Sunday, December 30, 2007

Who's your favorite philosopher?

C. S. Lewis admirers are often criticized for the excessive devotion to Lewis. Consider the following comment about he secondary literature on Lewis, written in 1985 by John Beversluis:

“Sections devoted to biography read like hagiography. We seldom encounter a mere fact about Lewis; accounts of his behavior, attitudes, and personal relationships are instead reported in the wide-eyed manner of the impressionable disciple. To describe him as a wonderful friend is a lamentable understatement; we must be assured that no one ever was a better friend. To praise him as brilliant in debate is entirely too lukewarm a compliment; we are told that C. S. Lewis could have matched wits with any man who ever lived. To endorse him as a Christian apologist of the first rank is altogether inadequate; his apocalyptic Vision of Christianity must be likened to that of St. John on the Isle of Patmos. After a while, one longs for patches of sunlight to dispel the reverential haze. One tires of enduring these excesses and of having to plow through equally ecstatic testimonials in book after book.”

To put this into perspective we might ask this question. Most people have some thinker that they really like, whose ideas they believe to be underestimated by the philosophical community, or the community of thought at large. Some people just love Quine, or Russell, or Plantinga, or Kripke, or whoever. Many admirers of Wittgenstein are thought to have been hagiographical in their admiration, including my former teacher Peter Winch. One faculty member at Arizona State University that I knew used to have a picture of Rudolf Carnap in his office with the a sticker on it that said "top philosopher." I have seen similar devotion to Friedrich Nietzsche. People get interested in writing about Nietzsche, say, because they think they can bring out some of Nietzsche's ideas and show how they make sense in present day thought. But there are inherent limitations with any thinker. Any thinker is, to some extent, a product of a particular time and place. Some thinkers have good broad and general ideas, but do not provide as much technical development as we would like to see. In fact, if someone isn't a product of the sort of intellectual climate known to us as "contemporary analytic philosophy," we can guarantee that their ideas won't be developed on a technical level well enough to satisfy the analytic community. Any thinker will have biases and blind spots that those who follow after him or her will have to compensate for.

The idea is not to bow down before your favorite thinker, but to sit on his or her shoulders, and may see a few things that thinker did not see.


Anonymous said...

Well put, Victor! I know I have gained a lot from sitting on Lewis's shoulders that I wouldn't have gotten without that experience. I tire of the criticism of hagiography. It's almost as if when writing about another writer--one isn't supposed to like that writer. One must always be critical. Of course, we must be careful of overestimating the benefits of reading Lewis, or any other author. And for me, as a pastor/theologian, Lewis's ideas must always be brought to the bar of Scripture and tested there. But if one is not allowed to just like an author, and recommend certain points brought out by that author by saying: "Look, see, isn't that great!" then one loses a lot of the joy of reading.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I hold William Lane Craig in such a position. I am reminded of a passage in Reasonable Faith, \"I think the obsession of contemporary evangelicals with the writings of authors like C. S. Lewis to the neglect of writers like Dostoyevsky is a great shame? Dostoyevsky is a far, far grander writer.\" I was quite surprised when I first read that, I guess because it knocked Lewis off of his kingship status in my mind.

Victor Reppert said...

Will: Welcome fellow IVP Lewis author. I object when the hagiography problem is used to imply that if you don't accept this or that criticism or negative claim about Lewis, you're a hagiographer. So, if you don't want to agree that Lewis's apologetics are a dismal failure, or that Lewis had an affair with Mrs. Moore, or that he gave up on apologetics after the Anscombe incident, you're an impressionable disciple. I do think that the literature on Lewis's apologetics, at least before Beversluis, tended not to think about what a skeptic could say in response to Lewis. Sometimes what Lewis fans think is oh so cogent doesn't sound so good to skeptics (that's an understatement), and we need to at least anticipate what the other side is going to say before we just say that it all works.

Chad: I think Bill has been misunderstood on this. He's a product of Wheaton College, and I think there in the English you had a lot of people interested in Lewis and his friends to the exclusion of other Christian literary figures, like, for example Dostoyevsky. Lewis's essay "On the Reading of Old Books" makes a similar point to the one that Craig is making.

Blue Devil Knight said...

I have noticed a similar devotion to Wittgenstein amongst many Brits. I have sometimes wondered if the English have a secret pact with the Royal Family to use their overdeveloped British powers of persuasion to promote one another and increase the influence of their little island in the world.

From what I've seen here, Lewis had his finger on the pulse of lines of argument that still resonate today, and he was a clear writer to boot.

Also, I think it serves a useful function to have devotees, as it ensures that authors' views will not be jettisoned prematurely. It forces the critics to come up with good arguments.

exapologist said...

Limiting myself to contemporary analytic philosophy, I would to say Stephen Yablo at MIT. He's not the easiest person to read, but his work in metaphysics, and in modal epistemology, are pretty much the most careful and probing, shedding much more light than just about any contemporary philosopher I know.

slaveofone said...

My vote goes to Francis Schaeffer. He helped me understand myself, my world, and where and why I fit inside of it the way I did...which in turn empowered me to break out of the prison of my cultural world-view and go from a Relativistic Existentialist to a Theist. It seems no matter how sophisticated the philosophical argument, it always go back to something Schaeffer already said. Unfortunately, however, he is no biblical scholar...

Blue Devil Knight said...

All time favorite: Kant. The guy is simply a powerhouse.

Favorite still alive: Dretske. He will be remembered in a hundred years as coming really close to getting things right, and to pushing naturalism in the right direction.

Anonymous said...

Since we're playing hero-worship, I have to point to some sadly overlooked authors in both the secular and theological fields whose insights deserve to be taken more seriously.

Theologians: John Oman and Emil Brunner. The former wrote a brilliant, exhaustive book "The Natural and the Supernatural", which simply has the best epistemology of religion I've ever seen, far outstripping those of Plantinga or Alston in sophistication. Brunner has the most sensible, articulate and sophisticated view of divine revelation I've ever encountered (pun intended, since one of his major works was called "Truth as Encounter").

Philosophers: Raymond Tallis. Though he is no religious person, he has the most sophisticated and informed critiques of scientism and materialism I've ever seen. He makes many of the same arguments other Christian apologists have made (such as the 'evolutionary argument against naturalism', the deficiency of materialist theories of consciousness), but from a secular perspective, informed by the best in neuroscience (he is a retired neurosurgeon) and contemporary philosophy. Everyone needs to read his "The Explicit Animal". Also must are his essays in "On the edge of certainty". "Enemies of Hope" is also good for those who don't like postmodernism or deconstruction.

Anonymous said...

Bernard Williams. One of the most stimulating of modern thinkers in the area of moral philosopy. There's a fairly decent write up of him in Wikipedia. "Shame and Necessity" is a good intro to his thinking.

Tim said...

One of my favorites is A. J. Ayer in his post-positivist phase. I don't always agree with Ayer, but I find myself nodding sympathetically at his critique of Wittgenstein. As a philosophical stylist, Ayer is almost peerless. I recommend his essays to my graduate students as prose models.

Karl Popper also comes to mind. I began my philosophical career with a reading of Conjectures and Refutations. Though I now disagree with the central (anti-inductivist) point of Popper's epistemology, I still admire the grace and power of his work.

For a combination of panache and irreverence, I nominate D. C. Stove, un chevalier sans peur et sans reproche.

Oddly, Popper is very critical of the sort of approach advocated by Ayer, and Stove is deeply critical of Popper. Somehow, this doesn't dampen my enthusiasm for any of these great thinkers.

Others who make my list would include C. D. Broad (underrated and well worth rediscovering), J. M. Keynes (for his probability theory, not for his economics), C. I. Lewis (basically right in epistemology), Curt Ducasse (wide-ranging and almost always worth reading on any topic), Rudolf Carnap (particularly on induction), Wesley Salmon (anything in the philosophy of science), and Carl Hempel (anything at all). Again, these are not blanket endorsements of the particular doctrines of these philosophers. But I cannot imagine a young philosopher who could not learn an immense amount from reading any of these writers.

Unknown said...

Kierkegaard. Not because I think he is always (or even mostly) right, but because he forces me to "think [my] thoughts whole". In a similar vein, I know people who find it hard to admit Sartre said anything wrong, even when he contradicted himself.


IMO both are great Christian thinkers, but Lewis and Dostoyevsky are very different writers and I think I agree with WLC here: I admire Lewis as an apologist, but as a novelist Dostoyevsky is in another league altogether. But then I have kind of dedicated my blog to him.


I have sometimes wondered if the English have a secret pact with the Royal Family to use their overdeveloped British powers of persuasion to promote one another and increase the influence of their little island in the world

Yeah, we're sneaky like that. How else to account for Dawkins' fame?

David Bergan said...

1. Blaise Pascal

2. George MacDonald

3. G. K. Chesterton

4. C. S. Lewis