The Epistemology of Rudolf Otto
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Rudolf Otto's principal aim was the elucidation of religious knowledge on its own terms. As a philosopher, he was part of the Neo-Friesian school of Kantian critical philosophy. As a philosopher of religion, he followed Luther and Schleiermacher principally. Otto made important changes in the epistemological theories of Kant, and the religious theories of Schleiermacher. These changes are not of uniform quality, however. Some are the outgrowth of Otto's Rationalistic use of the critical method, and some are upon religious antonomy. Within Otto's own system, there are indications of development of ideas over a period of years. His early work, Philosophy of Religion, was intended to lay a philosophical foundation for his whole system, and to treat the rational element in religious knowledge. His later work, The Idea of the Holy, was intended to build upon the philosophical foundation already laid, and to treat the non-rational, or non-conceptual, element in religious knowledge . Many concepts are carried over from the earlier work to the later, but many innovations are introduced in The Idea of the Holy which do not appear in the Philosophy of Religion. On the whole, it is fair to state that Otto's epistemology must be understood against the background of his Philosophy of Religion,but that his mature epistemological formulation is found in The Idea of the Holy. Otto bases his epistemology upon the rationalistic approach,using Kant's critical method. Pure Reason is his source of the conditions and possibility of knowledge, and also the source of conceptual, constitutive ideas. Otto breaks sharply with Kant upon the issues of the cognitive value of the a priori categories of knowledge, and the ideas of Pure Reason. Kant held that knowledge of spatio-temporal events is constituted according to the a priori principles of the understanding, and that the a priori nature of that knowledge is itself an indication of the ideality of that which is known. Otto, on the other hand, held that this inference is not warranted, that apriority is no indication of itself of ideality. He held, as do some other Kantian commentators, and following the Neo-Friesian interpretation of Kant, that a priori types of knowledge may refer to real, independent entities. The constitutive activity of the mind does not in itself render that to which it responds dependent upon the mind, existentially or essentially. Otto extends the possibility of cognitive experience to cover non-sensory awareness, while Kant insisted that only objects of sensory perception were cognitively valid. Kant had maintained that non-sensory, mental conceptions or ideas were not constitutive of knowledge, but regulative only. Otto holds, on the hand, that in the Idea of Pure Reason give the necessary conditions under which Reality exists. This brings him to the rational conclusion that the "principle of completeness" must be followed in the understanding of Real Existence. This principle of Rational Coherence gives the possibility and the necessity for the validity of knowledge in sense perception and in ideal conception. Otto also introduces the Friesian concept of "Feeling of Truth" as a cognitive faculty which apprehends Reality in a preconceptual way. Otto's concern for the rational element in religion is manifest in the opening pages of The Idea of the Holy, as well as in his Philosophy of Religion. He holds that the superiority of any religion is to be judged according to the rational content of its conception of God. But he also recognizes what he calls the non-rational element of religion. This is the element of mystery to which primitive religions give so much evidence, and to which the so-called higher religions point by implication. The tendency, however, is for the elevating development of a religion to obscure this non-rational element as definition of doctrine and practice continue. Otto hopes to re-evaluate the non-rational element of religion,and to establish a sound rational basis upon which the knowledge of religion on its own terms can be possible. Otto holds that this non-rational element of religion is of the nature of "creature-feeling", in which one feels himself to be confronting his Creator.The rational basis for the knowledge of this element of religion is found in the a priori category of the holy. For Otto, categories apply to knowledge of real, independent entities. Thus the religious category of knowledge is knowledge of the religious object, the "numen", as Otto terms it. The mode of cognition of the numinous is called the faculty of divination, which is itself a rational element. Divination seems to be an outgrowth of the "Feeling of Truth" which appears in Otto's Philosophy of Religion. The faculty of divination does not render final cognitive judgments concerning religious objects. Otto recognizes that divination in its crude stages takes almost anything as a religious object in some meaning or other. Indeed, in the higher types of religion, symbols and types are given religious meaning which should be accorded only the objects of numinous experience. Religious judgment may develop to discard unworthy divinations, and to retain worthy ones. Otto's epistemology lacks any clear formulation of religious judgment. From the philosophical point of view, represented in Otto's Philosophy of Religion, the criterion of Rational Coherence might be applied, and from the religious point of view, represented in The Idea of the Holy, the quality of the Object of personal divination is self-accrediting. From the point of view of The Idea of the Holy, the divination of God is such that not only the a priori capacity of the mind for religious knowledge is a factor, but the self-revelation of God is also a factor. The faculty of divination, no matter how well grounded rationally, has no way of judging of itself. The religious judgment must arbitrate according to "the principle of completeness", or Rational Coherence, and only as God revealed Himself could an idea which conceived His Real Existence be coherent. On the basis of Otto's epistemology, the basis of religious knowledge is revelation,and Otto's theory of religious knowledge is a theory of revelation. The criticisms which have been made against Otto's epistemology generally fall into two categories: those that criticize him for claiming too much finality for knowledge in religious experience, and those that criticize him for emphasizing too much the non-rational element of religious knowledge. Otto could have avoided the former criticisms by being more explicit as to the non-judicial character of religious awareness, and by formulating a theory of religious judgment. He could have avoided the latter criticisms by the use of "non-conceptual" or some less ambiguous term rather than the often misunderstood term "non-rational".