D. A. Carson, in Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church, noted three periods of epistemology (the study “knowledge”), which I thought were helpful:
This is marked by the belief that all human knowledge is a subset of God’s knowledge. (Carson only considers Judeo-Christian epistemology.) The premodernist would start with God and work from there. Absolutist.
Has its roots in the 18th century Enlightenment. Its starting point is “I”, best expressed in Descartes’ famous statement, “I think, therefore I am.” For Descartes, this was the foundational statement of all human knowledge. The “I” (as I understand it) is the collective “I”, common to all human beings. From there, everything else was to be worked out, including the existence of God. The conclusions were to be true for all human beings. Marked by rationalism (use of logic and reason) and empiricism (observation and experimentation). Absolutist.
Moving on from Descartes, every “I” is unique. Each person must start with themselves. Everyone has a different perspective on what can be known. So what is true for me may not be true for you. Some see postmodernism as modernism gone to seed i.e. its inevitable fruit and therefore is really still modernism. It engenders relativism but as a result is self-contradictory since its claim that there are no absolute statements of truth is itself an absolutist statement of the truth.
You can begin to see the problem of trying to push God out of your view.
(Update: modification to the first point.)
6 thoughts on “Episte… What?”
Carson isn’t really on target with this one, though – he makes some good points, but his own bias shows too clearly. Most worrying, though, is the lumping of all thought before the Modern period into the single category “Pre-Modern”. The ancient Greeks certainly didn’t fit into his idea that knowledge is based in God. Indeed, they were the originators of the ideals of empiricism and rationality!
pax et bonum
That’s a teaser of a comment, John. OK, I’ll bite – what do you mean that Carson is off target? The thrust of the book? or characterisation of premodernism? What’s ‘worrying’ about his view of premodernism?
I agree that the characterisation of premodernism is likely to be too simplistic for some. I don’t know much about Greek philosophy, but I thought Aristolean and Platonic philosophy was founded on the concept of universal essences and ideas, of which particulars are found in nature. I probably should not have used the word ‘God’ in my description, but we do find the Greeks working from a belief in something outside of themselves and their experience.
Of course empiricism and rationality are not excluded. It seems to me it is a question of how these are controlled by the foundational beliefs one holds to. Modernism elevates these to near-divine status in my view.
Joel Garver’s critique of Carson’s reading of postmodernism is spot on, IMHO.
I really need this book. It has been one that comes up time and time again.
John said, “Most worrying, though, is the lumping of all thought before the Modern period into the single category ‘Pre-Modern’.”
Does Carson explicitly include classical Greek and Roman thought in his definition of pre-modern?
I have had a quick skim. I’m not sure I understand it but I will give it more time.
It’s a good read. He critiques Maclaren and Chalke. He seems to deal with Chalke well, whom I have read. I have not read Maclaren, so I don’t know if he is fair. Carson does not pull his punches. He is concerned that we know that truth can be known with certainty, unlike the pomos.
Actually, having re-read the relevant section (pp. 88-92), his treatment of ‘pre-modern’ epistemology only considers Judeo-Christian epistemology. So I am in error. (Sorry, John!)
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