From thinking to doing

In the last section we looked (very) briefly at Medieval thought through the eyes of Anselm, Abelard, and Thomas Aquinas.  Now let's run across the bridge from their world to the "modern" era.  Make three quick jumps with me.

First we stand on Medieval feet, intellectually.  Philosophy is based on authority structures.  Revelation comes through the Church.  Our primary concern is for the God-man relationship.

Now we jump to the Renaissance.  Reason becomes more important than before, as it is shaped through our study of nature and classical literature.  Authority structures are deemphasized, the autonomy and enlightenment of mankind is elevated, and concern for the man-man relationship reigns supreme.

Then we jump to the Reformation.  Revelation comes not through Church or intellect but Scripture.  Authority is found not in Church or man but Scripture.  The God-man relationship is crucial once again.

Finally we leap to Rationalism.  Reason is the normative means of discovering truth.  There is no authority structure outside our reason.  Our concern is for the man-man relationship.  Here's why.

Rene Descartes (1596-1650) made each of these jumps with us.  His was a Jesuit education, coupled with a fascination for mathematics.  In light of the Reformation, he wanted to give his beloved Catholic Church a stable and reasonable foundation.  In response to the popularity of the Renaissance and its Enlightenment, he felt this foundation must be strongly rational.

So he reasoned as any mathematician would: start from an unquestionable position, then reason to an unassailable conclusion and proof.  Using the mathematical premise of doubt, Descartes soon realizes that he can doubt anything he can think of.  He can doubt even his own existence.  But what is the one fact he cannot doubt?  That he is doubting.  If he is doubting, by definition he is thinking.  Result: "I think, therefore I am" (Cogito, ergo sum, the only Latin words even non-Latin speakers know).

Now Descartes is free (in his own mind) to reason from reason.  He thinks he has proven the authority of human reason.  So he will apply it to the rest of reality.  By rational definition, God is absolute or he is not God (shades of Anselm).  He can be the only absolute Substance.  Everything else, including mind and body, must be a "relative" substance.  God cannot be absolute Substance if he is bound to the material--rather, his existence must be spiritual/intellectual in nature.  And God has given us the ability to reason, so that we can be in his "image" and comprehend his creation.

And so God puts in our minds "innate ideas" which give structure to human nature.  These structures of rational investigation are the means by which we learn what we know, as they define both truth and relevance.  (Unfortunately for his followers, Descartes was never able to relate such a mind to the physical body.  In time, this problem would destroy pure rationalism as a philosophy.)

Descartes was sure that his insistence upon reason as the origin and test for truth could be used to demonstrate conclusively the rationality of the Catholic Church in the face of its detractors.  But he was wrong.  This insistence in time actually worked against the faith he sought to serve.  If reason is the test and source of all truth, then why do reasonable people need revelation?  The Church?  God?

From monism to monads

Exactly so, said Benedict Spinoza (1632-1677).  Spinoza was born into Jewish faith, but read Descartes and renounced his Judaism.  He was expelled from his synagogue, worked as a lensmaker, and was despised for centuries as an atheist.

Spinoza reasoned that there is only one (rational) substance in all reality, and apparent differences are only apparent.  So, what is this substance?

Godfrey Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) had the answer: "monads."  Leibniz was sure that reality is made of these tiny units.  "Monads" contain life in themselves, and are all of the same shape and size.  They are arranged and moved by the "Prime Monad"--God.  Higher-order monads (like us) perceive more than we reflect; lower-order monads (like this paper) reflect more than they perceive.

Balderdash, said the rest of the philosophical world.  And they were right.  Spinoza and Leibniz show that the ultimate result of pure rationalism is not rational at all.  In their insistence that reason is the only substance in the world, they are not reasonable.

And the philosophical pendulum swings in the other direction.

Seeing is seeing

Philosophers have their "parties," just like Democrats and Republicans.  If the Rationalists were one, the Empiricists were the other.  "Empiricism" is the belief that ideas are derived from experience through the senses, not from reason in and of itself.  Let's watch them come to a bloody end, just like the Rationalists.

Their story begins with John Locke (1632-1702).  A student of philosophy, natural science, and medicine at Oxford, he was an important politician in England.  His primary philosophical concern was with epistemology (the theory of knowledge).  And his ideas have shaped the way Americans see ideas ever since.

Locke reasoned that we are born with our minds a "tabula rasa" ("blank slate").  All we know comes from experience, writing on these "slates."  Our sensations (coming directly from experience) and reflections (upon sensations) produce knowledge.  We must be satisfied with probability, since our senses can deceive us (agreeing with the ancient Skeptics).

Locke applied this epistemology to politics in defense of democracy.  We learn moral law only from experience, and desire to pursue pleasure and avoid pain.  This desire should be protected by the government, so that our "inalienable right" to the pursuit of happiness is preserved.  No Locke, no Thomas Jefferson.

Keep going: empiricism in theology leads to Deism.  The only fact you can state about God is that he is the creator of the world (we had to come from somewhere or Someone).  Everything else is the result of individual, subjective experiences.  So we posit a God who made the world but does not participate in it today, and we have Deism (with Locke its father).  Again, no Locke, no Jefferson.

From Locke we move to George Berkeley (1685-1753).  This Irishman, Bishop of Cloyne and missionary to Rhode Island wrote his Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge in 1710.  He took Locke a step further: if all we know comes from experience, then the world as we know it can only be the world we perceive.  This is "solipsism": "to be is to be perceived."  Berkeley reasoned that God perceives all that is, which is why the world holds together when we're not looking.  But he couldn't prove that it was so by objective experience.

So David Hume (1711-1776) took the stage, and empiricism to its logical conclusions.  His Treatise on Human Nature (published when he was 26 years of age) and Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding argued this basic thesis: where there is no impression there can be no knowledge.  Hume denied even causality as non-empirical.

He thus denied the cosmological (from Creator to cosmos) and teleological (from Designer to design) arguments for God.  His radical empiricism led ultimately to the death of empiricism.  For ultimately, if Hume is right, we can know nothing.  As a result, Hume is called the "Father of Skepticism."  From Descartes' "doubting is thinking," we have come to Hume's "doubting is doubting."  Another dead end.

From hardware to software to the disk to the printer

Enter the "savior of Western thought," Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).  This quiet, unassuming professor in Konigsberg, Germany would have been nominated by none of his childhood friends to be known for anything.  They would each have been wrong.

To simplify the notoriously complex Kant: we must rescue philosophy from the twin dead ends of pure rationalism and pure empiricism.  How?  The senses provide the "data" which the mind "interprets."  The result is "knowledge."

Of course, we say.  Everyone thinks that's true.  Precisely the point.

Let's start with Kant's epistemology (as described in his Critique of Pure Reason, one of the most influential philosophical treatises of all time).  Kant believed that your mind brings rational structures to reality.  Rather than being impressed by reality through sense impressions only (as the empiricists said), your mind interprets these sense impressions.  It uses innate (with Descartes) "categories" (not ideas, vs. Descartes).  According to Kant, "although all our knowledge begins with experience it does not follow that it arises out of experience."

What are these categories, you ask?  Kant provides the answer:

Quantity (amount):

1. Unity

2. Plurality

3. Totality

Quality (kind of material)

4. Reality

5. Negation

6. Limitation

Relation (of substance to other substance)

7. Inherence and subsistence

8. Causality and dependence

9. Community

Modality (of patterns within substances)

10. Possibility / impossibility

11. Existence / non-existence

12. Necessity / contingency

Let's (over)simplify things.  Kant believed that he identified the key questions your mind inherently asks of every sense experience given to it: how much?  what kind?  how does it relate to other things?  what patterns can we identify and predict?  We cannot help asking these questions--this is the basic way our minds innately work.

To use an analogy totally foreign to Kant's world, think of your mind as the software resident in your computer.  Your senses are the keyboard, being typed on by the external world.  Your software interprets the keystrokes, resulting in "knowledge" which is imprinted on the disk drive and printed on paper.

Isn't this how everyone thinks that thinking works?  Not before Kant.

Kant "saved" philosophy from itself.  He showed that we can bring rationalism and empiricism together in a third model which uses the best of both and makes reasonable living possible.  Western thinkers owe him an enormous debt of gratitude.

But we are indebted to Kant for more than the good results of his legacy.  He has also contributed mightily to the relativism, pluralism, and materialism of our age.  Here's how.

Kant called that which is knowable by our senses the "phenomena."  That which we cannot know empirically is the "noumena."  His conclusion: we cannot know the "thing in itself."  Our minds interpret the sense data given to them, resulting in knowledge as we know it.  But we cannot have objective knowledge of objective reality.  This is simply impossible for us.  By this measure, how are we to see miracles?  Divine revelation through Scripture?  Christian ethics?  It's all "your truth," but only yours.

So how should we live?  Kant's "moral imperative" was simple: do your duty, for the sake of your duty (from his Critique of Practical Reason).  If everyone did what you're thinking of doing, would it be right?  Is this your duty?  (It is tragically possible to explain Hitlerism in the light of Kant's theory of duty.)

What is beautiful?  In his Critique of Judgment Kant argued for objective aesthetic theory: things are beautiful (or not) as they possess characteristics which the mind's categories affirm (or not).

The upshot of Kant's influence: Western philosophy is both empirical and rational.  But the truths that matter--God and his relationship with us--are neither.  Clearly, Christians must respond to the Kantian challenge if we are to defend the objective truth of Scripture and faith.  Or we are doomed to live in his relativistic world.

Where to begin?  With his premises.  Kant argued that we cannot know objective truth.  His statement is itself a claim to objective truth, is it not?  He claimed that we cannot know the "thing in itself."  This is itself a claim about the "thing in itself," is it not?  While I would certainly not argue that my sense impressions of reality, as interpreted by my mind, constitute all of objective reality that exists, the limitation is with me, not with reality.  There is objective reality.  And we should strive to know it as best we can.  Our limitations are not to be embraced but overcome.

Kant's thought is the air most Western minds breathe, until they suffocate.  Next let's open the windows.

It's common sense

The first reaction to Kant's synthesis of reason and experience came from Thomas Reid (1710-1796), a Scottish philosopher.  Remember that Kant maintained that you cannot know the "thing-in-itself," only your experience of it.  Reid argued the opposite side: you can know the world directly, without the mediation of ideas.  You are able to make self-evident moral judgments, based on principles which take precedence over experience.  Because you have rational freedom, you are the cause of your experience, not just a reactor to it.

The school Reid founded, "Scottish 'Common-Sense' Realism," soon became the official philosophy of Princeton Seminary and of conservative Christianity in America.  Through B. B. Warfield and others, it achieved great influence in this country and culture.  The primary reason you've not heard of or wrestled with Kant's ideas is that your culture has not.  Common sense dictates that you know reality, and that's good enough for most of us.

As a result, the Kantian denial of absolutes has met no real intellectual resistance in our culture.  Relativism is appealing to a people who want independence from absolute ethics or truths.  And because we've not interacted seriously with the Kantian sources of relativism and pluralism, we have no intellectual answer for this threat.

Common-sense realism defines the way most Americans think about how they think.  That's both good and bad.

A father and his sons

From reaction to Kant we turn to endorsement of his ideas.  Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) is considered both the father of modern philosophy and the father of liberalism.  Let's see how both births took place.

Schleiermacher's On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers (1799) and The Christian Faith (editions from 1821 to 1831) made him a universal reputation among the theologians and intellectuals of his day.  He was the first theologian to approach systematically the Christian faith from the standpoint of personal experience.  If Kant is right, we cannot know God "in himself," but only our impressions of him.  And so theology is the analysis of our "God-consciousness."

What is this consciousness?  We experience God in our sinfulness, our finiteness, our dependence on him.  And so religion is a "feeling of absolute dependence."

Scheiermacher brought Kant into the philosophical mainstream, thus founding "modern" philosophy.  And he applied his thought to theology, with the result that there is no absolute or objective truth in Christian faith.  For this he is credited with "liberalism" as well.

We're still fighting these two sons today.


Another response to Kant's worldview has been as influential as Schleiermacher's, on a more political level.  Georg Wilhelm Hegel (1770-1831) was born the son of a minor official in Stuttgart, in southern Germany.  His family was poor, but he managed to obtain a university education.  He became a private tutor, later a newspaper editor and school principle, finally a university professor.

Hegel was a prolific writer.  His Phenomonology of Spirit contained over 750 pages, though its author considered it but a preface to his larger system.  Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences is the outline of his entire system.  His collected works in German comprise some twenty volumes.  And they are exceedingly difficult to follow, given the intricate difficulty of his theories and his obfuscating writing style.

Nonetheless, his basic ideas are clear, and profoundly important.  Hegel believed (against Kant) that the universe is rational.  The mind creates form and shapes in the experiential world, and participates in them.

Here's how: thesis reacts with antithesis, resulting in synthesis.  Hegel says this is how your mind processes its experiences, and shapes and forms them.  Just as hydrogen and water make oxygen, so every experience you have suggests to your mind its opposite; your mind combines the best from both into a synthesis.

Hegel believed that this "dialectic" is the pattern for all of reality, in this progression (from bottom to top):

Spirit (God) / Idea-Nature

Notion / Being-Essence

Measure / Quantity-Quality

Being for Self / Being-Determinate Being

Becoming / Being-Nothing

This "triadic pattern" constitutes the way all experience and reality works, in Hegel's view.  In just a moment, you'll see why such a complex worldview matters today.

The inevitable philosopher

Hegel's rather esoteric philosophical system has directly influenced millions upon millions of lives, believe it or not.  The reason is named Karl Marx (1818-1883).

Marx's ideas developed through three distinct stages.  In the German chapter of his life, he read and agreed with Hegel, adopting his "dialectical idealism."  Marx was also influenced by Ludwig Feuerbach's argument that any projection of spirit is a result of our wishful thinking and dissatisfaction with life.  (Sigmund Freud borrowed from Feuerbach as well his belief that "God" is a projection of our need for a father figure.)

And so Marx concluded (against Hegel) that the world is material only--all "spiritual" ideas are wish-fulfillment.  But this material world operates according to the dialectical process.  Marx published the Rhineland Journal, challenging some of Hegel's assertions, and soon found himself exiled from Germany.

Now in France, he studied with Saint-Simon the ideas of economic socialism.  Here he published the Communist Manifesto with Engels.  For it he was exiled again.

Finally he came to England, where he read Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations (the basis for capitalism).  In reaction he published Capital, his most significant economic work.

Marx's worldview stands on two primary assertions.  First, ultimate reality is material in nature, moving through various stages of dialectical history and finally to a Communist stage.  The Asiatic and Primitive classes clashed, resulting in the Feudal; the Feudal and its antithesis led to Capitalism; the Capitalists and those they oppress (according to Marx) will clash, leading finally to the class-less world of Communism.  Lenin's 1917 Bolshevik Revolution is the direct outworking of this philosophy.

Second, mankind is alienated from work and ourselves.  We have a deep sense of dissatisfaction, leading to social revolutions.  The solution to this alienation is to abolish capitalism, by armed revolution if necessary.

The major question asked for years of Marx's worldview is simple: why hasn't the inevitable revolution to Communism already occurred?  With events of recent years we can now say that the class-less society did not result from Communism, and that revolutions are moving toward democracy and capitalism, not away from them.

Nonetheless, Marx's applications of Hegel's philosophy show the pervasive influence and significance of ideas.  Millions have been enslaved to his.

A leap into the light

The strongest reaction to both Kant and Hegel in the nineteenth century was made by the Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855).  Kierkegaard lived a tragic life--all his brothers and sisters died; he learned of an illegitimate relation between his parents and subsequently left the ministry; he felt that God had lodged a "veto" against his engagement to Regina Olson, and regretted her loss the rest of his life.  His major controversy was his attack on the Lutheran Church of Denmark.  Finding it cold, dead orthodoxy, he wrote viciously against it and was castigated by Danish society as a result.  His was a life of deep alienation.

His central tenet was simple: truth is subjectivity.  Theological speculations move us not one step closer to faith.  Faith is not intellectual assent, but the total commitment of our lives to something.  Such commitment is subjective, for its results are not known before they are experienced.  Truth is chosen and acted upon.

Kierkegaard believed that we move through three stages in life.  First, the aesthetic, an empty seeking after pleasure and beauty; second, the ethical, seeking to do our duty but experiencing the despair of failure; and third, the religious, when we choose to trust completely in God.

This passion for the individual's choice and life made Kierkegaard the "father of existentialism."  The philosophy attributed to him stresses personal identity and choice as the basis for life.  Tragically, there is no place for the community of faith in Kierkegaard's thought, or in the school he "founded."  Existentialism will be dominant in Western thinking from Kierkgaard to the present.

Superman to the rescue

Yet another reaction to Kant's synthesis was the bold philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900).  While his father and grandfather were both pastors in Prussian Saxony, Nietzsche became a committed opponent of the Christian faith.  His principal contributions have been two: the "will to power" and "postmodernist relativism."

First the "will to power."  Nietzsche believed that every drive we experience is but a variant of the one basic drive--the will to gain power.  All goods, all values, all virtues are expressions of the power positions of various individuals and groups.

The best way to live is to embrace this will to power, according to Nietzsche.  The "superman" is the person who takes for himself power from the world.  The Christian, on the other hand, with his stress on humility, is weak and must be rejected.  Happiness comes from power, and the more, the better.

Second, his contributions to what has become "postmodern relativism."  In brief, Nietzsche argued that our language does not reflect reality as such, but only our experience of it (in agreement with Kant).  There is no such thing as "leaves," only individual leafs which we experience and synthesize into the universal.  Language is purely individual and subjective, absolutely the product of our own experiences.  And so language cannot reflect a larger, objective reality or truth.  This linguistic assertion will be crucial for the development of postmodernism we'll track in the last chapter.

Nietzsche is right: the "will to power" is the dominant drive in fallen human nature (cf. Genesis 3).  But he is wrong: we must not embrace it but surrender it to God.  Only then can his power (far greater than any we can claim) be ours, and his purpose fulfilled by our lives.

Be positive

Are you tired of reading about responses to Kant?  Come with me just a little further before we turn the corner.  Yet another reaction to the German professor came from Auguste Comte (1798-1857), a teacher of mathematics and profound thinker.  His contribution is called "positivism."  Until this generation, it was the most dominant worldview in the intellectual community of Western culture.

Comte wanted to reform society and the sciences, according to the following model.  He believes that all knowledge begins with the theological stage of childhood, when we regard things as the expression of supernatural beings.  Next we evolve to the metaphysical stage of youth, where abstract powers are substituted for personal beings.  Finally we arrive at the positive stage of adulthood, where we abandon all concern for ultimate knowledge and center only on the phenomena (with Kant) we can experience, as it is understood scientifically.

If Comte is right (and many in the West believed him for a century), the only "truth" worth knowing is that which you can verify scientifically or logically.  We'll see more of this worldview shortly.

America's contribution to the philosophical world

Finally we come to America's unique contribution to this history.  It took a while, but here it is: American pragmatism.  Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) believed that differences in meaning are only significant if they lead to differences of practice.  Truth is "opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate."

William James (1842-1910) took Peirce's ideas a step further.  Building on the empiricism of John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), he argued that truth is that which works in experience.  What we experience is reality (opposed to Kant).  Applied to religion, faith is valid only if it works for the individual in experience.  James coined "pragmatism" for this philosophy during an 1898 lecture at Harvard.

John Dewey (1859-1921) took things still farther: morality is that which works so that people function well together.  The result: American pragmatism, the belief that truth is whatever works.  Whether that truth is intellectual, linguistic, religious, or moral in nature, the test of practical experience is the only one we need.  And Americans are still cheering today.