On Ambiguity and Dogmatism

I recently tasked myself, in the context of an argument “discussion” with drawing up a notion of “dogmatism.” Like one of Socrates interlocutors, I feel that I see dogmatism everywhere, but possess no grasp on what it is that I am seeing.

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I knew, from the start, that a definition of dogmatism should side-step the traditional “faith/reason” dichotomy in which it is often couched. For many, dogmatism is simply any proposition which is taken on faith, often to the detriment of so-called reason. A thoroughly modernist (read: Kantian) conception of dogmatism, this perspective is hugely problematized by the abandonment of traditional notions of faith, or more precisely, the recognition that the relegation of faith to “belief in what cannot be seen” is essentially vacuous. Not only, from a Christian perspective, does such a definition fail to account for the complexity of the Greek πιστις, but it is also severely limited from a philosophical perspective.

In his 1802 Faith & Knowledge, Hegel challenged this notion of faith, which for him was epitomized in the philosophies of Kant, Jacobi, and Fichte. For them, Hegel writes, “knowledge knows nothing save that it knows nothing; it must take refuge in faith.” Against this subjugation of reason by faith, Hegel argued for a more dialectical approach which might avoid this fideist hierarchy. Simply, rather than a rejection of reason in the Absolute, and subsequent necessitation of faith, Hegel argued for the Absolute as that wherein faith and reason find themselves reconciled.

“Above this absolute finitude and absolute infinity there remains the Absolute as an emptiness of Reason, a fixed realm of the incomprehensible, of a faith which is in itself non-rational (vernunftlos), but which is called rational because the Reason that is restricted to its absolute opposite recognizes something higher above itself from which it is self-excluded” (emphasis original).

Here, the “but” is essential. For Hegel, the absolute is certainly incomprehensible, but it is nonetheless “called rational.” At the apex, the distinction between faith and reason breaks down, or rather, is dialectically synthesized.

A similar disruption of the clear demarcation between faith and reason can be found in hermeneutic philosophy. In Being and Time, Heidegger writes:

An interpretation is never a presuppositionless apprehending of something presented to us. If, when one is engaged in a particular concrete kind of interpretation, in the sense of exact textual Interpretation, one likes to appeal to what ‘stands there’, then one finds that what ‘stands there’ in the first instance is nothing other than the obvious undiscussed assumption of the person who does the interpreting (Being and Time, 191-192).

For hermeneutic thought, there is no purity of reason; knowledge is always contexualized by its recipient. Or, put more challengingly, every reason is grounded in a prior faith (assumption), though of course, conversely, every faith is also grounded in a prior reason (philosophical presuppositions). These two do not stand as far apart as some might hope, but rather, are uncomfortably interpenetrating. This interpenetration is clearly marked in Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, where it is shown that the emergence of scientific epochs is not simply (or principally) an outgrowth of reason-proper, but more clearly the reorientation of pre-rational worldviews, such that new evidence can be exposed and old evidence reinterpreted (and of course, some old evidence discarded).

Lastly, from a theological/phenomenological perspective, Jean-Luc Marion has taken this modernist reading to task in They recognized Him; and He Became Invisible to Them.

“This argument nevertheless results in a blasphemy: first of all because it makes me, and only me, a “knight of the faith”—the singular actor, within the supposed “night” of the intelligence, of a faith without reason, who decides, by himself, on the existence of God and the truth of Christ, like a god deciding on God. Secondly, it is blasphemous because God and Christ become in this context either impotent (incapable in fact of fulfilling the Revelation that they promise), or perverse judges (who, in masking themselves, expose me to unbelief by condemning me to a faith without reason). These consequences alone should suffice to convince us of the inanity of such a definition of faith.”

Instead of the traditional distinction between faith and knowledge, as a distinction between the blind (faith lacking intuition) and seeing (reason intuiting the Truth), Marion argues for a displacement of the “lack” in faith. Faith does not lack intuition, it is not blind, it lacks concepts. The intuition of faith is a saturated phenomenon, it overwhelms any possible conceptual schema in which one might seek to place it.

“It might be that faith does not consist in the compensation of a shortage—or, perhaps, that the shortage is an entirely different one from that of the intuition, one that would instead locate deficiency in the conceptual statements. It might be that we should believe not in order to recapture a lack in intuition, but rather to confront its excess in relation to a deficiency of statements and a dearth of concepts.”

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Having thrown out the clear faith/reason distinction, the very notion of “dogmatism” becomes considerably more difficult to navigate. If it cannot be understood as the blind reliance upon faith in the face of reason (as the relation between these two is significantly more complex), than how can dogmatism be understood. Particularly, what conception of dogmatism would be sufficient to recognize not only the dogmatism of faith, but equally, the dogmatisms of “reason.” Not only do we find dogmatism in religion—fundamentalist Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists, for example—but also dogmatic liberals, dogmatic atheists, dogmatic capitalists, and dogmatic Marxists. The tendency toward dogmatism appears to surpass every possible socio-cultural-ethnic-economic divide; dogmatism is everywhere.

Perhaps, I would like to suggest here, dogmatism is not opposed primarily to a “knowledge” or to a “seeing,” but to a recognition of an ambiguity. Dogmatism is not an absolutism despite the nothingness or lack inherent to “faith,” but an absolutism despite the irreconcilablity of ambiguity, of the antimony. Dogmatism is the tendency, not only to “take sides” in an ambiguous debate, but to fail to recognize that one is taking sides, that the debate is itself ambiguous, that one simply does not know. Dogmatism is opposed, not to reason, but to epistemic humility.

It should not be surprising, therefore, that those who attempt to articulate this ambiguity, who attempt to hold up the antimony, are attacked from both sides. Jacques Derrida, for instance, whose very philosophy of Différance sought to maintain the ambiguity and tension at the core of every identity, was targeted with astounding vitriol. As John D. Caputo writes in Deconstruction in a Nutshell:

“It is not uncommon to portray Derrida as the Devil himself, a street-corner anarchist, a relativist, or subjectivist, or nihilist, out to destroy our traditions and institutions, our beliefs and values, to mock philosophy and truth itself, to undo everything the enlightenment has done—and to replace all this with wild nonsense and irresponsible play” (Caputo, 36).

What is astounding about these condemnations is not merely their bizarre strength, but their origin. From the most rigorous analytic philosophers, to the most fundamentalist Christians, to Richard Dawkins and his cohorts. Groups which, in general, share remarkably little in common, joined together in condemnation of this lone philosopher. Cambridge philosophers sought to block Derrida’s honorary degree, Sokal sought to reveal all postmoderm thinkers as charlatans in the infamous “Sokal affair,” and Dawkins wrote his scathing (and misguided) Postmodernism Disrobed.

The strength of this condemnation reveals not simply a scholarly disagreement, but more tellingly, a great fear. What binds Richard Dawkins and the most Fundamentalist Christian? An absolute self-assurance, a rejection of ambiguity. What makes Jacques Derrida and the like so frightening, is that they refuse to close the book on these ambiguous issues. While they certainly take a side, they refuse to deny that they have taken a side. Dogmatics must anchor their thought in a Archimedean point (The Bible, the Koran, “reason,” Marx, the Free-Market), for fear of drifting eternally. When one challenges this point, the entire system begins to shake, the entire edifice begins to crumble. This is the most frightening possibility for a dogmatist, the erosion of the unifying factor, the free-fall into an ambiguous abyss.

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One reads, in the context of the abortion debate, for instance, of the “baby-killing-liberals” or of the “women-hating-conservatives.” Yet, what the extremes of both sides fail to recognize is that they are merely mirroring each others dogmatism. At the core of the question of abortion is the notion of human life, simply, “when does a fetus become a person?”. For some, the answer is found at conception, for others the third trimester, perhaps earlier, perhaps later. What both sides fail to recognize is that they are taking a side in an issue that is, at its core, essentially ambiguous. What does it mean to be a person? to be alive? Just as in the euthanasia debate, what seems like a clear cut issue, is actually quite ambiguous. Is life/personhood defined by heartbeat, viability, brain activity? It is ambiguous, yet, the choice that one makes regarding this ambiguous question makes all the difference.

I am not here advocating a quietism, the decision must be made, because these decisions are fundamentally ethical, doing nothing is not an option. Yet, I am advocating a caution, a humility. The world, particularly the ethical world, is complex and ambiguous. If we are to avoid dogmatism, then we must recognize this point and we must live in it, not in denial of it. We must attempt to walk the middle ground between a refusal to answer and an absolutist dogmatism, but this ground is fundamentally ambiguous. But perhaps, that is the point.

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About jleavittpearl

Philosopher and Theologian out of Pittsburgh PA.

Posted on June 11, 2013, in Thoughts and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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