Where’s This Week’s Episode?

Michial Farmer

Sorry folks. As sometimes happens, technology has conspired to make this week’s episode a non-starter. Fortunately, we will, given the good will of God and Skype, be back next week with an episode on Psalm 119. The week after that, David and Nathan will present you with the planned listener feedback episode, so if you have a comment or question you’d like us to address, please email us at

Christian Humanist Profiles 14: Philosophical Aesthetics for the Christian Thinker

Nathan P. Gilmour

The True.  The Good.  The Beautiful.  Such are the calls to arms for the Romantics and the Idealists, the avaldsnes-church-1820philosophers as well as the poets.  All sorts of people praise the beautiful, but the disciplined philosophical exploration of the beautiful, in the natural world as well as in human works, has always been a battlefield of sorts, and Dr. John Dadosky’s recent book The Eclipse and Recovery of Beauty joins that fray as it parts from the work of notable 20th-century aesthetic theorist Hans Urs von Balthasar in its appropriation rather than rejection of philosophy’s turn to the subject.  The resulting exploration is intellectually rigorous, raising questions about how the ethical and the aesthetic relate to one another as well as how Christian philosophy particularly might proceed on questions of beauty and ecology.

The Eclipse and Recovery of Beauty: A Lonergan Approach

Wittgenstein Wednesdays, Session 2: Philosophical Investigations sections 26-52

Nathan P. Gilmour

Want to read along with us? Get Philosophical Investigations from

Emmanuel College’s Wittgenstein group keeps rolling along as we approach our next Wittgenstein meeting.  Before that happens, though, I should get a guide in place both for those reading along at home and for those who missed the last meeting but plan to jump back in this round.  So here it goes!  (A per last time, parenthetical numbers refer to sections of Philosophical Investigations, not to page numbers.)

13 Ways of Naming a Rectangle

Imagine that there’s a red digital-image rectangle named Bob.  Actually, don’t worry about imagining; I’ll provide one for you:

Now imagine that I ask you to point to Bob.  No, actually, point to Bob.

Go ahead.

Nobody’s watching.

Good!  Now point to rectangle, as distinct from Bob.  Now point to red, as distinct from rectangle.  Now point to digital image, as distinct from red.    Head swimming yet?

This is one linguistic puzzle that Wittgenstein takes on in Philosophical Investigations 28-33.  The tension that Wittgenstein establishes so nicely persists: on the one hand, there’s not a single, simple rule that governs what all the words in this example (digital image, red, rectangle, Bob), and an attempt to establish such a rule will either render much of our actual language as nonsense (even though it works quite sensibly as we use it) or stretch the category so far that it means nothing.  On the other hand, to deny rules won’t work either; after all, if when I asked you to point to the rectangle, you pointed to the lower-case “i” in the book cover image, most folks would say you’ve made a mistake in our encounter, and someone could reasonably ask you to try again so that you pointed to “rectangle.”

As with other parts of Philosophical Investigations, there’s no moment when the author pops around the corner and gives us the magical sword with which to slay this linguistic monster; the point is to appreciate the fact that language is a complex and interesting enough happening that it rewards continued attention and study.

In one of his marginal notes (reproduced between sections 28 and 29 in the recent Wiley-Blackwell edition of Philosophical Investigations), Wittgenstein even points out instances in which pointing to something that is not-category could serve as a mode of training one’s neighbor to see it.  (Think of a mathematical exercise in which the teacher points to a series of five shapes, the last being a circle.  By pointing to the not-circles, the teacher hopes to establish some groundwork for understanding what a circle is.)  No uniform rule regarding tone-of-voice, kinds of hand gestures, relationships between speaker and hearer, or anything else will eliminate the complexity, yet the system is not simply infinite: the possibility of naming and pointing to a mistake, then correcting that mistake, means that anarchy is also an inadequate metaphor.

Persistence and Complexity

Another riddle that Wittgenstein poses and considers is the persistence of names and how that reality relates to the persistence of things-named.  For his example here Wittgenstein asks us to consider Nothung, Fafnir’s legendary sword from Wagner’s Ring Cycle (39).  How the sword functions in the story is unimportant; the question here is what “Nothung” names if somebody breaks the sword into several pieces and scatters those pieces.  Does “Excalibur has a sharp blade” (I had to change sword-names in our last meeting so that folks wouldn’t confuse “Nothung” with “Nothing”) mean anything, since “Excalibur” doesn’t actually exist except as a whole? Clearly the “meaning” hasn’t died, because if the meaning stopped existing, the sentence would be nonsense instead of merely untrue.  Thus the metal artifact that King Arthur used to carry around is not exhaustively the “meaning” of “Excalibur” but rather the bearer of that name, one possible meaning but neither the exclusive meaning nor a non-meaning (43).

Thus certain words, like “this” (45) are neither meaningless nor names; whatever work they do, they’re still language but not names.  As I told the students (and to some extent the faculty) present, such an insight might seem unworthy of calling insight, except that it does provide room for theories of language that don’t make “naming” their governing theory.  If we’re still having our conversation about what language does and how it works, the question of “this” is actually quite important.

Returning to names, Wittgenstein wonders what it means for objects to be simple or complex.  The negative definition of simplicity is ultimately easier to imagine than a positive one: whatever is simple is not complex, and whatever is complex is not simple (47).  But that’s where the easy parts ends.  After all, to point to a checkerboard is obviously to point to something complex: the board consists of sixty-four squares, half of a different color from the other half.  But even each square is complex if one thinks hard enough: the board could consist of wood or cardboard; decals or paint or stain; fibers of whatever material the board is made of; molecules of all of the above; atoms of the molecules; and so on.  Or, to put it another way, each square is a color and a shape and a role the square plays in a game of checkers and the home (or not) of a checker of this or that color, and so on.

But don’t get ahead of yourself (a persistent lesson one learns while reading Wittgenstein).  After all, if I tell someone to look for two men sitting next to a checkerboard, someone who objects and says that there are no checkerboards, only complexes of colors and shapes and such, is going to be missing the point.  In other words, to talk about objects as simple (or “simples,” to use a plural form that appears in Philosophical Investigations but still looks weird when I type it) is something that happens routinely in language as we actually use it, even if the possibility persists that, when we talk in a different way of the same subject matter, that same simple thing becomes a complex entity.  In other words, even a thing’s simplicity or complexity depends upon complex but finite linguistic systems, and explanations of those simple and complex entities rely on the words already operating in that system, yet there’s often (even if not always) room to say that one has spoken imprecisely within a system (48-49).

Thus the final part of last meeting’s discussion, the mistake.  First, it’s worth noting that to point to “mistake” as one would point to “Bob” above (scroll up–he’s still there!) also assumes a complex but finite network of “moves” within the linguistic game.  As with before Wittgenstein doesn’t offer one, simple rule to say what’s a mistake and what’s not; he merely points out the fact that, even in simple languages, there’s some ambiguity (but not utter chaos) with regards to what counts as a mistake and what is mere difference (51).

As he moves ahead into other systems, he ends this meeting’s reading (which is an arbitrary ending point in one sense but ends precisely according to set rules in another) with an example from biology: a biological science that allows for the possibility of spontaneous generation will have to put procedures in place to make sure that any given mouse emerging from a pile of rags and dust was really generated rather than merely emerging from hiding among those same rags.  A system that denies the very possibility of spontaneous generation, on the other hand, simply has no need to differentiate: everything that emerges must have been hiding (52).

What’s the point of this?  Well, come back next time, and perhaps we can think on it together!

The Book of Nature Podcast, Episode #1: Opening The Book

Dan Dawson

Galileo_facing_the_Roman_InquisitionDan Dawson leads a discussion with Todd Pedlar and Charles Hackney to introduce the newest Christian Humanist Network project, “The Book of Nature”. The three scientists describe their respective scientific backgrounds, walks of faith, and overall vision for the podcast. Among the topics discussed are why they aren’t “The Christian Scientist Podcast”, the historical background for the phrase “Book of Nature”, the relationship of science to the Christian faith, and a lineup of topics for future episodes.

The Christian Humanist Podcast, Episode #145: The Little Prince

Michial Farmer

The-Little-Prince-001Michial Farmer holds court with David Grubbs and Nathan Gilmour about the children’s novel The Little Prince by Antoine Saint-Exupéry. The trio digs into the satirical and philosophical character of the book before discovering once again that Gilmour is heartless and that Farmer gets sad more easily than most.

Christian Humanist Profiles 13: A Radical Critique of Heidegger

Nathan P. Gilmour

Martin-Heidegger-in-1933--011Certain philosophers shake up the world with a new frame of reference, a new central question, a new way to proceed in doing philosophy.  In the twentieth century Martin Heidegger was one such figure.  His turn from the Enlightenment’s overriding concern for epistemology to a new and refigured investigation of ontology meant a new philosophical project for those who followed him, and along with that quest came a need for critical assessment of his contributions.  One such assessment is S.J. McGrath’s 2008 volume Heidegger: A (Very) Critical Introduction, and Christian Humanist Profiles is happy to welcome Sean McGrath on the program to talk Heidegger with us.

S.J. McGrath, Heidegger: A (Very) Critical Introduction

Wittgenstein Wednesdays, Session 1: Philosophical Investigations Sections 1-25

Nathan P. Gilmour

Want to read along with us? Get Philosophical Investigations from

Recently an intrepid group of students and faculty at Emmanuel College began a school-year-long adventure in philosophy, planning together to read Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations together, a bit at a time, over the fall and spring semesters.  As we got the group rolling, I volunteered to provide some sort of online catch-up for those who couldn’t make this or that meeting.  This series of blog posts will attempt to do that.

Slab!  Or, Why Simple Theories and Solipsism Both Miss the Phenomena

If you ever want to find out whether an English-speaking friend of yours has read this book, send her a one-word (and punctuation mark) email reading simply “Slab!”  If your friend assumes your account has been compromised, then likely he hasn’t read the book.  If your friend asks when you read Wittgenstein, she might just have read this book.

The opening sections of Philosophical Investigations (parenthetical notations in the following refer to sections, not to pages) inquire into the nature of language, starting first with the common conception that words and things correspond on some level, with the word “apple” corresponding to a particular sort of fruit and the word “red” corresponding to this color but not that one (1).  But by means of a series of thought-experiments, Wittgenstein begins to show that such a view of language misses some of the most basic ways in which language does work.  The earliest thought-experiment asks a reader to imagine a language in which those who know the language use the words “block,” “pillar,” “slab,” and “beam” to help them build something together.  When one calls out “Slab!,” the other brings along the slab, and so on (2).

Simple enough, right?  But such a scenario already assumes that a one-word utterance might mean something entirely different depending on where in the story of the construction-project it happens.  So, for instance, two workers who have worked together for some time might proceed as described above, but when someone new joins the crew, a more experienced worker might use the same one-word utterances to demonstrate what work the words do, without the expectation that the new worker will bring the component to a given spot.  Thus the veteran might point and say “Slab!” not to call for another component for the task at hand but to let the rookie know, for future reference, what to pick up when the same worker calls “Slab!” later (6.)

A couple things should be occurring to you already: first, Wittgenstein uses particular scenarios precisely to demonstrate that simple, universal theories of language cannot account for all of the complexity and different rule-sets that govern language use.  Second, neither a simple universal theory would do (because it would have to account for too many uses of “Slab!) nor a solipsistic notion of language, in which each individual decides what words mean, will work here.  “Slab!” means something, and not something else, in each of these moments and in other conceivable moments (for instance, sending one’s friend a one-word email), and those who try to make “Slab!” do other work have a task ahead of them.  (Such a task is not impossible, as Wittgenstein demonstrates with the word “Slab,” but it takes some doing.)

Let’s Play a Language-Game!

For the sake of thinking differently about how language works, he proposes thinking about them not as neat, orderly systems but as clusters of games.  So in one game, “Slab!” is a command to bring a certain sort of building material from there to here, whereas in another, “Slab!” is the name of an object, a word but not a thing, to be discussed by a philosophy seminar.  How those games connect to each other isn’t yet the concern of the book, but Wittgenstein offers an early metaphor of the same, comparing language to the growth of a metropolis, complete with orderly suburbs, from the core of an old city, whose inner streets twist and a turn with a logic lost to time (18).

But back to games, Wittgenstein counters in these early sections certain philosophies of language that posit some sort of proposition (a sentence with a subject and a verb, in that order, making a statement) behind all other sorts of utterance.  One could, Wittgenstein concedes, insist that “Slab!” really means “I want you to hand me a slab,” but just as easily, he jests, could we not imagine that, behind all other sorts of utterance, there’s “really” a question followed by an affirmation?  He supplies one example, and the imagination runs from there: “[F]or instance, ‘Is it raining?  Yes!'” (22)

As I read it, one of the early theses of the book is that “to imagine a language means to imagine a form of life” (19).  Thus language is neither limited nor unlimited because human existence is neither limited nor unlimited.  Before the invention of baseball, to talk about baseball was unintelligible, but that doesn’t mean that the addition of baseball-talk makes language anarchic; instead, it’s intelligibly historical.  The “Slab!” language (yes, by the end of the first session of Wittgenstein Wednesdays, our whole group found the word “slab” utterly hysterical) derives its intelligibility from the human practice of building things with beams and blocks and slabs, and talking about double-plays and the infield fly rule is gibberish in an imagined context in which folks don’t play baseball.  The philosopher of language does well not to say too early (which is to say at all) that the limits of language are already drawn, but the skeptic of linguistics does well to note that, when talking to baseball fans, “designated hitter” does not mean whatever the speaker wants it to: it’s intelligible as evil because it’s part of the discourse of baseball, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s evil.

As I write this, I know full well I need to leave this segment of Philosophical Investigations (which we discussed two weeks ago) and turn to sections 26-52 (which I’ve read but need to review now).  More on that in the next few days.


Dante’s Purgatorio and Graduate School

Nathan P. Gilmour

Why Can’t Grad School Be Purgatorial?

No, good reader, that would be too easy.  Graduate school itself wasn’t much at all like Purgatory.  After all, the conditions for my leaving graduate school had little to do with desire for God and not much more to do with purging vices.  No, graduate school is a place where one earns one’s departure by writing and defending a dissertation, and I tip my hat to those still earning that exit.  One thought that never occurs to me, while I teach Dante, is that Purgatory is anything like graduate school or vice versa.

Rather, something occurred to me recently while planning a lesson on the Terrace of the Prideful in the Purgatorio.  (That’s stanzas 10 to 12, if you want to go read them now.  You really should.)  Graduate school isn’t Purgatory because one earns one’s way out of it, but it’s also not a place where a resident undergoes the same kind of moral formation that the saved undergo as they prepare for Heaven.  And that might be why we among the living don’t experience art as do the saved dead.

When I teach the middle Canticle of Dante’s Commedia, I frame Purgatory proper as one of the great medieval manifestos on art.  Dante is an Aristotelian most of the time, but with regards to art (along with several other questions, to be fair), he takes the best from Plato and from Aristotle.  On one hand, every terrace involves seeing or hearing stories of virtue, the sorts of narratives of which Socrates approves in the Republic.  On the other, the fear and pity that Aristotle recommends in the  Poetics as the defining features of the best tragedy are all over the stories that the saved souls encounter as they hear stories of their particular vices and their consequences.  In other words, Purgatory displays a robust Classical vision of the good things that art can do for the soul, and there’s room there for stories of goodness as well as stories of badness.

With all that, the art in Purgatory isn’t precisely like the art that readers, even those who read Dante, encounter in the world of the living.  After all, exemplars of vice and virtue come to the souls precisely as they need them, in forms that leave no room for ambiguity.  The good exemplars are good and the bad bad, and there’s not much dispute about which one is at play in any given moment.

In other words, art in Purgatory is completely rational.  But it’s not the entirety of the story.

Before You Get to Purgatory, You’ve Got to Raise a Little Hell

My hunch is that the Inferno, the Canticle that most folks read, provides another range of possibilities when it comes to art, but until one reaches Purgatory, that range doesn’t appear as a range but as a totality.  After all, from the time that Dante sees the souls in ante-Inferno racing after the flag, being stung by eternal insects and never stopping to settle into one camp or the other, artistic representations of one sort or another are always pointing the reader–the characters within the story as well as those of us enjoying it centuries later–towards spiritual relationships that, without the images and allegories, would remain obscure in the world of civil wars and inept tyrants and the daily struggles of the living.  What Dante calls contrapasso in the Inferno is one mode of art, the exposure of duplicity and corruption in the name of spiritual truth.  What masquerades as spiritual love gets exposed as lust, as full of wind as any vice; and to deal among the living in philosophies that deny the soul leads, in Inferno, to an eternity locked in a burning box, unable to transcend just as one denied transcendence among the living.

When I think about Inferno in light of Purgatorio, the earlier Canticle strikes me not as identical with but at least related to the hermeneutics of suspicion that was the warp and woof of my own graduate education in literature.  To be sure, there were moments–glorious moments–when the texts were there to teach us, not to be dissected, but many of my encounters with literary text happened for the sake of debunking, of suspecting, and generally of unmasking what was “really” going on with the political and social agendas of those texts most frequently anthologized.

Dante helps me realize that such a practice is not entirely bad.  For Dante, seeing the wickedness of the ancients and of his own contemporaries unmasked means that his descent past the nether parts of Satan becomes, by virtue of his sinking as low as one may sink, an ascent to more Heavenly things.  And, to read Dante allegorically, such might be a good course of things for a student of literature and philosophy and such: when the student faces without obfuscation the darkness that lies at the heart of every human enterprise, what remains at least has a chance of being genuine hope.  (There’s always a chance, perhaps an inevitability, that we only thought we had reached the bottom and that we allowed ourselves to turn back rather than to plow through, but that’s why learning goes on past one’s formal education, no?)

But one distinction remains between the damned and Dante in the Commedia, and I wonder whether we make too little of that in graduate school.

Suspicion as a Road Beyond Suspicion

The damned will never take a single step past the unmasking of evil; for them, all that remains is evil in all of its ugliness.  For Dante, by Heavenly grace alone, to be sure, something lies beyond.  But it’s not Heaven, at least not immediately.

Purgatory challenges my own sense of ambiguity in the world by insisting, at every turn on two realities: that human beings are authentically good and bad, better and worse than they could be; and that only a gift from Heaven will allow me to see what’s good and what’s bad.  Neither of those realities is comfortable, but both together constitute the structure of Purgatory.  Only after Dante moves through both of those realities, terrace after terrace, can he ascend, and only after the saved have come to desire what Heaven gives, and ultimately the Lord of Heaven, will they truly enjoy Heaven.  It’s a bit of an affront to those of us moderns who have internalized Hume’s dictum that beauty is a function of the one seeing an object, not the beauty of the object itself, to think that the seer needs transformed, but there it is.  And if one takes Dante seriously, the implication seems to be that anyone reading the poem isn’t there yet.

And that’s what takes me back to remembering graduate school.  All of my professors, on some level, seemed to have at least a sense that literary narratives and lyric poems and good novels might, for those who learn to be suspicious, carry us forward beyond the suspicion.  (Some of you readers might think I’m being naive again there.)  My suspicion is that, as a young graduate student, I just wasn’t ready to enter Purgatory yet.


The Christian Humanist Podcast, Episode #144: Allegory

Michial Farmer

the-pilgrim-at-the-gate-of-idleness-1893.jpg!BlogDavid Grubbs holds forth with Nathan Gilmour and Michial Farmer about allegory, both as a mode of reading and as a literary genre. The debate hinges on what terms mean in which contexts: is a literary text defective because it’s an allegory, or are there good or bad allegories? Explore that and other questions with us.

“Against Allegory”

Our theme music this week is Radiohead’s “Packd Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box,” from 2001’s Amnesiac. I’m a reasonable man. Get off my case. Get off my case.

Christian Humanist Profiles 12: Structuralism, Modern Literature, and Christianity

Michial Farmer

Anyone who’s spent any time at all with the New Testament is familiar with the opening dew-on-a-spider-websentences of the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being.” And anyone who’s spent any time at all in graduate studies of language and literature is familiar with another view of the word, and words. To quote Ferdinand de Saussure, the great Swiss structuralist linguist, “The linguistic sign unites, not a thing and a name, but a concept and a sound-image.” And in the next section, he says, “the linguistic sign is arbitrary,” meaning that no intrinsic relationship exists between the English word tree and the class of entities we use that word to refer to. Word is severed from thing. This is the foundation of structuralist linguistics and thus the foundation of much of twentieth- and 21st-century thinking.

Our guest today on Christian Humanist Profiles is Dr. Roger Lundin, the Arthur F. Holmes Professor of Faith and Learning at Wheaton College and the president of the Conference on Christianity and Literature. Dr. Lundin is the author of numerous books, including Literature Through the Eyes of Faith, a standard text for Introduction to Literature courses at Christian colleges. His latest book is Beginning with the Word: Modern Literature and the Question of Belief, which takes on the structuralist conception of language as a sign-system and proposes a different way of viewing language