Faith and Philosophical Analysis: The Impact of Analytical Philosophy on the Philosophy of Religion. Edited by Harriet A. Harris and Christopher J. Insole


Pp. ix, 201 , Aldershot , Ashgate , 2005 , £17.00.

This collection of essays brings together a wide range of views on the contemporary relevance of an analytical philosophy of religion. Eager to demonstrate that analytical philosophy can help to clarify ideas and arguments prevalent outside of academia this collection seeks to evaluate just how well an analytical philosophy of religion helps to understand religious faith. Interestingly, this volume allows voices for and against the analytical style to enter into constructive dialogue. A common thread amongst the contributors can be found in the understanding of the analytical tradition as embodying Anglo-Saxon clarity of argument and concepts, and suitable homage to the discoveries of contemporary science.

The volume starts with an essay by Basil Mitchell who wants to return metaphysics to its analytical method. In ‘staking a claim for metaphysics,’ he seeks to recover the intuitions of a small group of philosophers and theologians to which he belonged called the metaphysicals. This group sought to combat the logical positivism of A.J. Ayer and others at the time that held metaphysics and theology to be impossible.

Richard Swinburne, who was Mitchell's successor at Oxford, continues the argument by explaining just how he sees analytical philosophy to be of use to the Christian theological tradition in providing the ‘best available secular criteria’ for the justification of Christian belief. Analytical philosophy's commitment to clarity and rigor, argues Swinburne, makes it especially suited to this task. He tends to find fault with Protestant traditions that are sceptical of the power of reason to support faith and so veers more towards Catholic and Orthodox traditions in the defence of human reason.

Elizabeth Burns's essay takes a different line to Mitchell and Swinburne in defending a revisionist interpretation of Christian religious language that trades upon a verificationist account of meaning as the use theory of statements. After discussing certain drawbacks with the approaches of Alistair Kee and R.B. Braithwaite, she concludes by drawing on Iris Murdoch to claim some forms of analytical philosophy can be useful to transcendent reinterpretations of the Christian tradition.

Interesting similarities between Burns's essay and Cyril Barrett's that focus on the contribution of Wittgenstein to analytical philosophy will not escape the attentive reader. Barrett follows Wittgenstein in his anti-metaphysical functionalist theory of language which clearly overlaps with Burns's account. Yet, Barrett concludes his essay on a rather pessimistic note by suggesting that due to a flattening out of evidence to the scientifically verifiable, few in the future will follow Wittgenstein's silent assent to a non-rational account of faith.

In their essays Charles Taliaferro and Pamela Sue Anderson engage in a critical encounter with each other's positions. Taliaferro draws on the notion of an ideal observer to argue that a rational agent can approximate to this ‘God's eye point of view’ since there are real facts to be known and not simply points of view. In response, Anderson draws on her work in feminist epistemology to argue that all knowledge acquired by a rational agent is necessarily particular, embodied, and partial. She concludes by arguing for a model of collective discourse in which different perspectives are acknowledged as contributing to a greater whole.

Harriet Harris's essay considers the epistemic significance of the moral and spiritual development of a person as this is formed in their religious practice. Taking up themes present in feminist and reformed epistemology, Harris uses both realism and the situatedness of knowledge to argue that these perspectives help us to understand the nature and function of religious belief. Drawing on the work of Nicholas Wolterstorff, and to a lesser degree Alvin Plantinga, Harris finds that a more fully developed theological framework for religious epistemology would help to factor the process of spiritual discernment into epistemology, and so help to make clearer the trace of the sensus divinitas in human knowledge. A trace, Harris finds insufficiently developed in Wolterstorff and Plantinga.

Greg Kumara's essays shifts the focus from a broadly positive account of analytical philosophy to a prediction of its immanent demise. In reconstructing a genealogy of Anglo-American philosophy he seeks to show that it reaches both before and after the 1930s-1950s tradition of analytical philosophy and encompasses British Romanticism, American transcendentalism and pragmatism and finds contemporary voice in thinkers such as Stanley Cavell and Hilary Putman. In so situating analytical philosophy as a minor blip on the royal road of Anglo-American philosophy Kumara sees the recovery of the question of God as the recuperation of a long tradition.

Anne Loades's essay seeks to build bridges between the various ways that philosophy of religion has drawn philosophy and theology together on both sides of the Atlantic. In Richard Swinburne's philosophical theology she finds a philosophical method that breaks new ground in relating philosophy, theology and biblical studies.

Giles Fraser situates analytical philosophy within the broader modernist movement. More particularly, he uses the art of Mark Rothko to argue that the aesthetic via negativa of a post-Nietzschean philosophy of life ends up in an emaciated spirituality shorn of its roots in a particular religious narrative. Free from this narrative grounding in a particular form of religious practice, analytical philosophy of religion analyses a concept of God that no one believes in and no religious practice embodies.

Christopher Insole's essay concludes the volume by a robust defence of analytical philosophy of religion. Insole argues that common to both analytical philosophy and political liberalism is a desire to bracket our substantive differences in order to attain a more transparent mutual comprehension and toleration of worldviews and religious traditions. Drawing on the work of John Locke, he argues that this liberal tradition finds its roots in the need after the early-modern wars of religion to discover ways to neutralise the violent potential latent in the substantive worldviews of religion traditions.

As an overview of contemporary approaches to analytical philosophy of religion this volume is to be commended for both presenting the great achievements of the subject and also the current difficulties which lie ahead for the future development and progress of analytical philosophy of religion.