Book Review: ‘Barth and Rationality: Critical Realism in Theology’, by D. Paul La Montagne

Barth and Rationality: Critical Realism in Theology‘, by D. Paul La Montagne,  Cascade Books, 248 pp.  $29.00

First and foremost, this is a good book. There is a lot that is offered here, and anyone remotely interested in Barth, theological epistemology, theological method and any number of related fields will find this a valuable contribution. There are a number of creative angles on Barth, stemming from D. Paul La Montagne’s familiarity with the philosophy of science and philosophy of mathematics. These are approaches to Barth that are not often taken, and if they are taken, are not often fleshed out to the degree they ought to be. La Montagne fleshes this out at length, and the result is an interpretation of Barth’s theology, methodology and epistemology that is in conversation with contemporary developments in philosophy of science and mathematics. This is not a common combination.

After a brief introduction, chapter one, in which the aims of the book is laid out, chapters two and three (respectively) offer an overview of critical realism, which La Montagne sees as defined primarily by the idea that knowledge is ‘mediated’,  and scientific realism, which La Montagne sees as characterized by its ‘postfoundationalism’ as well as the idea that scientific knowledge is ‘indirect’ and ‘fallible’. Chapter four puts the ideas discussed in the previous two chapters in conversation with the realism/antirealism debate, mathematical knowledge (Gödel’s incompleteness theorems are helpfully discussed) and rationality more generally, including the social construction of knowledge. Chapter five is a meaty chapter, focusing on Kant and Barth’s reception and use of Kant’s philosophy, and La Montagne helpfully details the development of Kant’s ideas through Fichte and the Marburg neo-kantian school. Chapter six focuses on the philosophical implications that can be drawn from Barth’s own dialectical theology, which La Montagne takes to be roughly the idea that Barth’s dialectical theology has a strong critical realist bent, even though it would be anachronistic to label Barth and actual critical realist. The seventh chapter is centered on a trio of Barth’s critics: Wentzel van Huyssteen, W.W. Bartley and Pannenberg, who respectively argue that Barth’s theology is positivist, irrational and subjective. The final chapter is a brief conclusion.

Now, like I said above, this is a good book. Broadly, La Montagne really knocks it out of the park. Some highlights for me include the exposition on the nature of the dialectic of veiling/unveiling in God’s revelation, the development of Kantian philosophy in the hands of post-Kantian philosophers, the development of mathematics in the 20th century at the hands of Gödel , and the handling of various criticisms of Barth in the penultimate chapter – this final aspect of the book really bring out just what theology has to learn from contemporary thinking on rationality from the perspective of the philosophy of science. Each of these sections deserve to be visited and visited again, and show a real mastery on La Montagne’s part of the primary sources.

I have some reservations, however. The bogeyman here is ‘foundationalism’, which serves more as a foil against which to develop post/non-foundationlist doctrines than as a well-defined philosophical position. For example, we are told that Fichte was a foundationalist (p. 83). Not just any foundationalist, but a ‘foundationalist in the strongest sense of the term’. Kant is, as well, a foundationalist. Logical positivism was foundationalist. La Montagne’s definition of ‘foundationalism’ appears to be so broad that nearly everyone is, in fact, a foundationalist prior to the American pragmatists. Now, there are certainly senses in which Kant and Fichte are foundationalists, but I think there is some blurring of the senses here. La Montagne seems to take ‘foundationalism’ to mean any kind of philosophy in which there are foundations in any sense, or, to be a bit more precise, any system based on first principles (Thomas Reid is a foundationalist in this sense, but also attacks the ‘way of ideas’ that funded the same empiricism Sellars and Rorty attacked). To be sure, Kant was interested in setting the empirical sciences on firm ground, but this is very different from the thinking of the positivists, whose foundationalism was attacked by Sellars in his writings on the Myth of the Given. I was also struck by the deep, but ultimately narrow, engagement with philosophy of science and the cursory role the American pragmatists played in the story of the overthrow of foundationalism (Rorty, in particular, who appears to have influenced La Montagne’s take on Kant as a foundationalist. To put a fine point on it: when a search of both the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s respective entries on foundationalism both lack mentions of Kant and Fichte, something is amiss. As a final critical word, I wonder why Reformed epistemology didn’t figure at all in La Montagne’s analysis; surely mention should be made of Alvin Plantinga’s attack on classical foundationalism? The point of the above isn’t to complain that La Montagne didn’t consult who I think he should have consulted, the issue here is rather that there are a number of kinds of foundationalism, and clarification is exceedingly important here. To repeat, if Kant, Fichte and the positivists are all foundationalists without qualification, then something somewhere has been missed.

Having said all that: La Montagne has given us a superb study in what modern theology can learn when put into conversation with contemporary developments in the philosophies of science and mathematics, and how Karl Barth is congenial to just such an approach. While there are, in my opinion, some reasons to be a little cautious, I also believe that a good deal of ground has been paved by La Montagne, and look forward to seeing more of both his work and work that carries on the work began in this volume.

**NOTE** I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for a review which in no way guaranteed a positive review

3 thoughts on “Book Review: ‘Barth and Rationality: Critical Realism in Theology’, by D. Paul La Montagne

  1. jamesbradfordpate November 20, 2016 / 7:51 pm

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings and commented:
    Reblogging for future reference, especially for that paragraph on foundationalism!


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