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The Systematic Elusiveness of God: On the Fiftieth Anniversary of Ian Ramsey's Religious Language

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 March 2013

Terrence W. Tilley
Fordham University


Ian Ramsey (1915–1972) had a significant impact on analytical philosophy of religion in the second half of the twentieth century. This article claims that one of his early articles, “The Systematic Elusiveness of ‘I’,” and the passing comments on Thomas Aquinas in his most famous work, Religious Language (1957), are keys to understanding his contributions. Though his work is out of vogue with many philosophers of religion today, he anticipated a number of significant developments in philosophy and his work remains used by and useful for systematic theologians.

Copyright © The College Theology Society 2007

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1 The book was based on lectures given in 1955 at University College, Cardiff. Numerous works followed in its wake; an extensive bibliography is appended to the posthumously published Models for Divine Activity (London: SCM, 1973). For a useful, if now dated, survey of the first twenty years or so of the developments in analytical philosophy of religion, with some historical antecedents, see Tilley, T. W., Talking of God: An Introduction to the Philosophical Analysis of Religious Language (New York: Paulist Press, 1978).Google Scholar Subsequent references to Ramsey, 's Religious Language (London: SCM Press, 1957)Google Scholar are given parenthetically in the text as (RL pg).

2 Edwards, David, Ian Ramsey Bishop of Durham—A Memoir (London: Oxford University Press, 1973), 33Google Scholar; original source not cited. Biographical material in this paper is taken from Edwards' work and my extensive interview with Margaret Ramsey, Ian Ramsey's widow (November, 1974), unless otherwise noted.

3 His notes for these lectures were preserved in his Nachlass which I reviewed in 1974 at the Bishop's House in Auckland, near Durham.

4 Ramsey, Ian T., “The Quest for a Christian Philosophy,” The Modern Churchman (February, 1941)Google Scholar, as cited in Peart-Binns, John S., “The Improbable Bishop: Ian Thomas Ramsey—Bishop of Durham 1966–1972,” Modern Believing 43/2 (2005): 2235, at 25CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Ramsey reiterates much of this without the derogatory language in Religious Language (12), his only reference to Wittgenstein in that text.

5 Times Literary Supplement, 1943: 259. I owe this reference to F.W. Dillistone. Ramsey's appreciation of Berkeley was later demonstrated in his article “Berkeley and the Possibility of an Empirical Metaphysics,” in New Studies in Berkeley's Philosophy, ed. Steinkraus, W.E. (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1966), 1330.Google Scholar This article is extracted almost verbatim from Ramsey's unpublished typescript (found in his Nachlass) which I have identified as the book promised “soon” in Religious Language (9), entitled “Fact, Metaphysics, and God.” This is, I believe, the last extract from this manuscript that Ramsey published. The typescript itself, showing evidence of significant editing (probably over a period of years) was, to put it bluntly, passé almost as soon as it was written. For further analysis, see Astley, J., “Ian Ramsey's Early Thought and its Development,” The Durham University Journal 76 (1984): 157–67.Google Scholar

6 Phillips, D.Z., “Infinite Approximation,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 44 (1976): 477CrossRefGoogle Scholar, as cited in Beirne, Elizabeth, The Logic of Disclosures: The Works of Ian Thomas Ramsey (Bronx, NY: Institute for Applied Philosophy, College of Mount Saint Vincent, 1996), 40.Google Scholar

7 Models and Mystery (London: Oxford University Press, 1964), 30, 34, 60.

8 On Being Sure in Religion (London: The Athlone Press, 1963), 59, 62.

9 See Ramsey, , “Polanyi and J.L. Austin,” in Intellect and Hope: Essays in the Thought of Michael Polanyi, ed. Langford, T.A. and Poteat, W.H. (Durham: Duke University Press, 1968), 169–97Google Scholar, and “Facts and Disclosures,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society n.s. 72 (1971–72): 115–33.

10 I have found little or no evidence of Ramsey's epistemology having been influenced by the British naturalist tradition (as identified by Ferreira, M. Jamie, Scepticism and Reasonable Doubt: The British Naturalist Tradition in Wilkins, Hume, Reid and Newman [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986]).Google ScholarAstley, J., “Ian Ramsey and the Problem of Religious Knowledge,” Journal of Theological Studies n.s. 35 (1984): 414–40CrossRefGoogle Scholar, emphasizes Ramsey's idealist roots and finds him a “corrigible intuitionist” in epistemology. Tilley, T.W., “Ian Ramsey and Empirical Fit,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 45 (1977): Supplement G, 963–88Google Scholar, argues that this corrigibility consists in a two-step process of “empirical fit,” an initial, almost intuitive, testing for appropriateness, and a more rigorous and broader testing of intuitive claims or formulations of disclosures (in qualified models) by checking for adequacy and accuracy against the entire range of available empirical facts. From my research, it seems that British scholars tend to read Ramsey in the light of his early idealism while North American scholars tend to find something of pragmatism in his thought (Ramsey did read William James' main works in philosophy of religion). As the final section of this article indicates, I have taken the Americanist course.

11 Ramsey, Ian T., “The Systematic Elusiveness of ‘I’,” Philosophical Quarterly 5/20 (1955): 193204.CrossRefGoogle Scholar Subsequent references are given parenthetical in the text as (SE pg). Ramsey is not challenging Ryle's work as a whole but only Ryle's argument regarding the issue of identity.

12 Ryle, Gilbert, The Concept of Mind (London: Hutchinson and Company, 1949)Google Scholar; parenthetical references in the text are given as (CM pg). It should be noted that Ramsey's title is taken from a section title in Ryle's book (CM 195).

13 Ryle recognizes that his view will likely be labeled “behaviorism” but argues that it is not to be reduced to the behaviorism of the early behaviorists (CM 327–30), which Ryle saw as mechanical.

14 For an accessible summary of the current shape of this debate, see Searle, John R., “Consciousness and the Philosophers,” New York Review of Books 44/4 (March 6, 1997), (accessed 29 January 2007).Google Scholar

15 Intention (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1957).

16 Ramsey noted in a later article that the claim that “I” had a status all its own is one that might not be troublesome to Ryle. See his “Empiricism and Religion,” The Christian Scholar 39 (1956): 159–63.

17 Ramsey did not use his distinctive term “disclosure” in this context, but he would do so later, e.g., in “Contemporary Philosophy and the Christian Faith,” Religious Studies 1 (1963): 47–61. Beirne, E., The Logic of Disclosures, 6166Google Scholar, briefly surveys Ramsey's work on personal disclosures.

18 See Dennett, D.C., Content and Consciousness (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969), 18Google Scholar for this view of Ryle's work. Dennett attempted to develop two levels of talk about a person without making any “ontological” commitment for the reality of something beyond the scientific description (190). Ramsey, obviously, made such a commitment because he thought the appropriate insight could be disclosed, although not described.

19 Geach, Peter T., God and the Soul (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 57Google Scholar, in the context of his argument that “God” is not a proper name. J. Astley (“Ian Ramsey and the Problem of Religious Knowledge”) develops this point.

20 Ramsey, , “Fact, Metaphysics, and God,” typescript, 242.Google Scholar

21 I do not think this makes Ramsey an “occasionalist.” His Berkeleyan understanding would not limit activity to God. As I argue below, a distinction between divine primary agency and human secondary agency makes better sense of Ramsey's work in this area, but his analysis of activity seems to rule out occasionalism or omnificence.

22 The metaphysical issues about divine immutability are not directly relevant here. If God has “real relations” with creatures, God may change in some sense, but always remains God. Ramsey's view is compatible with various views of the relationship of the Creator to the creation.

23 Mitchell, Basil, ed., Faith and Logic: Oxford Essays in Philosophical Theology (London: Allen and Unwin, 1957), 8.Google Scholar

24 Undated typescript in the Ramsey archives, p. 2.

25 Religion and Science: Conflict and Synthesis (London: S.P.C.K., 1964), 72–73.

26 Interestingly, others suggest a closer link between Ramsey and Thomism. Evans, Donald (“Ian Ramsey on Talk about God,” Religious Studies 7 [1971]: 125–40, 213–26)CrossRefGoogle Scholar suggests this, but this seems to me less plausible than noting parallels to the thenemerging transcendental Thomisms of Karl Rahner, Bernard Lonergan, David Burrell (who was something of a Lonerganian before he was something of a Wittgensteinian), and others.

27 Kelly, Anthony J. C.S.S.R., “A Multidimensional Disclosure: Aspects of Aquinas's Theological Intentionality,” The Thomist 67 (2003) 335–74, Scholar (accessed 28 September 2006). Kelly, quotes from Summa theologiae I, q. 12, a. 12.Google Scholar He adds, “For a comment on the process of manuductio, see Rolnick, Philip A., Analogical Possibilities: How Words Refer to God (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1993) 119123.Google Scholar” Also see Burrell, David C.S.C., Analogy and Philosophical Language (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973), 115, 122–23, 134Google Scholar for a similar account of manuductio that parallels Ramsey's practice.

28 Evans, , “Ian Ramsey on Talk About God,” 218.Google Scholar

29 This example is adapted from Tilley, , Talking of God, 84.Google Scholar

30 Honner, John S.J., (“Disclosed and Transcendental: Rahner and Ramsey on the Foundations of Theology,” The Heythrop Journal 22 [1981]: 149–61)CrossRefGoogle Scholar finds Ramsey's account of disclosure situations parallel to Karl Rahner's account of transcendental experience. That these are parallel is plausible; hence, given that Rahner is influenced deeply by Aquinas, this suggests that Ramsey's work can be situated similarly. There is no suggestion of influence of Rahner on Ramsey or vice versa. I would only quibble with the word “foundations” in the title. Ramsey was certainly not a hard foundationalist and Karen Kilby has brilliantly argued that Rahner's theology can be retrieved today if one reshapes his work into a non-foundationalist mode. See Kilby, , Karl Rahner: Theology and Philosophy (London: Routledge, 2004).Google Scholar One wonders what a similar transposition of Ian Ramsey's work would yield.

31 See Ramsey, , “Berkeley and the Possibility of an Empirical Metaphysics,” 2324.Google Scholar

32 Burrell, , Analogy and Philosophical Language, 122.Google Scholar

33 Ibid., 126.

34 Ibid., 267.

35 See Ramsey, , Models and Mystery (London: Oxford University Press, 1964), 1Google Scholar and passim. If science is a form of “common sense” made rigorous, then it is not much of a stretch to suggest that Ramseyan models might be rooted in “every quarter,” even those beyond science.

36 Pater, W. A. de, “Prayer and the Presence of God: A Pathway through a Theological Jungle,” in Theolinguistics, ed. Noppen, J.P. van, nieuwe serie Nr. 8 ([Brussels]: Stiereeks Tijdschrift VUB, 1981), 194.Google Scholar

37 Ramsey, , Models for Divine Activity, 61.Google Scholar

38 Farrer, Austin, Faith and Speculation: An Essay in Philosophical Theology (London: A. & C. Black, 1967), 131–41.Google Scholar

39 Farrer, , Faith and Speculation 156–70, at 166.Google Scholar

40 Ramsey, , “Ian Ramsey on Talk about God by Donald Evans,” 1Google Scholar, in the Ramsey archives. Ramsey evidently returned to an earlier intuition that found “activity” something more than a model. In the Ramsey archives there is a typescript copy of a (dictated?) letter to Donald Evans, dated 16 November 1970, with Ramsey's handwritten notes appended, along with his unpublished commentary on a draft of Evans' article noted above, “Ian Ramsey on Talk about God by Donald Evans.” The commentary makes clear his late view of “activity”: “You will realize from my remark above that I have now changed my views on activity which I do not see as a model, even a ‘super model’ but a word which unites God and ourselves in a little [literal?] sense” (commentary, p. 3). Ramsey also commented that he had very much appreciated Evans' ordering of his examples of qualified models.

41 For example, Divine Action: Studies Inspired by the Philosophical Theology of Austin Farrer, ed. Hebblethwaite, Brian (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1990).Google Scholar

42 This raises the problem of “preference” of models for divine activity in Ramsey's work. See Tilley, “Ian Ramsey and Empirical Fit,” for discussion of this issue.

43 “An Outline of a Christian Philosophy,” mimeographed, no date (probably 1946), p. 39, in the Ramsey Nachlass.

44 ”About the Ian Ramsey Centre,” (accessed 30 September 2006). For an overview on Ramsey's method in ethics, see the first Ian Ramsey Memorial Lecture by Dunstan, G. R., “The Authority of a Moral Claim: Ian Ramsey and the Practice of Medicine,” Journal of Medical Ethics 13 (1987): 185–94.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

45 For example, Stoeger, William R., “Describing God's Action in the World in Light of Scientific Knowledge of Reality,” in Chaos and Complexity: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action, edited by Russell, Robert John, Murphy, Nancey, and Peacocke, Arthur (Vatican City: Vatican Observatory and Berkeley: Center for Theology and Natural Science, 1997), 239261Google Scholar, and “Epistemological and Ontological Issues Arising from Quantum Theory,” Quantum Mechanics: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action, ed. Russell, Robert John, Clayton, Philip, Wegter-McNelly, Kirk, and Polkinghorne, John (Vatican City: Vatican Observatory and Berkeley: Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, 2002), 8198Google Scholar; Johnson, Elizabeth A., “Does God Play Dice? Divine Providence and Chance,” Theological Studies 57 (1996): 218.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

46 Models of the Church (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1974; Models of Revelation (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1983).

47 Edgar, Kimmett, “Ian Ramsey's Method in Ethics: Part One,” Modern Churchman 27/3 (1985) 2937CrossRefGoogle Scholar; idem, “Ian Ramsey's Method in Ethics: Part Two,” Modern Churchman 27/4 (1985) 33–40.

48 Honner, “Disclosed and Transcendental” (see n. 30).

49 See Tilley, T.W., History, Theology and Faith: Dissolving the Modern Problematic (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2004), 5054, 60.Google Scholar

50 Dillistone, F.W., “Attitudes to Religious Language,” Theolinguistics, 14.Google Scholar

51 de Pater, W. A., “Analogie en Disclosures: Over Religieuze Taal,” Bijdragen: Tijdschrift voor Filosofie en Theologie 56 (1995): 242–56, at 256.Google Scholar

52 Thanks to Fordham graduate assistant Phillip Dennis, who provided much research help in the preparation of this article, to John Whitaker who commented on a different version at the annual meeting of the Society for Philosophy of Religion in February, 2007, and to the editor and to two anonymous referees for Horizons whose recommendations did much to make this article better.

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