The Smiths

Today at PFC lunch we once again discussed topics arising from James K. A. Smith's book, Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006). For those interested, Smith was recently interviewed on the EPS blog. He has some intriguing things to say that are helpful for understanding his position. Amongst other things, Smith discusses the difference between knowledge and understanding, "affections" and "philosophical intuitions" versus feelings and emotions, and the concept of worldview.

Today at PFC lunch we also discussed the relationship between metaphysics and epistemology. Here is the original Christian Smith quote that caused me to bring up this topic:
Critical realism seeks to offer a constructive framework for understanding science that is alternative to both the positivist empiricist paradigm, on the one hand, and constructivism, postmodernism, and certain versions of the hermeneutical perspective, on the other . . .
Critical realism's central organizing thought is that much of reality exists independently of human consciousness of it . . . [and] that humans can acquire a truthful, though fallible knowledge and understanding of reality through various forms of disciplined conceptualization, inquiry, and theoretical reflection . . .
In critical realism, to spell out a few specifics, ontology (the study of being) is prioritized over epistemology (the study of what and how we can know) -- a move that feels alien to us moderns and postmoderns who naturally prioritize epistemology, but which we nevertheless must make presuppositionally in order to get anywhere worth going in science [and philosophy]. That which is cannot be immediately constrained by limits on the knowable of it. First we come to terms with what we believe is and what it is like, then we examine the possibilities for knowing about it. According to critical realism, the real is not coterminal with the empirical. So, we must distinguish among the three aspects of the real, the actual, and the empirical. The real is what exists -- material, nonmaterial, and social entities that have structures and capacities. The real exists whether we know or understand it. The real possesses objective being apart from human awareness of it. The actual by contrast, is what happens as events in the world, when objects that belong to the real activate their powers and capacities. The actual happens in time and space, whether we experience it or not. The empirical, by contrast, consists of what we experience, either directly or indirectly. Thus, what we observe (the empirical) is not identical to all that happens (the actual), and neither is identical to that which is (the real). The three must not be conflated.
Christian Smith, What is a Person? Rethinking Humanity, Social Life, and the Moral Good from the Person Up (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 92-93.


Hendrik van der Breggen, said...

I would add yet another Smith into the mix: R. Scott Smith.

I think that R. Scott Smith's work helps anchor the Critical Realism that Christian Smith favours, when the latter Smith writes, "First we come to terms with what we believe is and what it is like, then we examine the possibilities for knowing about it." Without addressing Christian Smith directly, R. Scott Smith's work addresses Christian Smith's "[coming] to terms with what we believe is and what it is like" and grounds it (rightly I think) in something like simple seeing, a species of knowledge by direct acquaintance (which I've written about over at Apologia). Without such a grounding, it seems to me that Critical Realism (which, not so incidentally, I think is the way to go) gets disconnected from our knowing the world itself -- i.e., gets disconnected from the metaphysics that Christian Smith is seeking to emphasize -- and collapses into some sort of pragmatism or instrumentalism (as my colleague Daryl Climenhaga has observed in a comment at Apologia).

Here are some writings by R. Scott Smith: R. Scott Smith, "Reflections on McLaren and the Emerging Church," in Passionate Conviction: Contemporary Discourses on Christian Apologetics, eds. P. Copan & W. L. Craig (B&H Academic, 2007), 227-241; R. Scott Smith, "'Emergents,' Evangelicals, and the Importance of Truth," in Evangelicals Engaging Emergent: A Discussion of the Emergent Church Movement, eds. W. D. Henard & A. W. Greenway (B&H Academic, 2009), 129-156.