Sunday, February 08, 2004


The Philosophy of Religion

University Diaries surprised me this morning. I’ve been reading that blog for about a month now, often enjoying it, sometimes not really caring that much about the subject matter, but never disagreeing with it as strongly as I do with this morning’s blog.

This morning’s University Diaries talks about the recent FIRE case regarding Dr. James Tuttle, a professor of moral philosophy (notice the emboldened word moral—there, I’ve done it again) who is in the process of being shown the door by his dean and his department chair for mentioning his Catholic beliefs, both verbally (which garnered student criticism) and then on his syllabus, as a “warning” regarding the belief system he was bringing with him into the field of (again with the bold) moral philosophy.

After a brief introduction to the problem (with no link to the actual article on the FIRE website), Professor Soltan concludes:

Huh? What the hell is that supposed to mean? Last time I checked, there was a long and strong intellectual tradition within the Catholic Church, and a hell of a lot of moral philosophy being written. But let’s move on.

Why is “Catholic Christian” in scare quotes? And why is that confusing? Christianity is composed a number of different sects, each interpreting Christian doctrine in a different manner. Professor Tuttle is simply clarifying what kind of Christian he is. There is a great deal of difference between the Catholics and the Baptists, and don’t even get me started on the Mormons, who also consider themselves Christian. The scare quotes are simply disingenuous.

As for that list of people covered in an Introduction to Philosophy course, let me add a couple of names. How about Augustine and Aquinas? Boethius? William of Ockham? At least three of those philosophers were “Catholic Christians,” and the fourth may have been, though the Consolatio gives us no indication one way or the other.

Professor Tuttle, presumably, agrees with at least some of the moral positions taken by these philosophers, and as a student, I think that would be nice to know up front, because it’s going to color his reading of the other texts being studied and, given the fact that I see no indication that he is unfair in his teaching or grading practices, that coloring is itself a valid topic for discussion in a philosophy course. His reading of Plato, particularly if they look at the Timeaus, might be affected by the fact that he espouses these later philosophers and their desire to see in the Timeaus a prefiguring of the creation story from Genesis. Certainly his reading of Plotinus runs a good chance of being affected by Augustine, and his reading of Aristotle might be affected by Aquinas’s reading. (It was Aquinas, after all, who was primarily responsible for reintroducing Aristotle into Western thought.) One philosopher’s reading of another philosopher is, after all, part of the philosophical discourse.

The first sentence, were Tuttle to have actually included it on his syllabus, I have no problem with. None of us is capable of real objectivity, though we should of course strive to be as objective as possible when presenting material in classroom. Since we have no evidence regarding how the materials in Professor Tuttle’s class are presented—save for a whiny complaint by a student, which, given my experiences with the trendy atheism currently in vogue on college campuses, I am given to dismiss—coming to such a conclusion is premature. The idea of judging a professor on the basis of a single student’s word is indicative of the ridiculous amount of power the modern university has invested in the student. My advice to this student would be to sit down, shut up and try to learn something, even if it’s coming from someone who religious beliefs differ from your own. Christianity is as legitimate a part of the philosophical tradition as Wittgenstein (who, along with Derrida, owes a hell of a lot to the early Augustine’s writings on the nature of language).

The second sentence serves only to reveal Professor Soltan's biases. I have no problem with Tuttle believing himself to be morally superior than the philosophers he is reading. I consider myself morally superior to most of my colleagues, because I don’t use my classroom as an ideological indoctrination camp. But that’s another rant altogether. Tuttle is teaching a philosophy course, and it seems to me that what his disclaimer is actually saying is “My belief that the moral systems developed by Christianity are superior to those developed by secular philosophy needs to be established at the outset,” I’m not sure why it would be an issue. He prefers one system over the others; show me a philosophy professor who doesn’t. But it’s nice to know this up front. You know that he’s going to go easy on his analysis of the Christian philosophers, and you know he’s going to stick it to the rest. If anything, this is an opportunity for the student in question—and all of Tuttle’s students—to challenge him on any number of things, making both student and teacher engage with the material in a much deeper way than the lecture & take notes format.

It would be nice if the pomos were to make this sort of admission. Every single pomo professor I’ve had felt himself/herself to be morally superior to the writers we were reading—or at least the white, male writers—and their courses were an exercise in moral critique. Of course, it was never put this way, but in essence, this is what was done in the classroom. If any of these professors had provided an honest disclaimer, perhaps the tenor of the classroom would have been different, and I would have learned something more than the “fact” that all were racist, sexist, classist pigs who cared nothing for the environment.

This last paragraph is just a bit silly. Why should a student need to know anything about a professor? I think what Professor Soltan has to say in the rest of her blog about Professor Tuttle has made that perfectly clear. Because our opinions on the subject matter entrusted to us matter. This is particularly true in philosophy, given that we continue to work within the philosophical paradigm provided by Plato, in which the philosopher lives his or her philosophy.

As for Heidegger, it’s pretty important to know about his Nazism. If you’re planning to turn to Heidegger as a source of moral philosophy, you might want to think twice once you’re aware of what he condoned.

Finally, there is no indication that Tuttle’s Catholicism has seriously affected his presentation of the course materials (the complaints of a single student for whom the very mention of Catholicism is threatening notwithstanding), and there is no indication that his personal beliefs are affecting his ability to fairly assess his students’ work and progress.

Quite frankly, the idea that we should treat this any differently than a philosophy professor who professes a preference for Aristotle over Plato is beyond me.

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