Posts Tagged ‘Hume’

Finding Our Father and Loving Our Mother: How Humility Can Contribute to an Understanding of Ecological Theology (pt 3)

January 23, 2018

This is what puts Hamann in the Augustinian moral tradition, despite the great differences between them in other areas. For Hamann as for Augustine, humility is the cardinal virtue, and pride the original sin. Humans turn away from God out of pride, a prideful desire to be the center of their world rather than created beings glorifying their creator. This in turn also turns them against one another, as each individual becomes a competing center of value striving to put the others in orbit around it. But humility is also necessary for knowledge. Humans must receive truth; they cannot create it. Their pride tends to lead them astray as they see things as orbiting around themselves rather than seeing each thing as it is in its own right. Furthermore, even without the distorting effects of pride, we are limited beings and our senses are imperfect, as is our judgment. We will make mistakes. All our knowledge is therefore only an approximation. It takes humility to admit that one is not the center of the universe, that things and people have value regardless of how they affect you, and that you must be content sometimes with uncertainty and probability; but if one has the humility to do this, one can also have the knowledge that is there, offering itself. Humility is thus not only a moral virtue, but the essential epistemological virtue.

Hamann’s writings had a profound influence on Kierkegaard, as is clearly seen in his repeated references in Philosophical Fragments. Kierkegaard’s focus was very different, largely because he and Hamann had different philosophical opponents. Hamann’s two targets were skepticism, championed by Hume, and the idealism of his friend Immanuel Kant. Of the two, his preference was for Hume. His major move against skepticism was to emphasize the role of the will in belief—-again, a notion with roots in Augustine. Against Kant, and against the rationalism with which Kant claimed to be breaking, Hamann argued that human pride leads us to create our own truths that can exceed the truth given to us by God through our senses, but which have no actual basis in reality. Hamann believed that it is pride that keeps us from accepting the truth, and that pride expresses itself both when it asserts claims that are not true but are satisfying, and when it rejects truths that don’t measure up to its standards of proof. Kierkegaard’s target was Hegel and his historical idealism. Kierkegaard did not read Hume or English at all, and seems to have not been fully aware of what Hamann’s points were in his critique of Hume; but he did famously take up Hamann’s argument that knowledge of all questions of existing reality involves a movement of the will, to accept the evidence of the senses despite their inherent incompleteness. In his “Philosophical Interlude” in the Fragments, Kierkegaard’s pseudonym Johannes Climacus argues that even to accept the truth that one is seeing a star includes an act of will. The individual must choose, at some point, to stop questioning the evidence and to accept the evidence as it stands, to close the books and reckon the account as paid in full or not. Doubt will never end until the individual chooses to let it. In his attack on doubt, Kierkegaard (again, using his pseudonym Johannes Climacus) focuses first on Descartes, and then on the modern heirs of Descartes, particularly Hegel, who said that doubt will inevitably run its course and absolute knowledge will, eventually, emerge. Climacus says there is nothing inevitable about knowledge; there is always an element of freedom, even when it is not noticed. This becomes most obvious when the object of knowledge is God’s presence in Jesus Christ, a notion that combines the inherent uncertainty of all knowledge of existence with the added obstacle of defying our norms of human reason. Again, it is pride that is said to motivate this unwillingness to accept God’s self-revelation. As Climacus describes it in his discussion of offense, Reason chooses to set itself up as the judge and standard to which God must conform; a revelation that does not fit reason’s standards is judged to be inferior. By contrast, if God is the standard, then it is Reason that is being judged. Again, it is pride that holds us back from accepting the truth, and humility, specifically the humility to accept reason’s shortcomings and to let God be God, that allows us to accept the truth that gives itself.

Through this 1400 year evolution of the Augustinian tradition, while we have not said much specifically about environmentalism, we have laid a foundation for considering it as a religious and moral issue.   Humility tells us that we are not the center of the universe, either individually or collectively; God is the center, and it is God who decides what is valuable by choosing to bring it into existence. The individual’s task is to accept this. It is pride that leads us to think that people or other beings have value only insofar as we choose to value them. This pride is not only a moral vice leading to other injustices and sins, but also an epistemological vice that distorts our view of reality, and of ourselves.


Some Thoughts About Different Approaches to Pragmatism (pt. 4)

October 29, 2012

Some Thoughts About Different Approaches to Pragmatism (pt. 4) 


Although “coherence theory” of truth is more commonly associated with rationalism than with empiricism, James’ rejection of the “correspondence theory” is not enough to justify his claim that pragmatism can be a mediating position between “tough-minded” empiricism and “tender-minded” rationalism.  Instead, it is in his last two lectures that he most thoroughly breaks with empiricism, and with the idea that all our knowledge ultimately rests on empirical pillars.  In Lecture VII, James argues in support of what fellow pragmatist F. C. S. Schiller calls “humanism:”


Mr. Schiller… proposes the name of ‘Humanism’ for the doctrine that to an unascertainable extent our truths are man-made products too. Human motives sharpen all our questions, human satisfactions lurk in all our answers, all our formulas have a human twist. This element is so inextricable in the products that Mr. Schiller sometimes seems almost to leave it an open question whether there be anything else. “The world,” he says, “is essentially …what we make of it. It is fruitless to define it by what it originally was or by what it is apart from us; it IS what is made of it. Hence … the world is PLASTIC.”[1]

Clearly, this is not what we normally call “humanism.”  It almost seems like Nietzsche’s claim in “Truth and Lie in a Nonmoral Sense,” where he argues that the individual’s psychological needs and personal projects shape that individual’s world.  Instead of basing our categories on our encounter with the world, Schiller seems to base our encounter with the world on our categories, which are themselves based on our own natures.  James defends this position, while also qualifying what he means by it.  True, he does admit that we shape our experience of the physical world; we attend to this fact rather than that, we value this more than that, we interpret.  The word “Waterloo” means something different to a Frenchman than it does to an Englishman.  But James is not particularly interested in this, and admits that our “truths” are beliefs about reality, and our first and primary source for these are sensations.  We cannot prevent or control the flux of our sensations.  Nor can we willy-nilly shape the relations between our ideas concerning these sensations.  I experience the light to come on after I feel the switch click, not before.  However, even though the fact that some aspects of our truths are simply given, and even though our later truths must usually find some accommodation with our previous truths, there is still a lot each one of us does to shape his or her world.  We never encounter the world as it is in itself, but only as shaped by our minds.  James even admits this has a certain resemblance to Kant’s view, though he points out that Kant saw these categories as inborn while pragmatism takes them to be based on experience; as he writes, “Superficially this sounds like Kant’s view; but between categories fulminated before nature began, and categories gradually forming themselves in nature’s presence, the whole chasm between rationalism and empiricism yawns.”

So even to this point, James cannot claim to really mediate between empiricism and rationalism.  Even in his most Kantian moments, he is still conceding that experience shapes our categories at least as much as our categories shape our experience.  It is in his motivation for raising this whole “humanist” argument that James really takes on his appointed task as mediator.  James describes the empiricist position as “tough-minded,” and the rationalist as “tender-minded.”[2]  The rationalist, he says, is motivated by principles, by an optimistic belief that the universe is ultimately united and meaningful, and ultimately by a religious or spiritual faith.  The empiricist inclines towards facts, observations, and materialism.  As an archetype of this and an example of where it leads, consider David Hume’s theory of language.  For Hume, all meaning is based on sensation.  Any word that cannot be traced to a sensation is meaningless.[3]  Hence the “tough-minded” verdict he offers:


When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.[4]


It is not surprising then that James takes empiricism as essentially atheistic, while equating both rationalism and religion as “tender-minded.”  And while much of his epistemology is founded on empirical principles, he has a good deal of sympathy for the religious impulse.  For William James, pragmatism is not only a theory of meaning; it is also a philosophy of life.  A person should believe what allows him or her to function well; and that means that one has every right to religious faith, where this can be sufficiently integrated with one’s other beliefs.  As he writes:


At the close of the last lecture I reminded you of the first one, in which I had opposed tough-mindedness to tender-mindedness and recommended pragmatism as their mediator. Tough-mindedness positively rejects tender-mindedness’s hypothesis of an eternal perfect edition of the universe coexisting with our finite experience.

On pragmatic principles we cannot reject any hypothesis if consequences useful to life flow from it. Universal conceptions, as things to take account of, may be as real for pragmatism as particular sensations are. They have indeed no meaning and no reality if they have no use. But if they have any use they have that amount of meaning. And the meaning will be true if the use squares well with life’s other uses.

Well, the use of the Absolute is proved by the whole course of men’s religious history. The eternal arms are then beneath. Remember Vivekananda’s use of the Atman: it is indeed not a scientific use, for we can make no particular deductions from it. It is emotional and spiritual altogether.[5]


If I try to use my religious belief to draw scientific claims, then my beliefs will inevitably collide and I will end up with a schizophrenia of the intellect:  following cause and effect and scientific reasoning almost all the time and particularly when I rely on any aspect of technology, medicine, or scholarship of any sort, but willfully ignoring reason when it conflicts with some pseudoscientific claim based on my perception of my faith.  But if I use it to give me a reason to keep living, as an organizing or justifying principle for my experiences, or as an ideal to strive towards, etc. then it need not conflict with any useful empirical claim.  Thus James recommends pragmatism as a middle ground between the fatalistic, materialist and pessimistic elements of the “tough-minded” and the free-willst, optimistic, and idealistic aspects of the “tender-minded.”  Because he believes that we create our reality, he can say that we do in fact have a right to hold beliefs that have a pragmatic use contributing to one’s psychological and spiritual health; and because he believes that ultimately our minds and our categories are rooted in our experiences of reality, he says we should not simply embrace the “tender-minded” rationalism wholeheartedly, but consider how these two sides can be reconciled.

To be continued…..

[1] Pragmatism, lecture VII, “Pragmatism and Humanism.”

[2] Pragmatism, lecture I

[3] David Hume, Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, chapter II, “Of the Origin of Ideas.”

[4] Enquiry, chapter XII, “Of the Academical or Sceptical Philosophy,” part III

[5] Pragmatism, lecture VIII, “Pragmatism and Religion.”

Epistemology, Anxiety, Faith, Sin (pt. 2)

November 20, 2011

Beginnings of an Epistemology:  There should therefore be two stages to developing an epistemology.  First, consider carefully what one can know and how one can know.  Second, consider how one’s own nature can distort this knowledge.  As far as knowledge of the world goes, I would start without wasting much time on theories like the Cartesian evil genius or The Matrix, if only because they are largely non-starters.  Evolutionary theory says that we have the senses we do because they work; they allow us to find food and mates, to avoid predators and other threats, and in general tell us about the world.  They don’t have to be perfect to do this job; in fact, we know many creatures that have superior senses.  The classic arguments of skeptical philosophers, like the stick that looks bent in water, are not really problems at all as far as pragmatic, survival-value knowledge of the world goes.  We are material, our senses evolved as part of the material world to know the material world, and in a sense it isn’t really a separation between subject and object here since the material world is reacting physically to the material world.

(The creationist could even admit some of this; after all, Adam was created from the earth, so again Adam and the world are substantially similar and the physical senses are part of the physical world.)

While some philosophers have worried about the problems of knowledge of the physical, the real problems seem to stem from knowledge of the metaphysical.  Even if, as Plato said, we can’t know the physical world because it’s always changing, we can know it well enough.  But what about the principles on which we depend for our scientific activity, or just our reasoning?  What about causality, or object permanence?  Hume said that these are abstractions from our sense data and hence are imperfect.  Therefore, we should only assume them as far as we need to.  Kant wanted certainty, and therefore concluded that the laws of nature were like the laws of logic:  principles that are necessary for our thinking of the world.  Because we (or any rational finite being) must perceive reality in this way, the laws of nature are just as universal as the laws of logic.  Hamann said that if knowledge is that, then it is empty; for it to be knowledge of the actual physical world it has to come from outside us.  But he would go on to say that if we let it, the world will disclose itself to us; so the principles of causality and so on are in fact true of the world as it is.  (At least, I think Hamann would say this; he is considered the most obscure writer in the German language, and that is saying a lot!  Even Kant found Hamann a hard read.)

What can we know, then, about the world, besides what we immediately experience?  On the surface, the pragmatic tests would seem to be pretty good.  If I can make predictions based on my assumptions that this action will cause that reaction, that my test tube won’t disappear when I turn my back and so on, then principles of causality, object permanence and so on seem to be born out.  True, they are creations of our mind, above and beyond the immediate sensations; but our minds are largely our brains, and our brains are also physical objects which evolved/were created to understand and react to the world, so it is reasonable to conclude that we wouldn’t have these concepts if there weren’t something in the world that made the suitable impact on us.  Eyes exist because there is light and physical objects that make something like eyes useful ways to perceive them.  Brains exist because the world does in fact follow rational patterns that can be discerned, rational principles that can be inferred and which will prove useful and effective.  But Hume is right about one thing:  this cannot be the same sort of certainty that we see in logic or math.  Just as our physical sensations, perceptions and conclusions from these can be mistaken, so too our metaphysical reasoning can be mistaken.  At some point, we have to simply accept that the evidence is good enough.

That may be the problem with so much scientific debate these days, and where the second phase of an epistemology needs to begin:  Aside from the inexactness and limitations of our finite senses and finite minds, what other sources of error exist?  And, given our limitations and any other sources of error, what can we do to avoid or correct error?

To be continued…..


August 31, 2011


Background Considerations:  Kierkegaard describes two approaches to knowledge in Philosophical Fragments:  recollection and revelation.  “Recollection” is originally the Platonic theory, and more generally refers to the theory that knowledge is immanent:  humans have the knowledge within them already, and each individual must simply bring that knowledge to the surface.  “Revelation” is the Christian view that we are in fact ignorant, even trapped in ignorance and hostile to the truth, until God bestows it through grace.  Hamann used the distinction between recollection and revelation in his critique of Kantian transcendental idealism.  Kant made knowledge inherent in the human mind; what we know when we know nature is in fact the universal structures of our human experience of nature, the categories and ideas, so we can have knowledge that is certain because any experience that we could possibly have must conform to those structures.  We experience reality through the tinted lens that is our reason, and thus everything we can possibly experience will be tinted; knowledge is knowledge of the nature of our lenses.  Hamann said if that is your epistemology, Christian revelation is impossible since there can be no knowledge that isn’t already contained in human reason; so instead of developing an epistemology and then trying to force theology to conform to its strictures, he began with the idea that revelation is real and developed his epistemology on the assumption that knowledge in general comes to us from the outside.  In fact, what he developed was a “mitigated credulity” in reply to Hume’s “mitigated skepticism:”  while Hamann accepted Hume’s empiricism and hence also his conclusion that all knowledge is uncertain, Hamann was less afraid of making a mistake by assuming too much than he was of rejecting the truth by assuming too little.  Therefore, he chose to believe what his senses told him, but with the caveat that he might be mistaken and must be ready to admit an error when one is discovered.

If one lumps Hume’s empiricism and Kant’s idealism into the general category of “recollection,” one can begin to see how a Kierkegaardian/Christian critique of epistemology can be useful.  What Hume and Kant share is the view that whatever knowledge is, it is a human undertaking; we know the world ourselves.  All knowledge is immanent.  But the fundamental premise of knowledge is “know thyself;” if we don’t know ourselves, how can we know anything?  Whether empiricism or idealism, our knowledge is distorted by our anxiety.  We believe ourselves more capable than we are, and at the same time we feel threatened and anxious in the world and seek to reassure ourselves of our knowledge and control of the world around us.  We cannot just let things be, and let them appear to us as they are in themselves, in their self-centeredness; we perceive everything through the filter of our needs and wants and fears.  When faith overcomes anxiety, we are able (insofar as faith does overcome, which is never total) to see what is as it is.  Humility is essential to allowing truth to give itself, and humility is the fruit of faith.  Hubris and fearfulness are both fruit of the lack of faith (Greek pistis, trust).

All of this is a distortion of Christianity, of course.  Christianity is not an epistemological theory, and sin is not primarily an epistemological problem; however, it has epistemological ramifications.

Beginnings of an Epistemology:  There should therefore be two stages to developing an epistemology.  First, consider carefully what one can know and how one can know.  Second, consider how one’s own nature can distort this knowledge.  (To be continued, I hope.)