The first book by the English philosopher John Cottingham that I encountered was On the Meaning of Life (2003). There was, it struck me then, a much bigger book hidden, crouching, and ready to spring from its mere hundred-some pages. Since then, Cottingham has published no fewer than five books elaborating many of the same themes and arguments. The most recent of these, In Search of the Soul, provides a good occasion to reflect, with a man who is both a distinguished philosopher and a gentle guide, on the state of religious belief and disbelief in our present age.
“Increasingly, and for a variety of reasons,” Cottingham remarked in a 2011 interview, “religion, theism, Christianity, Catholicism—in that order—have assumed a place that is central for my self-understanding and my understanding of what I am doing in my career as well as in the rest of my life.” In fact, critics of Cottingham’s work have suggested that what he is doing is not so much philosophy of religion as it is a sectarian Catholic philosophy of religion—all too specific to that one tradition among many. That criticism seems to me correct, but also misleading. Cottingham’s Catholic philosophy of religion is his way of getting deeper into the springs of what he calls “religious understanding.”
After undergraduate and graduate studies at Oxford, Cottingham began his career as a scholar of the great seventeenth-century philosopher René Descartes, whose “‘synoptic’ conception of philosophy”—metaphysics together with epistemology together with ethics—appealed to Cottingham. He has also acknowledged that specialization is what philosophy professors typically need to do in order to earn a living in academia; for him, that took the form of writing on, editing, and translating Descartes. It was only toward the end of his teaching career, mostly at the University of Reading, that he felt he had the “luxury,” as he puts it, of “opening the doors a bit wider” and developing what he has come to define as a more humane philosophy—a way of practicing it that is not only logically rigorous, but also takes into account our emotional and imaginative modes of awareness. On the Meaning of Life was an early exercise in this kind of philosophy. Why Believe? (2009), How to Believe (2015), and In Search of the Soul (2020) are noteworthy successors. Quotations from and discussions of poetry, musical compositions, novels, and Scripture share the page with arguments and concepts from, among others, Aristotle, Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, Immanuel Kant, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Martin Heidegger, and a few contemporary figures.
Importantly, the poetry here isn’t supposed to be mere illustration. Cottingham makes much of Blaise Pascal’s celebrated claim that “the heart has reasons that reason does not know.” He develops this claim in Why Believe? by contrasting two kinds of truth. In Cottingham’s account, the empirical sciences are concerned with so-called “bald truth”: truth that “presents itself to the subject, given that he or she is properly equipped with the right theories and methods and instruments, entirely without reference...to [the subject’s] level of self-understanding, their moral development, or the stage they have reached in their individual spiritual journey through life.” Thus, someone might reject truths about climate change, or vaccination, or astrology, but these truths are available to anyone with working intellectual and sensory capacities, irrespective of whether the person is deeply humane or morally obtuse. Moral truths, the truths about the human condition available in novels, poetry, and other forms of art, and arguably religious truths as well—for example, the truth that the heavens proclaim the glory of God—appear to be of a different nature. The truths in these domains are not available in the same way to anyone with working intellectual and sensory capacities, without regard to his or her moral development and experience, depth of self-understanding, and spiritual maturity. Instead, these truths appear to depend on “requirements as to the attitude of the subject”—or what Cottingham calls “accessibility conditions.” He explains what he means through a close reading of Luke’s subtle story of the disciples’ encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus. It is the state of the disciples’ hearts—the disposition of their spirits and emotions—that at first blinds them, then slowly opens their eyes, until they finally recognize Christ in the breaking of the bread. Along the way, Christ opened the meaning of the scriptures to his disciples. In a similar way (though Cottingham might be too modest to accept the analogy), the discussions of poetry that abound in his work help draw the reader “from an epistemology of detachment to an epistemology of receptivity and involvement,” as he formulates the contrast in How to Believe.