Jesus a philosopher part 2

Chris Schoen, he of the u n d e r v e r s e, has taken me to task for my Jesus was not a philosopher post

Conveniently he makes the three objections I expected in one clear place. Also conveniently, he is nice about it, so we may expect at least some light and little heat from a discussion.

First, he objects to my characterisation of metaphysics:

John Wilkins writes, in the course of explaining why Jesus was not a philosopher, that metaphysics is “what you are left over with when the facts do not fix the solution.” Few blogosophers are better at pithy quintessence than Wilkins, which is one reason his blog is a must-read, but this is just wrong. Metaphysics is partly how we define the facts that fit the solution in the first place, and also how we define “fitting.” When we say that “science works,” we are making a metaphysical commitment to problem-solving that is, while perhaps preferable to the alternatives, far from unavoidable. Science works in part because we value the kind of solutions it offers, because we have defined our problems as certain kinds of puzzles, because we believe in progress, and because we have faith in the fruits of our own activity.

I do not deny any of the things he says about metaphysics here as being licit claims. When I say that facts do not fix [not fit; I think he misread me there] the solution, I mean no more than that. When facts fix the solution about what there is, it’s science. When they do not, we have a metaphysical problem, and that can indeed include questions about what facts are, what truth claims claim, and how we treat facts as fitting solutions. But metaphysics is here being defined privatively, as what it is not: metaphysics is not physics (i.e., science).

He writes:

A large part of our modern cultural prejudice is to forget how large a component of reason lies in imagination, and unfortunately I think a position like the one presented here by John maintains a costly division between poets and philosophers (again, all the more ironic given John’s gifts with concrete philosophic imagery).

Now I have been accused of many things, but a good imagination is not one of them. However again I think Chris is overinterpreting me. I never said imagination is a bad thing, nor that there is a hard division between philosophers and aesthetes; only that qua philosophers, offering imaginings and parables is not doing philosophy. Philosophers also play guitars, hike, watch birds, surf and drive fast cars, but that doesn’t make strumming, trekking, twitching, surfing or racing a part of philosophy. Not even maintaining motorcycles.

Hume wrote, “reason is, and ought always to be, a slave to the passions”. And to a degree that is so, in my opinion. But passions are not philosophical acts even if they inspire them.

So when Chris writes:

John’s conclusion is that Jesus is not a philosopher because he “does not reach his teachings via reason.” This is also false, based on a very impoverished sense of what reason is, and how it functions (an ongoing injury that dates back to the attempts of the early analytic philosophers to schematize all reason discursively, as formal logic). I’m perfectly happy to agree that Jesus (like any number of “religious” teachers) was not in the technical sense a philosopher, since we have developed very high expectations about the systematic thoroughness of those who take such a name. A professional philosopher needs to protect his turf. A pipefitter is not a plumber, which is important to know when one’s basement is flooded.

I cannot but agree: one really must protect disciplinary boundaries. The implication that I am special pleading here is somewhat unnecessary, since it follows by definition that as a professional (if slightly inchoate) philosopher I think philosophy as a profession is something with standards. Anyone who fails to meet these standards is, ipso facto, not a philosopher.

But do we really need to adopt a strictly formalist, Polish, notion of reason to defend my position? This is the usual tactic of accusing those who are attempting to be formal in any way of being something like a logical positivist, or a scholastic, depending on who are the villains du jour, but we must formalise to a degree. I do not think that reason is formal logic, but I do think it has rules, and I do think it excludes arguments from authority, imagination or revelation. I am perfectly happy to include some who do not even closely approach the formalist ideal of modern logic, such as Hegel (contrary to Priest’s supervaluational and dialethic logic) as philosophers, in part because they engage the philosophical Topics I mentioned as a precondition, but there are boundaries even if they are not hard and fast. Vagueness does not mean we cannot classify.

Finally, Chris argues thus:

Most of Jesus’ sermons do not actually appeal to divine authority, but to a type of rationally proscribed empirical observation, in the form of parable. This is a much different type of discourse than we see from someone like Moses, who simply passed on God’s directives without trying to justify them. Jesus conversed with his disciples, suggesting that understanding was more important to him than obedience.

This is a fallacy of false dichotomy, not to mention a strawman. I never said only philosophers discuss. Conversation is a human universal, I would have thought, and I do not need to defend the view that while philosophers converse, not everyone who converses is a philosopher (another fallacy). But more to the point, are parables, “rationally proscribed empirical observation”? This is highly contentious, and I would say they are, as parables, nothing of the kind. They are analogies or homilies, and like all such they get their warrant from being able to be unpacked in rational ways. The parable of the talents, for example, is not a rationally proscribed empirical observation:

13 “Therefore stay alert, because you do not know the day or the hour. 14 For it is like a man going on a journey, who summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them. 15 To one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. 16 The one who had received five talents went off right away and put his money to work and gained five more. 17 In the same way, the one who had two gained two more. 18 But the one who had received one talent went out and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money in it. 19 After a long time, the master of those slaves came and settled his accounts with them. 20 The one who had received the five talents came and brought five more, saying, ‘Sir, you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.’ 21 His master answered, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave! You have been faithful in a few things. I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 22 The one with the two talents also came and said, ‘Sir, you entrusted two talents to me. See, I have gained two more.’ 23 His master answered, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave! You have been faithful with a few things. I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 24 Then the one who had received the one talent came and said, ‘Sir, I knew that you were a hard man, harvesting where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed, 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. See, you have what is yours.’ 26 But his master answered, ‘Evil and lazy slave! So you knew that I harvest where I didn’t sow and gather where I didn’t scatter? 27 Then you should have deposited my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received my money back with interest! 28 Therefore take the talent from him and give it to the one who has ten. 29 For the one who has will be given more, and he will have more than enough. But the one who does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. 30 And throw that worthless slave into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’” (Matthew 25:13-30).

So, we know empirically that bankers and slave masters can be greedy and harsh, and exploit their workers and customers. Does this license the claim being supported, that the Kingdom of God will come when you least expect it? You might as well conclude that God will come exactly when you expect it, when he needs the profit of your labour. Is that reasoning? I do not think so. What makes that conclusion follow is that Jesus is claimed to have drawn it. There is no rational constraint, merely one of theological and hermeneutic conventions.

Sure, philosophers like Nietzsche and Wittgenstein use parables all the time, but to the extent they are doing philosophy, rather than communicating it, the parables are merely dressing. Consider Searle’s Chinese Room. It’s a way to dramatise a problem: whether syntax generates semantics. The bald problem is boring and undramatic, but the room, with its homunculus and big book of rules, is fun to discuss the issues around.

Everybody does philosophy to an extent. The problem is that most of the time they do it badly or incompletely. To identify someone as a philosopher either means that you think they are doing it well enough to engage with their arguments, or it means that you think everything, including plumbing, is philosophy. I hope nobody thinks I am special pleading if I take the former horn of that dilemma. So let’s have no more of this argument: Jesus does some things that some philosophers do, so what he is doing is philosophy.

12 thoughts on “Jesus a philosopher part 2

  1. Sancho tells me those giants ahead are just windmills. Can it be? (Yes, I misread fit for fix, even after pasting the quote verbatim. Shouldn’t have skipped my nap today).


  2. O.k., “everybody does philosophy to some extent,” so arguing about whether someone like Jesus was at least part of the time engaged in something we can recognize as philosophical activity may not have much point. And, as I said in my comment on your previous post, someone who is not a philosopher can HAVE a philosophy: some of the things Jesus said(*) might be philosophically interesting & important even if he wasn’t “doing philosophy” when he said them. ((*) The search for the historical Jesus is a whole ‘nother can of worms: for the sake of argument I’ll assume that the gospel reports of what he said are what he said.)

    Wilkins says “qua philosophers, offering imaginings and parables are not doing philosophy”: well, it depends on context. Surely one can say “imagine a man who believes his next door neighbor owns a Ford…” and be doing philosophy! [[For any non-philosophers reading this: the reference is to an example in a famous philosophical paper.]] The parables of Jesus are not all examples of the same sort of discourse: the one John cites above certainly isn’t a piece of philosophical argument, but maybe some are.

    I think that Jesus was often asserting a thesis which (though more of us now than among his contemporaries would think it boring common sense) can be taken to be a philosophical one: strict adherence to ritual law is (morally?) less important than benevolence. The parable of the Good Samaritan is given in support off this thesis: it supports it by engaging the audience’s INTUITION (technical term): “in a situation such as described,” we find ourselves thinking, “the Samaritan(!) seems like a better person than the Levite.” It seems to me that the sort of discourse Jesus is engaging in when he tells THIS parable is similar to what professional analytic philosophers do when they present imagined counterexamples to philosophical theses. So maybe we can say that Jesus — not all the time, but some of the time — “philosophizes” in addition to proclaiming “revealed truth.”


  3. Can’t say anything about Jesus my historical understanding of him is zero. I can say I am certainly not a philosopher.

    I love it when it clearly fits with evidence on the ground and adds to my own understanding. But some of the time it is like watching two individuals slap each other across the face with dead fish.

    It appears to make little sense other than to grasp you are dealing with a very alien culture, you have little practical experiance of or feild of refrence, but is still clearly a very human cultural activity.

    That you can still indentify it as such is it’s saving grace for me and maintians interest, as at it’s core is something you can to begin to recognise and relate to other cultural activities and institutions.


  4. And, as I said in my comment on your previous post, someone who is not a philosopher can HAVE a philosophy: some of the things Jesus said(*) might be philosophically interesting & important even if he wasn’t “doing philosophy” when he said them.

    And someone who is not a linguist can have a language, and might say linguistically interesting things. That’s not really relevant to the question of what makes one a linguist.

    It seems to me that the sort of discourse Jesus is engaging in when he tells THIS parable is similar to what professional analytic philosophers do when they present imagined counterexamples to philosophical theses. So maybe we can say that Jesus — not all the time, but some of the time — “philosophizes” in addition to proclaiming “revealed truth.”

    If the Good Samaritan tale makes Jesus a philosopher, then Aesop and Mother Goose and Grimm are philosophers, too (and much better ones, at that).

    If you ask me, the best way to evaluate whether Jesus is a philosopher is to compare him to rough historical contemporaries who are philosophers without question. John uses Philo as an example. Certainly Philo was a philosopher. We might also compare him to people like Epictetus, Lucretius, Seneca and Cicero, all of whom lived within a century (before or after) of Jesus.

    If those guys are what counted for a philosopher in the historical context of the Mediterranean world in late antiquity, then Jesus is not a philosopher. Jesus’ parables are a far cry from the extended argumentation (often in poetic, allegorical form) found in De Rerum Natura.

    It’s not the fact that his ideas have philosophical interest, nor the fact that he used allegories and metaphors, that matters. It’s whether or not he made the reasoning processes behind the conclusions transparent so that they can be argued and disputed. A philosopher is someone who not only expresses philosophical ideas, but who makes the rational processes by which those ideas are reached visible so that they can be evaluated by others. Lucretius, Philo, Seneca, Cicero and Epictetus all do this in their own ways.

    Jesus doesn’t. Rather, Jesus either 1.) Just flat out states a moral/theological principle by fiat, 2.) States a moral/theological principle and then illustrates it with a parable, or 3.) Tells a parable, then his disciples ask what it means, then he tells them what it means.


  5. (May I reply to Wes? Feel free to delete this if you think I’m hi-jacking your blog, John!)

    Wes: Re: “And someone who is not a linguist can have a language, and might say linguistically interesting things.” Total agreement. But a careless Christian reader might interpret John as (offensively?) claiming that the content of the New Testament is unworthy of philosophical consideration; in saying that a non-philosopher could HAVE a philosophy I was only trying to distinguish the claim John actually made (that Jesus was not a philosopher) from this much stronger one.

    Re: Aesop and Mother Goose and the tales of the brothers Grimm: I think the activity of philosophizing is something that arises naturally, and examples are likely to arise in any folk tradition: so i wouldn’t be surprised (though I don’t off hand think of any examples) to find bits of conscious philosophizing in Aesop, et al.! John is certainly right that Jesus was not a full-time (let alone a professional) philosopher, any more than he was a full-time (or professional) stand-up comedian, but — again because philosophizing comes naturally to humans — I think he might occasionally be seen as doing something like it… I have a feeling there is a better example than his use of the “good Samaritan” parable, but it was the only example or near-example that came to mind.

    …Your concluding modes 1, 2 and 3 are, alas, much more frequent in the Gospels than kinds of discourse identifiable as philosophical argumentation.


  6. Putting truth claims aside for a moment and comparing philosophy with other discursive traditions, isn’t philosophy rather obviously an idiosyncratic, culture-bound phenomenon? There are, after all, a great many ways that people have discussed things, as John points out himself; but the instances philosophically trained people find philosophical have a genealogical connections with one another going back to the Greeks and share what amounts to the same bauplan. Meanwhile, I don’t understand what’s natural or inevitable about the metaphysics/epistemology/axiology scheme, which seems to me a piece of pedagogy—I first encountered it in the introduction to an old logic textbook and was encouraged by my prof at the time not to take it very seriously. (Actually, I find John’s turf-defending version of what counts as philosophy too narrow to capture what’s been going on in philosophy since Thales, the interesting stuff, anyhow, hence my earlier query about whether the aphoristic Heraclitus counted as a philosopher.)

    I’m reminded of the argument about absolute space between Leibniz and Newton’s followers. John seems to assume that the framework of the questions is a given while I figure it is relative to a tradition that defines what counts as significant by ruling out of the game an enormous if not infinite set of other possibilities, some of which we know are possibilities because they have been actualized (Talmudic disputation, Christian apologetics, whatever you call what the Chinese sages were doing, etc.) Note that I’m not proposing some sort of skepticism about philosophy here: I’m pointedly not saying that it’s (my?) game is illegitimate or doesn’t arrive at some worthwhile results. I’m raising an issue about the privilege and exclusivity of philosophy, not its possible validity.


  7. To the extent the authors of the Gospels were influenced by the the Hellenistic and Roman culture of the first century, they were well aware that 0ne common understanding of the philosopher was based upon an analogy with the physician.

    The aim of the physician is to seek healing of diseases of the body; the aim of the philosopher is to seek healing of diseases of the psyche. Just as one sees Jesus seeking the healing of the visually blind, so too one sees Jesus seeking the healing of the mentally blind; for example, when he asks Simon a Pharisee in Luke 7.36-50, “Do you see this woman?” Simon only thinks he sees or knows her; Jesus is aiming at Simon correcting his vision or knowledge. Simon will then be able also to see and judge Jesus more correctly.


  8. Part of this debate reminds me of a film Ive not seen for years and years. Being There.

    Peter Sellers plays Chance the Gardener, who’s simple utterances about gardening and the changes of the seasons are taken utterly out of context and mistaken for an extremly profound form of allegorical wisdom.

    Must watch it again see if it’s as good as I remember.


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