The wisdom of not knowing

Julian Baggini meets Anthony Kenny, one of the towering figures of late twentieth century British philosophy

kenny200If there’s one philosopher ideally placed to talk about the importance of certainty and doubt, Sir Anthony Kenny fits the bill, for sure. He has just finished writing the fourth volume of his major history of western philosophy, as the third was being published, so certainly has the big picture in mind. Furthermore, he has also recently published a kind of intellectual autobiography, What I Believe, in which he talks about why, as an agnostic, he doesn’t believe very much at all.

Kenny’s lack of religious belief is important to him, since he trained for the Catholic priesthood and was ordained in 1955. Doubt was to come later.

“I don’t remember having any really serious doubts about the truth of Catholicism while I was at school in a junior seminary to the age of eighteen,” he told me at his London club. “When I was then sent to the English college in Rome in 1949 I did the philosophy course at the Gregorian University, which in those days was taught by the Jesuits in Latin. I was very disillusioned about that. It was near scholastic philosophy. It was supposed to be in accordance with the mind of St Thomas Aquinas, but we didn’t get to read anything of Aquinas except one of his small treatises.”

It went on like this for three of the course’s seven years. “If this kind of philosophy is necessary for somebody to be an educated Catholic then there is something wrong with it,” he thought. So when he returned home for the only break in the course’s entire duration, he “was pretty disillusioned about the whole thing and very nearly quit at that point. However, when I went back and started the theology course, oddly enough I found it much more believable, and the people who were teaching me were very much better as philosophers. I was very lucky to be taught by some of the finest minds in the Jesuit order at the time. By the time I was due to take the final decision whether to get ordained or not, I had regained my enthusiasm and delight in Catholic teaching and practice.”

But doubts were soon to resurface. “The possibility of proving the existence of God was something I found very difficult. The proofs didn’t seem to me to hold water. I believed that one could know God but not perhaps by means of a proof.

“When I became a curate in a parish, having to teach practical Catholic moral theology, I was very unhappy with a lot of particular Catholic moral teachings, such as the opposition to contraception, and at that time the church’s support of the nuclear deterrent, which I thought, and still think, was immoral. I wrote several pieces against British nuclear deterrent policy and after one of them, which was in a popular Catholic newspaper, I was forbidden to write by the bishop. But this was only really a catalyst, and it was a much more fundamental worry about the provability of the existence of God.”

Crunch time came when he refused to complete his doctorate. “There were the various stages of ordination which I completed as a priest, but for the doctorate, because it was at a pontifical university, at that time you had to take the anti-modernist oath, which included stating that the existence of God could be proved, and I didn’t believe that.”

Listening to the story it becomes clear that Kenny’s doubts were very specific to Catholicism. “It’s true that the God in whom I came to disbelieve as very much the God of Catholicism.”

But although atheism “always seemed a possibility, that’s what an agnostic position is,” Kenny “never found the arguments against the existence of God much more convincing than the arguments for the existence of God.”

That’s a crucial point, because it is often argued that agnosticism is the best position for those who lack faith because it is impossible to prove God does not exist. But this is a strange argument. No one has proved Yetis don’t exist, but the balance of evidence is such that you plan a trip up Everest on the assumption that they do not. Kenny’s agnosticism is not a result of a lack of conclusive proof for God’s non-existence, but because he believes the balance of evidence and argument is more finely balanced than most atheists and believers think it is.

So why does he think that? Surely if he lacks good reasons to believe in God, the default position is not to. Think of why people believe there were no WMD in Iraq at the time of the American-led invasion. Clearly it is not the case that such a thorough survey of the country has been done to make that absolutely certain. In fact, it’s conceivable we might still find some. But the evidence we have found gives us very little reason to believe they were there. What’s more – and this is where the analogy is perhaps quite strong – even if there is something there, it’s not going to be anything like what was thought to be there in the beginning. In the same way, the argument for atheism is that we can’t disprove he’s there, and he might even be there in some sense, but with no good reasons to suppose the God we would recognise exists, why not work on the assumption that it doesn’t?

“Well, like you, the position which seems to me clearly to be rejected is dogmatic atheism, not being open to any eventual development of the argument the other way,” begins his reply. “I also agree with you to the extent that I think that if there is a God, it’s going to be very different to the traditional God of the great monotheistic religions, if it makes sense to talk of that as a single God. I wrote a book called The God of the Philosophers in which I gave a fairly precise definition of God as omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent and so on and said that I think one can show that that God can’t exist.

“But then I ended up by saying that is not the only possible, reasonable meaning one could give to God, and I took as an example the god described by John Stuart Mill in posthumously published essays on theism: a being of great but not unlimited power who is concerned for us but not overwhelmingly so.

“Spinoza, who is a philosopher I have a very great respect for, constantly speaks of deus sive natura – god or nature – and you can either take this as meaning that he took nature as a revelation of God, in which case he’s a kind of god-intoxicated man; or he thinks that all god can mean is nature, and then he’s just adopting a type of reverential attitude towards nature. But I think if you start from the nature end rather than the God end, the history of evolution is not very satisfactorily explained by the total absence of any kind of design – not only evolutionary beings but the cosmological constants and so on. There seems to me to be a difficulty for people who want to say there’s nothing more than the material universe. And I also think in a kind of Spinozistic way that even just nature as it reveals itself in history is something that should provoke our awe and in a way gratitude. So, as it were, instead of starting from the God end and stripping off the clothes and showing that it’s just naked nature, one could start with nature and think that perhaps that deserves some of the reactions that people have made to God.

“More recently I have been saying that though I believe religions are not literally true, that they have a great poetic value and that philosophers have not really done enough about reflecting about poetic kinds of meaningfulness and how they fit into science on the one hand, and how one should live one’s life on the other.

“The atheist conclusion, at least as expounded by most vociferous atheists in our day, is that there isn’t anything left to explain once science has done its best, and that doesn’t seem to be right.”

Although Kenny has moved from faith to agnosticism, in the discipline as a whole, he has witnessed a remarkable rehabilitation of religious belief. The denouement of his doctoral saga came “shortly after an anthology called New Essays in Philosophy and Theology had been published by Tony Flew and Alasdair McIntyre. It made a big splash at that time. Even though MacIntyre at that time was an Anglican, Flew was a very belligerent atheist, and certainly a lot of believers were shaken by the collection of analytic studies of philosophy of religion. What has now happened, of course, is that MacIntyre has become a Roman Catholic and Flew has recently announced his conversion to deism – he’s given up atheism.

“Philosophers of religion were in a pretty shattered state when I first came to the subject, and thought it would be wonderful if they could prove that religious propositions had meaning, let alone that they were true. In the fifty years I’ve been in philosophy I think there’s been a great revival of confidence among philosophers of religion. Plantinga and Swinburne I suppose are the two names that come to mind in that period.

“Not that there were not a lot of believers who were philosophers: Catholics like Anscombe, Geach and Dummettt. But at that time they didn’t write much about philosophy of religion.

“It was certainly out of fashion then,” Kenny says of religious belief at Oxbridge in the post-war period. “I think two principal things have changed. The Oxford which I first went to as a philosopher was a very self-confident philosophy department. They thought they were the best in the world. We thought there had been a revolution in philosophy and they were leading the revolution. People came from all over the world to study in Oxford. Because of this self-confidence they were not very interested in the history of philosophy. Aristotle and Plato never disappeared from the syllabus but the centre of Oxford teaching was very much contemporary, analytic ordinary-language philosophy.

“I think that Oxford lost self-confidence, for better and for worse. Gradually most of the best and most talented philosophers either went to or were in the United States rather than the UK. With that lack of self-confidence came a great interest in the history of philosophy and willingness to learn from it; to some extent a willingness to learn from philosophers in other places as well as from other times. As part of this there came back a great interest in medieval philosophy which of course linked to some extent with an interest in the philosophy of religion.”

In a wide-ranging career, however, the philosophy of religion has been just one small part. Kenny’s breadth of learning comes in part from a rejection of the narrow path of the academic specialist. For that, we can thank the late, great Donald Davidson.

“Davidson came to philosophy from social science rather later than I had come to philosophy from theology, and he came to see me before he published anything in philosophy. He was writing a review of [Kenny’s 1963 book] Action, Emotion and Will. He didn’t publish the review in the end; it turned into his article on actions and events. For a time I was quite close to him and it became clear to me that he was a much better philosopher than I was. But also I felt that the system he was producing was a kind of artificial system, which really had very little relation to the philosophy of mind and action as I understood it. It would sparkle and be exciting for a while but it wouldn’t be a fundamental contribution to the subject. And I thought, well if he’s so much better than I am and he can’t make a contribution to the subject, I would be much better employed not trying to make a contribution myself. I found in the course of teaching that I was quite good at explaining in terms which modern people understood what kind of thing was being meant by Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas and so on and so I would devote most of my work to that.

“I was then paid to teach philosophy for about 13 years and from then on my day job was really as an administrator, so I no longer had any obligation to read all the periodicals and keep up with the state of art in philosophy, but I could just wallow in the great minds of the past and I found that much more pleasant.”

When he looks back over the history of philosophy he has so brilliantly chronicled, how important does he think the quest for certainty has been?

“I think it was Descartes who made certainty the aim of philosophy. I don’t think in classical and medieval philosophy you get the emphasis on certainty. You get the emphasis on knowledge, but not the irrevocable certainty that Descartes wants. The topic of certainty does I think emerge in Medieval philosophy because of the religious context, because of faith being a state of mind which resembles knowledge in its irrevocability, the certainty of it. That doesn’t resemble knowledge because it doesn’t have the grounds on which knowledge rests, and so you get certainty coming in that way. But I think it was very much the crisis of faith of the Renaissance and Reformation – [Richard] Popkin’s book on scepticism is very good about this – that suddenly you have equal and opposite certainties on both sides of the Reformation divide; and then you get people like Descartes trying to produce, as it were, a non-sectarian certainty.

“I think the kind of certainty that Descartes was looking for was really a will o’ the wisp. Starting from immediate private data and creating the world with certainty from that doesn’t work. But I think there is an extremely interesting topic of the things of which we are quite certain but which are neither pieces of knowledge, nor commitments of religious faith. The people who I think have written most interestingly about this are John Henry Newman and Wittgenstein. Newman’s Grammar of Assent is all about that, about our certainty of such things as that Great Britain is an island or that we are each of us going to die, which are not objects of faith. On the other hand, if you’re actually asked to produce evidence for them, the evidence is immensely flimsy – it’s never certain. And yet they provide much more of the bedrock of our structure of knowledge than anything people offer as evidence for them.”

I was curious to hear Kenny say that certainty wasn’t of interest to the ancients. Wasn’t Plato very much interested in establishing knowledge of the forms, unchanging, unalterable constants, true knowledge of which would not rest on any assumptions?

“I think that you’re putting together some things other than certainty. What I take to be the mark of certainty is something that can’t be called into question, something that stands fast no matter what may happen. I suppose you might say that means something that rests on no assumptions – I don’t think that was Descartes’ view. Sure, he wanted to start there, but a lot of other things were to become certain and unshakeable. Whereas with Plato it’s not so much that he’s looking for a frame of mind that is unshakeable, but rather that he wants knowledge of entities that are unchanging, absolute and non-relative. So I think you might say, sure, philosophers have also been interested in certainty, but with Plato it’s an objective certainty – a certainty of the things that you know – whereas with Descartes it’s a subjective certainty, a state of consciousness which is unalterable.”

This illustrates an ambiguity in the word certain itself, doesn’t it? There’s certainty as a state of mind and then there are states of affairs which are certain.

“Newman distinguishes these, calling the platonic thing certainty and the state of mind certitude. I think it’s a useful distinction but I don’t think it’s been used by others.”

Wittgenstein is the philosopher who has most influenced Kenny, “with regard to the philosophy of mind and language,” he qualifies. “I wouldn’t say Wittgenstein was a great ethicist.” Why did he move us on from both Plato and Descartes?

“I think it was cutting the ground underneath both Cartesianism and empiricism. The whole project which is common to both Descartes and Locke and Hume, of building up all knowledge on the basis of the immediate, private thought and experience, and the way in which Wittgenstein turns this around, showing that even our most private thoughts wouldn’t be the thoughts they are unless they were related to the public language that we all use. It’s not building up the public on the basis of the private but doing justice to the private on the basis of what we share socially. It turns around the way you look at everything.”

However, unlike many Wittgensteinians, Kenny has not become monomaniacally obsessed with the Austrian. “Wittgenstein wasn’t a philosopher I wanted to be looking at all the time, he was somebody who had given me a pair of eyes with which to look at the other things.”

Another of his philosophical heroes is Aristotle, who seems to be effortlessly unperturbed by either extreme of certainty and doubt. Whereas some philosophers seem always in fear of being overcome by doubt, or grasping for certainty, Aristotle just seems to be able to be satisfied with the best we can accomplish. “That’s one of the things I admire about him,” agrees Kenny. Is this something he also sees in Wittgenstein?

“I think what you’ve said is quite important. Though he was himself a tortured person, his eventual idea of philosophy was really very close to Aristotle’s; in that passage where he says the real discovery in philosophy is the one that allows me to stop doing philosophy whenever I want to. Philosophy doesn’t have to have foundations which call itself into question, there are separate problems and we work on each problem as it comes, and I think that is a kind of Aristotelian idea, though of course one has to admit that unlike Wittgenstein, Aristotle was a foundationalist and he did believe that there was this thing called first philosophy which was a foundation of all the other branches of philosophy, but I think that doesn’t much affect his practical way of working. The way he works on distinctions between actuality and potentiality and so on, though it’s in the book called Metaphysics, is actually quite similar to what Wittgenstein was doing in The Blue and Brown Books.”

Of one thing however, Kenny remains at least fairly certain. I ask him if after all these years of working on the philosophy of the greats rather than trying to joining them, he still thinks that was the right choice.

“Oh yes,” he smiles, “I think so.”

Julian Baggini is editor of tpm

  1. very interesting. thanks.

  2. bridget wrafter

    i am very interested in sr anthoy kennys beliefs and loved his book “the path from rome” which i have just read i would love to get in touch with him but cant find anything on the web can you help

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