American Liberal Arts Blog

Teaching the Liberal Arts in the American Context
The Problems with Jeffersonian Philosophy, Part II
By Paul DeHart, September 30, 2010 in Outside the Classroom, What is Education?

See the first post in this series here.

In his well known but deeply incoherent letter to his nephew, Peter Carr, Thomas Jefferson recommends to Carr a strong foundationalist approach to the examination of purportedly miraculous events.  Given Jefferson’s commendation of the work of David Hume on matters religious and the resemblance of Jefferson’s program for assessing the purportedly supernatural, I think we are safe to infer that the Jeffersonian program simply is the Humean program.  But this means that Jefferson’s procedure for deciding whether or not a miraculous event did in fact occur is fatally flawed on two counts.  The first fatal flaw is the commitment of the Humean (and Jeffersonian) program to strong foundationalism, given the self-referential incoherency of strong foundationalism.  The second fatal flaw has to do with the corrosive effects of Humean epistemology upon knowledge of any kind, including knowledge arrived at by way of inductive generalizations from experience.  Moreover, Hume may be aware of the ironic implications of his skepticisms for his treatment of rational belief in the miraculous.  Jefferson clearly is not.

But before unpacking Hume’s skeptical epistemology and its implications for dismissals of miraculous stories premised upon invocations of the (physical) laws of nature, we ought to recall just what Jefferson tells Carr concerning stories of miracles.  Just what is the Jeffersonian program here?  Well consider the story recounted in the book of Joshua in which the sun is said to have stood still.  When considering the veracity of a story such as this, Jefferson tells Carr that he should do two things.  First, according to Jefferson, the writer of the Book of Joshua claims to have been inspired in his recounting of events.  Consequently, Carr must “examine upon what evidence” such “pretensions” are founded.  More generously, Jefferson exhorts, “Examine therefore candidly what evidence there is of [the writer] having been inspired.”  Why should Carr do this?  “Because millions believe it.”  Now, from the standpoint of Jefferson’s modernist epistemology “Because millions believe it” can hardly, for him, provide epistemic warrant or rational evidence.  “Because millions believe it” cannot for Jefferson constitute a rational motivation for the inquiry.  This, again, holds for Jeffersonian and modernist rationality.  Other accounts of rationality might assign different epistemic weight to the testimony of millions.  But to return to Jefferson . . . Given that the belief of millions carries no epistemic or rational weight for the strong foundationalist, the actual motivation for a rational inquiry into a story of the miraculous can only be for one reason: so that Carr’s beliefs concerning such stories derive from the evidence—that is, so that Carr’s beliefs concerning the miraculous derive from duly supported prior beliefs and/or from beliefs that are properly basic. 

Second, when evaluating a story of a purportedly miraculous event, Carr is to consider other things he knows, such as the orbit of the earth around the sun or the result, in accordance of the laws of nature, of the earth stopping its rotation so that the sun could remain in its place in the sky.  Carr is to evaluate the story in Joshua based on these other things he knows.  The reasoning goes like this: If the sun really stood still in the sky, then, given the laws of planetary motion, the earth must have stopped its rotation upon its axis; if the earth stopped rotating upon its axis, then persons and animals and trees and buildings should been thrown to the ground.  Indeed, they should have been “prostrated” a second time when the earth started moving again.  Jefferson is implying that we have no evidence (and, in particular, no written account) of one much less two general prostrations, as a result of the earth stopping and then resuming its rotation upon its axis.  Consequently, Jefferson poses what presents itself as a rather rhetorical question: “Is this arrest of the earth’s motion, or the evidence which affirms it, most within the law of probabilities?”  Jefferson quite clearly takes the latter to be the case and so rather clearly insinuates that Carr should therefore reject the story as being true.  The rational person will therefore treat such stories as legendary developments such as those that enter the writings of Livy or Tacitus.

Jefferson goes on to apply this way of reasoning to the accounts of Jesus contained in what Christian’s call the New Testament.  Thus, Jefferson tells Carr to “Keep in your eye the opposite pretensions 1. Of those who say he was begotten by god, born of a virgin, suspended & reversed the laws of nature at will, & ascended bodily into heaven: and 2. Of those who say he was a man of illegitimate birth, of a benevolent heart, enthusiastic in mind, who set out without pretensions to divinity, ended up believing them, & was punished capitally by the Roman law which punished the first commission of that offense by whipping, & the second by exile or death in furca.”  Jefferson’s skepticism of the first “pretension” clearly results directly from applying the sort of program commended to Carr above to claims about Jesus of Nazareth contained in Christian Scripture.  What should be abundantly clear, therefore, is that if such a procedure of analysis is logically flawed, then stories of the miraculous cannot be discounted as irrational on account of their conflict with said procedure.  And, of course, the Humean procedure for analyzing stories of the miraculous is a procedure premised on strong foundationalism.  And strong foundationalism is self-referentially incoherent.  But, if we take Hume’s work on the understanding as a whole, Hume’s claim that it is irrational to believe in the miraculous is self-defeating in another way.

If we turn to Hume’s claims concerning the nature of human understanding, the problem for Hume’s claim concerning the irrationality of belief in the miraculous begins to emerge.  According to Hume, there are two propositions that we can know to be the case: analytic and synthetic.  Analytic propositions are known a priori.  They are known because they are undeniable (i.e., to deny the truth of such a proposition involves one in a self contradiction).  But Hume held that all analytic propositions are tautological and so philosophically trivial.  Synthetic propositions, by way of contrast, are those that we know based on observation.  All propositions other than those that are analytic or synthetic Hume referred to as nonsense.  As the historian of philosophy, Donald Palmer points out, this suggests a certain program for the assessment of any proposition to see whether it makes sense.  With regard to any proposition, we ask first whether the proposition is analytic.  If it is analytic, then the proposition is true just because the denial would entail a contradiction.  However, the proposition is also (according to Hume) tautological and therefore philosophically meaningless.  Thus, it is true that all bachelors are unmarried men. This claim is true given the definition of men and bachelors.  But the proposition is only true by definition and so does not amount to a substantial claim.  Moving forward with the Humean program, if the proposition is not analytic, then we must ask whether or not it is synthetic.  But for a proposition to be synthetic, it must be based on observation.  The only philosophical claims of substance, for Hume, are those based on (or perhaps simply descriptive of) experience.  If a proposition is neither analytic (undeniable and tautological) nor synthetic, then Hume says it is nonsense.  But just here we must note the number of propositions that are neither true by definition nor empirically observable—and that are, therefore, nonsensical.  It seems Hume would place into this category God or the cosmos (that is, of an external world) or material substance or even the self.  And given Hume’s epistemology, other minds must be considered nonsense as well.  For none of these things (God, the external world, material substance, the self, and other minds) are undeniable.  Consequently, none of these things are analytic.  Nor are they synthetic.  For none of these things are observable.  From the Humean standpoint, they must all therefore be nonsense.  But the Humean list does not stop here.  According to Hume, the law of causality is also neither undeniable (and so not analytic) nor observable (and so not synthetic) and must, therefore, also be considered nonsense.  To be a bit more precise, that x causes y is neither undeniable (even if occurrence of x always follows upon the occurrence of y) nor observable.  Hume’s argument may seem counterintuitive.  But what we observe is the coincidence of x and y, the contiguity of x and y, and the priority of one to the other (say of x to y).  From these three observations, we infer causation.  But Hume is entirely right to claim that we never empirically observe causation.  And here is the lynchpin of the conflict between Humean epistemology and Hume’s argument against rational belief in miracles.  For if we never observe causation, then causal claims (which are quite obviously not analytic in nature) cannot possess the status of being true.  From this follows the impossibility of knowledge of causal laws based upon inductive generalizations.  That is, Humean epistemology prevents us from being able predict any future occurrence based on the regular occurrence of past events.  Given Hume’s epistemology, it is impossible to know even that the sun will rise tomorrow. 

Let’s apply Hume’s epistemology to Jefferson’s letter to Carr.  The Humean criteria for knowledge entails that we cannot know causality.  But if we cannot know the principle of causality, then we cannot have knowledge of the laws of nature, for such laws are causal laws (or causal relations).  But in that case, we cannot come to know that miracles do not occur OR that they are improbable such that we can never have knowledge of their occurrence on the basis of the laws of nature.  That is, if the principle of causality is nonsense, then so must be claims to know the laws of nature.  And, in that case, any claim that rational knowledge of those laws should discount our belief in stories of the miraculous is also nonsense. 

The irony is delicious.  Hume’s analysis of belief in the miraculous cannot hold given Hume’s analysis of the understanding—the latter defeats the former.  Indeed, Hume’s analysis of the understanding, given empiricism, may undermine the possibility of rational knowledge of any sort.  But Hume’s analysis of the understanding is an analysis given empiricism.  One might argue that Hume’s work therefore constitutes a reductio ad absurdum refutation of empiricism.  And there is at least some indication that Hume thought of his work in this way.  In 1754 he wrote the following to one John Stewart: “But allow me to tell you that I never asserted so absurd a Proposition as that anything might arise without a cause: I only maintained that our Certainty of that proposition proceeded neither from Intuition nor Demonstration, but from another source.”  It is possible to read Hume as here asserting that we have certain knowledge of the law of causality and that such knowledge is neither analytic nor synthetic.  Likewise, we could read him as saying that knowledge of the principle of causality is neither innate (as for Descartes) nor achieve by observation and inductive generalization from observation.  But I will not claim too much in the way of interpreting Hume.  I claim only that his epistemology, given empiricism, shoots in the foot the claim that belief in accounts of the miraculous is irrational because improbable given what we know.  For what we know (or the relevant probabilities) are supposed to be the laws of nature.  But Hume’s epistemology entails that such laws (whether as deterministic or even as probabilistic laws) cannot be known.  Of this, Jefferson seems blissfully unaware. 

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Michael Schwarz on Sep 30, 2010 at 5:55 pm

Dear Paul,

It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance via the Lehrman website. I originally had planned to respond to the first of your two posts (August 5) on the problems with Jeffersonian philosophy, but with the appearance of your second post (September 16...and again on the 30th?) I thought it best to make my comments here.

Rest assured that I have no wish to challenge you in your own epistemological arena, for I make no pretences to sure-footedness on such grounds. Whether or not the famous individuals you cite qualify as strong foundationalists and whether or not strong foundationalism as a species of evidentialism has any merit I will leave to you and your readers to decide. My concerns lay elsewhere. In your original August 5 post you admit that you “don’t care much for Thomas Jefferson.” Following your example, and in the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that I do, in fact, admire Jefferson. Mine is no blind admiration any more than yours is a blind contempt, for while you do declare that you’re “rather a fan of some things in which he had a hand,” I certainly would withhold anything like blanket approval for all of his words and deeds. Still, on the whole I’d say we have very different views of Jefferson, and it is on this ground that I wish to answer you.

You have built your critique of what you call “Jeffersonian philosophy” upon a familiar and oft-cited 1787 letter from Jefferson to his nephew, Peter Carr. Leaving aside for a moment the letter’s contents, I’m not sure one could elevate a single piece of epistolary evidence to the level of a philosophy. Yet from this single letter you claim to discover nothing less than the “philosophical foundation upon which [Jefferson] would have rested his political ideas.” Likewise, from this single letter you conclude that Jefferson was “inept in metaphysics and dangerously careless in epistemology.” This seems like a heavy burden for one poor letter to bear! In any case, you begin your analysis of the letter by remarking unfavorably upon its “particular account of rationality,” which, by your own words, the reader should take to mean that you regard “rationality” as open to multiple definitions. Embarking on a short detour, however, you proceed to denounce Jefferson as “careless” and “closed minded” for failing to consider—in a private letter, mind you, not a published treatise—the works of Aquinas, Calvin and Thomas Reid on this very subject of rationality. You even go so far as to suggest that the omission amounts to something of a blight on Jefferson’s character. Of this ad hominem readers may conclude whatever they wish; I’m certainly not here to defend Jefferson’s honor. But I’m not sure why anyone would find condemnable the absence of Aquinas, Calvin or Reid from the private letters of a Virginia deist! The first two, in particular, were not exactly celebrated authorities in the Anglican-dominated Old Dominion. From there, you resume your analysis of the letter, taking issue in particular with the portion of Jefferson’s advice to Carr in which Jefferson seems to suggest that belief in God cannot be deemed reasonable unless that belief follows from rational inquiry. In short, you describe Jefferson’s prescription as follows: “No religion is acceptable unless rational, and no religion is rational unless supported by evidence.”

To this contention, and to the single letter upon which it is based, I offer another letter from the same pen. In November 1818, upon learning of Abigail Adams’s death, Jefferson wrote the following to his friend, now widower, John Adams:

"The public papers, my dear friend, announce the fatal event of which your letter of October the 20th had given me ominous foreboding. Tried myself in the school of affliction by the loss of every form of connection which can rive the human heart, I know well and feel what you have lost, what you have suffered, are suffering, and have yet to endure. The same trials have taught me that, for ills so immeasurable, time and silence are the only medicine. I will not, therefore, by useless condolences, open afresh the sluices of your grief, nor, although mingling sincerely my tears with yours, will I say a word more where words are vain, but that it is of some comfort to us both that the term is not very distant at which we are to deposit in the same cerement our sorrows and suffering bodies and to ascend in essence to an ecstatic meeting with the friends we have loved and lost and whom we shall still love and never lose again. God bless you and support you under your heavy affliction."

In light of what you describe as Jefferson’s earlier epistemological transgressions, what are we to make of this? Where is the foundationalist evidence for an ecstatic ascension and reunion with lost loved ones? If we were to assume that Jefferson, based on all that we think we know of him, would not have defended on rational grounds his professed belief in the hereafter, then at minimum we can conclude—we must conclude, in fact, if this private letter is to command the same respect as the Carr letter—that Jefferson did not regard religion as unacceptable unless rational.

In the ensuing paragraphs you offer a thoughtful and intelligent critique of strong foundationalism, the philosophical merits of which, again, I’m happy to leave to you. It bears noting, however, that for paragraphs at a time Jefferson disappears from your analysis. In fact, at two different times you prepare the reader for a resumption of your initial argument; “Let us return to Jefferson,” you say on one occasion and “But to return to Jefferson…” on another. This is unfortunate, for, in my view, the further you distance your argument from Jefferson the stronger it becomes. At one point Jefferson seems nothing more than a mouthpiece for Locke and Descartes; at another he is the American version of David Hume, albeit as more of a doofus (“Of this Jefferson seems blissfully unaware.”)

In short, after reading your posts I’ve learned much about evidentialism and strong foundationalism. You even inspired me to look up a few contemporary names of which I was not aware; our courses of study are so compartmentalized that I sometimes find it shameful to admit how little I know outside of History. For this I thank you. However, notwithstanding the impressive erudition you bring to your analysis, I must say that I don’t recognize the version of Thomas Jefferson who appears in your posts.

Best wishes, Mike Schwarz

Paul DeHart on Sep 30, 2010 at 6:55 pm

Dear Michael,

Thanks for your wonderfully thoughtful response. I hope to have time to give you a reply more commensurate to your thoughtful response. But here are a few thoughts for now.

I took one letter that I take (in light of years of reading Jefferson's letters) to be indicative of Jefferson's philosophical reflection--both as to its caliber and as to the position he stakes out. There are other letters, of course. But the content is rather the same. In two future posts I will site from two additional letters (I could, of course, draw from more). I thought it best for the purpose of these blogs to allow an indicative (rather than anomalous) letter speak for his position. To pile citation upon citation (as could be done) would have been a bit exhausting, I think.

When it comes to the deeper matters of philosophy (or even when it comes to ancient history or Biblical exegesis) it is certainly the case that I regard Jefferson as a rather sloppy thinker. It's not just that he's sloppy, though. His claims, concerning matters philosophical, at times nearly reduce one to hysterics. Consider Jefferson's attempt to use Origen to prove that Christians, down to the third century, thought of God as a material being. No one truly acquainted with Origen's thought would ever suggest that Origen believed the deity to be material in essence. But Jefferson does--pretending all along that he comprehends the relevant passages in Origen (from which he quotes very selectively) quite well. Jefferson's account of Origen's metaphysics is really, sheer nonsense. I'm no Calvinist. But his representation of Calvin's thought is so caricatured that in another context one might have thought he was satirizing critics of Calvin. And Jefferson's remarks concerning Plato and Cicero reflect equal carelessness. Having taught American political thought from some years, I constantly tell students that if they research Jefferson, it would be best to ignore his treatment of Plato and Cicero, which hits far wide of the mark.

Jefferson had a hard time with Christian doctrines such as the trinity, the virgin birth, the deity of Christ, and the incarnation. It's unfortunate that he didn't have access to such works as Thomas Morris's The Logic of God Incarnate (Cornell University Press). But notice the general shape of Jefferson's argument in these matters. Usually the arguments are ad hominem (ad nauseam criticisms of Jewish belief and of Plato). And they never seem to run deeper than--I can't see how x can be true, so it must be false. Such arguments are glaring non sequiturs. But why should the rest of us make anything of what Jefferson can or can't comprehend so far as truth is concerned. Jefferson can't comprehend immaterial being. But that says nothing about whether or not there is any such thing.

Finally, the letter you mention, in which Jefferson consoles his friend must be read in context. In another letter to Adams Jefferson affirms that he is a materialist and compares God to ether--simply because he cannot conceive of incorporeal substance. In short, Jefferson thinks, with Hobbes, that all that exists is matter in motion. Yet Jefferson's well known materialism does not appear to square with his sentiments of consolation expressed to Adams upon the death of Adams's wife. The best explanation, I submit, is that Jefferson's letter of consolation is just that--a letter of consolation--rather than a reflection of his philosophical convictions. His later letter to Adams on Calvin is more reflective of those (sentiments which he also expresses in other, earlier letters). As you might guess, I regard that letter as a travesty of reasoning.

Okay, really finally (for the moment) . . . The Jefferson who appears in the post is the same one who thought he could distill the gold from the dross in the gospels in three nights of editing in Washington, D. C. I regard Jefferson's claim and his work here as sheer hubris--hubris of the sort calls for correction. I think we must turn Jefferson's accusation of Cicero's calumnies back on Jefferson and speak of the calumnies of Jefferson, especially with respect to Cicero, Plato, Judaism, probably Calvin, and Christianity--all things, I think the evidence is clear, he poorly understood.

So I see it. Many thanks for your thoughtful reply. Perhaps you'll be interested in the upcoming posts on Jefferson--one written and soon to post. One I have yet to write.

Last updated on Oct 1, 2010 at 3:10 pm.
Lee Trepanier on Oct 3, 2010 at 2:23 pm

This exchange seems to raise the broader question of which works of an author should we consider representative of a person's overall philosophy. I don't claim to have an answer to this question, but it is an interesting one that will be answered by different disciplinary perspectives.

The exchange also raises another question about how rigorous should we expect the philosophy and theology of political leaders. Certainly we expect this of professional thinkers, e.g., academics, but I wonder if it is fair to hold professional politicians to the same standard.

Paul DeHart on Oct 3, 2010 at 4:44 pm


I think these are great questions.

My critique was aimed not only at the sum and substance of Jefferson's claims, but also at his pretensions. Jefferson thinks himself capable of classical scholarship and of philosophy. And there are those who seem to think "Jeffersonian philosophy" a meaningful concept. Every now and then, Jefferson is lumped into that group of people referred to as philosopher statesmen. Certainly there were some of those. I think John Witherspoon answers the description. But Jefferson--whether one is reading his letters (where he is rather more forthright about his convictions) or his public work--does not (though he certainly was very eclectic). So, as much as anything, I wanted to take aim at Jefferson's own pretensions in these areas. Jefferson, through his letters, is a strident critique of Cicero, Plato, Judaism, Calvin, St. Thomas (in a place or two), Christianity, etc. He represents himself to his correspondents as one capable of making authoritative pronouncements on these. And yet these letters reveal a man little acquainted with those against whom he leverages these strident remarks.

I suppose the last sentence gets at your point. For, given Jefferson's calumnies against Cicero, Plato, the writers of the Gospel, Origen and others, I suppose it would be essentially right to simply ignore his comments in these areas altogether. Jefferson has nothing meaningful to contribute here. This is an argument with which I have considerable sympathy. (I have a friend who is a first rate classicist; one would be greeted with great laughter if you suggested to him assigning Jefferson for readings in a class on ancient history; the Jefferson Bible itself is only of interest as a matter of historical curiosity, and not for its scholarly worth.)

But even though Jefferson doesn't answer the description of a philosopher or scholar (at least not terms of the logical rigor of this thought--public or private), he is still a founder. And he intended some connection between his constitutional theory and ideas about public policy, on the one hand, and his philosophical convictions more generally, on the other. I also think the fact that Jefferson serves as a sort of American mouthpiece (though a rather confused one) for Locke, Hume, Diderot, etc. matters, if not a great deal, then perhaps a little bit . Moreover, Jefferson is the paradigmatic embodiment of certain Enlightenment confusions--such as the confusion that one could simultaneously hold to Lockean empiricism and the Humean critique against miracles when in reality the former eviscerates the grounds for the latter. So studying Jefferson here is at least potentially instructive. Jefferson serves as a warning with respect to the intellectual potholes into which one might fall unless matters of such importance and depth are given the amount of reflection they are due. Jefferson shows us the confusions into which we might wander if we think too quickly, you might say.

Consider, in this context, the rather more reflective John Locke. According to Locke, the Essay Concerning Human Understanding, written over a long period of time, was something less than a fully coherent OR less than sufficiently precise account of the understanding either due to laziness or business that didn't allow him to spend the time to work out all the kinks in the argument. As a result, of course, there are well known non sequiturs and even fissures in the Lockean argument. Even so, exploring the resultant fissures in Lockean epistemology has been instructive and useful for contemporary epistemology--even as contemporary, analytic epistemology has by and large rejected Locke.

Finally, one of the things that should be noticed about the extraordinarily typical letter to Carr is that the letter to Carr has very much to do with Carr's education in history, philosophy, and religion (and here I hope I'm getting at a point of Michael's that I didn't address above). Contained with that particular letter is an enclosure, which includes a list of books that Jefferson considers authoritative on these matters. The list--especially as to the study of religion--is wildly one-sided (no consideration of a range of available works that give serious consideration to more traditional religious propositions). To be sure, context suggests that he also knew the list insufficient. But the list certainly lacks the consideration of other perspectives (perspectives of a more traditional sort) one finds in such places as Madison's recommended list for the Library of Congress. Here is Jefferson, entrusted with Carr's wellbeing, instructing Carr (indeed pushing him) down a certain path. Given the task at hand, Jefferson surely stated his convictions clearly and supplied a reading list indicative of his thinking. But, what a list--the sort of list that, if assigned in a philosophy class today, would incline one to think the instructor was more interested in indoctrination than in liberal education. At any rate, the letter certainly reflects Jefferson's thoughts in the 1780's about how education should shape the souls of the young. And his subsequent letters suggest, at least to me, that he never departed from these basic ideas concerning intellectual formation. Worse, as I see it, there are those who think we should take a similar approach to education today.

Later in life Jefferson writes that he found himself in a country that knew him not and that he knew not. He had famously expected the whole country to become Unitarian at some point in the 1800's. Instead, moving into the 1800's, it became rather more evangelical than it had prior to that point. Despite the rough edges of that new, evangelical surge, I rather like more that country in which he found himself that knew him not and that he did not know than that country for which he hoped and dreamed.

Last updated on Oct 3, 2010 at 4:56 pm.

about the author

Paul DeHart
Paul DeHart

Dr. Paul R. DeHart is an assistant professor of political science at Texas State University--San Marcos.  He holds a Ph.D. in Government from the University of Texas at Austin.  

Prof. DeHart is author of Uncovering the Constitution's Moral Design, published by the University of Missouri Press in 2007, and of "The Dangerous Life: Natural Justice and the Rightful Subversion of the State," which appeared in the July 2006 edition of the journal Polity.  In the Summer of 2008, he was the recipient of an NEH Summer Stipend for work on his current book project, tentatively titled Covenantal Realism, which argues for the incoherence of conventional social contract theory on the one hand and, given human equality, the necessity of consent for the legitimacy of governmental authority, on the other hand.

Dr. DeHart lives in San Marcos, Texas with his beautiful wife Robyn, who is the award-winning author of 6 historical, romance novels--2 with Grand Central Publishing and 4 with Avon/HarperCollins.  Reviews of her work have appeared in such places as the Chicago Tribune.