Friday, July 15, 2005

A Second Response to Enloe

Here is Tim McGrew's response to Tim Enloe's most recent blog entry:


Thanks for the response to my critique of your summary of Clapp. I'm happy to interact a bit with you on the subject, but I'll say up front that I'm reluctant to get into "open-ended" online discussions because they can get really time consuming and I have some extra responsibilities looming as the fall semester approaches. I hope you'll understand that if I fall silent, it isn't necessarily because I have nothing more to say. And I will extend the same understanding to you.

Before we begin: I understand that there's some bad blood between you and Eric Svendsen. I've never met either of you, I had never seen either of your blogs before this month, and I'm not party to all that. I propose that we leave that issue aside. One effect of this proposal is that I will decline to get involved in (from what little I've seen, not always edifying) arguments over whether Svendsen is or isn't methodologically "simplistic" – I simply haven't read the relevant debates between "your people" and "his people," and any opinions I might form if I did read them would in my judgment be independent of the philosophical topics that drew me into this discussion into the first place.

Now onward to the substantive issues!

You write:

First, in taking issue with the second half of my definition of "foundationalism", Dr. McGrew writes "The foundations do not, for any foundationalist I’m aware of, 'constitute' the definition of rationality." One suspects that since Dr. McGrew placed "constitute" in quotation marks, he has another definitional complaint on the order of "Enloe doesn't define terms the way Ph.Ds do in academic journals." That is well and good, and it is surely correct, but beyond that I will admit that I collapsed a distinction between "the position proper" and "the behavior of some advocates of the position."
This is a fair admission on your part. I have just two comments. First, since Clapp aims to tell us what foundationalism is, he presumably means to tell us what its supporters hold. Now foundationalism is a technical position in epistemology; for better or worse, it is mostly professional epistemologists and aspiring epistemologists who self-consciously endorse that position. So we can't appeal to "man-on-the-street" surveys to find out what it means.

Second, it's a tricky business to pick up on the behavior B of some advocates of X and to move from that to a critique of X. This is particularly true when position X is a technical position and B is a practical methodology.

Here you turn to a critique of Svendsen, and I'm not going to follow. There's nothing necessarily wrong with speaking in stark absolutes about methods; it all depends on what the methods are. I don't see how one could hope to make any progress at this point without getting down to details.

As far as the definition of "truth," would it perhaps be more productive for you to say, "I'm interested in exploring something that doesn't quite fit the propositional definition of 'truth' but has some analogies to it"? That way we can avoid reifying our concepts as if they were presents under the tree and we were kids arguing over what's under the wrapping paper. It seems plausible to me that you're just looking at a different (and perhaps interesting) concept. Of course, it's a difficult task to clarify the notion you've got in mind and to investigate just what the relationship might be between that concept and the propositional concept. But surely two people could have a vigorous discussion over that set of problems without denying that there is such a thing as propositional truth.

I'm very familiar with Reformed Epistemology and with the works of Plantinga, Wolterstorff, and Clark. You're right that these folks are issuing a challenge to old-fashioned evidentialism in the theory of knowledge (as well as to evidentialism in apologetics, which is a slightly different thing). But I was making a point about the way that self-described foundationalists think of the relationship between the grounding of high-level beliefs in foundations, on the one hand, and rational belief, on the other. I certainly was not trying to answer the critiques of the REs. In fact, one way of looking at their position is that they're foundationalists for whom belief in God is, as Plantinga likes to say, "properly basic" – it is foundational and therefore rational. Questions of foundationalist structure aren't really the issue in this set of debates.

You're right to point out that there is a major ongoing argument regarding the Lockean position that rational belief requires proportioning one's beliefs to the evidence. Plantinga has issued by far the best, most sophisticated version of the challenge in his Warrant trilogy. I find myself completely unmoved by his arguments, but they are the product of a powerful and well-informed mind and certainly deserve an answer from the evidentialists. I've taken a first step by critiquing Plantinga's attack (WCB, 268-80) on the historical argument for Christianity. If you're interested, you can check it out here. Think of it as a first shot across the bow of the RE ship. I'm told that Plantinga has written a reply, though I haven't seen it yet.

On the historical sketch, you indicate that you weren't trying to write a full history and that you weren't trying to pin it all on Descartes. Not a problem. I appreciate your clarification of the disputes you had in mind, though I think your mention of Galileo and Newton was somewhat misleading in that case. Popkin's History of Skepticism is one of my favorite books. I haven't read Rex, but I can warmly recommend Henry van Leeuwen's monograph The Problem of Certainty in English Thought, which makes a persuasive case for the claim that the rise of probabilism in theology was a direct response to Counter-Reformation Pyrrhonist apologetics.

Again, I'm going to set aside the matter of whether Svendsen and White are "Cartesian" in their hermeneutics – by which I suppose you mean something like "suffering from a form of tunnel vision that prevents them from seeing any possible merit in the views of those who disagree with their interpretations." But one reason Clapp's presentation sent up red flags is that he seemed prepared to apply the term "foundationalism" – in the sense of an intellectual tunnel vision leading to paranoia – to any confident methodological claims. Such claims, even overconfident ones, needn't be foundationalist, and confidence needn't be misplaced. We'd have to turn to specific issues and arguments here rather than trying to play verbal tag. Clapp's use of the term "foundationalism" is a red herring.

You ask:
I wonder what Dr. McGrew would think if I was to tell him that his "well trained" friend Svendsen once claimed that his exegetical prowess enables him to divorce his mind from all preconceived biases when he sits down to do exegesis, so that what he does in his exegesis is just get directly at divine truth itself. Is that a respectable epistemological position for a man to take, Dr. McGrew?
Once again, I am not interested in stepping into your argument with Eric Svendsen, so I will leave the personal element out of it. It seems to me that the answer to your question depends a great deal on what it means to be unbiased. Can I, by dint of hard scholarship, bring it about that I have been born at no particular time, been raised in no particular environment, been exposed to no particular books or learning? Of course not – to ask that question is to answer it. But it does not follow that proper training cannot enable one to determine what a particular text means and to put forth the case for that meaning in such a fashion that any other reasonable person who takes the time to become fully informed should agree.

I'm not saying that all hermeneutical problems are easy. Some are clearly difficult, and in those cases it might turn out that the best thing to do is to suspend judgment pending further information. But many interpretive questions do, I think, yield to careful and deeply informed scholarship. Some of the work of Bishop Lightfoot from the last century comes to mind here.

Turning to postmodernism, I should make an immediate and full disclosure and tell you that I'm an impenitent critic of all forms of it that I've encountered. When I was at Vanderbilt in the early 90's, the department was split between "analytics" and "continentals," so I saw a lot of postmodernism up close and spent many hours reading it and discussing it with my professors and peers. Just to make sure that you are under no illusions about the sort of "extremist" I am on these issues, I'll admit that my chief complaint about D. A. Carson's treatment of the topic in The Gagging of God is that he concedes too much to the postmodernists.

You have been warned!

I make no apology for treating Clapp's attempted connection between epistemological foundationalism and state absolutism as a blunder. Hand-waving "connections" like this abound in the postmodern literature (Milbank is an egregious example), and they often amount to nothing more than loose verbal connections bordering on puns. The antidote to much of this stuff is to try to lay out the argument in a step-by-step way. One runs into problems immediately. Just how is Clapp's argument supposed to go? Let's try this:

1. Foundationalists believe there is something secure that they can rely on epistemically and that if there were not, reasonable belief would be impossible.

2. State absolutists believe there is something secure that they can rely on politically and that if there were not, political stability would be impossible.

Therefore ... um ...

Therefore nothing. This weak isomorphism doesn't take us anywhere and doesn't indicate that the two positions are linked in any interesting way.

Perhaps it is unfair to attribute even an attempt at argument to Clapp. But that does leave us without an answer to a very reasonable question – why on Earth is he dragging this issue into a discussion of foundationalism, or foundationalism into a discussion of politics? This isn't a responsible way to do historical or cultural analysis. When one compares this sort of hand waving to the detailed and informed analysis in Popkin's book, which we both admire, the difference is striking.

As I've said in comments on some other blogs, I understood from the outset that you were summarizing Clapp's paper. I think this puts more of the blame on Clapp. I think your summary of his article displays a combination of energy and interest worthy of a better object.