Skip to main content

Philosophy, Creativity, and Tradition: an Interview with Lenn E. Goodman

Sarah Cunningham: How do you see the history of philosophy? It seems that history of philosophy is looked at a particular way in the United States. There is much discussion about philosophy's relation to its history and whether an act of interpretation is a determinant to the content of history.

Lenn Goodman: Well, you know how philosophers like to be. Philosophers like to set up two extremes and put themselves in the middle. But we look at the same questions in different ways. What one person considers the middle another might turn into an extreme. If you could paint the target around the arrow, you could always be sure of a bull's eye. I will attempt to define myself. There are people who do history of philosophy who are not, in spite of the presumptions they bring to their study, themselves philosophers. I think their work can be extremely valuable.

I think that there are good reasons for a philosopher to pursue the history of philosophy, but I do not think that study amounts to philosophy. I agree that we have to make a distinction between the historical studies and philosophical engagement itself. I think it is a very important distinction. The basic difference is whether one is speaking in propria persona, or not. What I have tried to do is a curious thing. It affects both my teaching and my research. I try to engage in a dialogue with the historical figures themselves and determine whether they were right or wrong. I try to use the rule of charity: thinking one's way into someone else's thought, understanding another person's problematic--what he takes for granted and what he regards as a difficulty--because, as Collingwood says, you cannot understand someone's answer unless you know what the question was.

When I do that, I find that whether I am doing historical work or critical philosophic work, the effect is the same: My historical work is much more engagé than that of a typical historian of ideas would be. But I reject the historicist assumption that ideas do not outlast thinkers. When I do philosophical work, it is much more historical than the work of most people. This has a big advantage for a philosopher. One is warned of some of the pitfalls, one knows where the bodies are buried, where the problems are coming from. I think that people who do not have that information are at risk of reinventing the wheel, stepping on land mines they do not know about, thinking that they are being original when they are merely uninformed, often being very superficial.

I had an experience when I gave a lecture once in the Southwest. They were very interested in AI (Artificial Intelligence) at the school where I was speaking, and I fell into a conversation with one of the cognitive science/AI people as I walked back to my hotel. He was telling me about his work on the psychology of belief, and I mentioned Spinoza's view that understanding entails commitment--a radical departure from the familiar approach that Descartes adopted from Augustine, and Augustine from Cicero and the Stoics, and that was carried forward by Frege, the view that sharply bifurcates understanding from commitment. This researcher said, "That is amazing. I never thought of anything like that. I will have to write a whole new section in my book." The philosophical work the man was doing was hampered by the limitations of the historically constituted tradition in which he was working. And the illusion of timelessness obscured the philosophical limitations of his view, because to him it looked as if he was simply doing straight philosophy, and the limitations of the tradition looked as if they were the limits of the range of logical possibility.

I could argue the same about the familiar contractarian position in political philosophy. My book On Justice develops a noncontractarian theory of justice. It is an ontological theory based on discovering value in beings, rather than simply having subjects invent value out of their own wishes and impose it on themselves and one another through their own conventions. The theory of deserts that I advocate in that book seems to me to avoid many of the problems of subjectivism and relativism that bedevil the more familiar accounts. It also avoids what I call the Skyhook problem and the exclusivity problem, that is, the difficulties faced by contractual accounts of obligation to the extent that they are suppositious and exclusivist.

Cunningham: What about interpretation?

Goodman: There are indeed problems of interpretation, particularly in terms of what is problematized. This is an area where historical perspectives can help. An example: In the Jewish and Islamic field, it has become a rather tiresome cliché to problematize revelation. Scholars project their own concerns about faith and reason onto discussions and debates that were framed in quite different terms. The effect can be to make all philosophers sound alike and to make them all sound suspiciously like oneself.

One's own interpretive biases can get in the way. We need to find out what we can learn from Avicenna, not what we can teach him. When I write about a figure like this, who lived half a world away and a thousand years ago, I am not trying to correct him but to learn from him.

Cunningham: But how can one avoid bringing oneself to the text?

Goodman: One cannot, and one should not. But one has to listen.

A philosopher will have original ideas and should not simply record what he or she reads but should profit--the ideas should profit from the reading we have done. Good philosophers always profit this way, often in oblique and indirect ways.

Cunningham: What is the precise problem that you are responding to in your forthcoming book, God of Abraham?

Goodman: The essential problem the book is addressing is about the relationship between God and the good. Consider two extremes (now I will try to place myself in the middle between them): One where we imagine that we invent values for ourselves, out of the whole cloth, as if we were morally omnipotent beings, and the other would be a highly hierarchical, top down view, where God or nature or the law or something else compels us, where right is right because God, say, all things made it that way. God of Abraham is arguing that neither of these two extremes is right, that we have some independent access, some insight into values, objectively, and that this can inform our idea of God, and that the idea of God itself can respond and help to inform our values, so that there is a dialogue between natural theology on the one hand and natural law on the other. I see this dialectic as a kind of chimneying between two traditions and two modes of discourse, in which one helps to inform, critique, and enlarge the other.

Cunningham: What is the distinctively human side in the idea of value, that is to say, how does the good come from some human element rather than being wholly derived from an idea of God?

Goodman: If it is going to have value for us, it would have to have a human base. We are human and that is how we see and understand things. But that does not mean that our judgments have to be biased or built simply on a parti pris. As Kant said, all people can distinguish what is merely self-serving from what is generous, noble, or unselfish.

And this is not confined to the areas of our interest. Take a flower. Enjoying its structure, recognizing the wisdom manifested in it, those are values we can recognize, identify, quite apart from any questions about usefulness to us.

Value is located in reality, in being in general and at large. But there is also value in us, that is, in the human person. One of the ways in which theology can help our moral discourse is that it can help us toward a more universal perspective, both with regard to reality at large--nature, the cosmos, the environment--and with regard to human needs and interests not directly connected to our own. We get values from God that inform and enlarge our own perspectives. There is a wonderful gloss in Maimonides of the idea that God created all things for His glory (Proverbs 16:4). Maimonides shows that this must be understood to mean that God created each thing for its own sake. From the perspective of God, each thing has a "sake" of its own, its own project or conatus, to use Spinoza's term, its own interests and deserts. One of the things that we can get when we try to take a God's eye view of things is a perspective that takes us outside our own pragmatic interests and puts us into a more universal framework, morally, aesthetically, and spiritually.

There are a lot of problems that are subordinate to the big question of God of Abraham, the problem about values and the divine. To name just one that arises early on in the book, I think a lot of people are gun-shy of any kind of discourse having to do with God--especially, of moral, social, or political discourse. And I think people are right to worry about that, because a lot of folks use the idea of God as a basis for arbitrary authority.

But the difficulty, it seems to me, often stems from thoughtless appeals to the rather ill thought-out ideas of God, and the gun-shy critics of those appeals often uncritically absorb the same ill-digested notions of the divine from their adversaries. Monotheists understand God as a being of absolute perfection. That means that arbitrary favor and arbitrary authority have no proper place in the monotheist idea of God, and the projections of human weakness, anxiety, anger, selfishness, chauvinism, and arrogance that so often link themselves to the idea of God are completely inappropriate. I see a lot of wisdom in what Lincoln said when he was asked, during the Civil War, if he thought God was on "our side," and answered that he only hoped that "we are on God's side."

Just as we have ways of rising above our particularity morally, we have ways of hearing our God talk and of making our thinking about God morally relevant. I love the way the Ten Commandments are structured for this reason. The Decalogue starts out with God saying what He is, demanding the recognition of perfection and only then tells the people how this apprehension applies to them in their daily lives. Here we can see a powerful conception of the relations between reality and values. For not only do the deserts of beings make their claims on our acts and conscience, but Perfection itself calls on us to pursue what is good in ourselves. It evokes a kind of aspiration toward perfection, as specifically realizable in terms of our own natures and capabilities. Poetically this invitation to emulation of the divine is expressed as a command. In its most general terms that is a command to pursue what is perfection for us. We are not commanded to emulate God's impersonality, but God's goodness. And we do so, as God of Abraham explains at some length, by understanding holiness humanly in terms of goodness--and by acting on, or rather, living by, that understanding.

One of the points I try to make in God of Abraham, and I make it in historical terms, is that it is a revolutionary change first to conceive holiness exclusively in terms of goodness. One might think of holiness in terms of all sorts of values--perhaps privileging the most vivid, extreme, most emotionally compelling values. Pagan religiosity often works this way, because pagan religiosity is based on locating the sacred where one finds it. If one finds it emotively, one responds to it emotively, one defines it emotively. The sacred becomes the Tremendum, because the divine is discovered in the frisson of terror. That kind of approach to our spiritual lives becomes an idolatry in a very basic sense--a kind of idolatry, I think, that we cannot regard as a thing of the past. I am very concerned with that whole thematic, the purification of the idea of God, because morals will not have a proper dialogue with religious discourse unless we are able to maintain a steady gaze on the conceptual clarity that shows us the identity of the holy with the good.

Cunningham: What criteria establish or maintain that kind of conceptual clarity?

Goodman: Among others, moral, aesthetic and intellectual ones. That is why I speak of a kind of chimneying. I do not think this kind of interplay involves circularity because I do think that we have both moral values and spiritual values without absolute dependence of one on the other. But one mode of discourse or area of insight can help keep us honest in another.

Cunningham: That sounds a bit like Aristotelian virtue.

Goodman: I think there is Aristotle in my thinking, and in this book--as well as some Talmud and other texts. I try to learn from these traditions but what I am looking for is critical appropriation. Where I am doing critical thinking most essentially I am also listening the hardest I can--that, in a way is how I am standing with my face to the wind: I do not think that religiosity is inconsistent with critical thinking, that when you are anchored into a religious mode you have given up your moral autonomy or your mind.

This thought itself goes back to a biblical idea, to one of the passages from the Bible: What do you do about false prophets? How do you tell who really is a false prophet? The ultimate test is that the false prophet is the one who urges people to immoral things. Here is someone who says, "God told me to tell you that you can do X." It does not matter that he said that God said it, we know that is not God and we know that is a false prophet. This means that we have got to find some moral and intellectual bottom in ourselves. It is not enough just to talk about respecting "authority." The question remains, whose authority, and how is it authenticated. Ultimately, we must judge, and we must use our reason and our conscience to inform our judgment--even though they in turn could use some informing.

Cunningham: It sounds as though you are calling religion to task for not being philosophical enough and philosophy for not being religious enough.

Goodman: Some people who are committed to religion are vulnerable to defacing and falsifying the religious tradition to which they are committed. Some who are philosophical are not open-minded enough to see how religion can contribute to comprehending the foundations of value, ontologically and aesthetically, not just ethically and politically. I cannot say that I am critiquing religion at large or philosophy at large. I am saying that religion that is philosophical escapes incoherence, and that philosophy is fuller and more critical when it is open to insights from the religious traditions. When it is not, it often becomes sterile, devoid of values. You can see that in some of the analytic philosophers, and in others too, when philosophy is reduced to discourse about discourse--and a certain prephilosophical anger or alienation peeps through that remains inaccessible to philosophical reflection itself.

Cunningham: Should we read God of Abraham with an eye to participation in a dialogue, as part of an intellectual community, chimneying between human and divine to a point in which one can understand what value might mean? As I see it, the problem is the crisis of value. Has not value been separated into two camps that speak different languages?

Goodman: I think they can help each other. For example, I am trying to say that facticity is one thing, value another. Value is in reality; you can find it nowhere else. But it is not in sheer facticity. So we do not have a problem about whether value is a natural or non-natural property. It is not a property at all. This is an insight rooted in a religious way of looking at the world. But it does not depend on revelation for its truth, and it both benefits from philosophy and can be beneficial to it.

It is true there is a crisis. I was thinking about the way some religious people have responded to that, in terms of what they think and do about our moral crisis in particular. Many people have retreated into a fundamentalism or into what I describe as a form of religious legal positivism--in what Erich Fromm called an "escape from freedom," and perhaps a search for community and authenticity.

Cunningham: Do you mean ritualism?

Goodman: I have a long chapter on ritual. I wanted to show how there can be value in ritual, and legitimate norms about it. What I want to say is that if you define ritual as I do--as a kind of symbolic activity that addresses value and expresses attitudes toward values in the very manner and modalities of its performance--then we can see why such activities are of great importance in the world's cultures. Humanity needs to express attitudes toward the values intended in our actions, and our cultures define themselves by what they take to be appropriate and inappropriate rituals.

Cunningham: This means that value is concealed within, as in myths.

Goodman: I think that is right. One of the things that I think is very interesting is Levi-Strauss's point, that the same myths often shift in meaning. The same is true with rituals. Customs are often more stable than the meanings assigned to them. To give just one example, the Hebrew agrarian calendar is overlaid with celebrations of sacred history, the act of creation, and the experience of revelation. Meanings are not obliterated but developed, layer upon layer. You can see here the resourcefulness of culture, human responsiveness to the very sorts of problems that culture is good at and knows how to address.

Cunningham: Is not that resourcefulness dangerous? Incorporating something that is ultimately improper as proper?

Goodman: That is why critical appropriation remains the only appropriate response.

Cunningham: Are you suggesting that monotheism and ethics are inseparable from philosophy?

Goodman: Yes. I do not think they are coextensive by any means, but we cannot engage in either alone without impoverishing both.

Cunningham: At the same time, we must be aware of limits of our thoughts.

Goodman: I call that humility.

Cunningham: How do you understand the limits of critical thinking? Are you saying there is an instinct for the good?

Goodman: One should not confuse open-mindedness with critical thinking. Resoluteness is a very important virtue. It can be perverted if it is the only virtue. And the same is true of skepticism. You have got to choose your models carefully. Knowing that one is morally fallible is not the same as believing that there is no moral truth to be known. I think people often confuse tolerance with skepticism and pluralism with relativism. It is fashionable to put hesitation in our voices and to try to sound self-effacing. But I often find that a little false.

I think pluralism does its job when it puts us in touch with a tradition and with multiple traditions, because these allow us to triangulate and come closer to critical thinking in philosophy. This works because different thinkers in different cultures and epochs are not facing identical challenges and not simply enunciating identical themes. Objectifying is just as important in philosophy as it is in clinical psychology. We all need a reality check, and not least when we are trying to work at the limits of human understanding. The way to do that is through some kind of inter-subjectivity. That is what prevents reason from self-stultifying and allows it the richness of content that it needs to do its work. All of which amounts to saying that to be fully human we need to be in touch with one another and in touch with our past.