Show Your Cards–Presuppositions

5 September 2011 No Comment

In his book on the gospel of Mark, The Genesis of Secrecy, Frank Kermode writes, “we find it hardest to think about what we have most completely taken for granted.” This causes me to ask myself, what do I most completely take for granted, which is a question about presuppositions. What do I take to be true without feeling any need to prove it, even to myself?

There are a lot of everyday practical things in this category (such as my presumption that the fellow driving toward me will stay on his side of the line), but the question is most interesting when directed toward ultimate things. Do I presuppose the existence of God, for instance, as others presuppose that all reality is physical?

Actually, I don’t. But I think all of us engage in temporary or tentative presuppositions in order to allow us to think beyond what we can prove. I know the idea of God is contested, and I do not, therefore, presuppose it when I build my understanding of the world. But I often begin a line of thought with that tentative presupposition so that I can think about the implications of God existing and the claims that makes on my life. Otherwise, I would always be stuck at the first step.

I believe all reflective, inquiring people do this with all kinds of issues. Scientists and philosophers do so when they reason around a hypothesis. Sometimes the scientist can move on to testing and proof, sometimes not. With philosophers and the humanities, usually not.

Kermode adds a bit later in his book: “all interpretation proceeds from prejudice, and without prejudice there can be no interpretation.” That is, there is no “objective” interpretations of anything, if a human being is doing the interpreting. Which does not mean we shouldn’t interpret or that we cannot say true things—only that we should be as self-aware of our presuppositions and shortcomings as possible. We should show our cards, even to ourselves.

Daniel Taylor

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