Christianity and Idealism (Van Til)

Van Til, Cornelius. Christianity and Idealism. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1955.

Originally a collection of articles, this is actually a fascinating account of the final days of Anglo-American Hegelianism. When Van Til (and by extension, his interlocutors) say “idealism,” they do not mean it like Berkeley and others did, where the world is a product of the human mind. Not even Hegel meant that. Rather, for this kind of idealism, the Absolute is that which is either beyond all particulars or contains all particulars.

A note on terminology: a key concept for idealism is the concrete universal. If for Plato universals existed in some unattainable heaven, and where for Aristotle universals exist in the particular, for the later Idealists the universal contains the particulars.

For men like FH Bradley, reality is beyond the appearances. Reality is unreal to the degree that it is not comprehensible. This calls to mind the old Hegelian dictum: the real is the rational and the rational is the real.

Bernard Bonsanqet makes a similar argument: pluralism destroys knowledge (Van Til, 19). Unity must be basic to difference. I think this is correct and Van Til himself acknowledges its proximity to theism. Without a unity, everything is in flux. This means that the universe must be timeless. Now we are getting into dangerous waters. We are only a short step away from denying the passage of time altogether, as McTaggart later did.

As good as this sounds, Van Til highlights its weakness. It makes God and man correlative of one another. Being and nothing are correlative. All ends up as becoming. Yes, it’s pantheism. Another consequence is that there is no doctrine of creation, since particularity has always been there.

Van Til says the ontological Trinity is the true concrete universal. I think there is something to that. There is unity and particularity in the Trinity, but it does not function the same way as earlier Idealist models did. The unity for the Idealists served to ground the particulars. The difficulty here is that the particulars in the Trinity (i.e., the persons) are not functioning in the same way as idealist particulars are. Of course, Van Til never makes these claims, but it is an idea I have had for years when I read Van Tillians on the ontological trinity.

The book is worth getting to see how Van Til reacted to the last of the British Hegelians.

Volume 2 of the Syntopicon (Adler)

Mortimer Adler regularly claimed that it was impossible to be educated before the age of 40.  If true, I would also suggest it is difficult to be educated without working through something like his Syntopicon.  The setup is the same as the earlier volume.    There is a ten page essay, topical indexes, and a recommended reading list.  This review will only outline his key topics, the various positions taken, and how the great thinkers interacted with their predecessors, if time permits.


Man is the only subject where the knower and the object known are the same (Adler 1).  Indeed, “the human intellect is able to examine itself.”

The Western tradition is divided on man’s essence.  The standard (and correct) view is that man differs from animals because he is rational.  His use of speech is a consequence of this rationality.  It is not the main difference.  If this is true, then there must be some distinction between reason and sense (5).


The mind is capable of self-knowledge. This is the difference between sense and intellect.  Senses do not seem to be aware of themselves (172). 

Following Aristotle, we see that if “the soul is the principle of life and all vital activities, so mind is the subordinate principle of knowledge” (173).  And the act of intellect moves as such:

1) conception
2) judgment
3) reasoning.


Adler wisely separates the principle of absolute government from monarchy, since republics and democracies can be as absolutist (205). Monarchy as an idea underwent a transformation in the Middle Ages. It did resemble an absolute system in one sense by giving power to one man, yet it placed supremacy of law in the hands of the people (207).  The only problem with this idea is that given its birth in feudalism, it did not last long in the modern age.

Hegel suggests a robust constitutional monarchy.  In this view the state is more of a corporation. The advantage of this view is that it is quite flexible with modernity and market forces  It doesn’t have any of the disadvantages that plagued medieval models.  On the other hand, it’s not always clear what Hegel is saying.

One and the Many

In line with Aristotle, unity is the first property of being.  All contraries are reducible to things like being/nonbeing, one/many, etc.  Moreover, unity belongs to the individual natural substance.  Man is a substance.  He is not made of other substances.  Machines, though, are.

This is somewhat different from Plato.  Plato’s view had problems.  The idea of the one is also one idea among many.  Plotinus corrected some of these problems.  For him, the one transcends being.  It also transcends intelligence, since knowing requires an object, which would introduce duality into the One.


Opposites do not simply distinguish, they exclude.

Plato: Everything has one opposite.  This was his idea in Gorgias and Protagoras on the unity of virtue.  This also illustrates the numerous subdivisions in Western taxonomies.

Aristotle: made the distinction between correlative opposites (double, one-half) and contrary opposites (odd/even).

Hegel: Unites opposites by reconciling their differences.  Every finite phase of reality has its own contrary.  For example, being and nonbeing imply and exclude one another.  They are united in becoming.


The words “if” and “then” indicate that reason is a motion of the mind from one alternative to another.

Plotinus: any form of thinking signifies a weakness.  It introduces duality.  Higher intelligences, by contrast, know by intuition.  Later Christian thinkers didn’t accept this extreme a view, but they did borrow his idea on intuition and applied it to angelic intelligences.

All the praise I gave of volume one also applies to this volume.

The Concept of the Political (Carl Schmitt)

Schmitt, Carl. The Concept of the Political. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. [reprint 2007].

In what concrete apparatus does political authority lie? Answers could be God or natural law or the social contract?  That might be true in an ultimate sense, but power is always mediated.  To phrase it another way: who is the actual sovereign? 

Carl Schmitt begins on rather innocuous grounds: the state cannot be simply equated with the political. In other words, society cannot be equated with the political. What, then, is the political? It begins “with the distinction between friend and enemy” (Schmitt 26). To be sure, as Schmitt notes, this is a criterion, not an exhaustive definition.  (Schmitt is using ‘enemy’ in a terminological sense, not in a moral sense of ‘bad guy’.) The enemy is one who intends to negate your way of life. To ward off confusion, Schmitt says it is a public, not a private enemy. Indeed, the enemy in this sense “need not be hated personally” (29).

Jesus’s comments do not contradict this.  He is speaking of private enemies.  As Schmitt notes, “Never in the thousand-year struggle between Christians and Moslems did it occur to surrender rather than defend Europe out of love toward the Saracens or Turks” (29).

The contrast between friend and enemy is most stark in the context of war.  There contrast becomes absolute and internal tensions within the political structure become relativised (e.g., as a patriot I dislike moderates, but in the face of an existential external threat, I put that dislike aside).  Indeed, “War is the existential negation of the enemy” (33). A world without war would be a world without the friend-enemy distinction: it would be a world without politics.

We can now tentatively define the political as an entity which is able to escalate the friend-enemy distinction to war. It is any community “that possesses, even if only negatively, the capacity of promoting that decisive step” (37).

Subordinate societies within the political certainly exist.  These are Burke’s “little platoons” or “free associations.” They are necessary to health of the state.  Schmitt’s reiterates his point, though, with stark clarity: “the political entity is by its very nature the decisive entity, regardless of the sources from which it derives [its power]. It exists or does not exist. If it exists, it is the supreme, that is, in the decisive case, the authoritative entity” (43-44). We might recoil at his conclusion, but it remains true that the political, not the church or the guild, is able to use the sword.

I think at this point Schmitt is still at the level of theory, for there are examples in European history where entities other than the state had the power to wage war.  Theoretically, he is correct.  

Any group that has the power to make this distinction and does not do so ceases to exist.  As Schmitt notes, if a group within the political chooses not to engage in the friend-enemy distinction, it in fact joins the enemy. “Only a weak people will disappear” (53).

Interestingly enough, we can apply Schmitt’s insights against globalism.  If the political presupposes an enemy, it means another political entity, another state, must exist.  “As long as a state exists, there will always ben in the world more than one state. A world state which embraces the entire globe and all of humanity cannot exist” (53). The enemies will not cease to exist.  The world-state will simply transfer the category to a group of whom it deems “deplorables.”

The Contradiction of Liberalism

Liberalism seeks to protect individual rights and liberty.  It does so by hindering the state’s control. While noble, this also means liberalism cannot really accommodate the existential nature of the political as mentioned above.  If war arises, the political can demand that you sacrifice your life.  Classical liberalism says it can’t make that demand.  It is here that Schmitt gives his famous rule of the exception, the rule that fundamentally kills liberalism: “An individualism in which anyone other than the free individual himself were to decide upon the substance and dimension of his freedom would be only an empty phrase” (71).

This doesn’t mean liberal societies cease to exist.  They undergo a transformation. “A politically united people becomes…a culturally interested public.”  “Government and power turn into propaganda and mass manipulation, and at the economic pole, control” (72).


This isn’t as shocking as it appears. Politics is about negating the other.  I want my political candidate to win.  That means I want the other to lose.  Completely.  Democrats want Republicans to lose.  Republicans want patriotic Republicans to lose, and so on. Of course, at this point it hasn’t yet come to war.  Actually, that’s’ not true.  The Democratic Party has numerous paramilitary groups burning cities.

I’m not sure I would build a political worldview on Schmitt’s thinking.  Questions like pursuing the Good and virtue are not relevant for him.  He doesn’t dismiss them, to be sure, but they have no meaning on the friend-enemy distinction.  Nonetheless, he writes with bracing clarity and forces the reader to grapple with hard issues.

Note on Hegel: all spirit is present spirit.  Hegel is also the first to bring the nature of the bourgeois forward: “The bourgeois is an individual who does not want to leave the apolitical riskless private sphere” (Schmitt 62).  The enemy, for Hegel, is “negated otherness.”

Short History of Modern Philosophy (Scruton)

Scruton, Roger.  A Short History of Modern Philosophy. New York: Routledge, 2002.

This was a joy to read.  Scruton communicates depth with a certain type of elegance rarely matched in academic writers.  Bertrand Russell is probably the closest equivalent.

There are several angles from which we can view Scruton’s work.  An exhaustive review of each figure and movement would be beyond the scope of this review.  Several key themes emerge in Scruton’s narrative.  Substance never disappears as a concept, pace modern nominalists.  On the other hand, it cannot stand simply in its Aristotelian form.  Developments in mathematics, logic, and language require a sharper focus on substance.

First, some comments on Aristotle’s logic. Every proposition contains both subject and predicate, which corresponds to substance and attribute (Scruton 16). Since a substance can have, or perhaps lose, different attributes, a substance is something that survives change.  One problem raised is whether substances can cease to exist and what is meant by the term “exist.”

Distinction between stuff and things.  Stuff can be measured.  Things can be counted.  This made the idea of substance rather fuzzy.

The Port Royal Logic

 The Jansenist critics of Descartes anticipated several key breakthroughs in logical analysis. They noted the distinction between the intension and extension of a term.  The former denotes what a thing is.  The latter applies to the set of things: man vs. the class of men.


Gottfried Leibniz emerges as a true champion in this narrative. Spinoza had previously said there was only one substance and an infinity of modes.  Leibniz, by contrast, saw reality as reducible to individuals known as “monads,” which Scruton highlights as (68):

1 Monads are not extended in space. 

2 Monads are distinguished from one another by their properties (their ‘predicates’). 

3 No monad can come into being or pass away in the natural course of things; a monad is created or annihilated only by a ‘miracle’. 

4 The predicates of a monad are ‘perceptions’—i.e. mental states—and the objects of these mental states are ideas. Inanimate entities are in fact the appearances of animated things: aggregates of monads, each endowed with perceptions.

 5 Not all perceptions are conscious. The conscious perceptions, or apperceptions, are characteristic of rational souls, but not of lesser beings. And even rational souls have perceptions of which they are not conscious. 

6 ‘Monads have no windows’—that is, nothing is passed to them from outside; each of their states is generated from their own inner nature.

To be sure, not every organic thing is an individual monad. Most aren’t. Humans, for example, would be aggregates of monads.


Scruton’s analysis of Hegel’s logic put the brakes on any Hegelian speculations I might have had.   The main difficulty with Hegel, apart from his impenetrable prose, is that his use of terms doesn’t mirror the way the world normally uses such terms.  In normal usage, logic is a tool.  For Hegel it is almost an active, living entity.

Scruton summarizes the problem in reading Hegel in one elegant, witty passage:

“It is not to be expected that such a logic can readily be made intelligible, or that a philosophy which is able cold-bloodedly to announce (for example) that ‘Limit is the mediation through which Something and Other is and also is not’ should be altogether different from arrant nonsense” (175).

Scruton interrupts his survey after Nietzsche to make a few comments on political philosophy.

For John Locke, when I mix my labor with an object, I make it my own. It becomes my property (206).   Locke’s arguments on natural rights are interesting and quite important.  Contract theory, however, is built on a much shakier foundation.  Scruton identifies several problems. 1) On what grounds do we infer the existence of such a contract?  It is almost always an implied contract, if it exists at all.  Claims of “tacit consent” are vacuous, as Hume noted.  It’s not clear how anyone born in such a society gave “tacit consent.”

Marx takes Hegel’s concept of alienation and comes up with “false consciousness.”  Scruton notes that Marx didn’t use alienation all that much later on in life.  What is “alienation?” As Scruton observes, 

“Under capitalism it is not only objects, but also men, who are bought and sold. And in this buying and selling, under the regime of which one party has nothing to dispose of but his labour power, we reach the ultimate point in the treatment of men as means. Men have become objects for each other, and whatever remnants of their human (social) life remain will be dissipated” (225).

Although such a view is not entirely coherent (and Marx would trade it in for “false-consciousness” later on), it did have imaginative power.  A false consciousness, on the other hand, is a universal error one makes in examining the social world. This unhappy consciousness emerges from Marx’s analysis of “base” and “superstructure.”

Following this chapter Scruton examines utilitarianism and British idealism.  More pertinent for this review will be Scruton’s analysis of Gottlob Frege’s logical revolution.  


What did Frege do?  He overthrew Aristotelian logic.  He began by examining J. S. Mill’s claim that arithmetic was abstracted from experience, as in 2+3 = 5. Numbers are empirical aggregates from experience.  Frege responded that Mill could give no account of the number zero.  Moreover, while I cannot with my senses apprehend a 1,000 sided figure, I am easily prepared to acknowledge such a figure exists.  And in the final coup de grace on Mill, Frege notes that induction assumes probability, but probability presupposes arithmetical laws (250).

Frege then asks, “What is a number?” They can’t be a property, since if I say “Socrates is one,” I do not attribute the property of one-ness to Socrates. Nor are they abstractions. If numbers are objects, then we need to be able to locate them, and that entails a host of philosophical headaches. 

A more immediate problem, and one for which Frege is ultimately famous, concerns existential quantification.  If I say “Unicorns are horned animals,” am I saying that unicorns exist?  Frege made it clear that identity and prediction are different.

I don’t feel smart enough to explain what Frege meant by sense and reference, so we will go on to Heidegger, particularly, Scruton’s wonderful rhetorical comments on Heidegger.  

“It is impossible to summarise Heidegger’s work, which no one has claimed to understand completely. In the next chapter I shall give reasons for thinking that it may be unintelligible” (268).

“the reader has the impression that never before have so many words been invented and tormented in the attempt to express the inexpressible” (268).

“All these are more or less pompous ways of distinguishing things from persons” (269).

“Heidegger notices and applauds the result, but does not, as he perhaps should, feel threatened by it” (269).

“One thing is clear, which is that Heidegger’s conclusions, where intelligible, are clearly intended as universal truths, not merely about the human condition, but about the world as such” (272).

“Heidegger does not give any arguments for the truth of what he says. Most of Being and Time consists of compounded assertions, with hardly a ‘thus’, ‘therefore’, ‘possibly’, or ‘it might follow that’, to indicate the relations which are supposed to hold between them” (272).

This book was a sheer pleasure to read and absorb.  It is easily my favorite text and first recommendation on the history of modern philosophy.

History & Truth in Hegel’s Phenomenology

Westphal, Merold. History & Truth in Hegel’s Phenomenology.  Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1998.

Hegel remains important today for the children who claim him as their father.  To be fair, you cannot draw a straight line from Hegel to Marx (or Cultural Marxism).  Hegel was a conservative monarchist.  Nonetheless, Hegel’s method was hijacked and in combating the evils of Cultural Marxism, it helps to know what Hegel said.  And what he said is different from what you were told he said.

As far as analyses of Hegel goes, this is hit-and-miss.  I don’t see it as an advance upon Charles Taylor.  On the other hand, Merold Westphal does a good job explicating what Hegel meant by “Spirit.”

Thesis: transcendental subjectivity has a social history and absolute knowledge is historically conditioned (Westphal xvii).

Hegel’s initial target is the view that takes knowledge to be merely an instrument. This is the view that knowledge is neutral and that the knower remains unattached to the process.

The Task of The Phenomenology

I’m not sure what Westphal was saying in this chapter. He makes a number of helpful remarks on Hegel’s system, though.

The best way to see Hegel’s project is that of Spirit progressively abandoning its external husks (26).  Hegel is interested in the historical and social dimension of Spirit. Geist overcomes oppositions.  If we take our standard oppositions of subject-object, mind-body, and spirit-matter, Hegel sees them as “congealed oppositions,” to which Reason’s goal is to transform them.

Reason, then, for Hegel is human life in its totality.   Obviously, this is not how we normally use the term.

The Knowledge of Nature: Sense Certainty

Sense certainty is the weakest of all theories of knowledge.  Hegel adequately rebuts it, but he goes the long way around to do it. If all we can know are our sense perceptions, then we must rule out things like cause, effect, consciousness, etc. (which, of course, is what Hume did).

As it stands, Hegel’s criticism of sense certaintyis convoluted, but what it does is allow him to develop terms such as mediation and immediacy.  He wants to make the move from “pure thought” to “pure Spirit.”

Mediation implies a negative relation to something else.  When I see a tree, I am not simply seeing sensations of brown and green.  I see the tree within a larger matrix (which rules out its being things it isn’t). All this may be true, but I don’t see exactly how it attacks sense-certainty.

Hegel says that when sense perceptions are present to my consciousness, they are always so in a contingent relationship (here, now).  They are never present as pure being.  Again, quite true but I am not sure this gets us anywhere. I think his point is that every moment of sense-certainty is always in a determinate (i.e., limited) context and never present as pure-ness.

If something is present to me in a pure, immediate sense, then it is so as an empty concept. For example, close your eyes and think about “being.”  Now think about “nothing.”  You probably thought about the same thing. I think the payoff is that sense certainty is trading on a number of concepts that it rules out. Hegel goes on to say that this mediation is language.

Constructing the knowledge-act: Every act of knowing has a subject and an object. Spirit mediates between subject and object, yet there is also a mediating act within Spirit itself. The object I know is part of a universal consciousness (is it?), of which I am also a part.

When Desire Doubles

We move from Consciousness to Spirit, and Spirit requires a social dimension.  Here’s how. Spirit or practical consciousness begins with desire (122). Whenever we are conscious of something, we are conscious of an object.  To desire an object is to experience its otherness. I am now conscious of my consciousness of the other.  This is Self-Consciousness.  Unfortunately, this objectifies the Other, which does not survive the negation.  What Hegel means is not that the object is obliterated, but that I only experience it as an object of my desire, never as itself.

We need another category that doubles my self-consciousness yet doesn’t negate the other.  This is Spirit. The Spirit is the third term that mediates between the two self-consciousnesses without negating the two.

Spirit is the unity of self-conscious individuals.  It is the I that is a We and the We that is an I (129).  Westphal lists several characteristics: spirit is a social reality, not an ontological predicate; it is an interrelated unity of selves; it is a substance which will become subject.

This points to an obvious conclusion: Spirit is fully recognized in the life of a people (Volk; 139). This is Hegel’s famous term, Sittlichkeit, ethical life. “It is the substantial life of a people expressed in its customs and laws.”  This sounds very similar to Augustine’s famous “common objects of love” (City of God Book 19).  Of course, all hinges on what we mean by Spirit.  Hegel might have meant something like “God,” in which case his thought is to be rejected.  But if we mean something like the real bonds which hold a society together, then it is fine.

The Career of Spirit

Spirit manifests itself in concrete forms in history.  It moves from the Greek Polis to the Roman Legal Self to Revolutionary Terror to the climax of human perfection, 19th century Germany.  That much is easy enough to understand.  It gets convoluted at the end.

The Greek life was one of social wholeness.  However, it lacked self-reflection.  As it began to reflect on itself (with the help of several wars), it lost its cohesion and Spirit moved to the Roman Empire.

The Roman self was a legal self.  The individual is his property and nothing beyond.  Unfortunately, this means I can only relate to the Other through externals (usually wealth), which will later introduce alienation.

The main problem with all of this is the evidence, as noted in the apocryphal quip, “Herr Hegel, the facts do not support your theory.”  Hegel: “Too bad for the facts.”


This isn’t my favorite Hegel text, and I mean no disrespect to Westphal.  He is an accomplished philosopher and a good writer.  I think he tried to say too much in too little space.  Charles Taylor’s book on Hegel is much longer and much clearer, clearer probably because it is longer.

Sergius Bulgakov: The Lamb of God


This is the hallmark of Bulgakov’s “Sophiology” project. Since it is prone to misunderstanding, and those councils which condemned it lacked the philosophical tools to evaluate it, it would be wise to state what Bulgakov means by “Sophia.” The short answer: Imagine what would happen if Platonism and Hegelianism had a child. Longer answer: Sophia is the divine prototype. To speak even more loosely, it is the receptacle and vehicle of God’s divine nature (Bulgakov, 98ff). It is the divine glory. Bulgakov even says it is “the divine world.” He then moves to identify Sophia as the “pre-eternal humanity in God” (113).

Whether we agree with him or not, Bulgakov’s comments gain new relevance after we explore what he calls “The Patristic Dialectic.” The heretic Apollinaris was the first to identify the problematic: What is divine humanity and how is the Incarnation possible (4ff)? He, in good Alexandrian fashion, denies a duality of personal principles. He argues, rather, that two perfect principles cannot become one. Thus, how can one understand the union without transforming it into a duality?

We reject Apollinaris’s heretical teaching, but we must admit he formulated it on very good grounds: the union cannot be of two whole integral persons, which is why Apollinaris dropped the human nous from the humanity. Aside from the comments on the nous, this isn’t that different from Chalcedon (11)!

Cyril responds to this by giving his famous answer: there is one nature of the enfleshed Logos. Cyril now has several difficulties: in order for this statement to be Orthodox, we have to reinterpret what we mean by “phusis.” It is also worth pointing out that Cyril is ideologically dependent on his opponents, which likely prevented him from developing a full, positive alternative to Nestorius.

Bulgakov’s genius (if he proves successful) is to solve the dialectic in this manner: man contains within himself the receptacle of divinity. This is so because he is created on the divine proto-image. In other words, there is a mediating principle between divinity and humanity. It will be Bulgakov’s argument that this is what preserves Chalcedon: the third-term mediation allows a true union and avoids duality.

An Analysis and Critique

Strictly judged on Platonic grounds, it’s hard to argue with him. Without agreeing with him on all specifics, I have to admit his project seems to ‘work.’ He gives a very beautiful and engaging discussion on creation, time, and eternity.

His heavy Platonizing could be forgiven if it weren’t for the occasional foray into Gnosticism. He identifies the Logos with the “Demiurgos” (111). This isn’t that different from the god of Freemasonry. It is an “architect” that merely re-shapes dead matter. He runs into other dangers with loose terminology: he speaks of a tri-hypostasis, a feminine hypostasis of Sophia, but at other times he denies that Sophia is en-hypostasized. He rightly argues that the Ascended Christ is bodily in heaven, notwithstanding any difficulties that entails. The problem for his Eucharistology is that how can the bodily Christ stay in heaven and be physically present in the elements? Bulgakov responds by saying…I kid you not…”He comes down without leaving heaven.” Understandably, some won’t be convinced.

I think Bulgakov successfully defended himself from charges of heresy. Further, if one is committed to substance-ontologies, then it’s hard to avoid Bulgakov’s proposal. If there remains some truth in Hegel, then Bulgakov’s ideas could prove quite valuable. At the end of the day, though, many are nervous about employing a heavily Platonic schemata in our theology.

Overcoming Ontotheology (Westphal)

Westphal, Merold.  Overcoming Ontotheology. New York, Fordham University Press, 2001.

This is a Christian, albeit sympathetic, reading of academic postmodernism as it has come to us via Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Derrida.  It is not a treatment of the emergent church. That is not academic postmodernism.

Ontotheology is when someone treats God as another datum to be analyzed and uses this datum to explain all of reality.  Like all of Westphal’s books, this is very well-written and learned. Parts are even in German. There is a danger to this book:  both sides, modernist and postmodernist, and the Christians within both camps, might say that this book, and by extension Continental Philosophy, is the true philosophy.  Therefore, analytic philosophy is ontotheology. Even worse, they might argue that Continental philosophy = postmodernism. Westphal himself doesn’t do that, as he notes that some postmodernists like Rorty are closer to the analytic tradition in some ways.

For Heidegger, philosophy starts out as Being qua being, but this needs an Unmoved Mover to complete the system. For Heidegger, if we try to introduce God into this system, we can only do so on philosophy’s terms.

We will have to square up to Westphal’s use of the term “postmodern.”  By it he is simply denying that humans can have a “God’s-eye view” of Truth. He finds this in Plato’s claim of “the unaided intellect” which is purified from the senses (Phae 65e ff). Pure thought meets a pure object. 

What critics like Kant and Heidegger suggest is that we can never escape Time.  Our experience is always temporal. With this in mind, Westphal summarizes the leading postmodernists (Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Rorty, Heidegger, Derrida):

  1. All our experience is linguistically mediated.
  2. Every language is a conceptual scheme that lacks universality.
  3. Every language is contingent.
  4. Every language is a perspective.

Christian Philosophers and the Copernican Revolution

Westphal’s specific argument is that Kant’s claim to a thing-in-itself is not necessarily an anti-Christian claim.  Indeed, Westphal argues that Kant correlates (somehow) the phenomenal and noumenal worlds. For him, the distance between things-in-themselves and appearances is the way the world is versus the way I experience it.

Positive Postmodernism as Radical Hermeneutics

*Foundationalism is a replacing of mythos with logos.

The Hermeneutical Turn in Modern Continental Philosophy

The trace: something at work in my thinking that is not present now yet never has been fully present.

Laughing at Hegel

Mediation: mediation involves otherness.  Immediacy is its absence. At this level Hegel is a philosopher of difference. Hegel does hold to immediacy at one level, though.  Something is immediate in its being “self-evident,” yet it is not self-evident in itself. It is self-evident to us.

Immediacy is abstract self-relation and hence it is abstract identity (EL 74A). Immediacy is a product of social mediation, of our being in history.  Hegel’s argument is that immediacy can never exist at the level of abstraction, for then it would only give you the altar of the unknown god.

Immediacy tries to undo all of the relations that connect to us.

What does Hegel mean by “dialectics?” First, he doesn’t mean what you’ve been told by bloggers that he means.  He never uses that triad (thesis/antithesis = synthesis) in the way that you think he does. For him, and well for all of the philosophical tradition, dialectics is the negative point of reason (EL 81R).  Everything finite is its own sublation. Westphal suggests that this sublation, this aufhebung, is a recontextualization into the whole.

If you want a triad, it is this: abstract self-relation, mediation through another, and the self-mediation of the totality.

The Otherness of God and Ontological Xenophobia

I see where Horton got the “meeting a stranger” motif.  I agree that the Augustinian/Ps.-Dionysian project is more Neoplatonist than classical theists want to admit.  I just don’t think Derrida is the answer.

For the Neoplatonist et al, the goal of religion is “overcoming estrangement,” by which he means finitude.  For Covenant man, it is meeting a stranger who descends to us. In the former we ascend via negation. In the latter God descends to us.


Heidegger himself might not avoid his own criticism, for in saying we must go beyond the horizon of being to understand being, is he not putting being into intellectualist terms?


*He says Husserl’s process of epoche is an attempt to escape finitude.  I’m fairly certain Husserl is not doing that.  

* Westphal takes issue with Plantinga’s attack on Kant’s “creative anti-realism.” This hinges on whether Westphal’s theistic reading of Kant is tenable.  When read in light of Kant’s philosophy of religion, I don’t think it is.

* Finally, the pious churchgoer might wonder if there is any point in reading Derrida.  I would have to say no. Everything Derrida wants the Reformed already have in the archetypal distinction.  Further, while we agree with Heidegger that we should overcome ontotheology, God has already done so in being the God of the Covenant.


Approaching Philosophy of Religion (Thiselton)

Thiselton, Anthony C. Approaching Philosophy of Religion

This is the best intro to philosophy of religion. While it can never replace primary sources (and so, anthologies), it is far more useful to the beginner. Something to note: in many places Thiselton is simply explaining positions (e.g., feminism). The lack of an immediate critique and discernment-blogger expose should not be taken as an endorsement.

Eastern Philosophy

Hinduism: supreme being is both antagonistic to evil but also undifferentiated consciousness. Possible tension there.

Medieval Philosophy

Ibn Sinna changed the terminology of the cosmological argument from uncaused/cause to necessary/contingent. Even if the argument itself is limited, this is a better change.


We tend to see the big divide in philosophy as between analytic and continental. That wasn’t always so. Before Hegel it was rational vs. empiricism. Hegel broke that divide with his introduction of “historical reason.” For Hegel the absolute unfolded itself in a historical and dialectical process, taking up and sublating previous movements.

The Hegelian D.F. Strauss took this idea and said that myth could tell truth if in the form of a narrative. Enter, modern liberal Christianity.

Marx replaced Hegel’s “Spirit” with “matter.”

Part 1: Approaches

Analytic Philosophy. Began with GE Moore and focused on linguistic precision at the expense of metaphysics and consciousness. Facts are analyzed as atomistic states of affairs, which are then reduced to propositions. Russell’s work did offer new insights into logic, such as the existential quantifier.

Traditional statement: a round square does not exist.

This does not mean there is such an entity as a round square to which we deny “existence.” Rather, it means,

For every x, x does not exist.

A number of schools emerged from the analytic method: Logical Positivism, Oxford School, and Speech-Act school.

Continental Philosophy

It’s easier to explain continental philosophy by its different subdivisions.

Existentialism: the importance of human decision and will; temporality of all actions; truth through subjectivity. Subjectivity, however, means something more than “truth for me.” It is inner transformation.

Phenomenology: We describe objects as they are immediately given to us. Husserl began by rejecting “psychologism,” that reducing of objects to mental states. Instead, Husserl argues for intentionality, which is consciousness about other states or objects.

Husserl on Signs: every sign is a sign for something, but not every sign has meaning. For Husserl “pure consciousness,” or a directed consciousness towards both immanental and actual objects.

Hermeneutics: The Continental school focused more on hermeneutics than did the analytic school. This has a bigger overlap with Christian theology. With Schleiermacher hermeneutics moved from “rules of interpretation” to “art of interpretation.” The unity of the whole is grasped and then viewed in the various sections. We have a provisional grasp of the whole that is seen in our “pre-understanding.”

Heidegger— Verstehen is bound up with interpreting Dasein’s possibilities of existence. Understanding is prior to cognition. Understanding is more of a projection.

Critical Theory– praxis as theory-laden action. Power and knowledge entail each other. Capitalism generates false needs (Marcuse).

Feminism. More nuanced than what might expect. Feminism is more than just NPR propaganda. It draws upon a specifically Marxist critique that the male, enforced by binary rationality and logocentrism, “commodifies” the female.

Personalism. Critiques of personalism are difficult to manage. On one hand, it does stem from a rejection of classical theism following Hegel and Kant. However, Hegel’s and Kant’s construction of the doctrine of God is anything but personal.

Pragmatism and Rorty: we speak of justification rather than truth. Truth is what is successful to the community. Problem: Which community? Rorty prefers that of liberal democracy.

Concepts and Issues

Design argument: Today the defense doesn’t rely as much on particular minutiae but on structured orderedness.

Divine action: Can God act in the universe? There are two parts to the problem: a) how can a spiritual being act in the physical word? b) Does God’s acting again constitute a problem in the first place? If he were perfect, and had acted once, why does he need to act again? Thiselton draws upon speech-act theory to shed some light on the faulty presupposition. A single utterance, for example, can have multiple effects.

Speech acts: our speech acts depend on accepted conventions. We can’t just say, “I baptize this dog” or “I baptize this child 2704.” A promise is an interesting example of a speech-act. It cannot be done vicariously. Think about it: I can’t promise for somebody else. Also, if I say “I do” at the altar, it has perlocutionary force. If I am already married, it does not. Thiselton even goes further and links covenant with “speech act.” Covenants imply promise, and promise is a speech-act. Thiselton mentions that Tyndale identified 14 types of promise in the Bible, including “blessing, acquittal, appointment, etc.”

Part 3: Key Terms

Alienation: Marxists use the term to describe capitalism’s alleged reduction of humans to property.

Dialectic: originally referred to dialogue. It’s technical meaning refers to a logical process that sublates lower-order conclusions.

Essence: the permanent and fixed property of an entity. Wittgenstein rejected talk of essences as distracting from the particular cases of language

Hegel and Modern Society (Charles Taylor)

Taylor claims this isn’t merely a summation of his earlier tome on Hegel. That’s not really true. A number of pages are lifted but I think he succeeds in succinctly tying Hegel’s ontology to Hegel’s politics and showing the latter’s relevance for the modern age.

Hegel’s Ontology

Hegel sought to synthesize the Romantic desire for freedom and expression with the Rationalist desire for Reason. The Romantics saw Enlightenment science severing man’s unity. Man can only be self-conscious when he abstracts himself from the world. But when he does that, he severs himself from the organic unity of life. Reason and Life are thus opposites. But they are opposites which can’t exist without the other.

This leads us to Geist (God, sort of) as the Embodied Subject. A rational subject must be embodied because their must be an opposite pole in which it may flourish. Hegel rejects both Christian theism (God independent of the world) and naturalism (God as not absolute). Self-positing: God eternally creates the conditions of his existence. Hegel is not so much arguing for an existent reality, but for the conditions that Geist be.

What is the Dialectic?

we start with the most elementary notion of what consciousness is, “to show that this cannot stand up, that it is riven with inner contradiction and must give way to a higher one, which is also in turn shown to be contradictory” (55).

Politics as Alienation Overcome

Modern society has seen the proliferation of Romantic views of life along with the rationalization and bureaucratization of collective structures and an exploitive stance toward nature (71). The adequate form of Spirit (remember, Spirit must be embodied) is social. Man has to be part of something larger than himself, since man cannot exist by himself.

alienation: this happens whenever the public existence no longer has meaning for me: e.g., the perceived futility of voting; nominal religious belief in Church-States. Individuals then strike out on their own to define their individuality. They then (ironically) come together as a new social unit.

Negative freedom would require that the whole outcome be decided by me. Yet, the whole outcome is a social one, so it cannot be decided by me alone. Thus, negative freedom is impossible.

The Modern Dilemma

Here is why modern liberal society is doomed: radical participation in civic structures is only possible if there is a ground of agreement, or underlying common purpose (Augustine’s common objects of love). Democracy and participation cannot create this; they merely presuppose it. The demand for absolute freedom by itself is empty.
Modern ideology and equality leads to homogenization [Taylor isn’t always clear on what he means by homogenization] of society. It is an acid drip on traditional structures, yet it cannot replace them.

Hegel and Marx

This is where Charles Taylor, using Hegel’s analysis, cuts Marxism to the bone. The Soviet view sees the proletarian party as “engineers of building in conformity with the laws of history…[combining] two opposed pictures of the human predicament. It shows us man, on one hand, imposing his will on the course of history…On the other hand dialectical materialism sets out the laws which govern man and history with an iron necessity” (151). “The laws of history cannot be the basis of social engineering and reveal the inevitable trend of events” (152).

Analysis and Conclusion

A Christian cannot accept Hegel’s ontology. It echoes pantheism and is openly process theology. Hegel’s analysis of epistemology on lower levels is sometimes interesting. Hegel’s insights on politics (if not his conclusions!) are occasionally brilliant.

The concepts of social alienation are more pronounced today than ever before. Hegel was spot on. His critique of Negative Freedom of the French Revolution applies equally to Marxism (and its body count) and the Cultural Leninism of today’s America

Dialectical Cheat Sheet

For all things Hegel.  I’ll probably be updating this.

Self-Positing Spirit

This introduces Hegel’s “identity of difference and identity.” Starting slowly, following Taylor, here is what I think he means. Hegel is trying to overcome the Kantian duality. Hegel wants to overcome this with his notion of “overcoming oppositions.” Therefore, identity cannot sustain itself on its own, but posits an opposition, but also a particularly intimate one (Taylor 80). In short, Hegel married modern expression with Aristotle’s self-realizing form (81)


Essentially, what Hegel is saying is that men feel a basic attitude of alienation–their substance lies outside them and they can only overcome it by overcoming their particularity (Taylor 179).

The person externalizes himself and becomes an object. I can sell my time and labor (Marcuse).

Boiling it Down

Something like the external world appears to me in a certain way and/or my mind constructs these categories. If so, how would a phenomenology of spirit be possible, since spirit is usually not associated with the external world? This is why Kant’s noumenal distinction is wrong. Just what is it that appears in appearance? Appearance is the showing forth of what something is.

Take the category of abstract being or reason or spirit. In the abstract it is an empty category. To say that something is says nothing specific about it. Yet, it is not Nothing. Therefore, oscillating between this “Being” and “Nothing” is Becoming, which can account for particularity.

Therefore, Reason must Reflect upon itself and become self-consciousness. As Glenn Magee notes, “Speculative Philosophy holds up a mirror (speculum) to the Idea itself: it allows the Idea to comprehend itself (Magee 88).


For Hegel universals and particulars are not separate “things.” Nor are universals “in” particulars. Rather, “particulars are within universals” (61). The universal has no reality apart from its concrete realization.

Magee, Glenn. The Hegel Dictionary. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2011.

Taylor, Charles. Hegel. Cambridge, 1975