Quote of the day: Walter Kaufmann defines theology

January 15, 2013 • 11:41 am

I can’t recommend Walter Kaufmann’s book Critique of Religion and Philosophy (1958) highly enough. It’s erudite, packed with original thought and analysis, and accessible to the general reader. I’m concentrating on the critique of religion rather than philosophy, but the former occupies most of the book.

Kaufmann begins his book with a section on “philosophical psychology,” and on p. 2 notes that “Ordinary language philosophy, like Idealism, is often guilty of rationalization—or, as another Idealist, [Francis H.] Bradley, put it very beautifully, ‘the finding of bad reasons for what we believe on instinct.'”

The quote for today, which appears on p. 152 of the book, hearkens back to the above:

To vary Bradley’s dictum about metaphysics: theology is the finding of dubious reasons for what the theologian has believed all along; and when the chips are down, he consults his conscience and, if necessary, forgets his theology. Sometimes this means a decided improvement.

There you have it: both the definition and methodology of theology in just a few hard-hitting words. Implicit, too, is faith’s incompatibility with science: the a priori commitment to support what you know to be true.

26 thoughts on “Quote of the day: Walter Kaufmann defines theology

  1. That quote reminds me of Bertrand Russell’s take on the Catholic church’s in-house philosopher, Thomas Aquinas:

    There is little of the true philosophic spirit in Aquinas. He does not, like the Platonic Socrates, set out to follow wherever the argument may lead. He is not engaged in an inquiry, the result of which it is impossible to know in advance. Before he begins to philosophize, he already knows the truth; it is declared in the catholic faith. If he can find apparently rational arguments for some parts of the faith, so much the better; if he cannot, he need only fall back on revelation. The finding of arguments for a conclusion given in advance is not philosophy, but special pleading.

    1. You know, in that quote there’s also an indication of what’s fundamentally worng with philosophy as well — that is, that philosophy is an exercise in starting with a thought and examining the implications of said thought.

      The problem, of course, is the age old one of GIGO. The result is all of that existential platonic trolley car metaphysical first principles bullshit that we keep getting from philosophers that’s worse than useless.

      As soon as you step out of the ivory tower and actually sift your impressive thoughts through the grinder of empirical observation, not only do you reign in and put an end to the pointless flailing, you also come up with an amazing amount of truly useful stuff, from the Standard Model to the Calculus to ethics to Krauss’s and Hawking’s quantum universes from nothing to all the technology we love to just about everything else that powers the modern world.

      You certainly can’t get that from theology, but you can’t do any better with philosophy, either. If you actually want to learn anything, you need to put your ideas to the test — and that’s what distinguishes science from philosophy.



      1. Would you consider Kaufmann’s books pointless flailing? I wouldn’t myself, but you might have read them with greater care and attention than I did, and more recently.

      2. Sure, and that’s why philosophy has lost some ground to science over the past few centuries, and continues to do so. But philosophy is at least a legitimate form of inquiry (it plays by the rules of rationality) and is still our best shot when ideas aren’t directly testable – for instance, in the field of moral philosophy.

        1. I would argue that empirical methods are by far the best tools for learning about ourselves and the world. But as you’ve pointed out, certain ideas are not directly testable. They might become testable eventually; there might be attempts to test them right now. But until results come in, we still have to face the challenge of how to think, how to live.

          To reject philosophy is to reject a powerful way of looking at how to manage our lives in these grey areas, in these regions that are not yet clear to us.

          And even with clarity, even with a good idea of how certain aspects of the universe work, we still might not find these facts directly applicable to our daily lives. It’s fascinating to read about the Higgs boson, but I still have to make choices about what I do, right here, right now.

          How do I make these choices? Are some choices better than others? Right now, until we know more about ourselves, these will remain questions of philosophy.

        2. It’s not so much a matter that philosophy has lost ground to science, it’s more like a huge proportion of contemporary philosophers want philosophy to lose ground to science.

          Nietzsche reveled in this. Wittgenstein tried to lay out some ground rules, but gave up. Tons of philosophers today are involved in cognitive science, trying to make seemingly intractable problems amenable to scientific investigation.

      3. It’s also incredibly useful in dismissing arguments for gods, amongst other things. Almost all the arguments against deities are philosophical (since there isn’t any subject matter to study!!).

      4. Ben’s comment puts me in mind of this quote from James Morrow’s “The Philosopher’s Apprentice”:

        “Late in my senior year, I went through a crisis of doubt when my provisional girlfriend, a willowy physics major named Morgan Piziks, informed me at the end of our fourth date that anybody seriously in the question “Why?” should look not to philosophy but to the physical sciences—to cosmology, quantum mechanics, molecular biology, and the periodic table of the elements.
        My mind went blank. Try as I might, I could contrive no riposte. I felt instinctively that Morgan’s claim enjoyed the nontrivial virtue of being true.”

        Might as well push Morrow’s many virtues here. Anyone looking for a superb dismantling of religion in a fictional format would do well to read him. For a sampling of his quotes taken from “Only Begotten Daughter” and “The Philosopher’s Apprentice”, see:

        Full disclosure: I’m the one who put those quotes up. OK, one more (with apologies for the self-indulgence):

        “It’s an old story, perhaps the oldest on earth,” Joan said. “The sky rumbles, the clouds congeal, the sun spasms. Is that a saint I see on high? An angel? The Lord God Jehovah himself? Now a holy voice booms down, instructing the poor prophet to grab a sword and thrust it into a fellow human, or perhaps a hundred fellow humans, or even a million if the cause is sufficiently sacred. The prophet never talks back. The tradition existed before me. It flourishes to this day. The sword, the blood, the freshly created corpses littering the battlefield, exuding the stink of epiphany.”

  2. Theology is alternatively either the study of the invisible emperor’s invisible clothing or the efforts of the con artists to give gravitas to the scam.


  3. I second the recommendation, great, great book. Not only is Kaufmann a great writer and thinker, he’s got a sense of humor too. Back in college at a used book store I saw a first edition of this book on the shelf, didn’t know about the author at the time but was intrigued by the title. Best book purchase I ever made.

  4. BTW Jerry, If you are into Kaufmann, I would highly recommend The Portable Nietzsche. It might be just the thing to get the bad taste out of your mouth after your Bible reading.

    1. And also because Nietzsche’s argument that christianity is based on resentment helped to clarify, for me, what I found so appalling in that religion.

    1. Well thanks for clearing that up for me. I always thought that theology was the practice of finding employment for the least used words in the dictionary.

    2. “Philosophy is like being in a dark room and looking for a black cat.”
      “Metaphysics is like being in a dark room and looking for a black cat that isn’t there.”
      “Theology is like being in a dark room and looking for a black cat that isn’t there and shouting ‘I found it!'”
      “Science is like being in a dark room and using a flashlight to look for a black cat.”

      Not my original. Unfortunately.

      1. This one’s original: it’s mine. 🙂

        “Philosophy is like being in a dark room and using a flashlight to look for a black cat. The light flickers and dies. What options do we have now?”

    3. Until I started exploring the topic more systematically my definition was:

      “Religion is the art of making unnecessary assumptions”

      It doesn’t cover all the abyss.

  5. I like the quote because it brings out the commitment aspect to faith. What I see happening is that believers seem to take this element and confuse it with loyalty, or steadfastness, or discipline. You must try to keep your faith, like you keep your word.

    In doing this, the religious lose sight of the fact that we’re supposed to be talking about a claim of truth — a hypothesis — not standing by your friend, persevering in the face of obstacles, or loving a child though it be handicapped. They spin and spin and spin results to fit the conclusion as if they’re being morally tested.

    The sad truth, though, is that they’re actually failing the moral test: if it looks like you’re wrong you ought to change your mind, not creatively come up with cunning new ways to validate your biases. A badly-supported hypothesis is not a handicapped child who needs to be hugged all the tighter.

    Kaufman looks like the best sort of philosopher: the kind who clarifies issues and helps us understand how to think.

    1. It seems to me that ‘keeping the faith’, considered on its own terms, is more of a virtue than ‘believing in belief’. A person who is determined to ‘keep the faith’ will be more likely to stand by a friend or stick with the long task of caring for a handicapped child, because the same qualities are required. A person who is proud of ‘believing in belief’, however, is as likely as not to believe in ridiculous things, & you probably shouldn’t count on them when the chips are down.

  6. I so appreciate the reading suggestions. My reading list is getting longer and longer, and longer and …..

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