A Bee in his Bonnet

Richard Dawkins may be a fine zoologist, and he is certainly a lively and entertaining writer, but when it comes to the substance of the anti-religious work that defines his public persona, he must be judged a rather poor philosopher.

The first rule of philosophy is to reject dogma. Socrates believed that the unexamined life is not worth living, and the Western tradition of philosophy ever since has placed the highest value on self-questioning and subjecting our concepts to critical scrutiny.

By any reckoning Dawkins fails this test. He never questions his own presuppositions, most notably the premise underlying his entire work to the effect that scientific knowledge is the only basis for true wisdom. Since the Enlightenment this has not been an uncommon view. Dawkins is only the latest among thinkers dazzled by the extraordinary success of the scientific revolution in vastly increasing the stock of useful human knowledge.

But knowledge is not identical with wisdom. Philosophers from Kant to Wittgenstein were aware, and articulated, a critical distinction between two ways of thinking: a scientific, that is to say abstract and selective way of thinking, perfectly adapted to establishing the means to limited and well-defined ends; and a synthetic, contextual, subjectively-inflected way of thinking, which is concerned with final ends, or with the good life. The failure to grasp this distinction between what has been variously termed Understanding and Reason, the Explanatory and the Self-Explanatory, Abstract and Concrete thought, Saying and Showing, is a distinctively modern blind-sightedness: Coleridge called it “the Queen Bee in the hive of our errors”.

Dawkins has clearly made no effort to learn from the philosophers about the limitations of the scientific understanding. He reasons like a man, to use an image from Hegel, for whom knowing the chemical and biological properties of food is some kind of substitute for eating. By failing to grasp the distinction between knowledge and wisdom, Dawkins is at war, not only with religion, but with the Western tradition of philosophy since Socrates.

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