What is the “Principle of Charity?”

I started reading George Hunsinger’s new book Reading Barth with Charity (Baker Academic) and was caught by his explanation of the principle of charity. There is no authoritative definition of the principle but he says it “is widely taken for granted in the practice of contemporary philosophy.” (p. xii) Here’s how he lays it out.

  • The principle of charity seeks to understand a point of view in its strongest form before subjecting it to criticism. A suspension of one’s own beliefs may be required in order to attain a sympathetic understanding.
  • One assumes for the moment that the ideas under consideration, regardless of how difficult they may seem, are both true and internally coherent. The emphasis falls on seeking to understand the texts as they stand rather than on picking out difficulties or contradictions.
  • If apparent contradictions are found, an active attempt is made to resolve them. Donald Davidson has suggested, for example, that the principle of charity means attempting to maximize sense and optimize agreement when it comes to doubts about the inner coherence or factual veracity of the viewpoint under consideration.
  • If it is possible to resolve apparent contradictions (or ambiguities) through a sympathetic interpretation, a presumption exists in favor of that interpretation. A presumption exists by the same token against any interpretation that resorts to the charge of inconsistency without attempting to resolve apparent contradictions.
  • Only if no successful interpretation can be found is one entitled to conclude that a viewpoint is inconsistent or false. Critique is always possible but only after an adequate effort has been made for an interpretation that does not call a viewpoint’s truth or coherence into question precipitously.
  • The attempt to maximize intelligibility through the resolution of apparent contradictions is related to a corollary, which is called ‘the principle of humanity.’ As Daniel Dennett explains, one should attribute to the person whose views one is considering ‘the propositional attitudes one supposes one would have oneself in those circumstances.’ (pp. xii-xiii)

So what does this mean for reading Barth?

  • Does it seek to understand Barth’s theology in its strongest form before subjecting it to fundamental criticism?
  • Has it truly sought to understand Barth before picking out supposed difficulties and contradictions?
  • If apparent contradictions are discerned (as they are), has an active attempt been made to resolve them in Barth’s favor?
  • If no such attempt has been made (as it has not), does not a certain presumption exist against this interpretation?
  • Finally, do the revisionists honor the principle of humanity, or do they seem to adopt an attitude of condescension toward the writer whose views they are considering?
  • In short, are the revisionists entitled to their key claim that Barth’s views on election and the Trinity, when taken as a whole, are ‘inconsistent’?

Whether Hunsinger is successful in his appraisal of Barth is for the reader to decide. The principle of charity, however, seems to be a very solid hermeneutical principle.

Reading Barth with Charity is a paperback with 208 pages and sells for $24.99.

George Hunsinger (PhD, Yale University) is Hazel Thompson McCord Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. He is the author of two critically acclaimed works on Barth’s theology–Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth and How to Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology–and author of the much-discussed The Eucharist and Ecumenism. Hunsinger served as director of the Princeton Theological Seminary’s Center for Barth Studies from 1997 to 2001 and has been president of the Karl Barth Society of North America since 2003. An ordained Presbyterian minister, he was a major contributor to the new Presbyterian catechism.

Reading Barth With Charity

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About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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