Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Maverick Philosopher's Distortion of Continental Verbage

Some analytically-minded philosophers continually mock Continentals for the manner they compose, write or explore an issue. Some CPers are more literary than substantial, as the saying goes. The rhetorical flourish is mocked for obscuring clarity and concealing the argument within. This is an old strategy, probably Carnapian in some weird tangential ways. I digress. For the purpose of this entry, let's take a look at the passage Maverick Philosopher looks at from Paul Tillich, the Christian existentialist theologian. Maverick cites:

Atheism can only mean the attempt to remove any ultimate concern – to remain unconcerned about the meaning of one’s existence. Indifference toward the ultimate question is the only imaginable form of atheism. Whether it is possible is a problem which must remain unsolved at this point. In any case, he who denies God as a matter of ultimate concern affirms God, because he affirms ultimacy in his concern. (Dynamics of Faith; quoted from White, Eternal Quest, p. 94)

Before, I forget. This is the blog entry I am taking issue with.

The example is supposed to be from someone highly influenced by Heidegger, but not a philosopher per se. Pau Tillich was a theologian. We'll let that slide (I could be a "stickler" for that one) since many European thinkers crossed disciplinary boundaries. Merleau-Ponty taught child psychology, and Husserl was a mathematician originally.

Now, Maverick takes this passage out of the text, and I want to discuss the second point he makes at the end. Maverick tries to summarize puts Tillich is making. He introduces the following summary of the argument:

1. God =df one’s ultimate concern.
2. To deny God is to deny that God is one’s ultimate concern.
3. To deny that God is one’s ultimate concern is to affirm one’s ultimate concern.
4. To deny God is to affirm one’s ultimate concern.
5. To deny God is to affirm God.

The problem with this argument is the initial assumption, (1). God cannot possibly be identified with whatever is one’s ultimate concern, since this is different for different people. God is not a role occupiable by different things for different people, but an individual. Once this is clearly seen, it will also be clearly seen why atheism cannot be defined as the attempt to remove any ultimate concern. Atheism is not the denial of ultimate concern but the denial that a certain being is a possible object of one’s ultimate concern. The fact that ultimate concern cannot be removed since everyone has one does nothing to show that God’s existence cannot be denied (Maverick Philosopher blog entry).

My concern is that such re-positioning of Tillich's point might distort what he is doing, and the context he's writing in. Since he is a theologian, he is most likely not concerned about the different ultimate concerns others might have. Theologians have a particular way of ignoring that one.

Secondly, I wonder if Heideggerian influences are abound here, especially with making God is not an individual being, but something we relate to (or in Heideggerian language the object of our comportment). Heidegger looks to analyze and describe the practical activity of how we relate concretely to the world. Now, defining God as one's ultimate concern would seem to fit the Heideggerian motif. However, such context is displaced when you extract passages with no context and judge them on their intellectual merit alone. I'm only suggesting this as one possible way why God is seen as one's ultimate concern, and one of the many possible dangers to posts like this.

Now, it should be clear: I'M NOT SAYING I KNOW WHAT TILLICH IS DOING (The floor is open to anyone who could amend the observations herein). There's just a range of hermeneutic concerns not addressed by reproducing the argument from the passage formally---meaning, "God cannot possibly be identified with whatever is one’s ultimate concern, since this is different for different people" might be a distortion. Following Heidegger, we have a way to say that there might be reasons why Tillich sees God as "someone's ultimate concern" since we're analyzing subjectivity phenomenologically. To know that, however, would require a more detailed and nuanced discussion of the text in question. In other words, I would think that only a very charitable reproduction could succeed since the charity would extend to knowing exactly the context and the history of the particular text in question.

Any suggestions?

1 comment:

TorturedArtist said...

Some good points, Vancouver Philosopher. I agree with you that this argument really needs to be looked at in its original context to really understand what was intended. I find Maverick philosopher's objection to it strange. Surely, I can define 'God' however I want. There is nothing wrong with saying 'God:df One's ultimate concern' provided I maintain that definition throughout the rest of the discussion. . . so it seemed really odd of Maverick to pick on that premise. He should have looked at the rest of the argument. If God is defined as one's ultimate concern then premise 2 is a tautology, and not doing any logical work (although it may be intended to clarify). Premise 3 is the important one. The argument, as it has been formalized, basically asserts that one cannot deny the existence of some x without committing in some tacit fashion to the existence of x's. This seems to parallel an old argument in the analytic tradition, so I'm really not clear why Maverick feels the need to pick on continentals about this. Quine, in "On Words' famously argued that one CAN deny the existence of things without committing to their existence (And he then gave a logic for doing just this...employing Russell's account of singular descriptions to show that he could translate the surface grammar of an expression like 'Pegasus is not' into a proposition of predicate logic that merely denied the existence of an x with certain properties). And, of course, there's been loads of papers written on this topic since. So, this is hardly exclusively a problem for continental philosophers.