April 28, 2010

fideist fascists & other figments

In a rather well-done take-down of A.C. Grayling's Ideas that Matter, John Gray offers this from Grayling's work:

Later, in the entry on religion, Grayling writes:

Some religious thinkers in the nineteenth century adopted versions of fideism as a response to the advance of science, thus exempting themselves from having to put their beliefs to the same tests as scientific hypotheses standardly undergo. The most extreme fideist is the Danish writer Søren Kierkegaard (1813–55), who said that faith requires a leap in the face of reason and evidence, and is all the more admirable therefore. What horrors can be justified by appeal to the authority of the non-rational, the traditional, the superstitious, the suppositious, the evidentially unsupported, and so forth, history too often bloodily teaches.

This tirade against Kierkegaard is a good example of that silliness that marks so much of Grayling’s oeuvre. The notion that irrationalist philosophers are responsible for the crimes of history smacks of Monty Python. Though Mussolini happened to praise the German egoist Max Stirner, a sharp critic of rationalism (and incidentally an atheist), this does not mean Stirner or his ilk can be blamed for the horrors of Fascism. I cannot think of a single tyrant who has cited Kierkegaard, and none of the twentieth century’s totalitarian regimes celebrated their power by erecting statues of the unhappy Danish philosopher.

I was reminded, in reading this, of the first reply to a somewhat recent post at Of Information and Belief where a similar claim was made of Kierkegaard being a thoroughgoing (in this case, "systematic") fideist.

First of all, I am very unsure that anyone who is in the business of thinking about thinking could be a thoroughgoing fideist. This is why most accusations of fideism seem to dissipate upon much scrutiny. I perhaps have met a few persons so holy as to accept anything the Church teaches with full & immediate assent, but I do not know if even they would be fideists. While Orthodoxy certainly has its share of persons who believe that faith and reason are in some fashion at odds, even most of those use reason and even think of it as a good thing, when it goes under other names or guises. Part of this disconnect has to do with the prophets of reason––like Grayling––and not any understanding of the role of reason that would have been recognized centuries ago.

With Kierkegaard in particular, what is often missed is the transitional character of the "leap to faith" and the relatively small part it plays in his work as a whole. It is difficult to call Kierkegaard a systematic-anything, much less a fideist. (I'm not, I should say, congratulating or condemning this lack of systematic thought: It is, what it is.) To sort of paraphrase Kierkegaard's own terminology elsewhere, the leap to faith is a teleological suspension of the rational, so to speak.

Many honest thinkers, and not just persons of faith, recognize this character in all thought, how our rational discourse is built on foundations that are somehow independent of it. It does not mean that there is not an exercise of reason in the construction of such foundations, but they all are fundamentally outside the tools we use to exercise "proof". I don't think that this is some sort of frightening epistemological problem, either, just a fact of human discourse. While this is outside the particular religious and psychological contexts of Kierkegaard's concept, it is still fundamentally related.

We exercise reason when choosing to assent to the teachings of the Church, not just in seeing the rationality of its dogmatic theology, but also in the evidence of history, heart and community (none of which can be submitted to symbolic analysis) in finding it reasonable to trust the wisdom of the Church and the Spirit which guides it.


  1. Sorry, but it was a lame takedown. See Grayling's response from a couple of days later.

    Wisdom of the church? What wisdom? The church traffics in falsehoods just as it always has since its inception. Christinaity is a cult. Get over it.

  2. I read Grayling's response, and most of it is gloating over the fact that Gray responded at all, which is mildly ridiculous, not a rebuttal. The rest involves Grayling retreading buzzwords, not argumentation.

    As for the rest of your comment, it's obvious that you're not part of my intended audience, here, and therefore will not find much to enjoy. Furthermore, you have every rhetorical sign of being some one who has made up their mind: I have made up mine as well, and don't care to bark.