Yesterday, I presented a post wherein I briefly examined Lambert Zuidervaart’s criticism of Hendrik Hart’s conclusions about God in his 1984 book Understanding Our World. Zuidervaart suggests Hart is beholden a Kantian phenomenal/noumenal problem, which restricts God from our conceptualizing, a problem which begs for a qualified Hegelian response. I ended the post discussing, however, my remaining anxieties about speculating about God. Revisiting some material from a course on Reformational philosophy I happened to take with Zuidervaart, I ran across some thoughts in Vollenhoven and Hart that might provide at least a germinal response from Hart. Because Hart’s thinking is borne out of Dooyeweerd and Vollenhoven, it seemed natural to revisit what they had to say about epistemology in particular. I then dug up an essay on epistemology by Hart from 1994, ten years after his conclusions in Understanding Our World. What I found eased some of my anxieties. I’ll thus present some initial backdrop from Vollenhoven (a root both Hart and Zuidervaart share), then offer Hart’s development.
At the turn of the twentieth-century, philosophy limped forward after the roller coaster that was the nineteenth-century. Producing the heyday of Idealism, positivism, and hermeneutics in its early half, it found itself rocked by the insights of its best pupils. In continental philosophy, the impact of Idealism was already being supplanted with the trickery of Kierkegaard and the barbs of Nietzsche and transformed through the materialism of Marx. Though analytic thought took longer as it championed positivism, Wittgenstein, the movement’s golden child, proclaimed to have solved all of philosophy’s problems only to spend the rest of his life overturning the source of the problems entirely. It is no wonder, then, that movements like phenomenology, existentialism, and common sense philosophy were born, attempting to find out what philosophy was supposed to be up to. It is interesting to note that it is in this context that Reformational philosophy was born, and in this context of questions and ambiguity surrounding the nature of philosophy that Dirk Vollenhoven and Herman Dooyeweerd would champion a completely new ontology and philosophical posture with great confidence.
Building a philosophical system from the ground up requires a lot of work, but at the bottom it requires determining the particularity of philosophy itself. Vollenhoven does this by distinguishing between “theoretic” and “nontheoretic” thinking and knowing, a distinction which appears in his Introduction to Philosophy. Nontheoretic knowing “has to do with things in their totality, as for instance, when I perceive things around me” (75). Theoretic knowing, on the other hand, “proceeds methodically,” dealing with “one aspect of the whole” (75). Neither way of knowing, suggests Vollenhoven, can do without the other, and though they are different they are not in opposition to one another—there is, in fact, a positive relation between them. “For knowing begins with nontheoretic knowing and then, sometimes, proceeds to the differentiated knowing found in the special sciences; and subsequently turns back, on this detour, deepened and enriched, in philosophy to the knowledge of the whole” (75-76). Philosophy is therefore contextualized, proceeding from everyday experience and returning to it, never lording itself over it.
But what is the special science of philosophy? Vollenhoven and Dooyeweerd strike a radically ontological stance, allowing philosophy to examine the components of reality and existence and their inter-relations. Hart, their student, has more to say on this issue. Having entered the philosophical climate in the midst of its tectonic shifts, Hart carries the tradition of these two thinkers forward, running alongside, into, and against several contemporaries. In an essay on epistemology entitled “Conceptual Understanding and Knowing Other-Wise,” Hart considers the problem of reason and its role in western philosophy. Surveying a multitude of contemporary approaches to the problem of reason (including analytic, continental, pragmatic, and feminist theories), he shows how reason is unable to ultimately ground itself, resting instead on a foundation of trust (if anything unites Reformational thinking and thinkers in “Reformed epistemology,” it’s this commitment). This foundation does not negate the possibility of scientific knowing, but simply affirms its place. The affirmation of place is where philosophy proper comes in—it falls to philosophy, Hart tells us, to take on the role of a kind of meta-discourse, or meta-methodology, analyzing our rational capacities at their most general, even to the point of realizing there are things, modes, etc. which lie beyond reason itself. Hart writes, “If philosophy is practiced as providing the theoretical integration of the largest frameworks of rational-conceptual knowing of which we are capable, then philosophy provides the space par excellence for openness in our rational understanding to what lies beyond reason” (47).
These comments are intriguing given that they subvert a kind of Idealism. Where Hegel wishes to have thought take what is other into itself, Hart affirms (explicitly with recourse to Levinas and other French thinkers) there must be an outside to thought–and God, of course, is perhaps the most outside one can get. But this does not eliminate our ability to make propositions about things; rather, Hart wants to stress that these propositions come with a foundation of trust, which should be understood as a significant foundation. Despite its significance, such a foundation can indeed be shaken, changed, or negotiated. Thus Hart preserves our ability to know something about God, but also reserves the right to negate that knowledge because God is other than our concepts about God (presumably the same goes for the rest of knowable reality). In an instructive passage, he writes:
“If within faith we speak of matters such as God’s right hand, we are not articulating beliefs in the originally rational-conceptual sense of the word, but using metaphors to express our trust. All faith-talk is in that way metaphorical. It breaks through the limits of given language to remain open to saying what lies beyond being said. It does not lend itself to closed logical-conceptual relationships. God-as-father is an image of a certain time. No conclusion as to essential divine maleness is possible here. Attuned hearing of that language allows translation into God-as-mother in our time” (45).
It’s important to note, here, that Hart’s essay is not primarily theological but weaves through several philosophical approaches to knowledge with a few theological consequences throughout. I’ve read it theologically, in a sense, in order to fit it into my conversation yesterday, but the above passage comes on the heels of a much more expansive discussion. Thus there seems to be a philosophical difference here, either between an earlier Hart and later Hart or between Hart and Zuidervaart. Whatever the case, the salient point seems to be taking two positions for granted: that reality is conceptually mediated all the way down for human beings, and that reality also exceeds conceptual mediation (an epistemological point which Lee Braver has argued is identified by Kierkegaard). This position is perhaps the most compelling to me, as it preserves the “ethical limit” to thought I mentioned yesterday.