Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Philosophy, history, and the quest for understanding

In the introduction to his book, Why Study the Past?; The Quest for the Historical Church, former Church of England Archbishop Rowan Williams, a trained historian/historical theologian, has this to say about history and its driving impulse: "(H)istory is a set of stories we tell in order to understand better who we are and the world we're in."

For the past month I've been taking an Intro to Philosophy course in the MOOC format, run by the University of Edinburgh. In the first week, professor Dave Ward surveyed a few answers to the question, "What is philosophy?" and offered this as his own: "Philosophy is is the activity of working out the right way of thinking about things that matter most to us." He emphasized the active nature of the discipline, namely its being argumentative and dialogical, requiring the practices of listening and "the things that matter most to us" having to do with a desire for better understanding.

While these two noble scholastic traditions have developed their own sets of methodologies, starting points, and internally coherent thought systems, what seems to unite them is a search for better understanding, both of ourselves as human beings and our place in the world we inhabit and are a part of. The results of which are sets of theories about the way things are and, if there's a moral dimension to the theories, the way things ought to go.

Fellow NuDunker Josh Brockway, himself an historian-in-training, has started helping me see how my own approach to thinking about theology, history, politics, and ethics - may be influenced by another approach to working with history, that of the genealogy. "How things came to be..." is a popular refrain in the genre of genealogy. Moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre seems to do this in his landmark, After Virtue, where he starts with a lament on the present circumstances in moral philosophy and moral reasoning in Western societies, then proceeds to march back through history to narrate how we got here. Philosopher Charles Taylor seems to do this in his landmark tome, A Secular Age. Yet another example: Historian Brad S. Gregory's The Unintended Reformation.  (Gregory himself, in this lecture on YouTube, says his methodology is "heretical" to historians.)

To the historian, though, this approach has it backwards. Perhaps for the historian, if genealogy should be done at all (surely a point of contention), then it should be done with extreme caution and humility. Genealogy also seems to be somewhat of a boundary-crossing enterprise, which perhaps explains why other historians would label Gregory a "heretic" within his own discipline.

Perhaps because of my educational background in literature and being a life-long avid reader, I have to say that I find the genre of genealogy compelling. There is a hermeneutical dimension to it that appeals to me, in that the genealogist must take what materials they have available to them and craft a compelling narrative for how things got to be the way they are. This quest for understanding, it seems to me, puts it in league with the disciplines of history and philosophy proper.

And what of theology and its place in the work of history, philosophy, or genealogy? Given my limited theological training (yes, I have an Mdiv, and I would still say "limited"), I tend toward biblical and narrative theology, and I take those strands of theology to be derived from different disciplines than, say, systematic/doctrinal theology. The former tend to be more literary approaches to doing theology. I also gravitate toward political theology, which seems to have been derived from heavy engagement with political philosophy.  I've gravitated toward moral philosophy because I think the quest for a life well lived is a good one, and I do that as a Christian. Finally, throw in James K.A. Smith's influence on me and whatever he's shipped into my head from continental philosophers, phenomenology and all that. Oh and don't forget Hauerwas getting me turned on to Wittgenstein and ordinary language philosophy.

So I guess what I'm saying is this: My intellectual influences are a murky, murky soup. I know just enough of any number of disciplines to be dangerous, but don't know enough about their methodologies to do any one of them legitimately. Had I gone on to PhD work in any one discipline, would I have had to renounce the legitimacy of all others?

Good thing I'm not in the academy; this stuff makes me cranky.

See also: Why Study History? on Chris Gehrz's The Pietist Schoolman blog.

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