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The Idea of God in the Light of Recent Philosophy

1911 to 1913
University of Aberdeen

This book consists in the revised texts of two series of lectures. The preface tells us that the material and the treatment are the same, but that in some places the order and expression has been amended for the published version. However, the original programme of the 20 lectures has been preserved in 20 chapters. Pringle-Pattison's principal purpose is to engage with the longstanding debate about the significance of Enlightenment philosophy and 19th century scientific developments for the coherence and plausibility of Christian theism by setting these debates within the context of the Idealist philosophy to which he was himself a major contributor. His own version of Idealism stressed its Realist dimension, and this plays an important part in the treatment of the subjects he discusses in this book.

The first set of lectures was delivered in the year 1911, the 200th anniversary of the birth of David Hume, and in recognition of this fact, the opening lecture examines Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Its conclusion is that the common ground Hume identifies as that upon which atheist and theist can agree, is so attenuated, it cannot provide a thesis of any interest or value. Accordingly the second lecture turns to the Kantian alternative to Hume, and Kant's attempt to found religious belief on moral experience. This leads to an exploration of the foundations of the Idealist philosophy that Kant set in train, but which achieved its fullest expression by his successors, chiefly Hegel. The third lecture is devoted to the 19th century debate between a fully developed Idealism and the emerging positivistic naturalism.

Lecture IV is entitled “The Liberating Influence of Biology” and embodies Pringle-Pattison's approach to all the questions that intrigued and haunted intellectuals since Darwin. He points to Darwin's own rejection of any crude materialism based upon his investigations, and chides “timid” theologians for being frightened of scientific advances instead of being open to them on theological grounds as sources of liberating insight. The task as he sees it is to understand the theory of evolution correctly. Once this is done, it properly leads to a revitalized interest in philosophy. This is the theme of Lecture V which distinguishes between “lower” and “higher” forms of naturalism.

In Lecture VI Pringle-Pattison addresses the question of man's organic nature and defends realism about secondary properties precisely by appeal to the evolution of organs of sense, together with a true understanding of Idealist philosophy, which on his interpretation is the best defence of what is commonly understood by “Realism.”

This naturally leads to a critical discussion of “the religion of humanity” which is to say, an ethical humanism such as that espoused by Auguste Comte. Pringle-Pattison argues that Comte's doctrines are based upon a false metaphysics, and an emotionalism that, ironically, makes his humanism anti-scientific. Comte, famously, was an exponent of a robust positivism, and accordingly Pringle-Pattison next examines this view directly. He argues that it rests upon a false ideal of knowledge, and in its rejection of the divine confuses the unknowable with the unfathomable.

Further reflection on the deficiencies of positivism, leads to the attraction of Idealist philosophy. In the next two lectures, which complete the first series, Pringle-Pattison defends Idealism against identification with “pan-psychism” and “mentalism.” In common with other 19th century Idealist philosophers, he differentiates between Absolute Idealism and, on the one hand “subjective” idealism such as Berkeley is often held to have espoused, and on the other the deification of nature associated with Spinoza.

The first five lectures of the Second Series are expressly devoted to Pringle-Pattison's treatment of the central contentions of Idealist philosophy as these were understood at the turn of the 20th century. The ideas of “degrees of truth,” &#!47the infinite” and “the Absolute,” figure prominently in the discussion, and the principal thinkers examined are F H Bradley and Bernard Bosanquet. These ideas and thinkers were both prominent and influential in their day, though interest in this school of thought has not been sustained in modern philosophy. However, Pringle-Pattison makes these lectures a foundation for the remaining five lectures which consist in a critical discussion of ideas and concepts that continue to exercise philosophers, theologians and cosmologists. These include creation, a First Cause, teleology, time, eternity and evil, and his treatment of them includes reference to Spinoza, Bergson, Hume and Mill, as well as the now less central figures of McTaggart and Rashdall.

The intention of this second set of lectures is to correct what Pringle-Pattison identifies as the mistakes some Idealist philosophers have made, in order to secure the great advances in thought that he believes philosophical Idealism to have secured. Chief among the errors is the tendency of Idealist philosophy to subsume everything in “the Absolute” and thus deny reality to “finite selves.” Once amended, the truth in Idealist philosophy gives us reason to abandon the conception of God as a “superhuman Person” and pre-existent Creator of the world in favour of a conception of creation as an evolutionary “process” which is “the very life of God” as the world's “eternal Redeemer” bringing it to perfection through the “all compelling power of goodness and love.” Such a conception, the final lecture concludes, is not only more adequate philosophically, but can provide a more satisfactory answer to the traditional problem of evil.

  • Gordon Graham