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  • Why Philosophy?
  • Anastasia Philippa Scrutton (bio)

My thanks go to Marcia Webb and Warren Kinghorn for their thoughtful and stimulating commentaries, one drawing attention to clinical studies of religion and depression and neuroscientific studies of determinism and free will, and the other making a case for a theological rather than philosophical argument against Christian voluntarism. In combination, the commentaries raise an important question about what a philosophical approach might valuably bring to the topics surrounding this paper, Kinghorn's by raising an explicit challenge to this end and Webb's by pointing to the achievements of empirical studies in this field without the aid of philosophical engagement. Unfortunately, there is not space in this response to reply to specific points individually. Rather, my aim is to articulate an answer to the question of the value of philosophy to these debates and areas of human experience. In the first part of the response, I focus on what philosophy brings to the topics discussed by King-horn and Webb. In the second part, I explore one constructive approach philosophical, theological, and empirical studies might collaboratively take in responding to depression.

What can philosophy do that theology cannot? Let us agree for the sake of argument with King-horn's presupposition that the purpose of choosing one disciplinary perspective rather than another is to appeal to people and persuade them to your point of view. Whereas a theological approach is likely to appeal to people who have a strong allegiance to scripture or to the doctrinal positions of mainstream Christianity by virtue of their status as 'orthodoxy,' a philosophical one is likely to appeal to a broader range of people, including people who do not share, or who are undecided about, such an allegiance. Such people are likely to be included in groups of people with depression who are exposed to voluntarism through self-help literature, church communities, and elsewhere, including secular society. They may also include clinicians whose patients include people who have been exposed to voluntarist ideas, and religious ministers who seek to advise people with depression and who regard experience and reason as the most important bearers of truth.

Thus, philosophy can appeal to people with beliefs (or perhaps an absence of beliefs) that theology cannot. Because it uses only non–faith-specific criteria such as consistency, coherence and fidelity to experience, philosophy provides a lingua franca1 for discussing the veracity of different beliefs (see Clark, 2005). These criteria may, of course, relate to other reasons one might have for doing philosophy. For example, someone may do philosophy because they wish to work out what they think about a particular topic, and may herself regard these criteria as the most valid.

How about what philosophy can add to the findings of the empirical sciences and social sciences? Philosophy aims to ascertain the truthfulness of certain beliefs as well as their helpfulness. In so doing, it goes beyond the outcomes-based, consequentialist questions and answers of the clinical studies of religion and health of Harold Koenig, Kenneth Pargament, and others. These empirical studies are helpful for the practical concerns of [End Page 285] clinicians qua clinicians, but they are unlikely to be satisfactory to people who wish to know what religious and other beliefs to hold, and for whom the truthfulness as well as the usefulness of beliefs is important. A further strength of philosophy lies in its capacity for nuanced conceptual analysis—and so, for example, although not a focus of my own paper, dialogue with philosophy could inform the currently simplistic neuroscientific discussions about determinism and free will explored in Webb's commentary (see Dennett, 2014; Mele, 2008).

For these reasons, philosophy has an important and distinctive role in these debates, complementing, informing, and extending rather than excluding the best theological and scientific approaches. In the remainder of my response, I suggest one way in which a collaboration between theology, the medical and social sciences, and philosophy might constructively respond to the reality of depression.

Although both voluntarism and the medicalizing account it opposes problematize the individual and so perpetuate rather than challenge social injustice (see Scrutton, 2015), empirical studies point to the social causes of much...


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