Post Author: Bill Pratt
In some Christian circles, there is great distrust of philosophy. Of course, this is not just a Christian issue, as there are many non-Christians who also dismiss philosophy as a waste of time, at best, and dangerous, at worst. Those who think it is a waste of time sometimes claim that the vast majority of people know nothing about philosophies or philosophers, and that philosophy, therefore, has a negligible effect on society.
Is that true? Historian Jonathan Israel, an expert on the European Enlightenment, disagrees. Read what Israel has to say about the role of philosophy in the Enlightenment:
[T]hose who inveighed most obsessively against new ideas before and after 1789 also insisted that most people then, as now, neither knew nor cared anything about ‘philosophy.’ Yet practically all late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century commentators were convinced, and with some reason, that while most failed to see how philosophy impinged on their lives, and altered the circumstances of their time, they had all the same been ruinously led astray by ‘philosophy’; it was philosophers who were chiefly responsible for propagating the concepts of toleration, equality, democracy, republicanism, individual freedom, and liberty of expression and the press, the batch of ideas identified as the principal cause of the near overthrow of authority, tradition, monarchy, faith, and privilege. Hence, philosophers specifically had caused the revolution.
Throne, altar, aristocracy, and imperial sway, according to spokesmen of the Counter-Enlightenment, had been brought to the verge of extinction by ideas which most people know absolutely nothing about. Most of those who had supported what conservative and middle-of-the road observers considered corrosive and pernicious democratic concepts had allegedly done so unwittingly, or without fully grasping the real nature of the ideas on which the ringing slogans and political rhetoric of the age rested. Yet if very few grasped or engaged intellectually with the core ideas in question this did not alter the fact that fundamentally new ideas had shaped, nurtured, and propagated the newly insurgent popular rhetoric used in speeches and newspapers to arouse the people against tradition and authority. Indeed, it seemed obvious that it was ‘philosophy’ which had generated the revolutionary slogans, maxims, and ideologies of the pamphleteers, journalists, demagogues, elected deputies, and malcontent army officers who, in the American, French, Dutch, and Italian revolutions of the 1770s, 1780s, and 1790s, as well as the other revolutions which followed proclaimed and justified a fundamental break with the past.
According to Israel, the philosophers supplied the ideas that provoked the revolutions of the Enlightenment. Those who did not listen to what the philosophers were saying were ultimately overrun by their ideas anyway. Is this still the case today? Professor Thomas Howe would say “yes”:
The significance of these observations for our study is that the same is true today. The influence of philosophy on the day-to-day lives of the people is by far not negligible, and this is even more true for Christians. . . . For the Christian, philosophy is communicated to the congregation through the pulpit. Pastors read and study and attempt to keep up on current events. But it is precisely in the books, journals, and magazines they read that philosophy is communicated to them and through them to their congregations—and this happens today, as it did leading up to the Enlightenment, without any realization that it is going on. In terms of a basic principle we might say, the less familiar we are with philosophy, the more likely it is to influence us without our being aware.
Should all Christians rush out and take philosophy classes? Probably not, but some of us should, and probably many more than currently are. Those who have no interest in philosophy should, at a minimum, be supportive of those Christians who do have interest. They are watchmen on the tower, and we need them.