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Experience and the Ultimacy of God
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In Memoriam John Edwin Smith

Introduction: Is God Ultimate?

In the introduction to his brief compendium of sources and perspectives in the philosophy of religion, John Edwin Smith notes four "basic concerns" in that field: "the problem of God, involving both the meaning of the divine idea and the critical discussions dealing with God's existence; the relation between God and the world, including the question of the connection between religion and scientific knowledge; the fact of many different religions and the prospects for genuine encounter between them; the proper relations between religious faith and philosophical criticism, including the role of reason in determining religious commitment." The philosophical issues to be addressed here are centrally located in the first concern and the implications for how different responses to that concern construe the problematic of the second concern, with a few implications drawn for both the third and the fourth.

When, in 1961, Smith published his collection of essays entitled Reason and God, he was addressing a philosophical community struggling to come to terms with the relationship between philosophy and religion. While currents of thought in the then ascendant trajectory known as analytic philosophy, apparently epitomized in Smith's mind by the work of A. J. Ayer, damned religious language to a state of meaninglessness (albeit not necessarily irrelevance), the streams of Continental philosophy were struggling in the fetters of subjectivity to which they felt bound by the likes of Descartes and Kant. As Carlin Romano notes in his January 2010 memorial tribute to Smith and Stephen Toulmin, Smith read the history of philosophy in a way "that stressed the openness of Peirce, Royce, James, and Dewey to life and the conceptual universe as it is, rather than as precisionist poseurs would like it to be. Against the exhausted scientism of the analysts, and the supposed primacy of a purely theoretical epistemology long since rendered defunct by Dewey and James, he emphasized the 'intimacy between action and thought' at the heart of American thinking." Romano also notes the identification, in a citation read by Robert C. Neville at the March 1996 meeting of the Metaphysical Society of America, of an interpretation of experience from a perspective arising from American philosophy at the heart of Smith's philosophical project. The breadth of that interpretation analogously paralleled Smith's frustration with existentialist notions that existence is an anthropological and subjective category: "Philosophy deals with all existence and on this account it must not restrict itself to the narrower range of Existenz." Smith would instead demand an account of experience as not merely a category of human subjectivity but characterized by common sense and pervasiveness.

The frustrations Smith experienced with both the analytic and Continental traditions effectively stemmed from their emphasis on specificity, not in the sense of clarity but in the sense of insisting upon the principal of contradiction such that for a concept to be valid it must not admit mutually exclusive instances. In contrast, Smith would have preferred what C. S. Peirce termed "vagueness," or the inapplicability of the principal of contradiction such that it might obtain to mutually exclusive instances, with regard to the concepts of experience and existence. Again, this is not to say that Smith was opposed to clarity, but it is to say that he was opposed to the result of specificity, namely, the missing of the forest for the trees. Concepts should be clear but not at the expense of their scope of applicability, which they lose as they become more distinct. To borrow one of Smith's examples, the concept of existence is perfectly clear when it applies to anything that exists but actually loses clarity, in Peirce's sense of the idea of all sensible effects, when it becomes more definite through specification. Of course, the tendency toward definiteness in the concepts employed by philosophy is a function of time. This is to say that over the course of time concepts tend to become more definite, in the sense of applicability only in more and more particular contexts, because the followers of any individual philosopher are likely to employ a concept only in the specific manner of their predecessor(s) in the tradition. When...


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