A Response to James K. A. Smith, by Eduardo Echeverria

DSC_0091Note: In the latest issue of Calvin Theological Journal (vol. 49: 258–282) Eduardo Echeverria published an extended review of James K. A. Smith’s recent book, Who’s Afraid of Relativism? Community, Contingency, and Creaturehood (Baker Academic, 2014). Smith’s reply to Echeverria is now available on Smith’s blog (“Responding to a Common Critique of Who’s Afraid of Relativism?“). Because Echeverria is a friend of the department we have invited him to post a follow-up reply to Smith here on the Tyndale Philosophy blog. At his request, we’ve also embedded a copy of the original review below.

Dr. Eduardo Echeverria is a prominent and well-respected Catholic philosopher who, like Smith, has recently lectured at Tyndale University College. He is Professor of Philosophy and Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan. He has authored multiple books and over twenty articles.


  1. You question my approach to your book, but I’m afraid you misunderstand it. I think we can distinguish two approaches. One may write an article challenging an individual’s (say, Smith’s) interpretation of Wittgenstein, Rorty, and Brandom by returning to the writings of these philosophers, and giving a reading of them that shows that individual to be mistaken on some points, has seriously misunderstood them, etc. That is not the article I wrote. One may also assume the individual’s interpretations of these philosophers and then go on to consider the implications of his presuppositions—informed by these philosophers’ views—for the Christian faith. Indeed, the second approach is the one I took in my article review of your book and it seems to me perfectly legitimate. That is what I said in the introduction to my article: “My primary concern, in this article, is not to consider whether Smith’s interpretations of these philosophers are right. Rather, I am concerned with assessing the implications of his presumed interpretation and asking whether Smith’s case that relativism—as he understands it in light of these interpretations—can be of service to the practice, theological understanding, and proclamation of the gospel. Alternatively, do these interpretations shape the gospel, faith, and theology to their own ends?” I concluded that relativism cannot be of service to the Gospel.
  2. You overlook, miss, ignore (take your pick) that I distinguished representationalism and realism (269-271), and argued that a defense of realism is not dependent on representationalism. Indeed, I cited Roger Trigg’s point: “realism need not take any position about the exact kind of correspondence required, but it must at least assert that true theories are true in virtue of objective reality. Truth has its source in reality, and as a consequence questions about the nature of truth are distinct from those about the best way of reaching it” (270). You wrongly assume in your book and then again in your response to me an inextricable dependency between the two. I was distinguishing realism and representationalism so that problems with the latter did not necessarily entail problems with the former.
  3. Your cute “Echeverria’s Protestant Epistemology” pertains to my alleged inability to attend to the ecclesial conditions for knowing revelation, and so forth (288, and again on 290). Here, too, you overlook, miss, ignore my explicit agreement with you (268-269). I wrote summarizing your position: “Indeed, the normative Scriptural and ecclesial dynamics of our advance to the knowledge of truth constitutes the ‘contingent communal conditions of knowing. We know in and by those conditions’ (CCC, 113, Smith’s italics). AND THEN I ADDED IN THE NEXT PARAGRAPH. “I contend that a realist about truth can agree with all of this as having to do with the conditions under which we know that something is true” (269). Thus, I explicitly agree with you on the ecclesial conditions for knowing.
  4. BUT I reject your ontological position defending a “social understanding of meaning” (288). There is nothing Catholic about it: Catholic theology (and so epistemology) has always sought to defend the universality, material identity and meaning invariance of Christian doctrine over time. (This is a thesis that I have defended at length in my book, Berkouwer and Catholicism (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2013), 20-109.) I argue in my article review that Christian orthodoxy (e.g, Nicaea and Chalcedon) embraces a “meant” that is not social—in the sense that the meaning of Christian creeds cannot be dependent on socio-cultural interpretation. That is pure pragmatism, and dangerous indeed. I agree with Bernard Lonergan that “meaning of its nature is related to what is meant, and what is meant may or may not correspond to what is in fact so.” “If it corresponds,” Lonergan adds, “the meaning is true. If it does not correspond, the meaning is false.” Here I want to come back to your charge that I have a “Protestant epistemology” because you, unlike me, are more interested in defending the role of a community of practice and tradition. Since you deny the distinction between epistemic conditions and truth conditions, you fail to understand that Catholicism has never made the meaning of the creeds and confessions dependent on the interpretation and practices of the community. That is relativism. On the contrary, the Catholic tradition has argued that it is just the “idem sensus”—the same meaning, its material identity and universality, which must be protected from age to age. This is why Vatican I taught that the “the meaning of the dogmas which the Church has declared is to be perpetually retained. There is to be no deviation on the specious ground of a more profound understanding” (Denzinger 3020). Development, yes; mutability, no. This hermeneutic of dogmas is dependent on the distinction between truth and its historically conditioned formulations, between form and content, propositions and sentences. Suggestive of your misunderstanding of the realist position is your claim that the realist thinks that “language [can] transcend the contingency of a practice” (275). You are mistaken here. As I put it in note 52 on p. 275: “Strictly speaking, the realist distinguishes between propositions and sentences. Pace Smith, then, it isn’t language as such that necessarily transcends practice on a realist view of truth. Propositions—contents of thought that are true or false, expressible in various languages, but more than mere words, expressing possible, and if true, actual states of affairs—do not vary as the language in which they are expressed varies (propositions are not linguistic entities). Hence, a distinction should be made between truth and its formulations in dogma, between form and content, content and context such as was made by John XXIII in his opening address to Vatican II, Gaudet Mater Ecclesia. “For the deposit of faith, the truths contained in our sacred teaching, are one thing; the mode in which they are expressed, but with the same meaning and the same judgment [eodem sensu eademque sententia], is another thing.” The subordinate clause in this passage is part of a larger passage from Vatican I, Dei Filius (Denzinger 3020),and this passage is itself from the Commonitórium primum 23 of Vincent of Lérins: “Therefore, let there be growth and abundant progress in understanding, knowledge, and wisdom, in each and all, in individuals and in the whole Church, at all times and in the progress of ages, but only with the proper limits, i.e., within the same dogma, the same meaning, the same judgment.” Significantly, normative Catholicism has been Lérinian on this very point—and hence anti-pragmatism. Vincent already saw this clearly in the early fifth century—doctrine can develop, but cannot change its fundamental meaning, i.e., the realistic meaning embedded in the creeds themselves. Bernard Lonergan wrote clearly about this in his magisterial, The Way to Nicaea.  It seems to me that you leave Christian orthodoxy in a defenseless position.
  5. I make clear and try to explain–given your anti-realism–the role that the world plays in justification (272-275). In this connection I raise the question as to whether your view collapses into subjectivism. I tried to give a sense of your struggle with this question. I never criticize your view as merely subjective.
  6. Furthermore, in a slightly revised version of my review that was too late to be the official version for CTJ, I had this sentence on p. 272 after quoting Brandom’s concern about the subjectivity of our judgments: The question of subjectivism stands out in particular when we consider the matter of incompatible truth claims about the same thing. It had this note attached to it: Although in Smith’s The Fall of Interpretation a “transcendent” reality still plays a role in limiting the number of justified interpretations of reality, according to Smith, “the limits placed upon interpretation [by what is interpreted] do not prescribe a single ‘correct’ interpretation” (182). In short, adds Smith, we lack “the one, true interpretation” (181). Differing interpretations of the same reality can all be true in a mutually complimentary sense. But what if those differing interpretations claim to describe the same thing, but their claims are logically incompatible, making contradictory claims about the same state of affairs? Smith senses the problem here: “But does not this conception of truth once again deliver us into the hands of arbitrariness?” (Fall of Interpretation, 182). Later, continuing my same analysis of the place of the world in Smith’s account, I said in another note on p. 274: The idea that reality “constitute[s] a transcendence that imposes itself upon my experience and thus represents a limit to its interpretation” is more prominent in Smith’s The Fall of Interpretation (181-182). In the second edition (2012) of The Fall of Interpretation Smith expresses a dissatisfaction with this idea because he claims that it still “accepts a ‘representationalist’ account of knowing” (181n55). So twelve years after the first edition of The Fall of Interpretation he suggests that his thinking about knowledge and truth has now taken a “‘pragmatist turn’” (21n18). Both these remarks are derived from an earlier article: “Divine Revelation and Foundationalism: Towards a Historically Conscious Foundationalism,” Josephinum Journal of Theology 19, no. 2 (2012): 283-321, and for Smith 286-287, 296n34, 298n41.
  7. I explicitly distinguish relativism and skepticism, and hence you are mistaken of accusing me of identifying the two (266).
  8. You defend an epistemic notion of truth in which truth is simply a matter of being justified or warranted in believing something in light of certain criteria. See 267-268: “Smith operates with an epistemic conception of truth that holds truth to be a matter of justification, warranted assertibility, in short, holding that whether that P is true does depend on whether someone is justified in believing it. In response to Smith’s query (CCC, 30), what would it mean to say that the gospel is relatively true, it means, as Brandom puts it, and Smith says he agrees, “What is true depends on what we human beings say or think” (CCC, 29). I, for one, find it hard to see how Smith can, then, avoid the conclusion–which he does reject–that an epistemic conception of truth implies that ‘what is real is limited to what is real for men’.” Here, too, I explicitly acknowledge that you reject subjectivism, but Smith ignores that acknowledgement (289). Yet, the problem still remains regardless of your denial that you are a subjectivist, or have an anthropocentric view of truth (to use a phrase from Trigg).
  9. You think that you can avoid my critique of your attempt to align your project with Lindbeck’s post-liberalism. But I argue that you cannot because Lindbeck rejects strong interpretations of his post-liberalism. He is a theistic realist (277-282). This is a crucial part of your project but you dismiss my criticism without argument in a footnote (277n57).
  10. Finally, you ignore, overlook, my attempt to make sense of your whole project in terms of the creator/creature relationship and your claim that this has everything to do with contingency and dependency of the creature, his knowledge, and so forth (259-266). I won’t repeat my arguments here since you don’t bother to consider them.

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