Religion and the Hermeneutics of Contemplation. By D. Z. Phillips


Pp. xiv, 330 , Cambridge , Cambridge University Press , 2001 , £20.99/£50.00

This is a complete revision and expansion of Phillips' 1976 volume, Religion without Explanation. Where that began with a brief discussion of ‘faith and philosophical enquiry’, the 2001 edition opens with a lengthy and very helpful chapter on ‘hermeneutics and the philosophical future of religious studies’. Here Phillips urges an alternative to the two dominant modes of religious enquiry today, the hermeneutics of ‘recollection’ on the one hand, and of ‘suspicion’ on the other. The former of these he sees as something of an apologetic manoeuvre, seeking to commend a religious framework by way of re-presenting its main features and internal coherence. The latter is an unmasking, a rejection in fact. What of the philosophical task of simply grasping the details of a religious belief or worldview – laying bare the religious belief in question without prejudice as to its merit or plausibility from a non-religious point of view, and then asking the analytical questions of its structure, coherence and conceptual clarity? This Phillips calls ‘the hermeneutics of contemplation’, an application to religious studies of the ‘cool’ philosophy he has advocated elsewhere. He turns a contemplative eye on the hermeneutics of suspicion evident in Bernard Williams' work in a new chapter 2. Here he develops a theme that suspicion, in its characterising of religious faith as illusory, falls short by becoming itself conceptually confused. Individual religious themes and concepts may be confused, but there can be, he suggests, no general demonstration that all religious thinking is itself confused – this too is a confusion. Succeeding chapters, still carrying over considerable sections of the 1976 book, then explore these ideas as they relate to various key thinkers. All the usual suspects are here: Hume, Feuerbach, Marx, Freud, Durkheim, and so forth. In the conclusion, Phillips argues that the ‘philosophical imperative’ is to understand, in contrast to the task, often appropriated by philosophers, of trying ‘to provide us with some kind of message to guide us in life’. One may feel that there is a certain luxury to his very Wittgensteinian refusal to be overdrawn in pronouncing on actual religious beliefs and practices, and may suspect that ‘disinterestedness is not a lack of interest, but an interest of a special kind’ (p. 324) is a thin conclusion for the average philosopher with religious interests, but in a world characterised by massive misunderstanding of even quite prominent religious beliefs, the project undertaken in this book still has its valuable and practical elements.