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  • Nancy Frankenberry: Philosopher of Religion, Radical Empiricist, Herald of Contingency
  • Robert Cummings Neville (bio)

I. Introduction

In the 1978 volume of Process Studies, Nancy Frankenberry published an article called “The Empirical Dimension of Religious Experience” that I thought was so good that I wrote her a short fan letter about it.1 She responded by saying that she was flattered by my praise because I was a model for her younger generation. For the first time in my life I felt old. And I wasn’t yet forty. But here I am, still fully employed, presenting a long fan letter at her retirement. Nice irony!

I want to begin laying out some of the themes and accomplishments of her distinguished career as a model philosopher of religion by discussing her early book Religion and Radical Empiricism (1987).2 The context in which she wrote then was the stream of analytical philosophy of religion that had descended from Hume. She could have, but did not, write in the context of Continental philosophy of religion descended from Hegel. Her overall point, which has remained at the center of her work down to today, is that philosophy of religion depends on a philosophy of experience and that the British empiricist philosophy of experience is wrong. (She has since substituted “language” for “experience” in ways to be discussed shortly.)3 The American pragmatic and Whiteheadian traditions of experience are the better way to go. The plot of her book is as follows. First, she locates philosophy of religion as concentrating on the issues of justifying religious or theological beliefs. This was Hume’s trajectory. Many philosophers and scholars of religion have downplayed the centrality of belief, but Frankenberry has made it central throughout her career. The two main modes of theological justification have been metaphysics and [End Page 5] appeals to experience, both of which she rejects in the forms they take in the Humean analytical orientation but defends in a careful milking of Whitehead’s metaphysics and pragmatic appeals to experience.

The second chapter of her book details, with many criticisms, the trajectory of empiricism from Hume to Ayer and the logical positivists to analytical linguistic empiricism where beliefs are turned into sentences, and finally to the neopragmatists, mainly Quine, Davidson, and Rorty. The neopragmatists almost get it right, Frankenberry says, Rorty building on Davidson who builds on Quine. Her dialectical development of their views is exquisite. I’m not sure whether her title for this chapter, “Shaking the Foundations of Empiricism,” is an intentional play on the title of Tillich’s book of sermons, The Shaking of the Foundations.4 Frankenberry is generally critical and often dismissive of Tillich. The main theme common to Quine, Davidson, and Rorty is what Frankenberry calls “holism” or “semantic holism.” I’ll come back to this.

The third chapter argues that the people who really did set the philosophy of experience on the right track in reference to religion were the classical pragmatists, especially James and Dewey. Their work is what she calls “radical empiricism,” which she adopts as the title for her own philosophy, adopting the phrase from William James’s Essays in Radical Empiricism.5

The fourth chapter explores the attempt of the Chicago School to develop a religiously robust theism on radically empirical bases, treating Henry Nelson Wieman, Bernard Meland, and Bernard Loomer. These figures are of little or no interest to analytic philosophers early or late. But the reason Frankenberry finds them interesting is that they do get the point that radical empiricism can penetrate even into religious thinkers who take theism seriously.

The fifth chapter of Religion and Radical Empiricism is a shocker. It argues first that Alfred North Whitehead’s philosophy can provide a metaphysical justification for radical empiricism. Or rather, it describes in metaphysical terms what the world is such that radical empiricism is the very process of experience. To defend Whitehead this way requires excising his conception of God, and perhaps reinterpreting his theory of eternal objects, while bolstering his theory of causal efficacy. (I am an enthusiastic supporter of all this surgery.) The shock is that her empirical defense of Whitehead’s metaphysics is a long, critical...


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