Sound Thinking

6 May

Discovering inherited metaphysical commitments

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 05/06/21

Andrew Davison on the importance for theology of becoming more philosophically self-conscious

On Volume 150 of the Journal, I talked with Andrew Davison about his book Participation in God: A Study in Christian Doctrine and Metaphysics. During that conversation, he mentioned an earlier book that he had written, The Love of Wisdom: An Introduction to Philosophy for Theologians (2013). The Introduction to that book is titled “Why Study Philosophy?” In it, Davison writes:

“The Scriptures warn us not to be ‘taken captive’ through philosophy (Col. 2.8; cf. 1 Cor. 1.20–25). As an aid to achieving that end, this book makes a counter-intuitive proposal: our theology is less likely to be hijacked by philosophy if we pay attention to philosophy. We can be more philosophical in order to be more theological.

“We all operate within a philosophical framework. Philosophy, in this sense, is the position a person, culture or school of thought takes over what reality looks like and how its aspects fit together. Define philosophy this way, and every last person is a philosopher, and every last person has a philosophy. Everyone has a sense of how to think about time, knowledge, causation, justice and so on. There is an ‘architecture’ to the mind. As John Stuart Mill put it, the mind has ‘furniture’. We may not be able to articulate these assumptions in any systematic way, but we have assumptions nonetheless. By and large, English-speaking cultures do not provide much space for us to think about these matters. It would be different if we lived in France or Iran, two countries where philosophy is prized and philosophical books sell in large quantities.

“The Christian theologian will want his or her framework to reflect a Christian vision of the world, and unexamined philosophical presuppositions determine our outlook even more than examined ones. Unexamined presuppositions are the ones that it does not cross our mind to question. Fergus Kerr has described the consequences:

“‘if theologians proceed in the belief that they need neither examine nor even acknowledge their inherited metaphysical commitments, they will simply remain prisoners of whatever philosophical school was in the ascendant 30 years earlier, when they were first-year students’ [from Theology after Wittgenstein, SPCK, 1997].

“‘When the existence of metaphysical commitments is ignored or denied, as Kerr goes on, ‘their grip only tightens.’ I can think of two theological books, whose titles I shall pass over, where the clinching move in the argument comes straight from Hegel. The author’s conclusion, ultimately, does not rest on theological sources but upon Hegel’s conviction that a cycle of tension and resolution lies in the heart of things. Neither author wrote ‘as Hegel would say’ as part of his argument. Indeed, if either had, he might have questioned whether Hegel’s metaphysics should be given such sway.

“This book takes a historical approach. Familiarity with the history of philosophy is useful, if only as a reminder that ideas have a history. However much an outlook today appears obvious to us, it has a heritage. At other times, people thought otherwise, and because we each receive our philosophical heritage in a different way, other people will think otherwise even in our own time.

“We cannot take ourselves outside of philosophical tradition, if for no other reason then that we cannot get outside of language. In the words of Michael Polanyi: ‘The practice of speech in one particular language carries with it the acceptance of the particular theory of the universe postulated by the language.’ We can, however, think critically about where we stand and what we take for granted. Polanyi’s comment need not be fatalistic. ‘Language’ here means something more specific than English, French or Lithuanian. We can all ‘learn to watch our language’, so that ‘our metaphysical inclinations are laid bare’, to quote Kerr again, and start to refine it where necessary. We will do that when our philosophy is prayed through alongside readings from the great theologians, mystics and activists of Christian history. Theology can bend our philosophy into new shapes. This is part of taking ‘every thought captive Christ’ (2 Cor. 10:5).”

6 May

Questioning the world’s assumptions down to their very roots

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 05/06/21

John Milbank on the need for a more robust apologetics

On Volume 115, of the Journal, I interviewed theologian Andrew Davison about his 2011 book Imaginative Apologetics: Theology, Philosophy, and the Catholic Tradition (Baker Academic). One of the things he talked about was how he persuaded John Milbank to write the foreword to the book. That foreword bears the title “An Apology for Apologetics.” In it, Milbank notes that apologetics “has come to mean a theologically secondary exercise: not an exposition of the faith, but the defence of the faith on grounds other than faith — on one’s opponent’s territory, where one risks remaining in a weak or even a false position. The best that such a posture can hope to achieve would be the occasional demonstration that one’s adversary has somehow missed the authentic wider ground of her own standing. But calling this very standing into doubt would appear to be beyond the apologetic remit.

“For these reasons apologetics often fell into disfavor within twentieth-century theology. Instead, what was recommended was an authentic exposition of faith, capable of persuading the non-believer to start to inhabit the alternative world which that exposition can invoke. In this light apologetics appeared to be a compromised exercise, unlikely in any case to succeed. And yet, the latter assumption was belied by the wide popular reach of some apologetic writing, most notably that of C. S. Lewis — the sign of the success of his Screwtape Letters being that they were often much admired even by those whom they did not convince.”

Milbank goes on to ask whether it was ever correct to assume that apologetics should have a secondary and deferential role. “Perhaps the exposition of faith always includes an apologetic dimension?” Perhaps “any successful exercise of apologetics, like indeed that of Lewis, must contain a strong confessional element which convinces precisely because it persuades through the force of an imaginative presentation of belief. . . .

“Instead of . . . a falsely ‘neutral’ approach (and one can think here of the folly of much ‘science and religion’ debate in our own day) which accepts without question the terms and terminology of this world, we need a mode of apologetics prepared to question the world’s assumptions down to their very roots and to expose how they lie within paganism, heterodoxy or else an atheism with no ground in reason and a tendency to deny the ontological reality of reason altogether. . . .

“[W]hile the truths of the Creation, the Incarnation, the Trinity and of Grace are replete of themselves, they complete and safeguard rather than destroy our sense of natural order and human dignity. This means that they themselves presume such a defence [as is offered on behalf of revealed doctrines], and therefore that belief in these supernatural truths cannot survive the threatened collapse of the ordinary and perennial human belief in soul, mind and will, and its intuition of a teleological purposiveness in all existing things.

“For this reason today apologetics, which is to say Christian theology as such, faces the integral task of at once defending the faith and also of defending a true politics of civic virtue (rooted in Platonic and Aristotelian assumptions), besides a renewed metaphysics of cosmic hierarchy and participatory order.

“Yet today also we have a more specific sense that such a metaphysics was lost through an assumption that the only ‘reason’ which discloses truth is a cold, detached reason that is isolated from both feeling and imagination, as likewise from both narrative and ethical evaluation. Christian apologetics now needs rather to embrace the opposite assumption that our most visionary and ideal insights can most disclose the real, provided that this is accompanied by a widening in democratic scope of our sympathies for the ordinary, and the capacities and vast implications of the quotidian — like the road running outside our house which beckons to endless unknown vistas.”

27 Apr

Dialectic of reverence and rebellion

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 04/27/21

Matthew B. Crawford on the personal knowledge acquired in apprenticeship

“Some of the best pipe organs in the world are made by George Taylor and John Boody and their team of craftspeople in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. It is a business in which the employees require long acculturation into the history and finer points of the trade. They are able to trace lineages of who taught whom in the overlapping networks of apprenticeship among shops that do similar work around the world. In this fraternity, which includes people living and others long dead, the spirit of emulation and rivalry is intense; they try to outdo one another in making the best organs possible. The work is historically and socially situated in this way, and seems to invite each of its practitioners to experience his or her own development as a craftsperson as a chapter in a longer historical arc.

“In the United States (but not Germany, for example), the idea of apprenticeship is criticized for being too narrow an education. It is said that what the economy demands is workers who are flexible. The ideal seems to be that they shouldn’t be burdened with any particular set of skills or knowledge; what is wanted is a generic smartness, the kind one is certified to have by admission to an elite university. This fits well with our ideal of the unencumbered self, and with Kant’s exhortation to view ourselves under the generic heading ‘rational being.’ We are told the economy is in a state of radical flux; ‘disruption’ is spoken of as though it were a measure of value creation, and so a twenty-first-century education must form workers into material that is similarly indeterminate and disruptable. The less situated, the better.

“But consider that when you go deep into some particular skill or art, it trains your powers of concentration and perception. You become more discerning about the objects you are dealing with and, if all goes well, begin to care viscerally about quality, because you have been initiated into an ethic of caring about what you are doing. Usually this happens by the example of some particular person, a mentor, who exemplifies that spirit of craftsmanship. You hear discussed in his voice, or see pleasure on his face, in response to some detail that would be literally invisible to someone not initiated. In this way, judgment develops alongside emotional involvement, unified in what Polanyi calls personal knowledge. Technical training in such a setting, though narrow in its immediate application, may be understood as part of education in the broadest sense: intellectual and moral formation.

“Technologists who work in a long tradition with inherited forms also offer a useful contrast to our current image of the innovator-entrepreneur as a sort of existential hero who creates the New ex nihilo. After a period of solitary gestation in a California garage, he emerges to disrupt us and deliver us.

“What emerged in my conversations at Taylor and Boody is that the historical inheritance of a long tradition of organ making seems not to burden these craftspeople, but rather to energize their efforts in innovation. They intend for their organs still to be in use four hundred years from now, and this orientation toward the future requires a critical engagement with the designs and building methods of the past. They learn from the past masters, interrogate their wisdom, and push the conversation further in an ongoing dialectic of reverence and rebellion. Their own progress in skill and understanding is thus a contribution to something larger; their earned independence of judgment represents a deepening of the craft itself.”

— from Matthew B. Crawford, The World beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015). Crawford discussed this book on Volume 128 of the Journal. He talked about his 2020 book, Why We Drive: Toward a Philosophy of the Open Road, on Volume 150. A reading of his 2006 article “Shop Class as Soul Craft” is available as one of our Audio Reprints.

27 Apr

Craftsmanship and the infallible judgment of reality

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 04/27/21

Matthew B. Crawford on the psychic satisfactions of manual work

“I began working as an electrician’s helper shortly before I turned fourteen. I wasn’t attending school at that time and worked full-time until I was fifteen, then kept the trade up during the summers while in high school and college, with steadily increasing responsibility. When I couldn’t get a job with my college degree in physics, I was glad to have something to fall back on, and went into business for myself, in Santa Barbara.

“I never ceased to take pleasure in the moment, at the end of a job, when I would flip the switch. ‘And there was light.’ It was an experience of agency and competence. The effects of my work were visible for all to see, so my competence was real for others as well; it had a social currency. I was sometimes quieted at the sight of a gang of conduit entering a large panel in an industrial setting, bent into nestled, flowing curves, with varying offsets, that somehow all terminated in the same plane. This was a skill so far beyond my abilities that I felt I was in the presence of some genius, and the man who bent that conduit surely imagined this moment of recognition as he worked. As a residential and light-commercial electrician, most of my work got covered up inside walls. Still, I felt pride in meeting the aesthetic demands of a workmanlike installation. Maybe another electrician would see it someday. Even if not, one feels responsible to one’s better self. Or rather, to the thing itself — craftsmanship has been said to consist simply in the desire to do something well, for its own sake. If the primary satisfaction is intrinsic and private in this way, there is nonetheless a sort of self-disclosing that takes place. As the philosopher Alexandre Kojève writes: ‘The man who works recognizes his own product in the World that has actually been transformed by his work: he recognizes himself in it, he sees in it his own human reality, in it he discovers and reveals to others the objective reality of his humanity, of the originally abstract and purely subjective idea he has of himself.’

“The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy. They seem to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on. Boasting is what a boy does, who has no real effect in the world. But the tradesman must reckon with the infallible judgment of reality, where one’s failures or shortcomings cannot be interpreted away. His well-founded pride is far from the gratuitous ‘self-esteem’ that educators would impart to students, as though by magic.”

— from Matthew B. Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work (Penguin Press, 2009). A reading of the article on which this book was based is available as one of our Audio Reprints.

22 Apr

Educational provocations

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 04/22/21

Steve Talbott on establishing ends for education before selecting means

“I have, in the following collection of short statements, attempted to gather some thoughts that could usefully stimulate discussion among school board members, parents, and teachers, as well as students in the upper grades. I certainly cannot claim whole, or even part, ownership for many of these statements. I have sifted the underlying truths from my own experience, from conversations with friends and colleagues, and from the educational literature. . . .

• Lack of information has not been the bottleneck in education for decades, or even centuries. Rather, the task for the teacher is to take the infinitesimal slice of available information that can actually be used in the classroom and find some way to bring students into living connection with it.

• The single thing children suffer from most in today’s society is the lack of close relationships with caring adult mentors. . . .

• The quality of kids’ play is correlated with their later cognitive, aesthetic, and social skills. There is, on the other hand, no demonstrated positive connection between these skills and early computer use — and there may be a pronounced negative connection. . . .

• Elementary schools should not be vocational training centers.

• The task of schools is to encourage the development of children who can decide what sorts of job are worth having in the coming century, not to train children to fit whatever jobs the system happens to crank out.”

— from Steve Talbott, Devices of the Soul: Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines (O’Reilly, 2007). Steve Talbott talked about this book on Volume 88 of the Journal.