on faith. In Plantinga’s terms, this means rejecting Classical Foundationalism, the idea that the foundations are self-evident and therefore self-justifying in an internalist sense (assuming a relatively non-subtle internalist account). This can be rejected though on rational grounds, and not through any appeal to faith. Plantinga isn’t, at least on his terms, a fidealist though he strongly rejects this picture. It is still rational on this sort of epistemology to accept basic, foundational beliefs, though they are not self-evident or based on any further justification (though of course, he has another externalist account of why they are justified or rather warranted). Another option is to move towards a coherentist picture of justification, which on rational grounds argues against there being any foundations of justification. The notion of what it is for a belief to be rational is very much for debate, and I would have thought should cover the way in which our normal cognitive processes in fact work. An account of rationality that posits a standard that we never fulfil seems to be a wrong account.

    You also say that you don’t take fideism to involve irrationality, but I take it that you do want to say that it involves belief that is some sense not based on reason (or elf more strongly than is rationally justifiable)? It looks like there are other epistemically options accepting your idea that foundational beliefs are not justified in the sense in which we justify our further beliefs, yet would not make the move to say we need to explain our endorsement of these beliefs through the further idea of faith. I’m not sure if you are using the term “fideism” differently, or taking “rationality” more broadly than I was assuming. I’d be interested to know a little bit more about you thoughts on the meaning of “faith” more generally and how this fits in with your epistemically picture (there’s probably some Wittgensteinian background that I’m missing, and I therefore apologise if I’m missing the obvious!)


  2. Not missing anything obvious, I don’t think! On the first point: I would agree that the claim of fideism above is in fact pretty minimal. I would distinguish it from Plantinga, though; I unfortunately don’t have his properly basic belief paper with me, so can’t guarantee my memory or substantiate my criticism in this comment, but I remember reading and thinking that he surreptitiously/unconsciously rewrote the rules of ‘classical foundationalism’ right back into his sense of grounding belief, and so just reinforced the point he was trying to argue against (this might be bollocks: I’ll have to go back and check…). My problem with coherentism as a actual alternative is that this doesn’t actually change the fideistic picture above; it just treats a particular version of coherence as grounding (different for different people, though). So it’s not that coherentism is incompatible with the above; just that I don’t think it’s strictly an alternative.

    On the last line of the paragraph: I quite agree that it makes no sense to posit a standard of rationality we can never fulfil, and apologise if that’s what I’ve done. I hope the fideism I describe above instead locates rationality *within* given systems, such that it makes perfect sense to talk of meeting standards of rationality within those systems, but not to apply the standard ‘rational’ to the whole (the difficulty here, ofc, being whether or not this renders different systems entirely unaccountable to each other; some have held this to be a consequence. I would disagree, and I think Wittgenstein would as well, on the basis that though we do work within differing systems of belief throughout our lives, they are not themselves absolutely differentiated by sheer epistemic chasms, and so always in some sense communicating even if no one of those systems can claim to be the absolute basis of that communication; the ‘old and ancient city’ metaphor best conveys this image, I think). The line here is I think the one used by Witt, at PI circa 370; the great difficulty is to not present the matter as if there were something we cannot do [as a matter of physical inability]; more precisely, it’s not the case that all our beliefs ultimately reduce to grounding beliefs which cannot meet up to the standards of reason, but that there are certain beliefs to which the description ‘rational’ can no more be applied than ‘shrill’ can be applied to the physical make up of a water-droplet (in our language-game at least :P). Not sure if that makes sense, but hope it’s at least clear where it doesn’t if not!

    On the second paragraph: I *think* I use ‘faith’ in a more general sense than usual, and so to an extent ‘rational’ as well. I should have made this clearer in the piece, but I tend to think of ‘faith’ as denoting the role or location a particular belief might take within a given system of belief, and ‘rational’ as denoting a particular relationship between different beliefs within a given system (which can certainly include coherence, logical or otherwise). (I also think these are fairly Wittgensteinian senses, but I’ve been wrong enough about what a Wittgensteinian sense is in the past to be wary of claiming this with any confidence!) I would then say that within any given actual system of belief, *something* must locate itself as held by faith, and that determining what this thing is can be a matter of practise, logical analysis, or psychology (different in different places). The cynicism part above is in part to guard against the idea that whether or not something is held by faith is a matter of its intrinsic qualities/internal content, rather than its position within a system of belief. I’m not sure if that helps answer your overall query however?


  3. (I should also add something I couldn’t quite figure out how to say in the post, but probably should’ve: that I’m fairly sure the point at which we reach grounding explanation is the point at which we realise what we take for explanation only does its job if it itself cannot be explained; and so throughout, what we take for explanations are not actually explanations at all in a strict metaphysical (or even scientific, perhaps…) sense, but more or less convincing articulations of the possible consequences of taking certain things on faith (which need not be by choice, ofc: I take the existence of the physical world to be such an example, whether that makes sense or not…). And I think that if this is true, it has important implications for our account of mystery; namely, that it permeates everything, and that mystery itself does not serve to explain anything. Rather, it undermines the overall power of explanation from within, in true deconstructive (I think…) fashion.)


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