As Non-Empirical Languages, Do Philosophical Systems Have Greater Epistemic Validity Than Theological Systems?

I would say no. When we are dealing with non-empirical (that is, non-scientific) languages, I don’t think that you can give substantially greater epistemic weight to the conclusions of philosophers over those of theologians.

When I think of some of the system builders in philosophy (people like Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Derrida, Heidegger, Marx, Sartre, Nietzsche etc.) I feel like I’m reading stimulating creative writers—poets of being, if you will—but not writers that I would characterize as generating systems that have strong or objective links with “reality” proper. I simply don’t see a large distinction between, say, a theological language like Thomas Aquinas’s and the philosophical languages generated by, say, Spinoza and Heidegger. I don’t think, for example, that Heidegger’s “Dasein”, Hegel’s “Geist”, Marx’s “dialectical materialism”, or Sartre’s notion of radical human freedom really have all that much more epistemic justification than, say, the trinity, immanence, or the notion that humans have souls.

If you are speaking of philosophy in extremely narrow terms (as procedural logic, avoiding fallacies etc.) I don’t quarrel that philosophy can contribute more to human understanding than theology, but analytic theology (such as that practiced by Alvin Plantinga) is certainly not lacking in logical rigor. But I just can’t think of an example of a philosopher (past or present) who, as an intellectual system builder, really deserves any higher epistemic status than the theologian.

Once you leave the realm of the empirical, it’s hard for me to distinguish the systems built by the geniuses of philosophy and theology from poetry. They’re often beautiful languages. They’re curiously interesting. But they’re probably not true (or at least no more or less true than any other non-empirical way of talking about things).

How to decide between them? And how to live without them (or at least choosing between them)?

Perhaps make your own? William Blake said, “I must make my own system / or be enslav’d by another.”

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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10 Responses to As Non-Empirical Languages, Do Philosophical Systems Have Greater Epistemic Validity Than Theological Systems?

  1. beholdtheman says:

    Marx and Nietzsche are commonly counted as materialists, ergo empiricists. The latter is known as an anti-systematiser, although attempts have been made to systematise him.

    No system can represent reality proper. In this I concur with Nietzsche. Systems are models; they are mythological; they are the way we make the world intelligible. There is no ‘reality in itself’ to which we can shed light. This is a erroneous metaphor, but a useful one for practical purposes. There is no truth, only interpretations (FN). Truth = Empiricism is an error also (but a useful one).

    When we talk of Truth we do so in the context of a culture. Those systems that align with the culture are granted higher epistemic status (e.g. Empiricism). That is why we can grant greater epistemic weight to some types of systems rather than others.

    We as individuals can attempt to stand outside of the dominant culture and create our own system. (However, you can never escape culture, be it the dominant one or another). You have suggested that such a system must have its purpose in living and freedom. I agree.

  2. amazed says:

    I’m a litle shocked you feel this way. Have you read the phenomenological works of Husserl? The philosphical writings of Godel or Wolfgang Pauli? The philosphical writings of Cantor? How about Plato? They are all holding truth up to reason and intuition which is all that sceince can ever do-perhaps not as well….Pythagoras was a mystic philospher, not a mathematician, but his mathemtaical truth was a result of his mystical intuiton same with all of the others.

    What is this empirical science you speak of? Is it the one that uses poetry and false imagery such as molecules as billiard balls? There is no empirical science any more. The quantum word is the word of mathemtics. Ever since Kant, we knw that all science is subjective poetry. The difference is that with philosphers in the Pythagorean-Platonic tradition i have mentioned (let us include Leibniz and Kepler in there too), mathematics flows out from their philosophy and mystical beliefs.

    I think that your views are the hang over from the damage done by the Logical Positivists. Remove metaphysics from the equation and label it poetry…but the paradox you cannot exscape is that all observation and logic eventually must succumb to metaphysics at some level. Husserl and Godel came extremely close to metaphysical systems with rigorous clarity and precision. More precise than any sense-loving sciene has ever achieved…because it goes beyond sceince and creates the framework for sceince.

    If you truly want to see how a metaphysical system results in rigorous truth beyond petry then study Leibniz’s original metaphyscal beleiefs which spawned his calculus. The best overview is Abraham Robinson’s “The metaphysics of the calculus” available on (in Jaakko Hintikka’s Philosophy of mathematics).

    Mathematics is metaphysics in a precise form and must constantly rely on philosphy and intuition or it becomes a mere formal system and falls apart. Metaphysics must also frame all science with the philosphy of science.


  3. amazed says:

    If you want to group all metaphysics (about the highest elevel of existence, truth and god) with theology then you are defining philosophical systems as theological in spirit. But then you will run into trouble because all math and sceince eventually must all under metaphysics at some level. So if you are correct that speculative philosphy is mere peotry then you must also admit that all sceince and mathematics is also poetry.


  4. amazed says:

    The problem is that you have just been reading the wrong philosphers (Satre, Nietzche etc.). If you had been studying someone like Husserl you would not be able to say the things you say above:

  5. santitafarella says:


    I appreciate your link to Husserl’s “Philosophy as a Rigorous Science” and will read it.

    As for your other comments, I agree that all claims to knowledge, including science, have metaphysical underpinnings. My point above is that empirical forms of knowing are all we have collective access to. Empirical forms of knowing can be shared around (via reproducible experiments, open opportunities to look at each others’s data etc.); Sartre’s assumptions about free will, though maybe true, cannot.

    I think that we should, in public discussion at least, ask what evidence lies behind our knowledge claims. Some truths may well be known by direct experience only. I believe I have a self, though I can only report it to you, my experience of it. I can’t put it on the table for direct public demonstration. Scientists could ignore my self report and just focus on my behavior, assuming I don’t have a real self. They might well be able to explain me adequately without resort to my hypothesis.


  6. amazed says:

    i agree with everything you say and you will def enjoy Husserl’s paper. I think in the end we will be compramising, but not by lowering philosphy down to what the logical positivists label “bad petry”. But rather we will be elevating poetry and philosophy to the level of the profound…

    Sceince does not deal with the profound, but what Husserl’s later work (and that paper is an early to middle work) shows the path to philosophy as meeting the requirements you list as best as possible as a rigorous science….without losing touch with the profound…


  7. amazed says:

    PS. i think the subtle disagreement between you and i, however, is that i belieev we have a collective access to metaphysical truth. No i cannot know that you exist in the same way that you know it. But to me it’s a contigent truth. This is why i begin my metaphysics not with an intuitive knowledge that I exist-this is unfair to you-but rather that truth exists. Also we all know that consciousness exists, een if we have access to different instances of it. Once truth exists, we can build from there using modal logic, mathematcis, art etc.

    And it is all as universal as empirical scientific results that are repeateable.


  8. amazed says:

    we all may not have labratories that we can replicate experiments with, but we all have intuition. it is my controversal belief that this allows us to all have access to a collective metaphyscal system as rigorous as sceince (in the tradition of Husserl, Godel and others).

    Of course the problem lies in that we do not all have equal access to intuition 😉

    Amazed Gary

  9. amazed says:

    and i also feel that evidence should not be restricted to empirical evidence (Wolfgang Pauli had some pretty mean words for those who need to see things to believe them that i won’t repeat).

    permissible evidence should include logic, mathematics and yes even appeals to personal intuition.

    We can all for example agree that genocide is wrong but this is NOT because we collectively have access to hedonism and it pains us to see it….it is NOT because of pragmatic reasons (as the libertarians believe)…..

    It is collectively known to be wrong only because justice has a very real existence…that is how i see it at least and i know it’s controversal….

    When we try to compare our collective intuition to the morality of something like abortion, we obviously run into problems…so we need to draw the line somewhere….but because we can at least agree on some extreme things means we have a collective framework to work from…and who knows…maybe we can one day collectively reach an understanding on something as complex and intuitively mysterious as the abortion debate….

    what is interesting is that sceince deals mostly with contigent truth and experiments are ideal for those…but when we deal with nesesary truths we need the types of intuition we all have access to. Abortion and genocide are interesting because they span across contigent and necesary truths (to my way of thinking at least) so they are a third category.

    Amazed Gary

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