What can--and what can't--philosophy do? What are its ethical risks--and its possible rewards? How does it differ from science? In Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline, Bernard Williams addresses these questions and presents a striking vision of philosophy as fundamentally different from science in its aims and methods even though there is still in philosophy "something that counts as getting it right." Written with his distinctive combination of rigor, imagination, depth, and humanism, the book amply demonstrates why Williams was one of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century.
Spanning his career from his first publication to one of his last lectures, the book's previously unpublished or uncollected essays address metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, as well as the scope and limits of philosophy itself. The essays are unified by Williams's constant concern that philosophy maintain contact with the human problems that animate it in the first place. As the book's editor, A. W. Moore, writes in his introduction, the title essay is "a kind of manifesto for Williams's conception of his own life's work." It is where he most directly asks "what philosophy can and cannot contribute to the project of making sense of things"--answering that what philosophy can best help make sense of is "being human."
Part of a trilogy of posthumous anthologies of Williams's writing, this miscellany assembles 17 otherwise unrelated, uncollected and, in two cases, unpublished essays by one of Britain's most prominent modern philosophers. Drawing on the entirety of Williams's 50-year career, the volume charts a rough progression from early exercises of Williams's nimble intelligence on specific metaphysics, epistemology and ethics questions (how religious language embodies an argument about the comprehensibility of articles of faith; the structure and merit of R.M. Hare's Moral Thinking) to a veteran's expansive and provocative musings on the proper scope and future of philosophy as a discipline. Many essays address issues Williams did not treat at book length but fit into the prism of his lifelong concerns-rejecting scientific objectivity as a legitimate goal for philosophy, focusing on the historical development of modern ethical values and arguing individual action can only be motivated by internal desires, preferences and evaluations. If Williams occasionally belabors the obvious or follows a tangent of questionable interest, his insight and erudition ultimately enliven nearly every question he takes up, even when he is writing outside his areas of greatest expertise. Students of philosophy will find this cross-section of the breadth of his achievement inspiring, although the lack of an overarching argument or single unifying theme means general readers or those seeking an introduction to Williams's philosophy will be better served by Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy or Shame and Necessity.
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January 01, 2006
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Excerpt from Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline by Bernard Williams
Non pudet, quia pudendum est . . . prorsus credibile est, quia ineptum est . . . certum est, quia impossibile.
--Tertullian, de carne Christi, v.
(1) This paper does not deal directly either with Tertullian or with his paradox. In considering the most famous and most widely misquoted of Tertullian's paradoxes, I do not try to explain it, still less to explain it away; but take it as the starting-point and end of a discussion of religious language and of its relations to theology and to the kind of philosophical inquiry with which this book* is principally concerned. In particular, I try to bring out a certain tension, a pull between the possible and the impossible, a sort of inherent and necessary incomprehensibility, which seems to be a feature of Christian belief, and to locate this point of tension more exactly within the structure of the belief. This tension Tertullian seems to have felt very strongly, and characteristically proclaimed it with vigour; but it is only by this rather thin string that my remarks are tied to what Tertullian said, the strict interpretation of which would require something quite different.
As the path of this paper is rather circuitous, a rough map may help. After stating the paradox (2), I go on to a short discussion of paradoxes in general, their uses and demands (3). I then leave Tertullian for a while, and attempt to show some features which distinguish religious, or at least Christian, language from other kinds of language (4); this is done by presupposing the existence of God, which may seem a rather peculiar procedure for a sceptic, but which will, I hope, serve for a discussion which tries to show something about religious language as used by believers. The thesis is then proposed that Christian belief must involve at least one statement which is about both God and the world, and that this statement must be partly incomprehensible--which I hold to be suggested by Tertullian's paradox, if given its head (5). Some remarks are then made on theology, and its relations to religious language and to the philosophy of religious language; these raise considerations that stop an incipient discussion of the incarnation, and suggest some rather disheartening conclusions about both the philosophy of religious language and theology (6). I end (7) with some observations about faith and about what one may or may not be said to believe on faith.
Tertullian's paradox I represent as a paradox both about Christian belief and about theology, but it is the former that is the more important point. In both cases I consider it as a paradox about meaning rather than about truth; that is, it is with questions of what is being said in religious language that I am concerned, rather than with questions of whether what is said is true, although the two sorts of question are not (and cannot be) kept clinically apart.
(2) Tertullian, the first Latin father of the Church, started his career as a lawyer and ended it as a heretic. After his conversion from heathenism in 196 he remained for only five or ten years a member of the Orthodox Church; both then and after his lapse into the Montanist heresy, he produced a series of theological works remarkable for vigorous reasoning, an unabashed use of legalistic rhetoric against his opponents, and an intransigent acceptance of paradoxical conclusions. The paradox I want to discuss comes from a work entitled de carne Christi which he wrote in the year 208, 'libris', as the Patrologia (Vit. Tert.) elegantly puts it, 'iam Montanismam redolentibus'--'at a time when his writings were already stinking of Montanism'--but the work is not itself, I believe, heretical. He is attacking Marcion, who believed that Christ was not actually born of the flesh, but was a 'phantasma' of human form. Marcion's refusal to believe in a genuine incarnation, Tertullian argues, could come only from a belief either that it would be impossible, or that it would be unworthy, a shameful degradation of the divine nature. Against the view that it would be impossible he produces the sweeping and general principle 'nihil impossibile Deo nisi quod non vult'--'nothing is impossible for God except what he does not wish to do'. In particular Marcion had argued that the idea of the incarnation of God involved a contradiction, because being born as a human being would involve a change in the divine nature;2 but a change involves ceasing to have some attributes and acquiring others; but the attributes of God are eternal; therefore he cannot change; therefore he could not have been born as a human being. Against this Tertullian says that this is to argue falsely from the nature of temporal objects to the nature of the eternal and infinite. It is certainly true of temporal objects that if they change they lose some attributes and acquire others; but to suppose that the same is true of God is just to neglect the necessary differences between God and temporal objects (de c. C. iii). (I shall in section (6) of this paper say something about this, perhaps not immediately convincing, argument.) Finally, against the view that, even if it were possible, God could not wish to be incarnated, because it would be unworthy of him, Tertullian, summing up his objections to Marcion in a passage of great intensity, accuses him of overthrowing the entire basis of the Christian faith: his argument would destroy the crucifixion and the resurrection as well. 'Take these away, too, Marcion,' he says (ibid., v), 'or rather these: for which is more unworthy of God, more shameful, to be born or to die? . . . Answer me this, you butcher of the truth. Was not God really crucified? And as he was really crucified, did he not really die? And as he really died, did he not really rise from the dead? . . . Is our whole faith false? . . . Spare what is the one hope of the whole world. Why do you destroy an indignity that is necessary to our faith? What is unworthy of God will do for me . . . the Son of God was born; because it is shameful, I am not ashamed: and the Son of God died; just because it is absurd, it is to be believed; and he was buried and rose again; it is certain, because it is impossible.' 'Non pudet, quia pudendum est . . . prorsus credibile est, quia ineptum est . . . certum est, quia impossibile': that is Tertullian's paradox.
(3) People who express themselves in paradoxes are in a strong position; and the more outrageous the paradox, in general the stronger the position. For an objector who insists on pointing out the absurdity of what has been said is uneasily conscious that he is making a fool of himself, for all he is doing is pointing out that the paradox is paradoxical, and this was perfectly obvious already: he is like a man who has missed the point of a joke or an ironical remark or an imaginative comparison, and insists on taking it literally. But ironical remarks and imaginative comparisons can have their point, and so can paradoxes; so it will not do, either, for the objector to dismiss the paradox in the hope that its evident absurdity makes it unworthy of discussion; for this is again to suggest that the person who uttered the paradox had overlooked its absurdity, but on the contrary he knew that it was absurd, and that was one reason why he uttered it. Because people do not in general utter absurdities unless they make a point by doing so, it is felt that the paradoxographer must have been saying something important. He not only prevents the critics answering, but makes them feel that in some mysterious way he is in a better position than they are; he is rather like a normally well-dressed man who appears at a function in a black tie and tails: the others present can't mention it to him, they can't overlook him, and they feel uneasy about their own turn-out. Or, again, he is something like a man who firmly closes a door in one's face: not only preventing one from going on, but making one feel one has no right to.
So far the paradoxographer has everything on his side, but it is not entirely so. For, as the man in the black tie, to make his effect, has usually to be well-dressed, and the man who closes the door has to be someone one respects, so the paradoxographer has to have some other claim on the attention of his audience: for in general a paradox, however suggestive in itself, does not represent solid earnings--it draws a little on yesterday's credit or mortgages a little of tomorrow's. This claim on one's attention can be possessed in various ways: positively, by the utterer being a good and impressive and genuine person whose life commands love and respect, or by other utterances of his being original and profound; and negatively, by other conflicting, or apparently conflicting, claims on our attention being confused and unhelpful, or made by persons whose way of life seems trivial, evil or disastrous. If this is so, we might expect to find the beliefs of a religion, for instance, being put forward with a particularly defiant paradoxicality in two sorts of situation: first, when its believers are intensely bound together by a new and compelling faith, and fighting for survival in a hostile but decaying society whose beliefs they utterly reject; and second when, whatever the divisions and discredit that have fallen on the belief itself, those who reject it, their own hopes perishing, seem to have little to offer in its place except angst, tyranny or imminent thermonuclear annihilation.
This, however, so far as it goes, suggests only why people, and in particular religious believers, should tend at one time rather than at another to express themselves in paradoxes; it says little about why anyone should ever at all choose to speak in paradoxes, or suggests at most that they do this as a striking way of getting people to listen to or consider something else. Often it is not much more: to say, for instance, that the Holy Roman Empire was not Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire, is, or should be, a brisk way of preparing for a new historical analysis. But there are other paradoxes which seem more important and significant; where to grasp the paradox seems an essential part of understanding what is being said. Here we have the feeling that a paradox, granted that it has to be understood against a background of other beliefs or a way of life, itself tells us something: that it is in a certain way the essence of what is to be believed. This is particularly so in the case of religious beliefs, where the feeling has itself been expressed in many ways: perhaps by saying, that there is an infinity of things that are beyond our comprehension; or that our reason cannot embrace the deepest truths; or that what we say can only be an unsatisfactory (or, perhaps, analogical) account of what we believe on faith. I shall try to show how such a point of tension, of failure of language, must occur in religious belief, and I think, therefore, that we should take Tertullian's paradox seriously; not as just a rhetorical expression of his objections to a particular doctrine, but as a striking formulation of something which I shall suggest is essential to Christian belief.
(4) There has been much discussion in recent years of religious language and its relations to other types of language; a good deal of this discussion has been concentrated on religious statements, and a good deal of this on the one statement 'God exists'. I think it is now time to consider whether such concentration has not been too narrow: for in each respect it has had undesirable results. First, there is an unclarity in the idea of a language--meaning by this, of course, not a national or dictionary language, such as French or Esperanto, but a logically distinguishable language or type of discourse. Second, the concentration on religious statements, as distinct from other types of religious utterance, has produced a string of disruptive effects: it has overemphasized the difference between the apparently unfalsifiable religious statement and the falsifiable statement of the sciences, which is indeed important and will appear later in what I have to say, but which taken by itself leads to an impasse which looks a little like a reduplication in linguistic terms of the barren nineteenth-century dispute between science and religion; and efforts to get out of this impasse have involved, in some cases, attempts to reduce statements of religion to statements of something else, for instance, of mystical experience, and in others attempts to reduce statements of religion to other things that are not statements at all, such as commands or exhortations to a religious way of life--all of which either involve an evident circularity or omit the peculiarly religious character of the statements altogether. Third, there has been the concentration on the logic of the particular statement 'God exists'; this shows a kind of hopeless courage. It shows courage because this statement seems to be the lynch-pin of the whole system: to uncover what is involved in believing this should be to uncover the whole nature of religious language and the essence of religious belief. But it is just the peculiar importance of this statement that makes hopeless an inquiry that starts with it. Its peculiarity is such that it is extremely untypical of religious statements; a peculiarity emphasized by Collingwood, for instance, when he said that it was not a religious statement at all, but rather the presupposition of any religious statement. We might say that the statement of God's existence has indeed great logical power, but that it is the power not so much of a lynch-pin as of a lever: if we knew, from outside the religious system, how to work with it, we might move heaven and earth; but from outside we do not, because we know neither where we may fix a fulcrum nor where we can insert the other end of the lever. So rather than attempt such a direct approach, we must obey the Boyg, and go round.
I cannot hope to go far round, but perhaps something can be said. First, then, I think we must always bear in mind the fact that religious language is not used just for making statements, but that there are many other kinds of religious utterance: commands, for instance ('Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain'), and, very importantly, prayers, and expressions of trust ('Though he destroy me, yet will I wait for him'), and promises, and reprimands, and many others. Furthermore, none of these utterances, including the statements, is made in vacuo: sometimes they are used as part of a religious ceremony or observance, sometimes as part of a religious person's deciding what to do in a practical situation; and generally as part of the activities of life. This as a general point is one constantly emphasized by Wittgenstein; and in considering religious language it is, I think, particularly disastrous to ignore it.
But what is religious language? Is there one thing which is religious language? With what is it being contrasted? One thing, certainly, with which we must be wary of contrasting or comparing it is that nebulous and pervasive substance, 'ordinary language'. For one thing ordinary language should be the language used by most of us in going about our ordinary occasions, and the question of how religious that is, is the question of how religious or professedly religious most of us are; and if some of us all of the time, and most of us most of the time, do not bring talk about God into our affairs, that seems to be at least as much something about us as something about talk about God. This raises the question of dispensing with talk about God, of what is involved in doing without it; and about that I shall later say a little.
So one might ask, 'What are in general the distinguishing marks of a language, of a type of discourse?'; and in attempting an outline of an answer, one can think at once of at least five possible distinguishing marks. For one language might be distinguished from another by the types of logical relation holding within it; by its subject-matter; by its use of technical terms; by its purposes; or, more generally, by the activities with which its use is associated. But it would, of course, be an illusion to suppose that these five, even if they were satisfactorily distinguished one from another, would be competitors for the position of the one and only distinguishing mark of one language from another; it is rather that from the inter-relation of features like these we can, in particular cases, justifiably claim to distinguish one type of discourse from another. Which of these features one would particularly consider is a question partly of at what level the distinctions are being drawn. If we concentrate on distinctions between the sciences, at a low level of generality, we tend to fasten on distinctions of subject-matter, for we all learn at school that mycology is the study of fungi, and geology the study of rocks, and so on. But it is clear that in doing this we presuppose already a distinction between scientific and other discourse, and between one type of science and another: for not all talk about plants, for instance, and not even all scientific talk about them is botanical talk. Nor will the distinction of subject-matter apply at all to any but the most na�ve distinctions between subsidiary sciences, the distinction elsewhere--for instance, between physics and physical chemistry--lying rather in the scope and terminology of the laws formulated and employed.
But it is not to the present purpose, even if it were possible, to attempt the high Aristotelian task of characterizing the differences between organized bodies of knowledge. For while it may be possible to characterize the language used by some type of scientist in his professional work, or to characterize a professional scientific activity to distinguish it from some other professional activity, such as that of the historian, this is beside our purpose, which is to characterize some unprofessional uses of language as distinct from others. It does seem clear, however, that when we, as laymen, speculate on the distance of a star, for instance, we are using language differently from when we remark on how beautifully it now shines; and that if we say that the first is a scientific use, part of what we mean is that we are asking a question to which the professional scientist is in the best position to give an answer--it is the sort of question he is asking. So we can at this point reintroduce the idea of a professional use of language, and say at least this much: that some of our utterances ask or involve questions that are properly to be answered by techniques and methods of inquiry professionally employed by some types of specialist, and others do not do this.
This distinction does not apply in any simple way to our investigation of religious language. In the case of religious belief, there is indeed the notion of a person who is a religious authority, but this is something quite different from a scientific authority. For first, the religious authority, if there is one, is at least not just someone who has a good training in the methods of answering certain sorts of question, but someone who has the authority to lay down what is to be believed or done. Second, the question of whether there is a religious authority even in this sense and, if so, who it is, has been the occasion of violent dispute, and many people have been killed in the attempts to settle it. But the dispute was about the settling of admittedly religious questions, so a reference to the authority cannot come into the characterization of a religious question. Third, even if we were to say that a specialist or professional use of religious language was to be found in its theological use (and about theology I shall have something to say later), it is clear that the relation of religious language to the theologian is different from the relation of scientific language to the scientist; one who speaks scientifically is at least an amateur scientist, but one who speaks religiously is not necessarily a theologian, even an amateur one.
How, then, can we attempt a characterization of religious, or at least of Christian, utterances, made in their ordinary occasions by persons other than professional theologians? Could we say, for instance, to take up one of the suggested criteria, that certain language was to be characterized as religious, or more specifically as Christian, by reference to certain practices or observances in the course of which it was used? It is clear that such a reference could not give us enough. For, first, the ceremonies would themselves have to be characterized as religious ceremonies, and if we could do this, we should already have a clearer idea of what religious language was. Second, many religious utterances are made outside such ceremonies; unless everyone speaks religiously only on Sundays. The ceremonies might in the end have to be mentioned in a full characterization of a religious life; but what we are looking for must first be found elsewhere. We have seen that in attempting the characterization of other kinds of language, the distinction of subject-matter, of what the language is used about, did not take us very far; but in the case of religious language perhaps we should after all return to it. For religious language, we might say, is, peculiarly, language about God; and by 'peculiarly' I mean not only that all religious language is language about God, but--and this seems to me an important point--that all language about God is religious language.
But to say that religious language is language about God immediately raises three related difficulties. For first, the word 'about' is misleading. In the most normal linguistic sense of 'about', it is statements that are about things or persons; but, as we have already seen, not all religious utterances are statements--a prayer, for instance, is not about God, but is addressed to him. If we are to say, then, that religious language is language about God, we have to take 'about' in an extremely wide sense. I take it that it would not be disputed by Christians that every religious utterance in some sense comes back to God, perhaps in the sense that if the purpose of the utterance is to be explained, God has in the end to be mentioned. In something like this sense, the word 'about' must be understood. I think we have to say, further, that the mere occurrence of the word 'God' in an utterance does not mean that it is actually about God, and so religious; for the most devout may use the word 'God' in idle phrases and not mean really to speak about God. An utterance which includes the word 'God' must be seriously meant to be about him for it to be actually about him.