Philosophy and Aesthetics: 3 Variations

I couldn’t come up with 5 varieties like I did with history and theology some weeks ago. In any case, here’s an attempt at delineating modes of interplay available to the fields of philosophy and aesthetics.

Philosophical Aesthetics. Or philosophy of beauty. This is a branch of philosophy. Typical analytical modes of evaluation will be deployed to interrogate the adequacy of the prevailing conceptual apparatus used to frame how we talk and argue about art, beauty, etc. Consider Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment.

Aesthetics of Philosophy. A branch of rhetoric (?) Something like the study of philosophy as literature. Here rhetorical and literary categories of description and evaluation will be deployed to bring to view how the presentation of a philosopher’s authorial voice complements content, projects a model of reasonableness, and cultivates a taste for the charms (and thereby reinforcing the persuasiveness) of its modes of appeal. For instance, consider how the operative aesthetic sensibilities informing Wittgenstein’s Tractatus control his thought and expression—how W.’s prose show us a glimpse of a beauty of which we cannot speak. Related is Clifford Geertz’s Works and Lives, or nearly anything by Wayne Booth.

Aesthetic Contemplation. This is not a branch of philosophy but an approach to the pursuit of truth. Let’s call it imagination seeking understanding. Or perhaps the study of literature/art as a philosophical stimulant. Works more by an appeal to the imagination as the basis of its rhetorical strategy. It isn’t trying to steamroll you by way of its incontrovertible rationality, so it doesn’t wear its logic on its sleeve. Instead it proceeds by exploratory insight and life-like description, so its leverages of persuasion are less coercive and more invitational. Consider Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

History and Theology: 5 Variations

The following is an attempt at a typology of the various ways in which history and theology may cross pollinate and inter implicate one another’s domains of study.

  • History of Theology. This is a branch of history. Its object of study happens to be theological discourse, but it deploys broadly critical-historical tools of analysis in order to generate a narrative of the past. For an example consider Jaroslav Pelikan’s magisterial 5 vol. The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Univ. of Chicago Pr. (1975-1991).
  • Theological History. This is not a branch of history but an approach to historical narration in general. Its object of study is not limited to theological discourse; it can survey any domain of life amenable to historical modes of representation. What’s distinctive here is its willingness to deploy theological categories of description, such as admitting of God as an agent in its causal plot lines . Think the New Testament’s Luke-Acts, Eusebius’ Church History, or Augustine’s City of God.
  • Historical Theology. This is an approach to theological inquiry. It attempts to offer constructive theological proposals on the basis in part of its accounts of the past. Can be contrasted with an approach to theology such as Analytic Theology which tries instead to establish constructive theological proposals primarily on the basis of the acuity and rigor of its conceptual analyses and demonstrations of logical cogency. Think Ephraim Radner’s A Brutal Unity: The Spiritual Politics of the Christian Church, Baylor Univ. Pr. (2012).
  • Theology of History. This is not an approach but a branch of theology, a limited subset of its sphere of inquiry. It endeavors to offer a theological description of specific matters like the nature of time, the legibility of the past, the place of history within God’s scheme of revelation and the outworking of his purposes. May partially overlap with another branch of theology, i.e., Eschatology. Think Irenaeus’ doctrine of recapitulation as a soteriology of history. Or think Hans Urs von Balthasar’s A Theology of History or Wolfhart Pannenberg’s Revelation as History.
  • Theological Historiography. This is the interface of theology and philosophy of history. Theological categories will be deployed to evaluate historiographical categories, procedural axioms, and criteria of legitimation. Think Joel B. Green’s “Rethinking ‘History’ for Theological Interpretation,” Journal of Theological Interpretation 5.2 (2011), 159-174.

Caricatures of Christianity

It takes all kinds to make a … church.

The following typology juxtaposes caricatures of three kinds of Christians. More could probably be devised. I call them caricatures because they are exaggerations. No actual Christian will fit neatly into just one of these categories. We’re all more multi-dimensional than our conceptual representations give us credit for. That said, it might be the case that you recognize yourself more in one type than others. It’s not a bad thing if you’re able to admit that to yourself, especially if you use that self-awareness as a diagnostic tool for determining your competencies and deficiencies. Not only would such an exercise potentially help round you out as a Christian, but also it would enhance your capacity to understand and sympathize with Christians of different types. A big part of this will simply be a matter of coming to recognize orientations different from your own as equally authentic expressions of Christianity.

This typology was inspired by a similar effort from Telford Work, who was himself fleshing out George Lindbeck’s typology of theories of religion. Note, though, that my third type does not correspond to Lindbeck’s cultural-linguistic account of religion. I’m not trying my hand at the same explanatory endeavor. Whereas Lindbeck is adjudicating between competing accounts of the essence of religion, I am only trying to describe three complementary impulses within Christianity. Whatever Christianity is, it’s some kind of thing that has proven itself able to motivate and coordinate such various distinct forms of the expenditure of human energy and attention as the following.

  The Scholastic The Pietist The Social Gospeler
Gospel as worldview corrective emotional experience societal policy
Salvation ignorance→knowledge antipathy→enthusiasm loss of agency→ its restoration
Evangelism apologetics testimony advocacy
Conversion assent to beliefs surrender to feelings compliance to vocation
Discipleship education spiritual direction service
Pastor teacher spiritual director community organizer
Sanctuary classroom site of experience rallying point
Sermon lecture vehicle of experience call to action
Bible encyclopedia devotional anthology manifesto
Favorite Bible Passages Pro 1:7; Ro 12:2; 2 Cor 10:5; 1 Peter 3:15 Psalms Galatians 2:10; James 1:27; 1 John 3:17-18; Leviticus 19:34
Favored Genre of Literature polemic treatise autobiography open letters (as acts of protest)
Temptations dead orthodoxy; arrogance anti-intellectualism; preoccupation with self eclipse of God’s agency; preoccupation with the secular, the immanent, and the present

Pictures of Doctrine

Pictures of Doctrine

A picture held us captive. (Wittgenstein, PI §115)

  1. Doctrines as Propositions
A. Unrestricted.

Thesis: Doctrines explain reality. Doctrinal supply should meet explanatory demand.

Advocate: Alister McGrath

Within the context of a scientific theology, the Christian network of doctrines is conceived as a response to revelation, in the belief that such doctrines will possess explanatory potential. [136]

The point is that a scientific theology is impelled, by its vision of reality, to attempt to offer an account of the totality of all things, believing that the Christian tradition both encourages such an enterprise in the first place, and in the second, makes the necessary resources available through its understanding of the economy of salvation, particularly its doctrine of creation. … at this stage, our concern is to note that a theologically grounded compulsion to offer such explanations is to be seen as an integral component of the Christian view of reality. [194, Scientific Theology. Vol. 3, Theory. (New York: T&T Clark, 2003)]

B. Minimalist.

Thesis: Doctrines are propositions, and they should be kept to a minimum.

Advocate: Gordon Graham

True piety, we might say, does not require a degree in theology, and, conversely, a degree in theology can be obtained in the absence of piety. If we are to hold fast to this principle, we must be theological minimalists, forever seeking to keep to a minimum the theological content of the “truths necessary for salvation.” … Correspondingly, we will be keenly alive to the possibility, and the danger, of “theological overreach,” which is to say, claiming the status of “saving truth” for what is in fact no more than a theological construct. (Wittgenstein and Natural Religion, Oxford: Oxford UnivPr, 2014, 197-198.)

C. Eliminative.

Thesis: Doctrines are propositions, and they’re dispensable.

Advocate: Ludwig Wittgenstein

Is talking essential to religion? I can well imagine a religion in which there are no doctrinal propositions, in which there is thus no talking. Obviously the essence of religion cannot have anything to do with the fact that there is talking, or rather when people talk, then this itself is part of a religious act and not a theory. (Ludwig Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle: Conversations Recorded by Friedrich Waismann, ed. Brian McGuinness. Oxford: Blackwell, 117)

  1. Doctrines as Questions.

Thesis: Doctrines are prompts to self-interrogation, generative of lines of theologically articulate suspicion.

Advocates: Rowan Williams, Peter Dula

dogma reflects a commitment to truth…at whose centre lies…not a theoretical construct, but the abiding stimulus to certain kinds of theoretical question. [80]

The theologian’s job may be less the speaking of truth…than the patient diagnosis of untruths. [196] (On Christian Theology, Oxford: Blackwell, 2000.)

According to Williams, we too readily treat dogmas and other theological propositions as answers to “the essential questions;” whereas true theological thinking seeks instead to be brought into the vicinity of truth by opening and re-opening these questions, by agitating the doubts and conflicts behind accepted answers. [from Robert Jenson’s review of On Christian Theology, in Pro Ecclesia (11.3), 367.]

  1. Doctrines as Rules

But what do they regulate? Or, what metaphorical vehicle do they employ?

A. Doctrine as Grammar

Advocate: George Lindbeck

For a rule theory, in short, doctrines qua doctrines are not first-order propositions, but are to be construed as second-order ones: they make…intrasystematic rather than ontological truth claims. (The Nature of Doctrine, Philadelphia: Westminster Presss, 1984, 80.)

B. Doctrine as Protocols against Idolatry

Advocate: Nicholas Lash

creedal confession is the declaration of identity-sustaining rules of discourse and behavior governing Christian uses of the word ‘God.’ (Three Ways of Believing in One God, London: SCM Press, 1992, 9.)

C. Doctrine as Stage Directions

Advocate: Kevin J. Vanhoozer

Doctrine…resembles “stage directions for the church’s performance of the gospel.” Doctrines are less propositional statements or static rules than they are life-shaping dramatic directions. (The Drama of Doctrine, Louisville: WJKP, 2005, 18.)

4. Doctrines as Capacities

Thesis: Concepts are skills, and doctrines are constellations of concepts. Indoctrination is formation in religious know-how.

Advocates: Paul L. Holmer, Charles M. Wood

Most concepts are “enabling”; and one learns a concept by getting in on some aspects of what it enables one to do. The richer the concept, the greater the enabling. Some concepts–e.g., that of the “round world”–mean so much because they enable one almost indefinitely. No limit can be drawn around the number of things that are sayable and thinkable with that concept. This is part of what is meant by saying that such a concept is open-textured, though this does not mean that it is ambiguous or vague. Instead, it is to say that the concept is very powerful and hence exceedingly meaningful. [141] … Again, it is the competencies, the abilities, the enabling for a variety of tasks, that is the complex of a concept. We do not read concepts from a printed page–we ordinarily acquire them as we would a skill or a technique. [142] … We are indebted to concepts for changed dispositions, for creating and sustaining emotions, for enlarging sympathy, for stimulating passion, and even for creating the virtues. [143] … Having the concept “God” is also to have a certain set of functions in one’s life. If one knows how to use the word God in prayer and worship, then one has the concept. One can do all sorts of things with that concept “God”– for example, one can explain, praise and curse. One can even attain peace of mind and forgiveness of sin. The concept is crucial to a way of life and a view of life. … “God,” as a concept, has a location and place in our lives. [152] (The Grammar of Faith, San Francisco: Harper&Row, 1978.)

I’ve posted previously on Wood’s conception of doctrine — here.


This scheme doesn’t pretend to be exhaustive of all options. The representatives highlighted may fit into multiple categories, but I have tried to gesture to their respective centers of gravity. Option 2 I think is easily subsumable into Option 4, as would be expressivist accounts of doctrine. A standing question for me is how to correlate options 1, 3, and 4; all presumably have some contribution to offer, but what are they?

When it comes to my citation of Wittgenstein, I think this is an example where he’s less helpful on religious matters. A religion in which there’s no talking … really? Here’s my gripe: though Wittgenstein does well to undermine intellectualist pictures of religion, the alternative picture many of his explicit remarks on religion tends to conjure strikes me as more Jamesian and, ironically, not Wittgensteinian enough, not consistent with where you’d think the thrust of his Investigations would lead him. His last clause, “when people talk, then this itself is part of a religious act and not a theory,” is closer to the mark, but exceptional. More representative is, “faith…is what Kierkegaard calls a passion” (CV 53e, emphasis original). Wittgenstein more often than not roots religion in human passion, not action and reaction. This is despite his own more characteristic efforts on other fronts to remind us of “our natural history as walking, eating, drinking, playing” (PI 25), that is, as fundamentally acting beings, animals, not thinking or feeling beings first. To follow up on this, do see Graham, Wittgenstein and Natural Religion, 95, 121-24.