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Aspects of the Philosophy of Kai Nielsen

  • Hugo Meynell (a1)


Kai Nielsen is perhaps the most prolific of contemporary philosophers in Canada, as well as one of the most interesting. There are three salient aspects of his philosophy: his Marxism, his anti-foundationalism, and his particular brand of atheism. (The point of that last phrase will become clear in due course.) Among a large number of objections which I have to Nielsen's arguments and conclusions, one in particular stands out. I do not see how anti-fideism can consistently be combined with anti-foundationalism. The essence offideismis that one does not deem it necessary to rationally justify one's (typically religious) position, but one just “plumps for” it. But any justification of a (religious or other) position appears to involve appeal to foundations. Either the reasons in accordance with which a belief or set of beliefs is to be accepted can at least in principle be spelled out; or the belief or set of beliefs is arbitrary and unjustified. Nielsen needs to grasp the former horn of the dilemma to attack religious beliefs in the way he does; but to do so necessarily involves the foundationalism which he also attacks. A lot of the special quality of Nielsen, as a philosopher, comes out in the devices with which he covers over this intellectual crevasse.



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1 On “Wittgensteinian Fideism”, see Nielsen, Kai, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion (London: Macmillan, 1982), chaps. 4 and 5. An account of Nielsen's antifoundationalism is in his (unpublished) typescript, “How to be Sceptical about Philosophy”.

2 For a brilliant and witty counterblast to this sort of polemic, see Lewis, C. S., “Bul-verism, orthe Foundation of Twentieth-Century Thought”, in Undeceptions (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1971), 223228.

3 One Russian Marxist author declared that it was sufficient refutation of Berkeley's philosophical theories that Berkeley was a bishop. I owe this detail to an article by Joseph M. Zycinski, to which I cannot now find the reference.

4 Cf. Nielsen, , “Wittgensteinian Fideism”; also his Scepticism (London: Macmillan, 1973) and Contemporary Critiques of Religion (London: Macmillan, 1971). The position is outlined also in his more recent (unpublished) typescripts, “God and Coherence: On the Epistemological Foundations of Religious Belief”; and “On Mucking Around about God: Some Methodological Animadversions”. That God cannot be pointed to. in the way that Fred can (“On Mucking Around about God”, 7), is true. But neither can Alexander the Great, a neutrino, or anyone's thoughts and feelings.

5 See Meynell, Hugo, “Kai Nielsen and the Concept of God”, Question (01 1972), 4853, and, at greater length, God and the World: On the Coherence of Christian Theism (London: SPCK, 1971).

6 Mackie, J. L., The Miracle of Theism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982), 12, 12.

7 I have set out this claim at greater length in “The Euthyphro Dilemma”, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, supplementary vol. 46 (1972), and in “Is There a Christian Social Ethic?”, The Month (August 1980).

8 See especially Nielsen, Kai, Ethics Without God (London: Pemberton, 1973). I strongly agree with Nielsen (cf. chap. 3) that many can find meaning in life without any form of religious belief.

9 The relevance of religion to morality does not depend merely on the fact that, as Nielsen admits, “pure practical reason, even with a good knowledge of the facts, will not take you to morality” (“Why Should I be Moral Revisited” [unpublished typescript], 26); but rather on the fact that it will actually lead you away from it.

10 Cf. Marx, K. and Engels, F., The Holy Family, trans. Dixon, R. (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1956): “If correctly understood interest is the principle of all morals, man's private interest must be made to coincide with the interest of humanity” (quoted from McLellan, D., The Thought of Karl Marx [London: Macmillan, 1971], 127; my italics).

11 Mill, J. S., Utilitarianism (London: Everyman, 1964), chap. 3.

12 For Nielsen's account of value, seethe typescript, “Critique of Pure Virtue: Animadversions on a Virtue-based Ethic”.

13 See Lenin, V. I., The State and Revolution (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, n.d.), 12, 18, 27-28, 30-31.

14 Cf. Nielsen's (unpublished) typescript, “How to be Sceptical About Philosophy”, 17. Also Rorty, Richard, The Consequences of Pragmatism (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press), xv.

15 Nielsen, , “How to be Sceptical”, 26.

16 Ibid., 15.

17 Ibid., 14.

18 Ibid., passim.

19 The fact that the non-philosopher can raise certain questions of great generality (for example, is materialism or pragmatism the world view which makes best sense of science?) does not stop them from being philosophical. Nor does the fact that the boundary is impossible to draw between philosophical and non-philosophical questions and opinions, even if one grants it, in the least affect the issue. That modern biochemical discoveries imply atheism is no more a doctrine of biochemistry than it is of theology, even if there is no exact point at which the opinions of biochemists cease to be a part of biochemistry and become a part of philosophy.

20 Forthe setting-out and vindication of this account of the foundations of knowledge, see above all Lonergan, B. J. F., Insight: A Study of Human Understanding (London: Longmans, Green, 1957). Paradoxically, Nielsen's discussion of “considered moral judgments” in “wide reflective equilibrium” seems among the most promising candidates of contemporary philosophical writings for providing foundations for ethics. See Nielsen, , “Grounding Rights and a Method of Reflective Equilibrium”, Inquiry 25. 277306; also On Needing a Moral Theory: Rationality, Considered Judgments and the Grounding of Morality”, Metaphilosophy 13/2 (04 1982), 97116. But there is no space here to discuss Nielsen's moral philosophy at length.

21 I have to thank Kai Nielsen for many helpful comments on the contents of this paper; and in general for the enormous philosophical stimulus of his conversation.

Aspects of the Philosophy of Kai Nielsen

  • Hugo Meynell (a1)


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