In a previous post, I gave a brief historical sketch of the movement from nineteenth century absolute idealism to twentieth century analytic philosophy. In this post, I will survey the response Cornelius Van Til gave to absolute idealism, and then examine the analytic tradition in light of Van Til’s Reformed insights.
Cornelius Van Til (1895–1987) completed his Ph.D. dissertation entitled, “God and the Absolute,” at Princeton University in 1927 under the Scottish idealist philosopher, A. A. Bowman (1883–1936). Van Til began his dissertation in medias res, like a piece of epic literature:
In many quarters the idea seems to prevail that the God of Christianity and the Absolute of modern idealistic philosophy are identical. . . . The alliance thus formed is hailed by philosophers and theologians alike as prophetic of a glorious dawn of peace and progress. Clasping hands we have stopped our wrangle and at last have found an outlet for our energies in the improvement of the human race. Yet there are some murmurings to be heard here and there that all is not gold that glitters. Now since I find myself among the group of malcontents who have not joined their voice to the applause of peace, peace, because there is no peace, I am here called upon to give an account of the faith that is in me. I still believe in the God of Christianity and not in the Absolute of Idealism. Believing my faith to be a “reasonable faith” I shall in this paper attempt to prove that the apparent similarity between Idealism and Christianity covers a fundamental diversity, that consequently we must make a choice between them and that the choice for Christianity is philosophically the more tenable.
What a tremendous statement of Christian fortitude to his dissertation examiners! Van Til went on to state his argument with equal Christian conviction: “To do this it will be sufficient to take the pivotal conception of God which lies at the basis of all Christian theism and contend that it is the only conception that can offer a possible unity to human experience. The only alternative to belief in this God is scepticism [sic].”
Both the Van Tilian tradition and the analytic tradition can trace its roots back to the response its earliest proponents gave to absolute idealism. Nonetheless, Van Til’s response was quite different from the ones given by the early analytic philosophers. G. E. Moore (1873—1958) and Bertrand Russell (1872—1970) responded to absolute idealism by insisting that it did not give proper attention to the necessity of logical rigor, linguistic analysis, and commonsense for philosophy. Van Til responded to absolute idealism by insisting that it did not give proper attention to the necessity of the Christian God and his revelation for philosophy.
As I showed in my previous post, the use of logical rigor, linguistic analysis, and commonsense has led analytic philosophers like John Searle to a materialistic universe in which free and meaningful human mental activity seems impossible. The hopelessness of materialism does not logically follow from analytic philosophy’s method. However, those practicing an analytic philosophy that does not incorporate the necessity of Scripture into its methodology are bound to arrive at similar wrongheaded conclusions. Man was never meant to experience or reflect upon anything without subordinating his cognition to the norm of God’s special revelation, and since sin has corrupted man’s heart, he needs special revelation all the more—even when doing philosophy.
If John Searle repented from his materialism, converted to Reformed Christianity, and accepted the necessity of Scripture for philosophy, then and only then could he make sense of the deep conviction of freedom we all have as human persons. Searle needs the Holy Scriptures to teach him that far from being incompatible with free will, God’s sovereign determination of the created universe toward “a purpose for Himself” (Van Til’s phrase) is the necessary precondition for all meaningful human activity (Cf. John 19:11; Acts 2:23, 4:27–28; Romans 11:36; WCF 3.1).
Sources — All quotes from Van Til appear in his, “God and the Absolute,” accessed through Logos Bible Software 4, The Works of Cornelius Van Til (40 vols.), which unfortunately has no page numbers. The opening biographical information is from John R. Muether, Van Til: Reformed Apologist and Churchman (Phillipsburg, NY: P&R, 2008), 57–58. I also consulted Cornelius Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology (Phillipsburg, NY: P&R, 1969), 1–13.