Philosophy, as I shall understand the word, is something intermediate between theology and science. Like theology, it consists of speculations on matters as to which definite knowledge has, so far, been unascertainable; but like science, it appeals to human reason rather than to authority, whether that of tradition or that of revelation. All definite knowledge – so I should contend – belongs to science; all dogma as to what surpasses definite knowledge belongs to theology. But between theology and science there is a No Man’s Land, exposed to attack from both sides; and this No Man’s Land is philosophy. Almost all the questions of most interest to speculative minds are such as science cannot answer, and the confident answers of theologians no longer seem so convincing as they did in former centuries. (p. xiii)
I would certainly take issue with various things Russell says here, and this doesn’t really work as a strict definition of philosophy (and perhaps isn’t meant to be that). However, at least with the “No Man’s Land” business, Russell is on to something.
As Russell himself emphasized many times, the reason science – and in particular, physics – yields results that are as certain as they are is precisely that it is has limited itself to describing only those aspects of physical reality of which such certainty is attainable – in particular, those susceptible of strict mathematical description. Everything else it ignores. Accordingly, physics is somewhat like a student who makes sure only to take classes that he knows he will get an A in, and then brags about his superior GPA relative to people who take the other classes. Russell held that what physics really reveals are only very abstract structural features of the natural world, but not the intrinsic natures of the entities that have these features.
Of course, it’s more complicated than that, and Russell’s position needs to be qualified in various ways. I refer the interested reader to my discussion of Russell’s epistemic structural realism in chapter 3 of . The point for present purposes is that scientists are often tempted to transform what is really only a useful but limited method into a complete metaphysics, and to judge that whatever cannot be captured by the method must not be real, or at least must not be worth talking about. It is really this attitude of scientism – rather than science itself – that attacks the “No Man’s Land” of philosophy from one direction. Scientism regards philosophy either as altogether illegitimate, or as legitimate only to the extent that it is continuous with science. Certainly it rules out any ambitious claims to extra-scientific metaphysical knowledge of the kind made by Platonists, Aristotelians, Scholastics, rationalists, et al.
The attack from the other direction comes, not really from theology per se, but rather from an attitude that is a kind of ideologization of theology, just as scientism is an ideologization of science. I speak of fideism. Now, there is the crude, stereotypical kind of fideism of the uneducated bumpkin who thumps his Bible and distrusts learning; and the emotionalistic sort of fideism of the believer who insists that religion is a matter of the heart and not the head. But those are not the sorts of things I’m talking about. What I am talking about are theological systems which as a matter of theoretical principle (rather than out of mere ignorance or a sentimental temperament) distrust the methods and claims of philosophy, or at least of any philosophy conducted independently of theology.
For example, there is Luther’s hostility to the Aristotelian-Scholastic system of natural theology and ethics, understood as providing substantive knowledge of God and morality through purely philosophical means apart from revelation (where this system was the main target of Luther’s remarks about reason being “the devil’s whore,” etc.). There is Barth’s hostility to the idea that purely philosophical arguments for God’s existence provide a “point of contact” by which divine revelation is mediated. There is, in the Catholic context, the nouvelle theologie’s hostility to the idea of natura pura or “pure nature,” which includes the notion that a certain, if limited, knowledge of God is available through purely philosophical arguments independent of revelation.
Just as scientism knows nothing of grace and reduces the world to a desiccated conception of nature, fideistic theological systems like these threaten entirely to obliterate nature and absorb the world into a rarefied conception of grace. Scientism brings us down to the level of the other animals, whereas fideism pretends we are angels. Both thereby make God unknowable, since in fact we are neither mere animals (who cannot know God at all) nor angels (who, unlike us, need not rely on inference to know God). Both refuse to recognize that philosophy provides a ladder to God – scientism not letting us put the ladder up in the first place, fideism insisting that it can kick the ladder away and remain aloft (when in reality it comes crashing down).
Needless to say, all of this goes beyond anything Russell himself was talking about. But I think it captures what is true in his famous characterization. He was wrong to insinuate that either science or theology per se are prone to hostility toward philosophy. Rightly understood, science, theology, and philosophy are perfectly compatible and complementary both in their methods and their results. But the distortion of science that is scientism and the distortion of theology that is fideism are certainly hostile to philosophy, and it is they which treat it as a No Man’s Land.
I’m inclined to adopt the remark famously misattributed to General Patton when asked what he would do if he found himself trapped between the Nazis and the Soviets. What should the Scholastic philosopher do when surrounded by scientism on one side and fideism on the other? Attack in both directions!