10 July 2003

faith and philosophy

I received the most recent issue of the journal of the Society of Christian Philosophers in the mail today, an association of which I am a member.

I'm always a bit disheartened, I suppose, by many of the contributions published in my field (which is not to say that I do much better or have everything worked out). Part of my dissatisfaction lies, I suppose, with the field of philosophy in general, particularly in the Anglo-American analytic tradition in which I received almost all of my training. These developments in philosophy in general have, in turn, shaped the practice of philosophy among Christian philosophers.

The analytic tradition is, by and large, a particular approach to the method of doing philosophy--the adoption of certain kinds of techniques, providing a degree of clarity and rigor. And these techniques have their roots in the English traditions of empiricism, mixed with a focus upon language analysis, positivism, and logic stemming from Frege, Russell and Whitehead, and others, breaking concepts down to their most basic parts and carefully defining them and examining their logical interrelations.

But, as Donald Davidson has argued, it isn't so easy to separate form from content. Thus, it seems to me, much of analytic philosophy has suffered from a kind of philosophical and spiritual impoverishment, what Nietzsche referred to as the "English-mechanical stultification of the world" (Beyond Good and Evil, 252) . Christian philosophers are the best that analytic philosophy can offer since, at least when Christians work within the tradition, they are bringing a rich body of material with which to work.

Even so, as I look over the latest issue of Faith and Philosophy, I still feel a lack, a shallowness of insight and over-fascination with logical bells and whistles. Moreover, the discourse seems profoundly shaped by the categories inherited from the analytic tradition, debates occuring entirely within the assumptions of that discourse, hardly bothering to question ontological assumptions undergirding it. Against the backdrop of Augustine, Boethius, Anselm, and Aquinas, I wonder if their modern analytic defenders are really even in the same conversation.

One must also never underestimate the effects of the "professionalization" of philosophy as an academic discipline. The American tradition is one of pragmatisim and, on the model of the hard sciences and even the social sciences, the humanities have been pressured by accrediting agencies and the academic marketplace to "produce results."

This entails a high degree of (over)specialization, the proliferation of academic journals, and various studies of the effects of majoring in philosophy upon future career goals. Thus much philosophy has lost the kind of generality it once enjoyed, the idea that the pursuit of wisdom is its own reward, and the notion that philosophy is theology's handmaiden in service to the church.