Category: Epistemology and Pragmatism

Stanley Fish has a great post on his New York Times Opinion blog today (5.4.09) entitled “God Talk.” Read it first, then read this:


One of the lines in the blog stuck out to me. It captures the sense of faith that we must face when dealing with ultimate questions. Postmodern epistemology, in examining how we know things, concludes that we know only in faith, only provisionally. This feels threatening to the absolutes we hold so dearly, like the truths of science, or even of Christianity (as they tend to be presented in contemporary Christian apologetics). This does not mean that we do not have good reasons for believing what we believe; only that certainty is not possible. In this sense, the sola fide (by faith alone) of the Reformation should be the defining word of postmodern epistemology.

Here’s the line that stuck out to me:

For Eagleton the choice is obvious, although he does not have complete faith in the faith he prefers. “There are no guarantees,” he concedes that a “transfigured future will ever be born.”

For those of us who are Christians, we have to face the fact that the future we hope for may never come about. If it were certain, where would be faith? Uncomfortable as this might seem, especially in the day and age of Enlightenment philosophical and scientific hegemony, such a reliance in faith is not unfamiliar to the life of the historic church. Hear these words from Leslie Newbigin:

“If we are in search of the kind of indubitable certainty which Descartes claimed, the Bible must be set aside. The Bible claims to be a true interpretation of universal history. Since we are not yet at the end of history and since it may yet contain many surprises, we cannot have indubitable certainty. The only possible responses to the claims that the Bible makes are belief or unbelief. There can be no indubitable proofs. No one has seen God so as to verify the claim that he exists. No one has seen the end of the world so as to be sure of the direction in which we have to go. There is no scientific way of testing the claims and promises that the Bible makes. There is no way of being indubitably certain that this is what history is really about and that this gives us the direction of our lives. It must be, as the church has always said, a matter of divine revelation accepted in faith (John 1.18).” Proper Confidence (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 54-55.

I think he says it perfectly.


I’m participating in a reading group that is looking over George Lindbeck’s extrememly important work, The Nature of Doctrine. We’ve only met once so far, but the discussion is already interesting.

For those unfamiliar with Lindbeck’s work, he is one of the so-called fathers of postliberalism. Postliberalism, in the basic sense argued for in Lindbeck’s book, calls for a third way of giving an account of religion and doctrine (the material of religion, if you will). As opposed to the cognitive/propositional theory – that religion and doctrine are merely a set of propositions to which people ascent or subscribe; and opposed to the experiential/expressive theory – that religion and doctrine are merely a set of symbols or expressions of an inner experience; the cultural/linguistic approach considers religion and doctrine in terms of a culture or language in which rules and regulations exists that then play out in practice. Just as a grammar in language, life in a culture is defined by certain rules and norms. This is not to say that propositions and beliefs are absent; but it is to say that propositions are not just there to be subscribed to, rather they actually have some significance for life and imply therefore a certain form of life. This is similiar to Wittgenstein’s idea of a “language game.” It is also not to say that experience is ignored; rather, experience is taken up into the bigger picture of interpretation within a cultural framework, articulated by a culture’s shared language.

There is a certain difficulty in being fully able to grasp what Lindbeck is up to (even still, at times, for this reader of Lindbeck). While Lindbeck is in a very real sense simply offering a description of the way things actually exist, or pragmatically speaking, of how we actually think and therefore do something, his theory is challenging and at times somewhat incomprehensible to readers and theologians who live, breathe, and do theology from within one of the other frameworks (cognitive/propositional; experiential/expressive). As I have heard the analogy used, it is as if we as readers are trying to receive a fax from Lindbeck without actually possessing a fax machine by which to translate the incoming information into something we can comprehend. In other words, to use the idea discussed by Thomas Kuhn (see The Structure of Scientific Revolutions to begin with) and Donald Davidson (see his “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme” in his Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation), we lack the conceptual framework by which to grasp Lindbeck’s theory.

Strangely enough, Lindbeck’s theory can account for this very lack of understanding on the part of some readers. As individuals who live within a cultural/linguistic situation, or in other words, within a particular culture formed, comprehended by, and articulated through a particular language (with all the possible concepts we as individuals happen to possess at a given time), we lack the concepts to fully grasp what he’s “up to.”

However, we get glimpses of it in our reflection on parts of our thinking. For example, one of the members of the group teaches hermeneutics at a theological school. It just so happens that the very framework he uses to actually do hermeneutics and therefore also to teach it, mirrors exactly the ideas put forth in Lindbeck’s cultural/linguistic theory of religion. As opposed to the cognitive/proposition approach that generally assumes an objective, correct, unbiased interpretation is available to all readers of Scripture by following the “right” method, the hermeneutics teacher and his materials recognize the phenomenon that interpretation occurs within interpretive communities, and thus, interpretation is always inconclusive, provisional, and critical. This hermeneutics also stands in clear opposition to an experiential/expressive model which might account for interpretation as based singularly on the experience of certain thoughts and feelings as they strike the reader in the act of reading, rendering a significantly wider field of possible interpretations. (Yet again, Lindbeck’s theory offers a criticism of this view, noting that the field of interpretation could never be infinite or even close to infinite, for interpretation is always already happening from within a cultural framework created by the use of a particular language).

What has been interesting for this reader of Lindbeck, other postliberals, and a field which I see as significant and closely related, pragmatism, has been the experience of expanding my conceptual framework from within my cultural situation to be able to more clearly grasp what Lindbeck’s theory actually puts forth. But this has only happened when I have found Lindbeck’s theory accurately accounting for my actual, embodied experience. Like pragmatism, it truly is an account of how I think and how I do theology, and everything else in life (that is, praxis and how I operate or get-along-in-the-world). In that sense, Lindbeck’s work has been influential in my articulation of what it means to Live Theology.

As I continue to reflect on Lindbeck’s account of my own experience of doing theology, and even more widely, of simply living (or better, being human), is seems his offering is as much a phenomenology with an accompanied anthropology. He is describing a phenomenon – that of religion –  and offering an account of what it means to be human (be it as it may, in a very narrow sense, and always implicit) simply in his pragmatic accounting for how we think and live.

For those of us who are still finding our way through a postliberal theory of religion, phenomenologically speaking, it might be helpful to see ourselves as always “in-between.” We’re between a former concept and the emerging discovered concept (which is better than saying a “new” concept, because linguistically, it had to have already been there – nevertheless is still “feels” new). But even more important it seems, we’re always in-dwelling this discovered concept, becoming more in-timately aware of it, just as while we are learning a language, we are not totally aware of what is happening to us, or how we know grammatically “what to do”. As Edward S. Casey has recently said, “At stake here is a sense of interiority or inwardness, not of persons but of a given place: their domestic interior, which we can know only from within by residing there for some significant stretch of time.”

While none of us may ever fully understand what we might be studying at any given moment, we may often have the intuition that what we’re studying is right. Those are the times (and rather than moments, it’s better to think here of long periods of mulling-it-over), it seems to me, that are appropriately defined using the phrase from Augustine, then Anselm, and still others: fides quarens intellectum – “faith seeking understanding.” I live there most of the time.

This past weekend, I attended a public lecture by Charles Taylor at the University of Chicago Divinity School. It was packed – standing room only! He discussed his book A Secular Age, focusing specifically on what he is up to in trying to give an account of our current secular age (an idea which in itself is hard to nail down, and which is in some sense also debatable) by telling an alternative story of how our age became “secularized.”

One of the most common accounts is usually described in what he calls a ‘subtraction’ story. Basically, subtraction stories amount to the removal of something – namely in the case of a secular age, religion – by asserting that something else came along to take its place – namely in the case of a secular age, the Enlightenment point of view, which privileged the scientific and rationalistic points of view. These points of view held that man, through the power of his reason, and through the methods of science could learn all there is to know about reality. Thus, religion, itself being an account of reality, would be unnecessary. Indeed, proponents of the Enlightenment predicted the demise of religion (some still believe it will eventually happen). Now obviously, if we only look around, religion has not actually been eradicated. This does not mean calling our age ‘secular’ or trying to give an account of the process of secularization is misled. But because the Enlightenment prediction was wrong, and other subtraction theories like it, Taylor believes that a deeper, much more substantial account can and should be given. Part of the mistake of subtraction theories (that is, why they come up short) is that they fail to take into account greater underlying issues or their scope is not wide enough to account for additional social/political/spiritual effects. A Secular Age is a movement in that direction – Taylor intends to tell a better story.

During his discussion, Taylor did focus on one of the aspects that gave the Enlightenment movement, and even (though more subtly) the process of secularization, their power (even though he would disagree with the story that secularization was only powered by the Enlightenment). The Enlightenment has had undeniable benefits for man – industrialization, medicine, civil engineering, etc. Not only has human life improved due to scientific discovery and rational organization, it must be said that it has done so in a way that disallows a return to “the way things were.” This is what Taylor calls the “Ratchet Effect” – ratchets work by moving only in one direction; every click up or forward cannot go back the other way. The Ratchet Effect describes the process by which human life has been improved by means of greater knowledge. When there is epistemic gain (greater understanding than before), human life often benefits. The Ratchet Effect also notes that when there is epistemic gain, the possibility of going back to an understanding when such new knowledge was “undiscovered” or non-existent is absent. Once epistemic gain has occurred, there is no going back. For whatever is past is now interpreted, known and understood through what is current.

Taylor’s Ratchet Effect is closely related to his earlier idea of “supersession.” Supersession describes transitional arguments, the kind which account for such things as scientific revolutions as reflected in the work of Thomas Kuhn. Taylor notes,

It is crucial to transition arguments that they make a more modest claim [than ruling out other arguments absolutely]. They are inherently comparative. The claim is not that Y is correct simpliciter but just that whatever is “ultimately true,” Y is better than X. It is, one might say, less false. Its message is: whatever else turns out to be true, you can improve your epistemic position by moving from X to Y; this step is a gain. But nothing need follow from this for the holders of third, independent positions. Above all, there is no claim to the effect that Y is the ultimate resting point of inquiry. The transition claim here is perfectly compatible with a further one which might one day be established, identifying a new position Z, which in turn supersedes Y. (“Explanation and Practical Reason” in Philosophical Arguments (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), 34-60)

This is the argument of a true pragmatist. Taylor here, is in the end, only giving an account of how we think. And so his arguments then, about a secular age, are admittedly only his account. Pragmatists try to offer a “best account.” As Alasdair MacIntyre (one of Taylor’s conversation partners) has said,

[W]e are never in a position to claim that now we possess the truth or now we are fully rational. The most that we can claim is that this is the best account which anyone has been able to give so far, and that our beliefs about what the marks of “a best account so far” are will themselves change in what are at present unpredictable ways.” (“Epistemological Crises, Dramatic Narrative and the Philosophy of Science” in The Monist 60 (1977), 453-472)

No doubt Taylor’s work in A Secular Age has moved the ratchet up a click, to the extent that arguments about how our age became secularized have now at least to deal with Taylor’s own argument. It is impossible to go back to the more simplistic arguments (like subtraction theories). Any other story must at least be as substantial as Taylor’s.