So Whadda Ya Know….

By Brian Johnson

[This post is part of a series that the Th.M. students at Western Seminary are doing this semester on understanding the relationship between philosophy and theology.

It’s difficult to “know” how much blood has been spilt on the epistemological battlefield – the age-old attempt to “know” how we “know” – if you “know” what I mean.

This posting is my meager attempt to address the issues at hand from an evangelical point of view, and is in part in a reflection upon Vincent Cooke’s article “The New Calvinist Epistemology.”

Epistemology is defined as “the study of knowledge and justified belief” ( Two elements of this (brief) definition stand out in my mind: What is real knowledge? and What is justified belief?

In most of our epistemological discussions, knowledge is treated as propositional statements. Things like: Tom is 6’4” tall. It could be argued that this is but one kind of knowing. Alongside propositional knowledge, we could add experiential knowledge (playing basketball with Tom), and transformational knowledge (where knowledge of my wife has changed me – I’m a better man now that I’m married).

Additionally, it’s important to distinguish knowledge from reality. While I may know that “Tom is tall”, that knowledge is neither “Tom” nor is it “tallness”. It is just information – a mere subset, and in fact, just one small feature of the reality of Tom.

Thus, I believe we error by making knowledge a kind of shorthand for comprehensive, exhaustive knowledge. Often we find imperfect knowledge sufficient for the task at hand. (Perhaps it’s a matter of precision…)

With regard to justified belief, Cooke brings out an excellent point (via Plantinga): that beliefs can be rational without the support of philosophical justification. That is, there are beliefs that we accept (dare I say must accept) that do not lend themselves to ‘justification’ in the technical philosophical sense.

He goes on to argue that classical foundationalism (the demand that all beliefs be accepted only if they are self-evident, un-doubtable, or evident to the senses) does not meet it’s own demands for justification – i.e. that it itself is not self-evident, nor un-doubtable, nor evident to the senses.

Classical foundationalism has put a wedge between theology and philosophy by demanding ‘justification’ for theological propositions – a kind of ‘justification’ that foundationalism fails to provide for itself. Post-foundational epistemology allows theological propositions (like ‘God exists”) to be accepted as we accept other ideas, which are difficult to justify. (Cooke cites Plantinga’s example of this kind of proposition: “that other minds exist.” This test concept cannot be supported via rigorous justification, but is practically accepted as a ‘basic’ belief.) This opens the door for renewed interaction and dialogue between theology and philosophy – allowing us evaluate theological ideas that previous philosophers simply dismissed.

Personally I’m encouraged by the school of criteriologists (those who believe that in certain circumstances we are justified in accepting beliefs without formal ‘justification’) that Cooke describes, and envision fruitful developments between theology and philosophy in the years to come.

What do you think? Am I justified in seeing the crumbling of classical foundationalism as a positive step for the integration of theology and philosophy?


Posted on October 3, 2010, in Books & Literature, Epistemology, Hermeneutics, Th.M. Program, Theology and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.

  1. Brian,

    I think so. Of course there has been a whole stream of theological reflection that has developed in spite of “foundationalism” in some circles. I’m not even going to mention the name of the guy (or stream) I’m thinking of, specifically, but its only certain circles “where” the crumbling you speak of might be a good thing (it depends on how they attempt to move forward — many of the PoMo moves are just as rationalistically driven as years previous).

    I think Barth/Torrance are where its at. But also, more historically, I think Calvin is someone “Evangelicals” need to get re-acquainted with 🙂 .

  2. Yes, I am glad for the relative destruction of foundationalism. I’m glad because the Age of Enlightenment could also be called the age of human pride. We believed we could conquer the world and our own destinies through human ability and thought. I’m hoping for a new humility in Christian thought and teaching, one that depends more on revelation, illumination, and grace rather than human reasoning.

    I’m not sure the destruction of foundationalism will lead to more or less interaction between philosophy and theology.
    Theology and philosophy have always interacted. Even Descartes himself sought direct correlation between the two.

    I see the crumbling of foundationalism as a positive step for both areas of study.

  3. I think that one of the most significant ideas that has come up in the class (which was also discussed by Grenz in reference to Pannenberg, I believe) is the thought that, as the church, through history we on on a journey towards greater certainty concerning the truth and a deeper acquisition of the truth. This journey is guided by the Holy Spirit through the life of the church and will be completed in the eschaton. This concept works well in an age that has left behind a hard foundationalism because it allows for belief while encouraging the pursuit of truth without the need to act like we know everything there is to know about everything.
    Hard foundationalism in the church has a tendency to build massive theological structures based off of a minutia of absolute foundational data. Through foundationalism’s processes (i.e. reason) all these structures – no matter how far they are removed from the original foundational data – are considered just as absolute and necessary as the foundation itself. This causes lots of fighting and splitting in the church. In this respect I see the softening of foundationalism as a good thing.
    Still, if we are going to pursue a more historical and inspired (through the church) theology, then we will also have to cast aside our mistrust for authority and tradition – mistrust that has propped up the Protestant movement from its inception. I’m not sure we are ready for this yet. Of course there are other options, I just found this one to be the most interesting thus far.

  4. RE: D’s Everyman’s question

    My query: Aren’t foundationalism, coherentism etc ways of saying epistemology from different philosophical narratives, that is different perspectives? i.e. Aristotole’s Metaphysics Gamma

    D-Objection: Roughly “Aren’t you siding with everyman?”

    Dico: At first blush it seems that I am; but, the ‘angel’ is in my nuance. The ‘essence’ underlying my discussions of justifiable truth with a foundationalist ‘is’ same as the coherentist or mystic etc. The ‘pressing out’ of that essence will differ in the ‘substantial form’ that my construction takes in a proportion that is adequate to the perspective of the individual whom I encounter i.e. foundationalist.

    By this I mean that in content/essence of the principles of faith-I am adamant; and in the form of communication – I am expedient. Thus, there are many ways (epistemologically) of saying the essentials of Christ’s Being/being. I don’t suggest siding with everyman; rather, in so far as truth may be spoken, I speak the language game of everyman (cf 1 Corinthians 9:19-22).

    This requires attempting to stand ‘in the between/metaxu’ in order to open up a space (a porousity) to hear and conduct plurivocity (not equivocity) in accord with the potential for truth voiced by each way of saying Being/being.


  5. Not plurivocity again 😉 .

  6. ps in case you thought the New Hegelians (on the right) were dead confer the William Desmond wiki above 😉

    • I still think they’re dead. 🙂

      • Let me think, Balthasar well he died but Steven Fields carries him on. I know William Desmond and his whole group and they are very much alive. Karl Rahner, well yes he also died in the 80’s but the giest of his theology haunts the halls of European theological academia as much as Barth does. So I could go one but I see that my examples except for William Desmond seem to have S.J. behind their names causing me to stop and reconnoiter

        .. yikes .. am I a Hegelian crypto-Catholic in denial?

        Maybe, but if so the last I checked I was very much alive; rather, I prefer denial and a handle as possibly a Pakled-ian philosophical theology: “I look for things to make me go”

        A Narrative of course 😉

  7. Let’s make sure that we’re being clear in all of this that foundationalism is far from dead. As Brian points out in his post, classic foundationalism has been rejected by pretty much everyone. But, there are many other forms of foundationalism that are still alive and well. If you’re going to reject foundationalism as a whole, make sure that you’re dealing with foundationalism at its best, not just the forms of foundationalism easiest to criticize.

  8. Jerome,

    I wonder if it is really possible to play the language game of every man. It seems that we adjust our game to encounter the game of another – radically so. But at the same time we still can only speak from the context in which we live. That context is vast and incorporates a good deal of flexibility in communication with other humans.

    I suppose I would want to clarify and say – we do not play their game. We recognize our game and their game and adjust our game accordingly in order to bring them to some assertion of the truth as we understand it.

    However, I am often wrong. What do you think?

  9. ‘Every’ language game in the thick sense is to tall of an order for one individual so no it is not possible; however, as the body of Christ each of us voices the message whether through the form-language game as foundationalist, coherentist, mystic etc in the context where we ‘live’.=, hence, plurivocity.

    If we adjust our game to the rules of communication (accidens) and porosity (opening a space) to their game without changing the content of our game (substance) thus my point.

    So, I would not describe your notion as wrong; rather, clarifying 😉

  10. ps regarding my Pakled-ian narrative for you more visual types:

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