Scripturalism and Analytic Philosophy

According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP), the school of analytic philosophy originated at the beginning of the 20th century as G.E. Moore and Bertrand Russell broke away from the tradition of Absolute Idealism and instead advocated a kind of Platonic Realism that was expressed in terms of “propositions” and “meanings”.  Today, however, the term “analytic philosophy” does not describe anything like the views of Moore and Russell. Rather, it usually refers to method of philosophical analysis.  IEP says “analytic philosophy cannot be defined in terms of a common set of philosophical views or interests, but it can be loosely characterized in terms of its style, which tends to emphasize precision and thoroughness about a narrow topic and to deemphasize the imprecise or cavalier discussion of broad topics.”


Those who are not familiar with this change in usage of the term “analytic philosophy” are sometimes unnecessarily opposed to those who call themselves analytic philosophers, and this is because they associate analytic philosophy with the actual views held by Russell, Frege, Wittgenstein, and other prominent analytic philosophers.  Today, however, when someone calls himself an analytic philosopher, he does not mean to affirm or deny any philosophical positions.  Rather, he means to say that his style (“style” to use the words of the IEP definition) of philosophy is rigorous and thorough as opposed to the more readable, exciting, and passionate style of previous or non-analytic philosophers.


All this is fairly obvious to anyone who has read an exciting book like Soren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling and then picked up something like The Coherence of Theism by Richard Swinburne.  However, many people haven’t much time for analytic philosophy because it is seems slow, dense, and even, to some, it seems unnecessarily complicated.  To such people, a blanket criticism of analytic philosophy is a convenient excuse to not worry about reading any of it.


For those who haven’t slogged through any works in analytic philosophy, the analytic vs non-analytic distinction may still be fuzzy and some examples may be required.  After all, doesn’t every philosopher want to be clear and logical to some extent?  The answer is no, and I hope some examples will show you why.


For Soren Keirkegaard, “Faith is the contradiction between the infinite passion of inwardness and objective uncertainty”.  Here, you have a simple definition of faith or belief, and if you read it in context, it can be quite motivating and helpful.  But I want to contrast this with what an analytic philosopher might say about the subject of faith or belief.


The first contrast would be that an analytic philosopher will sometimes devote an entire paper to a small slice of the subject matter.  For example, there is a very well-written paper about the subject of belief by Andrew Moon titled Beliefs Do Not Come In Degrees.  In this 30 page work, Moon gives 3 arguments that beliefs come in degrees (i.e. that there are strong beliefs, weak beliefs, etc.).  Then, he shows that these arguments fail.  Then, he offers 3 arguments that beliefs don’t come in degrees, including an argument from the metaphysics of degrees.   Then he concludes that beliefs don’t come in degrees.  The contrast is that, while Kierkegaard defines faith and speaks of its operation in people’s lives in almost a single breath, Andrew Moon gives 30 pages to merely establish that it doesn’t make sense to talk about degrees of belief.    This same contrast can be seen in another example where Alvin Plantinga spends 400 pages (in Warranted Christian Belief) to argue for the modest conclusion that a person needn’t be irrational in order to accept Christian Theism.  Yet one can easily find tiny booklets that argue for the enormous conclusion that Christianity is the only rational position anyone can accept.  Therefore, the first contrast might be summarized by saying that analytic philosophy has greater depth but much narrower breadth.


The second contrast can be seen in the precision of terminology.  One can easily see that Moon’s paper aims to have razor-sharp precision, while its really hard to figure out exactly what Kierkegaard is saying in his definition of faith.  As aforementioned, The Coherence of Theism is a good example of this, having a rather exhausting list of definitions of terms near the beginning of the work so as to leave as little doubt about the intended meaning as possible.  Therefore, the second contrast might be summarized by saying that analytic philosophy is characterized by high precision.


The reader might think that this author is overly partial to analytic philosophy.  After all, what could be bad about being precise?  What could be wrong with a work that limits its scope so as to pursue greater depth?  Actually, the answer is pretty easy to see for someone who has read some works in analytic philosophy.  When a work is extremely precise, it is often extremely boring and hard to get through.  When a work is deep but narrow in breadth, a reader doesn’t get a large quantity of knowledge from reading it.  When the two are combined (when a work is both extremely precise and extremely narrow in scope), the reader is sometimes left frustrated because she spent hours reading something boring and difficult, and after she got through it (if she got through it), she only learned a few things (albeit, she learned them thoroughly and perhaps unforgettably).  Such is analytic philosophy.


Is analytic philosophy in any way at variance with Scripturalism?  It doesn’t seem so.  In fact, Gordon Clark’s writings have many of the characteristics of analytic philosophy.  Should everyone read analytic philosophy?  Probably not.  It’s too time-consuming.  Why would a person read analytic philosophy?  A person who wants to understand a subject in philosophy to a depth that is “as deep as it goes” must read analytic philosophy, but this will take time and patience.



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