Tag Archives: Stephen Mulhall

Stephen Mulhall on Culture

readers of [Alasdair] MacIntyre and (to a lesser extent) [Charles] Taylor do not, I hazard to suggest, encounter hiddenness, surprise and opacity in the way that readers of Dostoevsky do. The narratives in which both authors cast their accounts of Western culture inexorably tend towards a certain kind of smoothness and closure, as if every step in the narrative is entirely transparent to rational assessment, and that same assessment might unproblematically identify steps that will inexorably lead to the realization of our ideals. Both recognize the contingency of significant moments of cultural transition, but they do not register any sense that the advent of modernity introduced elements of individual and collective self-understanding that were both valuable and genuinely other to the religious traditions to which they were opposed. Either those elements contribute only to our decline (as in MacIntyre), or they constitute weaker inflections or variations of basically Christian self-understanding (as in Taylor). Even if one agrees that these critical transitions depended upon misunderstanding and misrecognition of Christianity, they show little sign of asking what those misrecognitions might tell them about unexplored or alien aspects of their own traditions. Likewise, their readers gain little sense of their secular others as presenting any serious resistance to their capacity to understand them; the conceptual resources of the secular age may be complex and sophisticated, but rarely if ever do they seem positively to push back against the conceptual resources of those who aim to narrate them. In short, there is a certain lack of what [Rowan] Williams would call self-interrogation. MacIntyre and Taylor both seem to think and write as if there is a specifically Christian narrative to be developed and evaluated, one which operates as a counter to secular master-narratives and hence operates on all fours with them. Whereas Williams’ Dostoevskyan picture is that there is not so much a specifically Christian narrative of culture or self, but rather a specifically Christian attitude to the narrativity of culture and self – an attitude which does not put its faith in one story amongst those between which cultures and individuals choose but rather in the continuation of the narrative processes through which such choices are made, contested, misunderstood, marred and remade. A distinctly Christian faith is in the unending availability of the possibility of narrative unfolding, not in the absolute rectitude of any particular unfolding of it. And even if in the end neither Taylor nor MacIntyre would want to deny that, then they need to find ways in which the forms of their writing might achieve a more thoroughgoing acknowledgement of the sheer riskiness of human dialogue in time and history.

from “Theology and Narrative: the Self, the Novel, the Bible,” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, vol 69, no 1, (2011): 38-39.

Notice: Mulhall’s Stanton Lectures

Today Stephen Mulhall is delivering the first of this year’s series of Stanton Lectures, hosted by the University of Cambridge.

The series is entitled:

The Great Riddle: Wittgenstein and Nonsense, Theology and Philosophy. 

And the schedule runs as follows:

  • 20 January: Nonsense and Theology: Exhausting the Options?
  • 27 January: The Flounder and the Fisherman’s Wife: Tractarian Ethics, the Mystical and the Religious
  • 3 February: Grammatical Thomism: Five Ways of Refusing to Make Sense
  • 17 February: Analogical Uses and the Projectiveness of Words: Wittgenstein’s Vision of Language
  • 24 February: Perfections and Transcendentals: Wittgenstein’s Vision of Philosophy
  • 3 March: Authority and Revelation: Philosophy and Theology

The lectures are available for listening/downloading HERE!

DZ Phillips on religion and culture

There is no necessity about the continued existence of Christianity. […] What if someone suggested that Sarah, Abraham’s wife, longed for the liberation of women in the sense in which this is widely sought in America today? The answer, of course, is that it is meaningless to attribute such longing to Sarah. It is meaningless because such ideas were not part of her world. But what if someone wanted to argue that the longing was something independent of all this, something internal in Sarah’s heart? Would not the answer be that the possibility of a secret thought, even in the depths of the heart, depends on the limits of intelligibility within the culture. The limits of intelligibility determine possibilities of speech and thought. This is as true of secret thoughts as of public utterances. So you could not have a longing to be king in a culture where the notion of kingship has no meaning, and no knowledge exists of what it is to be a king in another culture. In the same way, Sarah cannot long for that which has no meaning for Sarah. This is not to argue against new developments or radical changes. Such developments and changes cannot be understood in vacuo, but must be seen against the background or in the context of the events in relation to which they occur. For these reasons, we cannot argue that Christianity has a hiding place in man’s heart, since if the culture declines, in time there will also be a decline in the thoughts of men’s hearts. […]

‘How can we make sure that religion has a future?’ It seems to many philosophers [mistakenly] that these questions can only be answered if one can show that religious belief is more worthwhile or more rational than any alternative in terms of some common measure of worthwhileness or rationality. […]

When believers see religious belief declining it is natural that they should long for some kind of reawakening. There is nothing misplaced in such a desire. What is misplaced is the thought that such an awakening could be made a matter of policy by the Church. If such policy were possible, no doubt there could be discussions within the Church about the cultural forms which ought to be adopted in face of contemporary crises. But such discussions would harbor deep confusions.

What is the source of the confusion? Does it not consist partly in this: if there is a relation between religion and culture, and if the religious element expresses what is spiritual, it is important to realize that the religious element is a contribution to the culture and not simply a reflection of it. For example, Michelangelo’s work does not reflect or illustrate religious ideas, but contributes towards such ideas. Similarly, Beethoven could not have given us the last movement of the Ninth Symphony unless there were conceptions of joy in human life. But Beethoven does not reflect those ideas; he contributes to them by extending them. To see how he does this we would have to speak about the last movement of the Ninth. What is deep in a culture did not come about as a matter of policy. Shakespeare, Beethoven and Tolstoy did not give us their work in order that we might have something excellent in culture. No, they gave us what they had to give and we found it was excellent. Perhaps the point can be clarified as follows: some time ago British universities were asked whether they wanted to be centers of excellence, as if that question made sense. Never had such unanimity been known in the academic senates of the land! Traditional enmities and oppositions were united as members indicated, solemnly, with raised hands, that they wanted to be a centre of excellence. A university, however, does not become a centre of excellence by trying to be one. On the contrary, we are fortunate if scholars give themselves to their subjects as best they can. The results may or may not be excellent.

Religious apologists have much to learn from these conceptual truths. The Church cannot speak to the culture in which it is placed by making this a matter of policy. No, it speaks and perhaps the consequences will be good. The Church cannot decide to speak with authority in the culture. It speaks and perhaps its authority will be authoritative. Jesus spoke as one having authority, not as one who decided to speak with authority. This is simply one instance of a wider truth. A movement, and a religious movement is no exception, flourishes when people are engaged in its particular concerns, not when they are preoccupied with its maintenance. […]

If one were looking for the authoritative voice of the Church in our day, that voice would have to take a spiritual form; that is, and this is a matter of logic not of apologetics, the mode of the message must be as spiritual as its content. If an authoritative voice is heard it may be the voice of a new prophet, or perhaps something will be shown authoritatively through events which may befall the culture.

from Belief, Change and Forms of Life, (1986), 85-86, 94-97.

P.S. from Stephen Mulhall on a lesson to be learned from Kierkegaard

The form in which we communicate the Christian truth must also reflect the fact that its demands will seem to the unconverted to amount to self-destruction, to the denial of everything their nature requires and the death of what they take themselves to be.

from Faith & Reason, (Duckworth, 1994)


Stephen Mulhall introduces Wittgenstein (Part I)

If you’ve got twenty minutes, you can catch the first half of a presentation Stephen Mulhall has given introducing the philosophy of Wittgenstein. It’s a contribution to St John’s Video Timeline Project. Mulhall’s a leading interpreter. (He’ll also be giving Cambridge’s Stanton lectures next year, which will commence on 20 Jan 2014, and will no doubt prove rewarding.)

Stephen Mulhall on Wittgenstein’s Method

“What does Wittgenstein take to be distinctive of a philosophical interest in things? What is the typical character of a philosophical question or problem? According to the discussion of philosophical method in sections 89–133 of the Investigations, a philosopher is interested in the essence of things; she is driven by an urge to comprehend not the facts of nature but rather the basis or essence of everything empirical – the space of possibilities within which what happens to be the case locates itself. A philosophical question is thus one to which the acquisition of further empirical knowledge is irrelevant: the philosopher does not seek new knowledge in order to alleviate ignorance; she seeks understanding in order to relieve a sense of confusion about what she already knows. And whereas traditional philosophers tend to conceive of the essence of things as hidden from view, hence as having to be revealed, say by penetrating the veil of mere appearance, Wittgenstein suggests instead that essence finds expression in grammar – in the kinds of statement that we make about the relevant phenomenon. In short, our philosophical inquiries into essence can and must take the form of grammatical investigations; the essence of things can be rendered surveyable simply by a rearrangement of what any speaker always already knows – how to use words, what to say when.”

“Wittgenstein’s view seems to be that the kinds of statement that we make about a phenomenon, and the kinds of statement that we do not make, make manifest the kind of phenomenon it is; if we clarify the criteria we employ for counting something as a phenomenon of the relevant kind, we thereby clarify that without which such a phenomenon would not be the kind of thing it is. What we judge that it does (not) make sense to say about something makes manifest its essential possibilities, the kinds of features it must possess if it is to count as the kind of thing it is, as well as those features it may possess (and the kinds of variation of feature to which it might intelligibly be subject) without ceasing to count as that kind of thing. To know this is, in effect, to grasp our concept of that thing; and what more might there be to knowing the essence of a thing than that?”

from “Wittgenstein on Religious Belief,” The Oxford Handbook to Wittgenstein, Eds. Oskari Kuusela and Marie McGinn, (OUP, 2011), 757-8.