The Nature and Limits of Human Understanding. By Anthony J. Sanford
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, page 528, May 2009
How to Cite
McCall, B. (2009), The Nature and Limits of Human Understanding. By Anthony J. Sanford. The Heythrop Journal, 50: 528. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2265.2009.00484_17.x
- Issue published online: 7 APR 2009
- Article first published online: 7 APR 2009
Pp. xvii, 259 , London , T & T Clark , 2003 , $72.00.
Sanford here both contributes to and edits a selection of essays that seeks to move toward grasping how we as humans understand, and how our understanding is limited. Are there any limits to understanding? Any generalizations? This book is based on the 2001 Gifford Lectures, from the perspectives of psychology, philosophy, biology and theology. Five different contributors, among the most internationally eminent in their fields, provide two essays apiece to make up five parts: Lynne Rudder Baker contributes two chapters on knowledge and understanding; Brian Hebblethwaite offers two chapters on metaphysics and theology; Phillip Johnson-Laird provides two chapters on the psychology of understanding; George Lakoff offers two chapters on the embodied mind; and Michael Ruse provides two essays on evolutionary naturalism.
Johnson-Laird argues that it is possible to join together the ideas of mental modes with ideas of limited complexity to arrive at possible explanations for some of our errors in reasoning. He then goes on to entertain the possibility that a higher intelligence than humans could possibly be on the brink of emerging. Lakoff explores how the body shapes thought, arguing that understanding is inherently embodied, and that its embodiment leads to a metaphorical system of thought and speech. Ruse sets forth a distinctly Darwinian understanding of epistemology and ethics, respectively, in his two chapters, arguing in the latter that culture and biology are inseparable, and as a result discusses some aspects of Social Darwinism. Rudder Baker departs from the scientific, focusing instead on the philosophical aspects of both first-person and third-person understanding, essentially promoting a view of knowledge in which physical properties can help identify a substance or thing, but cannot fully exhaust what is to be known of its reality. Hebblethwaite's essays, while defining theology as metaphysics plus revelation, explore what metaphysics and theology, respectively, may add to a scientific account of the properties and composition of the world.
All in all, although the contents are scholarly, the writing is non-technical, insomuch as a virtual novice could easily grasp the content of each chapter. No special background in psychology, philosophy or theology is presumed. I consider this book to be quite unique, worthwhile (especially the chapters by Ruse), and it is recommended for those who are interested in the human condition and our search for knowledge and understanding.