Keith Ward on Materialism

Introduction: Philosophy by Commentary

The reader might wonder why I have not presented the straightforward philosophical case for idealism and personalism or the various positions involved in them, with reference to the discussion of those positions in current philosophy. In the discussions of my work in the history of philosophy, some of which are available in print, as well as in some of my other publications, I have already to some extent had to assume the role of philosopher in the academic world. Moreover, I have started to make in greater detail the case for Value-Centered Historicism, or a modified version of it that is congruent precisely with idealism and personalism as I understand them, through my discussion of Folke Leander’s and Claes Ryn’s work.

The main reason why I have not directly presented the basic case for idealism and personalism is simply that I find that others make that case and/or defend the general positions which they imply or build on in a way I find perfectly satisfactory. I have thought it sufficient to refer the reader to their work. They provide excellent introductions to and summaries of many of the central arguments and positions on which idealistic personalism depends, and I often have very little to add to their formulations of them. They are in many cases, as far as they go, definitive statements, in the sense in which that term is admissible in philosophy.

Philosophy is a collaborative enterprise, as Roger Scruton emphasizes, and there is naturally a considerable element of division of labour although idealists will certainly wish to avoid narrow specialization of the modern kind, which occludes the central, common insights and makes the goal of wisdom unattainable. It should be perfectly sufficient to refer to the work of others and to make it clear that one endorses and shares their conclusions. In my writing, I try primarily to do things that others have not done. Not because of any need to be original, but simply because I find these are things that really do need to be done. Also because I am in some respects and a certain sense a traditionalist, I do not find originality to be called for with regard to the formulation of those basic philosophical positions. Many people, needless to say, speak although they have nothing to say. That is wrong. Basically, they should just shut up, sit down, and read the classics.

But what I do find it meaningful to say presupposes acceptance of the work done or the conclusions reached by others and relies on and is part of a whole consisting also of the various positions which they have satisfactorily formulated and defended. And this it is important to say. And I realize that it is perhaps not enough simply to ask the reader to go to the work of the philosophers referred to. It should probably be made more clear and explicit here that their positions are also mine, that I share and support their conclusions, that the what they defend is basic and central for the things I write here and elsewhere. And it might be a good idea to explain more precisely how the things I do here and in my other publications are related to those other things.

But I hesitate to simply restate what they say in my own words. Instead, I have an idea of what might be a viable and properly unpretentious alternative. Philosophy has always to a considerable extent been commentary on the work of others, continuous commentary on classic texts has been a kind of method. This is most markedly prominent perhaps in the broader world of thought in the Vedic tradition (in the broad sense), which is of course in important respects situated outside the constitutive institutional framework of Western philosophy with its distinctive characteristics. But it is present also in Western philosophy, for instance in scholasticism.

And even modern philosophers are sometimes inclined towards it. This would seem to be especially natural in the case of idealists, who are normally more aware of the history of philosophy and, above all, must almost inevitably conceive of Western philosophy as a continuous tradition and sometimes even a whole of intrinsically and dialectically related historical positions. The method of commentary is, in short, suitable when Western philosophy properly understands that it is truly all footnotes to Plato.

The alternative to simply restating what others have done so well might be to adopt this traditionalist method and set forth the arguments and positions not only in the form of general discussion of the work of those others, but more strictly and formally as commentary on selected passages from their work. In truly traditionalist traditions, as it were, it is not just the oldest, classic works that are continuously commented on, but also later commentaries on those works. And since what my readers might perhaps legitimately ask is that I present my case for idealism and personalism in terms of contemporary philosophy and not just in the form of discussions of the history of philosophy, it is probably the recent works among my references that should be focused on for this purpose.

Keith Ward was my main D.Phil. supervisor and I have fond memories of my discussions with him, mainly in Christ Church’s Tom Quad where he lived. He is not just a respected philosopher, a leading representative of comparative theology, and centrally involved in polemical discussion with, for instance, Richard Dawkins, but he is also, and more importantly for my present purposes, a philosopher with whose formulation of at least some of the central philosophical positions I agree almost completely. Although his method of argument is not the one we find in idealists in the nineteenth-century tradition, his conclusions are, on the whole and in substance, both idealistic in the broader sense and personalistic.

I am therefore considering stating or representing here positions basic to the idealistic and personalistic worldview by presenting merely one of his summaries of some arguments against materialism, and one which should be easily accessible to philosophically interested general readers (more so, I think, than my own writing), namely the final chapter of his book The God Conclusion, published in 2009 and thus one of his most recent. I plan to select passages from this chapter, and to add to them my own comments.

It might be argued that it would be better to focus on the positive case for idealism, personalism and theism in some other book by Ward, like, for instance, Why There Almost Certainly Is a God: Doubting Dawkins (2008), or some of his major synoptic works in comparative philosophy and theology, than on the case against materialism. But philosophical arguments are traditionally often set forth in the form of refutations of other philosophical positions, and the negative case against materialism must to some extent be included in the positive case for idealism and personalism. And since one must start somewhere, I find it reasonable to begin with that part.

Further, I prefer to choose a chapter in this book, since, as its subtitle makes clear, it deals somewhat more specifically with God in the Western philosophical tradition and this is what the present case should do also, not with elements of Christian or other religion or indeed other traditions of thought that go beyond it. Ward has dealt with Western philosophy in much greater detail in far more extensive works, but they are less relevant for my present pedagogical purpose; the selected new book provides a convenient introduction and overview.     

Of course, making the case in Ward’s terms is not wholly congenial to me. His latest book against Dawkins is called Why There Almost Certainly Is a God (2008). The debate about whether or not there is “a God” is, as Ward is himself aware, one which could in some respects appear slightly childish, pursued by materialists on the one hand and a certain kind of Biblical theists and ordinary believers on the other, both of whom are often unfamiliar with and alien to idealism in the full sense, to mysticism, to the esoteric tradition in its highest forms (which combine the insights of philosophy with tradition in the Guénonian and Coomaraswamian sense), and to Vedanta and partly similar traditions in the East. God is not “a God”.

In fact, I do not normally speak of the God conclusion at all. God is not for me a conclusion. Indeed, God is not even a postulate for me. What I say about God and spirituality is for the most part traditionalistically declaratory and thus beyond philosophy in the sense of the specifially Western discipline. There is what is. And this certainly is. We live right in the middle of it, we are part of it. When we awaken to its real nature and go deep into it, we discover and experience that it is ultimately divine. And this is not simple pantheism, there are essential distinctions, and the divine is both immanent and transcendent. It is only possible to question this that is when you do not experience it as it is.

But in Why There Almost Certainly Is a God and similar books, Ward writes primarily for readers who are used to a debate configured by the horizons of materialists and Biblical exotericists. This is not just a legitimate but an important and necessary task. It is what I feel I too am expected to do. But not being very experienced in doing it, I let Ward, with his acknowledged expertise in this field, do it for me.

I could have argued like Timothy Sprigge in The Vindication of Absolute Idealism, or let him argue for me (to some extent), for a more specifically idealist position and in the methodological terms of such idealism, but that would not have served the same purpose. Moreover, Sprigge does not bring out the personalist dimension of idealism.

After having commented on the last chapter in The God Conclusion, I could perhaps proceed to deal with other parts of this book, of the other mentioned books, or still more, similar books, in the same way, gradually covering more of the positive case. But by starting with Ward’s chapter, the reader will get an introduction to and an overview of how at least some of the most basic positions I try to defend and that are implicit in the philosophy primarily of idealism in general but also to some extent personalism (I could add more of the specific arguments for personalism later) are being discussed today on a general level by one prominent defender: the positions taken with regard to materialism and the contemporary discussion about it.

As I proceed through the case, the reader will be able to understand more easily why my writing on idaelism and personalism is not considered by me to be important for historical reasons only, but are also things of contemporary and indeed permanent relevance. If her interest grows, she can then go on to read the books I recommend, some of which contain more of the detailed and so-called “technical” arguments, including the distinctive kinds of arguments used by those who describe themselves as idealists and personalists in more specific senses than Ward.

In Oxford, I also discussed the soul, for instance, with the highly technical analytical theistic philosopher Richard Swinburne in his quarters in Oriel, and other issues on other occasions. I also discussed the phenomenon of idealism being defended by analytical philosophers with the likewise highly technical analytical idealist John Foster in Brasenose, who presented the case for idealism primarily by means of symbolic logic. There are many more such philosophers out there than the reading public thinks, disproportionately preoccupied as it seems to be with the polemics of people like Dawkins.

Of course, I have some objections to analytic philosophy even when it is used in the defence of theism or idealism, inasmuch as it almost inevitably misrepresents or ignores not only some of the specific kind of reasoning that is characteristic of idealism, but also some of its substance (which is not strictly separable from the reasoning). These weaknesses are glaring in a work like J. P. Moreland’s and William Lane Craig’s Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview.

Yet these philosophers still transcend analyticism as the complete programme it was in its early days, or what Nicholas Capaldi calls the Enlightenment project in analytic philosophy, and for this reason it is perfectly possible to draw on their work too and to coordinate it with the more specifically idealist arguments. The Enlightenment project in the broader analytic school, what Capaldi calls the analytic conversation, was a very specific, radical version of that project which has by now, as Capaldi shows, completely collapsed, although as Randall Auxier pointed out in his review in Humanitas, its many diehard adherents will not just never admit and accept that, but will hardly even notice the existence of Capaldi’s argument.

As has long been evident, it is possible to use the by now vast, technical, formal apparatus developed within the analytic tradition for purposes not just different from but opposite to the ones it was originally devised to serve. The analytic conversation has become broad and inclusive indeed. In this sense, it is misleading to continue to regard analytical philosophy as a school. Many of the important philosophers today seem to tend to transcend such limiting confines; while some may use elements from the analytic tradition, they also move freely into the intellectual territory of “continental” philosophy and not least into the past, the history of philosophy in general.

For now, my purpose is mainly a pedagogical one, to indicate in broad outline to the general reader the kind of philosophical reasoning that we find today about the kind of worldview I – imperfectly – try to defend. Again, for this purpose, Ward’s presentation of general philosophical arguments in the context of the kind of debate produced by the polemics of Dawkins (the title The God Conclusion is of course a response to Dawkins’s The God Delusion) and others like him (Ward has written many more such books), not the more specialized and technical works or, for that matter, Ward’s own major works in comparative theology, is, I think, a good point of departure.

It is fully admissible to use a presentation of the arguments which is simple in comparison to the detailed, “technical” works, since the latter are often necessary only for the deepened understanding of particular points and quite a few of the arguments, positions and truths of the positions I affirm are in fact in important respects, and in some cases essentially, simple in themselves. It is perfectly legitimate and entirely in accord with the elaborate, detailed and technical analyses to express them as such when possible. Indeed, expressing them as such, as Ward does in the book I will focus on, expressing their intrinsic simplicity, expressing this simplicity in a commensurate simple style, is an advanced art of philosophical writing, which is found in some of the greatest classics of this discipline and which is indeed a major part of what makes them classics.

Needless to say, Ward’s text is not of the same kind as the texts normally commented on in traditions where commentary is a central and dominant practice. In the Vedic tradition, the Sutras of Vedanta, for instance, are extremely short, but not at all simple and clear. They are compact and elliptic, and for this very reason they require commentary. The verses of the other categories of scriptures are of course quite different too. Even the commentaries on those kinds of texts are themselves a kind of text very different from Ward’s. The same is true with reference to other traditions.

But my purpose is different from the ones of those traditions. First of all, it is for me not the commentary itself that is most important. The traditionalist commentaries of the kind mentioned are commentaries on generally familiar texts, texts which all readers are supposed to know well, and it is what the commentator himself says about those texts that is the focus of interest. In my case, it is the text commented on, its making of the case, that is the main thing. I let the text make the case since I see no reason to do it in my own text, and use the latter merely for some clarifications and further distinctions and minor points, and in order to relate the case to the other themes of my own writing.

What I find useful and relevant is simply the method of commentary in itself, the method of commentary as exposition, which I will apply to a contemporary philosophical text for the different purpose which is exclusively didactic, exclusively a purpose of pedagogical communication, and which, above all, allows me primarily to use that text itself for this purpose.

I think the example of the mentioned traditions of commentary clearly reveals the superiority of this method of exposition. The classic text, or, in my case, the text that makes the case in a way that makes it superfluous for me to make it – is always brought along and kept foremost in the minds of the readers. Tradition is ever carried on, unbroken. It can be developed and modified, but not distorted by being lost from view. No monstrous new quantities of text reinventing the wheel are needed.

This is indeed more than a method of exposition. It is a method of thought itself. I am uncomfortable with the exaggerated stress on originality in the modern West. It is this evaluation that has produced the innumerable new, loose, seemingly independent treatises which by their very form and organization (or lack of it) tend to obscure or play down the philosophical tradition, and thus fail – except for the extraordinary reader, who will, however, have to add the mental exertion himself – appropriately to situate themselves in the larger universe of thought to which in reality they inevitably belong and which would inevitably reveal the degree of originality to be much lower than author and readers generally think.

This development, widely parodied in the nineteenth century and certainly also before that, has brought out, in the course of the progress of the Enlightenment and Romanticism, many of the less promising potentialities of philosophy as it existed already in antiquity, especially the conception of philosophy as in principle anti-traditional in a way which made difficult the transmission and gradual accumulation of acquired insight.

Contrary to this complex of phenomena, to which of course every writer to some extent has to conform under today’s conditions of publication, commentary enables me not only to signal my intended unoriginality with regard to the basic case for idealism and personalism, but also present that case in the traditionalist mode with all of its distinctive advantages.

Those advantages, among which are primarily the increased precision and general discipline, I find, interestingly, to have been unambiguously confirmed by many years’ experience of philosophical discussion in an advanced moderated philosophical discussion forum on the internet, where each post, except in the case where the post initiates a new discussion, contains citations from the ones responded to, followed by the inevitably comparatively disciplined and precise analyses, comments and criticisms of the cited text only.

Both there and here in the blog format, the latest technologies thus facilitate and indeed make possible and easily realizable the rediscovery, restoration and renewal of traditional methods which simply allow for a new degree of precision and, generally, a higher intellectual level. This consideration is, I think, a decisive one for the evaluation of the new genre or at least publication form that is the blog post, the potential of which I have sought to assess in a number or earlier articles.

Being different in purpose and substance, my commentary will also, however, be different from many traditionalist commentaries in form inasmuch as it will not display any remarkable compositional or stylistic qualities, being – as I now conceive it – quickly written merely to provide a certain requisite and heretofore missing completeness in my writing on certain subjects and themes. But this could change in the future.

The question may also be raised whether we will not be moving, with Ward, into theology rather than philosophy. Does not Ward defend general theism, not idealism and personalism? It is quite acceptable for me simply to answer no to the first question. But on the other hand, I would not object to moving into theology, if theology is understood precisely as Ward understands it. He rejects the view of theology as a confessional apologetic discipline, and regards it instead as “the systematic intellectual study of beliefs and practices concerning theos, God”, beliefs which “need not be those of any specific religious organisation.” In a sense, he says, he is equating theology and metaphysics defined as the study of “what, if anything, is ultimately real or of supreme transcendent value”: “Aristotle’s Metaphysics…could equally well have been called his Theology. It certainly contains important discussions of God and of the ultimate nature of things. It is not, of course, Christian, but Christian theology is only one sub-branch of general theology.” The common term philosophical theology is of course also adequate here.

Theologians normally hold – religious – beliefs about the ultimate reality, Ward admits (and here we immediately see, in his use of the term “belief”, some of the difference between his approach and that of the more complete idealist, as it were; I will have to return to that in a later article, but see also my article – in Swedish – entitled ‘Kognitivism, Realism, Idealism’). But this does not prevent their work from being “properly philosophical”. Many philosophers hold beliefs, Ward points out; they are even extremely dogmatic about them, and they use philosophy as apologetics in favour of them. Such dogmatism on the part of philosophers with non-religious beliefs may be less philosophical than rational metaphysics or philosophical theology which includes religious belief:

“It is quite possible for a metaphysical philosopher to decide that there are good reasons for believing that there is a God. In that case it will be reasonable to think that God may have revealed the divine nature and purpose, and not just left it to humans to discover such things (which are probably hidden in the recesses of the divine mind) for themselves. If one such revelation is judged to be authentic, it will be reasonable to incorporate its content into a general metaphysical system…The divine revelation will not contradict the metaphysics, presumably, but it may fulfil it and modify it in some respects. In that case, a metaphysician may turn into a systematic theologian, by incorporating into the metaphysical system some data obtained from revelation…This exactly captures the position of philosophers like Thomas Aquinas, who took the philosophy of Aristotle and modified it in accordance with Christian revelation to form what they believed to be a more adequate philosophical view.”

I cite this (from an earlier chapter of The God Conclusion) to show what, in my view too, theology is, and why the possible move into it is not problematic. Theology is, in Ward’s definition as well as historically in the case of Christian theology, not opposed to philosophy, but rather a certain use of philosophy; it is certainly not the same as Church dogmatics. I have already discussed this in some of my texts on the history of philosophy (in Swedish).

Neither is the suspected defence of theism rather than idealism and personalism in the case of Ward problematic, and for the same reasons. I certainly also defend idealism and personalism in terms of theism, defined in a certain way of course. But in fact Ward does not just speak about theism, but also, and in contradistinction to Swinburne, Moreland and similar analytical theists, often explicitly in terms precisely of idealism and personalism.

2 Responses to “Keith Ward on Materialism”


  1. 1 John Anngeister December 4, 2011 at 6:57 am

    Thanks for offering this in English.

    Did Keith Ward have an appreciation for Pringle-Pattison and his generation? I love those guys. PP (as Andrew Seth) was I think the first to expose the inadequacy of Hegelianism to deal with concepts of personality in full. (Hegelianism and Personality, 1887). Back when Hegel was pretty thick in England.

    • 2 Jan Olof Bengtsson May 14, 2012 at 12:34 pm

      I hope he did begin to develop such an appreciation after we worked together. At least he did seem to begin to speak more about himself as a personalist. But there may also have been other reasons for this. For instance, about the same time I think he developed a more diversified understanding of the tradition of Vedanta, which included the schools that are in some metaphysical respects closer to personal idealism than to impersonal or so-called “absolute idealism” (I object to the term, or the terminological opposition, since it seems to imply that personal idealism rejects the concept of the absolute). As you may have seen, I deal extensively with Pringle-Pattison in my book. He was certainly not the first to expose the inadequacy of Hegelianism in this respect. I discuss several earlier thinkers who did so. But he was the first to do it to the same extent and with the same degree of precision in Britain. Both Hegelianism and the personalist or personal idealist response to it came comparatively late to Britain.


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