thinking makes it so

There is grandeur in this view of life…

Whispers of the gods #3

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My previous post was on Language and silence1 by George Steiner. I now turn to one of Steiner’s later books, Real Presences2.

Third in a series responding to George Steiner’s Language and silence and Real presences

See also Whispers of the gods #1 & #2. 

John Cornwell: Darwins angel

John Cornwell: Darwins angel

Real presences was mentioned by John Cornwell in his book Darwin’s angel3, itself an ‘angelic riposte’ to The God Delusion4 by Richard Dawkins.

On this blog the series from Touched by an angel #1 onwards is a response to Darwin’s angel.

Dawkins does not think much of what he calls the ‘argument from beauty’ (but which in the context of both his treatment and Cornwell’s riposte might perhaps be better termed the ‘argument from artistic creation’):

I have given up counting the number of times I receive the more or less truculent challenge: ‘How do you account for [eg] Shakespeare, then?’ …But the logic behind it is never spelled out…

…If there is a logical argument linking the existence of great art to the existence of God, it is not spelled out by its proponents…5

Cornwell counters with:

You don’t seem to have looked very far. You might not agree with it, but here is one example among many of just such an argument – spelled out at length by George Steiner in… Real Presences.6

In Real Presences Steiner

proposes that any coherent understanding of what language is and how language performs, that any coherent account of the capacity of human speech to communicate meaning and feeling is, in the final analysis, underwritten by the assumption of God’s presence… [and] …that the experience of aesthetic meaning in particular, that of literature, of the arts, of musical form, infers the necessary possibility of this ‘real presence’. The seeming paradox of a ‘necessary possibility’ is, very precisely, that which the poem, the painting, the musical composition are at liberty to explore and enact.7

Dawkins’ challenge is very simple. If the argument from beauty (or artistic creation) is to be taken seriously as an argument to support a belief in the existence of God, it must be effectively: (i) beauty (or art) exists, therefore God exists. Anything less will not cut the mustard.

As I mentioned in Touched by an angel #7 Cornwell is good enough to admit that

“Assumption” and “necessary possibility” of God’s presence is not the same as “requiring that God actually exists”. Steiner… is arguing… that there is a connection, by analogy, between authentic original artistic creativity and the idea of the sustaining creation of God in the world. Steiner… is not offering a “proof” for the existence of God. He is talking of the sense of the createdness of the world on the horizon of an artist’s consciousness, and indeed of those who appreciate art… He is… [also claiming] …that a loss of this sense of a wager on God’s presence would likely spell the degeneration and disappearance of art in our lives.8 [My emphases.]

This seems very much a retreat from (i) beauty (or art) exists, therefore God exists. It is more a statement about the relationship between artistic creation and aesthetic appreciation (on the one hand) and belief in God (on the other) – in simple language: (ii) people who create art and/or appreciate art tend to believe that God exists.

Now this proposition, even if it is generally true – which seems doubtful – would be neither here nor there in relation to the ‘argument from beauty’ which Dawkins is challenging.

But because George Steiner is such an authoritative figure, I thought I would see for myself – and perhaps discover that my two simple language formulations (i) and (ii) were so simplistic they missed Steiner’s profundity by miles.


1 George Steiner, Language and silence, London, 1967.

2 George Steiner, Real presences, The University of Chicago Press, 1989.

3 John CornwellDarwin’s angel: an angelic riposte to The God Delusion, Profile Books, London, 2007.

4 Richard DawkinsThe God delusion, Bantam, 2006.

5 Richard Dawkins, 2006: see 4 above.

6 John Cornwell, 2007: see 3 above.

7 George Steiner, 1989: see 2 above.

8 John Cornwell, 2007: see 2 above.

© Chris Lawrence 2009.


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