08 November 2007

What are your presuppositions?

I've begun teaching another philosophy class, an extended version at a different school. This is a fine arts center with a Christian foundation, so I'm hoping to really gear the class towards Aesthetics and the application of philosophical questions/ideas to both the making of art and the development of a Christian worldview.

Yesterday, in our first class, we discussed presuppositions and van Till's idea that we cannot set God aside in order to hypothesize. However, that is exactly what we need to do to some extent when studying philosophy. We need to pretend we know nothing in order to learn something--in order to learn anything at all.

To that end, I have two questions for my readers and my philosophy students.

First: What are your fundamental presuppositions? In other words, what are the basic assumptions on which you base everything you believe and how you live your life?

Second: What knowledge or worldview do you hope to impart to the audience of your works of art? If you create paintings, poems, songs, pieces of music, sculptures, dances, plays, novels, or any other works of art, what spiritual or philosophical ideas do you present through those works--whether intentionally or not?


Steve Hayes said...

That is one of the things that some students find difficult to do.

Perhaps a third question is needed -- how do you communicate with people whose basic presuppositions are different from your own?

And we also have presuppositions about other people's presuppositions.

Iambic Admonit said...


yes, yes, and yes. Thanks for these thoughts. It's not only students who find it difficult to articulate their presuppositions; I do, too! And your question about communication is a very good one. Perhaps you could suggest some answers?

hmmm said...

I have never posted a comment on anything, so I pretty much have no idea what I'm doing.
As for presuppositions- I believe that I was created to glorify God in everything I do, and that everything works out for the good for those who love Him. That probably seems extremely basic. I don't have any presuppositions besides what is blatantly covered in the Bible, only because I like to be sure I believe something before I do.

David Walnut said...

One of my many presuppositions is that I'm not living in a dream ,and that everything I am seeing and doing is real. Another is that all of my senses are giving me true information that I believe. I'm sure there are many others.
To answer your second question, I only do painting and drawing, and I only do those for fun. I don't purposely put in special meanings in my works. I don't know if any meanings go into them unintentionally, either. I suppose, because many of my drawings are of battles and monsters, someone would say something extremely profound about the tussles in my heart or something like that. I just like drawing. In my paintings, I paint only still-lifes so far, so I have no idea what a philosopher would say about them.

Iambic Admonit said...

Dear hmmm...

great thoughts. Do you realize that the desire to be sure you believe something before you make it a presupposition is itself a presupposition? You could call it skepticism, or wisdom, or caution, but whatever you call it, the hesitancy about making assumptions is itself an assumption--but I would say it's a good one.

Iambic Admonit said...

Dear David Walnut:

thank you for articulating some of your basic assumptions clearly. I'm glad you see they are assumptions; in a few weeks we'll talk about whether or not it is possible to prove that our senses give us a true report of reality.

I think that your drawing and painting, though "just for fun," do present your beliefs in some way. Perhaps your own psycho-analysis is correct; perhaps one of your basic beliefs is the necessity of fighting evil, or that the world is a place full of conflict, or that you belive there is more out there than meets the eye.

Good thinking; think further!

Rosie Perera said...

Excellent questions, including Steve's additional one. Perhaps one way to begin answering that third question is to pose a fourth: "Do your fundamental presuppositions ever change?" Realizing that some of my fundamental presuppositions have changed as a result of interaction with the world and with other people makes it a lot easier for me to communicate with people who have different presuppositions than I do. I realize that maybe they are just at a different place on their journey towards God than I am, so I can be very understanding with them. Maybe they even have something I could learn from, so I can be humble about my own presuppositions.

I realize that my presuppositions didn't develop in a vacuum. I was brought up in a particular family, church, and country, at a particular time in history, with a particular education, economic status, etc. All of those things went into shaping my presuppositions. I think that as I've grown older, in addition to becoming more aware of the fact that I have presuppositions and what they are, I have also streamlined them, such that more things are open to potentially being rethought, and fewer things are really foundational. The rest of my beliefs flow out of these latter.

My primary assuptions: God exists, God created us and all that is, God loves his creation. God wants us to walk with him and be righteous and look after his creation. We sin, creation is marred. God redeems us and all of creation.

I do art with my presuppositions necessarily undergirding my work, but I don't necessarily do it in order to "impart knowledge or a worldview" to my audience. Art that tries to impart a worldview borders on propaganda. I do art largely in order to know God better and to help people see God. In this postmodern age, I have a very difficult time thinking that I have the right to push my worldview on others. I can set ideas out and hope others might be interested and seek to know God as well. But I feel that I'm on a journey of exploration and learning just as much as the next person who might have different presuppositions.

As for setting aside our presuppositions in order to study philosophy: I disagree that "We need to pretend we know order to learn anything at all." That is the approach Descartes took, but I'm not sure it is the only way, or even the best way, to learn anything. One presupposition that I think aids in our learning rather than hindering it is the notion that God's creation is intelligible -- it is something we can learn about by observing and studying it. Some philosophers in the past didn't have that presupposition and they did all their philosophizing in an ivory tower without engaging with the actual world. The ideas they came up with were flawed because of it.

Edmund Husserl, father of phenomenology, developed the notion of "bracketing" one's presuppositions; it doesn't mean we set them aside or pretend we don't have them, but we allow them not to intrude into our present study. In science, for example, a Christian who had the presupposition that God created the earth in six literal days would have no interest in talking or studying with paleontologists who dig up dinosaur bones they believe to be hundreds of thousands of years old. But by cutting ourselves off from other people's ways of learning, even if at the outset we believe them to be wrong, we keep ourselves trapped in an closed self-reinforcing system of beliefs. We might actually have some incorrect presuppositions, but without exploring what else is out there, we might never know that. Fears of being tained by other people's wrong presuppositions can keep us from the give-and-take that is necessary for growth in understanding of God and his creation. We might still come back to the position that our original presuppositions were correct, and that is OK. But we do need to be willing to entertain the possibility that we might be wrong. This is not usually something we are good at doing. It is usually not until something in our system of presuppositions gets shaken by a relatively cataclysmic life experience that we are willing to reexamine our presuppositions.

I'm thinking of one example of a Jordanian Muslim I met once, who grew up with the presupposition that all Jews are terrible, until he was arbitrarily paired with a Jew as his roommate in university in the UK. Horrible situation, as far as he was concerned. But his parents urged patience, and through his experience he learned that his presupposition was wrong. He is now a leading proponent of peace and reconciliation between Jews and Muslims.

~Z~ said...

hi I just want to say that I appreciate what you are doing and that I cant wait 2 get into aesthetics.
I heve never been on a blog B4.
Srry bout any typosI hav no clue wat I M doing.
In the question about art: I sing for God in church and I hope that people see that. I also write my poetry for Him.

~Z~ said...

I agree with Steve hayes about the presuppositions about other people's presuppositions.

I also believe that god has put us here for a reason.

hmmm said...

In response to the second question, I'm not much of a creator-- as in, I don't write songs or poems or paint masterpieces with deep meaning behind them. But, I think the art with which I spend my time reflects my worldview. For example, I listen to music a lot, but I do not listen to secular hip hop or rap because, often times, girls are talked about in degrading ways.
In response to the thought about hesitancy of making presuppositions actually being a presupposition....I agree. Once I read that it made sense.
But, does that mean those who do not care to have any presuppositions at all have a presupposition-- believing in not believing anything?

AVA said...

"I have a very difficult time thinking that I have the right to push my worldview on others. I can set ideas out and hope others might be interested and seek to know God as well. But I feel that I'm on a journey of exploration and learning just as much as the next person who might have different presuppositions."

by 'setting out those ideas' as you put it to others, you still are pressing your beliefs on them. Granted, they probably won't pick up on it, but there are several presupositions of yours packed up in there.

1. I have a right to present my ideas to someone, as long as i'm not forcefull or demanding about it.

2. They are capable of comprehending those beliefs.

3. They can evaluate them according to their own standards...which also presupposed they even have standards...

4. They can decide wether or not to adapt my beliefs for themself.

my fundamental presuppositions are:

1. I can do things

2. the things i can do will affect both myself and others, wether in large or small ways

3. There is a reason I can do things

4. I should try and find that reason/reasons

and on and on, etc...blah blah...

Don said...

In answer to the first question, I suppose that my basic presuppositions would be that God is the creator and ultimate power of any plane of existence that we can understand. On that note, I believe that there are limitations to the human mind, such as understanding concepts such as infinity, or nothingness. I believe that although logic and reason are circular, they can or must be used to dictate our thinking and actions to some extent, due to said limitations. As to question the second, I'm not sure I fully understand your meaning. It seems that the things which you try to get across with a certain piece of art would vary from piece to piece(examples; concepts, emotions, stages of being), but perhaps you think of a different level of meaning when presenting this question?

little sarah said...

Ok, so this might be confusing but please stick with me...
I believe that in order to have any form of an argument, debate, presupposition, etc.... one must consider the Absolute Truth. I believe that there is only one absolute truth and that is that God exists and everything that He has said in the Bible is true. That kind of sounds like two absolute truths, but I think that it is really just one because there cannot be one without the other. For instance it would be incorrect to say, “I believe in God, but I do not believe that He sent His Son to die for my sins.” That is an incorrect statement because God said that He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to die for my sins. If I truly believe in God, I must believe everything He says. I don’t think that there is any way to philosophically prove that God exists, because without the Absolute Truth one can not prove anything. So one must have faith that God exists and what He says goes before being able to prove anything at all. The word “faith” might be some philosophers’ worst nightmare ...which is probably why many philosophers are never sure if their presuppositions are completely true. I’m taking a geometry class this year and it’s kind of ironic how philosophy and geometry are similar. Ok, so I’m getting these facts right out of my geometry text book written by the Sabouri brothers-

The Greeks were great mathematicians and philosophers who had brilliant ideas on many subjects. They weren’t satisfied with the geometry from Egypt and Babylon because the Egyptians and the Babylonians used inductive reasoning which only gives probable facts. The Greeks discovered deductive reasoning. Deductive reasoning starts with an accurate assumption and then, as long as the reasoning was done correctly and the assumption was in fact accurate the conclusion has to be true.

So an example of this would be-
If all men are mortal and Socrates is a man, then Socrates must be mortal.

“all men are mortal and Socrates is a man” is our accurate assumption (premise)
“Socrates is a man” is our conclusion.

Deductive reasoning only works when the premises are completely true. The Greeks (being so smart *smile*)
realized this and decided to only use incredibly simple premises. These premises are called “self-evident truths”. A self-evident truth is the equivalent to the words postulate, accurate assumption, and the Absolute Truth.

Once we know the Absolute Truth we can start a logic chain, creating answers to questions that philosophers ask. To have the Absolute Truth, we must have faith.

I have many presuppositions, but I do not have proof that they are all true. However, I do know that every presupposition that I have that starts with the Absolute Truth as its premise must be true if I have reasoned correctly. So every presupposition that is stated in the Bible is true, and I believe it.

I do have some presuppositions that I am not completely sure of. One is that I believe that there is at least a hint of accuracy in every presupposition. I believe this because another presupposition I have is that the whole human race is aware of the Absolute Truth whether they admit or not. I believe that everyone knows (even if it is subconsciously) that God exists.

*deep breath*

I just said a lot, I hope I made a little bit of sense...I probably didn’t...haha. Oh well, I tried... And I really hope I didn’t come off as obnoxious and like “I know everything” because I definitely don’t, so please take everything I have said with a grain of salt.

For the second question...I'm really not sure how my art, poems, music taste, etc. reflects on my presuppositions. I'll have to think on that some more...

For the third question from Steve Hayes:
Since I believe that there is a hint of right in every presupposition, I try to listen to others and take into consideration where they are coming from and what they are getting at without immediately thinking "Oh! He is wrong, I am right! I completely disagree with him!" Instead I try to find something we agree on (and I have always found something) so that I have firm ground to stand on in his eyes.

And at last, the fourth question from Rosie Perera:
Presuppositions that I have that were not based on the Absolute Truth have changed. I too somewhat disagree with the statement “We need to pretend we know order to learn anything at all." But to disagree with that statement is a presupposition which, as far as I know can not be proved. So my disagreement might merely be my own personal opinion.

jo said...

What I have to say is probably not much different than what the others have said; my presuppositions are based on the Bible, on things that my family and friends have taught me, and on things that I’ve noticed to be true in my life and in the lives of others. So the obvious ones from the Bible are that I'm a sinner, I need salvation, Jesus is the only way for salvation, and so on. And then there's ones that seem obvious to me, but apparently philosophers can't accept the obvious... anyway, a few "obvious" things that i believe are that there is absolute truth, that this world is the real world and not some kind of alternate universe, and that my senses don't lie to me, at least not most of the time :)...
I'm not much of an artist, but I think that any kind of art can be glorifying to God even if it is not directly saying that God is Lord and even if the artist doesn't start out with the specific purpose to praise God. I think that our worldview, beliefs, and personality will come across in our art regardless if we specifically set out to communicate a particular belief.

Iambic Admonit said...

First, I wanted to make a clarification. I talked to my pastor this week about apologetics, and apparently I have been using the term in a broader way than its technical, theological meaning. According to Cornelius Van Til, “presuppositionalism” means two things: 1. That a Christian must always presuppose God’s existence, and not even hypothetically assume God does not exist for the sake of argument. The only time a Christian can pretend to set God aside is to show his debating partner where non-Christian assumptions can lead if taking to their extreme conclusions. 2. That every human being, no matter what he or she claims to believe, really knows deep down that there actually is a God, and that Christians should assume this when witnessing.

However, I plan to continue using the term “presupposition” in the broader way I have been in this post, which is as the basic assumptions that all human beings have. See this article for various definitions of presuppositions, and here’s one about linguistic presuppositions, which can easily be translated into religious or philosophical ones.

Thanks to my students for their responses, which [however] reveal varying levels of thought about and commitment to this process!

Don: Thanks for clearly articulating your broad basic presupposition. I like the way you phrased it to include the possibility of worlds or modes of existence that have not yet come to your notice. Nicely done. I agree about the limitations to the human mind; however, how do you know how far those limitations go? When you do know you’ve reached the limit, and how do you know a proposed answer to a question does not cross the limit into nonsense or the unknowable?
The second question is based on my own presupposition (one of them), in which I assert that an artist’s worldview is going to infiltrate his or her works, whether intentionally or not. While I agree to some extent with Rosie that art “that tries to impart a worldview borders on propaganda” sometimes, I also think that if I am committed to an idea, it will come through in my work in a way that might possibly be persuasive and is not therefore an attempt at brainwashing. For example, I wrote a sonnet last night in which I put forward some speculations about the nature of the Trinity. Because I wrote that poem, I am not therefore trying to propagandize my audience into believe my view of the Trinity, nor even trying to persuade them that the Trinity exists. I’m just making art about something I care about, and my worldview is coming through (quite clearly in that particular case). If someone is prodded to ponder the nature of God by my poem, great. I suppose that’s exactly what you meant, Rosie, when you said “I do art largely in order to know God better and to help people see God.”

Jo: I want to ask you a question here to which I do not myself know the answer. I wonder if specific doctrines can be considered presuppositions, or assumptions? You mentioned that much of what you believe was taught you by your family and friends. If you had to learn something, can it be considered a basic assumption? For example, I’m not sure if one’s view of baptism or the Lord’s Supper could be considered a presupposition, since those debatable doctrines must be thoroughly studied in order to be understood. On the other hand, it could be argued that someone who never opened a Bible knew he was a sinner just by the conviction of his own conscience. And that statement itself relies on several of my assumptions. What do you think?

Little Sarah:
Thanks for your excellent exposition of Absolutism, along with the very relevant comparisons to mathematics. As you’ll find when we read selections from Plato’s Republic, Plato believed that mathematics was the highest possible field of study, and that math was the only certainty in the material universe, and that pondering math brought a philosopher closest to the World of Pure Forms. So you’re on the right track!

I think you’ve also correctly identified the [necessary?] circularity in the Christian position, a circularity than is overleapt by faith rather than logic or reason.

I like your response to Steve’s question. And as to your answer to Rosie’s question: great until the very last sentence. I think that you’ve done a great job proving that all of your claims are not just your personal opinion, and then you go and undermine yourself by saying that they are mere opinion! Don’t back down, girl, stick to your guns (as they say).

Dear Hmmm….
Thanks for bringing into the discussion art that we listen to/read/watch in addition to art that we make. Do you think that the art to which you expose yourself has a role in creating/affecting/changing your worldview, as well as reflecting it?

And in answer to your excellent question—But, does that mean those who do not care to have any presuppositions at all have a presupposition-- believing in not believing anything?—the answer would be another assumption! A Christian who agreed with Prof. van Till would say, no, that person who claims to have no assumptions still does, but just won’t admit it. What do you think?

Dear Z:
What do you mean when you say that you write your poetry “for” God? Does that mean it all has to be about God? Does it all have to express Christian doctrine? I’d love to hear your express in more detail how you dedicate your poetry to God’s service.

You said “I also believe that god has put us here for a reason.” What reason?

Thanks to all!!

AVA said...

hey rosie, sorry if i came off as beat down in my last post...i was just trying to make the point that i personally believe it is impossible to ever absolutely set aside all of our presuppositions

Iambic Admonit said...

A few final thoughts.

Van Till’s point is that everyone has the same basic presuppositions—that God exists and we owe Him our allegiance—but that through sin all non-Christians suppress the truth and pretend to ignore the prompting of their own consciences. Therefore, according to van Till, Rosie would be wrong that her presuppositions were shaped/created by her upbringing etc, because everyone would be born with the same innate presuppositions, which they try to push further and further into their subconscious as time goes by. What do you think of this doctrine? Van Till would point to the first chapter of Romans to support it, in which Paul wrote: “…the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness; because that which may be know of God is manifest in them, for God hath shown it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse: because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful, but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools….” (Rom 1:18-22a). Because God has clearly revealed Himself in creation (according to van Till’s teaching) and because every one knows this Absolute Truth but has a darkened heart, therefore Christians should witness based on this shared Absolute.

And it could then follow that we should make art based on the Absolute of God’s existence that we share with everyone. But I believe that great art cannot be made out of some sense of duty to an idea if that idea does not naturally flow into the work. If my life is in line with God and if I am in love with Christ, the doctrines I hold dear will come into my work—not as propaganda, not as trite “gift-shop” Christian sayings, but as integral elements in the complete work. Don is correct is pointing out that the meanings communicated by different media vary and that meanings will change from piece to piece, of course. Right, different emotions, concepts, and stages of being will be expressed in different works. For example, John Donne’s sonnet “Batter my heart” focuses on the necessity for total surrender to God, while Dante’s Divine Comedy ends in a spirit of worship and praise. But they are both based on and expressing a worldview based on the same Absolute Truth of God’s existence and sovereignty.

I think I would then agree with the 4 points AVA outlined, which I rephrase here:
1. I have a right to present my ideas to someone, as long as I do not employ a forceful or demanding attitude.
2. The members of my audience are capable of comprehending the beliefs I present in my art.
3. The members of my audience are free to evaluate my expressed or implied beliefs according to their own standards.
4. These people are free to decide whether or not to adapt my beliefs for themselves—although, as a Reformed Christian, I would like to add that they are not capable of fundamental change without the work of the Holy Spirit, for which I ought to pray when presenting my works.

Any final thoughts?