Speaking of the Unspeakable

Leszek Kolakowski’s book is occasionally concerned with describing religious behavior, drawing upon the observations of such writers of Rudolf Otto and Mircea Eliade, but it is for the most part critical and philosophical. Religion is spoken of as “the socially established worship of the eternal reality.” The term “eternal reality” seems to be chosen because it is neutral as between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam on the one hand, and Buddhism and Hinduism on the other. In fact, Kolakowski’s chief interest seems to be in Judeo-Christian theism and his book is mainly an essay in the philosophy of religion. This is not the post-kantian subject explored by such philosophers as Karl Jaspers and Paul Ricoeur, that is, the study of the categories shown in the activities of the religious consciousness. It is rather what used to be called natural theology, that is, rational inquiry into the grounds for saying things about God and his relation to the world and to human affairs. The former inquiry answers the questions, what is it to be religious, and what things are presupposed by religious activities? The latter tries to list and elucidate the reasons we have for believing, or entertaining, a number of propositions, metaphysical and other, about God, and about God and the world.

Interest in old-style natural theology is now so rare that we are inclined to fidget a bit when we come across someone with this interest and to ask why he wants to pursue again paths that so often seem to have turned out to be dizzyingly circuitous or to run into the sand. Kolakowski’s interest comes from his having been haunted by the Dostoevsky fragment: “If there is no God, everything is permissible.” He tells us that he proposes to argue for the position that this saying “is valid not only as a moral rule—but also as an epistemological principle. This means that the legitimate use of the concept ‘truth’ or the belief that ‘truth’ may even be justifiably predicted of our knowledge is possible only on the assumption of an absolute Mind.” (This is hard to understand. Is “predicted” a mistake, the intention being to speak of “predicated”? If there is a claim to knowledge, isn’t this also a claim to truth? Can one even ask if what is said to be a case of knowledge is also a case of something being true? We await the argument with some eagerness, or would do so had we not noted at the beginning of the book the following passage, one that puts a large query against whatever arguments are to be found later on.

I rather tend to accept the law of the infinite cornucopia which applies not only to philosophy but to all general theories in the human and social sciences: it states that there is never a shortage of arguments to support any doctrine you want to believe in for whatever reasons. These arguments, however, are not entirely barren. They have helped in elucidating the…

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