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Review: Smith
Home Up Review: Smith Review: Rojtman


Reason, Experience, and God
edited by Vincent Calipietro

Independent Scholar

A review of Reason, Experience, And God: John E. Smith In Dialogue. Edited by Vincent M. Colapietro (New York: Fordham University Press, 1997)

Reason, Experience, and God comprises a collection of essays presented to John Smith during a conference at Fordham University held in his honor on December 13, 1993 (2). On the whole the book takes on the form of a philosophical conversation in that Smith responds to each of the essays presented to him. The book therefore essentially consists of two parts; four essays and then Smith’s responses to these essays. These are followed by a list of publications by John Smith.

The essays in the first part are contributions from Vincent G. Potter (to whose memory this book is dedicated), Robert J. Roth, S.J., Vincent M. Colapietro (the editor of this voume) and Robert C. Neville. These essays collectively address Smith’s contribution to contemporary philosophy through his viewpoints, research and teaching, yet they are varied in style, content, the complexity of the arguments presented, and the issues addressed. Potter explores Smith’s views on religious experience, Roth addresses the issues of morality and obligation, while Colapietro deals with the concept of ‘living reason’, and Neville analyses Smith’s views on metaphysics.

Each of the four essays presents a brief exposition of Smith’s views on certain issues in philosophy, points of agreement with Smith, and questions addressed to him for clarification, correction, and expansion.

Potter (7) begins by pointing to some of Smith’s central concerns in his philosophical works, namely, the restoration, recovery and application of experience as a rich category. His discussion focuses mainly on Smith’s interpretation of the phrase ‘religious experience’, his treatment of ‘disclosure’, and his views on arguments for God.

Smith’s contribution to the reconstruction of experience is also addressed by both Colapietro and Neville, yet at a different level. Colapietro is more concerned with the reconstruction of experience in relation to reason, and specifically with Smith’s proposals concerning ‘living reason’. Neville’s intention is not to discuss experience as such, but to research Smith’s theory of experience as a metaphysics. In order to do that, he takes the classical metaphysical topics of Being and God and suggests how Smith’s theory of experience could address these topics.

Roth addresses aspects of Smith’s views on religion, specifically in relation to morality. His questions on moral obligation, as well as Smith’s response to his essay, tie in well with the current national debate on moral issues.

All four essayists refer to Smith’s earlier works for their comments and questions, and also remark on the significance of his views in relation to proposals by other philosophers. Colapietro, in particular, provides a very clear exposition in this regard.

Smith introduces his part by expressing his appreciation for the project and its communicative value. His responses are vivid, clear, and concise. He is very helpful and cooperative in the constructive criticism and historical perspectives he provides, as well as in the way he elaborates and illuminates his own views, and in doing so throws light on their semiotic significance.

Smith’s viewpoints and writings are of semiotic interest mainly in that his views and formulations are essentially of a relational nature and in that he emphasizes the relation between and connectedness of concepts and themes in various dimensions of life’s spectrum.

With their focus on reason, experience, and religion, Potter and Colapietro not only point to major themes in Smith’s work, but also bring about a closer look at the nature of the relations between concepts and how these can be interpreted within a semiotic framework.

In his response to Potter, Smith (86) reasserts that his understanding of the place of experience in religion follows from the rich conception of experience developed by Pierce, James, Royce, and Dewey as opposed to the conception of experience to be found in the writings of the British empiricists. The enriched notion of experience endorsed by Smith is quoted as follows by Potter: "In its most basic sense, experience is the many-sided product of complex encounters between what there is and a being capable of undergoing, enduring, taking note of, responding to, and expressing it" (10).

Potter points out that for Smith, religion "is a relation that holds in living experience between an individual person and an object of worship eliciting from us reverence and love" (11). Furthermore, in connecting religion and human experience, the challenge as Potter (12) identifies it, is obtaining the correct description not of religious experience, but of the religious dimension of experience. He goes on to explain that, seen in this way, the connection between the religious dimension of experience and God requires that there be a disclosure of God which, "while not immediate, is direct" (12).

Smith elaborates on this by pointing out that "The recognition of a multifaceted world replicated in the numerous contexts of experience carries with it an imperative to respect their autonomy but also to seek to relate them to each other which, in turn, requires that we understand what sort of meaning each context is fitted to express. What makes the religious dimension of experience ‘religious’ is the concern manifest in it for the individual’s ultimate destiny and purpose, the concern, in short, for God" (87).

Colapietro, in turn, points to the dynamics of the relation between experience and reason in his exposition of Smith’s call for a fuller recovery of ‘living reason’. In terms of Smith’s vision, "living reason is the rational activity of a concrete self and it means the full participation of that self in the moment of thought" (57). Colapietro explains that the essence of living reason does not reside in its theoretical value as a descriptive, explanatory or analytic tool, "but rather in interpreting some series of signs or evaluating the importance of some undertaking" (51).

Both Colapietro (56) and Neville (71) refer to the lack of a (conclusive) system in Smith’s treatment of certain topics. In his response to Neville, Smith clarifies his position in this regard by pointing out that he does not believe in a system as "a comprehensive and all-embracing philosophical edifice that is complete and therefore closed", but that that does not mean that our thinking should not be systematic (131).

Finally, if this work is to be regarded as "a chapter in the long story of the struggle between science and religion" (3), Smith states his conclusions in this regard as follows:

"Making science the final arbiter of knowledge, moreover, has the disadvantage of forcing the religious, the moral and the aesthetic beyond the bounds of rational discussion. This need not happen, however, if we see that it is philosophy not science which is most appropriate for interpreting and relating all three.

"What is needed is not a knife-edge distinction, one that invariably means a separation, but rather a spectrum of knowing, embracing at one end all that we directly encounter and undergo, and at the other end the outcome of controlled inquiry" (87).


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