You are here

Theism and Thought

1922 to 1923
University of Glasgow

Theism and Thought is based upon Balfour’s second course of Gifford Lectures given in 1922–23, and is the conclusion of an argument started nine years prior in his first course given in 1914 (published as the volume Theism and Humanism). Balfour had intended to present his second course in closer proximity to the first course, but was prevented from doing so by his involvement in the war effort as the First Lord of the Admiralty. This gap in time does not go unnoticed by Balfour, who is keenly aware that many who were in attendance at his first course of lectures would not be present at the second. In light of the continuity between the content of the two courses and the discontinuity between the audiences, the 1922–23 lectures repeat a significant amount of material covered by those given in 1914.

The lectures that undergird Theism and Thought, just like those which preceded Theism and Humanism, were originally given extempore. The printed edition, though consistent in terms of the general content of the lectures, has been heavily revised and expanded, with the addition of two extra chapters following the ninth lecture. Structurally, the book is composed of four parts. The first part contains two chapters which constitute the work’s prologue. The second part consists of three chapters, each reviewing matters of epistemology, belief and doubt. The third and most significant part contains six chapters, four of which discuss various nuances to common sense philosophy and two which discuss the possibility of inter-subjective communication. The fourth and final part contains three chapters: one which reflects on the role of scepticism and the final two which summarize the project to date and provide closing perfunctory remarks. Due to the structural incongruence of the published volume with respect to the structure of the lectures themselves, the summation that follows will discuss each of the four parts of the book, rather than the fifteen individual chapters.

In Part 1, Balfour prefaces his work by reflecting on the historical conflict concerning science and religion. He argues that despite claims to the contrary, adherents of scientific Naturalism truly do possess a longing for the infinite which is often obscured by their predispositions to the contrary. In the work to follow, Balfour wishes to dismiss the conflict between science and theology and argue that theism is a natural and necessary aspect of human existence, something shared by scientists, theologians and (significantly) the ‘plain man’. Again, echoing a sentiment clearly expressed in his first course of lectures, Balfour argues that values, ethics, aesthetics, reason, etc. can only exist in relationship to the transcendent.

Having sufficiently argued against scientific Naturalism though an appeal to the common sense philosophy outlined in his previous course, in Parts 2 and 3 Balfour begins to dismantle philosophical objections to common sense philosophy that seek to undermine the veracity of one’s sense perceptions. Unlike other Gifford lecturers who have defended theism on metaphysical grounds, Balfour explicitly states that his appeal to common sense is truly an argumentum ad hominem, an address to the ‘common man’ which defends one’s ability to truthfully know the world.

Chief amongst his dialogue partners in this section is Bertrand Russell, whose ‘New Logic’ of Idealism and the so-called methodology of doubt create for Balfour a system which undermines the individual’s knowledge of the world. Despite his critique of the content of Russell’s work, Balfour finds the methodology not entirely without merit. Balfour attempts to apply what appears to be an ironic reading of Russell’s methodology to his own common sense ‘creed’ that things are as they seem to be. In attempting to purify his common sense philosophy through the flames of methodological doubt, Balfour comes to the final conclusion that the philosophy of common sense affirms a universal knowledge which though known individually (or subjectively), is a common individualism which is exempt from accusations of solipsism. Thus, he concludes Part 2 by asserting that humanity is a collection of individuals who share a set of familiar beliefs.

In Part 3, Balfour continues to reflect on the problem of methodological doubt. In this section, however, he does so with special interest in how idealist and new realist philosophies alike have emptied the ‘plain man’s’ perceptions of the external world of any intrinsic reliability, by undermining the veracity of perception. Speaking of the implications of such philosophies on natural science, Balfour echoes Herbert Spencer by saying, ‘If idealism be true … evolution is a dream’ (p. 144). The purpose of this discussion, which spans six chapters in the present work, is to provide a satisfactory means of justifying his belief that the world is as it seems to be.

Having discussed at length the existence of the objective world, Balfour turns to the problem of the existence of the subjective-other by addressing the nature of inter-subjective (I-Thou) communication. Balfour dismisses the naturalistic, new rationalist and idealistic definitions of I-Thou relations and appeals instead to an understanding of sociality and individuality which is grounded in theism and a belief in the non-corporeal soul. Balfour concludes this section by arguing that an analysis of mental events alone is insufficient to explain the origins of the self.

By way of a summation, in Part 4, Balfour makes an explicit turn to the subject of natural theology and again discusses the role played by theism in under-girding one’s ability to possess reliable perceptive abilities. For Balfour, Theism is that which endows humanity with the universal means of understanding the world through reliable senses. As the epilogue states: ‘Divine guidance must be postulated if we are to maintain the three great virtues—knowledge, love and beauty’ (p. 248).


Theism and Thought

Hodder and Stoughton
  • Michael W. DeLashmutt, University of Glasgow