The Practical Philosophy (Dabney)

Dabney, R. L. The Practical Philosophy. 1897. Reprint, Harrisonburg, VA. Sprinkle Publications, 1984.

It’s the current year.  Nothing I can say can (or should) excuse Dabney’s more egregious faults.  I’ll only say this: apply the same standard across the board.  Aristotle believed in abortion and didn’t believe women were fully human.  Plato believed in sexual communism. Evangelicals voted for Trump.  Which historical figure can stand in that great day?

Should one read Dabney?  That depends. (It’s the current year.)  Should one make him a staple of his theological diet?  Probably not.  That honor would go to Shedd or Hodge.  On the other hand, if one wants to understand 19th century American intellectual thought (not simply Reformed thought), Dabney is required reading, if only to attack him. (It’s the current year.)

We can take it a step further.  There aren’t many Reformed treatments on the emotions and the will.  Before Richard Muller I can think of…well, none.  If you want to understand how 19th century thinkers, both Christian and non-Christian, thought about the will and the soul, then you have to read Dabney.  You simply won’t find any detailed treatment of faculty psychology from an American Christian on these issues.

In what is perhaps a surprising move from a Reformed theologian, Dabney stresses the importance of feelings.  There can be no motive or action without feeling (Dabney 5). Feelings do not ebb or flow, only their intensity does.  A state of calm is just as much “feeling.” Feelings are not independent, though.  As he later writes, “Feelings are conditioned on the presence before the intellect of an appropriate cognition” (105).

To feel nobly is better than to think acutely. A noble incentive of generous feeling energizes the will, which whets the intellect. Dabney makes a distinction between sensibilities and appetencies (10ff). Sensibility is passive; desire is active.  Desire or appetency: the soul acts from inward to outward (11). There is an element of spontaneity. Sensibilities are the occasions for the outflow of appetencies. My free agency doesn’t come into play when I experience sense impressions. This distinction necessary for free agency. Appetencies are the essential element for motive (14). A mere feeling is not necessarily a sensibility.

Book II is the most important part of the book, as he analyzes the nature of the will. When one chooses, one chooses something. This object presents itself to the mind as both attainable and good. The “conjoined function of judgment and appetency…prompts our own volition; it is the spirit acting in both these concurrent modes” (141). Our appetencies can remain dormant for a time. Our volitions do not.

It is better to speak of a “Free soul” than a free will. Faculties act efficiently on faculties.  “Thought is the soul thinking,” etc.The soul determines volition, “and that soul is self-determined to volition, and therefore free”(151). God’s foreknowledge doesn’t compromise the freedom of a creature (154). An infinite mind can arrange for the certain occurrence of an act. The fatalist sneaks in a hidden premise: God can only work through compulsory means. Our motives determine all our deliberate volitions (158). Inducements are objects of our desire that are capable of stimulating our sensibility. Motives are subjective appetencies

Argument: Whatever we deliberately choose, “it is because we have a motive for our choice” (168). To persuade someone, we have to get him to move his will to some inducement (172). This isn’t the cause of his actions. We have to change his subjective disposition. While we maintain free agency, we do not believe the will is in equilibrium at the moment of the choice. It is in some sense determined by “prevalent antecedent motives” (190). Up to this point, Jonathan Edwards is correct.  (He erred in making God the sole efficient cause in Original Sin).

The second half of the book deals in practical philosophy.  Dabney refutes various ethical theories.  Of particular interest is utilitarianism and Jonathan Edwards’ hedonism.  Jonathan Edwards’ view: virtue is benevolence to being in general (220). “Every judgment of beauty is analyzable into a perception of order and harmony.” New England Theology: love to being in general became affection of benevolence.

Refutation: Scripture doesn’t define love to God as benevolence to being in general. Loving God’s holiness is not the same thing as affection for kindness. This ethics is unworkable for most of humanity.  The average peasant mother doesn’t care about benevolence to being in general. On this reasoning, a son is better off saving a great stranger than his own father.

Dabney’s true genius lies in his take on wealth and economics.  (In one of the strangest ironies, he sounds very close to Tim Keller and the TGC men). Dabney has an excellent section on wealth that avoids communist decadence on one hand and gangster capitalism on the other hand.  We can desire wealth within its proper limits: The desire must not become inordinate (84ff). The desire must propose itself to pure and just objects. It must never become inequitable.

Unlimited luxury is sinful. God gives us wealth so that we may be stewards. It is objected that spending money on luxury items provides income for those who produce them.  Dabney responds: these luxuries “create wider mischief” (471). It degrades those who use them, and redirects capital and energy away from nobler pursuits.

On usury: medieval scholasticism said usury was wrong because money cannot reproduce. This is a fallacy because we know that capital lent does create new values (489). Moreover, usury laws merely drive up the prices of goods. Lenders know that their loans will become riskier. This means the supply of money is diminished and the demand is now increased.  The prices go up.

In conclusion, this is a valuable primary text for studying 19th century religious thought. Be that as it may, Dabney’s other views will prevent this from being more widely read.


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