Should We Be Multi-perspectival?

Posted: October 25, 2009 in Philosophy, Theology

One of the criticisms of linguistic philosophy is that it smuggles nominalism in under the guise of analysis. The idea is that philosophical problems can only be solved by analysis of grammar and word meaning, how words and expressions are used in philosophical discourse. The emphasis then becomes clarification and puzzle solving, philosophical method as “therapy” for metaphysical ailments.

Much of this stems from the later Wittgenstein, who famously used the example of “game” to illustrate relativity in meaning. This was a denial of the idea of real definitions and resulted in a nominalistic conception of meaning. There are no substantial realities corresponding to our terms, but only the way we use language. Standards are now regarded as field-dependent. Clashes between worldviews are not substantive but based on inability to understand one another’s “language.” So now the task of philosophy is to engage in linguistic archaeology.

Multi-perspectivalism is a method of doing theology or philosophy and has been popularized by the theologian John Frame.  For summary essays, see:

He is not as extreme as the general run-of-the-mill analytic philosopher, but one can still see the influence of this way of thinking on his theology.  “[A]ll of our perceptions of the world are influenced by our interpretations…” he says.  (Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, p. 100.)  According to Frame, Christians know there is an extra-interpretive world, but only by faith. We only have contact with this world through our interpretations. “[T]he world we live in is to some extent of our own making.”

The philosopher Immanuel Kant had also said: “[I]t still remains a scandal to philosophy and to human reason in general that the existence of things outside us (from which we derive the whole material of knowledge, even for our inner sense) must be accepted merely on faith, and that if anyone thinks good to doubt their existence, we are unable to counter his doubts by any satisfactory proof.”

Like Kant, Frame regards faith as the evidence of things seen rather than the evidence of things not seen.  Frame’s solution, like Kant’s, is to suggest that instead of discovering the world, we in some relevant sense, make the world.  Wittgenstein would have agreed with this, except that it would be through language that we create our world, not through ideas, as in Kant.  Frame would not go as far as Kant or Wittgenstein, to be sure, which is why he uses the phrase, “to some extent.”  It’s only to some extent that we are world-makers.

Now the whole idea of intra-personal justification, getting from ourselves to the world outside — or more precisely, justifying the out-there from the in-here — is the legacy of the Cartesian program in philosophy.  It involves an a priori separation of consciousness from the “external” world, and then tries to find a connecting bridge between the “inner” consciousness and the outside world.  Obviously, this makes the problem worse by using spatial metaphors suggestive of inner/outer, internal/external, and so on.  Kant and Wittgenstein’s solution was to give up trying to cross that bridge, and admit rather that we create our own world.

In theology, this leads to an overemphasis on interrelatedness, a move away from sharp distinctions.  This is seen in Frame’s claim, for instance, that any sin violates every commandment.  It’s seen in his dislike of theologian Charles Hodge’s view of systematic theology as exhibiting scripture in “proper” order.  Instead, Frame says that theology’s task is not to place Scripture in an “ideally perfect order” but to apply it to different situations. (Ibid., pp. 76, 79; 184.)

Thus we have a movement from the abstract to the concrete, from theory to application, from systematic order to “poetry, drama, exclamation, song, parable, symbol.” (Ibid., p. 85.)  It turns out that Frame’s multi-perspectival method is vapid in the sense that one can prove just about anything with it.  Law is gospel and gospel is law?  Heaven is hell and hell is heaven?  It all depends, I guess, upon one’s multi-perspective.

I can’t help quoting from Vern Poythress, a primary practitioner of Frame’s multi-perspectival method: “Thus, within Aristotle’s system, syllogisms can operate only with unitarian ontology.  Hence syllogistic reasoning is itself tacitly unitarian. Only so can one claim that the reasoning is mechanically valid.” (”Reforming Ontology and Logic in the Light of the Trinity: An Application of Van Til’s Idea of Analogy,” Westminster Theological Journal, 57/1, 1995.)

This is what multi-perspectivalism comes down to, a rejection of, or denigration of, logic.  My view is that our goal is not to be multi-perspectival in our thinking and scholarship, but to be accurate, and syllogistic reasoning is indispensible in that quest.


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