Keynote Address: Absolute vs. Personal Idealism

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Keith Ward (Oxford, British Academy): Idealism may be dated back to Kant but is still relevant to moral philosophy. AS Bradley sees it, absolute idealism requires that we see the self as identical with the concrete universe. We create selves by our relations to others. But Bradley is not a theist and accordingly does not recognize the threat of lurching from absolute idealism to fascism or ultranationalism, since these too assume the individual to be subsumed by a greater whole.

This threat can be disarmed if we assume the Absolute is Absolute MInd. Some nuancing necessary to explain how the Absolute can intervene in time, interact with finite beings, whether it can change, love itself, or suffer, etc. Our moral goal of pursuing ideals higher than ourselves can be achieved through immortality, wherein we are united with the Absolute, without losing our individuality, and divine command command theory is supplanted by the practice of following God’s will through love of the Divine. Our wills merge with the Divine will. Ward emphasizes that we only see ourselves truly when we see ourselves as part of a greater whole.

Ward closes by offering a stark choice between “enslavement” to personal passion or “liberation” as the self is realized and fulfilled.

Comments: I find the dichotomous choice between “enslavement” and “enlightenment” to be both needlessly Manichean and crudely insulting.

If someone dared to say now: “he who is not with me is against me”, he would immediately have everyone against him. — This thought does honor to our times.

– Friedrich Nietzsche, “Human, All Too Human” (1878)

So it’s surprising to see such all-or-nothing comments finding a place in sophisticated theism.

But my concern is a bit deeper: Does one’s chance at enlightenment depend on his/her adoption of some idealist and/or supernatural metaphysics? If not, then it’s hard o see why metaphysics are even important.

If “yes” then perhaps this is worse, since it exposes personal idealism to the danger of empirical testing. After all, it’s possible to imagine individuals who believe sincerely in the required metaphysics but who still give in to their dark urges (pedophilia, say). Contrariwise, it’s also possible to imagine a non-adherent who successfully resists immoral urges and is thus not enslaved.

EDIT: In a very nice chat at the conference dinner last night, Professor Ward clarified that he intended the difference I discuss above to be dependent on moral worth, not metaphysical commitment. He said he would rather be with virtuous atheists than non-virtuous theists. So my chief objection above is rendered bootless.

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