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.
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.