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A. The Real

The traditional doctrine of divine ineffability is to be found in Christianity, as well as other religious traditions. Hick believes that this doctrine is really the recognition of a quasi-Kantian distinction between God (the Real, the Ultimate4343   An Interpretation of Religion (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), pp. 236–39. Unless otherwise noted, page references to Hick’s work will be to this book.) as it is in itself and as it is for us (as we know or experience it):

In each of the great traditions a distinction has been drawn, though with varying degrees of emphasis, between the Real (thought of as God, Brahman, the Dharmakaya . . .) in itself and the Real as manifested within the intellectual and experiential purview of that tradition. (236)

So far, so good; this claim—that there is a distinction between the Real as it is in itself and as it is for us—is relatively weak. It requires only that the way we think of God does not completely match what God actually is; it would be satisfied if, for example, there are things about God that we didn’t know or, more strongly, if there were things about him we couldn’t know.

But Hick goes much further; the Real is such that we cannot say anything at all about it, in that none of our terms can be literally (and correctly) applied to it:

Thus although we cannot speak of the Real an sich in literal terms, nevertheless we live inescapably in relation to it. (351)

It is within the phenomenal or experienceable realm that language has developed and it is to this that it literally applies. Indeed the system of concepts embodied in human language has contributed reciprocally to the formation of the humanly perceived world. It is as much constructed as given. But our language can have no purchase on a postulated noumenal reality which is not even partly formed by human concepts. This lies outside the scope of our cognitive capacities. (350)


This sounds like the two-world interpretation of Kant (above, pp. 10ff.). There is the phenomenal realm, to which our language literally applies; this “humanly perceived world” is as much constructed as given, and it is constructed, in part, by virtue of our application of concepts. However, there is also a noumenal world (‘The Real’), “which is not even partly formed by human concepts,” and as a result it is outside the scope of our cognitive capacities. And here some of the same questions arise as with the two-world interpretation of Kant: why think something is within the scope of our cognitive capacities only if it is partly formed by human concepts? Are horses and dinosaurs (partly) formed by our concepts? (Which parts?) And if the noumena lie outside the scope of our cognitive capacities, how is it that we know something about them, or even that there are any such things?

More frequently, however, he adopts the one-world view:

Kant distinguished between noumenon and phenomenon, or between a Ding an sich and that thing as it appears to human consciousness. . . . In this strand of Kant’s thought—not the only strand, but the one which I am seeking to press into service in the epistemology of religion—the noumenal world exists independently of our perception of it and the phenomenal world is that same world as it appears to our human consciousness. . . . I want to say that the noumenal Real is experienced and thought by different human mentalities, forming and formed by different religious traditions, as the range of gods and absolutes which the phenomenology of religion reports. (241–42)

Further, it is unclear whether Hick thinks we can or can’t, do or don’t perceive this being or in some other way experience it. On the negative side, we have

If the Real in itself is not and cannot be humanly experienced, why postulate such an unknown and unknowable Ding as sich? The answer is that the divine noumenon is a necessary postulate of the pluralistic religious life of humanity. (249)

On the positive side, we have, for example,

Analogously, I want to say that the noumenal Real is experienced and thought by different human mentalities, forming and formed by different religious traditions, as the range of gods and absolutes which the phenomenology of religion reports. (242)


The noumenal Real is such as to be authentically experienced as a range of both theistic and nontheistic phenomena. (246–47)

There are several more passages to quote on each side; clearly, Hick is ambivalent about the answer to this question. But perhaps this is 45not fatal; his answer, I should think, would be “In a way, yes, and in a way, no.” The noumenal real makes a crucial causal contribution of some sort to our experience; perhaps it doesn’t matter whether we say that we actually experience it or say, instead, only that it contributes to our experience.

Another ambiguity, however, is not so easily dismissed. In chapter 19, Hick seems to say that our concepts do not apply to the noumenon, or, as he puts it there, none of our terms applies literally to it. He quotes the Buddha as saying, with respect to where or in what sphere a Tathagata (a fully enlightened being) arises after death, that none of the terms ‘arises’, ‘does not arise’, ‘both arises and does not arise,’ and ‘neither arises nor does not arise’ applies to the condition of the Tathagata (346). Hick apparently approves of this suggestion and adds, “We have here the idea of realities and circumstances which transcend the categories available in our unillumined thought and language. Their total elusiveness is signaled by the Buddha’s rejection not only of the straight positive and negative assertions but also of their combination and disjunction” (347). Hick also claims that “we cannot speak of the Real an sich in literal terms” (351). If Hick really means that none of our terms applies literally to the Real, then it isn’t possible to make sense of what he says. I take it the term ‘tricycle’ does not apply to the Real; the Real is not a tricycle. But if the Real is not a tricycle, then ‘is not a tricycle’ applies literally to it; it is a nontricycle. It could hardly be neither a tricycle nor a nontricycle, nor do I think that Hick would want to suggest that it could.

In chapter 14, however, Hick makes a suggestion of quite a different kind. As he says, “it would not indeed make sense to say of X that none of our concepts apply to it” (p. 239); for example, at least our concept being such that we can refer to it would have to apply to any X of which we were properly prepared to say anything at all, including that our concepts do not apply to it. The idea is rather, says Hick, that among our concepts, only formal concepts and negative concepts apply to the Real. That is to say, of the properties of which we have a grasp, only those that are formal, such as having some properties, being self-identical, and being such that 7 + 5 = 12, and those that are negative, such as not being a horse, not being a tricycle, and not being good, would apply to it. Hick adds that there is a substantial tradition within Christianity and other religions, according to which we should distinguish

between what we might call substantial properties, such as ‘being good’, ‘being powerful’, ‘having knowledge’, and purely formal and logically generated properties such as ‘being a referent of a term’ and ‘being such that our substantial concepts do not apply’. What they wanted to affirm was that the substantial characterizations do not apply to God in God’s self-existent being, beyond the range of human experience. They often expressed this by saying that we can only make negative statements about the Ultimate. . . . This via negativa 46 (or via remotionis) consists in applying negative concepts to the Ultimate—the concept of not being finite, and so on—as a way of saying that it lies beyond the range of all our positive substantial characterizations. It is in this qualified sense that it makes perfectly good sense to say that our substantial concepts do not apply to the Ultimate. (239)

Here Hick is apparently endorsing what he sees these traditions as delivering. I am not sure there is any way of harmonizing chapter 14 with chapter 19; if not, I suggest we go with chapter 14.

At some points in characterizing these traditions he is historically incorrect. For example, he claims that “Calvin taught that we do not know God’s essence but only God as revealed to us” (250), and he refers to Calvin’s Institutes, I: xiii: 21. But Calvin doesn’t teach that we can’t know anything of God’s essence. In this chapter, he begins by arguing that

The scriptural teaching concerning God’s infinite and spiritual essence ought to be enough, not only to banish popular delusions, but also to refute the subtleties of secular philosophy.4444   Tr. Ford Lewis Battles and ed. John T. McNeill (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), I, xiii, 1, p. 120. (Page references to the Institutes are to this edition.)

He goes on to point out that we can’t ‘measure’ God ‘by our own senses’ as he puts it:

But even if God to keep us sober speaks sparingly of his essence, yet by those two titles that I have used [‘infinite’ and ‘spiritual’], he both banishes stupid imaginings and restrains the boldness of the human mind. Surely his infinity ought to make us afraid to try to measure him by our own senses. (p. 121)

Calvin’s next point is that because God is a spirit, we can’t properly attribute corporeal characteristics to him. He concedes that Scripture does seem to attribute such characteristics (a mouth, an arm, ears, eyes, hands) to him, but those who therefore take it that he has such bodily characteristics fail to understand that “as nurses commonly do with infants, God is wont in a measure to ‘lisp’ in speaking to us” (p. 121). Here Calvin clearly thinks we know that God ‘in himself’ is infinite, spiritual, and incorporeal; his essence includes infinity and incorporeality. In the passage to which Hick refers, furthermore, Calvin’s point is to caution us not to try to figure out God’s essence by way just of the resources of reason; given its limitations, that is bound to prove futile:

For how can the human mind measure off the measureless essence of God according to its own little measure, a mind as yet unable to establish for certain the nature of the sun’s body, though men’s eyes daily gaze upon it? . . . Let us then 47willingly leave to God the knowledge of himself. . . . But we shall be “leaving it to him” if we conceive him to be as he reveals himself to us, without inquiring about him elsewhere than from his Word. (I, xiii, 1, p. 146)

The point is that Scripture is a much better source of knowledge of God (including knowledge of his essence) than rational speculation. But Calvin didn’t think for a moment that none of our positive substantial concepts applies to God; he clearly believed that God really is the creator of the heavens and the earth, that he really does love us, that he is incorporeal, wise, powerful, loving, and the like.

On this view, Hick’s claim about the Real is not that none of our concepts applies to it or that none of our terms literally applies to it; that is clearly incoherent. His claim, instead, is that only our formal concepts and terms and our negative concepts and terms apply to it. That is to say, the only properties it has of which we have a grasp are formal properties and negative properties. Consider first those formal concepts. Included here would be, first of all, concepts of properties which are such that everything has them and furthermore has them necessarily.4545   A concept’s meeting the first condition but not the second (i.e., being such that everything falls under it but not such that everything necessarily falls under it) is not sufficient for its being formal. For example, the concept either not living on the moon or else not being human applies to everything (there are no human beings who live on the moon), but it isn’t a formal concept in the intended sense. Hick is thinking (I take it) of properties such that it is necessary that everything has them: such properties as being self-identical, having properties, having essential properties, being either a horse or a nonhorse, and being such that 7 + 5 = 12. These properties are necessarily had by everything.

We might add that they are essential to everything, where a property is essential to an object if it is not possible that the object exist but lack the property: the property of being self-identical would be an example. We could add still further that each of these properties is such that it is necessary that everything has it essentially. So take any of the properties under consideration: everything has it, it is necessary that everything has it, everything has it essentially, and it is necessary that everything has it essentially. Existence is another of those formal properties: everything exists, existence is an essential property of everything, and it is a necessary truth that existence is essential to everything.

But these aren’t the only properties that Hick means to include under the rubric ‘formal’. Others are such properties as being referred to by human beings and being thought of by John. So the idea is not that we cannot talk or think about the being in question. On the contrary: we can think about it, refer to it, and say of it that it exists. We can say of it, furthermore, that we can refer to it.


Second, in addition to formal properties, we can predicate negative properties of this being—that is, we can correctly predicate negative properties of it. This is implied by Hick’s position as I have so far explained it. We can see this as follows. First, note that every property has a complement, where the complement of a property P is the property of not having P. Each of the properties of which we have a concept has a complement: the property of not having that property. Thus the complement of the property wisdom is the property of not being wise, a property enjoyed by everything that is not wise. And if we have a grasp, a conception, of the property in question (wisdom, for example) then we also have a grasp of its complement. Now consider any property P and its complement -P; the property P or -P is one of those formal properties every thing necessarily has. Of course, anything that has that property has either the property P or else has its complement -P. (For anything you pick, either it is wise or it is not wise.) According to Hick’s position as so far explained, however, the Real doesn’t have any positive nonformal property of which we have a grasp. It follows, then, that for all the positive properties P of which we have a grasp, the Real has -P.

Here we are speaking of the properties the thing in question has, not about our abilities or lack thereof to know or warrantedly believe something or other about its properties. I say that every object has essentially the property of having P or -P for any property P; I say further that if a being has that property, then either it has P or it has -P. Still, a being might be known (or justifiably believed or warrantedly believed) to have P or -P without being known (justifiably believed, etc.) to have P and without being known to have -P. I do not know and have no view on the question whether Socrates ever owned a horse; nevertheless, either he did own a horse or he didn’t. In developing Hick’s view, then, I am taking for granted a sort of realism: the idea that things (some things) can be a certain way even if neither I nor any other human being knows whether they are that way or not. There is nothing in what Hick says to suggest that his position obliges him to take issue with this truism.

So the idea is that we can predicate negative properties of this being. Furthermore, the idea is that we can correctly predicate negative properties of it: it has negative properties. Indeed, for each of the nonformal positive properties we grasp, the Real has the complement of that property (which is a negative property). Among our positive concepts, only the purely formal ones apply to this being; as for the rest of our concepts, only the negative ones apply to it. The Real doesn’t have wisdom: therefore it has nonwisdom; it does not have love: therefore it has nonlove; and so on for all the other positive nonformal properties we grasp. But, you say: it is not possible that there be a being that has only formal and negative properties. No doubt that’s true; still, it is neither here nor there, so far as Hick’s claim goes. The being in question may very well have positive properties 49in addition to the formal properties; it is only required by Hick’s position that those be positive properties of which we have no concept, properties of which we have no grasp. And we certainly don’t know that there aren’t any positive properties like that.

We must ask two questions here: first, is this Hickian position coherent? And second, is there any reason to accept it?

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