Interesting book...

Truth Considered & Applied: Examining Postmodernism, History, and Christian Faith
by Stewart E. Kelly

Here is a book that should be of interest to philosophy, theology, and history students, as well as perhaps everybody else.  The author, Stewart E. Kelly, is professor of Philosophy at Minot State University.  More information about the book can be found here.

- Dr. V


marf said...

VDB, I read the sample chapter of this book and it looks great. Postmodernism is hard to define (which makes it hard to criticize) and it looks like Stewart E. Kelly's approach is fair and, at the same time, critical of postmodern thought. It would be worthwhile if a member of the PFC did a review of the book.

On a side note: I found that old PDF document that I had made years ago for a hypothetical PFC Journal (Philosophus Foosballus Tablus).

Jordan said...

This does indeed look like a great book!

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

An interesting article: The latest issue of Philosophia Christi (Vol. 13, No. 1, 2011) contains R. Scott Smith's essay, "Finitude, Fallenness, and Immediacy: Husserlian Replies to Westphal and Smith."

ABSTRACT: "Merold Westphal and James K. A. Smith argue forcefully that Christians should embrace the postmodern turn to interpretation. They draw upon Derrida and Heidegger, and they criticize Edmund Husserl's 'metaphysics of presence' and our ability to know reality directly. They reject his epistemology as modern and arrogant, as an attempt to gain pristine knowledge. But I argue that they radically misunderstand and therfore wrongly reject Husserl. This will allow me to show why their view, that 'everything is interpretation,' is mistakn. It also will allow me to show why Husserl's earlier work shows us how we can know reality immediately."

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Okay, Mark Jensen, the power of your suggestion has had its intended effect: I wonder if the PFC should reconsider doing the journal, Philosophus Foosballus Tablus? Perhaps it would be appropriate to have an inaugural issue devoted to truth, featuring various reviews of books such as that of Stewart E. Kelly, James K. A. Smith, etc., written by PFC members (whether present students at Prov or former students of Prov)? Perhaps present and former PFC blogmasters -- and MVP and Philosophy Award recipients -- could be joint editors? What do you think about this idea?

marf said...

I would be supportive of bringing it back, VDB. I wrote a review of Smith for my Hermeneutics class. I also wrote that paper on Rorty. Oh, and that one on Nietzsche. The PoMos and I have a history ;). We should be in contact with Jordan about this.

Jordan said...

My comment is too long so I have to split it into 2 comments:

Fascinating discussion! I would like to chime in and challenge what seems to be a common criticism of James K. A. Smith: that he advocates Christians embracing postmodernism. I think James K. A. Smith is being misrepresented. But my concerns are not so much with his arguments regarding reality, truth and interpretation (though of course those are important topics), but rather, with the meta-question of what “Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?” is about. Our answer to this question is important because it affects how we read the book, and the assumptions we make about the author’s arguments.

I believe that Smith (at least in “Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?”) is actually not advocating an embrace of postmodernism (to do so would contradict his argument in the final chapter). Rather, he is arguing that postmodernism can be a catalyst for the church to think (and act) differently about itself. The book mustn’t be read as a philosophy treatise that also happens to be concerned with church, but as a book that is first and foremost about church, and that wades deep into philosophical terrain in order to make its arguments and get to its (rather ecclesial) destination.

What Smith wants his readers to reject, I believe, is the whole notion that embracing modernism or postmodernism or any “-ism” is what will save or help or improve the church. Hence his criticisms of “correlationist theology” in the final chapter of the book: “Correlation always privileges the culture, whether of modernity or postmodernity.” It’s the privileging of the culture that’s the problem; i.e., the whole approach that tries to be “relevant to” [fill in the blank] that Smith wants readers to avoid. Smith finds the church’s identity and role in its distinctiveness, not in its ability to absorb or come alongside cultural phenomena, whether modern or postmodern. This explains why he spills so much ink arguing against the “Cartesian equation” in pages 116-127 (his most successful argument in the book, in my opinion).

Smith writes, “Our understanding of what it means to be the church must be shaped by the priority of revelation and the Christian tradition, not what (even) a postmodern culture needs or is looking for” (p. 126). If we read Smith as trying to get us to stop being a modernist church and start being a postmodernist church, we have missed his core argument almost entirely. He’s more interested in how both of these philosophies (but mostly the latter) can help Christians think more creatively and effectively about being the church.

Jordan said...

I also want to add that Smith does not uncritically agree with postmodernist thought (and let’s remember that “postmodernist thought” is very diverse). For instance, he writes, “[B]oth modernity and postmodernity are characterized by an idolatrous notion of self-sufficiency and a deep naturalism” (p. 26). On the following page, he says, “Much in the work of Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault merits criticism, especially from a Christian perspective.” What Smith wants to avoid are “simple dichotomies of either demonizing or baptizing postmodernism” (p. 15). I think that's good advice, and that the same goes for modernism.

Thus, I contend that what Smith is ultimately concerned with in “Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?” is not postmodernism, but the church. Hence his final chapter is about doing and being the church. He lets readers in on this early on in when he writes that he wants to see “a robust, vibrant, liturgical church that speaks meaning in and to a postmodern world” (p. 11) – not simply a postmodern church that trades a love of Kant and Husserl for a love of Derrida and Lyotard. Later he writes (and I think this is the crucial point on which Smith is often misunderstood), “[A] more persistent postmodernism will engender not quite a postmodern church but rather a postmodern catalyst for the church to be the church” (p. 117).

Rather than R. Scott Smith’s abstract, I think it is more accurate to say something like, “Smith argues that Christians should understand the facets of both postmodernism and modernism and allow these schools of thought to be catalysts for rethinking how the church can be the church most authentically and fruitfully in the contemporary world.” As the title of the book suggests, Smith is trying to remove the stigma and fear around postmodernism, and get Christians to take a more honest look at it. If he was advocating something else, the book would be titled something like, “Let’s Embrace Postmodernism.”

Hendrik van der Breggen said...


Thanks for your always thoughtful comments. However, even though you are truly a Philosophy Foosball Player extraordinaire, and even though you hold the coveted status of Philosophy Foosball Club Blogmaster Emeritus (which is almost a god-like status), I find that I must disagree with you. Contrary to what you’ve argued, I think that (whatever else other Christians are doing to James K. A. Smith) it is not the case that, in the abstract above, James K. A. Smith is “being misrepresented” by R. Scott Smith. Please bear with me. (In what follows I'll refer to R. Scott Smith as "Scott" and James K. A. Smith as "James.")

You argue that James, in his book Who's Afraid of Postmodernism, is setting out an answer to a "meta-question" having to do with how the church can best do and be the church, and so Scott’s criticism of James (in the article described in the above abstract), which takes James to be arguing something like “Let’s Embrace Postmodernism,” misrepresents James’ work and thus is off target.

If I have understood you correctly, I think that your representation of what Scott is doing is itself off target, and thus in your Scott-misrepresents-James charge you misrepresent Scott. Contrary to what you seem to submit, Scott is not critiquing James’ larger thesis or project in Who’s Afraid; rather, Scott is challenging James and Westphal’s particular arguments, found in their various projects, whereby (according to Scott’s abstract) James and Westphal “argue forcefully that Christians should embrace the postmodern turn to interpretation."

What can be gleaned from discussions that have occurred in print between Scott and James—which include but also go beyond James' book Who's Afraid of Postmodernism—and what can be clearly seen in the above abstract, is this: whatever else James writes about, the primary issue over which Scott takes James (and Westphal) to task has to do with interpretation. James argues (following some leading postmodernists) that "it's interpretation all the way down," whereas Scott (following other philosophers) disagrees deeply, i.e., according to Scott, there’s interpretation but it’s not all interpretation. Although there are difficulties in defining postmodernism as a philosophy, a salient feature of postmodernism(s) is its approach to knowledge, i.e., its emphasis on interpretation (think Nietzsche, whom Simon Blackburn calls “the patron saint of postmodernism”). Whatever else James does in Who’s Afraid, James defends the all-is-interpretation view of knowledge and thereby encourages his readers to do so too (James does this not only in Who’s Afraid but elsewhere). But this embracing of the “postmodern turn”—and primarily and only this feature of the “postmodern turn”—is the view that Scott is directly challenging. Scott is challenging the postmodernist all-is-interpretation view; Scott isn't challenging whatever else James is doing in Who's Afraid (at least not directly), nor is Scott saying that James is doing nothing else in Who’s Afraid.

Continued below…

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

In other words, once we understand the limited scope of Scott’s project, we can see that Scott is not misrepresenting James, at least not insofar as James holds to the all-is-interpretation view and the all-is-interpretation view is a salient feature of postmodernism. As far as I can tell, James does hold to the all-is-interpretation view, and the all-is-interpretation view is a salient feature of postmodernism. Also, James’ writings do show (among other things) that James does “argue forcefully that Christians should embrace the postmodern turn to interpretation.” See chapter 2 of James’ book Who’s Afraid. See too James’ earlier article "Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? A Response to the Biola School" (found in Myron B. Penner's Christianity and the Postmodern Turn). So, Jordan, I think that your misrepresentation charge falters.

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Jordan, I would like to add a couple of additional remarks.

For the record, I think (along with Scott) that the it’s-all-interpretation view is false. I wrote a couple of short critiques of this view here and here. For the record, too, it very much seems to me that if James, in answering the meta-question of Who’s Afraid, ends up holding to a view of knowledge other than it's-all-interpretation, then James contradicts himself (in his book and in his earlier article).

Also for the record, I think that James' larger project in Who's Afraid, which has to do with encouraging the church to do and be the church, is deeply important. So, the question should be asked: Are Scott’s (and my and others’) concerns about James' all-is-interpretation view mere philosophical nit-picking? I think not, for two reasons. First, it’s philosophically significant that an understanding of knowledge is false (and it's additionally significant because it's a popular contemporary understanding). Second, if James’ it’s-all-interpretation view is embraced, then, it seems to Scott (and me and others) that this will have serious negative implications for James’ larger project about encouraging the church to do and be the church. One implication of the all-is-interpretation view is that there is in principle no way to test or ground an interpretation against the known actual world. Another implication is that the possibility of knowledge of historical truth is lost. For a church that gains its identity by being grounded in some knowable truths about actual history which have to do with an actual knowable revelation from God in the man Jesus, the combination of these implications are, it seems to me, devastating. For a church that claims people can know God directly via the Person of the Holy Spirit, the combination of these implications are, it seems to me, devastating even more so. If all is interpretation, then the object/ personal subject of interpretation would never be known: only a further interpretation-of-an-interpretation-of-an-interpretation-and-so-on could be known—which is to say that, in principle, no thing (e.g., stuff about Jesus) and no person (including God and His will) could be known. This, it seems to me, should be a problem for the church.

I hope that my comment is helpful. Of course, what I’ve written could be mistaken, so I encourage you (and all our readers) to think carefully.

P.S. Jordan, I hope that I haven’t come across disrespectfully or harshly in my comment above. You are a young man whom I deeply respect. Sadly, sometimes when I write about stuff that moves my philosophical heart, my written words don’t come across as respectfully and gently as I hope. Please know that no disrespect or harshness is intended by me at all. I’ve written what I’ve written because I respect you and because I believe our topic is immensely important.

P.P.S. Maybe we should continue this discussion at a Philosophy Foosball Club lunch. Even though you have graduated from Providence, you are always welcome to the PFC lunches!

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Grammar correction: "the combination of these implications are" should read "the combination of these implications is." (I blame grammar-check and spell-check for the above error, because they lull me into believing that their jagged little blue or red underlinings will always be with me, ready to help whenever I write, but in fact they are not always with me.) (Okay, okay, it's my fault for not proof-reading as carefully as I ought. Drat. I hate grammar mistakes, especially when they're mine.)

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

In one of my comments above, I presented a couple of links to some of my arguments for thinking that the it's-all-interpretation view is false. It has come to my attention that one of the links I provided above isn't working. I'll try again. My arguments can be found here and here.

Jordan said...

Hi Dr. V,

Thank you for your response, I was without internet for a week and so I only read it now.

You have given me much to think about, and your critique is, I think, a good one. My comment, upon reflection, was only tangentially related to R. Scott Smith's argument, and I shouldn't have charged him with misrepresentation. But I did want to open up the debate, as I have read some critical treatments of James Smith's book that seem excessively narrow and miss Smith's big picture. I guess I just have this nagging feeling that James Smith and his critics are often talking past one another, and my comment was an attempt to intellectually flesh out this suspicion. Perhaps I need to let that nagging feeling go.

I think you make a very good point about the implications of a false theory of knowledge on the church.

In sum, I will continue to think about James K. A. Smith's book and arguments. And you needn't worry about being harsh or disrespectful, nothing could be further from the truth -- and that's not just my interpretation! :)

I will end with one brief thought: if we grant, for the sake of argument, that Smith's "it's interpretation all the way down" view is correct, does that necessarily also mean that all interpretations are equally valid?

I hope the first week of classes are going well, and sorry I missed you at Lecoka this morning. I hope we can cross paths there again soon.

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Hi Jordan,

Thanks for your thoughtful response. I'm sorry I missed you at Lecoka. Carla mentioned to me that she saw you. Happily, if you and I both keep frequenting Lecoka for our coffee outings, the probability of our paths crossing soon will increase!

In your last response, you left me with the following thought/question: "if we grant, for the sake of argument, that Smith's 'it's interpretation all the way down' view is correct, does that necessarily also mean that all interpretations are equally valid?"

I think that the answer is Yes. All interpretations would be equally valid in the sense that none are valid at all.

I am pretty sure (as I've argued here) that if we grant that the "it's-interpretation-all-the-way-down" view is correct/true, it follows logically that no interpretation can occur. If it's all interpretation all the way down, then for an interpretation to occur there would have to be an infinite regress of interpretation. Why? Because interpretation is always of something else. In the case under consideration (i.e., the "it's-interpretation-all-the-way-down" case), interpretation is always of yet another interpretation. But this logically implies that the other interpretation must be of yet another interpretation, which is of yet another interpretation, which is of yet another interpretation, and so on ad infinitum. Significantly, this infinite regress logically implies that there will always be no first interpretation. But this means that interpretation cannot begin, which means that we can never get to the occurring interpretation. (It's a case of traversing an actual infinite, which is logically impossible.) So, if, for the sake of argument, it is interpretation all the way down, then there can be no interpretation. But if there is no interpretation, then no interpretation can be valid.

Thus, if we grant, for argument's sake, that James K. A. Smith's it's-interpretation-all-the-way-down view is correct, it necessarily also means that all interpretations are equally valid in the sense that none are valid.

(Note 1: I think that the above is a logical implication of James K.A. Smith's view which James does not notice, but should notice, because it threatens to wreak philosophical havoc with his larger project. Note 2: It's interesting how kalam-style argument transfers to the issue of interpretation.)

Yes, the first week of classes is going well (though some students might disagree, I suspect). Of course, classes are not the same now that some of the founding members of the Philosophy Foosball Club have graduated!

Best regards to you Jordan!

Dr. V

P.S. Please keep in mind that my arguments could be totally mistaken (though I like to think they're not).

Ryan Turnbull said...

It is undeniable that we interpret everything. But I do not think this necessarily requires us to doubt the validity of our interpretations. We do not create anything with our interpretations. The real world exists and we as observers come along and interpret it. By interpret I mean, we experience the world through our empirical senses. Waves of energy hit our ears and our brains interpret this as sound. Photons bombard our eyes and our brain interprets this as light and allows us to make sense of the images that are flooding in. It also seems quite obvious that we do apply categories of interpretation, we try to systematize the unknown with what we know, if the object in question does not fit our category, we also have the ability to create a new category. The "stuff" has bearing on how we interpret, but we still make interpretations. Derrida's concession that some interpretations are better than others suggests to me that we can in fact interpret correctly. This may not be the conclusion Derrida wants us to end up with but I think it's true.
Basically, I want to suggest that we have to interpret everything, but the cosmos is such that it implies better interpretations of things and that we can come to know the true interpretations.
The fork analogy from the little mermaid always seemed flawed to me. PoMos use this story to say that if there is an object, it can be interpreted differently and used differently and these are all fair interpretations. I disagree, I think the creators intended use of an object is somehow passed into the object itself and so when we make the interpretation to use the fork as a fork, we are correct in doing so. That is not to say that other interpretations cannot be pragmatically true, but there is only ever one interpretation that is correspondingly true.

But maybe this is just my interpretation...

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Ryan Turnbull (a.k.a. PFC Blogmaster),

I agree with the overall philosophical direction that you are taking, but I would like to suggest a couple of conceptual clarifications.

First, I think that it is deniable that we interpret everything. Why? Because there is an important sense in which we do not interpret everything. Think of "simple seeing" versus "seeing as" and "seeing that." The latter two involve interpretation, the former does not. (The former would be a form of knowledge by direct acquaintance.) Via simple seeing we can have a preconceptual awareness of an object, and this preconceptual awareness provides fodder for subsequent conceptualization and interpretation via seeing as and seeing that. (For more discussion on simple seeing, check out my columns on interpretation here and here; or, better, see pages 88-89 of Cowan and Spiegel's book The Love of Wisdom: A Christian Introduction to Philosophy. Cowan and Spiegel set out some important arguments against the "all observation is theory-laden" view.) (The Love of Wisdom is available in the Providence library and in the Providence bookstore.)

Second, I think that the understanding of "interpretation" that you set out above (i.e., your description of the waves of energy hitting our ears and the photons hitting our eyes and then our senses translating the impacts of these hits into neurological messages that are subsequently sent to the brain which in turn does its magic) is better understood not as interpretation but as an explanation or description of the mechanics involved in simple seeing. I say "better understood" because (a) a description of the physical process of simple seeing should not be confused with the first-person experience of simple seeing per se (these are two different philosophical critters); (b) acknowledging the reality of simple seeing allows us to avoid the nasty infinite regress problem attached to the all-is-interpretation view (see my comment to Jordan on the infinite regress problem); and (c) a description of the mechanics of simple seeing (which you've called "interpretation") seems very much to presuppose simple seeing, at least at some philosophically basic level, in order for the description to get epistemic traction (i.e., the physical sciences involved in studying the workings of the human ear, eye, nervous system, brain, etc. involve observations, not all of which are conceptually "theory-laden," so to be persuaded by the findings of these sciences requires an embrace of the legitimacy of simple seeing as a portal to the world — a portal that serves as a ground for our interpretative projects).

I think that the above clarifications may help us better realize that, as you wrote, "the cosmos is such that it implies better interpretations of things and that we can come to know the true interpretations."

Thanks, Ryan, for the good discussion of some important philosophical matters. I hope to see you at PFC lunch tomorrow.

Best regards,
Dr. V

P.S. Your distinction between pragmatic truth and correspondence truth is true and ... useful. :-)