Sunday, March 19, 2006

Logic is Back

Surely, in those quiet moments, we all ask ourselves that nagging question: Why does millinerd always discuss postmodernity? Though I too grow bored of the topic, the reason, dear reader, is bad teaching. I heard several lectures that used "postmodernity" as a passport to sloppy thinking and just plain awful theology. This wouldn't have been too much of a concern, as no one can entirely avoid bad lectures - but the problem with these is that the listeners were nodding their heads... vertically!

With MacGyver-like urgency I patched together an initial response with the chewing gum and paper clip of my own intellectual resourses - such heroism! I even managed to secure a minor publishing contract to broadcast my attempts. Not without struggle did I resist the temptation of the standard knee-jerk traditionalist critique. Soon however I was made aware of thinkers much wiser than I, Christian and non, who had developed sophisticated responses to postmodernity of their own, and my confidence gained. I summed up the journey with the millinerd motto, "The answer to false stories [i.e. one's stemming from materialist or amorphously transcendentalist assumptions] is not no story [Lyotard's famous definition of the pomo as "incredulity of metanarratives"] but the true story" [that is, the sweeping narrative of creation, fall, redemption and consummation we call the Gospel].

But now, to mix 80's T.V. metaphors, my MacGyver efforts have been even further assisted by the late arrival of the A-Team, that is, the oft-ignored tradition of analytic (as oppose to continental) philosophy.

Of course, all such reinforcement may be overcompensation. In our post-Sokal hoax world, it is doubtful whether formal rejection of postmodernity is even necessary, possible as it to now reject it on purely postmodern grounds: That is, if being "transgressive" is commendable, then the phenomenon of pop-postmodernity makes postmodernity no longer truly transgressive at all.

Nevertheless, turn up the accompaniment and click HERE to see the A-Team in action.

The Distinction
It's not that continental philosophy is to be discarded. I agree with David Hart who writes that the continental tradition has a special realtionship to theology, which is
"always already involved in the Continental tradition - its longings and nostalgias, its rebellions and haunting memories, its interminable flight from the Christian rationality that gave it life - and so is responsible for and before it; ... This is the burden of consanguinity: theology cannot disown its history - or its children" (30).
But whereas continental philosophy is an runaway child of theology, the analytic tradition was adopted by another family. In a recent article entitled "Theology's Continental Captivity," R.R. Reno argues that while continental philosophy sought to replace Christianity, analytic philosophy thought science did that, and therefore always understood philosophy to be of more limited aspiritation. The analytic tradition
"announces by its name the secondary or handmaidenly role it is to play: not revealing or disclosing truth but analyzing the exigencies of what is taught or disclosed."
And for those of us who realize that science hasn't replaced Christianity, the soft reading light of the analytic tradition is an attractive alternative to the sun-mimicking stadium lamps of the continentals.

W.V. Quine?!
In contrast to the extreme atheistic branch of analytic philosophy known as logical positivism, Reno seeks to recover the movements more moderate proponents such as Quine who dared think
"that good arguments should compel the mind and that a responsible intellectual should set out to discern what is and is not true about the world... Quine was skeptical about the ability of philosophy to explain why particular beliefs are justly held as true (thus nonfoundational in epistememology) - while, at the same time, he did not think that truth and the human ability to know truth are illusory or sources of violence and oppression (thus foundational in the more robust, metaphysical sense)."
No doubt this might conjure up someone's postmodern metaphysiphobia, but the prejudice against metaphysics is, if only to be informed of the flood of recent work on the subject, something one needs simply overcome. Do so, if you must, in the name of mere tolerance. After all, meta (i.e. beyond) physics is merely the realization that the cosmos we find ourselves in "is astonishing beyond measure and cannot be exhaustively explained by any cause which derives from within [it]" (615).

Recovering the analytic tradition's use of logic enables Reno to dispell the cloud of suspicion cast on rationality by postmodernity. This leads to some pomo-party-pooping problems such as,
"In what sense does the principle of noncontradiciton lead to colonialism or gender inequality? How does 2+2=4 suppress religious differences?"
In a statement that recalls the thought police in Orwell's 1984 who rather than attacking their victim's logic, did everything to remove it, Reno reminds us that
"Totalitarian governments tend to silence reasoned arguments, not encourage them as tools for domination."
John Locke?!
Moving beyond Reno's article, what happens when we keep following the strands of the primarily English, analytic tradition to what are (arguably) its roots, even daring to taste the forbidden fruit of the hopelessly "modern" John Locke? In a review of Nicholas Wolterstorff's books on Locke, I read the following most unusual remarks:
"Wolterstorff quotes Locke in what could be a rebuke to the postmodern skeptics of our own time:
'We shall not have much reason to complain of the narrowness of our minds, if we will but employ them about what may be of use to us; for of that they are very capable: And it will be unpardonable, as well as childish peevishness, if we undervalue the advantages of our knowledge, and neglect to improve it to the ends for which it was given us, because there are some things that are set out of the reach of it. ...If we will disbelieve everything, because we cannot certainly know all things; we shall do much - what as wisely as he, who would not use his legs, but sit still and perish, because he had no wings to fly.'
So much, then, for the stereotype of Locke as the Great Modern Knower whose reason magisterially sweeps over the empirical landscape and comes to universal, certain conclusions about it all. Instead, we find a Locke who is fearful precisely of those who are willing to do battle as fanatical believers in this or that-shall we say it?-metanarrative. Locke seeks to chasten us all with his restricted view of what we can properly claim to know. Locke stands between the premodern and the postmodern in his distrust of "community lore"-whether the appeal to a universal tradition or to the traditions of this or that party-as he seeks to live his life, as he hopes others will, according to our best perception of the true nature of things."
Thomas Reid?!
Could it be however, that as the mists of postmodernity fade, we would even be willing to trespass into the thicket of Thomas Reid's dreaded "Common Sense Realism?" Continues the same reviewer regarding Wolterstorff's book on Reid:
"We all thought we knew that Thomas Reid taught 'Common Sense' as a kind of willful ignoring of the 'real issues' thrown up by Hume and Kant. Thus we felt no qualms about neglecting the work of a man who was perhaps the most popular philosopher in Britain and North America for almost two centuries - one who, in Wolterstorff's view, deserves to be recognized as the peer of Immanuel Kant.

It turns out, at least in Wolterstorff's portrayals, that these philosophers were more circumspect, more relevant, more interesting, and even more Christian than we knew. It turns out that we have a lot to learn from them... Reid dispenses with modern hubris on the one side and postmodern despair on the other. In the latter case, Wolterstorff puts a remark of Wittgenstein's into Reid's mouth as they both, so to speak, confront the philosopher who, just like a clever adolescent, professes to doubt what everyone else knows is true. (This is the sort of person who says, 'You just think you're sitting in a chair now, but in fact you could be anyone, anywhere, just imagining you are you sitting in a chair.') To such foolish skeptics, who are patently ungrateful for the knowledge they have gained so effortlessly by the grace of God, Wittgenstein/Reid affirms that we should respond not with disputation, but with contempt: 'Ach! Unsinn!' we should say. 'Oh, what rubbish!'

The burden of proof, then, is put where it belongs: on the skeptic who has to show why we should doubt what is otherwise so immediately evident, rather than on the believer who has to show why one ought to believe what seems effortless to believe."
The Task Ahead
So there you have it. Reno a Catholic, flanked by Wolterstorff, a Protestant are closing in on postmodern skepticism with the resources of the forgotten analytic tradition (and its "modern" predecessors). Not that it will be easy. Writes Reno,
"I do not doubt that there are many long, complex, and obscure arguments that must be made in order to shape analytic philosophy into a truly Christian project."
To be sure, winning the heritage back from Bertand Russell won't be duck soup, especially considering those of us educated during the analytic eclipse have much catching up to do. But it won't be without its thrills. Because pomo told us all this was a nono, doesn't it all feel, well, transgressive?