Van Til and the Idealism of Bosanquet

After some initial comments on the method of systematic theology, Van Til then moves on to address the views of some prominent British Idealists, particularly those of Bernard Bosanquet (Introduction to Systematic Theology (2007), p27-28).

Unfortunately, Van Til’s comments at this point are brief and lack sufficient detail for those unfamiliar with Bosanquet’s brand of Idealism to fully appreciate Van Til’s point. Even William Edgar’s normally excellent footnotes fail to provide the correct context for Van Til’s interaction with Bosanquet at this point.

Here is my attempt to put some flesh on Van Til’s bones (as someone who, up until 2 days ago, was entirely unfamiliar with Bosanquet’s brand of Idealism). I’ll give an exteremly brief overview, and then deal with some of the more specific complaints that Van Til has against Bosanquet.

The dominant presupposition of Bosanquet’s metaphysics is that reality is “composed of contents determined by systematic combination in a single coherent structue (Logic, p5). This structure is called the Absolute, the “logical universal as a living world”.

In order to understand anything fully requires that it be considered in the context of the Absolute, it being the totality of all reality. It is impossible to obtain the meaning of any fact or thing in isolation from the relationship with other facts of things. Using linear inference alone (ie mathematical inference or Aristotelian syllogism) or to consider elements of propositions atomistically is insufficient to gain knowledge. All the knowledge that we possess – all of our experience – is a part of a coherent, complete system of all knowledge and experience – the Absolute.  It is for this reason that Bosanquet’s views are considered to approximate a coherence view of truth

Although the Absolute is complete, coherent and self-contained, we do not encounter this perfect system of facts and experiences in our own experience. Our experience and knowledge frequently contains evil, wayward desires as well as logical contradictions. Through the making of distinctions and finding resolutions to experiential challenges, our thought and experience moves closer towards the Absolute, in which all contradictions and good/evil conflicts are resolved. The Absolute has complete explanatory power for all of our experience. Our knowledge merely becomes more complete and more true, a closer approximation to the Absolute. We can also say that, in some way, our knowledge becomes “more real”, since the Absolute is reality in its totality.

Essentially, the Absolute, or the Universal (the a priori) has primacy and priority over individuals and empirical particulars (the a posteriori).

Before we get carried away with this general overview, let us go through Van Til’s interaction with Bosanquet and see if we can throw some light on his comments.

Firstly, we should note that the term “logic” refers not to the discipline of formal logic alone but, far more broadly, to knowledge as a whole. Bosanquet calls logic “the spirit of totality” or the science of knowledge.

Secondly, what are the a priori and a posteriori elements of Bosanquet’s thought? The a priori element is the Absolute, the system of all facts and experiences and desires, etc, that make up reality as a whole. The a posteriori element is our own experience, which seeks its resolution and meaning within the Absolute.

Thirdly, by “Implication” Van Til is referring to an aspect of the Absolute, whereby one part of the Absolute always implies another part. Implication allows us to move throughout a system of truth from one truth to any other within that system. This is why Van Til points out that “implication is really borrowed from the a priori rather than from the a posteriori aspect of [Bosanquet’s] method”. Implication is a function of the a priori system of the whole of reality.

Fourthly, what is this “eternal aspect to reality” that Van Til finds in Bosanquet’s thought? Van Til understands Bosanquet’s Absolute to be eternal, as is T. H. Green’s “eternal consciousness”, or Hegel’s Geist. For only if the Absolute is eternal can it be a complete system of facts and, therefore, the foundation of knowledge at all times. The disappearing of the Absolute would create an epistemological black hole.

Lastly, Van Til claims that, for Bosanquet, “reality is an eternal novelty”, an eternal novelty and an eternal novelty. To help us understand this, we will use Bosanquet’s own example of an eternal novelty, which is the mathematical equation “7+5=12”. On the surface, this appears a simple matter. Yet one reviewer stated in 1922:

In the correct analysis of such a simple proposition [Bosanqet] finds the clue, not only to logic, but to the profoundest problems of metaphysics. On the view which we take of the function of thought in the making of such judgements will depend our attitude to the problems of time, of change, of novelty and necessity, of the relation of mind to its objects, of the relation religion to morality.

To explain Bosanquet’s point in a few sentences is a hopeless task. I’ll concern myself with Bosanquet’s general point: Reality contains within itself change (novelty) and progress yet, as a whole, it maintains its identity. By this, Bosanquet upholds the changeless, eternal character of the Absolute but yet accommodate novelty, progress and difference within reality – something which some other “extreme” (Bosanquet’s word) philosophies do not permit. When we make a judgement that 12 is the same as 7+5 we have an example of an eternal novelty, Bosanquet would say.

After all that, Van Til’s very simple point is this: the a priori of the British Idealists (the Absolute) is radically different from the a priori of Christian theism (the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob).