On The Julian Lethbridge Guestlectures

"Biology rightly protests when alien concepts are imported from other disciplines, such as occurred with the Intelligent Design hoo-hah. But this embargo cuts both ways; God's existence is not a scientific question, and scientific inquiry therein is simply a category error. Do not dismiss from outside without examination from inside. Truth cannot be traced across the borders here; they are exogenous species."

Aberdeen Uni recently ran a series of incredibly poorly-publicised lectures one Dr Julian Lethbridge, (a Spenserian-Wittgensteinian theologian-curmudgeon from the University of Tuebingen).

The umbrella was a Defending the Humanities gig, and the weight of his understanding was properly novel, a little intoxicating. I was in rout for much of the time, trying to sense together his system, the shape of his world.

Here's my attempt to formalise a holist, then. I'll try not to just copy out the notes, though I'm utterly sure I'll miss something critical and straw-man him anyway:

He's a singular man: at each of the four hour-long lectures he pelted the perhaps five folk who turned up with perhaps a thousand ideas pulled from Aristotle, Bonhoeffer, Spenser, Leibniz, Frye, Barth, Barthes, Don McLean, and, centrally, Christ/Wittgenstein. The pelting was to soften us up for the man's ontology, which I'm going to call a Romantic Christian Antireal Plural Logico-Theism until I run out of pigeonholes.

Why He Was Talking:
"The humanities are the study of meaning. They exist, and exist primarily beyond the magisterium of science. They must understand themselves, must defend themselves against the shallow, instrumentalist conception of life that relegates them in the name of cost-efficiency."

How? First: Kill universology. Make the incursion of natural-science methods into the objects of the humanities, and vice versa, a fallacy and a category error.

Second: Affirm a Romantic, yet linguistic basis of existence, with a generous metaphysics. Pretend that you don't need faith in an Abrahamic God for this to stand up.

"The act of Understanding is a self-contained defence of the humanities."


: Each academic discipline must be separate because it has a separate object of study. Theories are incommensurable because they aren't looking at the same thing. (Aristotle)

The differing objects of study have thus led to the development of distinctive methods. Disciplines are autonomous because they use demonstratively different modes of inquiry on their different things and, critically, start from different presupposition.

3: As quantum science has realised, and the humanities are founded on; the observer changes the observed. Object-as-seen dictates method creates object-as-seen.

4: All progress, all constructive thought has been founded on assumption. It is far from unreasonable to make assumptions; the justification is simply that we have no other choice(?) BIG CLAIM: All academia, whether it admits it or not, is foundationalist.

5: Theology does not need to prove the existence of God; he is an exogenous constant, like the reliability of induction or the uniformity of nature is in Physics.

6: For a thousand-and-a-half years our greatest thinkers were primarily (though socially necessarily) theologians; do we mean to say that nothing of general worth arose from this?

Understanding the World As In Itself It Really Is (On History)

Wow. Even from the title you can get a sense of how tricky the path he's walking is.

"The intellect seeks out, seeks to justify, that which it has already accepted. Systematic scepticism is vanishingly difficult - all thanks to the demonized processes of socialization and indoctrination, there."

He works this claim into respectability by arguing the World, entire, to be an Intentional Object. Our current cultural prejudice is to bow to science, and physics in particular, to stand for our World As It Really Is

"Intentionality: Aboutness; The distinguishing property of mental phenomena of being necessarily directed upon an object, whether real or imaginary"

In the crassest sense, a thrown stone is "an intentional object"; some mind's action has imbued it with purpose, op cit: doing your head in. Better: as soon as any object is observed, it is intentionalized, via categorization or representation or even just location.

The "natural" world which the sciences consult with are, in one very significant sense, not natural at all - the mechanical philosophers of the C16th contrived

History is said to be the study of intentionality: the perception, will and consequences of the actions of people. Events in history (as opposed to geology) are given significance by the reactions of minds to them. In this it is a literal reading of Schopenhauer's "The World As Will And Idea", but presumably without much of that'un's entailments.


OBJECT OF STUDY: Intentional objects - the actions/thoughts and consequences of humans being humans.



"The discipline of physics is not physical."

Understanding the World Transformed (On Theology)

What we know now as physics has, from the C17th, developed so as to factor out (or actively subtract) the Divine and the Human from its calculations; and the subject is all the better for it, as we have seen.

But as a result, we cannot count attempts by physics or the natural sciences which have followed its lead to answer theological or intentional questions; the method of physics makes gods and people invisible to it, and has in the past pretended that the human-as-subject can be divorced from the data/theory too.

"A scalpel is a method for dealing with bodies. It cannot see the person it cuts; it obscures the person to deal with the flesh."

What can theology offer the secularist?

Well; the pomp is that it deals with that which the scalpel cannot touch: that which is hidden to perception and sometimes to proof.

"It is, whether our conclusions are true or false, the profoundest study of humanity in terms of its language-ties, its men and women, and its meaning."


[e.g. (Christian) Theology assumes the world to be made of and with love. And what is the first thing to notice about love? It is transformative; it radically alters perception.

"Entering it, one is suddenly aesthetically magnified; the stars are presenting for you alone; birdsong is omnipresent and omnibenevolent. An astounding amount of negative experience becomes perfectly tolerable. There's nothing esoteric about transformation. All those who look closely at the world know this.]


Today, theology is an embarassment, the only subject with less "hardness" and so parent-calming power than philosophy. (Comes from the general Western secular democratic suspicion against godites, I suppose). It used to be "The Queen of the Sciences": for more than a thousand-and-a-half years the greatest minds who ever recorded themselves were primarily (socially necessarily) theologians; do we mean to say that nothing of general worth came from this?

BIG CLAIM: Theology does not need proof of God's existence.
(Though individuals certainly might.)


A god who speaks to humanity.

The theologian assumes so; physics does not concern itself with the logical basis of induction or of nature's continuities, neither does theology with their God.

1. God exists. (as an Abrahamic perfection, usually)
2. Is omnipotentbenevolentiscienct.
3. God spoke in writing.
4. God speaks still.
5. Personal belief is a requisite of understanding this God; it is the mechanism of understanding.

1. If logic were above God, then God would be diminuted, subject to something.
2. Nothing is above God. (Perfection as Highest)
C. Therefore logic does not bind a god like this one.
God is not necessarily logical, can work "above" the logical.

Who can tell me what's wrong here? (Why trust an irrational beastie?) We have other words for that which transcends the logical; "fantastical".


"All disciplines must have a degree of faith. That is what presupposition is."

Which is a bit of a threat really; "if I'm irrational, then so are all of youse!"

Anyway: consider the Credo -

"I believe in God."
"I believe that God exists"

A "Science Credo" equivalent would be

"This is what I see the world as."
"This is the only correct worldview."

"The 'Born Again' or whatever other ghastly person who shrieks "I know God exists!" is being facile, and is simply mistaken. God is attached to via hope, not knowledge."



"...don't work but are still interesting."

Don't see them as proofs - which would after all just be an attempt to tie God down with reason, to patch one's shaky faith with logical security. Aquinas' five arguments can be shown to be something quite different, under a philosophical eye. They can tell us something about how theologians think, if nothing else.

ONTOLOGICAL - "Essence implies existence" (Doesn't work.) Prefigures Descartes' Cogito?

(Gödel's ontological proof, one real purpose of which is to remind us that we don't actually understand the argument)...

TELEOLOGICAL - "World has purpose; implies Intender" (Doesn't work) Lethbridge argued that this "proof" was actually part of the thought process that has so far reached a Evolutionary conception of life - it was an intellectual leap, and necessary.

1.We became able to conceive that some things work on their own (processes w/o Maintainer)
2. We became able to conceive that we can self-determine once created (dropped Aristotle's teleology)
3. We became able to conceive that things may arise on their own (origin of species)

COSMOLOGICAL - "Beginning implies an eternal, immune" (Doesn't work)
(Unmoved Mover + Contingency + First Cause all the same argument?)


"Science cannot analyse its own axioms. Whereas philosophy and theology are slightly larger than themselves..."

He continues here with the line that faith is a feature of all thought, that all academic fields require one to "sign up" or intellectually assent to the foundations of the field.

Philosophy's not really supposed to have foundations per se, though the primacy of rationality, argumentative honesty and our potency in determining meaning are kind of timeless treaties.

What else do we have?
A series of rotten dialectical prejudices, subject/object, aprior/aposterior and so on.
Apart from that, mostly just the fads and contemporaneous flotsam.


"Any diagnosis of the values of any system must take on a degree of sympathy for that system. Otherwise it is a diagnosis only of oneself."

And the "sympathy" that one must have with God is only attainable via personal commitment?

The idea is of "sharing another's object", taking on their semantic as they meant it. It is a kind of trust. (Trust is inductive, earned; faith is given on credit) He used a metaphor, the scholar as lover. Who have you convinced to love you by violence or unkindness?

"There is a limit to what one may do if one is the object or cause of jealousy; for the jealous lover, everything one does is transmuted into misdirected love. It is a vicious and total transformation of the world, the inverse of the other love's action. And you cannot understand that which you hate"


[ Long bit on Logos, the word of God and Wittgenstein here.]


BIG CLAIM: 'Knowledge' in theology is more than head-knowledge.

I sympathize - there's more to life than the crackling lines of deduction - but that's still too mystical for my palate.


Once more now: The disciplines must remain autonomous, must not be led into some reductive alleyway. But they're not competing, for fuck's sake!

They are separate but they obviously share an enormous amount, not least in the limitations that those that conduct them bring to the studies. "Not incompatible, merely distinct!"

Grace, nobility, integrity and hope are not scientifically demonstrable. But it's a mistake to think of them as very less real for this.


LECTURES 3&4: (On Litcrit and On the Humanities):

Anyway; there's lots to disagree with, but it's a fascinating mindset nonetheless. I kind of want to wash my mouth out with some Dennett, however.

  • ERROR 1: Describes History as the study of "the world as in itself it really is". Which requires a very funky epistemology to even begin to ratify.

  • ERROR 2: Claims that physics makes "the human invisible to physics' tools." But much of quantum problems deal with observer issues, cf. Bohr's complementarity, Heisenberg, etc. Perhaps he means that the human condition is not considered as (the humanities find that) it is, but instead as a phenomenon awaiting mechanical analysis, which somehow misses a point about it.

  • ERROR 3: There's a very good - though not binding - argument that if something is "hidden" (not present) to both perception and logical demonstration, it may as well not exist. Lethbridge does suggest that there is a third manner, the "interpretative", second-order perception, but this still can't accommodate so large a boondoggle as Yahweh.

  • "Profoundest study"? If by profound we mean "obscurantist", which does more or less fit. Of course theology is unfalsifiable! Why should it try to be scientific?

  • ERROR 4: "Theology does not need proof" - isn't this what Russell's teapot is about? I'm not sure that you can simply axiomatize this away. (Although, what can't one axiom away?)

  • ERROR 5: Presupposition 5 of Christian theology - that one must buy in to properly "get it" is incredibly self-serving. He justifies it at length - the believer is an anthropologist getting right in about this strange culture, Yahweh.

"The Bible cannot be fully understood without a personal commitment to its God"

No wonder theology's dying.

  • ERROR 6: I'm actually not sure that the disciplines do carve up so neatly, as if names meant total iron-curtain division of object. Take anthropology, which is conventionally thought of as four sub-fields; linguistic A, social A, physical A and archaeological A. This skips merrily past the cultural/natural distinction, which is apt enough for the science that aims to analyse ourselves and what we've been.
Dennett calls theology a "microdiscipline", a subsubdepartment of proper philosophy, pushing his decent, humane belligerence as he usually does.


All this said, I do really like his style and his rigour. I haven't escaped being changed by his emphatic, sensible, sentiment.

"We are born in chains, but eventually, if we are lucky, the words & being of others grant us some partial freedom."

1 comment:

  1. Hi there, I was wondering if you have recordings of all of the parts? Thanks in advance!