Blog Archives

Sauf Le Nom: A Postmodern Intervention for Heretics and Addicts of Orthodoxy (Part 3 of 3)

This is the final post of a series that I’ve been posting quasi-weekly. The first two posts can be read here and here, in chronological order.

A/theism: Where Theism and Atheism Collide

Edifying theologians, like edifying philosophers, “refuse to present themselves as having found out any objective truth,” and instead cast themselves as engaging in something largely different from and more important than making propositions of accurate representations of how things really are.[1] By this token, edifying theologians are not interested in proposing a new orthodoxy, but instead deconstructing the enterprise of orthodoxy altogether. There have been a few theological movements that cast themselves as “postmodern” and ultimately turned up insignificant because they made the mistake of complying with the system of orthodoxy and began making hard claims to accurate representations.[2]

Edifying theology opposes systematic theology by making the same hermeneutical turn Rorty makes.[3] It finds itself in juxtaposition to systematic theology simply by not being systematic and refusing to engage with the strong epistemological claims of orthodoxy. “As a matter of brute fact rather than of metaphysical necessity, there is no such thing as the ‘language of unified science.’ We have not got a language which will serve as a permanent neutral matrix for formulating all good explanatory hypotheses, and we have not the foggiest notion how to get one,” for either scientific hypotheses or for religious dogma.[4] Read the rest of this entry

The problem of “Religion without Religion”

The contemporary “return to religion” has resulted in some seriously fecund food for thought, particularly among the philosophically-inclined theologians (of which I would count myself). Of central importance to this turn, at least in the deconstruction camp, has been the work of Jacques Derrida (on one side of the aisle) and John Caputo (on the other). Yet, I nonetheless hold considerable reservations regarding some of their postmodern variation of the themes of religion, most notably their “religion without religion.”

Jacques Derrida

This structure–of the “X without X”– is a particularly common Derridean formulation . We find (in God, the Gift, and Postmodernism), for instance, a reinterpretation of Marion’s “Dieu sans l’etre” as “being God without being God.” Elsewhere, Derrida proposes a designation of Justice as a “messianicity without messianism.” This latter formulation is particularly helpful in unraveling the intention underlying Derrida’s playful disruption of the law of identity. There, Derrida wishes to maintain the forward-facing posture of messianism–understood in the modalities of hope, openness, and responsibility for the incoming other. Yet, at the same time, Derrida wishes to distance himself from the concrete messianisms of the various world religions. As Gschwandtner writes, “he refers to the messianic as a ‘general structure of experience’ concerned with the coming of the other and justice, which does not refer to any particular religion or ‘determinate revelation’.”

Martin Heidegger

What we find, therefore, is a return to the pseudo-transcendentals of Heidegger. Just as the essence of truth is found in a-lethia, the  uncovering or manifestation of Being, and the essence of modern technology in technicity, the reduction of all beings to “standing reserve,” Derrida here reduces the essence of messianism to the incoming of “the other and justice.” But (and I have chosen the language of “reduces” intentionally), it must be asked, what is reduced in this reduction, what is lost in the transition from the concrete messianism to the transcendental messianism? Or, returning to my initial concern, what is lost in the reduction of concrete religion to the transcendental “religion without religion.”

John D. Caputo

The answer, I might suggest, is concrete historicity. The reduction of religion to “religion without religion” seems to be an underhanded attempt to exempt oneself from the historical contingency of one’s religious traditions. For Derrida, the problem with such a move is attenuated by his own pseudo-atheism, as he writes, “I rightly pass for an atheist.” But the same can certainly not be said for Caputo, whose works are unambiguously situated in the Christian tradition. It is true that this move is situated within the context of “radical theology” and its abandonment of ontotheology, and it should certainly be applauded for that. But, by publicly distancing himself from the concrete historicity of the tradition, by advocating a “religion without religion,” Caputo is not merely abandoning a literalist or ontotheological interpretation of that tradition, but rather, seeking to whitewash his own theology, to extract his own thought from the turbulent and violent history of the tradition, while also seeking to maintain access to its riches and insights. Can we really have it both ways? Can we get the good without the bad (have our cake and eat it too)? Is it even possible to extract the good from the bad, the transcendental from the concrete, or is Caputo merely falling into the old Husserlian trap of the pure eidos?

In the end, I wonder if the deconstructed “religion without religion” might merely be the academic version of “I am spiritual, but not religious.” An academic incarnation of a Neoliberal cafeteria-style religiosity, with all of its faux-decontextualized and colonialist baggage.


Micro-Reviews #10 Jean-Luc Marion’s “God without Being” (Second Edition)

Overall Rating: 7/10

I should begin with the confession that I entered God Without Being with a bit of trepidation. On the one hand, the text is somewhat foundational for my own field (phenomenological theology), on the other, I find myself consistently disappointed by Marion’s explicitly theological texts (he makes a better philosopher than theologian, I would suggest). On top of this, I also had the strong suspicion that, having been so foundational to phenomenological theology in the 90’s and 00’s, that this text would say nothing that I hadn’t already heard. All that being said, I was nonetheless pleased with the reading, and though at times it tends to bog down in the very dense specifics of Marion’s reading of Heidegger, I would still suggest that it is a significantly valuable text, specifically the second edition, for reasons that I will explain below.

The main focus of God without Being is Marion’s attempt to theologically sidestep the Heideggerian critique of ontotheology. By ontotheology Heidegger intends, primarily, the theological or philosophical move wherein a greatest being or super-being (i.e. God, the Good, the One, etc.) is posited as the foundation of all other beings. Without going into considerable detail, I will leave that for Marion, Heidegger contends that this move fails to recognize the fundamental nature of ontological difference (the difference between beings and Being). Simply, for Heidegger, the foundation of all beings must be ontologically dissimilar to the beings it grounds (beings can’t pull themselves up by there own ontological boot-straps). Or again, the absolute foundation of all reality must be of a completely different nature from the reality it is said to found.

To his credit, Marion does not begin by attacking this notion of ontotheology, but rather, fully embraces it, re-articulating it under his notion of idolatry. For Marion, to think God as a being among beings is, not only to fall victim to ontotheology, but to furthermore commit the crime of idolatry. This redoubling of Heidegger’s critique culminates in his notion of “conceptual idolatry.” For Marion, any attempt to delimit God under the guise of a concept, is already to subsume God under the reign of Being, and therefore ontotheology; the “true” God, the God without Being, must also be a God beyond conceptuality.

In order to make the case that Christian theology can bypass this critique, Marion attempts to articulate his notion of a God which is “beyond Being,” that is to say, is completely dissimilar to created beings. For this task, he draws upon a variety of sources, most notably the Neoplatonic tradition of Christian theology inaugurated by Pseudo-Dionysius. For these mystical thinkers, God surpassed, not only all beings, but also Being-itself, even, they would add, Nonbeing. God, for Marion and these mystics, cannot be rendered as an object, either physical or conceptual, but instead surpasses all objectivity, all beings, even being itself. God, in this thought, is radically transcendent.

The obvious critique of this position is built upon the question of evidence. If God is beyond both Being and conceptuality, than how can this God be known, experienced, or verified? Marion’s creative solution to this problem, one which points to his latter work in Being Given, is to think God, not principally as a being, but as a giving (and as charity). God, for Marion, is defined by self-revelation. His principal case study in this notion is the Eucharist which, he argues, permits the presence of the absolute Otherness of God to manifest as the ultimate gift. More strongly, and revealing an indebtedness to the work of Michel Henry, he argues that this gift of presence is also the gift of the present, that the eucharistic presence of God cuts through the negative irreality of the past and future and offers the only true access to the present now.

The great addition to the second edition of this text is the inclusion of an additional essay “Thomas Aquinas and Onto-Theology.” In some ways more interesting than the primary text itself, Marion here pits Aquinas against Thomistic theology, arguing that while the latter falls victim to ontotheology, that this turn is only prepared by a misreading of Aquinas himself, who never subjugates God under the categories of Being.

Overall, I would recommend this text to anyone interested in the relationship between continental philosophy and theology, scholastic thought, or ontology, but would caution casual theologians or those who do not already possess a background in Heidegger as they may find themselves lost in his extended engagement with Heideggerian phenomenology.

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.

♦ ♦ ♦

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.”

♦ ♦ ♦

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.

♦ ♦ ♦

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.

♦ ♦ ♦

Back from SPEP

This past week/end the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy held its yearly conference.  Although the flight cancellations and other travel difficulties (resulting from Sandy) brought a large number of paper cancellations, particularly on Thursday, the event was nonetheless a great experience to be a part of.  With scholars from across the globe, the program was bursting with presentations on Phenomenology (particularly Heidegger, Husserl, and French thought), Deconstruction, Race and Gender Theory, Critical theory, psychoanalysis, and much more.  Generally, there were about a dozen simultaneous presentations, interspersed with a variety of plenary addresses, including, notably, Miguel de Beistegui’s lecture “The Question of Desire in French Phenomenology” (gotta give a shout out for the Silverman Pheno. Center).

Of the panels that I was able to attend, the standout was by far “Is Radical Phenomenology Too Radical? Paradoxes of Michel Henry’s Phenomenology of Life.”  There, Frederic Seyler (DePaul University)presented the above paper, with a response by Jeffrey Hanson (Australian Catholic University) notable for his recent publication Affects of Thought.  Both speakers were particularly clear and cogent, and Seyler was able to critique Henry’s thought, while simultaneously remaining quite fair to the thinkers position, an accomplishment which is seldom achieved.

Micro-Reviews #9 Michel Henry’s “Barbarism”

Overall Rating: 7/10

This year has been a wonderful time for (English speaking) Michel Henry Fans.  Already we received Words of Christ and have now been blessed with Barbarism, a recent translation of Henry’s 1987 La Barbarie. Situated in the middle of his career, Barbarism predates his later explicitly religious/theological publications.  This work reads similarly to other contributions of the period, notably Seeing the Invisible: On Kandinsky, avoiding the extensive technical vocabulary of his earlier work (The Essence of Manifestation, etc.). That is not to say that this work is fully lacking in Henry’s typical idiosyncratic concepts, “self-affectivity” and the like.  In this way, while familiarity with Henry’s corpus may be helpful for uncovering the nuances of his argument, the overarching moves are within the grasp of anyone who possesses basic philosophical training and rough knowledge of major 19th and 20th century figures (e.g. Heidegger).

Barbarism is primarily intended as a critique of scientism.  Concerning this, it must be emphasized, a critique of scientism is not a critique of science.  Simply put, Henry’s concern is the expansion of “scientific” thinking beyond the natural sciences and into realms of thought once occupied by psychology, religion, ethics, and art.  Nonetheless, as critics have often noted, this work does have a tendency to venture into the polemical, often posing terms in unnecessarily divisive categories.  One must therefore tread lightly, recognizing Henry’s most lucid presentations of his thesis, and sidelining his overly excited science-bashing.  For, even Henry often mistakes the critique of scientism for a critique of science.

Throughout Barbarism, Henry seeks to unify many diverse critiques of 20th century culture; critiques of technology, of capitalism, and of the modern university (to name a few).  What sets Henry’s analysis apart from similar accounts (e.g. Heidegger’s critique of technology), and forms the most noteworthy contribution of this work, is Henry’s conception of a “Galilean reduction.”  By this term, Henry intends the reduction of the subjective features of reality, those features which affect the human individual.  Let us take color as an example.  For the subjective individual, colors are always presented with an affective tonality:  a deep blue might resonate with sorrow, a yellow with ecstatic energy or motion.  Yet, for the Newtonian physicist, such tonalities are secondary epiphenomena, if they are are considered at all.  Within physics (the natural science par excellence) light is simply the vibration of photons.  In this way, color is stripped of its affective tonality, its meaning, and its value, and instead rendered as a quantifiable object.  Such an analysis is not intrinsically problematic, quite on the contrary, it is a necessary component of the natural science’s work.  The question put forward by Henry is, what are the consequences of this devaluation of reality once it is moved beyond the lab or the classroom, when science posits itself as the only valid form of knowledge?  As he writes:

“This is not in science in itself, which is entirely positive in the knowledge of nature that it defines through its procedures.  But, as we have sufficiently insisted, it is the belief that the Galilean science of nature is the only possible knowledge and the only real truth, such that there is no other reality, as true reality, besides the objects of this science.  As a result, the human being would only be real under these terms and all knowledge of the human being would only be a mode or a form of this single science.  Here an ideology–scientism and positivism–replaces science, but it is through this ideology that the world comes to be grasped as a scientific world.”

Such an analysis remains invaluable in the 21st century, as positivism continues to gain influence in public consciousness, technology develops at an astounding rate, capitalism continues to establish itself as the principal human reality, and the university increasingly devalues the human sciences.  While certainly these may not be intrinsically negative events, it is imperative that they are critically engaged and that their consequences are seriously considered.  In this way, Barbarism is a text as comfortably situated in the 21st century as it was in the 20th.

CFP: ‘Between Heidegger, Levinas & Derrida’, Dublin

Hubert Dreyfus on Existential Phenomenology

Special thanks to Aware of Awareness, for bringing this video to my attention.

Sein und Zeit Diagram T-shirt

Micro Reviews #8 “Religious Experience and the End of Metaphysics”

Overall Rating: 8/10

I recently picked up a this short compilation at a small used bookstore and eagerly made my way though it.  Religious Experience and the End of Metaphysics is comprised of a collection of articles–originally written for a seminar “Religious Experience in the Wake of Modernity” at the Catholic University of Louvain, 1999-2000–edited and prefaced by (noted Levinas Scholar) Jeffrey Bloechl of Boston College.

While a comprehensive examination of every chapter is beyond my current attention span, the book as a whole stands together in surprising uniformity, and it should be possible to speak in broad strokes about its presentation.  As the title indicates, the subject of this volume is twofold, on the one hand is religious experience, particularly (though not exclusively) of the mystical variety.  On the other, is the continental philosophic tradition seen specifically through the lens of Heideggerian thought.  Drawing upon the work of Heidegger, Marion, Derrida, Levinas, as well as a wide variety of religious traditions both Eastern and Western these thinkers question the nature of God, the relationship between cultural/historical development and religious ultimacy, and the universality of religious insight.

Overall, the contributions to this volume are of considerable quality, although a few noticeably stand out.  In “The Work and the Complement of Appearing”, Jean-Yves Lacoste reexamines Heidegger’s famous analysis “The Origin of the Work of Art.”  Here, seeming to reveal the influence of Michel Henry, Lacoste elaborates a theory of direct aesthetic affectivity.  Yet, challenging both Heidegger and Henry, Lacoste proposes that this affectivity does not carry the absolute quality that it is generally attributed and instead positions affectivity itself within the larger project of factical interpretation.

In “Derrida and Marion” John D. Caputo reveals the Husserlian genesis of these two influential thinkers, marking out the ways in which they both sought to move beyond Husserl’s strict understanding of intentionality and fulfillment.  Contrasting Derrida’s freeing of intentionality (through the abandonment of intuition) from Marion’s supression of intentionality (though a surplus of intuition), Caputo critiques the latter by way of the former.  Citing the inability of Marion to bridge the gap between non-conceptual intuitive givenness and concrete knowledge; Caputo argues that it is only through faith that one can move from pure saturated givenness to “God.”  “Marion comes around to confessing that givenness requires an intention that intends something not given that we can and must belive, that we also trust and love.” (p. 132)

Overall, this volume is a satisfying read and a helpful supplement to those who are already familiar with the debates surrounding the “theological turn” of post-existentialist French phenomenological thought.  Recommended for anyone interested in phenomenology, philosophic theology, mysticism, or 21st century continental philosophy.