As I explored why religion scholars often framed fandoms—or aspects of fandoms—as religion, an AAR presentation drew my attention to T. M. Luhrmann’s How God Becomes Real. In her exquisite volume, which I reviewed here, Luhrmann identifies the foundation of one of her chapters on scholarship about play. Such scholarship on play, she notes, is rooted in Han Vaihinger’s The Philosophy of ‘As If’. So, I naturally purchased Vaihinger’s work and read it to consider the extent to which is could help as a theoretical framework for thinking about the issue I raise on the outset of this paragraph.
In The Philosophy of ‘As If’, originally published in the early twentieth summary, Vaihinger explores how the logical function always function with an as-if framework and doesn’t necessarily, or often for that matter, align with reality. He derives these ideas from previous philosophers, especially Kant. This as-if framework divides any as-if claim into three categories: fiction, hypothesis, and dogma. Typically, dogma is to be avoided because little in our logical function within the psyche aligns with reality. Something is only a hypothesis when it closely and clearly aligns with reality. For the most part, though, most of what we perceive is a fiction. That is not to say, though, that perceiving something as a fiction necessarily means it is wrong; rather, something can be self-contradictory and fictional in terms of the logical function process but of value inasmuch as it is practical.
While much of Vaihinger’s work focuses on examples from the philosophy of science, his work nonetheless touches upon important themes and theories that can aid religion scholars. Regarding the ideas of a soul, god, immortality, etc., Vaihinger draws extensively from Kant, reframing much of Kant’s work to show the value of the as-if framework for explaining the logical function. For example, Part III of The Philosophy of ‘As If’ discuses—and quotes huge chunks of—various places wherein Kant more or less uses or implies the as-if framework, in which ideas are fictions that have practical value.
Now, because his work is so extensive and thorough, this post aim to highlight key findings and criticisms. In particular, I focus on putting Vaihinger’s ideas into conversation with other, more recent scholarship. Through facilitating such conversations, I hope to exemplify how leveraging and utilizing Vaihinger’s work more critically can be be beneficial to religion scholars.\
First, as I am particularly interested in ancient Israelite and Judean conceptual structures, Vaihinger’s discussion of the antithetic error is a fruitful framework for thinking through and defining ancient Israelite and Judean conceptual structures. In general, the antithetic error can be expressed as follow: “If, in fictions, thought contradicts reality,” something that Vaihinger demonstrates well and which is beyond this post’s scope, “or if it even contradicts itself, and if n spite of this questionable procure it nevertheless succeeds in corresponding to reality, then—and this is a necessary inference—this deviation must have been corrected and the contradiction must have been made good” (109). What makes this contradiction good is “an equivalent error of an opposite nature” (109), the method of antithetic error. Such a method uses what Vaihinger calls intermediate concepts, or concepts that enable a practical claim to be made but that drop out in the claim proper. After demonstrating how this method is used in mathematical equations, Vaihinger shifts toward a textual example. He write the following:
M (Man)—P (Mortal)—Man is mortal
S (Socrates)—M (Man)—Socrates is a man
S (Socrates)—P (Mortal)—Socrates is mortal
Here, Vaihinger highlights that “man” is an intermediate concept enabling the claim that Socrates is mortal; however, “as son as the result is attained the intermediate concept drops out” (121). Here, the method of antithetic error is at play inasmuch as “Socrates is mortal” is only possible because of the intermediate concept “man.”
For me, this framework raises a question in how we interpret texts: how can we, should we, do we, etc., identify whether an author’s language dropped an intermediate concept? This question carries weight in many situations of biblical interpretation. Take, for example, Psalm 29:1 (מזמור לדוד הבו ליהוה בני אלים הבו ליהוה כבוד ועז). How do we characterize the nature of the Sons of God in relation to humans? And should assumptions about humans shape assumptions about Sons of God? Vaihinger’s focus on the intermediate concept can help us articulate a possibility:
H (Humans)—G (Glory)—Humans give glory
S (Sons of God)—H (Humans)—Sons of God are like humans
S (Sons of God)—G (Glory)—Sons of God give glory
In this theoretical reconfiguration, we begin to ask now just what is evident in the text but rather what intermediate concepts dropped out in Psalm 29:1 so as to make Psalm 29:1 possible! Indeed, most introductory courses encourage this sort of approach, but Vaihinger’s method/approach is beneficial because we can visualize interpreter’s assumptions and possible intermediate concepts. Moreover, we can clearly link intermediate concepts to biblical texts when those concepts are explicitly at play. Finally, simply using the language “intermediate concept” enables scholars to more effectively articulate interpretive assumptions and claims regarding how the author constructed the text.
Second, Vaihinger’s law of ideational shifts is an alternative, philosophically grounded way to express Luhrmann’s faith frame, not to mention other adjacent concepts in her work. Vaihinger’s law of ideational shifts is straightforward: “it is to the effect that a number of ideas pass through various stages of development, namely those of fiction, hypothesis and dogma; and conversely dogma, hypothesis and fiction” (124). In this context, he identifies that a hypothesis becomes a stable dogma “through repeated confirmation” (125). This ideational shift from fiction to hypothesis to dogma is, in many respects, akin to Luhrmann’s claims that making gods and spirits real demands “intention and attention” (How God Becomes Real, 17). Throughout her book, Luhrmann frequent identifies different aspects of consistent intention and attention that engender the faith frame. Where Vaihinger is beneficial, though, is in allowing the faith frame to have a more specific process linked with the logical function and behavior in regard to the logical function.
Third, although Vaihinger focuses on the psyche and logical function, his description of how we attain knowledge, could be an intriguing approach to literary texts, perhaps beyond his scope but interesting nonetheless. In describing the logical function, reality, and apperception, he writes the following:
The psyche works over the material presented to it by the sensations, i.e. elaborates the only available foundation with the help of the logical forms; it sifts the sensations, on the one hand cutting away definite portions of the given sensory material, in conformity with the logical functions, and on the other making subjective additions to what is immediately give. And it is in these very operations that the process of acquiring knowledge consists, and it is all the while departing from reality as given to it. (157)
Put another way, Vaihinger argues that our perceptions of reality become more distant from reality as our logical functions sift through and add to the original input. This framing could, in fact, yield interesting results about biblical texts. While theorists like Benjamin Harshav advocate for literary texts that unfold, Harshav’s approach paired with Vaihinger could yield an approach focus on how sensations unfold as a form of knowledge. Moreover, such a consideration can also ask, “Did this author intend to represent a departure from reality or a movement and adherence to reality as the characters in the narrative experience more sensation input that shapes their subsequent actions?” For now, I’m not sure, but exploring this question in another post might be worthwhile.
Fourth, I want to end this post with some of my favorite quotes from Vaihinger. While I don’t have much to say about them, his words are thought provoking at least to me: “Thought in this way, creates for itself an exceedingly artificial instrument of enormous practical utility for the apprehension and elaboration of the stuff of reality; but a mere instrument, although we often confuse it with reality itself” (208). A page later, he write what echoes Simeon Chavel’s comment in a Criterion article about Johan Huizinga and religion as “as is” instead of “as if”: “If the psyche regards the general idea as a thing with attributes, it need not be deprived of this convenient and useful game; but the game should not be taken seriously so that the as if becomes a rigid it is” (209).