An Essay Inspired by William Wilson’s “A Proof of the Faith”
Did the great minds seek truth like us, or was their technique different?
In the modern world, as brought out by the debate between Isaiah Berlin and A.J. Ayers, a particular epistemological error is common. The first is that when told by the teacher that “it is raining outside,” the students conclude that since they haven’t seen it raining, they have no reason to believe that what the teacher claims is meaningful. The second mistake is that the student who is on the verge of running out to see if it is raining stops himself, because he realizes that he has no reason to believe the teacher’s statement is true, and so has no reason to check the weather. After all, the student has been taught that there is no meaning without verification — empiricism is all the rage.
The philosophical and priestly theologian, Austin Farrer, had much to say on these matters. On the first page of the manuscript left on his desk the day he died, Farrer stated the conviction:
We do not read a book — you do not, I trust, read mine — to discover what it can fairly be made to mean; we read it to perceive what its author does or did mean. The “basic question” is — “What is he on, or what is he up to?” “What did the author set himself to do?”
Generally, to offer a critique of education (which I don’t mean to suggest necessarily applies everywhere), graduate schools today ask what a given thinker said or meant, not what a given thinker was “on.” A person studies Karl Barth, for example, to determine Barth’s theology, not what Barth was “on” when he wrote his theology and why his theology emerged like it did. Farrer believed this to be a grave mistake, bringing to mind a particular lamentation of Schopenhauer:
‘However, for the man who studies to gain insight, books and studies are merely rungs of the ladder on which he climbs to the summit of knowledge. As soon as a rung has raised him up one step, he leaves it behind. On the other hand, the many who study in order to fill their memory do not use the rungs of the ladder for climbing, but take them off and load themselves with them to take away, rejoicing at the increasing weight of the burden. They remain below forever, because they bear what should have bourne them.’¹
According to Farrer, the Aristotles, the Newtons, and the Dantes of the world all find their glory in “refining” our reactions to nature and life: their goal is to enhance wonder, the birthplace of thought. Unfortunately, college students are often asked to instead refine their reactions to thinkers, to “iron out” or explain the theology of Barth, for example, as opposed to explain Barth to “point to” what he, Dante, Aquinas, Murdoch, and others climbed toward, what they were “on.”
Great thinkers and artists did not work to have dissertations written about them. Instead, like the poet who suddenly sees her verse, thinkers like Barth were “arrested” by a vision that they then “raced out” to articulate, likely employing the basic powers of their minds with no technique or “worn path of thought” by which to achieve what they saw. Someone like Barth had “faith” that what he saw was actually there and that it was achievable; the same could be said of someone like Tolstoy when he “vaguely”’ pictured War and Peace and then began writing to bring clarity and substance to his vision. Like the poet or painter whose ‘genius is in their fingertips,’ faith ‘knows not what it does’: it has no technique (it rather “has/makes” one), being totally possessed by the next phase of its study or work (of climbing the next rung of Schopenhauer’s ladder).²
Today, I fear a graduate student who presents a thesis for a dissertation with “no technique” and only a “vague” idea of “something ahead” will likely face rejection. If indeed at least some great minds emerge this way, then it is questionable if graduate schools will produce great minds. There was no standard of verification against which Tolstoy could “verify” that he would produce War and Peace before he did so, as Karl Barth could not verify the ideas he would produce before he began his exploration. Both saw something and pursued it — nothing else could be said. Unfortunately, I fear the graduate student who tries to write something against which it cannot be “verified” will face rejection.
It is in the act of pursuing what Barth was “on” that Barth realized technique and legitimized his “meaningless” endeavor (in the eyes of others). Likewise, it was the creation of War and Peace that justified Tolstoy’s effort to write; had War and Peace never been realized, he would have lacked explanation for spending years writing like he did. He would have been, rationally and empirically, with hundreds of pages of evidence to prove it, a waste. It is the end of “the journey” that justifies the journey (to others, though it was “meaningful” to Tolstoy the whole time), and if one asks for a justification to engage in the journey before going on the journey, the individual asks for what cannot possibly be provided. Tolstoy cannot give the world War and Peace before he writes it; likewise, a person cannot tell you if “it is raining outside” until that individual takes a look (though the person still knows what the statement means, as Tolstoy still knew something was within him). Finally, a graduate student couldn’t justify to a department to let him or her follow what they are “on” until their work was complete. If a department asked for a reason to let the student engage in such a project that could be meaningful to the department and not just the student, the department would ask for what could not be provided.
In all these examples, the justification for the project is bound up in “the plodding steps” of the work. If the project is not allowed to begin until there is justification for it, the project will never be allowed to begin and provide justification in the project’s “working out.” If people then look for “evidence” to prove that it was right not to let the project begin, they will find it, for it will be “meaningless” to them.
When Karl Barth wrote, there was no “Barth system” against which his writing could be “verified” and approved of: his ideas had to be read on their own terms and considered in light of their own intelligibility and depth, not to the degree his writings could be judged and “verified” as accurately representing and understanding “Karl Barth.” For Karl Barth to write was for Karl Barth to “stumble ahead” with only a “vague” sense of where his “fingertips” lead him and no possibility of verifying that he headed in any constructive direction at all. If graduate students are held to this standard, they will have no choice but to only pursue that which could be verified against a preexisting system, which isn’t to say this is a bad practice, but to suggest it shouldn’t be the only game in town. If it is, there’s no telling how many “Barths” we might miss out on.
Today, it’s as if “the great minds” in the past wrote something “vague” (without anything concrete to compare it against) in order to become “concrete standards” against which graduate students today could produce work that was verifiable and thus meaningful — a strange paradox and irony. Barth was “pulled ahead” by a desire to articulate and understand something vague, and consequently he changed the world. If graduate schools will not let students be “pulled ahead” by something they cannot define ahead of time or that cannot be “verified” against a preexisting system (because otherwise its “meaningless”), then intellectual progress in graduate school proves circular and arguably empty. Yes, if we don’t learn the thoughts of great minds, we’ll struggle to come up with great ideas ourselves and possibly repeat old ideas, thinking they are new, so certainly we want to be well versed in great works. But if we are not allowed to climb “the ladder” of great works, only collect the rungs as opposed to study the rungs so that we can determine how best to climb them, intellectual progress will likely stifle.
Also problematic, in order to be sure that my dissertation can be “verified” against it, I must know the “Barth system” extremely well, and so spend an incredible amount of time studying Barth (to “know what Barth thought” as opposed to “determine the truth,” which can of course entail Barthian thought). But even if I perfectly knew the thought of Karl Barth, I could never be certain that I knew the thought of Barth perfectly, and so I would potentially always live in a state of anxiety, reading and rereading Barth for years. Also, if someone disagreed with my interpretation of the “Barth system,” I couldn’t be entirely sure that the person who disagreed was wrong, potentially causing anxiety. I can never entirely “verify” that my interpretation of the “Barth system” is the correct one, but if I can only get my dissertation accepted to the degree it is “verified” against the “Barth system,” then I have to attempt the impossible, and there’s no telling how many years this attempt could take. Meanwhile, the great thinkers and minds probably don’t bother, and instead just focus on “stumbling ahead” toward “something more” — they likely use their time far better.
Farrer believed God could be mused over, held in continual question, or simply supposed. Likewise, when told “it’s raining outside,” a student could muse over the nature of the rain, ask “is it really raining?” or simply assume that it is raining. Farrer though, on studies about God, thought that it was only when the structure of one’s study, as well as the outline of its object, were before a person’s eyes, that the person could apprehend the existence which granted conjecture, belief, Gnosticism, and philosophical investigation a theme.
Likewise, it is only when the student stands before the window and has what is outside before his eyes that the student can grasp that his teacher uses the terms “rain” and “drizzle” interchangeably, that his teacher can be trusted, and that he is able to leave class whenever he wants to check the weather. Lastly, to offer another example, it only by seeing War and Peace that one can apprehend the existence of the system which unifies the individual pages that make up the novel: until War and Peace is written, it is not possible for it to be “before a person’s eyes.” If this is the case, then a graduate student “on” something cannot justify what he or she is “on” until the system is complete (and only if the reviewer chooses to “see” the system as a unified whole, to see the “pages” of War and Peace “add up” to the novel of War and Peace, per se), but the lack of justification can be evidence that the system should not be produced in the first place, that time should not be wasted on it. Considering this, graduate school may set an epistemological framework that would deduce Tolstoy and War and Peace don’t exist from the pages of his great novel.
According to Farrer, both the saint and the scholar “see” a theistic world: they see finite being ‘ordered toward God as the gardens at Hampton Court are ordered toward the central window of the place’ — and that act is what begs clarification and not the mere phenomenon of faith’s occurrence.³ Likewise, Tolstoy “saw” War and Peace — he saw the words scribbled on pages “ordered” toward it as he saw the pages he was collecting ordered toward War and Peace — and that act is what should receive acceptance in graduate programs across the country. As the believer grasps a primitive finite-infinite relation, a ‘belonging together of entities such that one cannot be itself without the other’ (as Farrer worded it), so Tolstoy grasped “vaguely” a “belonging together” of the pages he wrote into being, one by one, to form something that could not be itself without each page, in a particular order.⁴ The same could be said of Barth’s Church Dogmatics, as the same could be said of all great works.
Tolstoy, Barth, and the student who goes to see if it is raining are all practically believers. No, they are not necessarily all Theistic believers, but they “act like” believers. The religious believer, according to Farrer, need only assume that ‘God’s activity is there for the mind, and that there is hope of bringing it into view.’⁵ Likewise, to write War and Peace, Tolstoy only needed to assume it was possible for his mind to think it into being, and that he could actually achieve articulation of, and formation for, the novel. Unfortunately, a Tolstoy who presented a dissertation thesis called War and Peace to a board would likely face rejection, for they would have no evidence to believe he could actually bring it into being, for they would not even know what he wanted to do, seeing only some “vague vision” in the presentation. Frankly, it is doubtful a theology department would accept Thomas Aquinas or the Summa Theologica: it doesn’t “bounce off” enough people, jumps around, lacks a consistent thesis, and is rather arrogant.
Faith is a ‘boy’s adventure story,’ to take from Farrer: ‘something called faith’ holds an obscure object at bay while something called reason creeps from behind a ‘judicious boulder’ to apprehend the object by stealth.⁶ The believer lives out conclusions before those conclusions have dawned, which is what can make them dawn. This orders life into an exploratory, inventive, open-ended drama. Finite freedom, in the mind of faith, is a series of ‘brush strokes toward a picture,’ as is genius at the hands of geniuses.⁷ The picture emerges out of the act of painting; it cannot come beforehand. To ask for it at the start to confirm it is a worthwhile thing is to make is impossible. Risk and faith are unavoidable.
In closing, consider these thoughts of Farrer:
The seemingly free action of nature is not a put up job. The creator of the world is not to be compared with those bad novelists who make up the plot of their story first, and force the character to carry it out, all against the grain of their natures. He is like the good novelist who has the wit to get a satisfactory story out of the natural behavior of the character he conceives…There are no stage villains in a good novel, and no plaster saints either. The storyteller can make his people as good or as bad as he likes, but only if his heart can go with them in being as good or as bad as he makes them.⁸
It is a formidable task to work a novel on a wide canvas, creating characters in various social relationships and various bundles of kindred, with a political setting and a geographical scene all complete, the whole vividly presented and adding up to a consistent story. The detail is never completely worked out; the most exacting reader does not ask that even of Tolstoy…⁹
What is an impossible task for the human author is a constant achievement with the Author of nature. He thinks all the natural processes at any level into being themselves and into running themselves true to type. And yet without faking the story or defying probability at any point he pulls the history together into the patterns we observe.¹⁰
Generally, great minds do not work to be known but to know, and only in light of what a great mind seeks to know can he or she be critiqued (to use Timothy Keller’s language, great minds are “self-forgetful” versus “self-centered” or “self-degrading”). Otherwise, a thinker can only be critiqued when “bounced off” another thinker like Tillich, Dostoevsky, or the like. Barth did not write to be contrasted with Tillich, as Tolstoy did not write War and Peace to have it compared with The Brothers Karamazov. Barth wrote to “point to” God, as Tolstoy wrote to “capture” what he envisioned. For Barth, to judge his work in light of anything but “the truth” would likely be arbitrary and foolish to him. Who cares what the differences are between Barth and Tillich? What matters is the truth of God’s person. Likewise, who cares if War and Peace is “better” or “worse’ than Dostoevsky: did Tolstoy capture his vision or not and is that vision worth our time?
But what’s the alternative? Judging ideas as “good” against themselves? Who are we to say if ideas are good or not? Certainly, the skill of judgment and discernment is not easy to cultivate, and we especially won’t if we don’t really believe in truth anymore. If we’re not going to compare ideas against preexisting systems and thinkers, then we’d have to compare them again “truth,” and who are we to say what constitutes truth? To let graduate student pursue something they are “on” would be to let students enter a “mode of thought” like the great thinkers, but it would also be to let students do that which couldn’t be graded other than in comparison to “the truth” (which if we don’t believe in or lack the capacity to judge, we will now allow).
To write about what Barth was “on” rather than about Barth’s theology is to have one’s “fingertips” lead a person toward something we might be in no position to judge, and yet this seems necessary if genius is to develop. This is not to say it is impossible to create genius within graduate programs, only that epistemological biases might lower the probability. Like a publishing company that demands for a writer to “craft a mystery novel,” graduate programs might put restrictions on what students can do, and it is only expected then that they accomplish less than they could.
Students should be able to make claims without having to reference other thinkers. The question should not be “Who said that?” but rather an examination of if what the student said was right or wrong. Thinkers should not be valued because they are “modes of discourse,” as Foucault put it, but to the degree what they say is true. If academia asks “Who’s right?” versus “What’s right?” academia likely devolves into a “glass bead game,” as Hermann Hesse warned.
Perhaps graduate departments don’t want to be arrogant, so they humbly acknowledge they cannot know what’s true, but this is a false humility. In studying Aquinas rather than what Aquinas was “on,” graduate students seem to stand “face to face” with him, which I believe is more prideful than standing upon his shoulders (as Aquinas humbly intended to have be done to him). This is because by standing on the shoulders of another, one sets his or her self to be stood upon by someone else. By standing “face to face” — by writing about Aquinas rather than what Aquinas was “on” — an academic directs other thinkers to stand “face to face” with him, thus formulating a line in which all our equal, and so all are the best. In such a system, no thinker dares to risk being bested, and so each thinker is best.
In conclusion, the words of the Japanese poet Basho are worthy of note: ‘I do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the men of old; I seek the things they sought.’ It is perhaps not by chance that the collapse of theological thought has occurred with the collapse of education, for theology forces education to avoid becoming too empirical. Without that “checks and balance,” education is only willing to watch and verify if our feet fall within the footsteps of those who went before us: we cannot look up and see if there are new horizons worth pursuing off the beaten indentures. As society has lost an understanding of “how” it knows God, so it seems to have lost its knowledge of “how” to do education. Both entail an identical epistemology, neither which is accepted as verifiable and meaningful today. To do great work, we must live like an artist, but unfortunately it seems, for the sake of genius, that is no longer allowed.
¹Schopenhauer, Arthur. The World as Will and Idea, Volume II. Translated by E.F.J. Payne. New York, NY: Dover Publications, 1966: 80
²Farrer, Austin. The Essential Sermons. Edited and Introduced by Leslie Houlden. Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1991: 1. Also found in “A Proof of the Faith: Austin Farrer’s Case for Theism,” a dissertation by William McFetridge Wilson, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia, 1983: 11.
³As found in “A Proof of the Faith: Austin Farrer’s Case for Theism,” a dissertation by William McFetridge Wilson, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia, 1983: 21.
⁴As found in “A Proof of the Faith: Austin Farrer’s Case for Theism,” a dissertation by William McFetridge Wilson, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia, 1983: 27.
⁵As found in “A Proof of the Faith: Austin Farrer’s Case for Theism,” a dissertation by William McFetridge Wilson, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia, 1983: 42.
⁶As found in “A Proof of the Faith: Austin Farrer’s Case for Theism,” a dissertation by William McFetridge Wilson, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia, 1983: 27.
⁷As found in “A Proof of the Faith: Austin Farrer’s Case for Theism,” a dissertation by William McFetridge Wilson, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia, 1983: 11.
⁸As found in “A Proof of the Faith: Austin Farrer’s Case for Theism,” a dissertation by William McFetridge Wilson, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia, 1983: 78.
⁹As found in “A Proof of the Faith: Austin Farrer’s Case for Theism,” a dissertation by William McFetridge Wilson, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia, 1983: 78.
¹⁰As found in “A Proof of the Faith: Austin Farrer’s Case for Theism,” a dissertation by William McFetridge Wilson, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia, 1983: 78.
1. If x is an idea that numerous thinkers who have nothing to do with one another keep discovering, then there is reason to think that x is actually true. If Barth, Aquinas, Tolstoy, and the like all “stumble” toward “something,” and what they outline is “like x,” then there is reason to think x is not arbitrary but “something more.” Unfortunately, if graduate students are required to only focus on single individuals and specialize in them, then if “a pattern of x” appears between multiple thinkers, graduate students will likely not notice. Hence, they will live in a world where there are systems worth studying but not systems that can garner “weight” and “plausibility” outside of themselves and their own arguments. If I cannot study w, x, and y, and see a recurring pattern of z, then I cannot ascribe weight to w, x, and y because they share z (let alone see reason to ascribe to z). Instead, I can only ascribe w weight relative to the power of w itself, ascribe x weight relative to the persuasiveness of x itself, and so on. An avenue of gaining “sufficient reason” via patterns is cut off from me.
2. If graduate schools have created a system in which students are not allowed to “stumble along” according to (“vague visions”), they do not allow for students to engage in the “analogy of being” that “frames” the “casual joint” between the finite and the infinite, as they do not allow one like Tolstoy to engage in a mode by which he realizes a “casual joint” between the act of writing page one of War and Peace and the “vague notion” of the completed work (which at the start of the novel would be improvable and indefinable).
3. We cannot make Derrida say something new — he’s dead — but we can say something new with Derrida.
4. “Reading to verify” is endless, a bad use of opportunity cost, and ultimately impossible versus “reading to learn,” but we should also be careful to assume someone is “reading to verify” when we see someone “reading” at all: we might use this as evidence that we never need to read (and so will never “read to learn”). This in mind, I believe few great minds primarily “read to verify,” but unfortunately academia today creates the impression that the only “real reading” is “reading to verify,” possibly hurting the development of genius.
5. In my view, we need to avoid “philosophies that verify” (PV) in favor of “philosophies that trace” (PT). Verification is impossible (though we seem haunted by it): even if we somehow perfectly interpret Being and Time, we can never “know” for sure that we have succeeded, and a thousand more readings of the text will not enable us to move beyond confidence into certainty. Similarly, we should avoid theologies, sociologies, literary theories, etc. which “verify” versus “trace.”
What do I mean by “trace?” I mean that we try to “outline” the arguments and thinking of a book, that we don’t deceive ourselves into thinking that we can ever fully “think like” Karl Barth, Tolstoy, etc. At best, we can create models, but not perfect replicas: we can make “traces” and collect “traces” of great works, but we must accept this is the best we can do. Additionally, PTs leaves more space for “stories” and “new data,” for there isn’t a hard and rigid theory that has to be maintained (in a world where pieces rarely fit together smoothly). Considering this, I advise that we avoid works on “what Aristotle said,” per se, in favor of works that “trace out the implications of Aristotle.”
6. Following the work of William Wilson on Thomas Jefferson, for the Founding Father, education was the only way to see ‘tyranny in all of its protean and masked forms,’ which suggests why a revolutionary citizenship concerned Jefferson less than a ‘lethargic one.’ Even if overly zealous, at least revolutionists are paying attention, while the lethargic have gone blind, which is when a people ‘cannot draw the logical inference’ anymore that they have gone blind — ‘the destruction of freedom is the destruction of mind’ and vice-versa. Total ignorance is ignorant of its ignorance, and thus feels informed. Conceding to tyranny becomes enlightenment; slavery, free range.
‘[C]ombating despotism is the sole reason for having a learned citizenry,’ according to Jefferson. At the same time, ‘violent outbursts are inevitable because quite simply no government is sovereign’, and even ‘the best forms […] have, in time, and by slower operations, perverted into tyranny.’ If a people are educated though, then revolution will not lead to destruction but reform. For Jefferson, revolution was inevitable, but he wasn’t as concerned about it as he was concerned about the lethargic and uneducated, for revolution at the hands of the educated would maintain liberty. Granted, revolution without education would threaten a civilization like the French Revolution, but it wasn’t the main problem. In fact, a civilization that never had revolution was likely under despotism.
If Jefferson is right and what we have learned from Austin Farrer necessary for education — if we can only be educated by being “on” what great minds were “on” versus study “about” them — then failure to reform graduate schools will eventually cause the loss of freedom and the failure of revolutions.