Category: Criticism

Random Self-Censored Facebook Comments about the Nye / Ham “Debate” in Part being Focused on a Reply to Albert Mohler

This is possibly one of the most ill-conceived blog posts I have ever done. It consists mainly of things that I wrote that I was going to post to facebook, but which I instead cut and pasted into a file on my computer. I then brushed and polished it slightly for publication here on my blog.

Basically, what follows is a random, barely edited, not at all organized series of paragraphs each of which was once almost going to appear in a comment on some unsuspecting friend’s post. Until I censored myself. I could see that I was being too long winded for facebook, and that I was going to cross the line in ways I didn’t want to. All the comments were on threads on the topic of extended debate-show between Bill “The Sciecnce Guy” Nye, and Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis, which took place last night. (I’m not posting a link to that. They are everywhere at the moment. If you’re reading this at some later date and haven’t heard about it, you can google it.)

Bill Nye looks sideways at Ken Ham during their Debate (2/4/14)
Bill Nye looks sideways at Ken Ham during their Debate (2/4/14).

I don’t want to offend, but I’m afraid it will be impossible to avoid offense. Because these words were pouring out of me and I wanted to record them. So here goes.

The bulk of this rant started in response to the following article, which, I suspect, you’ll have to read in order to follow what I write here.

Albert Mohler, “Bill Nye’s Reasonable Man — The Central Worldview Clash of the Ham-Nye Debate,” AlbertMohler.com (2/5/2013) URL: http://www.albertmohler.com/2014/02/05/bill-nyes-reasonable-man-the-central-worldview-clash-of-the-ham-nye-debate/.

For those who don’t know, Albert Mohler is president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the flagship graduate school for preachers and scholars who belong to the Southern Baptist Convention. He’s an avowed young earth creationist, but he’s also a remarkably well read scholar. For my money, Al Mohler is the most educated man in conservative Christendom, and I always seem to enjoy reading his take on things. That is not to say that I agree with him—I almost never do—only that I respect his learning.

Mohler had a front row seat at the debate, and he shares a stimulating set of reflections about his experience. He seems to be striving for balance and respect. He praises Nye’s outfit and pen, and essentially calls him a man of style. Nevertheless, something about Mohler’s analysis of last night’s has just set me off.

First off, let me say that I do think Mohler is right when he says the debate “was [really] about the most basic of all intellectual presuppositions: How do we know anything at all?” That is, Mohler points out that the real debate concerns what is properly called epistemology. The problem is that Mohler falsely characterized the epistemic commitments of Bill Nye.

Selfaganda from Al Mohler’s Twitter Feed

The way I read the debate, Nye clearly stated in so many words that his mind could be changed by evidence, whereas Ham (and Mohler by self-identification) insist instead that their minds cannot be changed no matter what evidence is presented to them. Mohler and Ham are already standing on Christ the solid rock, they already have all the “answers in Genesis.” Bill Nye is ready to be persuaded to think otherwise than he does if evidence is presented that contradicts the evolutionary model.

Yet Mohler writes, falsely, “Both men were asked if any evidence could ever force them to change their basic understanding. Both men said no.”

Actually Bill Nye explicitly said that his mind could be changed by evidence, whereas it was Ham alone who denied any possibility of ever changing his mind, and asked for our understanding and sympathy, because his stance is rooted in faith in God’s word. Mohler basically denies the facts of what happened on stage. That bummed me out, because I usually respect Mohler’s ability to conduct a relatively accurate analysis of a person’s position, in spite of his disagreements.

Of course there is a big difference between a scientific way of knowing the world, and a religious way of knowing the world, and it was fully on stage for all to see last night. There is a clash of worldviews, but it is not the case, as Mohler suggests, that naturalistic science is one kind of “faith” and a Biblicist creationist science is just another equivalent kind of “faith.”

I don’t need to bother to deny formal or structural similarities between science and religion to make my point. I can allow a large number of parallels. There’s no denying that homologies exist between “Magic, Religion, and Science,” or that in practice, trust plays a role in scientific knowledge. Of course scientists must have some faith in authority, etc., in order to sustain scientific practice. This is what we have peer review for. “Trust” in the reports of others is a fundamental aspect of any sane epistemology; the alternative is either radical skepticism or an unrealistic individualism which requires each person to construct their own complete picture of the world through a comprehensive empirical study. Of course scientists trust other scientists to be truthful and accurate and careful in their work and reporting of their work.

Even so, when it comes right down to it, science remains that way of knowing the world which is flexible and open to persuasion and change—it does not set prior authority into a position where it can be considered a sacred inviolate authority. On the other hand, religion all too often, at least in its fundamentalist mode, is characterized precisely by its refusal to let go of prior traditional authority, which it treats as sacrosanct and perhaps, in a fundamentalist mode, inerrant.

Nye’s epistemology is empirical. He seems content to accept a pragmatic or verificationist approach to truth. This is a hallmark of what is usually called simply “science.” Of course, Ham insists on calling this “observational science,” and wants to insist that such science cannot tell us anything about the past. That is, of course, poppycock. All that humans have access to is technically “in the past.” As it has been observed by Faulkner, the past isn’t even past. When you read a scientific report of an experiment, you’re reading about something that took place last week, last year, or decades ago. The same laws of nature and Nature’s God applied then as now.

For this reason, all scientists that I know would insist that all science is observational; palaeontology, geology, etc., are rooted in observation of phenomena that are present in the world, but that have, undeniably, a past.

One cannot begin a debate on paleontology and evolution by insisting that “science” per se is not qualified to investigate the past because “we can’t observe the past.” This is hogwash, and Mohler’s claim that it is rooted in a different notion of epistemology (what he calls a worldview) just covers up the plain intellectual bankruptcy of Ham’s version of creationism.

Science’s empirical epistemology works by starting with observation, modelling what is observed, and then testing the adequacy of models through continued experimentation, which is actually just doing more observing. Science consists exactly in this and in this only: proposing and testing models that can be used to explain observed phenomena. When models fail to account for observed experience (empircal data) then they must be revised or thrown out.

You can thus argue that scientists do trust in and have faith in their models and theories—they do because they are hard won products of hard labor by people over long periods of time—but you can’t simply invoke this fact in order to plead that there is a moral equivalence to fundamentalist intransigence on the authority of (one interpretation of) the Bible as God’s word. Prior models and authorities just aren’t God’s word for scientists. They are starting points from which the work goes on.

Ham and Mohler are epistemic authoritarians, which is to say that in addition to their normal practical use of everyday science for getting around and feeding themselves, they also hold on tightly to a script of “Answers in Genesis” (and all of scripture). Their scriptural “answers” pre-determine how they will answer questions raised by any new observation or experience in the world.

Like normal scientists, people of faith must of course rely on observation and modeling for going through the everyday world (as everybody must… you don’t read the bible to find out whether your car needs gas, you look at the gauge on the dashboard). And they also rely on a prior authority for what they claim to know. The difference lies in the relationship to prior authority. Fundamentalists treat the authority of the Bible as an inviolate absolute. No matter what they observe or experience—no matter what the empirical data is—if a proposed interpretation of that data conflicts with what they know about the world from authority, then that interpretation must be wrong. Thus all their “knowledge” of the world is necessarily shaped by the contents of an external authority (some theologians call this a heteronomic, as opposed to autonomic epistemology). In the case of Biblical Christian fundamentalsits, the chosen sacred authority is the Protestant canon of scripture, which, it is important to point out, is regarded as a direct revelation from God. Therefore their position ultimately rests on a presupposition that knowledge as such can only be grounded in divine authority; it cannot be grounded in rational agency of creatures. This is a theistic epistemology that locates knowledge with God. It resembles, in some ways, Neoplatonic idealism, but without Plato’s optimistic assessment of the inborn divinity of the human mind, which could then approach the divine source of knowledge.

Mohler suggests that Ham would agree that human knowledge cannot be created autonomously. Humans aren’t capable of coming to true intellectual understanding of the world or its origins without divine aid. Why? He argues this on the basis of his belief, which he says comes from the Bible, that the human intellect is completely corrupted because of the fall. (I would refer you to Mohler’s use of Romans chapter 1 in his post.) We have a noetic deficit that prevents us from truly knowing anything on our own. Instead, we must have a divine revelation of truth—not to say, a divine regeneration of our minds?

By the way, my own theological view, as a Biblical scholar, is that this Calvinist insistence on total depravity of the human mind diminishes way too far the notion of the status of human beings as being created in the “image of God;” it further ignores the fact that in Genesis, the fall itself was a fall from ignorance and innocence into knowledge that made us aware that we are “arum” that is, naked—but the word is a pun for “arum” meaning “clever,” “crafty,” “astute,” or “subtle” (like the Serpent). By eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, we end up being more, rather than less, like God. At the end of the episode, God announces his intention to drive the humans away from Eden; why? “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil, so, lest…” (For all this see Gen 2-3). But this is Biblical exegesis, interesting, but irrelevant to my main “point” here, if there is one. Sorry to go off on a tangent.

Logically, there is circularity in Mohler’s type of argument. How does Mohler know that the Bible is the authoritative text, which can tell us authoritatively that, because of the fall, knowledge is only possible if we accept an authoritative text?

What makes Ham and Mohler so sure that it is the Christian Bible that constitutes the supernatural revelation which can ground our true “historical science”? Ham calls “scientific” ideas about the past “historical science” and suggests that his own faith in the Bible is just his version of “historical science.” So, if that is true, give us your scientific arguments for why this text, rather than others, offers the best account of historical origins? If you say, it is because God revealed the text, then I ask, how do you know this before you accept the text?

Why not the Tao Te Ching? Why not the Popol Vuh? Why not the Vedas? Why not the Quran? Why not just the Jewish Bible? Why not the Theogony? Why not the Theaetetus?

Calvinist fundamentalists might argue that, because we are noetically diminished through the fall, God reveals this truth to us directly in our hearts, convicting us in advance of his truth. Such a position makes all doubt of Christian truth claims into rebellion against God. Convenient for their claims to authority, but not persuasive in a scientific argument.

Returning to an earlier point, the creationists are fond of charging naturalist scientists of having their own faith. Ham characterizes it as a naturalistic anti-theist materialism. Yes, we all have “faith” in something, and we all must trust in prior authorities if we wish to know much of anything in this vast world. But the real question is, how do you arrive at this “faith,” and moreover, what status do you give it in your practical dealings with experience? What process do you acknowledge as being a pathway to knowledge? Not all have Christian faith, but anyone with any faith will ultimately have the problem of accounting for how they got that faith. Saying “God gave it to me, glory to God” is not a satisfying answer except to another believer. Rather, show some evidence. Yet, the difference between young earth creationism and ordinary science is that ordinary science is open to seeing the evidence, and will happily challenge and test anyone who claims that they have evidence for any thing. In contrast, young earth creationism likes to change the subject or ignore the questions. That’s what Ken Ham did to Bill Nye. Nye’s repeated refrain was, ‘show me the organism that swam up from one geological layer to another, and I’ll change my mind.’ We might as well put it more bluntly: until you can show me a fossil bed preserving humans and dinosaurs on the same level, conventional “naturalistic” geology will win this debate. Humans and dinosaurs did not overlap in history. In point of fact, at present there simply isn’t any evidence for the kinds of predictions that a young earth creationist might make. At the Creation Museum there’s a triceratops with a saddle on its back, where you can take a funny selfie. But there are no fossilized remains tying humans to dinosaurs. For young earth creationists, though, even though there’s no evidence, that would never stop them from believing it, or wanting to call it a science!

Scientists just don’t operate on this kind of faith. They don’t take for granted that prior authorities are always right no matter what, forcing them to adjust their interpretations of available data in light of that prior, infallible authority, or forcing them to begin all hypothesis making from the starting point of that authority. They alwas remain open to revision of their knowledge and of their faith. And THAT, that is the ultimate difference. It is the one that Ham and Mohler have denied in this exchange.

A final thought on this topic here is that when one grounds one’s truth-claims and epistemology in an external authority, one still has the problem of how that authority is interpreted. In other words: what does the Bible mean? How does Ham or Mohler know that they have interpreted the Bible correctly? That they have accurately seen its meaning for us and formulated their faith properly in accord with the contents of the authority? Only by having a securely grounded interpretive method could they be sure that their use of prior authority had validity in interpreting experience or making predictions.

In answer to such issues the fundamentalist believer may appeal to the human authority of tradition in interpretation (without admitting it is human), and instead will appeal to notions like “perspicuity” and the internal testimony of the spirit that infallibly does the interpreting on behalf of the believer. This is again a great circular affirmation of one’s own position: God inspires the believer to correct faith, and then inhabits the believer to ensure correct interpretation. Those who are without such grace and inspiration are, I supposed, simply doomed to noetic confusion.

These kinds of appeals cannot account for what we can easily observe happening when we look at the way texts are used within religious tradition. We can make a large number of empirical observations about the origins of the Bible, and we can investigate, using what Ham might call “historical science,” (but which I just call “history,”) the wide variety of human responses to it. We will certainly observe: differences in opinion among sects and commentators about the significance of texts, the formulation of doctrines, the essential contents of faith, etc., not to mention differences in responses to the text (faithful acceptance or rejection). Unless you maintain a radically sectarian vision of faith (namely that only that small minority of believers who share your same opinions have the true “light of God”), you have to embrace epistemological humility when it comes to the question: “what does scripture communicate?”

Twenty Two Creationists Ask Questions About Evolution

In another thread, we got interested in a brilliant photographic essay by someone else who was present at the debate. Photographer Matt Stopera records the comically insufficient ideas of twenty-two of those who attended the debate by asking them to write notes to evolutionists, posing for portraits with their messages. This viral sensation is layered in irony but is ultimately a sad testimony to the poor state of philosophical and scientific and theological education in this country.

Matt Stopera, “22 Messages from Creationists to People Who Believe in Evolution,” BuzzFeed (2/5/2014) URL: http://www.buzzfeed.com/mjs538/messages-from-creationists-to-people-who-believe-in-evolutio.

One picture from the essay, in particular, stuck in my craw:


Photo Credit: Matt Stopera (2014); reproduced here by claim of academic fair use. For link, see above.

The phrase “just a theory” needs to be banished from discussions of whether or not a body of science should be taught in classrooms. People seem to think the word theory means “hunch” or is interchangeable with “speculation,” or even just “idea.” Not so.

The root word, “theoria,” is a Greek term that comes from the world of the theater. Originally it refers to the place (or seat) you can purchase which affords a view of the stage. The implications of the use of the term to talk about scientific models is that when you have a “theory,” you have a point of view on an object of study that lets you see it fully. It is implicitly a term that weds empirical observation (of the object of theory) with conscious understanding (by the subject who theorizes).

If a science teacher begins class by saying, “today we shall learn about the theory of gravitation,” she is not proposing to discuss whimsical possibilities about what gravity might possibly be. She is not referring to myth, legend, poetry, verse, or song. She is proposing to review those models (mostly mathematical) which have been discovered, tested by experiment, and verified by replication, and thus shown to be useful for giving us a coherent and consistent understanding of certain phenomena we can observe in the world, like a ball falling to the ground.

Biological scientists call evolution a theory, not because they are just guessing, or because there is a serious doubt out there about its validity. Quite the contrary! They call it theory because there’s so very little doubt about the validity of the model. Evolutionary theory is different than gravitational theory; I grant that. It is a composite theory, drawing together model(s) that have been developed to explain phenomena observed in a variety of related sciences (geology, anthropology, archaeology, palaeontology, biology, genetics, etc.). Together these models have given rise to the theory of evolution. It’s called a theory precisely because the model can explain our observations, can predict future observations we might make if we go and look (such as, predicting finding fossils of a certain type of unknown animal in certain layers, because that would be where we expect transitions to be found), and it remains a theory for us precisely because there aren’t any observations, so far, that really fail to fit into the model or call its premises and structure into question.

In my understanding of the history of science, young earth creationism began to die the death of a thousand cuts long before Darwin observed any finches. If I recall correctly, the science of geology was the first to draw blood, as the observations of that science were the first to really draw into question the concept of a 6000 year old earth. Throughout the early centuries of the modern era, new discoveries constantly called rigid and literalist Biblical orthodoxies into question.

Before Darwin, anthropology, particularly driven by reflective encounters with peoples of the new world and the far east, began to draw into question the tripartite theory of human cultural origins that had been assumed in Christendom on the basis of Gen 10-11. Critical philology and archaeology radically undermined confidence in the reliability of the Bible. Text criticism showed that the “revealed” word had been notably unstable through time, and dependent on fallible human tradition for its preservation. Historical “higher” criticism raised questions about authors, sources, cultural contexts, and other human factors in the composition of the texts. Archaeology not only shed light on Biblical narratives, it raised doubts about the full accuracy of every “historical” detail in the Bible. Comparative mythology put the Biblical stories into the light of other ancient accounts of universal origins.

In the hard sciences, Geology led to palaeontology, and the ever expanding observations of the fossil record revealed that different geological ages had been populated by completely distinct biomes. Furthermore, geological paleontology revealed that there were strange and unknown ancient species, now extinct, a finding that very well shocked believers in its day, who believed that God had always willed all kinds to persist, even through a destructive flood. It seemed impossible that God would have created species only to allow them to die out; Darwin’s later embrace of this kind of waste, or excess, as a part of the process of natural selection, was particularly offensive to Biblical theologies. But it perfectly accorded with the observations of the fossil record. It was what Ham would call “observational sciences” that raised so many serious doubts about the validity of a literal understanding of scripture… and this long before Darwin’s ideas began to be taken up, discussed, and so to contribute to the theorization of all the data. If Darwin hadn’t argued what he argued, someone else would have; in fact others did.

From the end of the 18th to the end of the 19th centuries, the humanities and the human sciences thus offered converging accounts of global origins and human history, telling a new story that sealed the fate—or should have sealed the fate— of literalist young earth creationism. This point of view never died out in American Christianity. But it did become the minority position.

It is beyond the scope of any one scholar to master every detail of the Bible. Therefore, those who hold to the full plenary verbal inspiration and “historical” “factual” inerrancy of the bible read literally are quite simply… ill informed. They haven’t even bothered to take up the full depth of the detail in the Bible (not that any one person could do so fully). They are obviously unaware of the many areas in which insoluble tensions among Biblical texts (let alone with the testimonies of external sources, like Assyrian records, for example) point clearly away from any firm notion of “factual” inerrancy. Far from resting epistemologically only on scripture, most fundamentalist believers accept the human testimony of scholars who have, frankly, falsified data and claimed, wrongly, that apparent problems are only that, apparent.

In the real world, the tools we use to measure empirical facts are not infallible (gas gauges break, etc.), but thankfully, we don’t need our tools to be infallible. They just need to work reliably in most instances. If your tools are in general unreliable, you get rid of them, you use different tools.

Now, if you want to know how old the earth is, should you just look in your Bible, where you’ll find your “Answers in Genesis”? Or should you look empirically at all available evidence—textual, archaeological, geological, astronomical—and using the best models available for understanding what you have observed (i.e. those tools we call scientific theories), formulate your best answer that way?

The answer is: use all the available evidence, and strive to understand that evidence using the best available models (theories) for making sense of it.

If in fact you answered “just look in your Bible,” I have three further questions for you. (1) How can you verify that the Bible has authority other than by quoting some part of the Bible itself? (2) What reasons can you give to a person who does not currently accept the authority of the Bible that would convince them that it should have authority? (3) How can you be certain that the way you read the Bible is the right way to read it?

This essay may inevitably be read as an attack on theism and religion, although it is not intended to be such an attack. It could probably get me in trouble with my employers, but I trust they will recognize my good faith in putting this out there.

In my own defense, as a prophylactic against attacks by people who see a straightforward defense of ordinary science (even as applied to the Bible) as somehow wrong, then, let me close with a final observation. The venerable old happy-face TV Evangelist Pat Robertson himself has already now gone on record to condemn Ham’s young earth creationism as beyond the pale of acceptable Christian apologetics.

Elias Isquith, “Pat Robertson Begs Ken Ham to Shut Up: Yes, Even the Radical Televangelist Thinks Young Earth Creationist Ken Ham is Ridiculous,” Salon.com (2/5/2014) URL: http://www.salon.com/2014/02/05/pat_robertson_begs_ken_ham_to_shut_up/.

Actually, as with so many things, this video has to be seen to be believed.

My apologies to all for any typos, misspellings, errors, misrepresentations or whatnot. They are unintentional and I’d be happy to correct myself if I made mistakes.

Corrections and Clarifications: in a comment on Facebook, a colleague (Adrienne Akins) asked me to clarify that it was not Faulkner, but his fictional character Gavin Stevens, who said the past is “not even past.” She also objects to my characterization of Mohler (as being too kind, and inaccurate besides, since others might have a better claim to the title most educated voice in Conservative Christianity) but that’s “my money” at stake there so, for the sake of my rhetorical strategy here, I’ll let that error stand.

Notes on the Editing of this Piece: this post was slightly edited on 2/6/2014.

John Cotton, God’s Promise to His Plantation, an attempt at an outline

This is an attempt to give an outline of the 1630 sermon of Puritan minister John Cotton, “God’s Promise to His Plantation” (1630).

I have previously written about this sermon on this blog (on Jan 13th, 2011), but failed to do the sermon justice in the fulness of its argument. So today, because we are studying the text tomorrow afternoon in my American Philosophy course (PHI 216), I have attempted to outline the text.

I have to admit, I seem to have been defeated by the attempt.

Cotton’s sermon has an impossibly complex and convoluted argument, made more difficult to follow by the arrangement that the publisher has tried to impose upon it AND by Cotton’s annoying habit of signalling his own shifts within the argument by sometimes sloppy indications of “first, secondly, third, etc.” I have tried, here, to outline it as best as I could. Without great success.

The page numbers given here are references to the PDF typeset facsimile of the original 1630 publication, edited by Rainer Smolinski, and available for free download from the University of Nebraska Digital Commons.

I. INTRODUCTION: EXPOSITION OF SCRIPTURE 2 SAM 7:1–10 [pp. 1-3]

A) Reading The Scripture (2 Sam 7:10).
i. Review of 2 Sam. 7:1–10. “God refuses David’s offer” to build him a temple (pp. 1-2)
ii. Nathan encourages David with two arguments [p. 2]
α. Reviewing God’s blessings on David
β. Promising five new blessings on his descendents
1. giving an appointed place
2. establishing David’s house
3. accepting a temple from Solomon
4. being a father to his son
5. establishing David’s house forever
B) Analyzing the First of These Promises [pp. 2]
i. it gives Israel a designated place
ii. it gives “plantation of them in that place” with threefold implications
α. they are owners of it
β. they shall endure there
γ. they will have security from enemies.
C) Observation and Conclusion [p. 3]
i. God Appoints People in their Respective Countries (citing Acts 17 and Deut 2).

II. IMPLICATIONS OF THE SCRIPTURE, PART 1: That God Appoints People Their Countries (pp. 3-12)

Question #1: How does God “appoint a place for a people?” [pp. 3–6]

A) He Appoints in (one or more of) Three ways
i. either God discovers a land for the people
ii. or The people see that God has “espied” the land for them by evidence of providence
iii. or God makes room for people to dwell there (citing Gen 26:22) without “quarrell or contention” but in Reheboth (a “peaceable roome,” lit: broad place), in three ways [p. 4-5]
α. God casts out enemies beforehand
1. but this depends “upon speciall Commission from God”
β. God causes the foreign natives to invite the people in to dwell by “purchase” or “courtesie”
γ. among other inhabitents, God makes a “void” in the place where the people will live (citing Genesis, in a long paragraph)
1. “where there is a vacant place, there is liberty for the sonnes of Adam or Noah to come and inhabite, though they neither buy it nor aske their leaves” (4)
2. Abraham and Isaac sojourned among Philistines
3. Jacob sojourned independently near Shechem, claiming territory based on developing a well, and protection from the king of that property because
a. “a Principle in Nature, That in a vacant soyle, hee that taketh possession of it, and bestoweth culture and husbandry upon it, his Right it is” (5)
b. “If therefore any sonne of Adam come and finde a place empty, he hath liberty to come, and fill, and subdue the earth there” (5)
δ. Excursus on Lawful vs. unlawful war (pp. 5-6) — cf. II.A.iii.α.1, above (p. 4).

B) “Gods soveraignty” places peoples in countries, but Israel is given a special promise of Canaan, “which they discerne” [pp. 6-7]
i. because they are “in Christ” (?)
ii. because they find God’s presence amongst themselves
α. particularly in “the liberty and purity of his Ordinances” (6)
1. “When God wrappes us in with his Ordinances, and warmes us with the life and power of them as with wings, there is a land of promise” (7)

C) Thus we ourselves must discern our own appointment to a place as coming from God and be sure we dwell where God wants us [p. 7]
i. There are questions you must ask about the place you are in
ii. You must discern whether God’s blessing is upon your place of dwelling
iii. Either you enjoy your present location from God or
iv. if you propose to move you must see at least one of three things:
α. you must see that God “espied” out a new place for you (7)
β. you must feel God’s support through the difficulties (7-8)
γ. you must see God “making roome for us by some lawfull means” (8).

Question #2: If I am doing fine here, how does one know that God has appointed me a new place there? [pp. 8-12]

A) First, you may move in order to acquire any one of a list of four or five good things (8-9)
i. to gain knowledge (8)
ii. to conduct merchant-exchange of goods (8-9)
iii. to plant a colony (9)
iv. to better utilize your talents and gifts (9)
v. in order to have “liberty of the Ordinances” (9-10)

B) Second, you may move in order to escape a number of evil things (10)
i. to avoid “grievous sinnes” in your own country
ii. to escape “debts and miseries” and find opportunity to make good on them
iii. to escape persecution

C) Third, besides the aforementioned general cases, if there is some special providence of God, you may move (10-11)
i. if “soveraigne Authority” (scil. the King of England granting a charter) “command and encourage” it (11)
ii. if a special providence of God leads you, recognized or accomplished in three ways: (11)
α. God gives a man an inclination to move in his spirit in order to do God’s work or use his talents (11-12)
1. important caveat: this is not “to live idly” (11)
β. God gives others “hearts to call us” (cf. II.A.iii.β) (12)
1. evidence cited is Paul’s vision of the man from Macedonia (echoing the seal of Mass Bay Company)
γ. when “a man’s calling and person are free” — i.e. you have no ties keeping you somewhere (12)

III. IMPLICATION OF THE SCRIPTURE, PART 2: Let us Therefore Seek God in our Plantation (p. 12-13)

A) We must seek after God, the Landlord of the Earth and its Countries, in three ways (13)
i. like an absent landlord, he must be sought because the property is his (13)
ii. striving to please the absent landlord, we must be obedient (13)
iii. you must give what is owed to him, namely, his Ordinances (13)

IV. IMPLICATION OF THE SCRIPTURE, PART 3: Learn to serve God who appoints you to your place (pp. 13-14)

V. OBSERVATION #2 (cf. I.C): safety and peace in God’s appointed plantation

Question #3: “what is it for God to plant a people?” (pp. 14-16)

A) It is to be nourished by the new, more fitting place that God has designed for them (14)

B) God himself causes the people to grow there (14)

C) God causes them to bear fruit there (14)

D) God causes them to be established and not removed from there (14)

E) The Planting is Special and not like their former location in that (15)
i. they will prosper more fully in the new place (15)
ii. they will be improved as to righteousness (15)
α. in the Ordinances
β. as plants rooted in Christ
γ. like Calves in the Stall
δ. to bring forth fruit
ε. to abide in the state of grace as if planted in the temple
iii. three reasons are adduced for claiming these things (15-16)
α. God’s promise to David to give his people a house
β. God’s office is that of the husbandman
γ. their days will be long in that place like an oak tree (16)

Question #4: can you answer the objection that God’s promise to David for security was not fulfilled? (16)

F) it was fulfilled, as follows
i. subsequent lack of security came when the people “had more setledness than before” (16)
ii. but to the “Godly” Christ fulfilled it, providing secure sancturary (16)
iii. they brought their subsequent insecurity upon themselves (16-17)
α. “But if you rebell against God, the same God that planted you will also roote you out againe, for all the evill which you shall doe against your selves” (17)

VI. EXHORTATION to “looke well to your plantation” (17)

Question #5: “what course would you have us take?” (17)

FIRST

A) Take care of the Ordinances
i. “As soon as Gods Ordinances cease, your security ceaseth likewise” (17)

B) Plant yourself in the Ordinances
i. “Looke into all the stories whether divine or humane, and you shall never finde that God ever rooted out a people that had the Ordinances planted amongst them, and themselves planted into the Ordinances” (18)

C) Remember Mother England (“our Jerusalem at home”) (18-19)

D) Let “every man that goeth” look after one another materially “with a publicke spirit” (reference to Acts 4:32)

E) Teach your children well the Ordinances and Religion (19)

F) Don’t offend the natives (19)

SECOND

Care for your own security but also trust God to care for it (20)

the exhaustion of criticism and “pseudo-modernism”

A recent entry in this blog entitled “the exhaustion of criticism” (published July 9th, 2011) accused academic critical studies in general, and Biblical Criticism in particular, of exhausting itself (and its potential readership), to the point of a complete disciplinary unraveling.

I do believe that scholars working in the Humanities (Philosophy, Theology, Religious Studies, History, Cultural and Media Studies, Art and Literary Criticism, and cognate fields) face a dangerous threat of exhaustion unto death. Attribute the situation to any number of factors.

During the past century and a half the earth’s population has exploded, leading to a proliferation of new philosophies, theologies, religions, historical investigations, and artistic and literary productions. The sheer volume of potential objects for critical activity would overwhelm the capacities of any particular scholar.

Of course, disciplinary mastery has always been elusive, but today, it is frankly impossible. Given that the number of potential contemporary objects of study far exceeds the (already numerous) important objects that have survived from previous centuries and from antiquity, the balance of work to be done must focus on “contemporary” materials. And so, in this context the idea of a classical canon of important works is increasingly hard to defend to an academic audience — forget about successfully selling the canon to the next generation of readers, distracted as they are by hundreds of cable channels, tens of thousands of games, millions of websites, and the myriad options for textualized and mediated connectivity in the world of social media.

Coincident with this proliferation of potential objects of criticism, and the “contemporization” of discourse, there has been an inevitable fragmentation of academics into ever more numerous and narrow specializations. Increasingly, intellectuals find themselves separated into camps, pockets, and subcultures, talking either at cross purposes, or on parallel, non-convergent lines. Within the subdisciplines, the proliferation of work forces academics to turn from the objects that should properly occupy their energies and towards bibliographic and pedantic analysis of scholarship. Scholarship becomes scholarship on scholarship, and it seems ever less likely that we can expect synthetic work to emerge or find a broad, popular audience. Nobody is listening.

At the same time, economic practices have shifted dramatically, so that scholars are no longer in the economically privileged position of their great grandfathers. Scholarship is not a field dominated by men with wives and nannies for the children, maids for the home, cooks for their food and secretaries for their paperwork. Most scholars today lack such economic supports for their life of the mind. Instead, we labor along other servants in the service economy, being extremely lucky to have our summer vacations as the main thing that sets us apart from other typical dual-income middle middle class suburban/urban households, where children, housework, and the worries of everyday life constantly undermine “serious work.”

And beyond this, while a few exalted academics at elite schools still enjoy the leisure and economic support they need to do “research” (All Souls College at Oxford University springs to mind… it still exists), most scholars are teaching more credit hours, to more students, for less pay, with fewer teaching assistants, all the while dealing with a even greater emphasis on the culture of bureaucratic oversight for their work. Try saying the phrase “outcomes assessment” to any college professor you know and watch his or her brain start to melt inside the skull. It’s amusing.

Such mundanities are certainly not the only set of distractions for middle aged scholars like myself. We operate in the same informational matrix as our students; social media bombards us with the constant recommendations of (or banal updates from) friends, our work email inboxes overflow with “carbon copied” announcements of events and other chatter. My generation was the first to work through school with the burden of knowing about the psychological problem called “ADHD”; but this disorder seems to have been robustly adopted as a typical cognitive paradigm.

These words of mine today were inspired by a recent essay in Philosophy Now, on the “Death of Postmodernism.” I think if the essay is read correctly, it matters very little whether its author, Alan Kirby, may be correct that “Postmodernism” is a useful scholarly rubric or even a live movement in art and culture. (The “postmodern” already seemed like a dead issue when I first heard the term and tried to read the impenetrable postmodernists back in sophomore year of college, in 1989; my friends and I instead suggested that we should just be “postfuturists” and get over ourselves already). What seems important, instead, is to notice how exhausted Kirby sounds, as if he simply cannot fathom how we will ever, as scholars, come to terms with the technological transformations of text and reading practices that he so deftly identifies. He calls the new way of creating and reading texts “pseudo-modern,” which stretches the idea of “modernity” well past the breaking point, as far as I am concerned. Like me, he sees a bewildering variety in the modern show, text, and game, and also like me, he despairs at the undeniably vapid and shallow nature of it all. The fact that Kirby’s analysis turns on an apparent generation gap (speak for yourself, sir!) between today’s teachers and the supposedly different readers and consumers that make up today’s students highlights the same issue that I raise above: faced with ever expanding ranks of junior human beings, with their strange ways of talking and their unfathomable tastes in music and art, many of us in older generations are apt to freeze like the proverbial deer in the headlights.

I’d keep working on this little rant and give my suggestions about how I think we ought to deal with this desperate situation of our exhaustion, but I have to stop writing and take care of my 21 month old son, James.

Lapore is wrong about meaning in Poetry

Ernie Lapore, “Poetry, Medium, and Message.” The Stone. New York Times Online. 7.31.2011.

Rutgers philosopher Ernie Lepore writes about poetry in yesterday’s installment of “The Stone,” a philosophy “blog” on the New York Times. Something about the article rankled me and inspired this cranky response.

Lapore says the New Critics locate meaning, and the resistance of poetry to both translation and explanation, in a magical (or mystical) property of the words themselves, but his critique describes a pomegranate, examines an orange, condemns an apple, then recommends something that looks to me just like a pomegranate. Apples to oranges, Lapore.

He confounds words like “meaning” “interpretation” “translation” and “paraphrase” as if their mutual substitution could be accomplished without qualification. In general, he seems to think definitional meaning resides at the level of the word, or nearly so, and does not discuss combinatorial syntax, figure, image, denotation, connotation, nor manifest versus latent content. No mention of cultural identity, class, historical and geographical factors, codes or other vexed subtleties of discourse. Apparently he wrongly assumes these do not matter to his argument. Perhaps he thinks they can be easily disposed of in phrases like … “Linguistic expressions mean whatever they mean wherever they occur” — but that is just silly.

His article takes on the problem of explaining the truth behind the persistent ‘heresy of paraphrase’ … beginning with a witticism from Eliot … literalism, I’d call Eliot’s quip … as if New Critics all just thought that poetry means only what is said. He conflates the idea with translators’ complaints that languages resist full translation. (If languages did not resist translation, we’d all be effortlessly multilingual). And mixes in the notion, one I find typical of undergraduate writers, and unworthy of a philosopher, that interpretation can be accomplished by plot summary.

He ends up defending a simple distinction between articulation (“perceptible” or measurable qualities of the presentation of words) and lexical meanings. Poetry brings intentional articulation in to play, and that’s why it can’t simply be paraphrased.

He writes: “Of course, we can introduce a new expression to mean exactly whatever an old expression means but since poems can be about their own articulations, substituting synonyms will not result in an exact paraphrase or translation. To do so requires not only synonymies but also identical articulations, and only repetition ensures this end.”

Notice here that what he calls articulation is reserved by definition from “meaning” … but this simply cannot be the case.

He says “the poet wants to draw the audience’s attention to … articulations as much as to the ideas the words so articulated express” but also says poetry differs from prose only in that it can be more “about” its articulation.

Once you’ve admitted that the poet can take language and make it about its articulation, you’ve committed yourself to a robust and complex idea of meaning. It doesn’t matter if you jest, like Elliot, or dismiss complexities with a vapid gloss like “linguistic expressions mean whatever they mean wherever they occur, but in poetry (as in other forms of mentioning) the medium really becomes the message.”

No poem can “be about” something other than its meaning; meaning is the aboutness of discourse.

A paragraph or so earlier Lapore had blasted New Critics for claiming that “form shapes content” [his italics, ironically] a notion he mocks as both “quasi-mystical” and “magical” … utter nonsense. Only the color blind, the tone deaf, and the naive would insist upon the idea.

A poem’s unique articulations have been brought into its meaning; manifest features manifestly shape the content of discourse. Meaning cannot be found in a dictionary or thesaurus, and you cannot even look up the meaning of poems in books.

I think Lapore is right on the money to emphasize the importance of articulation as a key way of distinguishing poetry from prose; of course an older age was content to call this music, and under his analysis, we can still call it music.

Lapore implies that an interpretation and a summary of a poem amount to the same thing, and then ends up defending a ridiculous version of ‘the heresy of paraphrase’ on the allegedly new grounds that summaries leave out the music. He doesn’t actually care to interpret poetry, so he seems not to care without caring that his conflation of paraphrase and meaning would make interpretation, by his own account, more or less impossible for more “poetic” texts. Again, nonsense. (Also nonsense: that ‘interpretation’ is restricted to discovering “meaning” on his or my terms).

Meaning must be sought afresh in every utterance, as a dog finds water in a bowl, as a parent places a hand on a child’s forehead, as a student looks at the clock. Meaning is not strictly lexical or referential; it is critical. A worker opens the days newspaper, or a believer approaches scripture. All meaning is phenomenon; it resides in the lived, temporal, historical present — the appearance or presentation — of communicative action. This necessarily includes linguistic and paralinguistic features.

To talk about meaning in things, among other things and their meanings, that’s interpretation.

Beware of pomegranate seeds.

Dewey, Democracy, Ethics, and Education

At the beginning of our 12th week of class, my American Philosophy class (PHI 216) read John Dewey’s “The Ethics of Democracy,” an essay published in the 1888 edition of the University of Michigan’s Philosophical Papers [see here google books full text]. It’s curious timing for me, since I am also trying to find time to read Martha Nussbaum’s 2010 book Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, which explicitly cites Dewey as an influence and shares his concerns.

Both Nussbaum and Dewey argue for a progressive and humanistic vision of democracy as an ideal to be striven for, and both view education as an essential, or perhaps as the essential, tool or process which can help democracy achieve its aims.

Dewey’s high minded essay could perhaps be faulted for its tendency to assert and stipulate rather than to prove its claims; it is a piece of youthful sermonizing (he was 29 at the time of publication). But its brilliance is clear enough. The essay argues against a “numerical” understanding of “democracy” as if it were simply a matter of giving rule and power to the mass of individualistic individuals. For Dewey, democracy is an ethical ideal. The form of governance that emerges from democracy (for Dewey, “democracy” is not merely a form of government, just as the “state” or “nation” is not identical with “government”) is rooted in an inescapable assumption that such governance rests upon the dignity and worth of the individual personality: “In a word, democracy means that personality is the first and final reality.” Sovereignty originates with the people, revealing that democracy has an ethical core; the idea of the infinitely dignified individual (or in Dewey’s terms, personality) implies the “highest ethical ideal which humanity has yet reached,” an ideal which Dewey freely asserts can be embodied in that classic motto of the French revolution: “liberty, equality, fraternity.” Dewey’s idea of the sovereign personality implies an “individualism of freedom, of responsibility, of initiative to and for the ethical ideal.” Ultimately, this ethical ideal demands progress towards full liberty for individuals, but also full equality and brotherhood: not just under the law, but also in what he terms the “industrial” (we would say, “economic”) sphere of life: “democracy is not in reality what it is in name until it is industrial, as well as civil and political… a democracy of wealth is a necessity.” Having claimed this, he denies, quite flatly, that this implies an allegiance to any kind of socialism or redistribution of wealth. Such a redistributionist idea of economic or industrial equality would threaten to reduce the democratic ideal to a concept of merely numerical mob rule. Equality isn’t quantitative, it’s qualitative. “[D]emocracy is anything but a numerical notion; and… the numerical application of it is as much out of place here as it is everywhere else.”

At this point, Dewey appeals to a progressive ideal informed by a neo-Hegelian concept of evolution:

“What is meant by a democracy of wealth we shall not know until it is more of a reality than it is now. In general, however, it means and must mean that all industrial relations are to be regarded as subordinate to human relations, to the law of personality. Numerical identity is not required; it is not even allowed: but it is absolutely required that industrial organization shall be made a social function.

Clearly enough, such a transformation of society’s economic relations is only possible when we transform people’s understandings of who they are, and of who their fellow citizens are. Human beings are ends, not means to ends. As ends unto themselves, individual personalities are not at the disposal of anyone. They do not exist for the service of a larger economic collective or as mere units in a system of production. Dewey knew that the future transformation of civil, political, and industrial relations, depending as it does on a proper self-understanding, could only happen through a transformation of the educational system; so he spent the majority of his subsequent career working to effect just such a transformation. This was his motive in the establishment of the University of Chicago Lab School, his involvement in Jane Addams’ Hull House, in his participation in the creation of the New School of Social Research in New York, and also in his publication of a long series of treatises on pedagogical theory. His theoretical work became dramatically influential.

Yet, almost a century and a quarter later, Nussbaum now points to an alarming decline in Dewey’s influence. Or perhaps it might be better to say, she points to a reactionary movement against such progressive values in education. Governments and populations everywhere have begun to insist that the first and greatest function of education is to serve what Dewey would call an industrial goal: economic development and growth in GNP. Contemporary public policy focuses on how education can create quantifiable and measurable progress. This manifests, on the one hand, most notably as a tendency to neglect or even de-fund “the humanities” in favor of “vocational” or “scientific” education. For the results of education in the humanities cannot so easily be numerically assessed. On the other hand, it results in the phenomenon of “teaching to the test”: placing an undue emphasis on quantifiable results in the assessment of student outcomes. Such an emphasis threatens to abandon critical thinking as an educational goal, in favor of rote memorization of vocabulary, math, and factual data, but it also produces such monstrous abortions of pedagogical practice as computer assisted grading of written essays on the SATs. Even at the progressive, private Lab School, founded by John Dewey, Nussbaum warns, the “wealthy parents who send their kids to this elite school [are] … impatient with allegedly superfluous skills, and intent on getting their children filled with testable skills that seem likely to produce financial success … [and] are trying to change the school’s guiding vision.”

But Education for democracy cannot be, to borrow Dewey’s term, “numerical.” It should not be “for profit.” It should be guided instead by the ethical ideal without which true democracy simply does not exist. Democracy, the ground of real political sovereignty, is also the ground of industrial life, properly understood. We don’t, to paraphrase Dewey’s words, apply ethics to the “industrial sphere.” Instead, “the economic and industrial life is in itself ethical, … it is to be made contributory to the realization of personality through the formation of a higher and more complete unity among men.”

In comparing this sublime essay of Dewey’s with that of the celebrated Nussbaum, I have found myself a little bit disappointed. Dewey writes like a critical academic prophet, full of philosophical abstractions and idealistic concerns. Nussbaum writes plainly, directly, and clearly. I worry that she sees herself as writing for an academic and popular audience that has not only lost its faith in humanistic ideals of education, but has grown weary of parsing philosophically difficult works. Does she keep her language simple because she perceives that, in the age of cable television, the internet, video games, and the decline of the newspaper, our facility with language has atrophied? Or is she simply a master educator who, having reached a mature 64 years of age, feels no need to impress us with her erudition?

Never mind. She is also brilliant, and that comes through. What sets Nussbaum’s ethics apart from Dewey’s is an explicit commitment to expanding our understanding of the basis of what Dewey merely called “fraternity” without blushing at the ideological freight of such gendered language. Nussbaum makes an interesting argument that begins with a psychoanalytic and social-psychological understanding of child development. Among the goals of education must be an effort to overcome the natural narcissism and aggression of the individual (and of those limited groups of individuals known as cliques, parties, tribes, classes, etc.) by providing an opportunity for children to develop their equally natural capacities for compassion, empathy, and understanding of others, and by cultivating a critical awareness of the myths and ideologies that impinge upon a true self-understanding and facilitate oppression and exploitation of “others.” The humanities in particular are those disciplines which present and explore the human condition in such a way as to help cultivate an awareness of “other people … not [as] … slaves but [as] separate beings with the right to lives of their own” (Nussbaum, 37).

About 2500 years ago, in China, it is reported that the Confucian philosopher Mencius “went to see King Hui of Liang.”

The king said, ‘Venerable sir, since you have not counted it far to come here, a distance of a thousand li, may I presume that you are provided with counsels to profit my kingdom?’

Mencius replied, ‘Why must your majesty use that word “profit”? What I am provided with, are counsels to benevolence and righteousness, and these are my only topics. …

‘If your Majesty say, “What is to be done to profit my kingdom?” the great officers will say, “What is to be done to profit our families?” and the inferior officers and the common people will say, “What is to be done to profit our persons?” Superiors and inferiors will try to snatch this profit the one from the other, and the kingdom will be endangered… if righteousness be put last, and profit be put first, they will not be satisfied without snatching all.

‘Let your Majesty also say, “Benevolence and righteousness, and let these be your only themes.” Why must you use the word — “profit?”

The quotation is taken from The Mencius, a classic of the Chinese educational system, as it appears in a reader that we use in our freshman humanities course at Mars Hill College, LAA 121: Character, which explores concepts of human nature and behavior. If anything, it shows that Nussbaum is in good company. The ancient sages would agree: where profit becomes the supreme motive, we have lost our way, and our society is endangered. We can criticize their pedagogical theories, their concept of hierarchy, order and government, their lack of understanding of the true basis of sovereignty in the dignity of the people, but the Confucians clearly upheld transcendent values that we ourselves have begun to lose sight of. To our peril.

Human beings are not servants of profit. They are not means to an end. Yet the structures of our system, industrial and educational, seem poised to embrace this profoundly anti-humanistic idea, in the name of “development,” or “financial success.” They will not do so consciously; they will do so with the best intentions, but without realizing the implications of their shift of ideals. Insofar as we Americans have allowed the economic bottom line, the concept of profit, to become central to our understanding of educational success, we have not only rejected the true and proper aims of education in a democratic society, we have actually embraced a profoundly anti-democratic conception of our society. Something dire necessarily follows from such an audacious ideological shift. Dare I point it out? Can you afford to ignore my oracle? Our republic cannot survive the abandonment of its democratic ideal. And will not.

Conscience, Liberty, and the Wall of Separation

Here in the fifth week of our course in American Philosophy, we are just entering the 19th century, and so far all that we have encountered in the way of intellectually rich philosophizing in America can be categorized either as political theory or philosophical Christian theology.

Philosophical theology, or theological philosophizing, proceeds in the same manner as all philosophy: it attempts to follow a logical path of argument using rationalization and reflection on experience. What differentiates it from “pure” philosophy is its relationship to structures of authority. Christian theological philosophy often uses Biblical scripture as its chief touchstone of authority, even as it also appeals to traditional formulations of doctrine and practice (the examples we have considered appeal to orthodox Calvinist Protestantism; Arminian and even Deist examples could also be adduced). Finally, such philosophizing has as its motive not so much a natural curiosity about “enduring questions” but a practical interest in improving the lives of living communities; this motive explains the popularity of the genre “sermon” in such literature (and this also applies to those close relatives of the sermon, the “speech,” “lecture,” “tract,” and “pamphlet”).

The prominence of Christian religious ideology in early American thought is remarkable; it colors even political theory. This is easily enough explained by the facts of history peculiar to the American experience. The most prominent colonies were established as havens for dissenting Christian sectarians. These sectarians sought to establish ideal communities on the basis of what they understood to be pure doctrine, where dissenters would have the freedom to be (their own brand of) dissenters. Where Puritans (or Pilgrims, or Quakers, etc.) would have religious liberty, which for most of the theorists was termed “liberty of conscience,” i.e. the freedom to believe that which one’s own conscience judged to be true without persecution by an outside authority.

However, from the earliest period, and especially among the Puritans, the political structures that were established to safeguard Puritan society in its “liberties” came into conflict with the consciences of the individuals who made up those communities. American thought, from the time of the antinomian crisis, has been repeatedly drawn to the perennial tensions between the ideal of liberty and the realities of community life.

By the mid 18th century, we note the absolute demise of the Puritan ideal of society as a community of saints who would conform to a consensus of shared conscience. The economic and martial interdependence of the politically independent colonies, each with its own ecclesiastical structures, governments, colleges, etc., meant that no single political, religious, or intellectual authority could prevail in any dispute that arose over matters of conscience. There was also a proliferation of competing protestant religious doctrines; the confusion of this situation was aggravated rather than ameliorated by the Great Awakening. And doubtless, underneath the surface lurked other, future disputes that would awaken in the turbulent period between the late 19th to 20th centuries (over slavery, gender, immigration, alcohol, race, etc.). Already by the revolutionary era, disagreement is visible over practices such as slavery and over the rights of women; such disagreement deepened divisions and differences among the populace. For evidence of the 18th century American debate on slavery, consider, for example, Tom Paine’s 1775 editorial on the practice; not to mention the late 17th century writings of John Locke on slavery, from the same writings On Civil Government that so deeply influenced the Founding Fathers. For evidence of debate on the rights of women, see the letters of Abigail Adams to her husband, John, the second president of the United States (especially #102).

In the perennial tension between conformity and liberty, American political theorists chose liberty. Whatever economic and social reasons may be cited by modern historians, the ideological foundation of the American Revolution can still be said to have been a call to liberty. So Thomas Paine (in Common Sense) calls Americans to fight for their natural right of liberty and to express a new compact in a republican form of government. Were society small enough, Paine argues, it would have no need of government, since conformity and mutual striving towards shared goals would be the natural course of things. But we have no one society, but many societies, and so, collective representation is the only way to ensure that government works with the consent of the governed. So Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States (in the Declaration of Independence) appeals to a concept of the natural right of humans to liberty. Both men assert the natural rights of humans to resist all political tyranny.

After the conclusion of the war, as the Founders were trying to persuade the states to adopt the proposed constitution of the Republic of the United States, the Federalist and future fourth president, James Madison, discussed the advantages of the proposed union (in The Federalist #10) in a way that plainly appeals to a concept of of human nature which emphasizes our natural tendency to pursue our own interests, or our own happiness. Differences in interest are traced to our inherent individuality; we each consider the world from our own vantage points, and each of us has a separate consciousness (or understanding) of that world and conscience judging our actions in that world. This tendency leads to the formation of factions of competing shared interests (and one is here reminded of how the first charge leveled against Anne Hutchinson was that she had joined a “faction” against the Company). Madison argues that, when a country is large enough, and if legislative authority is vested in representatives who must each answer to regionally and socially separate constituencies, the power of factions to infringe on the rights of their fellow citizens is restricted.

If revolution was fought to secure liberty for the American people against the interests of the British, the republican constitution was meant to secure liberty for the people from themselves.

Thus, American society chose liberty, not community or conformity.

This liberty was fully secured in law by the Bill of Rights, which placed, in its first article, “the establishment clause” which prohibited the legislature of representatives from interfering with religion in any way. Jefferson argued that this article built a “wall of separation” between Church and State (see his Letter to the Danbury Baptist Association for the phrase). And while several states hung on to a State-level establishment of religion for a few decades (notably, Connecticut and Massachusetts), the same spirit of fighting for liberty that prevailed in the revolutionary war was now directed against these pockets of society where some kind of religious conformity was still held up as the ideal. Echoing both Paine’s Common Sense, Williams’ Bloudy Tenent of Persecution, and the ideas expressed in Jefferson’s 1785 Bill for Establishing Religious Liberty in Virginia, the Baptist agitator John Leland’s 1791 sermon The Rights of Conscience Inalienable appeals to the people of Connecticut to recognize the inherent natural right of the conscience to be free (as indeed it cannot be compelled by force, it is free); and so, he says, they must embrace religious liberty as the only sure way to defend themselves against “Yahoo” Churchmen in legal robes.

The consequences of this decision in favor of religious liberty in America are far reaching. Shortly after the start of the 19th century, a new revival, called the Second Great Awakening, was kicked off, and the membership of churches in all the newly established “Mainline” denominations started growing rapidly. It was the start of the century of “evangelical consensus” in America. But in a climate of legally established religious liberty, there was also room (if not hospitality) for the emergence of a remarkable diversity of opinion in religious matters. The center of Christian philosophizing in America remained Puritan in roots and Calvinist in commitment. But liberal Christian thought emerged on the left (influenced by Deism and Arminianism) led to the birth of Unitarian theology and ultimately Transcendentalism, and reactionary Old Calvinist strands developed on the right. On the fringe, new religious movements appeared: Millerite Seventh Day Adventism, Christian Science, Mormonism, Theosophy, etc. And immigrants brought old religious movements with them: Judaism, Catholicism, Islam… even, ultimately, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, etc.

Furthermore, the legal structure of American religious liberty secured as well a place for dissenters, doubters, agnostics, and atheists. And along with these, the scientists and philosophers whose ideas had such deep consequences for our understanding of the world, and indeed, for the shape of our consciences. In the American system of government, to borrow Paine’s distinction, hated ideas might be opposed by society, but they could not be stopped with government. That’s the true meaning of the liberty of conscience (as Leland conceives of it).

It is interesting to me, then, to look at the 1815 sermon of Nathanael Emmons, On Conscience, which is assigned for class on Wednesday of week five. Here is a thinker in the centrist stream of Christian philosophizing in America, known as a representative of the “New Divinity.” He is heir to the ideals of conformist Puritan thought and the Calvinism of Edwards. And he is a political enemy of the Deist founding father Jefferson. His concept of “conscience” is decidedly conservative, and yet something about it remains fresh and current. He doesn’t argue for liberty of conscience. He argues for the free exercise of it. He believes that conscience is something like a muscle of the heart; if allowed to atrophy from lack of use or from being starved for the oxygen of self-reflection, it will not judge rightly. But if properly exercised, he thinks, it will ultimately lead all people towards the same sort of righteous loving behavior. It’s a subtle concept; he does not directly equate conscience with the knowledge of good and evil. Rather he regards it as a power of judgment that needs to be used to be effective. It’s hard to know, at first, how to fit his use of the term into the previous tradition of its use as found in Jefferson, Williams and Leland. As I understand it, his clunky model of mind (involving Perception, Reason, Memory, and Conscience) seems to be not as supple as Edwards’ (which involves fewer moving parts, just Understanding and the Affections). Yet it has a certain appeal to our intuitions about the minds of other people. We may all differ in our “consciences” (in the older sense of the term, i.e. in what we believe to be the Truth and our Duty towards it), yet we are all the same in possessing a faculty that passes harsh judgment on our behavior when we act against its dictates. The internal censor morum as Leland calls it. Emmons appeals to a popular conception that in spite of differences we are all somehow the same, and that, accordingly, if only we would exercise our faculties rightly, we would somehow all arrive at that originally sought concord of unity in ethical society with one another. Emmons clearly thinks that ethical society will be Calvinist Christian; today a more universalist spirit prevails, and people will often assert, mutatis mutandis, that all religions and ethical systems teach essentially the same thing.

But there is something awry in Emmons’ account of conscience. He tries to make room for the idea of a corrupt conscience, and to acknowledge that some people do act in conformity with their conscience although their acts would be criminal in the eyes of the law or other people. But these people, Emmons thinks, have simply not given full liberty to their conscience to examine their own behavior. And here he stands the idea of liberty of conscience on its head; or perhaps he merely sets it on its side. He seems to be saying: the government gave you freedom of conscience, yet you yourself put it under bondage by restricting its scope of self-examination. Use your conscience, for God’s sake, and be a Christian!

If I were a Calvinist, I would criticize Emmons for Arminianism. Edwards tried to make room for the Calvinist notion of total depravity with his idea that, in their natural state, human beings posses an understanding (and hence, a will) that is always subjective and selfish. The will is always determined by this natural understanding. Hence, there is no free will, per se, to choose a better will. There is only freedom of the soul to do as it will (and it always wills evil). Thus Edwards made room for the transformation wrought in a believer by supernatural grace. The only possible way to expand the understanding to encompass interests beyond the felicity of the self is such a supernatural transformation. But Emmons seems to be arguing that we already possess something which could transform our will, namely, a power for judging our desires and actions. That power might be given by God for Emmons. But, in that case, whereas a Calvinist might suggest that such power comes only from supernatural grace given to the elect, Emmons seems to be saying that the power is already in the possession of every person, and that it can in fact be resisted with our “free will.” In that sense it sounds Arminian, or even Universalist, to me. But it also sounds extraordinarily American.

Afterthought on Native American Philosophy

Please note: I mean no offense when, in this essay I use the term “American” in a way that refers only to the heirs of the European colonial states; so far we have left out of account native American thought in this period for the simple reason that it is too difficult to do it justice; during the early 17th–19th centuries native peoples in “America” were not abstractly reflecting on their moral agency and liberties in the context of an increasingly industrialized “Western economy;” they were engaged in a far more practical struggle for liberty as they fought many losing battles for their lives and property.

Ontology as the Forbearance of God


Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758)

During our third week of the course American Philosophy, we entered the 18th century in the colonies, a time of expansion, change, and development. Usually, the period is identified with the “Enlightenment”, that is, with the emergence of rationalism in science, history, philosophy and theology.

The most prominent American thinker of the first half of the 18th century was Jonathan Edwards. From youth Edwards was a prodigious talent. Educated for the Calvinist-Congregationalist ministry at Yale, Edwards was one of the most important preachers in the First Great Awakening; his revivalist approach to Calvinism, a precursor to modern evangelical theology, came to be known as New Light Calvinism. Edwards ministered first in Northhampton, and then in Stockbridge, Massachusetts; he also worked as a missionary for a time among the Housatonic tribe of native Americans (Kuklick, Philosophy in America, 13-14).

In the account of his thought given by Bruce Kuklick (author of our textbook), Edwards was a critical, Calvinistic heir, on American soil, to the European ideas of René Descartes, John Locke, George Berkeley, and David Hume; like Berkeley, he was also responding to the changing worldview and intellectual climate brought about by Sir Isaac Newton’s revolutionary ideas in cosmology and physics (Kuklick, 8-11).

Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) was the main influence on his philosophical and theological ideas, and the position he developed in response to Locke was similar in some ways to Berkeley’s idealism.

We are reading, in whole or in excerpts, three of Edwards’ many writings. We began with his most famous, the sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (1741). The sermon belongs to the revivalism of the First Great Awakening, and it is remembered as a classic of “fire and brimstone” preaching.

There is really only one overt point to the sermon: God is enraged with all human beings, and they are all, already, justly condemned to hell; in fact God is poised at every moment to cast them into hell immediately; the fact that, in individual cases (such as yours or mine) he has not done so yet is no argument that he could not or would not. The sermon is predicated on the idea that its hearers, confronted with the lurid imagery of the haranguing speech, will now deeply realize their predicament and finally be affected by it, thus becoming born again.

Readers will remember vivid moments from the sermon such as this one, the most famous of them all:

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked ; his wrath towards you burns like fire ; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire ; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight ; you are ten thousand times so abominable in his eyes, as the most hateful and venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince : and yet, it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. (Source linked above; p. 496)

If this were all there was to Edwards, I think he would be remembered primarily as an enthusiastic minister, whose true love of God is matched only by his misanthropic contempt for everything human and approval of the unpleasant notion that God basically hates everybody.

However. There is more going on in this sermon by Edwards than meets the eye.

Philosophical idealism came into existence in order to resolve a difficult puzzle of speculation. The question asked by Descartes and Locke was basically: how do we know that the things which we perceive and contemplate with our minds are real? Besides the bare assertion that we believe our perceptions to relate to a “reality,” we have nothing much to go on. Idealists came to embrace the notion that “reality,” as we know it, is actually a mental phenomenon. But to save themselves from arguing that reality is entirely subjective, i.e. determined by individual consciousness cut off from anything outside of itself, the idealists, and especially Berkeley, embraced a theistic ontology: reality is indeed a mental phenomenon; everything that exists is a thought… belonging to God’s mind.

Edwards came to embrace a version of this absolute idealism. And it is visible everywhere throughout this sermon. On its second page, Edwards writes as follows:

There is nothing that keeps wicked men at any one moment out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God. By the mere pleasure of God, I mean his sovereign pleasure, his arbitrary will, restrained by no obligation, hindered by no manner of difficulty, any more than if nothing else but God’s mere will had in the least degree or in any respect whatsoever, any hand in the preservation of wicked men one moment. (487)

As Edwards develops this theme, he over and over stresses the fact that for human beings, their continuity of being in the world is linked to this “arbitrary will” of God. As Edwards puts it in one place: “all that preserves them every moment is the mere arbitrary will, and uncovenanted, unobliged forbearance of an incensed God” (493).

There is a cosmology implied here. This world, and our life in it, lacks the real substance we usually imagine it to possess. In fact, the world possesses nothing of itself. Things are not self-subsistent. Rather, the world exists because of God’s will, that is, because he is pleased to give it being with his mind.

For Edwards, a revised conception of the nature of mind linked will (conceived as a species of feeling or what he called affection) and understanding together. When Edwards asserts that our existence is utterly dependent on the arbitrary will of God, in effect he articulates an idealist position on ontology; this world is a mental projection.

Of course this form of idealism is indelibly impressed with a Calvinist value system. The mind that makes the world also stands in harsh judgment over it. The thoughts that give us existence are filled with hatred for us. One cannot quite imagine, from within Edwards’ conception of God’s relation to the world, why this God would ever want to save any loathsome thing out of the world, except perhaps that he has brought these things into being with his arbitrary will, so he must have some purpose in mind (doubtless it has to do with showing forth his glory). Apparently he does have affection for the beings he has made, so, that must explain it.

This reading of the sermon I am offering dovetails rather well with what Kuklick says about Edwards’ notion of God’s creative power:

Edwards believed in creatio continua. He rejected the idea of an ‘unmoved mover’, who originated the world’s motion and observed it at remote distance. Instead, Edwards conceived God as an inexhaustible reality, an emanating light, communicating itself as the sun communicated its brilliance. The material world was not merely an idea of God’s, but his eternal disposition, his will to display himself. The cosmos was not an act or state of the divine consciousness, but God operating at every moment, expressing himself in finite modes and forms according to a defined purpose. (Kuklick, 12)

The difference in Kuklick’s observations and my own comes down to thinking about whether or not Edwards regarded the will of God as consciousness or not. In his book Religious Affections Edwards makes it clear that mind, as he understands it, consists of a fundamentally intertwined unity of consciousness (understanding) and will (the affections). If therefore God’s will is that this world should exist, in fact the world is an act of his mind. Furthermore, if his forbearance is what keeps us from utter annihilation, then perhaps we can know something of his will, and his affections towards us: they must not include only hatred but also some kind of compassion, perhaps also hope for our redemption, perhaps, even, love. A divine ambivalence, then?

The Plantation


John Cotton (1584–1652)

For our third day of PHI 216, American Philosophy, we are reading John Cotton’s famous 1630 sermon “God’s Promise to His Plantation.”

John Cotton was a prodigy. Educated at Cambridge (Emmanuel College), he received his first degree at 19 and joined the faculty after receiving the A.M. at age 23. As a young man he became a famous Puritan preacher, working at St. Botolph’s in Boston, Lincolnshire from age 27, until forced into flight in 1632. He traveled to Southampton in 1630 and preached “God’s Promise to His Plantation” to John Winthrop and the Puritans who were leaving on the Arbella to found the Massachusetts Bay Colony in New England.

In 1632, Bishop of London William Laud essentially chased Cotton out of England; in 1633 he was welcomed at Massachusetts Bay Colony (they had named the city of Boston after the location of St. Botolph’s). He became the Teacher at First Church of Boston (now First Church of Boston Unitarian Universalist!) He served in that capacity until his death in 1652.

He was active in the antinomian controversy of 1636–8 (which we’ll discuss next week).

The PDF copy of his sermon that I am reading is an electronic reproduction from the original imprint, set in a typeface that, while modernized to eliminate out of date characters and ligatures, mimics the original type, pagination, and layout of the printed edition of 1630 more or less exactly. Paul Royster composed the electronic manuscript, and Igino Marini designed the electronic version of the 17th century font (IM Fell DW Pico; see http://www.iginomarini.com/fell.html)

The original publication information is as follows:

John Cotton, God’s Promise to His Plantation (London: William Jones/John Bellamy, 1630).

I obtained my copy from the “Digital Commons” at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln; see: http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/etas/22/ It was edited by Reiner Smolinski, whose introduction to this edition also provides most of the information I have given above regarding Cotton.

John Cotton is identified in the original 1630 English imprint which published the sermon as “preacher of God’s word in Boston” referring to Boston in Lincolnshire of course.The original imprint contains a brief preface “To the Christian Reader” signed by “I. H.” … I am not certain of the identity of this man, but it may be John John Haynes (mentioned in the editorial introduction by Smolinski) who travelled to Boston in New England with Cotton in 1630. The gist of I.H.’s wordy and difficult to interpret preface is to assuage the reader that, if they suspect that the hidden motives behind the establishment of Massachusetts Bay may not be entirely pure, they can nevertheless be sure that, as measured by the standard of scripture, they are, and indeed they should be careful not to oppose the agency of God in the world.

The sermon

The sermon is loosely based on an exposition of 2 Sam. 7:10. The exposition is not indeed an aim to help the listeners better understand the story found in Samuel, of David, but to understand how the story of David (and many other stories and doctrines with parallel themes) can be seen to authorize a course of action that the Massachussets Bay Company settlers are undertaking. This kind of reading implies an identification, analogical or typological, between “Israel” (the subject of the verse in 2 Sam), and the Puritans who will set sail on the Arbella.

Cotton presents the reader with a rather involved, even convoluted argument that is in fact difficult to follow, in part because of his annoying habit of numbering his points AND his sub-points, so that many paragraphs begin with an adverbial “First,” or “Secondly,” or “Thirdly,” without clear relation to the overall outline. A careful reader must make an outline of his or her own in order to make sense of the sermon. I have attempted just such an outline in a separate blog post.

Cotton begins by establishing the principle that God gives lands to people; and makes room for them in migration, in three ways: by divinely commissioned war, by invitation from natives, and by a third way, which is by creating vacancies. “…when hee makes a Country, though not altogether void of Inhabitants, yet void in that place where they reside. Where there is a vacant place, there is liberty for the sonnes of Adam or Noah to come and inhabite, though they neither buy it, nor aske their leaves.” (4)

It is a trope of the rhetoric of early New Englanders that America was a “desert land” when they arrived. Cotton’s sermon here alludes to that idea. But as he concludes the sermon, it is clear that he understands that there were plenty enough native Americans both to convert and to fear (see below).

Still, even with some natives in a territory, there might be vacancies. Abraham and Issac, Cotton says, “sojourned among the Philistines” without purchase of lands or — a marginal note adds, submission to the “Commonwealth of the Natives,” — “because they said There is room enough.” (p. 5)

Indeed, in a dispute with Abraham over the location of a well, he sees the King of the Philistines recognizing a “Principle in Nature” at work: “That in a vacant soyle, he that taketh possession of it, and bestoweth culture and husbandry upon it, his Right it is” (5). This from a “grand Charter” [deliberate echo of the name of the Magna Carta there, from the year 1215] given to Adam, and renewed under Noah.

In this passage Cotton evokes another common trope of New England rhetoric: that while natives did inhabit the New World, they had not developed their possession with husbandry or agriculture, so they had not really subdued and taken possession of it. God’s commission to Adam remained to be fulfilled.

At first (pp. 3-6), Cotton is no so much appropriating a neo-Zionist ideology for the colonies (as might be suggested by his use of the messianic/Zionist prophecy in 2 Sam. 7:10 as his main text for the sermon), but is engaged in a bit of Biblically informed rationalization or reasoning.

Apparently, he is seeking to understand how an idea of God’s sovereignty can be reconciled with the diversity of nations in the world, each with its particular place, and yet capable of migration into and indeed invasion of one another’s territory. He recognizes (esp. pp. 5-6) the possibility that such migrations or invasions could be contrary to the will of God; and also admits the possibility of defensive occupation of the territory of evildoers (p. 6).

Yet on page 6 he turns to the idea that God grants his own people territory in fulfillment of a “Promise.” And he recognizes that the text is not about occupation of vacant land: “Onely in the Text here is meant some more speciall appointment” … “God’s people take the land by promise” (6).

The implication is clear: the New World belongs to the Puritans because God has promised it to them.

He urges self-examination among those who settle somewhere: to ask whether they have come to rest where God has “appointed” them to be. “Canst thou say that God spied out this place for thee, and there hath settled the above all hinderances? didst thou finde that God made roome for thee either by lawfull descent, or purchase, or gift, or other warrantable right?” (7) Be content with what God has done for you body and soul, where you are. “Or if a man doe remove, he must see that God hath espied out such a Country for him” (7). It is clear, considering the audience of Pilgrims waiting to board the Arbella, what is meant here.

How do we know, he asks rhetorically, whether moving be warranted by God? Some positive reasons, some negative reasons, and some reasons given by “speciall providences or particular cases” (p 10).

Five positive reasons:

(a) to gain knowledge (p. 8);

(b) for the sake of business (p. 8-9);

(c) to create a Colony, like bees do when the Hive is full! (p. 9)

This is a key passage: “Nature teaches Bees to doe so, when as the hive is too full, they seeke abroad for new dwelling: So when the hive of the Common-wealth is so full, that Tradesmen cannot live one by another, but eate up one another, in this case it is lawfull to remove” (p 9)

(d) to share one’s “Talents and gifts better elsewhere”

(e) for “the liberty of the Ordinances” by which he means, to worship freely (9).

Then a few negative reasons:

(a) because a land is filled with sin and danger (the examples he give again concern “liberty of conscience” (p 10)

(b) to escape to better opportunities to repay ruthless creditors (!) (p. 10)

(c) to flee persecution (p. 10)

Do you sense a theme at work here? It is clear that, while Cotton does not directly address it, he means to signal the persecution of Puritans by the Church of England loud and clear. The puritans are warranted in moving because of persecution at home. And the devil take the consequences, since moving to escape persecution is warranted by God, or at least, by scriptural interpretation.

Finally, some special providential cases:

(a) establishing “Plantations” at the command of the sovereign; this again refers to the situation at hand, since the Puritans may be (surreptitiously) fleeing (the threat of) persecution, but they are doing so by legal charter from the crown and not as separatists (unlike the Mayflower pilgrims of Plymouth).

(b) under the direct command of God, in three ways: (i) which appears within an individual’s “inclination” in “spirit,” for Godly ends (not when: “his heart is set on … by-respects, as to see fashions, to deceive his Creditors, to fight Duels, or to live idly, these are vaine inclinations” (p. 11); (ii) or which comes in the form of an appeal from other people, citing Acts’ account of Paul’s call to Macedonia, “come to us into Macedonia, and helpe us” (p. 12); (iii) when one finds oneself unencumbered and an opportunity arises, this is from God.

Structural question: where does the “Secondly,” on p. 12, last partial paragraph, take off from? Sometimes it feels like John Cotton employs the word “Secondly” as we might use the term “Also.”

Whatever the case may be: this passage begins a section where Cotton reflects on the implication that our dwelling on earth is an appointment by God. He is the landlord. So we owe him rent, duties, and service: “learne to walke thankfully before him, defraud him not of his rent, but offer your selves unto his service: Serve that God, and teach your children to serve him, that hath appointed you and them the place of your habitation” (p 13-14).

If God plants a people, the promise is safety (peace and prosperity). He quotes Amos 9:15: “God’s plantation is a flourishing plantation.” He gets down on the agricultural metaphor, of planting, rooting, drawing nourishment from the “soyle”, etc (p. 14–15). God’s purpose is to establish “trees of righteousness”… a righteous people.

In the next movement of the sermon, Cotton takes up the question of whether God’s original prophecy to the Israelites was fulfilled. After all, it didn’t go so well for them in the long run. Ahh, Cotton says, this is because they failed to keep their end of the bargain: “Whilst they continued God’s plantation, they were a noble Vine, a right seede, but if Israel will destroy themselves; the fault is in themselves” (p. 16-17); “if you rebell against God, the same God that planted you will also roote you out againe, for all the evill which you shall doe against your selves” (p 17).

“To exhort all that are planted at home, or intend to plant abroad, to looke well to your plantation, as you desire that the sonnes of wickedness may not afflict you at home, nor enemies abroad, looke that you be right planted, and then you neede not to feare, you are safe enough” (p 17).

Finally, he begins to offer “practical” advice.

1) Let the “Ordinances” of God be planted among you. “As soone as God’s Ordinances cease, your security ceaseth likewise; but if God plant his Ordinances among you, feare not, he will maintaine them” (p 17).

2) Be planted into the Ordinances (p. 18)

3) “be not unmindfull of our Ierusalem at home [scil. England], whether you leave us, or stay at home with us.” I.E. you aren’t separatists, you’re colonists. English and colonist are “chickens of the same feather, and yolke” (p. 18).

4) Maintain “a publicke spirit, looking not on your owne things onely, but also on the things of others” (p. 19) “This care of universall helpfullnesse was the prosperity of the first Plantation of the Primitive Church” (citing Acts 4:32).

5) Care for your children; keep them from degeneracy (p. 19).

6) “offend not the poore Natives, but as you partake in their land, so make them partakers of your precious faith: as you reape their temporalls, so feede them with your spiritualls: winne them to the love of Christ, for whom Christ died” (p. 19).

Finally, some ominous last lines; they are spoken as a metaphor; their literalization in the New World was inevitable: “Neglect not walls, and bulwarkes, and fortifications for your owne defence; but ever let the Name of the Lord be your strong Tower; and the word of his Promise the Rocke of your Refuge” (p. 20).

On my reading list: Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason


Immanuel Kant 1724–1804 (Wikipedia).

Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason. First edition, 1781. Second edition, 1787.

In the studies and reading rooms of nineteenth-century American Philosophers, this was considered a most important book.

Kant was the the root and stem of eighteenth-century German Idealist philosophy. A hundred years later, idealism had swept English philosophy and idealists worked in all American university Philosophy departments. American Idealism’s most prominent child is Pragmatism, which draws its name from Kant and develops from reading him. It is said that Charles Sanders Peirce spent two years reading the Critique for three hours a day (Kucklick, 2007: 134); I am sure this obsessive behavior had nothing to do with Peirce’s later unfortunate fate as an academic and financial bankruptcy.

During the first 100 years of its life, there emerged three major English translations of the Critique:

  • tr. Francis Heywood; London: William Pickering, 1848; available on google books.
  • second edition tr. J. M. D. Meiklejohn; London: Henry J. Bohn, 1855; available on google books; repr. Bohn’s Philosophical Library; London: G. Bell and Sons; on google books.
  • first edition tr. F. Max Müller; London, Macmillan and Co., 1881; available on google books; same translation in a two volume special edition with an historical introduction by Ludwig Noiré; in Vol. I (on google; in several copies).

The influence of Kant in America, particularly at Michigan and Hopkins, may also be measured by the books expounding this text written and published by American professors of philosophy, such as:

  • George S. Morris, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason: A Critical Exposition (Chicago: S. S. Griggs and Co., 1882); available on google books). At time of publication Morris was professor of Ethics, History of Philosophy, and Logic in the University of Michigan and lecturer on Philosophy at Johns Hopkins University.
  • R. M. Wenley, An Outline Introductory to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (New York: Henry Holt, 1897; google); Wenley was also at Michigan.

That would also be all I presently have to say about Kant, except I want to share the opening paragraphs of the Introduction, taken from the second, revised edition of 1787, as rendered by Norman Kemp Smith of Edinburgh (New York: MacMillan, 1929; repr 1933):

There can be no doubt that all our knowledge begins with experience. For how should our faculty of knowledge be awakened into action did not objects affecting our senses partly of themselves produce representations, partly arouse the activity of our understanding to compare these representations, and, by combining or separating them, work up the raw material of the sensible impressions into that knowledge of objects which is entitled experience? In the order of time, therefore, we have no knowledge antecedent to experience, and with experience all our knowledge begins.

But though all our knowledge begins with experience, it does not follow that it all arises out of experience. For it may well be that even our empirical knowledge is made up of [both] what we receive through impression and of what our own faculty of knowledge (sensible impressions serving merely as the occasion) supplies from itself. If our faculty of knowledge makes any such addition, it may be that we are not in a position to distinguish it from the raw material, until with long practice of attention we have become skilled in separating it.

This, then, is question which at least calls for closer examination, and does not allow of any off-hand answer:— whether there is any knowledge that is thus independent of experience and even of all impressions of the senses. Such knowledge is entitled a priori, and distinguished from the empirical, which has its sources a posteriori, that is, in experience.

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