Stony Brook University’s Templeton Research Lectures series features several lectures from early 2007 by David Burrell, an Emeritus Professor in philosophy and theology from Notre Dame University, as well as a Catholic Priest. His specialty appears to be Medieval Studies, focusing on the ties between the various Abrahamic religions, and the lectures on Maimonides and al-Ghazali are excellent.
What may be of most interest to our listeners given our recent focus on Nietzsche and our ongoing discussion of reason, are the first and final lectures of the series covering Nietzsche and John Henry Newman.
Burrell admits (in the Newman lecture) that Nietzsche is a challenge for him, and he doesn’t rate think he did very well in describing him. It’s true that the majority of this Nietzsche lecture is not about Nietzsche, but is about describing Burrell’s overall philosophy of “trust,” which you might as well call faith, except I think he likes the connotations of trust better. He argues that we’re in a post-modern phase of philosophy, in that moderns were foundationalists. If you (like “Dick Rorty,” as Burrell refers to him; they were apparently pals) think philosophy was just modernity, then you think that with the collapse of foundationalism, philosophy just isn’t possible, but Burrell looks back to the Medievals to put modernism in perspective. If you think this sounds like Alasdair MacIntyre, you’re right: MacIntyre is a colleague of Burrell’s, and Burrell gives him props at the beginning of one of these lectures.
Burrell’s is basically a theory of action and engagement. He introduces J.L. Austin’s distinction between declarative statements (“the cat is on the mat”) that are meant to just state some fact and performatives (“I do,” as uttered during a wedding) which are meant to perform and action and says that even the declaratives take an action: they put the person claiming the fact into a position of advocating the claim, such that they are committed if questioned to, e.g. go check if it’s true. All action, though, requires a leap of faith of sorts. When I take a step, I am assuming that the ground is there to support my weight. Science requires a general background-level trust in the regularity of nature, in the veracity of evidence, and in the general non-deceptiveness of the community of scientists. All this is compatible with skepticism regarding particular people, evidence, and alleged scientific laws.
He applies this to Nietzsche by pointing out, similarly to how we did in our episode, that criticizing alleged truths requires that one affirm in general a belief in truth. Likewise, criticizing particular Christian virtues requires, Burrell thinks, taking an evaluative stance, i.e. affirming in general the concept of virtue. However, Burrell thinks this insight defeats Nietzsche, as he interprets Nietzsche as making wholly negative attacks, while modern Nietzsche scholars (like Kaufmann, Danto, and Nehamas) interpret him much less nihilistically. Burrell actually brings up the chilling Nazi propaganda film “Triumph of the Will” as if it were a legitimate reflection of Nietzsche’s philosophy. Perhaps having spent so much time in Jerusalem doing ecumenical work, Burrell is less interested in Nietzsche as a philosopher than the social effects of his influence.
The details of his Burrell’s positive program come out most clearly in the Newman lecture, where he discusses Newman’s (1870) concept of “ratiocination,” which is about rationally coming to a conclusion given particular evidence. He claims that while logic and evidence may be public and agreed upon, what actually drives the moment where a conclusion is reached based on that is very much particular to the person and circumstance; there aren’t general, agreed upon standards for taking away a practical, action-grounding conclusion in the way that we can all agree what constitutes a valid geometric proof. Ratiocination plays a similar role to phrónēsis, or judgment as I’ve been describing it. You can see where “trust” can find its way in here. I can’t say I ultimately buy this view; I’m not hearing a lot of substance in this beyond what was put forward in our discussion of James’s “The Will to Believe.”
A follow-up lecture from several months later gives some of the same ideas with a more explicitly theory-of-action approach. Like MacIntyre and against Sartre, Burrell thinks we don’t choose our ends, but only the means to those ends. We find ourselves having ends, and to evolve into having different ends is something like a religious conversion. We don’t decide what we deem to be good (we are not creators of values in Nietzsche’s sense) so much as we discern the good. Burrell describes himself as following Plato and Aristotle in this view, and I found it put a bit more meat on the bones of MacIntyre’s neo-Aristotelian meta-ethics, which I’m sympathetic to.
There’s lots of good stuff in these lectures for those intrigued by (weirded out by?) the space of post-modern, non-dogmatic religious thinking. The discussions after the lectures are for the most part excellent; these are small-group discussions among professionals, so Burrell’s interlocutors are often more helpful than Burrell, and some of the exchanges reach a PEL-level of interactivity, where it’s not even Burrell that’s driving the discussion any more. Burrell repeatedly criticizes intelligent design people and others that think they can state positively what the relation between God and His creation amounts to, and his fascination with Medieval attempts to make sense of these relations with a necessarily Unknowable is infectious. I’m no longer convinced that there’s no legitimate conceptual space between Spinoza’s rejection of a personal God and Swinburne’s conception of a logically simple yet personal God. At the very least, Burrell provides an interesting portrait of a philosopher in the world… hearing him talk about his time in Israel and elsewhere makes me think that he’s in no way in an ivory tower despite being a quintessential academic, whereas here I am, hidden away typing in my basement, surely more sheltered despite my “real-world” status outside of academia.