A Grician implicature

From my usual astronomical distance, I have been following the “controversy” in the Midwest Society of Christian Philosophers. I was, to start, only vaguely aware such a thing existed. Here I must confess to a slight eccentricity. When a man (or even a woman) describes himself as “a philosopher,” I instinctively guffaw. I will accept, calmly, “student of philosophy,” or even, “professor of philosophy” as an academic credential, but am disinclined to call anyone “a philosopher” until he has been dead for a while, and even then with hesitation. In my view, which continues to dominate this website, a person who calls himself a Philosopher is approximately equivalent to one who calls himself a Saint. And when I see a bunch of such people forming themselves into a society or union, I expect rich farce. It is, invariably, provided.

Now, Richard Swinburne is a distinguished emeritus professor of philosophy at Oxford (not the one in Mississippi, the other one). At the age of eighty-one, he retains a fine and precise mind, plus courage. His life’s work may be located near the intersection of science and religion, especially in the field of “natural theology”; his intention has been to make the claims of orthodox Christianity both clear and convincing in contemporary philosophical jargon. He has written seventeen books, several of which are available to phil students in e.g. French, Italian, German, Polish, Finnish, Portuguese, Arabic, Korean, Chinese; … but then, so are the Harry Potter books. His trilogy which began in the late ’seventies — The Coherence of Theism, The Existence of God, Faith and Reason — provided the platform on which he erected, in subsequent books, an account of traditional, received Christianity that shows it to be unique, and uniquely coherent, among the world’s religions. The man himself began as an Anglican, and converted to Orthodox in 1996. Since his formal retirement in 2002 he has updated and improved several of his earlier works, and added more of interest on the “mind-body problem,” and the question of free will, while exploring the frontiers of neuroscience. He has more honorary doctorates than gentle reader could shake a stick at.

This man was lured to a conference of that Society of Christian Philosophers last month, to give a talk about “Christian Moral Teaching on Sex, Family, and Life” in Springfield, Missouri. So far so plausible. In the course of that talk he mentioned the traditional, received Christian view of homosexuality as something morally disordered, and thus potentially curable. There could be nothing he said that had not been expounded previously in his books, and the organizers could not possibly have been surprised.

Nevertheless, the president of this “SCP,” Michael Rea of Notre Dame (which was once a Catholic university) posted an “Apology” for Swinburne’s talk on his Facebook page immediately after. He then led an hysterical electronic mob to denounce his keynote speaker as a “homophobe” in language characteristically dripping with hatred, contempt, and obscenities. (More detail here, with links further.)

I wrote “lured,” and in the upshot it becomes obvious that the purpose of the exercise was, from the beginning, to defame Swinburne; to make a grievous assault on his reputation, and create one of those demonic “teachable moments” through which young students and teachers in philosophy faculties are warned off any kind of intelligent thinking. It was a simple, public act of intimidation, of the kind those who have lived in Communist countries would immediately recognize.

Rod Dreher (here) takes the opportunity to flag a deeper truth, illuminated by the affair. He refers to Ryszard Legutko, The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies (2016), which exposes the common presuppositions of liberal democracy and communism — on history, society, religion, politics, culture, and human nature. In the name of “the people,” rendered as pure abstraction, both systems depend finally on the jackboot, to silence all critics of a monstrously shallow party line. The revolutionists proceed upon a long march through the institutions. Their great strengths are in their deafness to argument, and incapacity for boredom.


My limited experience of academic conferences — in my respectable days, I was a keynote speaker at a couple of them; and sat panels or gave papers at several more — was enough to help me understand the burial of philosophy, poetry, and religion in modern academic environments. A glance over the schedule of the conference to which Swinburne was invited (here) will give some idea of the degree to which “knowledge” is now sliced and diced. It is the ideal environment for the political hack — the extreme opposite of what was offered in the ancient peripatetic schools, and the mediaeval universities, filled as they once were with lively and continuous debate, on matters of abiding interest and demonstrable significance.

The French philosopher Henri Bergson, however, gave the argument for attending philosophical congresses, a century ago. He said the important thing is to see the faces. One could spend months trying to master a colleague’s obscure and recondite system. “But one look at his face, and you know not to waste your time.”