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Ludwig Wittgenstein & Postmodern Biblical Scholarship

Van Harvey wants the facts.

Christian intellectuals have responded in diverse ways to what some secularists believe to be the Achilles heel of the Christian faith; namely, that Biblical scholarship has revealed how untrustworthy the New Testament narratives could be about Jesus, and how little is known for certain about his life and his message. The secularist asks, ‘How can one be asked to be a Christian on such historically uncertain grounds?’ Orthodox Christian apologists have tended to dismiss this skeptical scholarship as the product of non-believing positivistic historians, who simply reject the supernaturalistic elements of the Gospels out of hand. But secularists found this response less and less compelling as it became increasingly evident that many of the scholars in the forefront of the thinking that has come to these skeptical conclusions are Christian. Consequently another, more sophisticated, Christian apologetic has emerged, which has attempted to save the New Testament picture of Jesus without embracing the supernaturalistic elements in it. The sophistication of this apologetic lies in turning the argument about the negative results of Biblical scholarship into a debate about hermeneutics. Their argument is that the skeptical views of the historical reliability of the Gospel narratives result from a positivist model of historiography, in which the historian claims to be an objective inquirer who simply seeks to ‘recreate the past as it really was’, to use the famous phrase of Leopold von Ranke. The historian, like the scientist, tries to sort out the facts of the matter; to distinguish fact from interpretation. But, the new Christian apologist claims, this positivistic model of historical inquiry has been shown to be outmoded for two reasons: the positivist view of science to which it was attached has been refuted; and with it the correspondence theory of truth has become obsolete.

The Rejection of Objectivity

The refutation of the positivist conception of science was accomplished by Thomas Kuhn in his famous work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). Kuhn showed that science does not uncover raw facts that patiently lie there waiting to be discovered. Rather, science is the construction of new facts, and these facts are themselves theory-laden, which is to say, facts are only identified and defined within some larger conceptual framework. Expressed differently, the argument is that there is no representation of facts without an ‘observation language’, and no ‘observation language’ is theory free. So science does not give us independent, objective knowledge of the world. Rather, as Pierre Duhem out pointed years ago, it gives us theories, and each of these theories has its own distinct vocabulary that represents what it takes to be the properties of nature.

The second philosophical development said to have contributed to the collapse of the skeptical Biblical scholars’ outmoded view of historical evidence, is the rejection of the correspondence theory of truth – the idea that descriptions simply are true if they correspond with reality and not true if they do not – and with it the fact-interpretation distinction.

This particular claim came out quite clearly in the debates that arose in the early Sixties about the biography of Martin Luther by Erik Erikson. Critics of that book argued that Erickson had liberally invented certain events of Luther’s childhood to fit his psychoanalytic views, even though there was no evidence that these events occurred. One of Erickson’s defenders countered that this criticism was based on the ‘outmoded dualism’ between fact and interpretation. He argued that Erikson could better be seen in the hermeneutical company of Thomas Kuhn, Richard Hanson, Richard Rorty, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, all of whom rejected the correspondence theory of truth and the fact-interpretation distinction. The argument is that it has been shown that all observation is theory-laden, and that which we call ‘fact’ has interpretation already packed into it; consequently there are no brute facts, and so it is naïve to criticize Erikson for relying on his imagination to give coherence to his narrative.

This sort of argument obviously has rich possibilities for those who want to reject the skeptical Biblical scholarship. For instance, they can assert that these historians are not objective, as they claim, but have interests and presuppositions that constitute a biasing perspective from within which their assessments and judgments are made. The argument is that the conflict is not between naïve belief and ‘scientific’, interpretation-free history, but between two interpretations. The issue is a hermeneutical one.

Wittgenstein, Truth, and Interpretation

This apologetic approach raises many complicated philosophical issues, but I would like to concentrate on only one of them; namely, the claim that the rejection of the correspondence theory of truth implies rejection of the distinction between facts and interpretations. I would like to show that it is especially wrong to invoke Ludwig Wittgenstein in this regard. Indeed, for those of us who philosophize in a Wittgensteinian mode, it was just his method of analysis that enables us to understand precisely how the fact-interpretation distinction is ‘at home’ in certain contexts.

The first mistake of the new Christian apologists, I would point out, is to assume that core concepts used in scientific discourse such as ‘fact’, ‘theory-laden’, and ‘observation’ mean the same – have the same use – as the same words do in historical inquiry. Perhaps there are affinities of use, but the differences are significant; and is it the business of philosophy to explore these differences of use rather than to simply assume the similarity. It is just this assumption of similarity of use across different spheres of discourse that is the source of intellectual confusion.

The second mistake from a Wittgensteinian perspective, is to assume that because one does not accept the correspondence theory of truth one should counsel historians to give up the language of fact or the fact-interpretation distinction. The reason for this is similar to the objection against the idea that ‘fact’, theory’, and ‘observation’ have the same use in science as history: the problem with the correspondence theory of truth is that this monolithic idea of truth blocks analysis of the various ways the word ‘truth’ actually functions in our various intellectual practices: in newspapers; in police investigation; in law courts; in common-sense affairs; in science laboratories, and in intellectual journals, to mention a few. General theories of truth such as the correspondence theory tend to generate opposing general theories instead of leading to a careful analysis of the different ways ‘truth’ is used in concrete practices.

Consequently, it is confusing to claim that Wittgenstein rejected the fact-interpretation distinction. Rather, he wanted to relieve us from the mental cramps that arise when we are obsessed with the abstract question: ‘Are there any facts apart from interpretation?’ His idea was that a philosopher should analyze the linguistic context – the form of life – in which the words ‘fact’ and ‘interpretation’ were at home, so to speak. He wanted us not to generalize about the fact-interpretation distinction, then, but consider the ways in which these words were employed when our intellects were not ‘idling’. He wanted us to see the work that words like ‘fact’ enable us to do when we’re not forcing them to do work for which they are ill-adapted. One might argue that he wanted us to see in which contexts the word ‘fact’ is appropriate.

This approach is evident in Wittgenstein’s last work On Certainty (1969). There he begins the attempt by his friend G.E. Moore to refute radical skepticism about the existence of an external world by holding up his hand and claiming “I know this is my hand.” Wittgenstein did not try to deal with Moore’s claim by arguing that ‘know’ was a theory-laden concept; nor did he attempt to show that Moore was mistakenly subscribing to the correspondence theory of truth – that Moore’s proposition corresponded with the fact of Moore’s having a hand. Rather, he ingeniously explored in great detail those instances in which ‘I know’ functions quite normally. The result of this analysis is not to destroy an old theory of truth, nor to replace it with a new one. It is, rather, to illuminate our actual practice of using ‘I know’, and to give us a sense of confidence about the way ‘I know’ can discriminately function in certain contexts.

When the issue is put in this fashion, we can understand what a historian wishes to know when he asks Erickson whether he has any evidence for the dubious events he seems to claim happened in Luther’s childhood, just as a judge in a child abuse case might ask for the evidence that the defendant punished the child with a heavy switch. She would not accept the defence lawyer’s reply that the question rests on an outmoded distinction between fact and interpretation. The judge wishes to know – just as the historian wishes to know – whether the claimed event is only an inference, or rather, whether there are trustworthy witnesses or some other evidence that reasonable persons might accept. She wishes to know whether the language of ‘fact’ is appropriate. Similarly, the reader wants to know whether it is a fact that Luther experienced what Erickson claimed that he did; and thus she wants to know what evidence supports this claim, or if there is any way to verify this claim. The trouble with the postmodern defense of Erickson is that it shunts these concrete questions onto a philosophical siding where historical issues are irresolvable.

The reason I can use the courtroom illustration to make this point is that, just as a jury does, historians make their judgments about the past about possibility, impossibility, probability, improbability and certainty against the background of present knowledge. The warrants that lead historians to draw a particular kind of conclusion are rooted in this knowledge. And the language of fact is at home in these contexts. For instance, in paternity cases, the judge wishes to establish whether the child does in fact have the DNA of the defendant, or whether in fact the defendant wrote the plaintiff that he would take financial responsibility for the child. The jury judges the various claims against the background of the knowledge available about DNA and blood relationships, just as it assumes that a letter accepting financial responsibility for a child expresses an author’s intentions. It will not accept the defendant’s claim that the child was conceived miraculously, nor that it is a hermeneutical mistake to regard a written text as expressing authorial intention. The rejection of the concept ‘fact’ in these situations brings the trial to a halt, as does the appeal to hermeneutics.

These are some of the reasons I believe that this particular Christian attempt to avoid dealing with issues of Biblical scholarship is a failure; and, incidentally, why I find it curious that these apologists would want to be found endorsing the atheist Friedrich Nietzsche’s aphorism, “There are no facts, only interpretations.” The real issue these apologists face is why they delineate fact and interpretation when reading the newspaper, in courts, and in most historical writing, but reject that distinction when it occurs in Biblical scholarship.

© Prof. Van A. Harvey 2015

Van Harvey is George Edwin Burnell Professor of Religious Studies (Emeritus) at Stanford University.

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