Friday, April 22, 2011

The Philosophy of Gordon Clark

Over the course of his life, Gordon Haddon Clark, a 20th century Calvinist, earned a Doctorate in Philosophy, wrote several dozen books, was an ordained, Presbyterian minister, and taught at the University of Pennsylvania, Wheaton College, Butler University, and Calvin College.[1] As an apologist, a chief goal of his was to demonstrate that a Christian worldview can rationally integrate diverse fields of study such as epistemology, theology, metaphysics, linguistics, ethics, and science. To that end, Clark successfully developed a philosophical system commonly referred to as Scripturalism, the central tenet of which may be said to be that the Protestant canon comprises the sole, extant source of knowledge available to man.[2]

Fundamental to Clark’s defense of this, his first principle, was his understanding that epistemology, the study of knowledge, “is the crucial point in philosophy.”[3] Everyone, even the skeptic, espouses a theory of knowledge – if not in word, then in deed. Furthermore, unique to a particular theory of knowledge will be a [set of] presupposition[s] from which all other non-arbitrarily accepted propositions are purportedly derived: “The demonstration of a proposition, such as any theorem in geometry, is completed only when it is referred to the axioms. If the axioms in turn required demonstration, the demonstration of the proposition with which we began would remain incomplete…”[4]

Why Clark accepted the first principle he did is, in fact, a question which lacks specificity. As a Calvinist, Clark believed that one could assent to the aforementioned “axiom of revelation” – or an approximate variation thereof – only by divine causation.[5] However, necessary though it may be for one to be able both to show his first principle is self-attesting and to account for the historical process by which he came to accept it, it is important to realize that such cannot circularly function as justificatory premises by which the first principle oxymoronically becomes a conclusion. Clark accordingly recognized that the concept of a first principle begs the question as to how to evaluate two or more mutually exclusive first principles.[6] In answer to this dilemma, Clark, rather than appealing to an indubitably self-evident postulate as do some rationalists, held that one could judge them by gauging the consistency amongst the propositions pertaining to the respectively educed systems.[7]

Appropriately, Clark utilized apagogic argumentation in order to falsify alternative first principles.[8] As a mathematician might attempt to show a particular theorem is false because it yields a contradiction, so too Clark’s choice method of epistemic refutation was a reductio ad absurdum. It therefore appears that Clark subscribed to a sort of synthesis between classical foundationalism and coherentism insofar as he asserted a unification of first principles with a coherence theory of truth, which is to say that an epistemological system must be both grounded and consistent. Thus, “…if one system can provide plausible solutions to many problems while another leaves too many questions unanswered, if one system tends less to skepticism and gives more meaning to life, if one worldview is consistent while others are self-contradictory, who can deny us, since we must choose, the right to choose the more promising first principle?”[9]

Additionally, Clark tentatively stated the following: “…there is a theory that the ultimate test of truth is coherence, and on this theory it would be impossible to have two self-consistent, mutually contradictory philosophies... One might hold that all other theories of truth lead to skepticism.”[10] In other words, a thoroughly consistent epistemic system might suffice as a precondition for knowledge. Of course, in order for Clark to have known this hypothesis, it would have to have followed from his first principle, and insofar as the Bible implicitly claims to, as the presently available disclosure of an eternally omniscient and intuitively knowledgeable God, possess a monopoly on truth, Clark could have consistently believed that.[11] Appearances to the contrary would simply evidence insufficient acquaintance with the relevant intricacies of the systems in question.

When Clark engaged particular epistemological positions, he did so with the understanding that the falsification of any first principle necessitates the falsification of that which is said to follow from it. This evidences just how highly Clark regarded the significance of epistemology. Two persons who believe the same proposition in the context of different first principles must believe the proposition for different reasons. Hence, common belief provides a point of contact whereby two worldviews may apagogically interact but belies the fact that whichever first principle yields contradictories or insufficient epistemic explanatory power is a worldview which must be unsound. For that reason, Clark primarily focused on analyzing a given system’s material relevant to its theory of knowledge, although he did not consider it unworthy to, for the sake of thoroughness, examine the metaphysical, ethical, or scientific posits of a falsified first principle.[12]

Clark may be most well-known for his criticisms of the epistemological proposals of secular philosophers. Because it seems he considered the majority of religious philosophy to implicitly rely on similar constructions and because it follows that if one’s epistemology is disproved then his [religious] beliefs are correlatively disproved – at least in that they cannot be justified – Clark’s epistemological assessments can be broadly categorized as applying to one of the following: irrationalism, empiricism, rationalism, and dogmatism (i.e. Scripturalism).[13]

Clark used “irrationalism” as an umbrella term to designate the Greek skeptics, those associated with existential reaction to Hegelian rationalism, and pragmatists.[14] Clark’s reason for subsuming each of these individual movements under one term was that each is epistemologically set against the idea knowledge can be certain; they are, in a word, anti-philosophy.[15] Adducing Augustine’s reply to his contemporary skeptics, Clark’s criticism of irrationalism is succinctly stated in the following:

The skeptics call propositions false, doubtful, probable, and plausible. Their basic principle, however, does not in consistency permit them to use any of these terms. A false proposition is one opposite to the truth… A doubtful proposition is one that might possibly be true; a probable or plausible proposition resembles or approximates the truth. But it is impossible to apply these terms without knowing the truth by which they are determined.[16]

Irrationalism leads to self-contradiction, as some members themselves admit.[17] “Knowledge means the possession of truth.”[18] “Logic is the science of necessary inference.”[19] Because “unnecessary inference arrives at no truth at all,” knowledge is impossible for he who repudiates logic.[20] If irrationalism is accepted, it is rejected.

Due to its popularity over the course of his lifetime, Clark’s critiques of empiricism – particularly, that advanced by Locke, Berkeley, and the logical positivists, among others – have received ample attention. As an expert in ancient philosophy, Clark was well acquainted with Heraclitean flux, Zeno’s paradoxes, and other theories hypothesized as long as two thousand years ago which could be used to show empiricism is unsound.[21] In fact, Clark’s theological contemporaries thought he took the arguments of the Greek skeptics too seriously.[22] But though Clark believed that no empiricist has yet provided satisfactory answers to these difficulties, he by no means relied on the appraisals of others. Examples of his arguments against empiricism can only be briefly sketched:

· The solipsistic subjectivity of sensation: “What one person sees as red and green, another sees as two shades of gray, or maybe not even as two shades.”[23]

· The unreliability of sensation: “…optical illusions, tricks in perspective, color blindness, and then the too definite and too manifold distinctions in colors that other people call hallucinations, fill elementary textbooks on psychology.”[24]

· The arbitrariness of inferences: “…at any one time a person has dozens of alleged sensations. In order to get a perception you have to combine some of them. On what basis do you make the combination?”[25]

Further problems which could be included: the incomprehensibility of a blank mind; the capriciousness of individuation; the insolubility of Hume’s is-ought dilemma; the possibility that there are more than five senses; the ambiguity of the process whereby concepts are abstracted from sensation; the perplexing and inconsistent nature of images and memory; incommunicability via ostensive definition; the artificiality and presumed accuracy of experimental conditions and instrumentation; the confutation of correlation and causation; the fallacy of induction; the inability to distinguish whether an observation or a hypothesis (or both) has been falsified; the necessary tentativeness of conclusions.[26] Depending on the qualifications made by a given empiricist, these frictions could be multiplied, and even if several are resolved by admitting empiricism is not compatible with them (e.g. induction; ethics), close examination of the majority portend the truth of Clark’s illation.

The final alternative worldview Clark scrutinized was rationalism, especially that of Plato, the seventeenth century rationalists, Kant, and Hegel.[27] Although he disagreed that knowledge can be defended by means of reasoning apart from divine revelation, Clark respected the seriousness, intensity, and brilliant insights each of these philosophers contributed to the history of epistemology. Unlike some allegedly presuppositionless empiricists and the illogical irrationalists, rationalists, like Clark, emphasized logical consistency and first principles. While Clark tended to individually inspect the soundness of the systems rather than rationalism as a whole, he believed it was “exemplified by Plato and Hegel.”[28] By observing what Clark considered to be the principal faults common to each of these philosophers, it may then be possible to conclude on what basis Clark rejected rationalism in toto.

A distinctive characteristic of Hegel’s philosophy was the thesis-antithesis-synthesis. As a proponent of absolute monism, Hegel held that the definition of a concept entails knowledge of its relationship to all other concepts. For instance, the meaning of “cat” includes the idea that it is “not-a-dog,” “not-a-tree,” etc. Clark noted the fatal flaw of this philosophy: “…we cannot know one relationship without knowing all. Obviously we do not know all. Therefore we know nothing.”[29] Hegelianism, therefore, cannot be accepted.

Plato, on the other hand, is perhaps most famous for his theory of Ideas, something Clark thought must, in some form or another, be affirmed in order to avoid nominalism. According to this theory, the possibility of classifications or genera stem from the fact there is an archetypal world of Ideas after which the world in which we live is patterned. The identification of two individual creatures as horses or two different figures as triangles presupposes an archetypal horse or triangle. While Clark believed this to be more or less true, he argued Plato could not account for the way in which one validly accesses these archetypes: “The failure of Platonism… to ascend from Earth to Heaven leaves the theory ineffective. Man before birth may have been omniscient, but here below the Platonic case in which man is a prisoner actually has no opening. Platonism therefore cannot be accepted…”[30]

Clark did not blame either philosopher for attempting or logically implying the need for access to an omniscient source. On the contrary, Clark rejected both systems because they cannot deliver this. One may infer, then, that Clark might have accepted an elenctic argument against rationalism along the lines of the following: to assert one knows a proposition is true without knowing whether or not another proposition is true begs the question. What if the truth of the former hinges on the truth or falsity of the latter? For man to justifiably know even one proposition, then, one must either know all propositions or rely on one who does – one whose knowledge must be eternal, comprehensive, and intuitive. In fact, this argument from the contingency of knowledge can be used against any secular epistemology and many religious ones, not just rationalism. Legitimate knowledge presupposes an eternally omniscient being, and any epistemic axiom must account for that or be subject to this argument.

Having offered his case as to why alternative first principles yield logical inconsistencies and are therefore incapable of functioning as a sound basis for an epistemic system, Clark customarily presented his own first principle for inspection; that is, “the Bible is the Word of God.”[31] Clark’s definition of Scripture and God as well as relevant biblical texts can be found in the Westminster Confession.[32] This comprises what might be called the ground of knowledge. The propositions contained in the Bible collectively form the content of what one is able to, at present, tenably know. Distinguishable from this is the means of knowledge, the historical process by which one gains access to Scriptural propositions. Consistent with his deterministic theology, Clark, following in the footsteps of Augustine, Malebranche, and other Christian philosophers, supported the doctrine of efficient, divine illumination.[33] Hence, one can gain access to the so-called world of Ideas because universal propositions can be mediated to his mind from God’s. On this theory, the role of sensation or experience in knowledge acquisition is at most an occasional stimulant.[34]

Clark submitted that anthropological considerations and linguistics explain the reason man is able to understand God’s thought. Man is the image of God, so the structure of man’s mind images that of God. Logic “is the characteristic of God’s thinking,” so that man’s thoughts may be univocal with God’s is unsurprising.[35] Because man possesses the necessary a priori equipment in order to think logically, persons are able to communicate by knowing the idea which a given word symbolizes.

Of course, because Clark reckoned empiricism to be an unsound epistemology, it follows that when he opined himself to be having a conversation with another human, he knew it could have been the case that he was only imagining it. However, insight into problems or advantages of various epistemologies may be introduced through the medium of opinion, in which case dialogue (and science, for that matter) nevertheless serves a pragmatic purpose. Clark was well aware that his first principle promises less knowledge than do others; he was simply willing to trade empty promises for warranted knowledge.[36]

One of the more interesting features of Clark’s philosophy is the way in which his Calvinistic theology contributes to his theory of knowledge. Clark believed that the telos of all things is the glorification of God, even sin.[37] God ultimately, though not immediately or efficiently, causes sin by determining conditions such that men sin, and through sin God’s glory and wisdom is manifested in the unveiling of God’s full range of attributes. If men had never broken God’s law, it must be the case that God’s wisdom and glory would not have been able to be manifested, at least not to the degree possible in this world. Hence, Clark’s theodicy is actually an assertion of what must be the case as much as it is a defense of what is the case.

However, Clark still viewed man as guilty for having sinned. That all man’s choices are determined does not function as an excuse for his sin because responsibility does not presuppose a will free from antecedent, extrinsic causation; rather, man’s responsibility presupposes a sovereign to whom he is responsible. Clark’s solution to Hume’s is-ought dilemma was that man ought to obey God because God made man as he is: a creature with a [determined] mind, will, emotion, intellect, feeling, and an obligation to obey God’s precepts. Yet insofar as man always chooses in accordance with his most strongest desire, and insofar as God determines our desires (directly or indirectly), his will is determined and volitional.[38]

That men are caused to sin also means they are caused to act irrationally. By disobeying that which they ought to do, man asserts his reasoning as authoritative. Only by divine intervention through the aforementioned regeneration of man is he able to cease continuous rebellion to God, which implies continuous irrationality. One may wonder, then, why Clark was a preacher, given that only God can cause one’s will to change: “…the preaching of the Gospel does one thing that a fallacious argument from a non-existent common ground cannot do: It provides the propositions that must be belief. But the belief comes from God…”[39]

One main reason Clark was a determinist was that it is a precondition for omniscience. If God did not determine all things, something or someone external to God did. Since God alone is eternal, for God’s knowledge to be extrinsically contingent would connote God’s omniscience is not eternal. But omniscience cannot be learned. Like Hegel, God obviously couldn’t know any relation between a given unknown proposition and any other proposition imaginable. Since this applies with respect to all [knowable] propositions, either God is eternally omniscient or not able to be omniscient at all. On the other hand, if God knows what one will choose before he chooses, by what means does God know? If God controlled the historical conditions by which man would necessarily choose what God knows he will choose, man’s choice is determined. If not, then to assert God antecedently knows what man will choose is nonsense. Clark thereby concluded divine omniscience and human free will are incompatible.[40]

Clark’s seemingly and unabashedly radical philosophical system should not cloud one’s discernment. All philosophies of necessity appear novel at some point. One may, as did Clark with other philosophers, sift through his arguments and retain only those which stand the test of reason. Regardless, one must choose, so far as he is able to descry, either consistent and systematic presuppositionalism or whim.



[1] John Robbins, An Introduction to Gordon H. Clark.

[2] W. Gary Crampton, The Scripturalism of Gordon H. Clark pg. 91.

[3] Gordon Clark, A Christian View of Men and Things pg. 285.

[4] Gordon Clark, Thales to Dewey pg. 88.

[5] Gordon Clark, Christian Philosophy pgs. 91-103, 297-323.

[6] Gordon Clark, A Christian View of Men and Things pg. 29.

[7] Gordon Clark, A Christian Philosophy of Education pg. 49.

[8] Gordon Clark, Karl Barth’s Theological Method pg. 117.

[9] Gordon Clark, A Christian View of Men and Things pg. 34.

[10] Ibid. pg. 31.

[11] W. Gary Crampton, Scripturalism: A Christian Worldview.

[12] Gordon Clark, Clark and His Critics pg. 36.

[13] Gordon Clark, Christian Philosophy pgs. 15-30.

[14] Ibid. pgs. 71, 162.

[15] Ibid. pg. 71.

[16] Gordon Clark, Thales to Dewey pg. 178.

[17] Soren Kierkegaard, Concluding unscientific postscript pg. 231.

[18] Gordon Clark, A Christian View of Men and Things pg. 33.

[19] Gordon Clark, Logic pg. 1.

[20] Gordon Clark, Lord God of Truth pg. 39.

[21] Gordon Clark, Ancient Philosophy pgs. 26-29, 47-50.

[22] Robert Reymond, The Justification of Knowledge pg. 72.

[23] Gordon Clark, Language and Theology pg. 132.

[24] Ibid. pg. 133.

[25] Ibid. pg. 134.

[26] Gordon Clark, Modern Philosophy.

[27] Gordon Clark, Thales to Dewey pgs. 47-85, 237-280, 309-363.

[28] Gordon Clark, Clark and His Critics pg. 29.

[29] Gordon Clark, Christian Philosophy pg. 153.

[30] Gordon Clark, Clark and His Critics pg. 30.

[31] Ibid. pg. 52.

[32] Gordon Clark, What do Presbyterians Believe?

[33] Gordon Clark, Lord God of Truth pg. 17.

[34] Gordon Clark, Language and Theology pg. 144.

[35] Gordon Clark, Clark and His Critics pg. 59.

[36] Ibid. pg. 77.

[37] Gordon Clark, What Do Presbyterians Believe? pg. 54.

[38] Gordon Clark, Christian Philosophy pgs. 255-258.

[39] Ibid. pg. 101.

[40] Ibid. pg. 255.

1 comment:

bobbygthomas said...

Dr. Gordon Haddon Clark himself once stated that Gordon R. Lewis's book "Testing Christianity's Truth Claims" is the most accurate description any opponent had ever offered of his view.