Sunday, August 05, 2007

Are Abstraction and Reflexivity Bad for Scriptural Faith?

Randall Collins concludes The Sociology of Philosophies with a strong pattern: the general trend of intellectual creativity is toward greater abstraction and greater reflexivity. Abstraction is the more familiar concept - the intellectuals considering a problem think of it in more general and encompassing terms. Reflexivity means that the way a problem is organized now is increasingly shaped by the way previous intellectuals have reshaped the problem in the past.

A few days ago I blogged about the coincidence of philosophical Idealism and the secularization of universities. A helpful reader pointed out, correctly, that I left the impression that Idealism was not really a response to intellectual problems of predecessor philosophies, but was caused by the structural conditions of secularization. This would not be correct. Idealism is a serious philosophical position with much to recommend it. It is true, though, that most idealisms (and not just the Christian-related ones) abstract from the specific scriptures and historical precedents that gave rise to them.

Collins suggests that instead the philosophy of scripture and traditional practice is often developed reluctantly by scriptural traditionalists. They are forced to become intellectuals about the faith because rationalist believers in their own tradition force them to in reaction. The very people who most believe the particulars of sacred scripture and faithful practice are obliged to defend those particulars in abstract terms. Over time, these abstract defenses of particularity become reflexive -- they shape how new generations of believers understand what scripture and tradition mean.

Collins is more concerned with the development of (secular) philosophy than he is of the religious faiths from which most philosophies are developed. It seems to me, though, that the logic of his argument means that the competitive process of intellectual creativity would tend to undermine traditional faith, even when the intellectuals are creating a defense of that faith.

1 comment:

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