British philosopher and theologian, and bishop of Durham in the Church of England from 1966 until his death. Educated at Cambridge and Oxford, he began his professional life as chaplain at Christ College, Cambridge. His lasting ambition, however, was to craft a persuasive apologetic for the Christian religion within the predominant philosophical framework of empiricism. This he attempted to do during his fifteen-year tenure as Nolloth Professor of the Philosophy of the Christian Religion at Oxford, beginning December 1951. His most important publications are Religious Language (1957), Freedom and Immortality (1960), and Christian Discourse (1965).
Ramsey's philosophical theology was forged in the crucible of encounter with logical positivism, the most virulently antimetaphysical form of empiricism in the history of philosophy. This did not prevent him from attending to the peculiar virtues of the more innocuous empiricism that survived the demise of logical positivism. This empiricism—exemplified in the work of the later Wittgenstein—he considered to be more an approach to philosophical questions than a body of received doctrine. He especially appreciated the determination to clarify the meaning of ordinary assertions and thereby to dissolve various philosophical puzzles, and he routinely applied empiricist techniques of language analysis for the purposes of elucidating religious discourse.
In keeping with the spirit of ordinary language analysis, Ramsey recommended the investigation of patterns of religious discourse and behavior in search of the empirical foundations of such patterns. He held that theological concepts are embedded in characteristic assertions of theological discourse. The challenge for the philosopher is to understand the peculiar logical behavior of these concepts by exploring the behavior that (empirically) anchors the discourse in which the concepts are embedded. The meaning of religious language is determined by its aptness for giving expression to peculiarly religious features of ordinary human behavior. Such behavior is the empirical ground of the meaning of religious language. Identifying this ground is the first step of analysis.
On investigation, the philosopher finds that the behavior that grounds religious discourse is characterized by awareness of a “disclosure situation” in which something transcendent breaks in upon the one who uses religious language. Hence, to locate the meaning of any religious assertion, the philosopher must inquire into the special character of the disclosure situation that gives rise to that form of life that is most aptly captured by the religious assertion in question. In other words, the meaning of the language is found in the explanation that an experience of disclosure bestows upon the emergence of that sort of language as the articulation of a form of life. At this stage, analysis of the meaning of religious language is complete.
Though Ramsey repudiated the “irrationalism” of Kierkegaard and Barth, he left himself open to the charge that his own apologetic for Christianity in no way concerned itself with the question, “Are religious assertions true?” His preoccupation with the meaning of religious discourse prevented some from recognizing the subtle and complex way he sought to justify belief in the reality of entities that lie behind disclosure situations. Though his orthodoxy perhaps cannot be seriously challenged, his theological method invited suspicion among some contemporaries. While such suspicion may have been laid to rest by Ramsey's assertions that the existence of a transcendent God is objective and given in disclosure situations that are then expressed in religious language, it is perhaps safe to say that Ramsey's project of showing this to be the case was never satisfactorily completed.
Ramsey's scholarship well illustrates the admirable aim of developing an apologetic for Christianity that is vigorous and fresh and is responsive to the dominant tendencies of thought current in one's own time. In some respects, however, his detailed position was so intimately tied to the times that it has about it the mustiness of obsolescence.
Related Credo Articles
British. b: 31 January 1915, Bolton, Lancashire, d: 6 October 1972, London. Cat: Divine; logical empiricist. Ints: Philosophy of...
Theories of meaning, construed with respect to human languages, stipulate the conditions under which concepts and propositions become...