A Philosophical Friendship

JUNE/JULY 2012: ESSAY

by Alvin Plantinga

Nick and I first met when we were both sophomores at Calvin College. That was the beginning of a friendship that has lasted, so far, for some sixty-two years. In those days Plato Club, a student philosophy club, was important to us; Harry Jellema, a legendary professor of philosophy, was its faculty mentor, and we listened very carefully to what he had to say. I also recall a course in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant taught by Harry Jellema; Nick and I were the only students in the class. Upon graduation, Nick went to Harvard as a graduate student in philosophy, and I went to the University of Michigan and then Yale. In 1957 Nick left Harvard for Yale; he came with the rank of instructor (a rank that seems for the most part to have disappeared). I was also an instructor at Yale that year. We compared what he had learned at Harvard with what I had learned at Yale; in typical graduate student fashion, neither of us was terribly pleased with what we had learned. In 1958 I left Yale to go to Wayne State University; the next year Nick left to go to Calvin, where (with occasional forays to, for example, Haverford, Michigan, Princeton, and the Free University of Amsterdam) he taught for the next thirty years. In 1963 I left Wayne State for Calvin, and Nick and I were colleagues there for nineteen very fruitful years.

During those years we talked philosophy regularly and often; as you can imagine, I learned a great deal from him. In those days as in these, the philosophy department had a two-hour Tuesday afternoon colloquium at which we discussed (maybe “dissected” is a better word) some work–a paper or part of a book–that one of the department members had written. These sessions were enormously valuable. What went on was a close line-by-line examination and discussion of the paper at hand; the result was almost always substantial improvement (though occasionally complete destruction). I remember in particular working on Nick’s first book, On Universals, in this way, as well as his early publications on so-called “Reformed epistemology.” My book God and Other Minds was also subjected to this same line-by-line treatment and emerged, if not bloody but unbowed, at any rate vastly improved.

When I first joined Nick at Calvin in 1963, the other members of the department were Clifton Orlebeke, Evan Runner, and Tunis Prins (we were soon to be joined by Peter DeVos and Kenneth Konyndyk). Nick and I were young and very serious about philosophy. Runner wasn’t much interested in what we were doing. Prins, a generation or so older than we, was interested, in a way, but inclined to take a very relaxed attitude toward philosophy; he was also disinclined to take what Nick and I were doing with maximal seriousness. On one occasion, as I recall, one of us was working on logical positivism and its so-called “Verifiability Criterion of Meaning.” Logical positivism was an effort to show that metaphysics, theology, and ethics are all in fact completely meaningless–sort of like “‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre…,” but not as obviously meaningless. According to positivism, the way to find out whether what someone says is meaningful is to see whether it can be empirically verified—hence the Verifiability Criterion of Meaning. But it turned out very difficult to state a satisfactory version of this criterion. One of us had produced a detailed and laborious criticism of all the extant versions of the Verifiability Criterion (VC1, VC2, VC3, …), showing in detail how each one of them failed. Some proposed versions of the criterion were too strong, eliminating a lot of science, as well as other things the positivists were enthusiastic about. Others were too weak, failing to eliminate even the positivists’ favorite example of meaningless metaphysics, the philosopher Martin Heidegger’s oracular utterance “The Not Nothings Itself” (“Das Nichts selbst nichtet”). Now in those days as in these, there was a great deal of interest at Calvin in the idea of integrating faith and learning–doing philosophy, for example, from a Christian perspective. Prins listened a bit impatiently to the discussion as to how VC1 wouldn’t work, and neither would VC2 or VC3, and so forth. Finally he said: “You want to integrate faith and learning, right? Well, first you show how none of those VCs work, and then you say, ‘So there is none that doeth good; no, not one’!”

Breadth and Context

Nick and I worked together those years, and our views on philosophical issues evolved together. The fact is, we don’t disagree on much of anything (well, I may have a higher opinion of Friesland than he does); nevertheless, there are several areas of philosophy where we don’t agree. That is not because we hold incompatible views in those areas; it is rather because there are many areas of philosophy to which I have given at best little thought, but where Nick has entered deeply into the subject and made important contributions to it. And this leads me to a crucial point about Nick’s work in philosophy. When I think of Nick as a philosopher, I think two things: breadth and context.

First, breadth. It is hard to think of any other contemporary philosopher, Christian or not, who has done important work in as many diverse areas of the discipline: metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of religion, philosophical theology, aesthetics, ethics, philosophy of liturgy, philosophy of art, history of philosophy, political philosophy, hermeneutics–you name it and Nick has done important work in it. Art, justice, Reformed epistemology, divine eternity vs. divine everlastingness, Locke, Reid, liturgy, the nature of revelation, religion in the public square, Christian anarchy, academic freedom, Christian scholarship, postmodern anti-realism, whether it is possible for theologians to recover from Kant—these are but a few of the topics on which Nick has made important contributions.

And second, context. When Nick approaches a given philosophical problem, he doesn’t focus just on that particular problem; instead he thinks about whatever is connected with it in one way or another, the whole context. In thinking about the epistemology of religious belief, for example, he doesn’t confine himself to that topic, but puts it in the context of epistemology more generally. Nor does he confine himself to current work on the topic; he sets it in the context of the history of philosophy. In thinking about the epistemology of religious belief, to continue with that example, he takes a careful look at current epistemology but also ranges over the history of philosophy to set current views in their historical context. In this instance he became fascinated with the philosophical work of John Locke and Thomas Reid, and indeed went on to write books on both figures!

Reformed Epistemology

As I say, there are many areas where Nick has worked. In most of these areas, his contributions have caused reverberations through the whole field. I’ll briefly discuss three of these topics or areas. First, Reformed epistemology. Here Nick was one of the moving spirits—not the only one, but a central one. The basic idea of Reformed epistemology is that rational, or reasonable or justified, religious belief doesn’t necessarily require argument or evidence from other things one believes. We quite properly (and quite justifiably) form perceptual beliefs without doing so on the evidential basis of other beliefs. I look out my window; I have visual experience of a certain complicated, hard-to-describe sort; the belief that a squirrel is trying to get into the bird feeder again is suddenly formed in me, suddenly occurs to me. I don’t form this belief on the basis of argument: I don’t say to myself, “Things look so-and-so; when things look so-and-so, most of the time there is a squirrel trying to get into the bird feeder; so probably there is a squirrel trying to get into the bird feeder.” That’s not how it goes at all. I simply find myself with that belief. And I am none the worse, in terms of justification or rationality or reasonability, for acquiring the belief in that way.

And now the question: why suppose things are different in the case of religious belief? Why suppose that for me to be within my epistemic rights in believing in God, I must do so on the basis of an argument? The same goes for “the great things of the gospel,” as Jonathan Edwards calls them. Why can’t belief in God, or in the main lines of the Christian faith, be properly basic, just as perceptual beliefs are? As Edwards says, justifiable or sensible belief in the great things of the gospel does not require a PhD in theology; illiterate tribesmen in the Amazon can sensibly believe the gospel, even if they don’t have any arguments at all. Nick puts this question in terms of “entitlement”: why think one is rationally entitled to theistic or Christian belief only if one has an argument from other things one believes? Obviously you can’t have (noncircular) arguments for everything you believe; you have to start somewhere. Some beliefs are properly basic, such that you are entitled to hold or accept them without argumentative evidence. Why not belief in God? Nick addresses these questions directly in “Can Belief in God Be Rational If It Has No Foundations?” and “Thomas Reid’s Reply to the Sceptic.”

The thought that rational belief in God required propositional evidence or argument is often called “evidentialism.” While Nick considers this view directly in “Can Belief in God Be Rational If It Has No Foundations?,” he goes further in John Locke and the Ethics of Belief. Here he examines the historical roots of evidentialism, tracing it back to the classical foundationalism of Descartes and Locke. The foundationalistholds that some beliefs can be rationally accepted only by way of support or argument from other beliefs. Other beliefs, however, are properly basic; they can properly be accepted in the basic way. The classicalfoundationalist adds that a belief is properly basic only if it is either (1) a belief about one’s own immediate experience, such as “I seem to see something red,” or (2) a belief that is self-evident, such as “two plus one equals three.”

As the history of modern philosophy from Descartes to Hume shows, classical foundationalism leads to skepticism about belief in the past, belief in other minds, and belief in an external world. David Hume is the great representative of skepticism. In his book Thomas Reid and the Story of Epistemology, Nick considers the work of Thomas Reid, who offered what is historically the most cogent reply to Hume. (Some people accord that honor to Immanuel Kant, but Nick is less than wholly enthusiastic about Kant, thinking theology is much too heavily influenced by Kant: see his 1998 Modern Theology piece, “Is It Possible and Desirable for Theologians to Recover from Kant?”)

It’s safe to say, I think, that the advent of Reformed epistemology has transformed the epistemology of religious belief. Nick wasn’t alone in working out and developing Reformed epistemology, but no one has made a more important contribution along these lines than he.

Justice

I turn now to Nick’s recent work on justice. And here I must mention a further important characteristic of his scholarly engagement. Nick is a man of thought, to be sure, but he is also a man of action. Not, perhaps, in the precise mold of John Wayne or James Bond, but a man of action nonetheless. There were few or no venues in the 1970s where Christian philosophers could get together and work together, so with others Nick established the Society of Christian Philosophers. Nick was dissatisfied with the liturgy of the typical Christian Reformed church, so together with some others he established the Church of the Servant (Christian Reformed Church) in Grand Rapids, a church with a quite different and, in his view (as in mine), more worshipful liturgy.

That’s one kind of action. Another is to do scholarly work in an effort to right wrongs, redress imbalances, address injustice. Nick is a scholar of action in this sense. Much of his work is in response to some state of affairs that needs to be improved or put right, or some serious social problem. (Thus Religion in the Public Square, Educating for Life, and Educating for Shalom.) This is no more evident than in his two fine books on justice, Justice: Rights and Wrongs (2008) and Justice in Love (2011). In 1976, Nick attended a conference in South Africa; there were white Afrikaners present, but also black and colored (mixed-race) scholars. The latter two groups spoke movingly about the appalling daily indignities they had to endure in apartheid South Africa. They pleaded for justice. Then a couple of years later Nick attended a conference on Palestinian rights, at which there were many Christian Palestinians present. These people, too, lamented the indignities and insults they had to endure. They also asked for justice. These two events ignited a passion for justice in Nick. His two books on justice comprise part of his effort to help right these wrongs. As he once put it, “In short, it was hearing the voices and seeing the faces of the wronged that evoked in me a passion for justice. A good deal of my writing since these two episodes has been about justice. I see all of it as my attempt to speak up for the wronged of the world.” Much has been written about Nick on justice; much remains to be written. I can’t go into his views here. I recommend instead that you read one or both of these magisterial works.

Kuyperianism

Finally, one more outstanding characteristic of Nick’s work: Kuyperianism. Nick was brought up in the bosom of the Dutch Calvinism transplanted from the Netherlands to America, and central to Dutch Calvinism is Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920). When Nick and I were students at Calvin, we heard much about Kuyper. A man of action as well as a scholar, Kuyper established the Free University of Amsterdam. In addition, he was the last prime minister who was also a great theologian. But there was more to Kuyper. Some great Reformed figures were people of the head, people strong on doctrine and theological depth and power. Others were people of the heart, people with great spiritual depth and a leaning toward pietism. A few have combined these characteristics. Jonathan Edwards is perhaps the outstanding exemplar here, but Abraham Kuyper is another. In addition to his vigorous practical and cultural engagement and his powerful theology, he also wrote a splendid seven-hundred-plus page book, To Be Near unto God, a genuine devotional classic. Nick is Kuyperian in two ways: he resembles Kuyper in being a scholar of action, and he, like Kuyper, has written a devotional classic, namely, Lament for a Son.

Kuyper was deeply serious about Christian scholarship. For example, he aimed to figure out just how a Christian intellectual should engage in scholarship in a scholarly world that is predominantly secular, and he was equally concerned with what a proper Christian university should look like.

There are several approaches here. Roman Catholic universities tend to assume that what’s required is a strong theology department and frequent worship opportunities for students and others; as for the rest, Christianity is for the most part irrelevant. Nick would agree that some of what goes on in a typical secular university is perfectly acceptable from a Christian perspective, but he points out that much else is not. Obvious examples can be seen throughout the length and breadth of academia: in literary studies, history, psychology, biology, and even in physics. (For example, the “many-worlds interpretation” of quantum mechanics is acquiring momentum but is incompatible with Christian belief.) Another approach is what Nick calls the “bandwagon approach”: jump on the latest fad and trim Christian belief to suit. Still another approach is to declare a curse on all the relevant houses: what goes on in academia for the most part must be rejected. None of these seems right. Indeed, it isn’t trivially easy to say just how a Christian scholar should carry on. Nick’s approach, owing much to Kuyper, is something like the following: The Christian scholar is a member of several different and partially overlapping communities. Chief among these are the Christian community and the community of scholars in the particular discipline in question. Speaking or writing as a member of the Christian scholarly community, the Christian scholar should look at the subject matter in question from a Christian perspective. How, for example, shall we understand anger, or hatred, or love from a Christian perspective? How shall we think about evolution, or quantum mechanics? Here one takes Christian belief for granted, and looks at the topic in question from that perspective; of course with respect to some inquiries and projects, a Christian perspective won’t make much of any difference. With respect to others, however, a Christian perspective makes a great deal of difference.

But the Christian scholar is also a member of a secular scholarly community. In addressing this community, she can’t just assume the truth of Christian faith; she must instead play by different rules. It’s not that in the second context a Christian scholar can’t refer to God or the supernatural; it’s rather a matter of what you take for granted or, more exactly, what you see your interlocutors as taking for granted.

Of course there is vastly more to be said about the proper conduct of Christian scholarship, but space here does not permit saying it. Let me conclude by saying simply that Nick Wolterstorff has contributed mightily to the project of Christian scholarship, both by precept, and, more importantly, by example.

Alvin Plantinga is retired as the O’Brien Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana.