Archive Eric Parker Nota Bene Philosophy

Education as Self-Reflection: William G.T. Shedd

We have heard quite a bit about various “turns” in the history of philosophy. One of the most significant of these “conversions” (i.e., “turnings”) is Plato’s great philosophical “inward turn.” The turn inward, for Plato and his ancient interpreters, marks the beginning of the soul’s journey away from the multitude of phenomena to the absolute Good. William G.T. Shedd, the famous 19th century American Presbyterian scholar and editor of the works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge lucidly explains how proper philosophical concepts are capable of “converting” the soul in this way.

When man realizes that he is immortal he is supernaturally roused. Depths are revealed in his being which he did not dream of, down into which he looks with solemn awe, and energies which had hitherto slumbered from his creation are now set into a play at which he stands aghast. Never do the tides of that shoreless ocean, the human soul, heave and swell as they do when it feels what the scripture calls “the power of an endless life.” The same remark holds true of all properly theological doctrines. An unequalled developing influence rains down from this great constellation. 1

This use of philosophy is most complete and fitting for the theologian who has a greater power of intellectual reflection. This also means that theology is inherently practical. Shedd explains:

The value of theological studies, in an intellectual point of view, does not consist so much in the amount of information as in the amount of energy imparted by them. The doctrines of theology, like the solar centres, are comparatively few in number, and while the demand they make on the memory is small, the demand they make on the power of reflection is infinite and unending. For this reason theological studies are in the highest degree fitted to originate and carry on a true education. There is an invigorating virtue in them which strengthens while it unfolds the mental powers, and therefore the more absorbing the intensity with which the mind dwells upon them, the more it is endued with power.2

  1. Shedd, Discourses and Essays, (Andover: W.F. Draper, 1856), 27-28.
  2. Ibid., 28.

By Eric Parker

Eric Parker (PhD McGill University) is the editor of the Library of Early English Protestantism (LEEP) at the Davenant Institute. He lives in the deep South with his wife and two children, where he is currently preparing for ordination to the diaconate in the Reformed Episcopal Church.