Dallas Willard is an unapologetic Christian, and pursues a post-modern tack similar to the one I cited in my review of the Philosophy for Theologians podcast: Modern philosophy tried to ground knowledge on non-revelatory, accessible-to-everyone first principles, but since that doesn’t work, the only choices are faith or awfulness. I take this to be a standard kind of strategy for the intelligent faithful: you can’t really argue that theism, much less Christianity, is demonstrable, so instead you have to argue that without it, we can’t know anything. Willard cites Descartes as an early proponent of this view, though (amusingly) describes him as falling victim to a common philosopher’s ailment, which is being to easily satisfied with the soundness of one’s arguments.
Now, David Burrell (per my last blog post) also uses something like this strategy, but uses it to argue more that faith is a rational option, and an attractive one (he says that with faith, your life can be a calling, but without it, you’re stuck with a career), but that this does not necessitate belief in Christianity in particular. In fact, once we get his message that “trust” of some sort is necessary to ground action (i.e. the assumptions we have to make underlying action), that opens up a whole array of options for ratiocination, such that recognizing that makes you truly ecumenical: open not only to Christians, Jews, and Muslims, but also to non-theistic religions and agnostics and “spiritual but not religious” types.
For Willard, by contrast, Jesus is Truth. Nietzsche correctly claims that once God is expunged as a necessity from practical life (i.e. “God is dead,” just reflecting the fact that the ostensibly religion-soaked culture of his time was in fact not in touch with the spirit of Christianity; it was going through the motions), then those philosophers that claim to bring us the truth of the real world are just being pretentious. There is no truth, for Nietzsche; there is only MY will. This can never bring us satisfaction, though; for our lives to be meaningful, we need to be rooted in something beyond ourselves, and Jesus gives us that.
I’m not going to comment on the second half of the lecture on Jesus; frankly it got so preachy in tone I could hardly get through it. On the description of Nietzsche, though:
First, it’s interesting that Willard likes Nietzsche, and says Nietzsche got him into philosophy in the first place. This is unlike Burrell, who sees Nietzsche as a sinister figure sitting at the edge of his true interests. He sees Nietzsche, like Kierkegaard, as a critic of complacency and hypocrisy, and sees the kind of Christianity that Nietzsche objected to as not having much to do with Jesus’s teachings.
Second, though Willard seems familiar enough with the history of modern (meaning Descartes through Schopenhauer) epistemology, he (exactly like Rand’s objectivists) doesn’t at all convey the subtleties. Kant, we need to remember, believed in objectivity. He didn’t think our minds make up the world like dreams, but that our psychological apparatus works according to certain consistent laws which result in reality appearing to us in lawlike ways… lawlike being as objective as any scientist could possibly want. He also, more idiosyncratically, believed that ethics and religion were objective matters, and not a matter of free, existential choice between equally insupportable values and beliefs. Moreover, post-Kantians (like Hegel and Husserl, not to mention James) got rid of the “thing-in-itself” as distinct from appearances, meaning (to greatly oversimplify matters) we’re actually getting at some real aspect of things during perception, but just by necessity not the whole thing, so there always might be important properties (hidden deities and such) lurking in the world that we’re not aware of).
Willard, so far from wanting to debate this account of objectivity, just describes Nietzsche’s view (which he attributes to the whole of modern continental philosophy) as phenomenalism, which is just plain inaccurate. He also describes it as “constructionism,” which may be a good term, but he defines it as entirely a matter of our arbitrary will. While Nietzsche certainly believed that we’re very good at fooling ourselves, he thought that psychology and culture are brute matters that we need to think and learn about in order to understand how this self-delusion works. In other words, the mind is objective, and the laws and habits by which we interpret the world can be legitimate objects of study, meaning that they’re objective.
Worse, he refers in passing “intentionality” of phenomenology to describe it (correctly, at least according to Sartre) as absorption in the world, but then contrasts this to how religious folks are absorbed in God instead. This is horribly confused: there’s nothing atheistic in a model of consciousness whereby consciousness is defined as being directed towards objects. That’s all intentionality says. Now, certain breeds of this doctrine, like Sartre’s, go farther and say that that’s all that we as individuals are: consciousness is not a soul but an outward-directed spontaneity, i.e. an outward with no inside, and what we call our “selves,” i.e. our character, is a public object built socially over time.
Now, that view of Sartre’s is very weird, maybe it does imply atheism, but it’s not Nietzsche’s view, and it’s certainly not the view of the present-day mainstream culture that was the child of the zeitgeist that Nietzsche articulated, as Willard says.
Let me make one more point: I think it’s important not to confuse debates about the lack of objective grounding of morals with the larger epistemological debates I’ve been talking about above. Both Burrell and Willard cite MacIntyre in support of their positions, but MacIntyre was not talking beyond the realm of ethics, and the justification he does give for ethics is a secular one, rooted in Aristotle. Willard runs all this together, and I don’t
think that it’s entirely a matter of the particular forum he was speaking in.
It’s an interesting aspect of whatever that super-rational faculty of phrónēsis or ratiocination or whatever that I keep hitting my head against that scholarly folks can come up with very different summaries of the history of philosophy, very different overall conclusions based on a scan of the same (or a similar enough) set of works. This is largely why we try on the podcast to restrict ourselves to reading and talking about a particular work rather than waxing too much about these large trends. I tend to think that the “correct” overall philosophical picture is no picture at all… don’t oversimplify, and deal with individual issues and interpretations as they come up. Unfortunately, human memory doesn’t mesh well with that recommendation, and the proper confusion I’m advocating is exactly the kind of approach that might lead one, at the end of several years of schooling in philosophy, to reflect back on what you’ve learned and say, “basically nothing.” People need a story to latch on to…
I’d still like to get a good secular post-modern take on Nietzsche up here on the blog (any recommendations?). Clearly, guys like Willard and Burrell are much too willing to take Nietzsche’s declaration that there is no truth but only lies we tell ourselves at face value, instead of as an overemphatic homily against philosophical dogmatism.