Early Career Research Spotlight: Kristen Irwin

This installment of the early-career research spotlight series looks at the work of Kristen Irwin. She is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Loyola University Chicago. She earned her Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of California, San Diego in 2010 and her B.A. in Philosophy and History from Hillsdale College (MI). Dr. Irwin’s teaching and research interests include several philosophical topics in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, including conceptions of reason and belief, the nature of faith, skepticism, philosophical theology (particularly the problem of evil), and theories of toleration. She has published pieces in Philosophy Compass, The Modern Schoolman (now Res Philosophica), Kriterion, and New Essays on Leibniz’s Theodicy (eds. Larry Jorgensen & Sam Newlands).

In your work you engage various arguments as to how and why reason and religious faith do or do not coincide. If I am reading you correctly, your preference is for philosophies that combine the two without subordinating one to the other or eradicating one in favor of the other. In at least one place you call this “common sense” skepticism. Can you explain this term; how you distinguish it from other forms of skepticism; and how you apply it to figures like Bayle, Amyraut, and Leibniz?

I think I might want to take back my description of this position as “common sense” skepticism! I’d describe the view as something that I see arising in the work of Pierre Bayle, a product of many different influences (including Calvin and Amyraut, but also Pascal and Spinoza), in conversation with folks like Malebranche and Leibniz. I tend to think of “common sense” skepticism as associated with the Scottish Enlightenment, and I think Bayle’s skepticism is much more obviously a product of the 16th-17th century skeptical renaissance.

This is not to say that his skepticism is “merely” a rehash of the old Pyrrhonian or Academic arguments. Rather, the skepticism I have in mind is what I have elsewhere called “qualified Academic skepticism” – but even that phrase doesn’t completely satisfy me! If you’ll permit a pun, perhaps “practical skepticism” is the best name for what I have in mind. I like this moniker because I think that Bayle’s skepticism is both practical, in the sense that it allows for the possibility of pragmatic judgments (without claiming that those judgments count as some kind of knowledge), and practical in the sense that Bayle preserves the possibility of certain knowledge with respect to our most basic moral intuitions.

Here’s the bold claim: I don’t know of any other figure in the history of philosophy who is as adept at combining skepticism of our judgments about the world with certainty about our most basic moral intuitions (on the basis of what Bayle calls “right reason”) and our most basic religious beliefs (on the basis of what Bayle calls “faith”). That’s one of the coolest implications of my monograph-in-progress, The Bayle Enigma.

It sounds like Bayle has influenced you quite deeply, and I am intrigued by your bold claim about his place in the history of philosophy. Since Bayle is not a cornerstone of philosophy programs (I unfortunately did not study him in any depth during my education), could you explain his philosophy and what makes it so unique?

Oh, this is such a fun question – I love Bayle, and I could talk/write a long time about him! I’ll try to restrict myself to the basics. As a figure, Bayle problematizes the standard early modern pedagogical narrative (science-rationalism-empiricism-Kant); he doesn’t fit neatly in most categories! Insofar as folks agree about his thought, they tend to adopt the term “skepticism” as a general descriptor. From there, however, interpretations get rather controversial rather quickly; folks have argued that he espouses everything from Cartesian metaphysics to surreptitious atheism to orthodox Calvinism to Pyrrhonian skepticism to proto-Kierkegaardian fideism to political monarchism… so he’s a difficult guy to systematize! It makes me question the judgment of giving my manuscript the subtitle A Systematic Reading – but what’s a monograph without a controversial thesis to defend?

Though Bayle doesn’t have the name cachet of the other famous 17th century philosophers, he was certainly in dialogue with them – literally, in the case of Leibniz, who essentially called Bayle his best philosophical sparring partner. High praise from a universal genius! Bayle’s forte is sussing out the structure and tactics of his opponents’ arguments, then using the same methods on them. He called this rétorsion, and it was extremely effective as a critique of the grand system building that characterized much of 17th century European philosophy. But he also made some unique and provocative claims. He was one of the first, for example, to claim that atheists could be moral; that certain religious beliefs were not actually above reason, but rather against reason; that any reading of Scripture which generates an obligation to commit an immoral act is false; and that an erring conscience is owed all of the same rights as a veridical one. My goal is to provide an interpretive structure that makes sense both of Bayle’s “negative” side (skepticism, rétorsion, etc.) and his “positive” side (the rationality of basic moral maxims, religious toleration, etc.).

As you are probably aware, a form of scientific skepticism and critique of religious belief made a comeback recently with the advent of books by the “New Atheists” (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, and Harris). What is your take on the arguments being made by these individuals?

I’m not sure that I’d agree with the characterization of “New Atheism” as a kind of skepticism. It seems to me that the arguments for which the New Atheists are best known exemplify the very kind of dogma against which philosophers like Pyrrho, Carneades, Arcesilaus, and Sextus Empiricus were arguing!

I would agree with your characterization of the New Atheists, that despite their claims to being profound skeptics they are in fact highly ideological. But this raises the question, how does the skepticism of Pyrrho, Carneades, Arcesilaus, and Sextus Empiricus escape the dogmatism of self-professed skeptics like the New Atheists?

This is a funny question, because the two different schools of ancient skepticism (Pyrrhonian and Academic) both accused each other of dogmatism! I think Sextus has the best reply to your question, though, in Book One of Outlines of Pyrrhonism. Forgive the long-ish quote, but I think it’s a super clear explanation of what the Pyrrhonian skeptic is up to:

“I say that the Skeptic does not dogmatize. I do not say this with regard to the popular meaning of the word ‘dogma,’ namely, that it is a dogma to assert anything rather than another. For even the Skeptic assents to feelings that are a necessary result of sensation… Rather… I take the word ‘dogma’ to mean the acceptance of any opinion in regard to the undetectable things investigated by science. For the Pyrrhonian assents to nothing that is undetectable.

“Furthermore, the Skeptic does not dogmatize even when he utters… in regard to things that are undetectable… ‘Nothing is truer than another thing’ or ‘I decide nothing’… For the dogmatist maintains that the things about which he dogmatizes actually exist in themselves. The Skeptic, however, does not regard these Skeptical formulas in any absolute sense, for he assumes that the saying ‘All is false’ includes its own falsehood…. In short, if he who dogmatizes assumes the truth about that which he dogmatizes, the Skeptic, on the contrary, expresses his sayings in a way that applies to the utterances themselves. Thus, we cannot say that the Skeptic dogmatizes in saying these things. The principal thing in uttering those formulas is that he says what appears to him, and communicates his own feelings in an unprejudiced way, without asserting anything in regard to external objects.” (I.7)

So if I’m understanding Sextus correctly, skeptics (or at least Pyrrhonians) escape the charge of dogmatism by expressing only how things appear. And it’s hard to argue against someone’s report of their own seemings! Now, one might have a case against the Academic skeptics, since they countenance the possibility of pithanon (plausible, persuasive) judgments, whereas the Pyrrhonians advocate epoche, a complete suspension of judgment. But even there, notice that the Academic skeptics do not advocate acceptance of opinions; they simply allow for the possibility of plausible judgments, which presumably one need not accept (where I mean something like “hold to be true”). So I think that both types of skeptics escape the charge of dogmatism.

Conversely, some argue there has been a resurgence in the public sphere of religiously inspired policies and politicians. What would the figures you write about have to say about the place currently accorded religion in public life?

This is a fantastic question! One of the reasons I love the 17th century is that we start to see emerging many of the questions that we’re still working on today! Just as there are many different contemporary positions on the appropriate role of religion in public life, there were a variety of 17th century responses as well. My familiarity with the question comes through my investigation of arguments on religious toleration, and the best known figure in that debate is probably John Locke, whose notion of toleration is famously (and short-sightedly!) limited. But even in the 17th century, there were others – like Bayle – who argued for a more inclusive notion of toleration. What’s fascinating to me is that Bayle’s notion of toleration is not only inclusive with respect to scope – that is, he includes all claims of conscience as worthy of toleration, not merely religious ones – but also inclusive with respect to regard – that is, he argues that we owe conscientious dissenters not merely non-harm, but also respect and esteem.

How do your research interests carry over into your teaching? What sorts of views do you find your students address the question of the relationship between reason and religious faith?

Another great – though difficult! – question. I think that the notion of epistemic humility (which nearly led me to write a dissertation on Kant, and what drew me to Bayle) has had a profound effect on my pedagogy. I’ve heard from several different sources a definition of humility that I quite like: humility is not low self-esteem, or false subservience, but rather an ability to see oneself – one’s inner life, one’s skills and capabilities, one’s character – as one truly is. This notion of humility precludes “sage-on-the-stage” teaching and foregrounds participatory student learning as the goal, with my presence as a means to that end. I am here to serve the students’ learning, and I expect to learn from them as well.

My students are a rather heterogeneous bunch! Loyola’s diverse student population makes “universal access” pedagogy imperative. Just as the architectural principles of universal design benefit everyone, not just those who need them, pedagogical principles of universal design benefit all learners, not just ones with learning challenges. The implications of universal design pedagogy for discussions of controversial topics, including the topic of religious faith, require that I cultivate in advance a classroom environment where respectful engagement and critical reflection are a given. Once that environment is in place, I encourage students to express their own religious beliefs, and then make use of them when formulating their arguments. I find that once students are aware that their own religious beliefs are not “off limits”, but rather a central part of their lives that deserves respect and reflection, they tend to engage more authentically – and vigorously!

Please feel free to ask Kristen questions about her work in the comment thread.

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