- Subjectivity, Enchantment, and Truth: Frankenberry among the Puritans
Philosophers of religion are indebted to Nancy Frankenberry for a trail of important papers and books in which she scouts the line between philosophical and religious thinking. Robert Neville has already conveyed some sense of the breadth and scope of her work—of the difficult landscape through which she has guided us. So I am going to go small. I am going to focus on two clusters of issues that have been central to her thinking. I have had the good fortune over the years to think with Frankenberry about these issues. With this paper I am, as it were, reporting in on where I am at the moment in our continuing conversation.
The first cluster of issues centers on a different kind of conversation: the one we have with ourselves. It focuses on our internal dialogue and its connection to the world outside. It centers on such familiar concepts as experience, inwardness, and subjectivity. How to draw the distinction between inner and outer has vexed philosophers and religious thinkers throughout modern and contemporary times, and, to judge by her recent writings, Frankenberry has had about enough. She says she is ready to give up on the concept of experience and substitute for it the more tractable connection between language and world. She writes: “We can see the inwardness or subjectivity once celebrated by religious existentialists like Kierkegaard and extolled by romantic poets like Wordsworth to have been a literary effect, produced by prolonged prominence accorded to indexical pronouns.”1 In the first part of my paper, I will be picking up this particular gauntlet and arguing for a modest rehabilitation of experience, inwardness, and subjectivity, one that I hope will yet appeal to Frankenberry’s pragmatism. In this I am with Neville in drawing on Peirce— though, at the same time, I am hoping to strengthen Frankenberry’s resolve in resisting Neville’s call to ultimacy at the end of his paper.
Second, I will then turn to the theory of interpretation and to its importance to the study of religion, a topic to which Frankenberry has contributed as much as anyone on the contemporary scene. Here I am channeling my earliest [End Page 21] association with the Dartmouth department. When I first met Hans Penner, I was a graduate student flailing about for a dissertation topic. He said, “Kid, I have one word for you.” I remember thinking, “plastics”? Rather, “Davidson.” I have never regretted taking his advice, but over one central piece of doctrine I have lapsed. Davidson, and Penner, Frankenberry, and Godlove after him, held—or, in my case, assumed—that we can understand much linguistic meaning in terms of truth; roughly, that we can often understand what someone says when we know what it would be for what she has said to be true. That thesis no longer seems right to me. In fact, for students of religion, I think it is probably harmful. So, having fallen from the straight and narrow truth-conditional path, part of my business here will be to give an account of myself.
In sum, I will be talking about experience and meaning—and why those of us interested in religion need to be clear about how they are connected.
In a forthcoming essay, Frankenberry says she has been “torn between the idea that such a vital matter as religion could scarcely be said to live without experience, and the idea that, when we consider some of the claims made in the name of experience, religion could hardly live with it.” But now she is persuaded that “language [can] really do all the work that I wanted to theorize concerning experience, radical empiricism, and religion.”2 Now Neville takes Frankenberry to task on just this point, that is, for taking the linguistic turn, and Davidson in particular, too seriously. As I will be making clear, I think Neville mistakes Davidson’s motivation and underestimates the importance of his work for the study of religion. But I agree with and will be trying to deepen Neville’s critique on one fundamental point, namely, that focusing on...