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  • Print publication year: 1989
  • Online publication date: March 2010

2 - Idealism and realism: an old controversy dissolved


This essay is concerned with the dispute between realists and idealists, particularly in the form given to it in the immensely influential work of Michael Dummett, because Donald MacKinnon has insisted on its importance for theologians. That they should pay much more attention to their philosophical presuppositions is something that he has urged, not without some success, over many years. The reopening of the controversy may, however, prompt an attempt, not to resolve it so much as to make it superfluous. It will be suggested, at any rate, that the work of Charles Taylor, although at present much less influential, offers a perspective which it would be more fruitful for theologians to explore.

That Donald MacKinnon has conducted an anti-idealist campaign throughout his career need not be documented at great length. As an undergraduate at Oxford in 1934 he found himself being liberated from the theologically seductive doctrines of the British idealists by having to study the writings of the Cambridge realists, G. E. Moore and Bertrand Russell. In 1935, as another autobiographical note discloses, he was taken by Isaiah Berlin to hear John Wisdom deliver a paper on Moore and Wittgenstein. If he appreciated how Wisdom had made his own Wittgenstein's ‘emancipating insight’ that we are philosophically misled by the habit of supposing the meaning of a word to be an object, he also responded positively to Wisdom's communication of ‘the ruthlessly honest meticulous realism of Moore’.

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Christ, Ethics and Tragedy
  • Online ISBN: 9780511659515
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