Printer Friendly

Jonathan Edwards and the Limits of Enlightenment Philosophy.

Leon Chai. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. xi+164pp. $39.95 (cloth).

"What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?" the African church father Tertullian bellowed in the third century. Readers of Leon Chai's volume might ask plausibly, "What does Jonathan Edwards have to do with Jacques Derrida?" To which Chai might reply, "More than you imagine."

Many American intellectuals still are unaware that the last half-century has spawned a renaissance of Edwards studies among philosophers, literary critics, aestheticists, historians, and of course theologians. Yale University Press is nearing the completion of a 26-volume critical edition of the works of this man who wore so many hats. Since Perry Miller's 1949 intellectual biography launched this cottage industry, scholars have debated which hat is most apropos. Miller argued vigorously for the philosopher's hat, contending that Edwards was a philosophical naturalist who was doomed by the eighteenth century to assume the disguise of a theologian. Conrad Cherry retorted in 1966 (The Theology of Jonathan Edwards: A Reappraisal; rev. 1990) that Edwards was quintessentially a theologian, for whom philosophy served as a handmaid.

Chai seems to agree with Miller that Edwards was first and foremost a philosopher, but Miller would be alarmed to discover that, by Chai's reckoning, Edwards recognized the self-contradictory nature of Enlightenment philosophy. Chai's purpose is to show how the Enlightenment quest for epistemic certainty led to the recognition that we cannot know objects and occurrences external to the human mind. Locke's dream of empirical knowledge ended in Leibniz and Hume with the "chastened awareness of the inherent limits of what is knowable" (92). According to Chai, that amounts to little more than the confidence that our beliefs are internally consistent, but even that is no guarantee that they are true.

Chai uses the eighteenth-century method of reductio (the refutation of a proposition by showing its conclusion is absurd) to show that the thinking of four figures at the "end of the Enlightenment" - Locke, Malebranche, Leibniz, and Edwards - leads to unavoidable contradictions, but that this very failure teaches us important lessons about the nature of rationality. Locke, for example, told us that sensations transmit what they receive from an external object. But if they are material, they alone cannot produce an act of apprehension, which is intellectual and therefore partly the result of an act of the mind. Thus we have no direct knowledge of material objects, and can know reliably neither the essential nature nor even the existence of external objects.

Malebranche drew a similar conclusion, reasoning that we see not objects as they really are but images of those objects. Since the nature of an image must be different from the nature of the object represented by the image, epistemology cannot depend on our perception. Leibniz, Chai suggests, recognized the problem this posed for the Enlightenment philosophical project, which required the notion of causation for all rational inquiry. Leibniz realized that we can never gain unequivocal evidence of a cause, since all objects and events outside the mind can never be fully or essentially known by the mind. Therefore, according to Chai, Leibniz resorted to the concept of connection: that by knowing an object's relation to other things, we can know something, and that this kind of limited knowledge is what rationality is all about.

According to Chai, Edwards's philosophy also is mired in contradiction. His argument against a self-determining will (the Arminian position) in Freedom of the Will (1754) fails because his assumption that every choice is determined by a previous act of the will speaks of two acts of the will for every choice, which is nonsensical. The will that determines the will becomes the same will that is being determined. Furthermore, Chai charges, Edwards assumes what he tries to prove. If a choice is determined by what he says is a previous act of the will, then logic requires that the choice will be determined. But we cannot assume that a free choice is determined.

Yet Edwards redeems himself in Chai's eyes by recognizing, like Hume, that knowledge of causation is unknowable, and that we perceive only ideas not things themselves. Yet, like Leibniz, the New England philosopher turns to connection based on inference. If we cannot know the nature of being and things in themselves, this chastened but realistic rationality can at least show us something about parts of being.

Chai's story is a postmodern reflection on the end of modernity. He uses these four Enlightenment thinkers to demonstrate his conviction that the Enlightenment was naive in its pursuit of epistemic certainty, and that we cannot prove what we believe. But Chai, like Derrida and all postmoderns, is not distressed by this failure. Most of what we believe has to do with "non-formal spheres" of knowing, and formal proof is never fully conclusive for non-formal spheres (114). At best we can hope for general consistency based on discovering networks of relations among things. We may be wrong in our thinking about these relations, but at least the process of trying to discover them shows us that knowledge is possible.

The problem with Chai's argument is that we are never told why we can still be confident that knowledge is possible if there is no sure way to validate our hypotheses about relations. Furthermore, his use of Edwards is incomplete, which means that while he accurately represents Edwards on the limits of rationality, he fails to engage the larger theological context of Edwards's vision. Edwards agreed that unregenerate reason is powerless to penetrate the inner nature of things in the world or being itself. But he also argued that spiritual vision which comes with regeneration empowers reason to see the true connections among things and thus the nature of being itself. Thus a kind of certainty is possible, if not by reason alone. As Michael McClymond has shown in his recent Encounters with God (Oxford, 1998), Edwards used Puritan spirituality as an apologetic against Enlightenment demands for direct experience - spiritual experience was the direct experience which Locke said alone constitutes true knowledge. This is not irrational but a higher and finally the only true rationality. So Edwards would agree with Derrida that language and reason alone provide no certain knowledge of things outside the mind, but he would deny Derrida's certainty that no certainty is available.

Chai, then, is right to claim that these four philosophers at the end of the Enlightenment show us why Enlightenment philosophy self-destructed. His explication of these classic epistemological texts is penetrating and insightful, and the implications he draws from them are always helpful and sometimes brilliant. But his decision to limit his study to what Perry Miller considered most important prevented him from seeing how Edwards proposed a rationality that transcended both Locke and Derrida.

COPYRIGHT 1999 Association for Religion and Intellectual Life
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1999, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Review
Author:McDermott, Gerald R.
Publication:Cross Currents
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1999
Previous Article:Religious Mystery and Rational Reflection.
Next Article:Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism.

Related Articles
The History and Philosophy of Social Science.
The French Paracelsians: The Chemical Challenge to Medical and Scientific Tradition in Early Modern France.
Sovereignty and Intelligence: Spying and Court Culture in the English Renaissance.
Lightening up. (Soundbite).

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters