The Realist Hope: a Critique of Anti-Realist Approaches in Contemporary Philosophical Theology (Heythrop Studies in Contemporary Philosophical Theology). By Christopher J. Insole
Article first published online: 7 APR 2009
© The author 2009. Journal compilation © Trustees for Roman Catholic Purposes Registered 2009
The Heythrop Journal
Volume 50, Issue 3, pages 526–527, May 2009
How to Cite
Walker, R. (2009), The Realist Hope: a Critique of Anti-Realist Approaches in Contemporary Philosophical Theology (Heythrop Studies in Contemporary Philosophical Theology). By Christopher J. Insole. The Heythrop Journal, 50: 526–527. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2265.2009.00484_15.x
- Issue published online: 7 APR 2009
- Article first published online: 7 APR 2009
Pp. vii, 212 , Aldershot , Ashgate Press , 2006 , £47.50.
Insole argues in this book against all forms of religious anti-realism and for a modest form of religious realism. An approach is anti-realist if it denies one or more of the following claims: A) there is an indispensable core of religious utterances that are fact-asserting, not merely expressive [these utterances are statements]; B) statements are made true by a non-epistemic state of affairs (the way the world is, rather than by standards of ‘ideal justification’); C) what is the case is independent of human cognition; D) we can, in principle, have true beliefs about what is the case independent of human cognition. (p. 2) Phillips is an anti-realist because his expressivism denies A, those Wittgenstein-influenced approaches that relativize meaning to language-games or adopt an epistemic conception of truth deny B, constructivists deny C and Kantian-inspired theologians Hick and Kaufman, who argue that we cannot know anything about the noumenal or the inaccessible God, deny D.
Insole argues systematically against the sins of all anti-realists and then puts forward his own account of the realist hope that it is possible to have true beliefs about God who is independent of human cognition. Though, of course, our hope might be in vain. Much of his material has appeared in journal articles, including one in this journal and people might feel that there is not sufficient new material to justify the purchase price. There is, however, much that is satisfying in this book, not least the clear and decisive way Insole dispatches the various forms of anti-realism. There is a good chapter on Phillips showing that his account of the correct interpretation of religious utterances, i.e. expressive rather than descriptive, requires him to assume expressivism is correct prior to establishing his case for expressivism. For those who find Phillips frustrating Insole is thoroughly enjoyable.
The dangers of constructivism and an epistemic conception of truth are well set out. Such is the fear of skepticism and the obsession with the inability to ‘get outside our skins’ that these philosophers have traded away the possibility that ideally justified propositions could be false and have removed all grounds for criticizing practices and the beliefs of whole communities. Insole puts the case very cogently that the inevitable gap between beliefs and reality that the realist must live with is very much to be preferred to the consequences of believing either that truth is only a matter of a/the cognitive agent's justification for belief or that the world is only what can be conceived by us. The argument for constructivism is one where Insole demonstrates a critical strategy that applies again in the consideration of the Kantian-inspired work of Hick and Kaufman. Arguments for constructivism run along these lines: because we cannot conceive of the world without concepts we know only the world as it is constructed by these concepts rather than the world as it is in itself. Strong constructivism says that the world just is what we can conceive. There is, however, a neglected alternative, which is that we have the concepts that we do because they are good at reflecting the way the world is in itself. Once this possibility is considered the force of the constructivist predicament dissipates. Similarly, when Hick claims that we cannot attribute properties to the noumenal and Kaufman talks of the inaccessible God they neglect the possibility that our cognitive capacities are good at mediating the world as it really is. If so, it is logically possible to attribute properties to God – which Hick does anyway.
Insole's own proposal is fleshed out as a realism about God that is analogous to realism about persons rather than the metaphysical realism that is usually attacked by the anti-realists. He argues that it is clear that there are truths about other persons that are independent of what we know about the person ourselves and that the same can be said of God. Anthropomorphic God-talk is desirable because it allows relationships and possible if one uses semantic methods for determining univocal, analogical and equivocal applications of terms. If the predicate schemas of an attribute overlap completely the application is univocal and if they overlap to an extent the application is analogical. One then does not need to know whether the objects are ontologically similar in order to apply attributes analogically, which is what we wish to do in the case of God.
The realism we are left with is carefully designed to avoid commitment to any particular theological programme. One can enjoy the realist hope in a variety of ways. One could, for example, be a feminist realist once one understands that the anti-realist baggage is not required for objecting to patriarchal forms of realist theology. Indeed, Insole points out that the feminists who embrace anti-realist forms of theology do so as ethical realists, whether they quite realize that or not, because they say patriarchy is morally wrong and it is wrong everywhere for everyone. But there is a slight feel of realism restored rather than realism renewed in this book. Some realists would like to develop a form of religious realism that absorbs some of the insights anti-realists undoubtedly have. That does not happen here.
On the whole, a well-written and clearly argued contribution to the debate between religious realists and anti-realists. But, Dr Insole, readers don't need all the italics.