Reformed Epistemology by Cornelius Van Til


Reformed Epistemology.”

Handwritten, 135 pp. [Van Til Papers, WTS Archives]
Van Til’s Th.M. thesis written under C. W. Hodge, Jr. at Princeton Theological Seminary. This paper became the basis of what was later entitled The Metaphysics of Apologetics [1932.G], and The Survey of Christian Epistemology [1969.F]. Note that C. W. Hodge, Jr.’s doctoral dissertation was The Kantian Epistemology and Theism. Philadelphia: MacCalla and Co., 1894.
  1. Introduction (Bibliography)
  2. Idea and Right of Systematic Epistemology
  3. History of Epistemology in General
  4. Christian Epistemology in General
  5. Catholic Epistemology
  6. Lutheran Epistemology
  7. Arminian Epistemology
  8. Reformed Epistemology in General; Adamic Consciousness
  9. Reformed Epistemology; Non-Regenerate Consciousness
  10. Reformed Epistemology; Regenerate Consciousness
Download the complete PDF here:
The Following selection is Chapter 1 from this work:
Chapter 1: Idea and Right of Systematic Epistemology

There is rather strong current in thought today which affirms that the question of epistemology is hopelessly antiquated. We need only mention A. N. Whitehead, one of the great champions of realism today, as an instance of this in its extremist form. Says he: “There is now reigning in philosophy and in science an apathetic acquiescence in the conclusion that no coherent account can be given of nature as disclosed in sense awareness without dragging in its relations to the mind. The result has been disastrous both to science and to philosophy.” 2 Does Whitehead then hope to build up metaphysics without an epistemology? No, there exactly he demurs. He does not aim at metaphysical doctrine. He uncritically accepts the ultimate union of mind and nature and seeks reflectively to extend the unreflective attitude of everyday experience.

On such a basis there is no room for epistemology in the accepted sense of the term. To be sure, Whitehead does speak of epistemology, but for him it is merely “one aspect of natural science on precisely the same footing, e.g. as physics.” The phenomenon of the human spirit, its search for certitude and validity, must still be psychologically analyzed and genetically traced, but that is all.

Pragmatism maintains that it does not thus uncritically assume the unity of mind and nature, but that it has critically established the uselessness and impossibility of epistemology. It denies the validity of the struggle for validity. All experience is in flux. Bergson repeatedly emphasizes that our intellect attempts an unwarranted generalization of experience. The intellect is but one element in the pulsing current of life and has no right to set up its mechanistic universal as an ultimate standard. Dewey makes an attempt to prove from the history of philosophy that the problem of knowledge is meaningless. The Enlightenment defended knowledge without fact. Empiricism defended fact without knowledge. Kant did not overcome the dualism between them; form and matter were still assumed to be antagonistic at the outset. The theory of universal validity brings us into a dilemma. We remain in an airy realm of ideas, or in an unrelated mass of facts. Dewey’s system is therefore, in the first place, a negation of Idealism. All the inner movements of thought are only functions to pass from one fact to another and not revelations of universal truth. To think that our functional adjustment of thought is a revelation of reality has been the great evil of Idealism, he says. This presupposed too much of a dualism between mind and nature. For what is this mind which receives the revelations? Is it not a part of nature itself? Human, even intellectual activity, is a part of universal behavior, not essentially different from the behavior of plants and animals. The idea of the independent existence of the soul is a sad illusion. Our experience differs only in detail and not in kind from lower forms of existence. Souls are only functions in a whole which is impersonal. The whole manifests a physical behavior. You cannot truly speak of your behavior and therefore validity can have no meaning for you as a person.

On the other hand Dewey also opposes materialism. Facts are not hard and final but surcharged with ideal factors. There is no raw material; I live in a totally different world than did George Washington. Militating against both Idealism and Materialism, Dewey offers his biological category as a common meeting ground. Materialism is mechanical and Idealism is logical, but Pragmatism, resolving these, is biological. Evolution, behold the word! But then evolution in both the Hegelian and the Darwinian sense. With Hegel, Dewey refuses to regard the environment as ultimate. The environment is the less progressive part of life, but it still obeys the spirit. All experience is a process. Place no abiding dualities anywhere. Speak of no essential differences lest you be cast out. Nature is not only a process but continuous process. Inanimate and animate, sentient and thinking phenomena, are one. We can have no universal interpretation of experience for the process is creative as well as continuous. Reconstruction of the environment is never fixed. Especially is this the case in human consciousness. Here Dewey caps the climax. Where others find the only point of stability, in the human subject, Dewey finds the current at its fastest. 3 Reflection must be totally impersonal and only cosmically functional.

How does Pragmatism seek to prove its position? By showing that its method is the method of science. Science does not involve the a priori implications that it has been said to have. The meaning of law is not, as Kant would have us believe, that all possible experience must be subject to it, because law has been externally imposed upon experience by the very forms of thought. No, law does not enable us to predict with certainty what will happen in the future. We cannot attain to universal knowledge even of phenomena. Kant’s agnosticism was not thorough enough. Our viewpoint must be based upon a pluralistic universe. We despair of the conventiality and transmissibility of knowledge. Yet we rejoice in our tribulation, for we give up the notion imposed upon an innocent humanity by Aristotle that knowledge is the highest goal in life. Life is a stream, life is action. The élan vital is pushing us ever onward and upward. To know life we must not walk around it, as the mechanism of the intellect is wont to do, but must cast ourselves into the very current. 4

You will never learn to swim unless you enter into the water. When once in the stream adjust yourself as best you may. You may now forget about your old idealistic or empirical notion of getting a correspondent picture in your mind of reality outside of you. You may make use of the universals taught you in the “school” and offered you by science, but only in the sense of enabling you to make wider strokes and therefore better progress. And then, by all means, do not have any misgivings about the direction of the stream or as to the ocean beyond. All is well with the world; there is no ocean beyond. How do I know? Never mind, don’t ask foolish questions; you must have a “Will to Believe,” as William James assures us.

But when we halt before entering the pragmatic stream and still show signs of unbelief because we cannot as yet adjust ourselves to such instrumentalism and depersonalization, because it looks to us too much like a bread and butter philosophy, Dewey and Moore at once protest. They invite us to come in because the water is fine. They resent the charge that theirs is a bread and butter instrumentalism. With Schiller and James they wish to be humanists. They admit that as reasonable creatures we even wish to eat our bread and butter self-consciously; a certain intelligibility underlies all our relations to nature. But such admission is fatal to the “pragmatic attitude.” To be truly pragmatic you must limit the scope of your interest. If you include all intellectual, moral and spiritual interests of all men of all times you have transcended Pragmatism. We may return with interest the compliment of mechanism.

Man has a need for objective reality. If Pragmatism were sufficiently pragmatic it might also believe this. For if we can afford to ignore the question of the existence of an objective reality, or if we can resolve the meaning of objectivity into scientific non-personal, instrumentalistic terminology, then we ourselves must also enter the sausage grinder to submit to a more thorough adjustment than even the apparatus of a functional theory of consciousness can allow for; we must be totally depersonalized for we are then of a piece with the world. But we cannot deny ourselves. Complete instrumentalism is intellectual Jesuitism. Mackintosh has well pointed out that this sort of psychologism cannot be but a transition phase in the history of thought. 5

For a psychology that will sever all connections with epistemology and metaphysics cannot long endure. If we should for example, cruelly pour James’ conception of a “will to believe” into the crucible of psychological analysis we should find that we have but an imitation of what is generally meant by the term “belief.” Yet James ought from his own standpoint be willing to submit to such a test. James’ chapter on “Pragmatism and Religion,” shows us the nature of his faith. Suppose we take the belief in an objective existence of a personal God and the notion of a life hereafter. For Pragmatism, any other view that will work is equally true. Will then a religion work until it is known to be true? Belief is therefore, for James, purely an act of volition. It needs no definite object to provide evidence for the reality to which the intellect assents. So professor J. M. Baldwin defines belief simply as “mental endorsement or acceptance of something thought of as real. 6 This does no justice to the notion of “bindingness” which is already inherent in the term.Baldwin does indeed speak of belief as a “forced consent” but only “in a measure.” To James as well as toBaldwin, belief is “conviction founded on evidence which is subjectively adequate,” though it lacks what is ordinarily understood by objective evidence. The distinction employed, that faith rests on evidence not adequately grounded while knowledge builds on theoretic certitude, is also of similar pragmatic import. A. J. Ormond, e.g. believes that “some faith judgments are translatable into judgments of knowledge,” but not all. We believe the hypothetically beneficial; we know the perceived real.

So we see that William James and other Pragmatists are great heroes of ‘faith.’ If trust in a blind conviction be a token of piety, James, Baldwin and Ormond have the preeminent right to an exalted place in the catalogue of the saints. But all this is psychologically unsound. In the first place, negatively, the moment we perceive that the object of our beliefs or convictions is objectively invalid we cannot sustain our faith in them by any sort of subjective adequacy. An observer might maintain that he could, but the agent cannot. Belief can never be identified with conjecture. But, secondly, in a positive sense also, the analysis is faulty. Men mean by their faith not a consciousness of things they would wish to be true, but consciousness of things they are convinced to be true. Belief must always contain notitia, assensus, and fiducia, whatever its objective, whatever the stage of its development. Matters of faith are different from matters of knowledge, not as resting on a purely subjective basis or as dispensing with evidence and not requiring intellectual assent, but as resting on grounds “less direct and immediate to the soul, and therefore involving a more prominent element of trust.” And when once the evidence is seen as adequate, the whole personality must grant itself, because belief binds the entire person to its object.

Thus we see that Pragmatic psychology cannot stand on its own feet. Nor does it. James himself at divers times and various places drags in epistemology and metaphysics unawares. In his great work on “Psychology” it comes in the form of unconscious. Again in his lectures on Pragmatism he says: “We receive the block of marble but we carve the statue.” 7 But does not this give a good deal of reality to non-subjective existence? And if it is marble that we deal with will nature be as plastic as our instrumentalism might wish it to be? Can we then be certain that there will be any marble to deal with, that is, can we then be certain of predictions; can we do without epistemology? Or, to modify the question, can our attitude toward nature then be entirely non-personal and scientific? But, on the other hand, if it is clay into which we press our fingers, then where is the universalism that we need at least as an instrument? Thus the pragmatic need for objectivity is fulfilled by James to an extent, in spite of himself. And James is not the only one. The various Pragmatists struggle to maintain harmony between the heterogeneous group of pragmatic, realistic, social and intellectual motifs in their thought.

James criticizes Dewey by saying that he takes too much of a backward glance when emphasizing the continuity of all species. RememberLot’s wife! Through the telescope of faith we must see the Alpine heights, as did the youth that bore a strange device, Excelsior! But how, if we must look ahead, do we know that the mountaintop which has been covered with impenetrable mists till now, does actually exists? May not even the next step we take hurl us into abysmal depths? How can we reveal a genuinely pragmatic attitude, the attitude of meliorism, the attitude of faith in the future, if we have no guarantee ofProvidencefrom behind? We cannot be temperamentally optimistic while philosophically pessimistic except at the price of inconsistency or superficiality. Idealism founds its consolations for the future on the belief that the world is in better hands than its own, but on what basis can James take his “moral holidays”? James tells us that our faith is sure because our fellow mountain climbers believe as we do. Does numerical multitudes of illusions then perhaps decrease the greatness of the illusion? Will it not rather increase the final tragedy because of the greater numbers involved? Can communion of the saints mean anything except through him in whom they are called to be saints?

Now if in this discussion of Pragmatism we have demonstrated the impossibility of holding any view of life that totally ignores metaphysics and epistemology we have reached our purpose negatively of establishing thereby the right of systematic epistemology. The human spirit cannot do without it. It cannot be content to live from hand to mouth. Especially in its higher needs does it seek certainty. The less a faith becomes physically demonstrable the greater becomes the need of and desire for certainty. The religious pragmatism so current among so called “Liberalism,” is therefore psychologically speaking a contradiction in terms. As Clarence McCartney recently said every man has a creed which he thinks is universally valid even if it be a creed of one sentence only.

In our conception of the idea of epistemology we carefully distinguish it from psychology, even from, yes, especially from, genetic psychology which thinks it takes the place of epistemology when it has genetically traced the rise of its idea. This is evident in the Religions-geschichtliche Schule which thinks it has faced the question of religion when its development has been traced. Eisler’s definition is therefore partly faulty when he calls epistemology “that part of philosophy which in the first place, describes, analyses, examines genetically the facts of knowledge as such.” 8 He himself calls this the psychology of knowledge and he should not classified it under epistemology at all, but should have limited himself to the second part of his definition that it, “tests chiefly the value of knowledge and of its various kinds, its condition of validity, range and limits.” In his thinking, psychology is descriptive and without it epistemology could not exist. Only when psychology is developed can epistemology thrive. But the latter should never identify its task with the former. After all the processes of emotion, of volition and cognition have been analyzed and described, the question of the validity of it all still remains. Is ultimate certainty possible? Or are we perhaps adrift in the world? Naive thought assumes certainty. We must critically establish its possibility. If validity is possible, are all forms of knowledge valid, intellectual as well as other, and moral as well as intellectual? Can we call that knowledge which does not partake of the form of the syllogism?

To answer these questions we shall have to ask ourselves what knowledge is, whether it gives us a true representation of objectivity, for with nothing less can we expect to arrive at certainty. And throughout all this comes the ever-burdening question of error. Even when we do not accept the biblical teaching of sin the possibility of error is an enigma. “What signs decide whether certitude in any case is justified.” 9 But to put the question of error in this fashion proves that we have already uncritically limited the problem of error to individual cases. This is epistemological Pelagianism. We must at least ask ourselves whether error is not an incubus to all our thought. Error, or sin, burdens all the questions of epistemology with a load that makes one groan, and only Reformed theology has attempted to do justice to its universal implications.

It is more difficult to distinguish epistemology from metaphysics. It is often proposed that metaphysics be the genus under which epistemology and ontology fall as subdivisions. Reality and knowledge of reality cannot be studied without reference to one another. Locke speaks of epistemology being a preliminary clearing of the ground; Kant also wanted to study the instrument by itself. But Hegel was correct in his criticism of them to the effect that we cannot see the working of the machine when it is empty, and that we cannot stand on the shore to learn how to swim. “For knowledge has no existence by itself or apart from and external to its objects.” Hegel said that we want to “combine in our process of inquiry the action of the forms of thought with a criticism of them.” 10 “The forms of thought must be studied in their essential nature and complete development; they are at once the object of research and the action of that object.” But though we not only admit but emphasize that epistemology can not be studied totally by itself, it would be as great a mistake to return to the pre-critical period and assume them to be one. Idealistic writers tend to identify logic, epistemology and metaphysics, but there ought at least to remain a difference of emphasis. Knowing, though not possible without an object, is still a very distinct act. While its validity must not be tested without reference to its objects, it must not be identified with its object.

Hence we also distinguish epistemology from logic. Even if we do not understand by logic exclusively the text-book formal rules of thinking but think of it, with many modern writers on the subject, in a more philosophic spirit, the question of validity still remains the prerogative of epistemology.

Transplanting this question onto the basis of Biblical Theism we can say that the question of validity stands in the foreground there perhaps more than anywhere else. Theology deals with objects not apparent to the senses. Theology deals with objects the existence or non-existence of which is of paramount importance to man. Theology deals with a view of the relation between God and man through the incarnation and the redemptive acts of Christ and of the mode of the communication of the fact of this relation between God and man that needs to be established for our consciousness. Epistemology thus receives enhanced importance for Christian apologetics. Theology deals with the fact of error and with the theory of evil in its noetic implication; the question of validity is for it still more involved than it is for non-revelational thought. We must face it, admit ignorance where we must, but not shun the question.

2 Alfred North Whitehead, “The Concept of Nature” p. 7.

3 John Dewey, Darwinism etc., Essays in Experimental Logic, 1916.

4 Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution, 1907, 1913.

5 Macintosh, Theories of Knowledge.

6 Professor Stout, A Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology.

7 William James, Pragmatism, 1907, p. 246.

8 Eisler, Philosophishen Begriffe, 2nd ed.,Berlin: 1904.1:29 ff.

9 Catholic Encyclopedia, subvoce.

10 J. E. Creighton, Encyclopedia Americana.


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