Tuesday 26 March 2013

Pragmatism and religion


The pragmatism and pluralism of a philosopher like William James is usually regarded as the 19th century development associated with atheism, scientism and explicitly Leftist politics (as with John Dewey  or Richard Rorty) - but pragmatism is compatible with Christianity.

And not just 'compatible' but in fact gives Christianity a more profound (deeper, more fundamental) place than monist and explicitly metaphysical philosophical systems such as the Platonic or Aristotelian.


The assertion of pragmatism is that philosophy should not be the bottom-line of thinking - but that something-else is and ought to be. Pragmatism has it that philosophy properly comes later, more superficially, and less coherently above this bottom line.

So, for Richard Rorty, (atheist) Leftist politics - or 'liberalism' - was his bottom line, and philosophy was (like everything else) built on and justified-by the politics: philosophy is a means to the end of Leftism.

But for a pragmatist Christian, Christianity is the bottom line - and philosophy comes above this, and is justified-by this - philosophy becomes a means to the end of Christianity - but does not, ought not to, lead or justify Christianity; rather the philosophy, the metaphysics, is justified-by Christianity.


So, for a pragmatist, it is vital that Christians do not fall into the trap of trying to fit Christianity into Platonism or Aristotelianism - but that they see Christianity as deeper than, and separable from, any metaphysical description of it.

Then philosophy becomes something properly to be taken in a 'lighter' fashion than it would have been for Plato or Aristotle, something which is ultimately a means-to-the-end of Christianity and not an end in itself.

And therefore, a wholly comprehensive and consistent metaphysical philosophy is an optional extra to Christianity - and something to be judged in-the-light-of Christianity (and certainly not vice versa).


And what applies to philosophy also applies to theology.

The pragmatist Christian is someone who strives not to be driven by theology; but instead to regard theology in the light of Christianity, as an optional extra and a means to the end of Christianity - which is separable from any theology of Christianity.



Agellius said...

I would agree in the sense that it's possible (obviously) to have faith without first knowing philosophy, since, particularly in Catholic theology, faith is imparted directly from God and is not the result of a reasoning process. I reject the contention that the faith was shoehorned to fit Plato and Aristotle. When Aquinas, for example, tried to harmonize Aristotle with Catholicism, where they disagreed it was Aristotle that he declared to be in error, and never the other way around. In fact, it seems that using philosophy as a means-to-the-end of Christianity is exactly what Aquinas and others were doing, which explains why they called philosophy the handmaiden of theology.

Bruce Charlton said...

@A - But I wonder *why* so many hundreds of years were expended in harmonizing first Plato, then Aristotle with Christianity. Did it help?

One would have to say no - since Aquinas apparently - in a sense - regarded his own philosophical efforts as misguided (calling them straw); and the Thomist synthesis began to be rejected by the next generation (Scotus, Occam), after which there have been hundreds of years of near-continuous turmoil of competing schools in Catholic theology/ philosophy (see God, Philosophy, Universities by Alsadair MacIntyre) - with no end in sight.

If Aquinas hoped that philosophy would provide the church with *stability*, he turned out to be completely wrong about that!

And from the way people behave, it seems clear that man/ most who know philosophy and theology tend in practice to regard it as primary - and those who disagree are regarded as heretical.

Indeed, I think intellectuals typically are far more serious and concerned about theology than about anything else in Christianity - and defects or differences in theology often trump all other considerations.

Agellius said...

I think it has helped. It has helped me a lot. The more I learn of Aquinas the more firmly I believe in God; or perhaps "firmly" isn't the word. My faith has always been firm, but St. Thomas has buttressed the faith I already had and made it more real, in a sense. I feel that I now not only believe by faith, but also know intellectually that God exists. And he has had that effect on countless thousands.

Now why was his work rejected by many after his time? Primarily, probably, because he has not been around to refute those who rejected him. : )

But I'm not sure what that proves. St. Thomas is still around and still holds the highest place, officially, among philosophers and theologians in the Church, and has continued to be robustly defended by minds of the highest caliber.

The fact that good things are rejected, says nothing about how good they are, or are not. This is quite obviously true in any number of areas of life.

"And from the way people behave, it seems clear that man/ most who know philosophy and theology tend in practice to regard it as primary - and those who disagree are regarded as heretical."

You keep saying this, but so far I only have your assertions. In any case, what does it mean to regard philosophy and theology as "primary"? Do you mean primary over the virtues of faith, hope and charity? Do you contend that such people believe, that knowledge of philosophy will get them into heaven even if they lack the above-named virtues? That, I assure you, would be considered a heresy by any Thomist that I've ever known.

Bruce Charlton said...

@A - While almost all Christian theology is descended from Ancient Greek philosophy, very little has been done in the pragmatist line - that's what I am trying to do. I find the Platonic and Aristotelian traditions to be very problematic, and so - I suspect - do many other people. They are there already, they don't need my defense, and my comments about them will make no difference to those who are happy with them.

Donald said...

Bruce Charlton, an intellectual, abstracts in a different direction than all the church fathers, entire tradition both east and west, using pragmatism and evolutionary/biological success as well as anthropormorphism as the 'prisms' in which to reinterpret Christianity.

A fun intellectual game, so long a one is cognizant that you are doing the same 'abstraction' as other intellectuals just in a different direction.

You can never get outside some base philosophical reasoning about why you use certain prisms to view reality/Christianity but you know that.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Donald - Of course, but I am picking up on William James point that among intellectuals since the ancient Greeks there has been an assumption of monism as the ultimate truth, or perhaps dualism.

But this is not intrinsic to humans - and at other times and places there have been pluralist assumptions of various types.

I believe that the assumption of free will entails pluralism of 'gods' - because an entity with free will is a god (an uncaused cause, if you like).

For example, the idea of a creator God is unusual - most gods deal with pre-existent reality which is just assumed always to have been there.