Lessons in Epistemology from G.K. Chesterton

For me, reading Chesterton has exposed the falsehood that one can draw a sharp line of division between modernism and postmodernism. Chesterton published his book Orthodoxy in 1908, which, by our reckoning, falls within the modern period. His description of modern thought sounds so much like postmodern thought that I must ponder whether there really is much of a difference between the two. Are we really living in an age of a philosophical paradigm shift, or could it be that we are merely reaping the fruit of a tree planted long ago by Descartes, Hume, and Kant? Does postmodernism represent epistemological progress, or is it merely one more step down the dark path of sinful human reason asserting its autonomy? Notice how much Chesterton’s world sounds like our own, and then think about it:

“. . . the human intellect is free to destroy itself. Just as one generation could prevent the very existence of the next generation, by all entering a monastery or jumping into the sea, so one set of thinkers can in some degree prevent further thinking by teaching the next generation that there is no validity in any human thought. It is idle to talk always of the alternative of reason and faith. Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all. If you are merely a sceptic, you must sooner or later ask yourself the question, ‘Why should anything go right; even observation and deduction? Why should not good logic be as misleading as bad logic? They are both movements in the brain of a bewildered ape?’ The young sceptic says, ‘I have a right to think for myself.’ but the old sceptic, the complete sceptic, says, ‘I have no right to think for myself. I have no right to think at all.'”

“If any frightened curate still says that it will be awful if the darkness of free thought should spread, we can only answer him in the high and powerful words of Mr. Belloc, ‘Do not, I beseech you, be troubled about the increase of forces already in dissolution. You have mistaken the hour of the night: it is already morning.’ We have no more questions left to ask. We have looked for questions in the darkest corners and on the wildest peaks. We have found all the questions that can be found. It is time we gave up looking for questions and began looking for answers.”

[Isn’t it amazing that Chesterton wrote this almost 100 years ago? I take it, then, that postmodernism’s pervasive attraction to questions and doubt, coupled with its pervasive suspicion of answers, certainty, and authority, is not a new development. It is but one more branch off the tree of modernity. There is nothing new under the sun.]

“The Jacobin could tell you not only the system he would rebel against, but (what was more important) the system he would not rebel against, the system he would trust. But the new rebel is a sceptic, and will not entirely trust anything. He has no loyalty; therefore he can never be really a revolutionist. And the fact that he doubts everything really gets in his way when he wants to denounce anything. For all denunciation implies a moral doctrine of some kind; and the modern revolutionist doubts not only the institution he denounces, but the doctrine by which he denounces it. Thus he writes one book complaining that imperial oppression insults the purity of women, and then he writes another book (about the sex problem) in which he insults it himself. . . . As a politician, he will cry out that war is a waste of life, and then, as a philosopher, that all life is a waste of time. A Russian pessimist will denounce a policeman for killing a peasant, and then prove by the highest philosophical principles that the peasant ought to have killed himself. A man denounces marriage as a lie, and then denounces aristocratic profligates for treating it as a lie. He calls a flag a bauble, and then blames the oppressors of Poland or Ireland because they take away that bauble. The man of this school goes first to a political meeting, where he complains that savages are treated as if they were beasts; then he takes his hat and umbrella and goes on to a scientific meeting, where he proves that they practically are beasts. In short, the modern revolutionist, being an infinite sceptic, is always engaged in undermining his own mines. In his book on politics he attacks men for trampling morality; in his book on ethics he attacks morality for trampling on men. Therefore the modern man in revolt has become practically useless for all purposes of revolt. By rebelling against everything he has lost his right to rebel against anything.”

Of course, I am not denying that there have been new developments in human thought since 1908. Since that time we have seen the rise of existentialism, philosophical “language games,” deconstruction, and a number of other things that I am not competent to mention or describe. But do these developments represent major steps into a new world of thought, or are they simply variations on the same theme that has been sounded since “Cogito, ergo sum”? Modern thought found its starting place in the thinking subject, man. That was its first mistake. Its second mistake was supposing that starting from the thinking subject, we could create a comprehensive map of universal truth, guided only by autonomous human reason. (By the way, this is why one cannot rightly categorize inerrancy as a distinctly modern doctrine; inerrancy is a theological truth derived from Scripture about Scripture that represents epistemological dependence on the authority of divine revelation, which is precisely what modern thinkers sought to overthrow. Inerrantists like Calvin built their epistemology not on the thinking subject but on divine revelation.)

Postmodern thought begins at the same place as modern thought: the thinking subject, man (or should I say, “person”)? The difference now is that the thinking subject recognizes that he/she is not omniscient and is, therefore, not objective. Autonomous human reason will not guide us to a comprehensive map of universal truth. All thinking takes place in, and is shaped by, a particular context. But having reached a dead end, postmodernism did not decide to turn around and try a different starting point. Instead, it said the dead end is all that there is (which is, ironically, a universal truth claim). Now, instead of grandiose claims about the power of human reason, we have relativism, which to my mind is simply another form of skepticisim. What Chesterton saw in his time has only intensified in ours.

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4 Responses to “Lessons in Epistemology from G.K. Chesterton”

  1. dritsema Says:

    I also am struck by how “postmodern” some people were 100+ years ago. I am in Washington DC this week and visited the Library of Congress. It was filled with the quotes of Jefferson and Franklin. Jefferson frequently made comments (as did Washington himself) to the effect that a good society is one that is always changing and that there is no need to hold on to the traditions of old. This was especially true for these pioneers of our country because they were leaving the “old world” literally to come to the new one. I wonder how much of postmodernism is isn’t simply the reflection of how much of a “new world” we really do have.

  2. Myles Says:

    is not relativism closer to the truth than enlightenment obejctivity? in the former, we recognize that our vision is not complete, and that there are limits to the things that we say which come in the shape of cultural conditions and unconcious thought patterns. recognizing these patterns, however, is not the same as throwing up one’s hands in despair and saying that nothing can be known or said. the skepticism of language games is a healthy one, for it acknowledges that things CAN be said, but the limits to which we understand them is not one which we establish, but which is a combination of our place and the place of the community in which the words are spoken.

    for example, the Romans accused the Christians of canibalism because of the talk about the body and blood of Jesus. To an outsider, it sounds that way, certainly. but for the Christian, to speak of the Lord’s Supper as the body and blood of Jesus is the only appropriate way; Zwinglian separation came later, but for the early Christians, misunderstanding of body/blood by their surrounding community was inevitable. In other words, simply because something is suited to a particular way of understanding does not make it a relative truth, only one which is subject to particular ways of thinking and speaking. I’d argue that the evangelical way of speaking of people as “saved” falls into this category, for this is a relatively new way of talking about the work of Christ and one which is often taken for granted in evangelical sub-circles.

  3. Anonymous Says:

    Best regards from NY! »

  4. ryan lynn Says:

    insightful– thank you!

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