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Philosophy against Misosophy



Frederick Charles Copleston, S.J.



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From Mind, New Series, 85:340, October 1976, 621-24.  April 10, 2007 will mark the centenary of the birth of Frederick Charles Copleston, S.J., the prolific historian of philosophy and famous BBC Radio debater of Bertrand Russell and A. J. Ayer.  Here is Copleston's review of Reason and Belief [London: George Allen and Unwin, 1974, pp. 620] by another formidable atheistic philosopher, Brand Blanshard.


Review of Brand Blanshard,

Reason and Belief


Frederick Copleston, S.J.


This large volume is based on the second set of Professor Blanshard’s Gifford Lectures at St. Andrews (1952-3) and his Noble Lectures at Harvard (1948). In the first part Blanshard examines Catholic teaching on the relations between reason and faith, natural knowledge and revelation, while in the second part he considers successively the views on reason and faith expounded by Luther, Kierkegaard, Emil Brunner and Karl Barth. The third part is concerned with Christian ethics, the ethics of belief and religious myth. Having exposed to his own satisfaction the failure of both Catholicism and Protestantism (or at any rate of certain Protestant writers) to fulfil the demands of reason, the author devotes the fourth part of his work to an outline of his own view of the world and of ethics and to indicating in what sense religion can still find a place in the version of absolute idealism which he believes to be demanded by reason; reason being “the disinterested application of our cognitive faculties to the problems of belief” (p. 477). Apart from the sketch of Blanshard’s own philosophical convictions, which he has developed more at length elsewhere, the book is predominantly critical or polemical. That is to say, the author devotes most of his attention to criticism of belief in a transcendent God and in divine revelation. There is a good deal of repetition.  This may be partly due to the fact that the work is based on more than one set of lectures.

In regard to Catholicism Blanshard certainly raises some pertinent questions and makes some good points.  He has read widely and tries to be fair.  I doubt however whether he really understands the present situation.  Or, if he does, he shows little sign of it.  He refers to a large number of documents and to authorities of one kind or another, and his policy is to imprison, as it were, the Catholic theologian in the framework of what he, the author, thinks that a loyal Catholic must hold.  For example, reference is made to documents which seem to commit the Catholic to biblical fundamentalism. Blanshard can then draw attention to features of the biblical writings which make a fundamentalist position rationally untenable. The Catholic theologians however with whom I am acquainted are certainly not fundamentalists, even if Blanshard thinks that they ought to be.  Nor would they wish to defend the treatment of Galileo or the goings-on of the Inquisition.  It is true that the author mentions (p. 472) a meeting at New York in 1972 during which he was surprised at the attitude adopted by the Catholic thinkers participating in the dialogue.  But he says little about the implications of such an attitude and prefers to labour points recalling Dr. Littledale’s ninety-nine reasons for not joining the Church of Rome.

This seems to me regrettable. For some contemporary theological ideas give rise to interesting philosophical questions. Consider, for example, the idea of restating doctrines, when restatement involves categorial or conceptual change. If the concepts used in restatement are really different from those previously used, what are the criteria for deciding that the new statement expresses the same truth as that which it is designed to replace? To put the matter crudely, what is a proposition “in itself”, the truth which is taken out of one conceptual bed and laid down in another? How can it be identified? Again, modern Catholic theologians sometimes talk not of having the truth but of looking for it.  What would be the criteria for judging that they had found it? Or take the idea of revelation. Blanshard seems to understand this as propositional.  Some theologians attack the propositional theory of revelation. This is understandable. But the mind can hardly grasp a divine self-disclosure except through symbolic expression. And the question arises whether such expression can be final. If not, how can we know which expression is more adequate or less inadequate? Discussion of such matters, arising out of what contemporary theologians actually say, seems to me more relevant than references to, for instance, the pronouncements of the Biblical Commission, to which precious little attention is paid today.

As for theologians such as Karl Barth, Blanshard certainly shows that their position is difficult to maintain.  One might however expect a philosopher to examine it in the light of the neo-Wittgensteinian theory of autonomous language-games.  Even if the language of faith is rooted in a “form of life,” does participation in the relevant form of life stand in need of justification? Barth would presumably have rejected the idea of any philosophical justification. Might there however be a measure of justification in terms of a philosophical anthropology, inasmuch as all forms of life are rooted, in some way or other, is man himself? Or could there be no such justification of the language of faith? Blanshard does indeed refer to Barth’s “strange philosophic affiliations” (p. 306). But he is thinking of the logical positivists. The name of Wittgenstein does not occur in the index at all.

Incidentally, I wonder whether Blanshard appreciates the extent to which Barthian ideas have influenced modern Catholic theologians.  The author would of course deplore the spread of fideism. But there was something analogous in the late Middle Ages, and though it may take extravagant forms it can also fit in with an independent self-restricting exercise on philosophy’s part.  However, one could hardly expect an absolute idealist to welcome what he probably regards as a lamentable loss of nerve by philosophers.  In any case my point in mentioning the spread of fideism among Catholic theologians is to suggest that the author tends to think in terms of labels, the use of which has become increasingly inappropriate in recent years.

As has already been noted, Blanshard discusses Christian ethics.  I know a reputable Catholic thinker who maintains that there is no such thing.  However, there is undoubtedly ethical teaching in the Sermon on the Mount.  And the author finds that it is an inadequate basis for solving, for example, our problems of social justice.  But who seriously thinks that it is, except in the sense that if we all loved one another we would presumably take practical means to help the starving and that we would not condone, for instance, racial discrimination?  It is indeed useless to look to the Sermon on the Mount for precise blueprints for dealing with the problem of over-population.  But I do not feel at all confident of the truth of what seems to be Blanshard’s view, that if Christ really was what Christians have traditionally believed him to be, he would or should have provided us with the requisite guidance and information. The acceptance of certain values is integral to Christianity; but I see nothing odd in a Christian maintaining that in their application to changing historical situations we have to use our reason as best we can.

In Blanshard’s opinion reason demands that the concept of a transcendent God should be transformed into the concept of the Absolute.  But his Absolute is not Spinoza’s Deus seu Natura “with an infinity of unknowable attributes.  Nor is it Bradley’s Absolute, of which precious little can be said, except that in it all contradictions are somehow overcome.  If I interpret him correctly, Blanshard’s Absolute is the universe as scientifically knowable in principle but considered as a whole in which each thing is causally related to every other thing, such causal relations being not contingent but necessary.  He therefore argues, very reasonably, that the Absolute, as so understood, is not a moral being but “neutral.”  And as he does not suggest that we ought to foster attitudes of reverence or love to the Absolute, I find it a little difficult to see how the theory of the Absolute makes any substantial contribution to discussion of religion as it ought to be, except of course in the sense that religion as it ought to be is not concerned with a transcendent God.  In other words, I do not see why Blanshard does not say simply that in his opinion an idealistic humanism can embody all that is of permanent value in religion.  There can certainly be a religious movement of thought from “God” to God, to use Tillich’s phrase.  But Blanshard’s Absolute does not seem to me to be a promising candidate for functioning as the term of this movement.   The world is indeed treated as a unitary system.  But it is at any rate questionable whether the relations between things are not contingent.  If they are, Blanshard’s Absolute tends to fall apart.  We could still however pursue ideals.   And we might perhaps be more encouraged to do so, if we did not think that we were items in a determined system.   Either God reappears in some guise or other (but surely not in the form of the world of science) or we make do with ethical idealism.

At the end of his book Blanshard suggests that religion should be conceived “as the attitude of the whole man to what he regards as ultimately true and ultimately good” (p. 571), and that religion in this sense will not disappear. “Ultimate truth and goodness of course remain the same” (ibid.), though men’s ideas of them change, and though it is with these changing ideas that we have to live.  It is not clear to me what the unchanging truth and goodness are supposed to be.  Blanshard is presumably not reintroducing the idea of God.  And it would be odd to describe the Absolute as unchanging truth and goodness, if it is the universe considered as one system.  So I take it that unchanging and ultimate truth and goodness are ideals, the ideal goals of rational inquiry and moral action.  In what sense however can ideals be regarded as unchanging in themselves, as distinct from our changing conceptions of them?  Perhaps they resemble Kant’s regulative ideas.  But I am uncertain of this.  It is hardly a reviewer’s job to tell an author what sort of a book he ought to have written.  For the author knows what sort of a book he wanted to write and has presumably written it.  At the same time, if Blanshard thinks that a religious dimension in life is desirable, it may be legitimate to express a regret that he did not devote more attention to explaining its nature to his readers.  “Religion,” we are told, “is man’s attempt to live in the light of what he holds to be ultimately true and good” (p. 555).  What I hold to be true is not necessarily unchanging truth.  But suppose that I think that a system of logic is “ultimately true,” and that I try to live in the light of it, in the sense that I try to think logically.  Does this make me a religious person? In other words, I am not clear whether Blanshard is recommending transference of the “religion” to what is doubtless admirable but would not ordinarily be described as religion, or whether he thinks that there is a specifically religious dimension to life which should be preserved. My impression is that the first is the case.

Posted February 15, 2007

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