A Mess of Thoughts On Modernity, Christianity, and Presuppositionalism

Another blog post based on Facebook comments – no editing has been done here, so I’ll correct things piecemeal.

(1) Epistemology, or, more generally, knowing, is made the key ‘thing’, as it were – or, more precisely, between right and wrong ways of knowing. Knowledge tends to be (almost without fail) reduced to various forms of propositionalism and the right/wrong way to know them. Without the right presuppositions, one simply cannot know things. That’s a broad and sloppy sketch.

(2) The forms of knowing articulated by presuppositonalism fail to take seriously the critiques of knowledge leveled against it by the ‘modernity’, in particular Kant, who insisted that we cannot know from a position outside ourselves, ie objectively. There is no universal perspective, no non-contingent knowledge. This was something taken up by Wittgenstein in the context of language, and the it’s the same basic idea – knowledge is always something had in a particular context (this is Hegelian as well), at a particular time. Knowledge is contingent, not universal, timeless, etc – and these critiques are simply brushed aside. Similar differences can be seen in the disputes between continental and analytic philosophy/metaphysics. Are truths universal (analytic), or contingent/historicist (continental)?

I admire Van Til’s boldness but other than that see very little to be gained, past perhaps an initial ‘shock’ causing one to rethink just exactly how one knows. But this goes back to the modern critiques of knowledge – philosophy of the last 300 years or so has taught us that the ‘foundations of knowledge’ are far less important than were once thought. So to the insistence of the presuppositionalist that one cannot ‘account’ for various items of knowledge, I (along with the rest of the modern world) say, so what? While questions of warrant and justification do have a place in philosophy, they certainly don’t have the dominant place that they did throughout much of the history of philosophy. This makes epistemic methods like presuppositionalism much less powerful/attractive.

I doubt very much that any real analogy can be made between how we know and how God knows, for the very simple reason that God is uncreated, whereas we are created. As all our experience is with the created, we can’t really speculate on the uncreated, especially on something as specific as knowing.

It can be fairly difficult to really talk about postmodernism because it’s not really a school or movement. Most of the time postmodernism means relativism, deconstructionism, Rorty, Derrida, and seems to be more of a reaction to aspects of modernism and analytic philosophy. The major emphases is on things like contingency, non-universal truths, and the collapse of the metanarrative (that’s probably the biggest one). So in the sense that topics like contingency, metanarrative, the denial of absolute, universal categories for truth are important topics, I say it’s a good thing – postmodernism really called into question things like the universal perspective (there is one way that the world is) and brought into sharp relief the dynamic and contingent nature of the world, which is great. But in terms of the more fanciful ideas, like the lack of meaning in the world, nothing outside the text, its all interpretation (and these are fairly rough representations for brevitys sake), postmodernism has really hit a failure of nerve:

‘There is, however, another sort of reaction possible here. If it is painful to live at risk, under the gun, with uncertainty but high stakes, maybe the thing to do is just reduce or reject the stakes. If, for example, there just isn’t any such thing as truth, then clearly one can’t go wrong by believing what is false or failing to believe what is true. If we reject the very idea of truth, we needn’t feel anxious about whether we’ve got it. So the thing to do is dispense with the search for truth and retreat into projects of some other sort: self-creation and self-redefinition as with Nietzsche and Heidegger, or Rortian irony,552 or perhaps playful mockery, as with Derrida.553 So taken, postmodernism is a kind of failure of epistemic nerve.’

And in terms of wider culture, I don’t think pomo has been terribly helpful:

‘Fear of kitsch led to the routinisation of modernism. By posing as a modernist, the artist gives an easily perceivable sign of his authenticity. But the result is cliché of another kind. This is one reason for the emergence of a wholly new artistic enterprise that some call ‘postmodernism’ but which might be better described as ‘pre-emptive kitsch’.

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2 thoughts on “A Mess of Thoughts On Modernity, Christianity, and Presuppositionalism

  1. Chris Falter November 16, 2014 / 11:16 am

    An interesting meditation, Josh. In a spirit of conversation, I’ll mention a couple of thoughts you have spurred:

    * It seems that presuppositionalism is basically a leap of faith, as opposed to a way of acquiring universally accessible knowledge.

    * In reading Clement’s letters to the Corinthians, I am struck by his focus on “God has acted and spoken.” God is more an actor than the first cause. He is creating a people for Himself, not building an impregnable, epistemological fortress. IMO, this is in keeping with the view of Biblical authors (although I am aware that making this point stick would require the writing of many books).

    * Given the past 300 years of philosophy, this focus on the narrative of God’s actions, continuing to today, is how we must proclaim the good news. God’s love, made evident in His dealings with creation, Israel, Christ, and the church, is salvation from ennui, alienation, and selfishness run amok. Turn your life in a new direction, and believe the good news!

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  2. whitefrozen November 16, 2014 / 6:31 pm

    ‘In reading Clement’s letters to the Corinthians, I am struck by his focus on “God has acted and spoken.” God is more an actor than the first cause. He is creating a people for Himself, not building an impregnable, epistemological fortress. IMO, this is in keeping with the view of Biblical authors (although I am aware that making this point stick would require the writing of many books).’

    Yeah, there is definitely an emphasis on God’s act in the early fathers. The later fathers were keen on modifying the concept of ‘first cause’ – which is why lots of criticisms of the more classical pictures of God don’t really hit too hard. The argument against God as first cause/prime mover, for example, really fails when you closely examine the use and development of the concept of prime mover against the aristotliean – the Aristotlean first-cause is very necessaritan, whereas for the christian tradition, the first cause is infinitely free, because of the modification of the concept under the light and impact of revelation.

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