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January 22, 2011




Richard Blum

Two comments: Chesterton (in his "Orthodoxy") suggested an ethnographic approach to religion.
And: Philosophy of Religion is theology for non-believers (see my book on Phil. of Religion in the Renaissance).

Eric Schliesser

Isn't this Cassirer's program?


Eric: Yes, a number of factors are conspiring recently to convince me that I need to give Cassirer another go.

Richard: I don't think I'm ready (yet, anyway) to give Chesterton a go. I do want to read your book, though.


Justin: First, without wanting to cast doubt on the interest of the approach you're proposing, I think it vastly understates the problems of the contemporary AOS philosophy of religion to say that it's practitioners haven't considered this one possibility. The fact is that not only Mauss et al. but almost anyone worth reading in the entire history of philosophy has more sophisticated things to say about their subject matter than they do.

One advantage of the method you're talking about is that it would actually be about religion (whether or not it would be philosophy is another question, as you point out). What is now called philosophy of religion is not about religion at all, but rather about a few little scraps of metaphysics, absurdly cut off from all the rest. Disastrous results are predictable.

For that reason I think your analogy is not so good. The question here is not so much like your question about the tjurunga. It's more like, for example: "Is the world really composed of material substances, and if so what are they?" The issue is about whether and how we should now apply an ancient, fundamental philosophical concept. (So you see this is related to my response to your previous post about weltliche Weisheit ohne Gott.)


I should add: the fact that contemporary "theistic" philosophers of religion are not (to my knowledge) regularly suspected of atheism, heresy, and/or of θεοὺς οὓς ἡ πόλις νομίζει οὐ νομίζειν, ἕτερα δὲ δαιμόνια καινά, is a pretty clear sign that something is wrong.

Stephen Menn

I agree that a lot of analytic philosophy of religion is a waste of time (not all of it--I remember Nick Wolterstorff's _Divine Discourse_ as being full of interesting ideas). But your criticism overshoots the mark, and the reason can't be right. I certainly won't agree that Avicenna's, Ghazali's, and Averroes' proofs of the existence of God, or Ghazali's and Averroes' criticisms of Avicenna's proof, are a waste of time, even if what they mainly do isn't to settle whether God exists, but rather (say) to clarify what modal or causal concepts we would require in order to prove the existence of God, and what concepts of God the different proofs would be using when they reach their identical-sounding conclusions "there is a God" (or "there is only one God"). Similar things can be said e.g. about Descartes' proofs. And it can't be a fair criticism of proofs of the existence of God to say that a paleolithic hunter-gatherer wouldn't have been able to make any sense of the question--he/she wouldn't have been able to make sense of questions of Newtonian mechanics either, and that doesn't make Newtonian mechanics a waste of time. You're certainly right that we need to be careful and critical about what we mean by "God" or "god," and not assume that there's a single well-defined question on the table when we ask "is there a God?"; but careful analysis of proofs of the existence of God, as in the authors I've mentioned, can bring out that there are different concepts that need to be distinguished, without needing to refer to the hunter-gatherers. Not that comparative anthropological work can't help; and of course Durkheim in _Elementary Forms_ saw himself as contributing to philosophy by showing that the "categories" have a religious, and thus a social, origin. (Warren Schmaus' book helps to bring out the question Durkheim was addressing.) But, honestly, I have to say that I remember especially Mauss as being conceptually pretty confused, e.g. in his attempts to demarcate magic, religion, and science. Certainly the Durkheim-Mauss approach to philosophy, including philosophy of religion, *by itself* isn't going to solve all the problems.


Oh no, but I definitely don't want to say that Avicenna et al.'s proofs for the existence of God are frauds. But I think it would be a huge stretch to say that what they were doing was 'philosophy of religion' in any way that is continuous with what, say, Louis Pojman means by this.

As someone who is contributing to the fraud myself (I'm preparing a course on P. of R., and trying to mitigate its shortcomings where I can), I've looked at a number of standard anthologies for the subject, and can report that they all take 'Does God exist?' as an unambiguously meaningful question. That is the first problem; the second is that they take Aristotle, Avicenna, et al. to have offered a sort of prelude to the field (much like they are thought to have offered to physics, biology, etc.), which is now finally getting to the bottom of its problems in the age of analysis.

In failing to treat the question as historically conditioned, I agree with Abe that it is much as if they were proposing to treat 'philosophy of material substance' as a clearly defined, timelessly meaningful area of inquiry. Material substance is a fascinating philosophical problem, but only to the extent that its embeddedness in a tradition is acknowledged. The same with God, I think.

Beyond this acknowledgment, one does not have to take the 'ethnographic turn' if one is not so inclined. I do have a theory according to which reading texts from the history of philosophy is not entirely unlike doing ethnography, but we can leave that for another occasion.


Neither entirely unlike nor entirely like, I agree.


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