Analytic Philosophy And Analytic Theology

It is commonplace now to express skepticism about the usefulness of trying to distinguish between analytic and non-analytic philosophy, in no small part because the label is misleading: quite a lot of analytic philosophy has little or nothing to do with conceptual analysis. Nevertheless, the term is still in regular use, and people seem to have a fairly good idea about what sort of thing it refers to, even if they can't define it very well. Roughly (and I think that 'rough' is the best that we can do here), it refers to an approach to philosophical problems that is characterized by a particular rhetorical style, some common ambitions, an evolving technical vocabulary, and a tendency to pursue projects in dialogue with a certain evolving body of literature. Obviously it would be impossible to try to specify in detail the relevant literature and technical vocabulary. The point is just that these factors play a role in determining whether a piece of work falls within the analytic tradition. But the rhetorical style and ambitions of analytic philosophy are somewhat easier to characterize.

The ambitions seem generally to be to these: (i) to identify the scope and limits of our powers to obtain knowledge of the world, and (ii) to provide such true explanatory theories as we can in areas of inquiry (metaphysics, morals, and the like) that fall outside the scope of the natural sciences. The first ambition overlaps the ambitions of many non-analytic philosophers, the difference lying partly in the mode of pursuit, but also partly in expectations about the outcome. Many in the analytic tradition have sought to explain how knowledge of a certain kind, or knowledge in general, is possible—often with an eye to refuting skeptics and showing that we in fact possess such knowledge. This project might be loosely (and, many of us would say, inaccurately) described as a quest for the 'foundations' of knowledge—a quest that, thus described, obviously takes for granted the existence of foundations. This, the non-analytic philosophers will say, is the part of the attempt to identify the scope and limits of our powers to obtain knowledge that is distinctive of the analytic tradition, and it is the part that needs to be given up. On the other hand, many others in the analytic tradition have pursued more critical projects, aiming to show that knowledge of a certain kind is problematic, or impossible, or, at any rate, unobtainable by humans under current epistemic circumstances. Projects of this sort are pursued by analytic and non-analytic philosophers alike. The difference between Bas van Fraassen's critique of metaphysics or of the 'false hopes of traditional epistemology' on the one hand, and those offered by folks like Jean-Francois Lyotard or Jean-Luc Marion on the other lies not so much in the overall aim or thesis as in the style of argument, the choice of targets and conversation partners, and the suppositions and vocabulary that are taken for granted.4

The second ambition includes the quest for 'local' explanations of particular phenomena—morality, causation, and composition, for example. It also includes the quest for some sort of 'global' explanation that identifies fundamental entities and properties and helps to provide an account of human

4 Compare van Fraassen, 'The False Hopes of Traditional Epistemology', Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 60 (2000), 253 80 and The Empirical Stance (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002) on the one hand, and, on the other hand, Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, tr. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), and Marion, God Without Being, tr. Thomas A. Carlson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991); 'Metaphysics and Phenomenology: A Relief for Theology', tr. Thomas A. Carlson, Critical Inquiry, 20 (1994), 572 59; and 'The Idea of God', pp. 265 304 in D. Garber and M. Ayers (eds.), The Cambridge History of Seventeenth Century Philosophy, i (Cambridge: CUP, 1998). This isn't, of course, to minimize differences between the overall agendas of these philosophers, but just to identify a certain affinity in their views about 'traditional' epistemology.

cognitive structures and their abilities to interact with and theoretically process facts about the fundamental objects and properties. Accomplishing the latter goal would amount to providing the ontological underpinnings of a final epistemological theory. Thus, the ambitions of analytic philosophy are intimately connected; and so skepticism about our ability to fulfill one of them will inevitably translate into skepticism about our ability to fulfill (completely) the other.

Characterizing the rhetorical style is a bit more complicated. Making no claim either to completeness or universality, the analytic style might roughly be characterized as a style paradigmatic instances of which are distinguished by conformity (more or less) to the following prescriptions:

P1. Write as if philosophical positions and conclusions can be adequately formulated in sentences that can be formalized and logically manipulated.5 P2. Prioritize precision, clarity, and logical coherence.6 P3. Avoid substantive (non-decorative) use of metaphor and other tropes whose semantic content outstrips their propositional content.7 P4. Work as much as possible with well-understood primitive concepts, and concepts that can be analyzed in terms of those.

5 I don't mean to suggest that it's part of analytic philosophy always to carry out the formalizations or to lay entirely bare the logical relations among one's claims. But analytic philosophers generally think that, absent special circumstances, something is very amiss if a philosophical view is expressed in such a way that it has no clear logical consequences.

6 In correspondence, Nicholas WolterstorV pointed out to me that one obvious distinctive feature of analytic philosophy is the heavy use of counterexamples, including bizarrely imagina tive ones. I take this to be one of the primary manifestations of the prioritization of precision. As for prioritization of clarity, this claim can seem ironic in light of the fact that quite a lot of analytic philosophy is very diYcult even for specialists, and totally inaccessible to non special ists. But the idea that analytic philosophers prize clarity has, I think, less to do with prizing accessibility to non specialists (or even to specialists) and more to do with the fact that analytic philosophers place a high premium on spelling out hidden assumptions, on scrupulously trying to lay bare whatever evidence one has (or lacks) for the claims that one is making, and on taking care to conWne one's vocabulary to ordinary language, well understood primitive concepts, and technical jargon deWnable in terms of these.

7 There is controversy in the literature on metaphor over the question whether and to what extent metaphors have determinate propositional content. Here I am taking it for granted that metaphors often, even if not always, have cognitive signiWcance that outstrips whatever prop ositional content they might have. See e.g. David Cooper, Metaphor (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986) and Josef Stern, Metaphor in Context (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2000), both of which defend, in diVerent ways, the view that the cognitive signiWcance of a metaphor is not to be identiWed with whatever propositional content it might have. Also, I do not mean to deny that metaphors get used in analytic theorizing to put forward models, or to otherwise 'support' various kinds of (literal) theoretical claims. But in such cases, I think, it is the models or the supportive claims that play the more substantive role. (For defense of the view that metaphors can be 'reality depicting' and can 'support metaphysical claims' in both religion and science, see Janet Martin Soskice, Metaphor and Religious Language (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), esp. chs. 7 and 8.)

P5. Treat conceptual analysis (insofar as it is possible) as a source of evidence.

More might be added, of course. But my 'official' list stops at P5 because most of what else I would add wouldn't really count as prescriptions that divide analytic from continental philosophers. P1—P5 are contentious, however. By my lights, they are prescriptions that non-analytic philosophers either reject as unimportant or actively aim to violate, and for principled reasons.

On the surface, these prescriptions might seem to be just stilted expressions of fairly commonsensical virtues that we all (even postmodern philosophers) aim to inculcate in our undergraduates: reason coherently; write clearly; say what you mean and mean what you say; try to express your ideas in terms that your audience will understand; try not to express your arguments and conclusions in overly 'poetic' language; understand the terms that you're employing and rely on your understanding of those terms to draw out the implications of what you say and what you presuppose; and so on. Thus construed, it is hard to imagine how anyone could sensibly object.

In fact, however, each of the prescriptions (or the presumption that each can be followed when treating some philosophical or theological topic) expresses or presupposes views that can very reasonably be questioned. And I think that it is precisely the deep-seated reservations that many non-analytic philosophers have about the views underlying these prescriptions that explains a lot of the current hostility toward analytic approaches to theological topics. (The third section of this chapter, 'Against the Analytic Style' is devoted to unpacking this last remark in some detail.)

I have gone on for a bit now about what analytic philosophy is. Hopefully it is also becoming clear what analytic philosophy is not. Nothing in my characterization of analytic philosophy has wedded it to a particular theory of truth. Nor have I saddled it with commitment to a particular epistemo-logical theory. Contrary to what various critics of analytic philosophy have suggested, there are analytic philosophers aplenty who reject (for example) the correspondence theory of truth; there are also analytic philosophers who reject foundationalism. Analytic philosophers are not, as such, committed to belief in propositions (at least not where propositions are considered to be abstract entities that stand in the is expressed by relation to sentences). Nor are they committed to any brand of metaphysical realism or moral or metaphysical absolutism.8 In fact, so far as I can tell, there is no substantive philosophical thesis that separates analytic philosophers as such from their rivals.

8 Some seem to think that the grand explanatory ambitions of analytic philosophy commit it to a brand of realism, or at least to 'absolute metaphysical truth'. But this is manifestly false. If metaphysical realism is false, then that fact will be part of the 'grand explanation' that we're all striving for. If there is no absolute truth (whatever exactly that means), then there won't be a

To be sure, analytic philosophers typically write as if certain meta-philosophical theses are true—in particular, whatever theses underlie the prescriptions sketched above. Moreover, it is reasonable to think that both foundationalism of a certain kind and metaphysical realism lurk in the background of a lot of analytic theorizing (more on foundationalism in the next section below). But my point here is that analytic philosophy as such carries no commitment to these theses. It is easy enough to imagine an analytic philosopher objecting to any one of them, and doing so more or less in the analytic style and in the service of some of what I have called the ambitions of the analytic philosophical tradition. It is, I think, a failure to recognize this fact that has led to so many of the embarrassing caricatures of analytic philosophy in the contemporary literature.

So much, then, for analytic philosophy. What about analytic theology? As I see it, analytic theology is just the activity of approaching theological topics with the ambitions of an analytic philosopher and in a style that conforms to the prescriptions that are distinctive of analytic philosophical discourse. It will also involve, more or less, pursuing those topics in a way that engages the literature that is constitutive of the analytic tradition, employing some of the technical jargon from that tradition, and so on. But, in the end, it is the style and the ambitions that are most central. For this reason, analytic theology as an enterprise stands or falls with the viability of its ambitions and with the practical value of trying to do theology in a way that conforms to the prescriptions that characterize analytic philosophical writing.

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