At the beginning of his classic History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell offers the following distinction between philosophy, theology, and science:
“Like theology, it [philosophy] consists of speculations on matters as to which definite knowledge has, so far, been unascertainable; but like science, it appeals to human reason rather than to authority, whether that of tradition or that of revelation.”
|Science||Achieves definite knowledge||Appeals to human reason|
|Philosophy||Speculates on matters lacking definite knowledge||Appeals to human reason|
|Theology||Speculates on matters lacking definite knowledge||Appeals to revelation/authority|
It’s a nice and tidy contrast. Too bad that it is also self-serving drivel.
The fact is that there is no tidy contrast between “philosophy” and “theology”. Consider, philosophy of religion is one of the main branches of philosophy. And philosophical theology is one of the main branches of theology. Yet, there is no clear demarcation between philosophy of religion and philosophical theology. To be sure, various practitioners may try to propose one or another point of contrast, but there will be as many practitioners who emphatically dispute that any such distinction exists. So, for example, is a defense of the Trinity by way of material constitution and relative identity an argument pertaining to philosophy of religion or philosophical theology? The answer is both.
Second, note that religion and theology also impinge on many other philosophical topics. Platonism, for example, is one of the most famous and enduring of all philosophical theories. Sometimes Platonism is simply expressed as the view that abstract universals exist apart from any concrete exemplifications. But in other expressions, such as the view held by Plato himself, Platonism is a significantly richer metaphysic which includes a teleological framework and the existence of a quasi-divine Form of the Good. In other words, Plato’s own expression of Platonism is quite religious. In other words, it is a theological theory as surely as it is a philosophical one.
Alfred North Whitehead famously observed that the history of philosophy is but a series of footnotes to Plato. Hyperbole? Definitely. Nonetheless, the influence of Plato’s philosophy/theology on western philosophy has never been exceeded. It also utterly fails to respect Russell’s tendentious and self-serving distinction.
There is much else to reject in Russell’s mapping of the disciplinary boundaries. For example, assuming one does not buy into some tendentious empiricism, both philosophical and theological arguments can produce knowledge. (For a full account, see my book Theology in Search of Foundations (Oxford University Press, 2009.) And scientific knowledge is often lauded for the very fact that it is always tentative and forever open to revision pending further data, a fact that makes Russell’s claim that science produces definite knowledge rather curious.
So what’s the lesson here? Simply this: don’t let ideologues set up the parameters of the conversation with self-serving definitions and categories.