CTJ 49 (2014): 283–292

Echeverria’s Protestant
Epistemology:
A Catholic Response
James K. A. Smith
A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay
in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.1

Introduction
There was a time in his life when Ludwig Wittgenstein saw things the
way Eduardo Echeverria does. Earlier in his career, Wittgenstein wrote
a work called the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus that espoused the sort
of representationalist realism and correspondence theory of truth that
Echeverria defends.

The burden of Wittgenstein’s later (almost aphoristic) work, the
Philosophical Investigations, was to criticize his younger self and work
through the fundamental problems with his earlier position. So
Wittgenstein looks back on his earlier position and notes:
(Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 4.5): “The general form of propositions is:
This is how things are.”—That is the kind of proposition that one repeats
to oneself countless times. One thinks that one is tracing the outline of the
thing’s nature over and over again, and one is merely tracing round the
frame through which we look at it.2

When one is committed to a representationalist picture of the world—
indeed, when one has basically drunk in such a picture with mother’s
milk—it is virtually impossible to see things otherwise: This is how things
are! Questioning representation and correspondence would be akin to

1
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 3rd ed., trans. G. E. M. Anscombe
(New York: Macmillan, 1953), §115.
2
Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, §114. For those unfamiliar, the Investigations is
less a book and more what Wittgenstein himself described as an album of notes and observations, published in numbered paragraphs, not unlike Pascal’s Pensées.

283

CALVIN THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

questioning reality itself. Indeed, not only are alternatives not entertained;
they cannot even be understood.

Thus the later Wittgenstein looks back on his younger self and makes
the observation from which my epigraph is drawn: “A picture held us
captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and
language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.” Much hinges on that word
“seems”: the younger, representationalist Wittgenstein of the Tractatus
inherited a vocabulary that came loaded with an epistemology that just
seemed to be the way things are. Any rejection of this epistemology was
taken to be a nonsensical rejection of the way things are. In the face of such
rejections, the representationalist just keeps saying, louder and louder,
with increased perturbation: “This is how things are!” Reality just is “realist,” says the realist.3
My experience reading Echeverria’s critique of Who’s Afraid of Relativism?
feels like the later Wittgenstein reading the younger Wittgenstein. While
I am grateful for Echeverria’s serious, charitable engagement with my
book, at the same time it feels like an adventure in missing the point. I do
not think that stems from a lack of rigor or charity or care on Echeverria’s
part. (And my evaluation is meant to be descriptive, not uncharitable.) I
think the problem stems from the fact that he is, if you’ll permit, captive to
a picture, and his own language—and, indeed, most of the language of the
philosophical establishment—seems to inexorably confirm that picture for
him. Repeating that picture over and over to me supposedly counts as a
critique. It does not.

The problem begins early in Echeverria’s essay when he imagines
that he need not “consider whether Smith’s interpretations of these philosophers [Wittgenstein, Rorty, and Brandom] are right” and instead can
simply focus on “assessing Smith’s case that relativism … can be of service to the practice, theological understanding, and proclamation of the
gospel.” The nature of my book, however, precludes this option because
my entire argument rests not only on my interpretation of these philosophers but also on whether or not they are right. In other words, my
argument is a cumulative snowball, so to speak, that begins with—and
depends on—the exposition of Wittgenstein (particularly his critique of
representationalism), which Rorty builds on, and then culminates with
Brandom who assumes both Wittgenstein and Rorty. Echeverria, though,
has effectively evaded the heart of the book—the chapters expounding
Wittgenstein, Rorty, and Brandom—because he believes he can assess

For further discussion of this point, see James K. A. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Relativism?
Community, Contingency, and Creaturehood (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014), 24–25.
3

284

ECHEVERRIA’S PROTESTANT EPISTEMOLOGY: A CATHOLIC RESPONSE

what I want to do with them apart from actually engaging their arguments. But that is to review some other book.

So I am not exactly sure how to respond to Echeverria’s critique. I do
not think the burden should be on me to simply restate the key arguments
and criticisms of representationalism articulated by Wittgenstein, Rorty,
and Brandom.4 That would take much more space than an article. Indeed,
that is why I wrote an entire book about it! I should not have to rewrite the
book in order to fend off mistaken readings. Readers who are interested in
more than simply being reassured about realism and representationalism
will have to take the time to read Who’s Afraid of Relativism? in order to
properly assess the argument.

However, that certainly does not mean my book is immune to critique;
nor does it mean that I could not have put things differently. In that sense,
I value Echeverria’s critique as an opportunity to clarify points that were
left opaque and perhaps even correct some mistakes. This I try to do in
what follows.

What Is Echeverria’s Argument?
I cannot decide whether Echeverria’s argument is that “Smith can’t
have what he wants” or “Smith shouldn’t want what he wants.” Maybe
it is both.
Echeverria’s criticism seems to be some variation of one of the following syllogisms:

P1 Smith rejects a correspondence theory of truth.
P2 A correspondence theory of truth is assumed by—and essential
for—“realist” truth claims.
P3 Realist truth claims are essential aspects of Christian orthodoxy.
C Therefore, Smith’s rejection of the correspondence theory of truth
is antithetical to Christian orthodoxy.
Or, more concisely, one could frame his argument this way:
P
C

Smith disagrees with Aquinas.
Therefore, Smith is wrong.

Echeverria faults me for not responding to earlier critiques like Poirier’s (note 36), but
I only respond to critiques worth responding to. Poirier’s article is such an egregious misunderstanding of my argument that I could not be bothered to respond to it. Similarly, he
suggests that I do not really “get” Plantinga’s critique of Rorty, whereas, as I argue in the
book, I get Plantinga’s critique and believe it is wrong (regarding what he takes to be platitudinous). Echeverria assumes that if I really understood it, I would agree.
4

285

CALVIN THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

Admittedly, there seems to be an enthymeme (or two) at work in that
second form of the argument.

More seriously, Echeverria sees me as taking a side in debates about
realism versus nominalism or realism versus antirealism. That is where he
goes wrong because, like Wittgenstein and Rorty, I am not taking a side
in that debate: I am calling into question the terms of the debate. Because
Echeverria accepts the terms of such debates—and effectively ignores
Wittgenstein’s critique—he can only imagine me on one side or the other.
This is also why he repeatedly faults me for failing to distinguish epistemic from ontological understandings of truth, or for failing to distinguish between truth and justification. This is not a failure on my part: I am
rejecting the epistemic paradigms in which such distinctions make sense.
This, I admit, is a recipe for talking past one another. That is why I
wrote three chapters carefully expounding how and why Wittgenstein,
then Rorty, then Brandom, displace the paradigms in which Echeverria’s
distinctions matter, and nothing Echeverria has said causes me serious
concern in that respect. He is criticizing how he thinks I have rearranged
the deck chairs on the Titanic when, in fact, I am on a different boat.
The fundamental epistemological difference here hinges on
Wittgenstein’s critique of representationalism—a critique that Echeverria
never really addresses in his review. Permit me one citation from Who’s
Afraid of Relativism? that succinctly summarizes Wittgenstein’s critique of
representationalism or referentialism5:

These are roughly synonymous ways of describing a particular view of the
relationship between language, reality, and knowledge as a relation of ideas
(“representations”) in my mind that “correspond” to reality “outside” my
mind. Charles Taylor, commenting on Wittgenstein’s critique, calls this the
inside/outside picture of knowledge (the “I/O picture,” for short): knowledge is a matter of getting something “inside” our minds to hook onto things
“outside” our minds. But for pragmatists like Wittgenstein, Rorty, and
Brandom, this “picture” is precisely the problem. “A picture held us captive,”
Wittgenstein remarked in the Investigations. “And we could not get outside
it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it inexorably.”
“Realism”… is the answer to a question we shouldn’t be asking, precisely
because it is predicated on this I/O picture. And this I/O representationalist picture has even become sedimented into our “folk” epistemologies, our

5
I then go on to expound on referentialism in much more detail in chapter 2 of the book.
One could also say that Wittgenstein is trying to displace “propositionalism,” a picture
in which truth is simply identified with (and reduced to) propositions. The burden of the
early sections of the Philosophical Investigations is to show the limits of this picture. While
Wittgenstein does not reject “propositional truth,” he shows that the way propositions
mean anything is dependent on all kinds of nonpropositional meaning. Again, see Who’s
Afraid of Relativism? 39–72.

286

ECHEVERRIA’S PROTESTANT EPISTEMOLOGY: A CATHOLIC RESPONSE

everyday assumptions about how we relate to the world. Because the I/O
picture has settled into our “everyday” attitude, it is “natural” for us to have
“realist” worries. Indeed, the picture fools us into thinking that if we reject
correspondence or representationalism, we’re rejecting reality. And it is very
hard to break out of this picture. As Taylor comments, “It is not enough to
escape its captivity just to declare that one has changed one’s opinion on
these questions. One may, for instance, repudiate the idea of a representation, claim that one has no truck with this, that nothing lies between us and
the world we know, and still be laboring within the picture.”6

Insofar as Echeverria’s criticisms assume this I/O picture, they do not
land on my argument because the point of the argument is to reject the
I/O picture.

If one is captive to such a picture, any claims about reality are taken to
be hypocritical lapses back into an inescapable realism: This is how things
are! This is where Echeverria’s critique is of the Smith-cannnot-havewhat-he-wants variety. However, this is only because Echeverria’s unwitting and unrecognized adherence to the I/O picture leads him to construe
any claims about reality in terms of correspondence. For someone with a
realist hammer, every “about” claim is a correspondence-nail.

This is why Echeverria thinks he can ramp up the antithesis by suggesting my “Wittgensteinian view” is “inconsistent with what those creeds
affirm to be true about reality.”7 This is either (or both) because he mistakenly concludes that a Wittgensteinian view precludes claims about reality
or because he (equally mistakenly) assumes the creeds enshrine an epistemology. As I show in chapter 2 of the book, however, the “Wittgensteinian
view” does not preclude predication, and as William Abraham has argued,
the creeds do not enshrine an epistemology: “The canonical heritage,”
Abraham emphasizes,
is not and never has been an epistemology … . [T]he church offers no formal
theory as to how it knows that it possesses the truth about God, the human
situation, the activity and purposes of God, and the like. More importantly,
6
Citing Charles Taylor, “Merleau-Ponty and the Epistemological Picture,” in The
Cambridge Companion to Merleau-Ponty, ed. Taylor Carman and Mark B. N. Hansen
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 26, 28. In a related article, Taylor points
out that this epistemological picture is mechanistic: “If we see [perception] as another process in a mechanistic universe, we have to construe it as involving as a crucial component
the passive reception of impressions from the external world. Knowledge then hangs on a
certain relation holding between what is ‘out there’ and certain inner states that this external reality causes in us.” Taylor, “Overcoming Epistemology,” in Philosophical Arguments
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995), 3–4.

Echeverria also notes that Lindbeck later backed away from some of his stronger claims
in Nature of Doctrine (and suggested that such strong readings were misunderstandings).
My argument is that if Lindbeck really understood Wittgenstein and Winch, he should
have stuck to his guns.
7

287

CALVIN THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

canonical theists [like Abraham] insist that the failure to canonize an epistemology was a wise omission both for the good of the church and for the
good of epistemology.8

What you would never guess from Echeverria’s review is that my book
is fundamentally about meaning, building on Wittgenstein’s account of
“meaning as use” in which he criticizes his own representationalism in the
Tractatus and unpacks his own account of correspondence as resting on a
social understanding of meaning. I will not repeat that long, careful argument here since—you guessed it—that is why I wrote the book. Therefore,
readers should at least be skeptical of any review essay that treats the
notion of meaning as use and the social conditions of knowledge as if
these are pesky asides when, in fact, this is the heart of the argument. It is
odd to read a review of a book about Wittgenstein, Rorty, and Brandom
and find them mentioned only sporadically and almost tangentially. The
reader should wonder: Is something amiss here?
I find this particularly puzzling because I would have thought that a
Roman Catholic such as Echeverria would be more interested in the way
that I make ecclesiology the heart of epistemology, emphasizing—in the
wake of Wittgenstein and Brandom—that we are never lone individual
knowers but always already dependent on a community of practice and the
tradition handed down to us. It is ironic that the epistemology Echeverria
defends is more Protestant than the one he criticizes in my work.

Correcting Echeverria
I do not pretend that the foregoing will be enough to convince realists.
That is why I wrote the book. I have no illusions that many readers of
just this exchange will remain skeptical; fair enough. However, I would
not want readers to come away with a simply mistaken impression on
some matters, so, finally, let me correct a few of Echeverria’s more specific
claims.
First, realists tend to confuse pragmatism with skepticism. Thus
Echeverria mistakenly maintains that I claim “that we could not know
in any sense whatsoever that God exists necessarily.” I nowhere say that,
nor does such a claim follow from the things I do say. My whole point is
that we could only know this the way we know other things: dependent
on a community of discourse that makes such knowledge possible. More
specifically—given that I am skeptical about arguments for the existence
of God—I say we know this by means of revelation, which is given to

On this second mistake, see William J. Abraham, Crossing the Threshold of Divine
Revelation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 16–17.
8

288

ECHEVERRIA’S PROTESTANT EPISTEMOLOGY: A CATHOLIC RESPONSE

humanity under the conditions of our finitude and social dependence.
Echeverria raises all kinds of questions as if my view precludes an orthodox understanding of divine revelation that seems to indicate he did not
understand those sections of the book in which I address this directly—or,
more likely, assumes that any claim to revelation must be realist.9 So it
goes; see above.

Second, Echeverria says that I claim “that the world is irrelevant to
truth claims.” This is false. He is transposing Trigg’s (mistaken) reading of
Rorty onto me and, in the process, seems to miss the fact that I explicitly
reject this claim at the end of chapter 4. (Echeverria has a bit of a habit
of attributing things to me in the body of the text, and then—in a footnote—conceding that I reject what he has just attributed to me.) Indeed,
the burden of my argument at the conclusion of chapter 4 is to refute the
position Echeverria attributes to me.
Third, Echeverria confuses my claims about the sociality of meaning
and truth with a subjectivism. Note how he restates what he takes to be
my point regarding the ecclesial conditions of knowing:

Given Smith’s epistemic concept of truth, which fails to distinguish the conditions of justification from the conditions of truth [a distinction I reject as
specious], he must say that it is true only for those of us who have been
“inculcated into the community of practice that is the church” (CCC, 112).
Although this is not an “anything goes” subjectivism, reality is only reality
for those who come to know certain things under the ecclesial conditions of
knowing (emphases added).

I never insert those qualifiers “only for” anywhere in my argument, nor
would I. More importantly, I explicitly reject just the sort of subjectivism
and constructionism that Echeverria attributes to me. But because I do
not affirm the “truth” in representationalist terms he hears this as only
subjectivism. My point is that graced participation in the community of
the Spirit that is the church is the condition for being able to rightly perceive the world (which Echeverria can only imagine as a correspondence
claim). As I emphasize, “the revelation of God received in the canon of the
Scriptures reveals the contingent10 status of creation, but it is only revelation insofar as it is received as coming from the One we take to be noncontingent and absolute, who we confess is ‘God the Father Almighty.’”11
More importantly, my point is to emphasize the communal—and specifically ecclesial—conditions of revelation:
9

See Smith, Who’s Afraid of Relativism? 71–72, 110–14.

As I emphasize elsewhere in the book, to say creation is “contingent” is to emphasize
(1) that it could not have been and (2) that it is inherently dependent.
10

11

Smith, Who’s Afraid of Relativism? 112.

289

CALVIN THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

There is now no revelation outside the church because there is no meaning
that is not ‘use.’… To be part of this tradition—by the grace of God—is to be
enabled to see the truth about the cosmos. But seeing this truth is relative to
the story of God’s self-revelation; being able to grasp this truth is dependent
upon one’s inculcation into the community of the Spirit.12

Again, oddly, Echeverria the Roman Catholic seems less interested in
this Catholic epistemology, but I think that is because he has not really
absorbed the exposition of “meaning as use” in chapter 2.13

What Counts as a Critique?
I have not penned a refutation of Echeverria, largely because refutations of that sort assume a shared paradigm, whereas my book, indebted
to Wittgenstein, was inviting us into an entirely different epistemological
world. That is not an evasion of critique; it just signals that what counts as
a critique is complicated.
I take some comfort in the fact that I am not the first in the Reformed
tradition to sense resonance with Wittgenstein’s insight. Indeed, in many
ways, I see Who’s Afraid of Relativism? carrying on the spirit and insight of
O. K. Bouwsma, an alumnus of the department in which I now teach. A lifelong Reformed churchman, Bouwsma’s philosophical world was rocked
by his encounters with Wittgenstein—both in person and in Wittgenstein’s
work.14 Some of Bouwsma’s counsels remain relevant for readers such as

12

Smith, Who’s Afraid of Relativism? 112–13 (emphasis in original).

Regarding my supposed “subjectivism,” some might be interested to track this concern
in light of Dooyeweerd’s discussion of truth in volume 2 of the New Critique of Theoretical
Thought. We do not have room for a full-blown analysis here, but I would note: In an unpublished paper, I have shown (in light of having consulted Dooyeweerd’s copy of Sein und
Zeit) the extent of Dooyeweerd’s dependence on Martin Heidegger in his account of truth.
For instance, Heidegger emphasizes “‘There is’ truth only in so far as Dasein is and so long as
Dasein is. Entities are uncovered only when Dasein is; and only as long as Dasein is, are
they disclosed … . Before there was any Dasein, there was no truth; nor will there be any
after Dasein is no more” (Being and Time, trans. Macquarrie and Robinson [San Francisco:
Harper, 1962], 269, emphases original). We might call this Heidegger’s adverbial account of
truth. Nevertheless, Dooyeweerd significantly echoes the same: “It will be objected,” he
says, “that the structure of theoretical truth cannot be dependent on our subjective insight.
My answer is that it is not dependent on this insight in the sense of being determined by
it or subjected to it. But without my subjective insight into theoretical truth, its structure
will remain hidden from my cognitive selfhood” (New Critique of Theoretical Thought, 2:
577–78). Now, I think Wittgenstein’s critique includes the epistemologies of Heidegger and
Dooyeweerd, but there could be a suggestive dialogue on this point.
13

Most germane to this conversation would be the essays collected in Without Proof or
Evidence: Essays of O. K. Bouwsma, ed. J. L. Craft and Ronald E. Hustwit (Lincoln: University
of Nebraska Press, 1984). I am grateful to Chuck Bouwsma, his son, for entrusting to me
some of O. K.’s works during a recent conversation. I hope my work extends O. K. Bouwsma’s
14

290

ECHEVERRIA’S PROTESTANT EPISTEMOLOGY: A CATHOLIC RESPONSE

Echeverria. In a letter to a former student in 1951, Bouwsma cautioned:
“One thing I know is that one does not understand Wittgenstein until he
is able not to just repeat what he says but to work with his ideas. The latter
requires long practice.”15
Ultimately, absorbing Wittgenstein’s critique yields an entirely different
practice of philosophy, one that Bouwsma believed could only be absorbed
through philosophical exercises—which is also why Wittgensteinian philosophy remains so puzzling and maddening to critics. As Wittgenstein
might say, “they are playing an entirely different game.” This was well
captured, in Bouwsma’s inimitable style, in a landmark review essay he
wrote of Wittgenstein’s Blue Book.16 Indulge me in one long citation to
close, in hopes that readers will sense the allusion:

I have been trying in these paragraphs to represent a certain source of misunderstanding, an obstacle to misunderstanding. It may also be represented
in this way: Philosophers are people who investigate what sorts of things
there are in the universe. They are, of course, scrupulous in these investigations beyond the scrupulosity of any other investigator. They stand at
the gate and wait, fearing to tread where angels rush in. And what do they
ask? They ask questions such as: Are there angels, universals, pure possibilities, uncrusted possibilities, possibilities with a little mud on them, fairies,
creatures made of beautiful smoke, relations, the Lost Atlantis, real equality among tooth-picks, sense-data, ghosts, selves in prison with two feet,
everlasting shoe-makers, heaven, thinking horses, pure uncontaminated
acts, absolutely independent tables, the minds of stars, the spirits of an age,
perfect circles, the geometrical point of a joke, the devil, floating impressions, categorical don’ts, one simple called Simon, perspectives waiting to
take their places as the penny turns, gods, any ding-dong an Sich with a
bell so one can find it in the dark, trees, houses, and mountains of the mind,
itches of necessary connection, two impossibilities before breakfast, blue
ideas, enghosted pieces of furniture, etc.

And if now anyone comes to the reading of this book [Wittgenstein’s
Blue Book] expecting the author, for instance, to say: “Yes, yes, God exists,”
and then to show him a new and knock-out proof that is guaranteed for a
thousand years or to help him to an old one, long buried in a Kant heap, but
now freshly washed and polished, well, the author is more likely to remind
him that though Nietzsche some years ago read an obituary notice to the
effect that God is dead, he, the author, had not even heard that God was
sick. “The living God!” And as for inventing any new apriori synthetic, a
new drug to cure this or that, or any and all, sorts of incertitude, though
he seems at one time to have been interested in inventing a new type of
airplane propeller and showed a keen interest in all sorts of gadgets, a milk
project in the department that first set him on his philosophical path.
Cited in the editors’ introduction to O. K. Bouwsma, Wittgenstein Conversations 1949–
1951, ed. J. L. Craft and Ronald E. Hustwit (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1986), xvii.
15

16

O. K. Bouwsma, “The Blue Book,” The Journal of Philosophy, 58 (1961): 141–62.

291

CALVIN THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL

bottle, for instance, from which with the use of a spoon, one could pour off
the cream—“Now, there’s America for you!”—this particular form of invention he seems not to have been interested in. He was more inclined to recommend a few old home remedies and common herbs, garden variety simples
which he was insistent one should not confuse. And as for those readers in
general who want answers to their questions and who, if they already have
answers, want better reasons, the author gives neither better reasons for the
old answers nor any answers, and those readers who keep their questions
may be considered either fortunate or unfortunate as the case may be.
I have tried to show how it is that this book should disappoint some readers, supposed that they had expectations in reading it. I have suggested that
the reason why such readers have such expectations is that it is, or is read as,
a book in philosophy. And it is a book of philosophy, surely? Well, it is and
it isn’t.17

17

292

Bouwsma, “The Blue Book,” 144–45.

Master your semester with Scribd & The New York Times

Special offer for students: Only $4.99/month.

Master your semester with Scribd & The New York Times

Cancel anytime.