Tuesday 17 January 2006

Essential philosophy for theologians

“Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.” —Ludwig Wittgenstein

“If we open our mouths, we find ourselves in the province of philosophy.” —Karl Barth

Here is my own list of essential philosophy for theologians. Philosophy really is essential if we want to practise the discipline of theology: a theologian who does not read philosophy is like a sailor who does not observe the weather.

It was a painful job trying to decide what not to include in this list. In the end I decided to limit the list by restricting it to post-medieval philosophy. This is not meant as a judgment about the superiority of modern philosophy. Rather I am simply assuming that we have already read the great ancient and medieval philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, Philo and Plotinus, Augustine and Boethius, Scotus and Ockham.

So here’s my list of 20 essential philosophy texts (ordered chronologically by author):

1. Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Novum Organum
2. René Descartes (1596-1650), Meditations on First Philosophy
3. Benedictus de Spinoza, (1632-77), Theologico-Political Treatise
4. David Hume (1711-76), Treatise of Human Nature
5. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-76), The Social Contract
6. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), Critique of Pure Reason
7. G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831), Phenomenology of Spirit
8. Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55), Concluding Unscientific Postscript
9. Karl Marx (1818-83), Capital, Vol. 1
10. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), Thus Spoke Zarathustra
11. A. N. Whitehead (1861-1947), Process and Reality
12. Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus
13. Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), Being and Time
14. Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002), Truth and Method
15. Simone de Beauvoir (1908-86), The Second Sex
16. Paul Ricouer (1913-2005), Time and Narrative
17. Michel Foucalt (1926-84), Madness and Civilization
18. Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), Of Grammatology
19. Alasdair MacIntyre (1929- ), Whose Justice? Which Rationality?
20. Jean-Luc Marion (1946- ), God without Being


Jim said...

I dearly love Kierkegaard. But I'm not really clever enough to know any of these other chaps. I do, though, think that Schleiermacher should be included (though a theologian, he was quite the philosopher too). But then again I'm probably wrong. Hey where's that mug from your university? ;-) j.k.

The Borg said...

May I suggest some more recent realists be added to the list? You have a few post-moderns on the end there, but it seems that in philosophy modernity is the new black (skivvy).

Ben Myers said...

Yes, this is a good point about realist philosophers. In particular, I could have included Roy Bhaskar's fine book The Possibility of Naturalism.

Anonymous said...

Winnie the Pooh by AA Milne born this day in 1882 ... actually it's Pooh who is the philosopher, if you know what I mean Piglet.

T.B. Vick said...

The only two I would add would be William Paley's work Natural Theology, or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity collected from the Appearances of Nature


Alvin Plantinga's Warrant: The Current Debate(for the more contemporary reformed epistemology

Anonymous said...

A fine list, Ben (with great opening quotes). It contains no mugs. I do think, however, that you got the wrong Wittgenstein work: Philosophical Investigations has certainly been the more important theologically.

Otherwise, a few would have to give way in my own Top Twenty for Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), Leviathan; Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716), Monadology; Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), The World as Will and Representation; and Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), Cartesian Meditations (no Husserl, no Hiedegger or Derrida). Would they be in your Top Twenty-five?

Ben Myers said...

Well, Leibniz and Husserl were only omitted at the last minute (along with several others)....

Anonymous said...

How about the selections of Foucault compiled in Religion and Culture?

Paul W said...


Although I disagree with your list in some areas (I think vol 3 of Foucault's History of Sexuality is his finest work because he actually practices the historian's craft properly for once!), I think you've come up with an excellent one in terms of post-medieval philosophy. Just two questions: how close were Donald Davidson, Emmanuel Levinas and Iragaray to making your list? And are you gfoing to do a list of essential reading in sociology/anthropology for theologians? :-D.

Anonymous said...

I have to admit I'm more or less ignorant of post-modern philosophy, so I can't comment on the Foucault or Derrida, though once upon a time I read Madness and Civilization.

I would probably throw in some Dewey, and definitely Arendt or Midgley. In general I would add a couple more ethicists.

Jeremiah Kier Cowart said...

I have to commend you on these lists you get together. I know it's not easy squeezing out 20 when there are so many to pick from. How to discriminate?! I would tend to agree with Fabricius' additions as fairly essential to a theologian's proper encounter with modern philosophy.

I think you would have to include also the greatest of the American pragmatists (or pragmaticists!), C.S. Peirce. Even if W. James is left off, Peirce would need to be required reading for theologians. There would need to be some sort of representation of this influential movement. Perhaps we could relax the numbers of the 'post-modern' crowd to include some one of these individuals?

I suppose a general critique of the list you have given is that it's not balanced enough toward the Anglo-American crowd. The continental representation should perhaps be relaxed a bit to include some of the influential English and/or American philosophers, esp. from the 20th century.

Anonymous said...

Jeremiah Kier Cowart -
Peirce - yes, absolutley. Interestingly, a chap at Cambridge named C. C. Pecknold has just published a book entitled Transforming Postliberal Theology (2005), which, drawing on Peter Ochs' work on Peirce, argues that Lindbeck's theology represents a new and creative scriptural pragmatism.

A few other philosophers that might be put on a supplementary list: the philosopher of science Michael Polanyi (much deployed by the late Lesslie Newbigin); the Canadian philosopher and political theorist Charles Taylor; and (grudgingly!) a 19th century utilitarian, probably John Stuart Mill.

The only woman philosopher on Ben's list is Simone de Beauvoir. Having thought about it, I think both Simone Weil and the late Gillian Rose are much more philosophically interesting and theologically suggestive - and, along with de Beauvoir, have the genius to merit a place on the list quite apart from the fact that they are women.

Ben Myers said...

Many thanks for these comments. To offer a quick general reply: Unfortunately I haven’t read some of the writers mentioned (Davidson, Arendt, Midgley), but Dewey and James and Levinas and Irigaray weren’t far off making my list. I didn’t think of Peirce, but it’s a good suggestion. And I love Polanyi, although I didn’t think I could justify his place in the top 20. With the best will in the world, I must admit that A. Plantinga leaves me cold -- but I can see why others find him important.

I did feel a little bad about only including one woman philosopher -- but unfortunately I haven’t yet read Simone Weil or Gillian Rose. Looks like I’ll have to add them to my reading list....

metalepsis said...

another great list!

Yet no Emmanuel Levinas?

Joanna said...

I like (and am challenged by!) your list. But I'd like to question what understanding of 'doing theology'is reflected by the statement: 'Philosophy really is essential if we want to practice the discipline of theology'. I'm not questioning the value of philosophy. But there are plenty of people developing theologies in contexts where they have little access to any books, let alone scholarly philosophy. Is their 'practice of the discipline of theology' necessarily inadequate? from my experience, not at all. Again, I'm not being anti-intellectual, I'm just questioning the assumption (which I'm fairly sure you don't subscribe to!) that theology has to be an academic discipline.

Sam Charles Norton said...

Strongly agree that you have the wrong Wittgenstein; of his other writings that are of more interest theologically, PI (obviously) but I also particularly rate 'On Certainty' for theological implications, and his 'Remarks on Frazer's Golden Bough' for cutting through a lot of scientific nonsense.

In the same vein, one more recent possibility: John Milbank's 'Theology and Social Theory' - which is at least as much philosophical as theological, and likely to last.

Ben Myers said...

Thanks for raising this valuable point, JoBloggs. You’re right, of course, that theological thinkers in many parts of the world have little access even to theological books, much less philosophical ones. And I certainly don’t think that this makes their theology inadequate. Admittedly, my remark really had Western academic theologians in view, so I shouldn’t have made it sound like some sort of universal rule. Presumably Kant and Hegel will matter less to non-Western theologians (regardless of whether or not they can even access such works).

Having said that, though, I think that all theological thinkers need to “read philosophy” in the broadest sense—i.e., they need to engage thoughtfully with their own intellectual context, so that they can understand the distinctive language, thought-forms and presuppositions of themselves and of the people to whom they are speaking.

As a Westerner, I might try to achieve this kind of understanding by reading Derrida and Foucalt, while a theologian in a remote part of Africa might try to achieve such understanding through quite different means. But in both cases, we are seeking to understand our own cultural and historical moment, so that we can be better equipped to find a meaningful way to express the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Do you agree? In any case, thanks for raising this whole topic, which really is of great importance.

Joanna said...

Yes, thanks Ben - I think that puts the issue in a wider context that shows both why reading philosophy (and, for exactly the same reasons, history) is important but also avoids the kind of intellectual snobbery that can easily infect 'academic' theology. Are you planning an 'essential history for theologians' list?

Wouter said...

What about Aquinas, the most enduring of all medieval philosophers (though he was a theologian, he did much to advance philosophy)? And as far as Husserl is concerned, perhaps his Crisis of European sciences is better (as more relevant and urgent), and McIntyre's best work is usually acknowledged to be After virtue. Just a few suggestions?

Philo said...

#14 - 20 on your list, minus MacIntyre, are works that are decidedly in the style of continental philosophy. The title of this post is "Essential Philosophy for Theologians." This title is misleading as it seems to imply that all theologians should primarily acquaint themselves with continental philosophy. Theology, however, is not necessarily tied to continental philosophy. R.R. Reno has an interesting article on this called "Theology's Continental Captivity" in First Things, April 2006.

It is worthwhile to note that much of 20th century continental philosophy after Heidegger is not taken seriously at the philosophy departments of most major universities in the English speaking world (Catholic schools excepted). Instead, the predominant style of philosophy in the English speaking world is analytic philosophy. Analytic philosophy holds as its primary virtues rigor, clarity, and precision.

Those interested in this style of philosophy and how it intersects with theology should check out Analytic Theology, Oliver Crisp & Michael Rea (eds.).

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