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).
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.