Truth and Understanding

I posted on this over at Prosblogion, but it is of epistemological interest primarily, so will repost here. Gordon Graham, of Princeton Theological Seminary, has a new review at NDPR on the collection edited by Oliver Crisp and Michael Rea on analytic theology, available . Graham closes the review with some epistemology:

In his essay Oliver Crisp employs the ancient dictum of “faith seeking understanding”. This is not the same as faith seeking truth. Given its “ineradicable pluralism”, however, philosophy is not plausibly interpreted as seeking truth anyway. What it seeks is a distinctive kind of understanding, a profoundly intellectual one that can only be gained through an exercise of strictly intellectual virtues.

While I applaud the idea that truth is not the only goal of cognition, and also the focus on understanding, I also note problems here. This passage has a bad argument (inferring that philosophy isn’t seeking truth because of a pluralism explained earlier as involving ineradicable disagreement), but that’s not my central concern. Nor is the second mistake in the passage my primary concern: it is simply false that understanding can only be gotten through the use of the intellectual virtues (it can be a “gift of the gods”, one would expect, given a decent account of what understanding is). No, my real concern is about the purported contrast between truth and understanding, since if philosophy isn’t after truth, it’s going to have trouble getting understanding. There is of course the affective side of understanding, involving the wonderful feeling of seeing things finally falling into place, but that alone isn’t sufficient. Understanding is factive when propositional and quasi-factive when objectual, and I hear there are some neat arguments available in print for such a view! (Lamarck understood his own theory quite well, but he didn’t understand how the inheritance of characteristics works, since he was wrong about that.)


Truth and Understanding — 4 Comments

  1. No, I was just kidding. I think your example is still good, because even though Lamarck understood something about inheritance, he didn’t understand enough about inheritance to understand inheritance.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts on this. I wonder if Graham makes this point because the book is about analytic theology rather than analytic philosophy. In a conversation between theology and philosophy, philosophy by nature does not assume a discoverable truth though it may posit one. This is why philosophy has the freedom to question the very existence of reality as we perceive it (perhaps everyone exists only in my mind, perhaps I am a brain in a vat with sensory modules attached…). In contrast, theology would not exist apart from the belief in a discoverable truth–something necessarily independent of and prior to the present knower. There was a time when theology and philosophy were one discipline (Plato, Plotinus, Augustine, Boethius), but that was a long time ago…

    ‘Intellectual virtues’ may be a poor choice of words, but I think what Graham might be getting at is the human side (and limitations?) of philosophy in contrast to the purported revelation from which theology draws its content.

    Also, note that his name is Gordon Graham, not George Graham.

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