Quantcast John Hospers reviews Brand Blanshard's "Reason and Belief"


Philosophy against Misosophy


John Hospers


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From Libertarian Review, March-April 1977, 10.  Review of Brand Blanshard, Reason and Belief, Yale University Press, 1975.


Brand Blanshard, Reason and Belief

John Hospers

Blanshard’s long-awaited book is the third and final portion of a philosophical trilogy, of which the first two parts were Reason and Analysis and Reason and Goodness, both published more than ten years ago.  This final volume is devoted to the relations between reason and religion.

The book is long (more than 600 pages) and rich in content.  Not since Santayana’s Reason in Religion in 1910 (one of the five volumes of his “Life of Reason” series) has a philosopher stood back from the religious scene with such an objective eye—sympathetic, yet critical—and shared with his readers so much wisdom on the subject.  The book is written in Blanshard’s inimitable philosophical style, smooth and polished, always to the point, full of well-turned phrases and quotable quotes.

Part I, consisting of the first four chapters, deals with the Roman Catholic doctrines on faith versus reason, reason and revelation, and revelation’s relation to natural knowledge.  One of the chief points that emerges from his discussion is how devoted to the pursuit of reason (granted a few initial premises based on faith) the Catholic Church is, committed to carrying out the implications of each argument.  Blanshard leans so far over to be fair to Catholic doctrine that one begins to suspect at last that he will end up supporting the Catholic cause; but just when we feel that this is imminent, comes a section (e.g., on inconsistencies in the Bible, or on papal infallibility) that throws any such theory on the scrapheap.

Part II, dealing with Protestant Christianity, is 200 pages long.  It is devoted primarily to Luther, Kierkegaard, Brunner, and Barth.  For someone who want a not too lengthy but thorough rundown on what each of these men believed on matters of faith and reason, Blanshard’s presentation ideally satisfies the demand.  For those readers (probably the majority) to whom such names as Barth and Brunner draw blanks except for a vague association with religion, Blanshard’s chapters are the easiest and most systematic way to fill the gap.

Part III, “Ethics and Belief,” is of greatest interest to students of ethics.  Blanshard’s two chapters on rationalism and Christian ethics are paradigms of accuracy, objectivity, and clarity of presentation.  What is the attitude of Christianity (and why) to wealth?  To art?  To the State?  To slavery?  To women’s rights?  To pacifism?  To power?  To work?  To social justice?  Here it is all spelled out, with a bringing together of various texts from the Bible to substantiate each contention—not without insightful critical comments along the way on many of the positions discussed.

The chapter entitled “The Ethics of Belief” is perhaps the best in the book.  Blanshard shows us, for example, exactly at what points Pascal’s famous “wager” is in error.  He also examines with uncommon thoroughness such questions as “What made the acts of the Spanish Inquisitors wrong?”  They acted from honorable motives (saving he souls of those who would otherwise be damned) and from clear-sighted regard regard for consequences (what was an hour of slow fire in this life compared with an eternity of fire hereafter?).  Blanshard concludes that, while from the vantage point of their beliefs their actions were impeccable, they had no right to believe as they did, and shows us why sincerity of belief is not enough.

Part IV, “A Rationalist’s Outlook,” begins (in the chapter on cosmology) by providing us a recap of Blanshard’s earlier works on metaphysics.  The sections on the Principle of Causality are thorough and forcefully presented, particularly the reasons for disagreeing with Hume and Ayer and agreeing with Joseph in the defense of “causal necessity.”  The next two chapters, on human nature, values, and goodness, after a discussion of evolution and its implications for ethics, presents a renewed defense of the position (first argued toward the end of Reason and Goodness) that intrinsic goodness is to be conceived in terms of two concepts, satisfaction and fulfillment, all other values being instrumental to these two.

The final chapter, “Religion and Rationalism,” is a watershed chapter in that it here behooves the author, who has been giving us the pros and cons of every issue thus far, to “fish or cut bait.”  And he does.  Having conceded as much as he possibly can to the opposition—having shown why reasonableness is a “grey virtue,” and having spoken as favorably as one possibly can on the values (and disvalues, too) of reverence and humility as human attitudes, and having traded the strong and often honorable motivations for having religious belief, Blanshard proceeds to make mincemeat of faith as a ground for belief by showing us where such a criterion would ultimately lead us.  Reason is the only self-corrective faculty for arriving at truth.  “Take reason seriously,” Blanshard says.  “It has been from the beginning the unrealized architect of religion, of conduct, of the world, but almost always doing its work under the interference of interests alien to its own.”

Many readers who are greatly interested in issues of metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics are far less interested in religion.  They may, as they read these pages, become impatient with the author for devoting so much time and effort to this subject.  My own reservations about the book come not from the extended treatment of the phenomena of religious belief—which is the most interesting survey since William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience—but from the comparative lack of treatment of deep-level epistemological problems of religion.  Just as one looks in vain for a careful definition of “reason” (the most used word in the book)—though one finds it in Richard Robinson’s book An Atheist’s Values—so one looks in vain for a knock-down treatment of epistemological problems of religion (which, if pursued, seem to me to invalidate the views popularly labeled theism, deism, pantheism, and atheism and agnosticism).  Perhaps it was not the author’s aim to give us a treatment of these matters; but in a long work on religious beliefs, with so much empirical material on the history of religion, it seems a pity not to have devoted more time to such central questions as “Exactly what can this religious sentence be construed ‘to mean?”—questions which lie at the root of all the others.  Philosophy of religion is, first and foremost, epistemology applied to the subject of religion, just as philosophy of science is epistemology applied to science. One regrets that Blanshard has apparently forsaken the most probing and tantalizing problems central to his discipline, philosophy, and has taken on instead a survey of an area in which he is much less of a lifelong specialist, brilliantly though he does it.

Posted March 1, 2008

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