Christian Philosophy? IX

[For the previous eight posts in this series of reflections, see here.]

It has been more than a year since I last posted in this series—an eternity in the blogosphere. It might be helpful to pause and recapitulate some of the pathmarkers.

My project here has been to “think out loud” on this blog in terms of the relationship between Christianity and philosophy. While I am attempting to construct something like an argument, I have not engaged in rigorous syllogistic. I have, indeed, rather, sometimes engaged in wordplay. Whether or not a more rigorous rational argument can be made of these thoughts, will likely have to be seen at the conclusion of these posts. But perhaps these tracings may be helpful.

We began with my initial dissatisfaction with making Christian philosophy an infusion of Christian data into philosophical activities and paradigms. I then asserted that the proper way to understand philosophy was to take the classical sense of it as a way of living. Christianity, too, was understood, is understood, as a way of living. We next looked at what we meant by the reason and intellect, affirming that ancient viewpoint of a more full and robust understanding of the intellect’s activities than that of discursive and scientific reasoning. We also engaged the concept of truth, tracing the differences between truth as an intellective object versus truth as a Person. We also cast an eye on faith and the role such plays both in the use of reason and the intellect and in trust in Christ, affirming that though distinctive both sorts of faith are in part a reaching out of the soul towards knowledge.

Let us see, then, what sort of coherence we can make of such thoughts and whether we can draw closer to a conclusion regarding the interrelation of Christianity and philosophy.

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Christian Philosophy? VIII

Clearly in discussing faith and reason it is imperative to come to adequate definitions. Unfortunately, this will not be possible within the limits of this post. Rather, at most we may point to some problems to be avoided, then look to see if there is any cooperation between faith and reason. If there is, then despite some of the problems noted in previous comments, we may begin to find enough compatibility between philosophy and Christianity that we may begin to affirm, if not to construct, something called Christian philosophy.

It seems inescapable to me, and to the ancient skeptics, that there is no possibility of the exercise of reason without an inherent faith that reason is capable of the apprehension of reality. Whether this is the same sort of faith that Christians exercise in their belief in the existence of their God and Lord, Jesus of Nazareth may be open to some debate and qualification. But the point is simple: reason necessarily acts on the basis of some level of faith in reason to do what reason claims to do. It is, as Sextus Empiricus summarily noted, a rather vicious circle. But there it is: There is no reason apart from some sort of faith. More to the point, there are certain “dogmas” of philosophy which reason cannot properly justify but which may well be nonetheless necessary for reason to do certain of its works. Or at least so thought Immanuel Kant relative to the concepts of the soul, God and freedom of the will. Perhaps Kant himself was mistaken, but in his great architectonic explicating pure reason he recognizes certain paralogisms and antinomies that cannot be gotten round and yet must be in some way granted to continue the rational project.

In at least this regard the ancient and pejorative debate over fideism and rationalism may be put to rest here. We need not tolerate such a dichotomy.

But let us be careful to also acknowledge that the faith reason requires is not necessarily identical to the faith Christ requires. The faith in reason is largely an askesis of intellect; that in Christ is an askesis of love. Yet, as we have said, both are productive of their respective forms of knowledge. And even Plato acknowledged a certain necessary love motivating knowledge. Faith in reason is narrower, to be sure, than faith in Christ, but as the heart encompasses the intellect in the knowing of truth, so, too, the faith in reason may be at the service of faith in Christ without diminishing the intellect and its own asketical rigor.

While we would not identify the quality of faith in reason with that of faith in Christ, nor the objects of each respective faith, we can, at least, I think identify a common stretching forth of the heart and the intellect centered within it to that reality external to the knower which draws by love the respective faculties into a communion of knowledge, mind to mind, thought to thought, person to person, and heart to heart. In this common movement of faith, the intellective knower and the lover of God are drawn to both know and be known.

If then faith has these common elements, if the heart brings together the unity of the person in the location of all sure knowledge, then we may after all begin to delimit something like a Christian philosophy, or at least outline its project.

Christian Philosophy? VII

This distinction between what counts as truth in philosophy (generally speaking) and in Christianity is significant. Plato, famously in the Theatetus, has his interlocutors worry the notion that knowledge is “justified true belief,” which of course they do so well that by the end of the dialogue they (and the reader) are left to start over, though now the path has been cleared a bit. For Christianity, however, knowledge is communion. Truth that is an object of intellection is not identical to the truth that is a Person.

If this is so, then it follows that the organs for knowing such respective truths are likely different. The intellect seems an appropriate enough organ for apprehending those truths that are objects of such intellective energies. But what of the apprehension of truth that is Personal? Here Christianity is clear: the organ for such knowing is the heart.

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Christian Philosophy? VI

In my previous post, I put forth the notion that the intellect expresses itself in many differentiated activities that are nonetheless the same in kind. One kind of intellect evaluates and selects among competing choices in actions. Another kind grasps first principles as wholes. Another kind informs productive activity. Yet another kind organizes and systematizes various empirical data into coherent related thoughts. And so on. Yet all these intellective energies are one in kind in that they are intellect.

Reason, at least in modernist contentions, is generally much narrower than the ancient understanding. As noted earlier, reason in modernist paradigms is generally that intellective activity that ancients called discursive reason or dianoia. It is the activity of the intellect that proceeds from one thought to another via established principles of reason toward a valid conclusion.

I highlight these distinctions, because all understandings of the intellect (and reason) ultimately deal with the concept of truth, and objects of thought as being true or false. What counts for one as reason (or intellect) will similarly determine what counts for a thing as being true. If one sees reason as only (or primarily) discursive, then one’s concept of truth will follow. One will not, for example, understand moral truth as the same thing as logical truth, if indeed there is such a thing as moral truth.

These considerations are further embedded in much larger metaphysical and anthropological considerations. These of course will take us far outside the much more humble constraints of these posts, but we do well to note them so as to properly limit our own reflections. But while we need not here present cogent examinations of what counts as ultimate reality or what capacities a human person has relative to our considerations, we cannot escape such questions, however superficially we deal with them. Are truths simple objects of thought reflective of the reality they direct us to? Are truths the actual items of reality which we encounter? Are truths those things that are empirically derived? Are truths those things which are only derived from intellective activity? Do humans possess the capacities to actually engage with or discover truth? What capacities are necessary for such engagement or discovery?

But sidestepping these legitimate concerns, we can at least acknowledge that whatever truth is, it provides us with objects of thought by which we evaluate the content and method of our intellective processes. If we label something as true, and its thought content as truth, then it stands for us as both an object of our thinking activity and a standard by which to evaluate that thinking activity as proper. And what sort of intellective activity is suited to discovering and evaluating such truths will be determined by what we think of truth.

It is, admittedly, slightly self-referential. More on that when we discuss the concept of faith. For now, then, let us simply note that the sort of thinking (reason, intellect) that is embedded in a way of life will yield a different truth content than the sort of thinking embedded in a life of the mind. Why this is the case, is hopefully obvious from previous comments.

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Christian Philosophy? V

I have been commenting that philosophy and Christianity may be compatible terms if both are seen as ways of living. Philosophy as a way of life is unquestionably (in my view) the ancient understanding of philosophy. A similar way of understanding can be seen among the earliest writings of Christianity, including its own Scriptures. Whether these two ways of living are compatible will remain to be seen.

I have previously been commenting that philosophy is best understood as a way of life over against the conception of philosophy as a life of the mind. That is to say, philosophy as understood within modernist paradigms is that of rational engagement with objects of thought in an attempt to somehow accurately describe reality. There are, of course, innumerable variations on this theme, not the least of which is the locus of those objects of thought, what counts as engagement with them, and so on. I will not, of course, here settle the variation to be preferred, but I do hope to tease out some implications by examining some of the varieties of definition for reason and what counts as rational activity.

It will not be surprising to note that the ancients had a robust understanding of reason as differentiated if related and united activities of the intellect. In the Ethics, by way of example, Aristotle distinguishes among the various “excellencies” (or virtues) of thinking activity, among them, wisdom (sophia), scientific knowledge (episteme), productive knowledge (techne, also often translated as “craft” or “art”), practical judgment (phronesis), etc. Not all ancient epistemologies categorized the energies of thought along these Aristotelian categories, of course, and even among these differentiations, one form of intellectual activity which was emphasized broadly was that which Aristotle calls “discursive reason” (dianoia), etymologically, “thinking things through,” or the sort of reason that moves from premise to premise along established principles of right thinking toward a conclusion.

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Christian Philosophy? IV

In my previous remarks, it will certainly be felt that I did not actually make a case for philosophy as a way of life over philosophy as a life of the mind. I simply asserted, however obliquely, that the ancient understanding of philosophy as a way of life is that which best comports with Christianity and that view of philosophy as a life of the mind is necessarily distortive of Christianity. My intent was not to argue that one or the other form of philosophy was better per se, but, rather, to note the distinction as a preparation for discussing what, if there is one, a Christian philosophy might look like. As I’ve tried to indicate, the difficulty is that one is necessarily required to define both terms in relation to the other. That is to say, one cannot define Christian philosophy without also at the same time defining both terms in view of the other.

Having asserted that philosophy understood as the life of the mind is distortive of Christianity, and conversely that philosophy understood as a way of life best comports with Christianity, let me begun to offer something like an argument for the compound thesis. But let me also offer some qualifications at the outset.

I am not here offering an argument for which sort of Christianity is to be preferred. I do, however, want to lay out the parameters for which sort of Christianity might lend itself to the philosophy I affirm. And, conversely, why the philosophy I affirm is the only one which may be Christian. This will have to be unpacked in more than just this post.

But let’s go back a bit to Tatakis’ quote from which we’ve jumped into these “out loud” thoughts.

As long as a faithful Christian establishes his conviction on the inner persuasion which is offered to him by the faith, he is a pure believer who has not yet entered into the sphere of philosophy, but from the moment when he can distinguish among his convictions truths, which can become the object of science, he becomes a philosopher. These new lights he owes to the Christian religion, and therefore, it is right that he is called a Christian philosopher.

It seems clear from this quote (and continued reading of Dr. Tatakis’ book confirms this I believe), that the view expressed here of Christian philosophy is more of the sort of “life of the mind” than it is exhibited in a “way of life.” Dr. Tatakis seems to conceptualize both Christianity (at least insofar as it is subsumable to philosophical enterprise) as discrete items of truth (derived from his religious convictions) which are then integrated into philosophical activity. And thus Christian philosophy is intellectual philosophizing on the matter of Christian data.

We of course do not deny that Christianity asserts facts, nor that certain propositions are derivable from its core assumptions, nor further that such facts and propositions may be the subjects of philosophical inquiry and evaluation. But Christianity itself is not simply facts and propositions formed together into a coherent whole. Christianity is first of all a revealed religion. A certain subset of first century Judaism did not sit around in the Jerusalem equivalent of the Stoa and ruminate on certain facts and propositions contained in the Jewish religion and sought to reach a new set of conclusions. Christianity is a religion that is first and foremost the community experience of the encounter with the God-man. The great Councils of the Church were not occasions for a sort of late antique gathering of the central division of the Middle-East Philosophical Association. Rather they were occasions for reflecting on how best to articulate a common experience of the encounter with Christ. The life came prior to the philosophy, if you will.

Christianity did not derive a way of living from a set of timeless principles or a philosophical paradigm. The living established the paradigm, the encounter provided the propositions. Indeed, many of the facts and propositions were provided by the divine in whom was anchored the communal encounter.

Christianity is not a philosophy. That is to say, it is not a philosophy in the modern sense of that term. To claim such is to distort Christianity, though it may serve to renew and revive philosophy.

So any philosophy that is not anchored in and constitutive of a way of living is not a philosophy that can be called Christian. Unless one wants to traffic in inherent contradictions.

We may, then, now be ready to discern what interplay philosophy as a way of life has with Christianity, and whether than can be anything like a Christian philosophy. But at the risk of worrying a dessicated bone, we would do well to go over some terminological considerations. Words like truth and faith and reason suffer an equivocation prohibitive of understanding unless we can clarify, if we cannot come to agreement, on what those terms mean in relation to a Christian philosophy.

Christian Philosophy? III

If one wants to determine whether there is such a thing as “Christian philosophy,” one must be clear on what one means by both “Christian” and by “philosophy.” In the previous post, we noted the difficulty with the term “Christian” and its resistance to a generally agreed reduction. We will have to come back to this question, because while we delimit the term “Christian,” we will at the same time have to perform a similar operation for “philosophy.” And here we are in almost the same quandary, for there is no simple agreed definition of the term either.

It all depends upon which end of the historical spectrum with which one wishes to start. If one wishes to start with “modern” philosophy, say from the time of Kant, or even edging a bit further back to Descartes, it is not clear, upon reflection, that one is discussing the same enterprise as one might if one started with Pythagoras, or Socrates, or Plato and Aristotle. There are, of course, similarities, but the differences run much deeper.

Kant, for example, might journey no further than his Koenigsberg and lay out his architectonic of reason. Aristotle, on the other hand, or his followers in any case, must personally observe and investigate. Descartes may meditate by his stove. Marcus Aurelius, however, must philosophize while running an empire. I am intentionally exaggerating, but not by much I do not think, these distinctions. Modern philosophy might exercise itself with the life of the mind, but classical philosophy could not but exercise itself with a way of living. Marxist activists may argue the pragmatic application of their philosophy, but it is inherently a deconstructive one, which does not build a way of life so much as demolish another. One is otherwise hard pressed to find such Kantian activists or Cartesian lobbyists, and the latter even have the benefit of positing the existence of the soul, however glandular.

No, the ancient philosophers were of a different breed. Here I am unabashedly in the camp of one Pierre Hadot. However heuristic may be his device, it certainly manifests the evidence far better than any other version I’ve seen. The six classical schools of philosophy had their own set of core convictions, their own correlative discourses, their fundamental texts, and their particular disciplines for shaping the lives (we would do well to say, the souls) of their adherents. They distinguished themselves not alone for their respective lives of the mind, but also by their diet (Pythagoreans were vegetarians) and their dress (witness, for example, St Justin the Philosopher’s “philosopher’s cloak” which he wore even after his conversion to Christianity), as well as in other ways. It is no coincidence that Marcus Aurelius wrote down his meditations. This was a practice by which he sought to bring his Stoical convictions into his thoughts and actions while he administered the Roman Empire. He was not, for goodness’ sake, writing a diary.

Whether or not there are any other ways of “doing philosophy” is for others to say. I, however, do not see any possible spectrum between these two possibilities. One may allow for variations and gradations, but not intercommunication it does not appear. That said, whether or not one may reconcile a life of the mind with a way of living, seems to me quite possible. For the life of the mind is only lacking flesh and bone to make it a way of living. Some lives of the mind may be nothing but stillborn babies, incapable of living, but theoretically the possibility remains.

This being so (and not all will admit it is so), then, it seems to me that nothing Christian can align itself essentially with any other philosophy than that which can be called a way of living. The life of the mind has a logic all its own which ultimately distorts and deforms the experience of God which is the way of life that is Christian. Christianity is, inescapably, a way of living.

That said, then, not all things Christian can be called a philosophy, a way of living. To this I will turn next.

Christian Philosophy? II

If one is going to talk of a “Christian philosophy” and if one is going to define such along the lines of which B N Tatakis has done, then one is going to have to offer definitions, or to at least delimit, one’s terms: Christian, philosophy, truth, faith, even, perhaps, reason. One is also going to have to speak to the sort of paradigm of dialectical opposition which antithesizes faith and reason/philosophy/truth.

First, let’s begin with some terminological clarifications. One may well assume that Dr. Tatakis’ sense of Christianity in his definition is grounded in and contextualized by specifically Orthodox Christianity. But I have not only already indicated that I am going to use Tatakis more as a jumping off point than a critical examination of his view per se, one might also rightly assume Dr. Tatakis was aware that there are other Christian groups than the Orthodox Church. One can certainly discern a specifically Orthodox content to his “Christian philosophy” but his definition is itself more broad, and our current context is much more pluralistic.

It is precisely because of this that defining a specifically “Christian” philosophy today is perhaps impossible if one takes all claims to the name Christian as on equal footing. One either has to accept as identical two groups with antithetical metaphysics (those who accept the essence/energies distinction and those who accept absolute/definitional divine simplicity), or those who, while accepting the same metaphyics, hold antithetical positions on aspects of it (the Calvinist/Arminian debate on freedom of the will, or those who accept a position of moral guilt being attached to original sin and those who do not).

In this context, then, “Christian philosophy” does not appear to be susceptible to a common enough reduction that all could accept the definition. It appears, at this point, then, that one may have an Orthodox philosophy, or a Calvinist philosophy, or any other label. But given the radical differences between the Christian groups that do not admit of resolution, it does not appear that one can have a generically labeled “Christian” philosophy.

I will return to this question shortly. Because depending upon how one describes or defines “philosophy” it does not appear to me that any of these more specific Christian designations (Orthodox, Calvinist, etc.) can be legitimately combined with “philosophy,” either. That is to say, if one defines philosophy in more of a Hadotan sense, then I could conceive that one might argue one cannot have a Calvinist (Christian) philosophy. I would not be prepared to say that such an argument would be valid let alone persuasive. I’m just saying I could conceive of the point.

But first, and perhaps more importantly for this question, we need to understand what might be best meant by “philosophy.”

Christian Philosophy? I

I’m going to conduct an experiment of sorts here: I’m going to think out loud on my blog. I have recently begun reading a book by B. N. Tatakis entitled Christian Philosophy in the Patristic and Byzantine Tradition (tr George Dragas, Orthodox Research Institute 2007), in which, in the first chapter, Tatakis asks the question, “Is there a Christian philosophy?” There is no doubt that this question will be answered more fully as the book proceeds, but I find myself dissatisfied with what I take to be Tatakis’ answer. And yet I cannot get a grasp on my dissatisfaction.

First of all, let’s note that this work was published in the early 50s, and that Dr. Tatakis has an extensive ouerve on Hellenistic and Byzantine philosophy. There may well be other insights gained from his other writings.

But it seems to me that he gives the question something of short shrift. In a chapter that numbers only 14 pages in English translation, he spends nearly all of it offering the critical views of those opposed to the notion of a Christian philosophy (as distinguishable as a philosophy), and some oblique criticisms of those criticisms, teases out some Gilson, and then suddenly wraps up the chapter with his conclusion:

Since, therefore, there is a philosophy in the work of Christian philosophers and since Christianity continues to influence, even today and to inspire the thought of many philosophers, the notion of Christian philosophy, in spite of the objections of the rationalists, is not contradictory, but has a meaning which expresses a particular historical fact. As long as a faithful Christian establishes his conviction on the inner persuasion which is offered to him by the faith, he is a pure believer who has not yet entered into the sphere of philosophy, but from the moment when he can distinguish among his convictions truths, which can become the object of science, he becomes a philosopher. These new lights he owes to the Christian religion, and therefore, it is right that he is called a Christian philosopher. (pp 13-14)

And it’s on to Christian metaphysics in the next chapter.

But this seems a sleight of hand to me. While he offers some comments on the uniqueness of Christian convictions, I do not detect a definition of philosophy. He seems to simply accept what the “rationalists” (those who oppose the view that there is a Christian philosophy) understand philosophy is, and moves on. Philosophy, then, is something of a critical science, which elicits truths that are objects of inquiry.

I’m not sure this is even philosophy. And I have a very strong suspicion this is not even the Christian view of truth.

But I’ve still not yet got a handle on this question. At this point, I’m going to use Tatakis as a jumping off point (though I’ll refer back to the paragraph cited above), and worry the matter out from here. More to come as the inclination energizes a motivation for my thinking on the matter.