Great Christian thinkers

I’ve previously written, in reference to Ed Feser:

I agree that Leprechaunology is not a great analogy for the work of Aquinas or Leibniz. But it’s easy to suggest better analogies: how about Spinozism or Hegelianism? I’d be surprised if Feser took either of those doctrines terribly seriously.

The dirty little secret of philosophy is that just because a philosopher is held up as “great” to the public and considered required reading in undergraduate courses does not mean professional philosophers think his work is very good, or that they’re obliged to study him carefully before thinking his work is not very good.

Feser bemoans this when his colleagues do it to Aquinas, but he himself does it with plenty of modern and contemporary philosophers. The brand of rhetoric that Feser has made his name on strikes many professional philosophers as utterly bizarre, and with good reason.

Let me expand a little. Feser seems to rely on the assumption that people like Augustine and Aquinas were great thinkers, and there’s no need to argue this, because everyone knows who history’s great thinkers are. And if what you mean by a “great” thinker is an influential one, then there’s no question that Augustine, Aquinas, etc. were “great” thinkers. The problem is that there’s little reason to think believing nonsense is a barrier to becoming influential, so the “greatness” of Augustine and Aquinas in this sense is no evidence that they didn’t believe a lot of nonsense.

On the other hand, if what you mean by “great” is the quality of a thinker’s insights, the quality of his contributions to the intellectual tradition, then there’s no agreement as to who the “great” thinkers are. For example: Georg Hegel (1770-1831): greatest philosopher whoever lived? Or was his work, as Schopenauer (1788-1860) said, “a colossal piece of mystification” featuring “the most outrageous misuse of language”? Informed people disagree. Then there’s the fact–as mentioned above–that Feser himself has little regard for most of the philosophers in the standard list of greats from Descartes onwards.

A third thing people might mean when they talk about “great” philosophers is that when we read Augustine or Aquinas, it’s just obvious that these were very smart men, and any idea had by a very smart man must be at least somewhat good. Now, I don’t think it really is so obvious that Augustine and Aquinas were that smart (Augustine’s The City of God is on the face of it a rambling piece of hack polemic), but let that pass.

The bigger problem here is that intelligence isn’t much of a barrier to believing nonsense. Indeed, it isn’t even always a barrier to supporting downright evil causes–as we learned from Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) and the other German intellectuals who supported the Nazis. Part of the problem, as Michael Shermer said, is that “Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.” But the problem is even worse than that: there are some kinds of nonsense that only smart people are capable of producing.

This is related to the points I’ve made previously, but let me give an especially clear example: physicist Alan Sokal’s paper Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity. Here is a sample:

But deep conceptual shifts within twentieth-century science have undermined this Cartesian-Newtonian metaphysics; revisionist studies in the history and philosophy of science have cast further doubt on its credibility; and, most recently, feminist and poststructuralist critiques have demystified the substantive content of mainstream Western scientific practice, revealing the ideology of domination concealed behind the façade of “objectivity”. It has thus become increasingly apparent that physical “reality”, no less than social “reality”, is at bottom a social and linguistic construct; that scientific “knowledge”, far from being objective, reflects and encodes the dominant ideologies and power relations of the culture that produced it; that the truth claims of science are inherently theory-laden and self-referential; and consequently, that the discourse of the scientific community, for all its undeniable value, cannot assert a privileged epistemological status with respect to counter-hegemonic narratives emanating from dissident or marginalized communities. These themes can be traced, despite some differences of emphasis, in Aronowitz’s analysis of the cultural fabric that produced quantum mechanics; in Ross’ discussion of oppositional discourses in post-quantum science; in Irigaray’s and Hayles’ exegeses of gender encoding in fluid mechanics; and in Harding’s comprehensive critique of the gender ideology underlying the natural sciences in general and physics in particular.

Here my aim is to carry these deep analyses one step farther, by taking account of recent developments in quantum gravity: the emerging branch of physics in which Heisenberg’s quantum mechanics and Einstein’s general relativity are at once synthesized and superseded. In quantum gravity, as we shall see, the space-time manifold ceases to exist as an objective physical reality; geometry becomes relational and contextual; and the foundational conceptual categories of prior science — among them, existence itself — become problematized and relativized. This conceptual revolution, I will argue, has profound implications for the content of a future postmodern and liberatory science.

There’s no question that this is nonsense. When the journal Social Text published the article in 1996, Sokal immediately revealed that the article was “a parody,” which he had submitted to the journal to test the question “would a leading North American journal of cultural studies… publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions?”

However, while Sokal’s article was “liberally salted with nonsense,” it was not nonsense that just anyone could have written. To write an article like that you’d need, at minimum, some knowledge of physics, some knowledge of postmodern literary theory, and a certain knack for imitating other people’s writing style. In other words, it’s something Sokal might have published even if he hadn’t had a point to make and just wanted to show off. And if he had just wanted to show off, he might have been better off not revealing the hoax.

This is not to say that any famous philosophers have consciously perpetrated Sokal-style hoaxes and just not told anybody. I suspect that the worst nonsense producers do want to impress people but also manage to convince themselves they’re talking sense. But whatever is going on inside the heads of certain people, the Sokal hoax shows that a piece of writing can display intelligence and learning and still be arrant nonsense.

Now, while there are lots of important differences between science and philosophy, most of what I’ve said here applies to scientists as much as philosophers. Newton’s work in physics is held in high regard not because Newton was obviously such a great guy, but because Newton did an impressive job of drawing inferences from the evidence (even though we now know some of his ideas about physics were wrong). Newton also put a lot of effort into occultism and finding hidden messages in the Bible, but scientists don’t feel obligated to respect that part of Newton’s work simply because he was a “great thinker.”

What I’ve written so far has been about philosophers and “thinkers” in general, but there’s an additional problem with defending Christianity with appeals to great Christian thinkers: for much of the history of Christianity, it wasn’t safe to be anything other than a Christian in Christian lands. Augustine argued that heretics should be corrected with torture and imprisonment, and there is a place in The City of God where he gloats about the fact that some people had written rebuttals to his work, and then refrained from publishing them out of fear for their own safety. Aquinas went a step further and argued that heretics should be executed.

Things improved only gradually after the scientific revolution. Hobbes was tried for heresy and could have been executed if found guilty, but escaped with only a ban on future writings. Spinoza’s Theological Political Treatise (which argued for “freedom to philosophize”) had to be circulated clandestinely, and Spinoza was unable to publish his Ethics during his lifetime.

Hume lived after the last execution for blasphemy in Britain, but lost out on a teaching position at the University of Edinburgh in part because his Treatise of Human Nature was perceived as threatening the traditional arguments for the existence of God. Hume later discussed the arguments for the existence of God in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, and though he concealed his own views behind the characters in the dialogue his friends persuaded him not to publish the book during his lifetime. Only in the 19th century did it become truly safe to openly reject all religion, and at that point you got prominent thinkers openly rejecting all religion.

One reason this last point is important is that it’s tempting to say, “The arguments for the existence of God given by people like Thomas Aquinas and Samuel Clarke were convincing to people back then because people back then accepted the arguments’ assumptions, but today we reject those assumptions.” But I wonder if people found the arguments all that convincing even back then. Maybe they were just afraid to disagree.

Leave a comment


  1. One of my profs. wrote a parody of that sort of post-modernist Foucault-Derrida style philosophy:

    “A typically quasi-transfigured objectivity on the part of Professor A, ultimately involves a loss of subjective continuity for student B–an indeterminate objectivization of the self by the self-indeterminate, in that it involves a constant reiterating of the imaged other, Professor A, through a constantly revising extension of the range of one’s thoughts, however innocent, through hermeneutically revised elocutions of tonic and dominant relationships.”

  2. I haven’t read Augustine and Aquinas and I have no reason to, apart from historical interest. My objection to Feser is that human knowledge has advanced enormously since their time. No matter how astute they may have been, they didn’t have the benefit of modern science. As someone who thinks the right approach to philosophy is a “naturalized” or scientific one, I think that Augustine and Aquinas cannot be expected to have got philosophy right.

    In my view we should start our enquiries from what we know best, which is the facts and methods that science has taught us. I believe that taking that approach enables us to dissolve the thorny philosophical questions that have remainder unsettled for centuries. Traditional philosophy relies far too much on premises which are accepted just because they seem intuitively appealing, but in fact are often deeply misleading. I agree with Wittgenstein that philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by our language. It seems to me that many philosophers are still thoroughly bewitched.

  3. the “greatness” of Augustine and Aquinas in this sense [their influence on Christian thought] is no evidence that they didn’t believe a lot of nonsense

    Here here.