Christian Analytic Philosophy: An Incredibly Brief and Incomplete Introduction

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To provide a contrast to Austin's ongoing series on Thomistic philosophy, I thought I would start a series to look at notable Christian philosophers of the analytic tradition, and some of their contributions to philosophy.  Before diving in, it is necessary to give at least some explanation of what on earth analytic philosophy is.  Since this a blog, we've tried to avoid being too systematic.  That task is left for the various books that no one bothers to read.  Nonetheless, it is still sometimes necessary to give some background and explanation on certain subjects.

Currently, there are several competing philosophical traditions.  Two of the minor traditions today are Eastern and Islamic philosophy.  Older philosophical traditions, such as Scholasticism and Platonism, are still studied at the university level.  However, current work in philosophy is dominated by two schools: analytic philosophy and continental philosophy.

Unfortunately, neither analytic nor continental philosophy have a clear definition or claims common to the various movements within each tradition.  Frankly, the easiest way to distinguish either is geographically: continental philosophy is found primarily in mainland Europe, whereas analytic philosophy dominates in the English-speaking world.  The vast majority of schools of philosophy in America and the United States follow the analytic tradition.

Years ago, Christians found few friends in the schools of philosophy.  This was largely due to verificationism - especially the logical positivist movement.  Among other things, logical positivism held that the only legitimate sources of knowledge was empirical evidence, mathematical logic, and linguistics.  Based on this definition, questions of metaphysics and theology were not simply misguided but meaningless.  Even ethics and aesthetics were viewed as a matter of preference.  The movement controlled the world of philosophy from the 30's into the 60's.  Some of the notable thinkers in logical positivism included A J Ayer, Rudolf Carnap, and Ernest Nagel.

Now, it should be made clear that metaphysics and theology were not shoved out the door simply because of a definition of knowledge that became dominant.  It's not as if some philosophers sat around in Vienna and one of them said: "I know how to get rid of those superstitious fellows!  Let's just define knowledge in such a way that they can't even claim to have any real knowledge of anything!  Brilliant!"  Rather, logical positivism came to be dominant - and theism rather unpopular - because of gradual and complex movements both within and without the world of philosophy.

This would not last, however, as the demise of logical positivism was as total as any philosophical movement's collapse.  Criticisms took aim at the movement's own logical consistency.  For example (if a bit simplistic), the statement, "Only claims that can be verified empirically or mathematically are meaningful," is by its own standard ... meaningless.  So in some sense logical positivism fell on its own sword.  The assault on logical positivism was lead by the likes of Carl Popper, Hilary Putnam, and Richard Rorty.

Following the end of logical positivism, Christian philosophy made a comeback. To quote the opening words of the The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology:
The collapse of positivism and its attendant verification principle of meaning was undoubtedly the most important philosophical event of the twentieth century.  Their demise heralded a resurgence of metaphysics, along with other traditional problems of philosophy that verificationism had suppressed.  Accompanying this resurgence has come something new and altogether unanticipated: a renaissance in Christian philosophy.
In the words of atheist philosopher Quentin Smith, "God is not 'dead' in academia; he returned to life in the late 1960s and is now alive and well in his last academic stronghold, philosophy departments."1  He also mentions, " perhaps one-quarter or one-third of philosophy professors are theists, with most being orthodox Christians," though in his despair he seems to have overestimated.2

I have not been able to trace what exactly lead to the comeback.  Clearly, the downfall of positivism was key, but what led to philosophers coming out of their theistic closets - and other Christians taking interest in philosophy - remains unclear to me.  That being said, it is clear that the charge was lead primarily by Alvin Plantinga (Notre Dame and Calvin College) and the late William Alston (Michigan).

Today Christian analytic philosophers include Richard Swinburne, John Lennox, and Brian Leftow all at Oxford, Peter Van Inwagen and Michael Rea both at Notre Dame, William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland at Talbot, the late Dallas Willard (USC), Nicholas Wolterstorff (Yale, Calvin College), Keith Ward (Oxford, Gresham College), Peter Kreeft (Boston College, King's College), Alister McGrath (King's College), the late Francis Schaeffer, Eleanore Stump (St. Louis), and Robert and Marilyn Adams at UNC.  Many of these philosophers contribute to several branches of philosophy, not simply philosophy of religion.  They are also prolific writers, with some of them writing on both the professional and popular level.

The next posts in this series (though it may be a while) will cover some of Alvin Plantinga's work, who recently retired from Notre Dame.

1.  The Metaphilosophy of Naturalism 
2.  PhilPapers Survey
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