Faith as the space of philosophy: Duns Scotus to John Mair
RELIGIOUS FAITH is one species of faith amongst others, and perhaps not all people have it. But considered in its generic aspect faith permeates the lives of all of us, and there are therefore many different possible perspectives upon it. Here I shall view it from the perspective of mental philosophy. That there should be such a perspective on faith is suggested by the fact that giving one's assent, saying ‘yes’, as an act of faith is a mental act, and the question therefore arises as to which mental powers are involved whenever such an act is performed. That question can appropriately be addressed to mental philosophy.
Most philosophers carry with them into their enquiries knowledge of the contributions that their predecessors have made to the philosophical questions of perennial concern. Since the occasion for these lectures is the quincentenary of King's College, Aberdeen, the writings that I shall carry most explicitly into this enquiry into faith are those of philosophers and theologians from Pre-Reformation Scotland, especially thinkers who lived around the time of the founding of King's College. Consequently these lectures will present a picture of the kinds of philosophical and theological discussions that were familiar to the students who attended the University of Aberdeen during the first years of its existence.
But who are these early Scottish philosophers? The name of one of them, John Duns Scotus (c. 1266–1308),1
to whom I shall be devoting most attention in lectures two and three, is familiar to everyone; in 1993 he was accorded the title Beatus
—Blessed. It was not only in virtue of the quality of his philosophy that the decision to beatify him was taken, but all the same the philosophy was an essential part of the man beatified. I believe him to be Scotland's greatest philosopher, yet, as I have indicated, there are also other philosophers from Pre-Reformation Scotland, and very few know of their existence. I am speaking here of one of the best-kept secrets of Scottish culture.
Scotus was not the first philosopher from this country. He had several predecessors, distinguished in their own day, whose writings have come down to us. One in particular whose existence we should at least note here is Richard Scot (c. 1123–73), who is usually referred to, with French pronunciation, as Richard de St Victor, though his Latin name, which tells us rather more and is rarely mentioned, is Ricardus de Sancto Victore Scotus.2
Richard Scot of the Abbey of St Victor, Paris, studied under the Abbey's most famous theologian Hugh of St Victor, and in 1162 succeeded him as prior. Richard, who died less than half a century before the founding of the Order of Friars Minor, the Franciscans, had a great influence on the philosophical and theological stance with which that Order quickly came to be associated. Richard Scot placed love at the centre of his theological system because he believed love to be a central feature of the universe, in virtue both of God's love for the created world and also of the commandment that we love God with all our heart. On these matters Richard was a follower of St Anselm of Canterbury. A century after Richard, the Franciscan Duns Scotus, in his turn, followed Richard on these same matters.
Intermediate in time between Richard Scot and Duns Scotus was their compatriot Michael Scot (died c. 1236), who was an important link in the chain of transmission of Aristotle's works from the Muslim world, via Spain, to the Christian West. In addition, with the help of Spanish-Jewish colleagues Michael Scot made translations into Latin of Arabic commentaries, in particular those of Averroes, on Aristotle.3
Though there is evidence that he worked for some time in Scotland, we lack proof that he engaged in any philosophical activity while here.
Certainly there were many scholars from Scotland, such as Richard Scot and Michael Scot, who studied and worked abroad. However, not all did. Scotland contained great religious houses, and no doubt philosophy was taught in them along with the theological instruction that was surely given. One thinker whose work has never received due attention is the twelfth-century abbot of Dryburgh, Adam Scot, many of whose writings are extant, even if not available in recent editions.4
His theological works contain philosophical insights which may have been expounded in classes which he conducted in Dryburgh Abbey.
Richard Scot spent his working life in Paris, and Michael Scot spent much of his in Toledo, Bologna, and as astrologer to the court of Frederick II of Sicily. Duns Scotus worked at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, Paris and Cologne. There is a question as to why so many of Scotland's earliest philosophers worked outside this country. A plausible explanation is simply that we did not at that time have any universities. Once the University of St Andrews was established, however, followed within the same century by the Universities of Glasgow and Aberdeen, the situation was transformed, and was transformed especially to the benefit of philosophy, though conventional wisdom would not have us believe this. I shall dwell on this last point.
All agree that poets made a priceless contribution to our literary canon during the century or so following the founding of Scotland's first university. The period is the age of the makars, the lowland poets, Robert Henryson, William Dunbar, Gavin Douglas, and others. In his Lament for the Makaris Dunbar names many poets whose works are now lost. But in any case the extant poetical writings of the period are of sufficient quantity and quality to stamp the age with a distinctive character.
Historical judgment on this matter has been very unfair. I do not mean in the least—how could I?—to be stinting about the magnificence, the magisterial presence, of the poetry of that age when I say that the overwhelming emphasis which has been placed on the poetical achievements of the fifteenth—and early-sixteenth-century Scottish literary heritage promotes a distorted image of that heritage. I believe the poetical achievement to have been fully matched by the Scottish philosophers who were contemporaries of the poets, though the writings of the philosophers disappeared into near oblivion and are only now being rescued. It is not difficult to explain why the writings of the philosophers slipped out of sight, but explanations in terms of historical causation cannot ever amount to justification of the events thus explained. It was despite the quality of the writings, not because of their quality, that they ceased to be read.
Considerations of politeness dictate that I introduce the philosophers I have in mind, since the last three lectures will make extensive use of their writings. All of them were Catholic priests, a fact which assumes especial significance in relation to the question of why their writings ceased to be studied in Scotland after the Reformation. The same point also explains why the writings of one Scot in particular, John Mair, continued to be listed as required reading in the universities of Spain, which of course did not undergo a Protestant Reformation. He was quoted frequently by his pupil, the great Spanish philosopher Francisco Vitoria, and also by Francisco Suarez, greatest philosopher-theologian of the Society of Jesus, an Order founded by Ignatius Loyola, who attended Mair's lectures at Paris.
That there was great liveliness on the Scottish scene at the time of the foundation of St Andrews University is shown by the fact that its first rector, Lawrence of Lindores (d. 1437), banned the teaching of the realist philosophy of Albert the Great, teacher of St Thomas Aquinas, and insisted that the philosophy courses should instead have a nominalist bias.5
His action in issuing the ban suggests that, practically from the first day of our first university, the philosophers in Scotland were in heated dispute with each other. Nominalism, which I shall discuss in the next lecture, had a brief pre-eminence during Lawrence of Lindores' rectorship. But it is evident that there were a number, indeed a majority, of closet realists in the arts faculty, for in the year following Lawrence's death his ban was revoked.6
This early battle in St Andrews has symbolic significance in relation to the Scottish philosophical tradition. Though I shall not attempt it here, I think it is possible to demonstrate that that tradition is marked by a continuing dispute between nominalists and realists, and that therefore generations of Scottish philosophers after Lawrence of Lindores inherited a dispute that has been in the system from the start. In the period of the Enlightenment, for example, Thomas Reid's attack on Hume was essentially a realist attack on an extreme nominalism.7
It is therefore a matter of more than merely passing interest that John Ireland (c. 1440–95), a graduate of St Andrews and Scotland's most important philosopher of the latter part of the fifteenth century, was caught up in a royal ban on nominalist teaching. On leaving St Andrews, John Ireland matriculated at the University of Paris, rising to become its rector, briefly, in 1469. Five years later Louis XI issued an ordinance approving the teaching of realist philosophers—he names Aristotle, Aquinas and Duns Scotus—and prohibiting the teaching of nominalists, such as William Ockham. A deputation, of which John Ireland was a member, was sent to the king to argue for the revocation of the ban. However, the ban remained in force till 1481, by which time John Ireland was back in this country.8
In 1490 he completed his Mirror of Wisdom
, containing a number of passages of considerable theological interest relating to the concept of will. I shall deal with those passages in the fourth lecture.
John Ireland was one of a large number of Scots at the University of Paris. In the later 1470s that contingent was joined by James Liddell (d. prob. after 1519) from Aberdeen.9
He graduated with a master's degree in 1483, and in the following year began to teach at Paris. In 1495, the year of the founding of a university in his home town, he became the first-ever Scot to have a book of his printed in his own lifetime. Given my belief that the Scots are a nation of philosophers, I find it peculiarly appropriate that that first-ever book by a Scot printed in his own lifetime was a work on philosophy. Its title is Conceptuum et signorum
—‘On concepts and signs’, and there is a single extant copy, in the National Library of Scotland. The book is an investigation into the natural signs and conventional symbols by which we experience the world and communicate our experiences to others.10
The book is sufficiently important in relation to the Scottish cultural tradition to merit a quincentenary celebration all to itself in Aberdeen, its author's home town.
The topic of Liddell's book was a popular one among Scottish philosophers, several of whom, in the generation after Liddell, wrote substantial treatises devoted entirely to matters dealt with in the Conceptuum et signorum
. The authors of those treatises were all members of the circle of John Mair. Hugh MacDiarmid coined the slogan ‘Back to Dunbar’ as a rallying cry, hoping to persuade us to look back beyond Burns and the Enlightenment to the works of William Dunbar and the other poets of the Pre-Reformation period. In the light of work done recently on John Mair and his circle, and with MacDiarmid's slogan in mind, George Davie has coined the slogan ‘Back to John Mair’ as a rallying cry, hoping to persuade us to look back beyond Hume and the Enlightenment to the works of Mair and his colleagues.11
Who then was Mair?
Born near Haddington c. 1467, he attended school in that town, the same school at which, a generation later, John Knox was a pupil.12
Mair was a student at the University of Paris, rising to become Professor of Theology there. He quickly acquired a Europe-wide reputation as a teacher, theologian, philosopher and logician. He returned to Scotland in 1518 to take up the post of principal of the University of Glasgow, before transferring briefly to St Andrews. After a further short period in Paris, he returned to St Andrews c. 1531, duly became Provost of St Salvator's College at the University, and remained in that post till his death in 1550, aged about eighty-three. He was a colleague of Erasmus at Paris, and his lectures there were attended not only by Loyola and Vitoria as already mentioned, but also by Buchanan, Rabelais, Calvin and Vives. At St Andrews he was the theology tutor of John Knox, who was later to refer to Mair as ‘an oracle on matters of religion’.13
He also wrote more than forty books, all of them extant.14
We are speaking therefore of a thinker pre-eminent in his day.
Among his colleagues at Paris were a number of Scots, some of whom returned to Scotland to take up major posts, in education, the Church and the law. These men were among the great teachers, preachers and pleaders of their age in Scotland. One is the Dundonian Hector Boece (c. 1465–1536), first principal of the University of Aberdeen, where he worked from c. 1497 till his death. His Explicatio quorundam vocabulorum
is a wonderfully clear and incisive account of the science of logic.15
He was an admirer of Mair, referring to him as ‘a profound theologian, whose writings, like brightest torches, have shed a glorious light on the Christian religion’16
—indeed the admiration was mutual—and it is probable that Mair was on Boece's reading lists when the latter lectured at Aberdeen. Others among the Scots at Paris during Mair's stay there were George Lokert of Ayr (c. 1485–1547), rector of St Andrews University and dean of Glasgow, Robert Galbraith (c. 1483–1544), senator of the College of Justice in Edinburgh and author of one of the great works of late-medieval logic, William Manderston (c. 1485–1552), graduate of Glasgow and rector of St Andrews University, Gilbert Crab of Aberdeen (c. 1482–1522), a prolific writer who published a commentary on Aristotle's Politics
while yet an undergraduate, and David Cranston (c. 1479–1512), of the Glasgow diocese, Mair's favourite pupil, who died aged about thirty-three, a few weeks after being awarded a doctorate of theology by Paris. It is upon members of this distinguished circle of philosophers and theologians that I shall focus in my later lectures.17
These men could not ignore the commanding presence of Duns Scotus, who had lived two centuries earlier. Whether they agreed with him or disagreed, they were aware of him, not just as a great philosophical predecessor but as a Scot. Mair, for example, refers to him rather often not as Scotus, but simply as conterraneus18
(‘my fellow countryman’), and indeed in his History of Greater Britain
Mair is happy to include the detail, not entirely relevant to the narrative, that Scotus was born just a few leagues from Mair's own birth place. Something of Mair's interest in and attitude to Scotus emerges in the following important passage from Mair's History
Near to him [sc
. Richard Middleton] in date, only later, wrote John Duns, that subtle doctor, who was a Scottish Briton, for he was born at Duns, a village eight miles distant from England, and separated from my own home by seven or eight leagues only. When he was no more than a boy, but had been grounded in grammar, he was taken by two Scottish Minorite friars to Oxford, for at that time there existed no university in Scotland. By the favour of those friars he lived in the convent of the Minorites at Oxford, and he made his profession in the religion of the Blessed Francis. As he was a man of the loftiest understanding and the keenest powers in debate, his designation of ‘the subtle’ was fully justified. At Oxford he made such progress that he left behind him for the admiration of after ages a monumental work the Metaphysics and the four books of the Sentences. These writings of his are commonly called the English or the Oxford work. When he was afterwards summoned by the Minorites of Paris to that city, he produced there another set of lectures on the Sentences, more compendious than the first edition, and at the same time more useful. These lectures we have but lately caused to be printed with metal types.19
In the end he went to Cologne, and there died while still a young man.20
I believe that Scotus cast a long shadow across the Scottish philosophical scene, and I hope to make a start in these lectures on providing evidence for this claim.
At the beginning I nailed my colours to the mast by saying that I believed Duns Scotus to be Scotland's greatest philosopher. On the other hand there are many who have regarded him as merely a notable representative of the logic-chopping schoolmen, a desiccated pedlar of soulless wares. Nevertheless we should not lose sight of the fact that he inspired Gerard Manley Hopkins, a free-flying spirit if ever there was one, who found in Scotus a companion spirit, rejoiced in his ideas, and celebrated him in his sonnet ‘Duns Scotus's Oxford’:
Yet ah! this air I gather and release
He lived on; these weeds and waters, these walls are what
He haunted who of all men most sways my spirits to peace;
Of realty the rarest-veinèd unraveller; a not
Rivalled insight, be rival Italy or Greece.
What was it that made Scotus the object of the intense intellectual passion of no less than Hopkins? Part of the answer is that Hopkins found that same intensity of intellectual passion in Scotus also, a philosopher who, as already stated, placed the concept of love at the centre of his system and who wrote with energy and fire when love was the reality he was dealing with—as it often was, for it was basic to his metaphysics, his mental philosophy, and his ethics.
In focusing thus upon love, Scotus reveals himself as a member of the Order of Friars Minor; his Franciscan background was of central importance in the development of his philosophy. No-one philosophises in a cultural vacuum, and, as is obvious, knowledge of the cultural context of a philosopher helps us to understand his philosophy; it can never hinder us. It is for this reason that I emphasise the fact that Scotus wrote not merely as a Christian, but as a Franciscan. His Order defined the character of his faith, and it was precisely upon love that that faith was focused. Faith was the space of Scotus's philosophy. It not only set the agenda for his philosophising but also explains the intensity of his writing.
A phrase especially associated with St Anselm of Canterbury applies with great force to Scotus. No brief passage has served more to give direction to Western philosophy than the ‘ontological argument’ occupying those few lines in Anselm's Proslogion. It had been Anselm's intention to name that work Fides quaerens intellectum—Faith seeking understanding. But though he eventually settled for the title Proslogion—Soliloquy, the earlier title was more revealing of the content not only of that short work but also of Anselm's entire philosophical and theological output. He was a man of faith. His faith had certain objects, most especially, God and God's knowledge, His impassibility, mercy and justice, and it was about these objects of his faith that Anselm philosophised because he wished to understand as fully as he was able the content of his faith.
Scotus's writings, no less than Anselm's, come under the heading ‘Faith seeking understanding’. And something has to be said about this heading for it can puzzle, if not exasperate, modern secular philosophers. There is a certain view of philosophy as an activity whose direction is dictated by argument, and not at all by the prejudices, likes and dislikes, of the philosopher. In philosophy, reason, not emotion, is given its head. On this view, philosophy is not merely an exercise in inventio, the art of finding arguments which support positions already adopted on whatever grounds. A criticism often levelled at philosophers in the mould of Anselm and Scotus is precisely that they begin by knowing exactly what they believe, and employ philosophy as a handmaid to their religion to confer an aura of intellectual respectability on their religious prejudgments. I shall now seek to argue that this is not a good reason for dismissing philosophers such as Anselm and Scotus, whose philosophy grows within the space of their faith.
It might be pointed out that some exercises in inventio
, the discovery of arguments in support of what is already judged true, are not thought to be intellectually disreputable. As one distinguished medievalist has remarked, Bertrand Russell, who accused medieval philosophers of using philosophy to prove what they already held true, himself devoted three hundred and sixty tightly argued pages to a proof that 1 + 1 = 2 (Principia Mathematica∗
54.43). This was not a case of Russell following the argument whithersoever it might lead. He knew from the start exactly what his goal was. And in that case, surely Russell was ill-placed to criticise medieval philosophers for using philosophy in order to provide such rational basis as they could find for propositions which they in any case accepted.21
This is a nice tu quoque argument, but it is not, I believe, an appropriate way to respond to Russell's attack on medieval philosophy, for what Russell set out to prove was not simply that 1 + 1 = 2, but that mathematics can be generated from logic. Russell's work therefore was not an exercise in finding a proof for what was in any case known, but in finding a proof for a claim that he had previously regarded as no more than a matter of speculation. I should prefer therefore to respond in a different way to the argument that since medieval philosophers use their philosophy to try to prove what they already believe, their philosophy is somehow flawed and should be dismissed.
We need to take seriously the formula ‘faith seeking understanding’. It is untrue that at the start of their philosophising the medieval philosophers already knew exactly what they believed. We find them again and again asking themselves: ‘But what do I believe?’ They are not asking what the religious formulae are to which they, as members of their faith community, have to give assent. They know the formulae perfectly well. What they want to know is what those formulae mean. So, as fideles, people of faith, and as philosophers, they go in search of understanding.
For example, it is, I believe, preferable to interpret the so-called ‘ontological argument’ of St Anselm's Proslogion, not as a demonstration of the existence of God, but instead as a systematic investigation into God's mode of existence. As fidelis quaerens intellectum St Anselm was not seeking proof of God's existence, but he was seeking to understand His existence, and it was through his philosophising that he came to do so. If this is a correct interpretation, then the question he addressed was not whether God exists but how He does.
Admittedly Anselm tells us near the start of the Preface to the Proslogion
: ‘I began to ask myself whether perhaps it might be possible to find a single argument that for its proof required no other than itself, and that by itself would suffice to prove that God truly exists [quia deus vere est
Furthermore, the heading that Anselm provides for the first of the crucial two chapters is: ‘That God truly exists’—‘Quod vere sit Deus
’. These two passages do indeed appear to imply that he is about to present a proof of God's existence. But the matter is not so straightforward. Why does Anselm say in the Preface that his project is to prove that God truly
exists and why is the title to Chapter Two: ‘That God truly
exists’? What contribution does the word ‘truly’—‘vere
’ make? Why is the title of the chapter not simply: ‘That God exists’—‘Quod sit Deus
’? To answer this, we have to consider what it is with which true
existence should be contrasted. And it can be demonstrated that Anselm does have a contrast in mind. In the Monologion
, written one year before the Proslogion
, Anselm speaks about us creatures in the following terms: ‘Since that which [creatures] were does not now exist, and that which they will be does not yet exist, and that which they are in the fleeting, knife-edged, and scarcely existent present scarcely exists, since, therefore, they are as mutable as this they are rightly said not to have simple, perfect and absolute existence, and are said almost not to exist and scarcely to exist.’23
To exist as we do is to exist but only just; to do so any less would be not to exist at all. To use Anselm's word to describe our status, we scarcely
The contrast with God in whom Anselm has faith could not be greater. It is God's nature to exist, and His non-existence is therefore impossible. To exist without the possibility of not doing so is to exist truly
. And when Anselm heads his chapter: ‘That God truly
exists’, he is signalling that he will demonstrate that God's existence is unlike that of creatures. That something can exist more or less truly is plainly indicated when Anselm writes: ‘You alone, then, of all things most truly exist and therefore of all things possess existence to the highest degree; for anything else does not exist as truly, and so possesses existence to a lesser degree.’24
Anselm is about to undertake an investigation into the nature of divine existence, the conclusion of which will be that God's existence is such that it is impossible for Him not to exist.25
Anselm therefore starts from a faith which constitutes the space of his philosophy, and wins his way through to a depth of understanding of the nature of the divine existence that he had not previously reached.
This is a far cry from the interpretation of Anselm's Proslogion
according to which he starts by having faith that God exists and then proceeds to prove that the God in whom he has faith does in fact exist. The task he sets himself is more interesting than that. We should recall here words Anselm penned as a preliminary to his so-called ontological argument: ‘[Your servant] yearns to see you, and your countenance is too far from him. He desires to come close to you, and your dwelling place is inaccessible. He longs to find you, and he does not know where you are. He is eager to seek you out, and he does not know your countenance. Lord, you are my God and my Lord, and I have never seen you.’26
These are not the words of a man about to present a proof of God's existence. They are the words of a man who is as sure of God's existence as he is of his own, but who seeks understanding of that existence, seeks to ‘know God's countenance’. The phrase ‘fides quaerens intellectum
’ encapsulates this position perfectly.
It can be demonstrated that much of Duns Scotus's philosophy is related in that same way to his faith. That is, he does not use philosophy to prove what he already knows, or use it to convince others of the intellectual respectability of something to which they could otherwise hardly be expected to give serious attention. Instead he uses philosophy to clarify the objects of his faith, so that something seen through a glass darkly comes to be seen with clarity. In this sense, for Scotus no less than for Anselm, faith is the space of philosophy.
Yet the act of faith itself which is directed to those obscure objects also stands in need of philosophical investigation for, as stated at the start, if saying ‘yes’ as an act of faith is a mental act, a philosophical question arises as to which mental powers are involved in its production. There are two obvious candidates, intellect and will. As regards intellect, to give assent to a proposition, whether doing so as an act of faith or otherwise, is to make a judgment; it is to judge that a given proposition is true, and there is a long-held and widely held view that the intellect is the faculty by which we judge.
It might be maintained, in addition, that acceptance of a proposition on faith involves at least a judgment that the proposition is not contradictory, and may therefore be accepted without contravening the laws of logic; for to assent to a proposition, whether as an act of faith or not, is, as just said, to judge it to be true, and a proposition cannot without contradiction be judged both contradictory and true. But judging of the contradictoriness or otherwise of a proposition is an act of intellect. An assent of faith therefore cannot be given without the intellect being engaged.
I am hesitant about this further argument, however, in view of the thinking that lies behind the famous phrase associated with Tertullian: ‘Credo quia absurdum
’—‘I believe because it is absurd’. Tertullian did write: ‘The son of God died. It is by all means to be believed because it is absurd [ineptum
]. And he was buried and rose again. The fact is certain because it is impossible.’27
should in this context be translated ‘absurd’—there is room for dispute about that. Nevertheless whether or not Tertullian said Credo quia absurdum
, the phrase does represent a strand of Christian theologising, and may indeed encompass in the minds of some (even if not in the mind of Tertullian) the conviction that the perceived contradictoriness of a proposition should not by itself be a bar to the fidelis
assenting to it. I should say at once, however, that members of John Mair's circle would reject out of hand as itself absurd the idea that a proposition perceived to be contradictory could be an appropriate object of an assent of faith. More of that later.
As regards will, there is a common view that accepting a proposition on faith is something over which we have control; it is something that we can decide to do. Somebody tells me something. I do not have to, I am not compelled to, take his word for truth. But all the same I decide to give my firm assent to what he has said. Such a response, which is a familiar if not an everyday occurrence, involves in an unspectacular way a leap of faith. All the philosophers with whom I shall be dealing held that assents of faith involve essentially such exercises of will, where will is contrasted with natural necessity—a contrast which I shall examine later when discussing Scotus's theory of freedom.
I have now given at least two reasons for taking seriously the hypothesis that faith is a product of intellect and will, and in due course I shall provide further arguments for this position. My conclusion will be that it is a product of the two mental powers jointly but of neither separately. That conclusion will of course prompt enquiry, which will duly be made, into the precise role that intellect and will each play in the production of faith.
If an act of will is a partial cause of faith, and if will is the faculty through which we act freely, and therefore in a manner undetermined by natural causation, then an assent of faith is a free act, by which I mean to imply that in the moment in which we give such an assent we could equally in those very same circumstances refuse to give it. This conclusion has large pastoral implications, for if the giving of an assent of faith is a free act, it follows that it, and the opposite act of refusing to give such an assent, can justifiably draw upon the agent praise or blame, as with all his free acts, and it can draw upon him also whatever recompense is commensurate with the praise and with the blame. The Church can therefore regard itself as entitled to consider how it should treat those who refuse to accept the Good Word when it is presented plainly to them, or worse, who reject it after having previously accepted it We read in the Gospel that we are commanded to believe, and we are told there that those who do not believe will be condemned—Qui vero non crediderit condemnabitur
(Mark 16.16). This verse28
is read most easily as based upon the doctrine that an assent of faith is a free act. I shall explore this matter in detail in connection with John Mair's treatment of the issue.
I said earlier that faith permeates the lives of all of us. I wish to return to this claim and to acknowledge that some may disagree with, even bridle at it. They may say to the contrary that they have never been persons of faith or perhaps that they have lost their faith and find that they can get along quite nicely, perhaps much better, without it, and that certainly their lives are not permeated with it. I must therefore undertake to justify my claim that the lives of all of us are indeed permeated with faith.
A great deal of what we know is accepted by us on the authority of others. Though we have not ourselves witnessed a given event, someone else tells us that he has, tells us what he saw, and we take his word for it. This way of acquiring knowledge is so routine a part of our lives that, as with knowledge acquired by sense perception, we hardly notice that the process is taking place. The knowledge we acquire through sense perception forms a significant proportion of the total knowledge that we each possess, and philosophers have had a great deal to say about it. But what we acquire from infancy onwards by accepting the authority of others also forms a significant proportion of our total knowledge. Without that acceptance of authority our knowledge, such as it might be, would not be recognisably human. Yet the authority of others is a medium for the acquisition of knowledge, to which philosophers have on the whole paid rather slight attention. We listen to people, and we read; and make what we hear and read part of ourselves, adding it to the vast reservoir of knowledge which we bring to bear whenever we, as spectators, look out upon the world and, as agents, seek to interact with it. Through our routine acceptance of authority we witness, though vicariously, countless events, and acquire also principles of action and explanation, through which we become fitted for human society.
A central feature of our stance towards others is our disposition to credit people with honesty. Modern economies are run on credit, but our entire culture is based on credit in a sense of that word that goes far beyond the merely economic. We put our faith in people. Someone might let us down of course but could do so only because we began by putting our faith in him. And even when we have become untrusting, this does not mean that we no longer put our faith in anyone. It is not just that we cannot do that and remain in human society. It is that we cannot help having faith. We continue to have faith in most people while we distrust a very few.
Yet the term ‘faith’ has acquired a much narrower usage. We can have faith in many sorts of things, and yet when someone is described as a person of faith, or it is said of him that he has lost his faith, we will assume that it is religious faith that is meant. In this sense we speak of the great faiths of the world. We do not include among them the faith an infant has in his or her parents, or the faith that spouses have in each other, though these are certainly faiths of sorts and have countless millions of adherents. We mean instead Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and so on. But faith, meaning religious faith, is generically the same as the faith that we place in our friends, in our neighbours, and indeed in people in general. Religious faith is distinctive, not in respect of what makes it faith but in respect of its object, that is, in respect of what makes the faith religious.
The significance of this point lies in the fact that a good deal of philosophy can be written about faith without attention being paid at all to the specifically religious variety. John Mair and his colleagues were well aware—as how could they not be?—of the fact that the concept of faith covers phenomena other than religious faith, and I shall be exploring their discussions of the concept of faith in the generic sense of that term. It is with that sense in mind that I say that faith permeates the lives of all of us. I think that those who would bridle at this claim would do so because they interpret me as being so wrong, and perhaps also as being so presumptuous, as to ascribe religious faith to them.
I began by saying that I shall be dealing with faith from the perspective of mental philosophy, paying particular attention to the question of the relation between faith on the one hand and the mental powers of intellect and will on the other. In the next lecture I shall make a start on this project by investigating those two mental powers. John Duns Scotus, Doctor Subtilis to his medieval successors, and now Beatus, will be my guide.