Briefly Noted: On Luc Ferry and the Religious Nature of Philosophy

Luc Ferry’s A Brief History of Thought (2011) is a very pretty piece of humanism in which he notes that philosophy is a search for salvation. The author surveys five major eras, or “great moments,” of thought: early Greek dominance, the Christian middle ages, the Enlightenment that birthed modern philosophy, postmodernity, and the present stage “after deconstruction.” He argues that in each major era, philosophy has been, essentially, a search for human salvation.

This search is the response of each era to three questions, which correlate with the three dimensions of philosophy: “What is the nature of the world?” (theory); “How are we to act in it?” (ethics); and “What should my ultimate goal be?” (salvation). He further gives two reasons why everybody should study philosophy. First, “without it [philosophy] we can make no sense of the world in which we live” (p. xii). Second, “beyond coming to an understanding of oneself and others through acquaintance with the key texts of philosophy, we come to realize that these texts are able, quite simply, to help us live in a better and freer way” (p. xiv).

Ferry’s approach to intellectual history is unique. Jonah Haddad’s review of A Brief History puts it this way: “The uniqueness of Ferry’s response to the problem stems from his high view of philosophy and from his love for the discipline which has inclined him to offer philosophical reflection as the best possibility for living well and overcoming the fear of death.” In fact, the original French title of Ferry’s book was To Learn to Live.

In his chapter on “the Greek miracle,” Ferry makes his way quickly to Stoicism. As he sees it, the Stoic system of philosophy, and so living, demonstrates a “spirit remarkably close to that of Buddhism, [and] appeals for an attitude of ‘non-attachment’ towards the things of this world” (p. 47). Hence the Stoic doctrine of salvation “is resolutely anonymous and impersonal” (p. 52). On the ultimate question of salvation, then, Stoicism fails to deliver. It is to this question that Christianity brought out “the big guns” as Ferry puts it (p. 53).

In his treatment of Christianity, Ferry depends upon the apostles John and Paul, along with a healthy dose of Augustine and a sprinkling of Pascal. In Ferry’s view, Christianity is the philosophy of salvation through love. Although he is himself no believer, Ferry is fair-minded and even sympathetic toward Christianity. In fact, Ferry once wrote a book entitled The Temptation of Christianity (never translated from the French, La tentation du christianisme).[1] Yet Ferry cannot commit to the philosophy that depends upon faith in the God who created the world and gave impetus for human inquiry. As Haddad comments, “With near lament in his tone, Ferry admits that if only God truly existed he would be tempted to accept the viability of the Christian worldview (p. 263).” And Royal adds, “Ultimately, he believes, modern philosophy and the impact of modern science exploded the supposedly naive metaphysics on which Christianity is based.”

As for the Renaissance–Enlightenment period, Ferry notes that it was marked by revolutions (notably, the French and American revolutions) which spawned modern philosophy and, in turn, birthed republics. He seeks to demonstrate how “the modern world arose out of the collapse of ancient cosmology and a new questioning of religious authority, and eventually a scientific revolution unprecedented in the history of humanity” (p. 94). Thus Ferry begins with Copernicus (1453), Newton (1687), Descartes (1644), and Galileo (1632) and their most influential works (published in the dates given) to demonstrate this sea change. He then surveys the work of Kant, Rousseau, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Descartes, who together established the modern world of the two World Wars and television (to state it colloquially). Yet the modern center did not hold.

The modern center gave way to (or was overthrown by) postmodernity. Ferry defines this for us when he writes, “we call ‘postmodern’ those ideas which, from the mid-nineteenth century, were to set about dismantling the humanist creed of modernity, in particular the philosophy of the Enlightenment” (p. 143). Post-modernity, as Ferry shows, is in large part the intellectual father and child of Nietzsche. It serves as Nietzsche’s father because it is the ideas just referenced that Nietzsche took on, and yet it also is his child because “with Nietzsche…postmodernity arrived at its zenith” (p. 143). So the postmodern ethos of power politics, relativism, and living for the moment stems from Nietzsche. Ferry does not, however, uphold Nietzsche as the answer to philosophy’s three great questions (p. 193). For the answer to these questions we ought to look to ourselves, to humanity.

In the present era, as Ferry sees it, we must search for salvation in our humanity. The history of thought has moved us inexorably to this point and in so doing points us toward salvation. Haddad summarizes well: “This is so, because according to Ferry, our ‘salvation’ lies in the evolution of the human person and their ever-increasing knowledge of themselves and their world. When we embrace this knowledge we will be able to embrace the reality of death, to love well, and to live for wisdom.” Ferry is a humanist in the idealist sense that we will be saved when we become truly human, and to become truly human means to truly discover ourselves.

In response to Ferry’s book, I first wish to note that I appreciated the book and found it stimulating. Ferry has the unique ability to distill intellectual history into a few pages, and do so without losing as much as most authors would. His prose is elegant. His analysis and evaluation of Christianity is even-handed and as sympathetic as one can expect (unlike other freethinkers, such as Richard Dawkins, whose towering sense of self-approval is matched only by his breathtaking theological ignorance and fundamental inability to represent Christianity in an even-handed manner). Even his thesis that “philosophy searches for salvation” is refreshing because, even though philosophy cannot save, throughout history it has been treated as a functional savior.

Second, although philosophy cannot save, it is, in one sense, a salvific enterprise. The academic enterprise can be compared to a tree.[2] In this analogy, the roots of the tree are “faith” or the direction of the heart. The work of philosophy always is underlain by faith commitments, either to God or to idols. The base of the trunk is biblical studies and biblical theology, which serve as the foundation and trajectory for the growth of the tree. The main body of the trunk is a Christian worldview, which in turn has two main branches, namely, systematic theology and Christian philosophy. Growing from those two main branches are further branches, which represent the special sciences, the various disciplines each of which have their own creational integrity. In this view of things, Christian theology and Christian philosophy stand side-by-side in the search for truth. Neither discipline seeks to build its knowledge independent of God’s revelation. Both disciplines arise from the biblical narrative and its attendant Christian worldview, and therefore find themselves in a healthy and fruitful dialogue and partnership with one another.

Christian philosophy is therefore “salvific” in the sense that it can be part of a Christian person’s sanctification. Philosophy, at its best, is the attempt to describe systematically the structure of God’s creation (the nature of being, of knowledge, of beauty, etc.), drawing upon God’s self-revelation found in the created order and in the Bible, and using the tools of critical thinking and argumentation. It seeks a comprehensive view of the created order as creation (not merely as “nature”), and draws upon Scripture. Although Scripture does not give a comprehensive or detailed analysis of creational realities, it does provide the framework and many clues for understanding them. Bartholomew and Goheen write, “In our experience, sometimes people get so excited about philosophy—believe it or not—that they forget that it is Scripture which is God’s infallible word. Indeed, in our opinion a healthy Christian philosophy, like a healthy Christian theology, will take us back again and again and deeper and deeper into the Bible. We also believe that because the Bible is God’s Word for all of life that philosophy too must bow to its authority.”[3]

So Ferry is close to the truth and yet far away. Philosophy assuredly is a religious exercise. It often has functioned as a search for salvation, and sometimes explicitly has been named as such. In addition, Christian thinkers have practiced the discipline of philosophy in order to discern the structures of God-given reality (metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics) and in order to articulate biblical teaching on difficult topics (e.g. Trinity, Incarnation). Philosophers have provided us with categories that are profoundly helpful for Christian intellectual inquiry and for practical living. Therefore, as long as we practice philosophy as those with “faith seeking understanding”, we will find (Christian) philosophy to be a fruitful exercise. Thus, philosophy will always have an important role to play within the Christian faith.

However, philosophy cannot and does not stand on its own two feet. Or, to revisit the ecological analogy above, the “trunk” of philosophy is fed by the “roots” of faith. Ultimately philosophy is a function of existential and cultural realities, and at the heart of those realities is religion. The direction of one’s heart always is operative in the shaping of one’s philosophy. When we encounter non-Christian philosophies we can always note the idolatries operative in them, but interestingly it is exactly at the point of their idolatry that their most profound insights might be found (e.g. Freud’s insights on sex, Machiavelli’s on power, or Marx’s on money). The complex task of Christian philosophy is to appropriate those insights without at the same time downloading the idolatrous ideological environment in which they were conceived.

So for better or for worse, philosophy is a deeply religious exercise. Apart from Christ, it is an idolatrous exercise. But in the service of Christ’s kingdom, it is a valuable and fruitful discipline.

[1] I owe this point to Robert Royal’s review in First Things (November 1, 2012).

[2] I owe this analogy to Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen, Liberating Christian Philosophy (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, forthcoming 2013), chs. 1-2.

[3] Bartholomew and Goheen, Liberating Christian Philosophy, ch. 1.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

  1 Comment

  1. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Through the course of the history of philosophers some/many philosophers have viewed philosophy as either anti-religious, non-religious, or basically neutral.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *