Nancy Frankenberry on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”

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Nancy Frankenberry

Nancy Frankenberry is John Phillips Professor of Religion at Dartmouth College. We invited her to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

I often tell my students that philosophers of religion are odd ducks. We are at once too philosophical to interest many of our colleagues in religion departments, and too interested in questions about religion to please most members of philosophy departments. Our critical craft is at least as old as the Hellenistic posing of questions to Hebrew texts, but today we are seeking to move beyond the Western religious presumption of ethical monotheism as well as the Eurocentric cast of philosophy.

As I see it, then, the major task of philosophy of religion in our time is to become more global in its orientation, comparative in its methodology, and empirical in its inquiry into the differences between specific religions. The comparative philosophy of religions is necessarily interdisciplinary, making as much use of history of religions and cultural anthropology as previous practitioners have made of speculative metaphysics and hermeneutical phenomenology. Insofar as the discipline faces the challenge of encounter with traditions expressing practices and beliefs that are not predominantly associated with European, white, male modes of understanding, it will be required to elaborate new models of interpretation, a broader theory of evidence, a cross cultural conception of human rationality, and a more complex appraisal of the norms applicable to cases of divergent, rival claims on comparative topics. Obviously, this is a tall order and only a few philosophers of religion currently execute it with any skill.

More narrowly, there are three matters that I wish philosophers of religion could agree about in order to clear up some curious confusions that still afflict our field, perhaps as a hangover from the hegemony that Theology, that old drag queen of the sciences, once exercised. I can encapsulate all three in one sentence each. Their complete unpacking, however, would depend upon showing at length the cogency of Donald Davidson’s philosophical reflections on such things as meaning, belief, and the nature of metaphor. I can only hint at that here.

First, only sentences have meaning. Meaning is not something “out there” to be discovered, or “in the head” to be appreciated. By following Frege in taking the basic unit of contact with the world to be the sentence, philosophers of religion can avoid confusing sentence-meaning, on the one hand, with the quest for existential “meaning,” on the other hand. “Significance” might be a better term for the existentialist quest. Adopting a holistic theory, we can go on to see that words have meaning only in relation to other words in a sentence, rather than having meaning as such, or in themselves. This will help to undercut the mistaken theory whereby the answer to what something means is to be discovered by determining its reference given in experience, as though the bear “stands for” strength, the word God “points to” ultimate reality.

Second, language is distinct from use, or (to use Saussurian terms) “langue” is distinct from “parole.” Sentence meaning is literal meaning. We can use sentences in a variety of ways, but these ways do not change the meaning of the sentences. For philosophers of religion who interpret myths and other propositional utterances, no new semantics or translation maneuver is needed other than what we know about natural languages. Literal meaning can be defined as the coincidence of sentence and utterance meaning. In other words, when sentence meaning and speaker’s meaning (use) coincide, we have a case of literal meaning which allows us then to differentiate between literal and symbolic or metaphorical utterances, or to see the difference between a literal utterance and a lie, a joke, or any irony. Symbol, metaphor, poetry and lie are all parasitic on literal meaning. 

Third, there is no such thing as “symbolic meaning.” Symbols, understood as signs, obviously abound in religions, but they do not point to or participate in any language-transcendent meanings that are hidden or coded. I know this sounds counter-intuitive to many philosophers of religion influenced by Paul Tillich and Paul Ricoeur. Whenever I appeal to the semantics of literal meaning it seems to summon up some clichéd stereotype of the computer geek whose every attempt to read a poem leaves him dumbfounded. However, if Davidson is right, metaphoric [read: symbolic] usages of words may be more difficult to understand than their non-metaphoric counterparts, but there is nothing “extra” required in order to make sense of them. It is easy to fall into thinking that when we do succeed in making sense of them we are making use of a second species of meaning. Instead, Davidson’s proposal is that we correct this sort of false picture by, as it were, uncrossing the wires. While all signs may be treated as “symbols,” we only produce illusion when we cross the wires and treat all religious symbols as signs.

Philosophy of religion in this new key is in a position to correct the entire tradition of hermenutical theology by seeing symbolic or metaphorical utterances as having to do with use or force (rather like adding italics or underscoring). As such, they are “patently false,” as Davidson says, and always parasitic upon literal semantic meaning. No matter how we use religious language, it can only mean what the words themselves mean literally.


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