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Faith and Reason

  • Duncan Pritchard (a1)


A novel account of the rationality of religious belief is offered, called quasi-fideism. According to this proposal, we are neither to think of religious belief as completely immune to rational evaluation nor are we to deny that it involves fundamental commitments which are arational. Moreover, a parity argument is presented to the effect that religious belief is no different from ordinary rational belief in presupposing such fundamental arational commitments. This proposal is shown to be rooted in Wittgenstein's remarks on hinge commitments in On Certainty, remarks which it is claimed were in turn influenced by John Henry Newman's treatment of the rationality of religious belief in An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent.


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1 See, for example, Swinburne, Richard The Existence of God, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979).

2 Plantinga, Alvin, ‘Reason and Belief in God’, Faith and Rationality, (ed.) Plantinga, A. & Wolterstorff, N., (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983), 1693 and also Plantinga's, Warranted Christian Belief (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

3 On Certainty, (eds.) Anscombe, G. E. M. & von Wright, G. H., (tr.) Paul, D. & Anscombe, G. E. M., (Blackwell, Oxford, 1969).

4 See especially Alston's, WilliamReligious Experience and Religious Belief’, Noûs 16 (1982), 312 , Is Religious Belief Rational?’, The Life of Religion, (ed.) Harrison, S. M. & Taylor, R. C., (Lanham Maryland: University Press of America, 1986), 115 , and Perceiving God: The Epistemology of Religious Experience, (Cornell, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991).

5 G.E. Moore, (1925). A Defence of Common Sense’, Contemporary British Philosophy (2nd series), (ed.) Muirhead, J. H., (London: Allen and Unwin, 1925) and Proof of an External World’, Proceedings of the British Academy 25 (1939) 273300 .

6 Although the ‘hinge’ metaphor is the dominant symbolism in the book, it is accompanied by various other metaphors, such as the following: that these propositions constitute the ‘scaffolding’ of our thoughts (OC, §211); that they form the ‘foundations of our language-games’ (OC, §§401–3); and also that they represent the implicit ‘world-picture’ from within which we inquire, the ‘inherited background against which [we] distinguish between true and false’ (OC, §§94–5).

7 Note that it is more common in the literature to refer to hinge propositions rather than hinge commitments. The reason why I have departed from standard practice in this regard is that what is important about these basic commitments is precisely the nature of the commitment itself (i.e., the outright certainty that one is expressing) rather than the proposition that is being committed to. Indeed, I think that a focus on the latter has tended to obscure the point that Wittgenstein was trying to make in this regard.

8 See, for example, Williams, M., Unnatural Doubts: Epistemological Realism and the Basis of Scepticism, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991) on ‘methodological necessities’ (which can be lost by simply changing one's disciplinary inquiry), and Wright, C., ‘Warrant for Nothing (and Foundations for Free)?’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 78 (supp. vol.) (2004), 167212 on ‘entitlements of cognitive project’ (which essentially involve opting to trust certain claims that are essential to a particular cognitive project). See Duncan Pritchard ‘Unnatural Doubts’, Skeptical Solutions: Provocations of Philosophy, (eds.) G. A. Bruno & A. Rutherford, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming) for detailed discussion of the former proposal, and also Pritchard, , ‘Entitlement and the Groundlessness of Our Believing’, Contemporary Perspectives on Scepticism and Perceptual Justification, (eds.) Dodd, D. & Zardini, E. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014) 190213 for detailed discussion of the latter proposal.

9 There are, of course, many notions of belief operative in the philosophical literature. See Stevenson, L., ‘Six Levels of Mentality’, Philosophical Explorations 5, (2002), 105–24 for a survey of some key kinds of belief.

10 Just to be clear: henceforth I will be talking of belief in the specific sense of that propositional attitude which is a component part of rationally grounded knowledge.

11 Note that epistemologists have denied a closely related—but ultimately very different—principle, which is the general idea that knowledge is closed under known entailments. See, for example, Dretske, F., ‘Epistemic Operators’, Journal of Philosophy 67 (1970), 1007–23 and Nozick, R., Philosophical Explanations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981). Crucially, denying that knowledge is closed under known entailments is quite compatible with the endorsement of the closure-style principle just articulated. C. Wright (e.g., Warrant for Nothing (and Foundations for Free)?’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 78 (supp. vol.) (2004), 167212 ) has also motivated, on Wittgensteinian grounds, the denial of a principle more in the vicinity of the principle under discussion, though I think this relates to a mistaken understanding of Wittgenstein's notion of hinge commitments, as I explain in my Entitlement and the Groundlessness of Our Believing’, Contemporary Perspectives on Scepticism and Perceptual Justification, (eds.) Dodd, D. & Zardini, E. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014) 190213 .

12 I explore the topic of epistemic relativism in more detail in Pritchard, Epistemic Relativism, Epistemic Incommensurability and Wittgensteinian Epistemology’, Blackwell Companion to Relativism, (ed.) Hales, S., (Oxford: Blackwell, 2010) 266–85. See also Pritchard, , ‘Defusing Epistemic Relativism’, Synthese 169 (2009) 397412 . For more on this topic as it arises in On Certainty, see Williams, M., ‘Why (Wittgensteinian) Contextualism is not Relativism’, Episteme 4 (2007), 93114 and Coliva, A. Moore and Wittgenstein: Scepticism, Certainty, and Common Sense (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).

13 It should be stressed that the account offered here of hinge commitments is not universally shared; indeed, there are several competing accounts of this notion available in the literature, though it would obviously take me too far afield to describe them in detail here. For some of the key defences of competing proposals, see McGinn, M., M. Sense and Certainty: A Dissolution of Scepticism (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989), Williams, M., Unnatural Doubts: Epistemological Realism and the Basis of Scepticism (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), Moyal-Sharrock, D., D., Understanding Wittgenstein's On Certainty (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004). Coliva, A., Moore and Wittgenstein: Scepticism, Certainty, and Common Sense (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), Coliva, A., Extended Rationality: A Hinge Epistemology (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), and G. Schönbaumsfeld, The Illusion of Doubt (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming). For two surveys of this literature, see Pritchard, D.Wittgenstein on Scepticism’, Oxford Handbook on Wittgenstein, (eds.) Kuusela, O. & McGinn, M. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011) 521–47. I further develop my own reading of Wittgenstein's epistemology in Pritchard, Wittgenstein and the Groundlessness of Our Believing’, Synthese 189 (2012) 255–72 and Epistemic Angst: Radical Skepticism and the Groundlessness of Our Believing (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015).

14 See Locke (1979 [1689], IV, xix, p. 14).

15 See Locke (1979 [1689], IV, xix, p. 11).

16 A further example which Newman discusses at length is our conviction that Great Britain is an island (EAGE, 234ff).

17 Newman offers an intriguing take on Hume's treatment of belief in miracles which is salient here. Very roughly, Hume claimed that given the nature of miracles qua extraordinary events (and given also some further claims, such as certain facts about human psychology), it follows that it would be more rational to doubt the testimonial evidence offered for miracles than it would be to accept that a miracle had occurred on this testimonial basis. While accepting the general principles in play in Hume's argument, Newman nonetheless contends that in a particular case it can be rational to accept the existence of a miracle on a testimonial basis. For what matters is the specific way in which this commitment to the occurrence of a miracle fits within the religious worldview of the agent, with its attendant hinge commitments. Indeed, Newman goes so far as to suggest that one's commitment to the occurrence of the miracle could be a matter of simple assent, in which case one is not to think of the testimony as providing a rational basis for the belief in a miracle at all. To this extent Newman's stance is potentially logically compatible with Hume's, in that Hume was targeting beliefs in miracles which are epistemically grounded in testimony—i.e., and not simply the causal product of testimony—whereas for Newman it seems the beliefs in question need not be grounded in this way at all. See EAGE (243 & ff.). For a recent overview of the literature regarding Hume's stance on miracles, see Pritchard & Richmond (2012).

18 Kienzler, W., ‘Wittgenstein and John Henry Newman On Certainty’, Grazer Philosophische Studien 71 (2006), 117138 .

19 Although a number of commentators note Newman's influence on Wittgenstein in his later work - such as A. Kenny, (1990). Newman as a Philosopher of Religion’, Newman: A Man For Our Time, (ed.) Brown, D. (London: Morehouse Press, 1990) 98122 , Kenny, A.John Henry Newman on the Justification of Faith’, in his What is Faith? Essays in the Philosophy of Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), and Barrett, C., ‘Newman and Wittgenstein on the Rationality of Religious Belief’, Newman and Conversion, (ed.) Ker, I., (Notre Dame, Indiana: Notre Dame University Press, 1997) 8999 - for a thorough account of how their thinking is related, along with a comprehensive discussion of the historical evidence to back up this claim, see Kienzler op. cit. In particular, Kienzler offers a compelling case for treating Wittgenstein's reference to ‘Newman’ in On Certainty (OC, §1) as referring to John Henry Newman (and not to a different ‘Newman’ entirely, such as the scholar Max Newman, a contemporary of Wittgenstein's at Cambridge).

20 For some key discussions of Wittgensteinian fideism, see Nielsen, K., K. ‘Wittgensteinian Fideism’, Philosophy 42 (1967) 237–54 and Phillips, D.Z., Religion Without Explanation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976). To be fair, it should be emphasised that those authors which attribute a straightforward fideism to Wittgenstein often don't have his remarks on hinge commitments in On Certainty in mind, but rather comments he makes about the rationality of religious belief elsewhere, particularly Wittgenstein, L., Wittgenstein's Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief, (ed.) Barrett, C. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1966).

21 For further discussion of quasi-fideism, and of the relationship between Wittgenstein's remarks on hinge commitments and Newman's religious epistemology, see Pritchard, D., ‘Wittgensteinian Quasi-Fideism’, Oxford Studies in the Philosophy of Religion 4 (2011), 145–59 and Wittgenstein on Faith and Reason: The Influence of Newman’, God, Truth and Other Enigmas, (ed.) Szatkowski, M., (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2015), 141–64.

22 An earlier version of this paper was presented at the ‘Religious Epistemology’ conference held at Heythrop College, London, in July 2015. I am grateful to the audience for their feedback, and especially to the organiser of this event, Stephen Law.


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