Sunday, March 18, 2007

Doubt, Ignorance, and Faith

"My friend Kant needs the observations and calculations of the latest astronomers to give himself an idea of the abyss of human ignorance. The proof for this ought not to be fetched from such a distance; it lies far nearer to us." -- Johann Hamann, Letter of 4 May 1788
The concept of doubt figures prominently in the rhetoric of scientific atheists like Dennett and Dawkins, who frequently assert that scientists are comfortable with doubt, even welcoming of it, whereas religious people seek to banish all doubt through crass fideism. In this simplistic story, scientists are portrayed as humble and open-minded seekers of truth, constantly doubting their conclusions and open to any piece of contradictory evidence, while the faithful cling to their superstitious dogmas. Needless to say, philosophers of science have long since discredited this naive picture by pointing out that scientists are not so open-minded, even when they're practicing science (not to mention when they're pontificating about philosophical or theological matters). Thomas Kuhn, for instance, showed that scientists under normal circumstances strive to make their data conform to agreed-upon paradigms. They cling to these paradigms quite tenaciously, even when evidence mounts against them, and the scientific community will only switch paradigms as a last resort. The notion of a completely neutral and objective perspective from which to discern all truth - so crucial to the Enlightenment project - has been shown to be something of a myth, even in the so-called "hard sciences".

Regardless, my point here is not to dispute the importance of doubt in the scientific method, but to probe the nature of this doubt in more detail. After all, religious faith has its own form of doubt. So what is the difference between these two types of doubt? Scientific atheists would claim that they are essentially the same, as least at the beginning; that is, both doubts concern the truth of specific propositions. The only difference, then, is that scientists go on to examine the validity of these "doubtful" propositions with experimental methods, while believers simply accept them on blind faith. Viewed this way, doubt can only be the enemy of faith. But Christian theology has often regarded doubt in a positive light, seeing it as precursor or element of faith itself. So clearly the atheist notion of doubt is oversimplified, but in what way?

Johann Hamann offers an answer to this question in his Socratic Memorabilia of 1759. This little essay was written after two of Hamann's friends, including a young Immanuel Kant, staged an intervention to bring him back to Enlightenment orthodoxy (Hamann had experienced a dramatic conversion to Christianity a few years earlier). In his response, Hamann invokes the character of Socrates, who was highly regarded by the rationalists of his day. The central issue in the Socratic Memorabilia is the famed ignorance of Socrates, that is, the philosopher's confession that "I know that I know nothing." In this Socratic ignorance, the rationalists thought they detected an early form of scientific doubt - a willingness to challenge all the received truths of tradition and religion. This is the ignorance that clears the way for Reason. But for Hamann, such ignorance is merely that of sophists and skeptics, not Socratic ignorance at all:
"The ignorance of Socrates was a feeling. But there is a greater difference between a feeling and a proposition, then between a living animal and its anatomical skeleton. The old and new skeptics betray themselves by their voice and ears, no matter how they may wrap themselves in the lion-skin of Socratic ignorance. If they know nothing, does the world need a learned demonstration of it? Their deception and hypocrisy are ridiculous and shameless. Anyone who needs so much sagacity and eloquence to convince himself of his own ignorance must harbor in his heart a strong repugnance for the truth of ignorance."
Here, Hamann is pointing out that the rationalist form of ignorance is merely a preliminary stage, something to be overcome by the scientific method. For a scientist to doubt something he must first be shown why he should doubt it; he demands hard proof of his ignorance (hence Kant's interest in the astronomical findings). But the standard for evaluating this doubt is that of human reason itself, which is never doubted in the least. Thus, the ignorance of the scientist is only skin-deep, masking a much deeper certainty. In contrast, the ignorance of Socrates was a feeling, a sensibility, an existential state that went to the core of his self-knowledge. He was not skeptical - doubting this or that - he was ignorant from beginning to end. Hamann draws a parallel between this profound Socratic ignorance and Pauline theology:
"For the testimony which Socrates gave of his ignorance, therefore, I know no more honorable seal and at the same time no better key than the oracle of the great teacher of the Gentiles: 'If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if one loves God, one is known by him' (1 Cor. 8) - just as Socrates was known by Apollo to be a wise man. But how the grain of all our natural wisdom must decay, must perish in ignorance, and how the life and being of a higher knowledge must spring newly created from this death, from this nothing - as far as this the nose of a Sophist does not reach."
Socratic doubt, as understood by Hamann, is the beginning of faith; it's a form of repentance and confession before the Almighty. And it's far more radical than any rationalist conception of doubt, which confines itself only to penultimate matters and never creeps into the depths of the soul. The scientist (as scientist) may be skeptical, he may be curious, but he can never really doubt. That is reserved for those who know only as they are known, in faith.


教育 said...
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AmandaLaine said...

Your post was quite helpful to me. Thanks for posting it! It was well written and enjoyable. I have personally been wading the waters of faith and reason and the general search for "knowledge" - it's not very enjoyable. Your post reminds me of a quote from Pascal: "The supreme function of reason is to show that some things are beyond reason."

"Socratic doubt, as understood by Hamann, is the beginning of faith" Great stuff. Thank you again.

Gerald said...


Thanks much--especially for the following:

"Socratic doubt, as understood by Hamann, is the beginning of faith; it's a form of repentance and confession before the Almighty."

CPA said...

Great stuff. How did you access this Socratic Memorabilia? Has it been translated (I presume the original is in German)? Is it in print?

Thomas Adams said...

I'm glad that you all enjoyed the post. Unfortunately, Socratic Memorabilia is the only work of Hamann's that has been translated into English in its entirety. The translation, with much-needed commentary, was published in 1967 by James O’Flaherty. It’s currently out of print, but should be available from most academic libraries. Also, Ronald G. Smith published a book (again, out of print) entitled J. G. Hamann, 1730-1788; a study in Christian existence, that contains excerpts of many of Hamann’s important writings. Finally, two other books are excellent guides to Hamann’s thought: W. Leibrecht’s God and man in the thought of Hamann (1966), and W.M. Alexander’s Johann Georg Hamann: philosophy and faith (1966). These are also out of print, but I found them in my university library.

Hamann’s greatness has always been acknowledged in Germany (Kierkegaard was also an admirer), but it’s only in the 20th century that he has received any attention in the English-speaking world, and even that has been minimal. This can be explained by the obscurity and density of his style, which basically requires that he be read with commentaries and secondary sources. But reading Hamann is well worth the work because he was such a unique and brilliant thinker.

By the way, First Things has two good articles related to Hamann. The first was written by David Hart and appears in the Jan 2005 issue. The second is by Peter J. Leithart and appears in the Feb 2003 issue.

Anonymous said...

Thomas Adams: I am tremendously interested in Hamann and with the other things that presented in this blog. I fired off a couple of posts on your confessions posts. Will you send me an email? My address is On Hamann, you can find a couple great articles, which you are probably already aware of. Balthasar has one in his book on Christian Aestetics--title is something about glory. Pro Ecclesia has an article in it by John Betz a couple years ago on Hamann that is outstanding. It is on the "London writings." In the same issue there is also a great article on the differences between Luther and Calvin on "Faith alone." Thanks again for your blog.

Mike Holmen

Anonymous said...

Nice post. From what i have understood Socratic ignorance is a movement of passion and not just something indifferent, or a play of words.