- C.S. Peirce and the Nested Continua Model of Religious Interpretation by Gary Slater
C.S. Peirce and the Nested Continua Model of Religious Interpretation
Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2015. 242 pp. incl. index
The impact of Peirce's philosophy of religion on subsequent religious thinkers was almost immediate. Within five years of the appearance of Peirce's "A Neglected Argument for the Reality of God," in 1913, Josiah Royce published his brilliant Hibbert Lectures on The Problem of Christianity, delivered at Oxford earlier that year. It was the first—and in many respects remains the most impressive—attempt to adapt Peirce's ideas for the purposes of articulating a comprehensive philosophical theology. During the last 100 years, only a handful of thinkers have followed Royce's lead, first Charles Hartshorne, more recently Robert Corrington, Hermann Deuser, Robert Neville and Peter Ochs. (Other scholars have set about the task of interpreting Peirce's religious thought, but in a way not linked to the pursuit of a specific theological objective.) With the publication of his recent book, Gary Slater attempts to accomplish two tasks: (1) to illuminate the arguments of two of these thinkers, Neville and Ochs, and (2) to develop some of Peirce's ideas for his own theological project. This is an ambitious agenda, especially for a first book, written by a young philosopher. The attempt itself is noteworthy, while the level of success that Slater achieves is really quite admirable.
I have reviewed Slater's book previously and elsewhere. For the purposes and interests of the readers of this journal, I want to focus on his interpretation and adaptation of certain aspects of Peirce's philosophy. Toward that end, Slater's reading of Neville and Ochs is not irrelevant, since they are prominent examples of individuals who have engaged in pretty much the same task. But I will only mention, without exploring in any detail, the skillful way in which Slater attempts to harmonize these two very distinctive approaches to doing philosophical theology—approaches that might at first glance appear to be somewhat in tension with each other. [End Page 491]
Royce referred to the Neglected Argument in his book, but focused most of his attention on Peirce's semiotic theory, especially as it was articulated in several early articles published toward the end of the 1860s in the Journal of Speculative Philosophy. (Because of this emphasis, Royce can be regarded as the first philosopher after Peirce to engage in a mode of inquiry that I have labeled "theosemiotic.") Slater also attends to elements of Peirce's semiotic theory, but with the primary aim of making sense out of his existential graphs. Here the influence of Peter Ochs on Slater's project is also clearly evident. Peirce hinted at the potential significance of his graphs for the philosophy of religion, but Ochs pursued that hint at some length and with considerable rigor in his 1998 book on Peirce.
Recall that Peirce intended the graphs to serve as a visual representation of human reasoning, a kind of pictorial logic. His invention of the graphs came late in Peirce's career and his death in 1914 left them incomplete. Slater sketches his own "nested continua model," briefly in the Introduction and then at greater length in the book's first chapter, where he carefully articulates nine "rules" for the model's employment. In very broad outline, it calls for a two-dimensional graph, organized as a series of concentric circles containing specific markings. Any given circle supplies the interpretive framework for everything that it embraces, while itself being rendered meaningful only by reference to the contexts within which it is embedded. Each circle represents a rule of reasoning, then, to be used for interpreting the things that it contains. Each circle is also a continuum, of lesser dimensionality than the circles that enfold it, but greater than anything—either smaller circles or discrete markings—that it encloses. Slater imagines that a point marked at the very center of the nest could be taken to represent "absolute firstness," the creative source of every determinate thing that exists. Beyond the outermost circle, which...