Berdyaev Between Putin and Pussy Riot

In doing some reconnaissance on Berdyaev’s reception and contemporary relevance, I came across two intriguing references, not from philosophers but three headline-making Russians: Vladimir Putin, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina of the punk-protest band Pussy Riot.

Berdyaev is not a particularly systematic thinker, a point he readily admits throughout his opus. He regularly contradicts himself and adopts the aphoristic style of one of his heroes, Nietzsche. Adopting a Nietzschean style, however, opens one up to Nietzschean dangers, for example Nietzsche’s strange reception among German fascists prior to and during World War II. A similar phenomenon happens again in Russia, now with Berdyaev (and the tradition of which he is part).

In 2012, four members of the Russian band Pussy Riot were put on trial, a trial which quickly made national headlines. Wikipedia has a nice write-up on the event, detailing how the defendants were accused of inciting religious hatred against the Orthodox Church. Pussy Riot quickly showed, however, that they are not simple “hooligans” out to cause a ruckus but intentional and well-read activists. In August, portions of translated statements from the defendants appeared online, revealing not brainwashed leftists but articulate thinkers. Maria Alyokhina, in direct contrast to the charge of inciting hatred against the Orthodox Church, offered an intriguing reading of the Christian tradition, including Russian voices like Berdyaev. I first reacted with surprise that Berdyaev appeared to retain a voice in Russia. Here’s the portion I originally quoted:

The consequence of the process I have just described is ontological humility, existential humility, socialization. To me, this transition, or rupture, is noteworthy in that, if approached from the point of view of Christian culture, we see that meanings and symbols are being replaced by those that are diametrically opposed to them. Thus one of the most important Christian concepts, Humility, is now commonly understood not as a path towards the perception, fortification, and ultimate liberation of Man, but on the contrary as an instrument for his enslavement. To quote [Russian philosopher] Nikolai Berdyaev, one could say that “the ontology of humility is the ontology of the slaves of God, and not the sons of God.”

In November of 2013, letters from Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, who was imprisoned following the trial, to Slavoj Zizek began to circulate online. Here, too, Berdyaev is mentioned with sympathy and subtlety. Here is the relevant portion (link to the original letter):

We are part of the rebellion who wish for the storm (as to seek peace), and believe that  the truth is found only in an endless search. As Nicolas Berdyaev, in his “Essay in Autobiography” [Dream and Reality in English-my edit] wrote: “There is no truth as an object that is put on me as a reality that falls on me from heaven. The truth is the path of life, it is a spiritual conquest. The truth is conceived in liberty and through liberty.” […] “I see Christianity as a revolt against the world and its law”. […] “Sometimes a nightmarish thought passed through my head: what if the slave orthodoxy is right, then I’m lost, but I quickly dismissed this thought.”   In this regard there is no difference between the rhetoric of Pussy Riot and the Russian religious philosopher. In 1898, Berdyaev was arrested for his involvement in the student social-democratic movement and was accused of ”intention to undermine the foundations of the monarchy and the church.” He was exiled from Kiev for three years in the province of Saratov. So if the “World Spirit” hits you, do not expect it to be painless.

Tolokonnikova interprets Berdyaev (rightly) along the lines of freedom, and sees his version of Christianity in contrast with what Berdyaev calls “slave orthodoxy.” Berdyaev’s Christianity is in no way, here, a nostalgia for past values or the preservation of particular doctrines or hierarchy, but rather an energetic path to truth and life. One would do well, too, to revisit her closing statements at the 2012 trial, which show a clear Berdyaev-inspired approach to truth, freedom, and religion. In another letter, she also mentions the broader project of the Russian Silver Age figures, which include Berdyaev, Bulgakov, and Merezhkovsky (see Pussy Riot!: A Punk Prayer for Freedom, pps. 21-22). These thinkers attempted to inaugurate a “third age” (following medieval mystic Joachim of Fiore), an Age of the Spirit following the Age of the Son, which followed the Age of the Father. The Age of the Spirit would be an age of grace and creativity, transcending without abandoning the Son’s love and the Father’s law. Pussy Riot, a punk avant-garde collective, curiously takes on the mantle of pre-Bolshevik Russian religion, becoming the heirs of the Age of the Spirit. Pussy Riot does not, at least according to their own words about themselves, wish to see the dissolution of Christianity or even Orthodoxy, for that matter. Indeed, it is only through a radical re-appropriation of Orthodox figures and lines of thought that they ended up on trial and subsequently in prison.

So: a feminist punk-protest group of musical activists ends up being one contemporary landing point for Berdyaev’s trajectory. But they are not the sole group competing for Berdyaev’s legacy. In a strange move, Vladimir Putin, who identifies as a Russian Orthodox Christian, recently required Russian regional governors to read works by, among others, Berdyaev and Solovyov (a towering predecessor to Berdyaev who is arguably the most important figure in 20th century Russian philosophy). Of the three most prominent articles I found on the topic ( at Washington Post, David Brooks at the New York Times, and a response to Brooks by Damon Linker at The Week), not one seems to actually know much about Berdyaev but simply notes that Putin is apparently a fan. Putin’s choice to have these particular thinkers on the syllabus is due to what he sees as a moralistic and nationalistic quality in their work, and this is possibly (only because I haven’t read them) true for several of the texts he assigns–but it is by no means true of Berdyaev (or Solovyov). To assign Berdyaev’s The Philosophy of Inequality and Solovyov’s The Justification of the Good are particularly strange.

Berdyaev, who was part of a group of thinkers known as Slavophiles, does write about Russia as a missional force with the potential to lead the world to redemption (a theme present as early as Gogol’s Dead Souls and Dostoevsky’s famous troika monologue in the trial scene in The Brothers Karamazov). He does not say this is Russia’s destiny but a live option (curiously, the Kyoto School of Japan had similar thoughts about the Japanese role in a globalizing society, most notably present in Nishitani Keiji–in other words, this sentiment is not totally unique among the margins of Europe). However, coming to occupy this role, according to Berdyaev, will not be the result of holding to traditional morals or preserving Russian heritage and exporting it to the unenlightened world–no, it will come precisely by losing the chains of morality (Berdyaev being one of the most Nietzschean of the Russian avant-garde religious writers) and leading the world to do the same, courageously moving into the frontiers of freedom. Putin (and Snegovava, Brooks, and Linker, for that matter) all miss this blaring siren which Berdyaev sounds over and over. If there is anything frustrating about Berdyaev, it’s the fact that he’s so eagerly repetitive–and yet even the most obvious repetition apparently doesn’t stop cursory readings and political agendas.

Putin presents his Russian vision, a conservative, nationalist, moralist, and imperialist Russia, as another option for landing the line of flight emanating from Berdyaev. An actual reading of Berdyaev, however, reveals that while Pussy Riot may not be the only landing pad (precisely because creativity demands a plurality of landing pads), Putin is most certainly not one. Pussy Riot and Putin both claim to read Berdyaev–yet they are diametrically opposed. One of them must be wrong; Berdyaev cannot belong to both.

It remains to be seen whether Berdyaev’s legacy will come out as one for the creative Age of Spirit or a conservative imperialist. Perhaps the texts will be able to maintain their radicality in spite of ideological blindness, or perhaps Putin is having some strange change of heart (though if the Ukraine is any indication, Putin has long given up reading Berdyaev). In any case, I hope Berdyaev can avoid the fate of his hero, Nietzsche, co-opted as an ideological weapon to ward against the subversive nature of an honest reading.

Posted in Politics, Religion, Vladimir Solovyov, Music, Nikolai Berdyaev, Kyoto School, Nishitani Keiji, Russian Philosophy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

New Job, New Blog

I just finished the first year of my MA program at the Institute for Christian Studies. Initially I intentionally front-loaded my program to give me more time to concentrate on my thesis next year (details to come). This move would also, I thought, free me up to spend more time on this blog. Recently, however, I was hired by the Centre for Philosophy, Religion, and Social Research (CPRSE) housed at ICS. My position, called “Post-Conference Animator,” specifically involves trying to keep the coals burning after a conference put on by the CPRSE called “Are We There Yet,” which took place May 12 and 13. Additionally, my position involves maintaining the blog run by the CPRSE, entitled Ground Motive (I’ve posted there before–in fact, the two most recent posts are mine: 1, 2).

These changes will likely keep my posting here to a crawl, but I hope to update it as I delve into thesis research. In the meantime, be sure to follow Ground Motive, which hosts a variety of reflections from the ICS community and friends.

Posted in Capitalism's Rotation Method, Institute for Christian Studies, Stuff I'm Doing | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Lee Braver on Kierkegaard and Transgressive Realism

Here are some blog-adapted scraps I’ve decided not to use for a paper, but seem to me to be nonetheless worth saving. They also touch on some of the issues I’ve been gesturing toward in Hart and Zuidervaart in previous posts.


In an essay entitled “A Brief History of Continental Realism,”[1] Braver offers a historical genealogy of the development of “Transgressive Realism,” an ontological and epistemological position he develops with the help of Kierkegaard. His genealogy contains three “steps,” which I will briefly rehearse: (1) Kant and active mind, (2) Hegel and objective idealism, and (3) Kierkegaard and transgressive realism.[2] As Braver narrates, Kant’s Copernican Revolution yields an “Active Mind,” a vision of the human person’s relation to the world as a mind which is not a blank slate on which nature writes, per Locke, but rather an active and intentional mind which grants stability to the contingencies of experience. In order to avoid total idealism, however, Kant posits the noumena in order to retain a mind-independent reality to which the mind relates. Thus Kant is able to have his cake and eat it, too; the best of empiricism is preserved, retaining reality as independent of ideas, yet the human mind is intentionally engaged in organizing experience of that reality. Positing the noumenal realm is a necessary and highly creative move on Kant’s part—yet it is exactly what will be Kant’s undoing. In another essay entitled “On Not Settling the Issue of Realism,” Braver suggests “Noumena represent the vestigial remains of traditional metaphysics in Kant’s system, like an ontological appendix, and it threatens to burst.”[3]

It is Hegel, says Braver, who will perform an appendectomy. According to Hegel, Kant’s position is a “subjective idealism,” as it is ultimately only ideas, not reality itself, which humans are able to know and discuss. A conclusion such as this is a hard price to pay for refuting empirical skepticism, and it seems to cause more trouble than it’s worth. As Braver writes, “The knowledge Kant purchased turns out to be counterfeit: We can circulate this phenomenal currency amongst ourselves, but there is no way to cash it in for anything of true value.”[4] Reality lies forever beyond our reach. Hegel replies to this problem by denying the noumenal altogether. Speaking about the noumenal at all, even if it is to simply suggest the noumenal exists or that we are barred from discussing it, is self-defeating, for it betrays the very nature of the noumenal to refuse to have anything said whatsoever about it. Thus Hegel removes the noumenal and replaces Kant’s “subjective idealism” with an “objective idealism.” For Hegel, there is no domain of reality which cannot be taken up into a higher conceptual plane, which is the domain of truth. “The historical journey of consciousness,” writes Braver, “is the progressive ‘en-souling’…of reality, whereby Geist assimilates everything that initially appears to be outside of us, cancelling its apparent independence while raising it to a higher, spiritual level.”[5] History, then, is the story of infusing the world with meaning, an infusion which attempts to overcome sensory data and experience through idealist transfiguration. Braver notes that this view admits no transcendental outside, and that the transfiguring process is teleologically latent from the beginning.[6]

Such consequences are the grounds for Kierkegaard’s protest. Though Hegel’s criticisms of Kant yield a new ontological framework, a fundamental problem haunts both, namely, a lack, or denial, of surprise, which is the evidence of an outside. On Kant’s view, reality can and must always conform to our conceptual a priori, and on Hegel’s, though there is a historical development of Geist and therefore a certain plurality of concepts,“[w]hen surveyed as a whole,” writes Braver, “…this apparent variety snaps together into a circle which hermetically seals in the set of all possible ways of thinking as tightly as Kant’s single set.”[7] Hegel assures us, like Kant, that the world will always come to us intelligibly; all that is emergent emerges for us. This ontology works itself out ethically in Hegel’s notion of Sittlichkeit, the current instantiation of Geist which yields the best laws, norms, etc. to date. Thus, Braver notes, “Applying this view to ethics yields Hegel’s belief that there is no great difficulty in knowing the right thing to do… simply examine the laws of your government and the mores of your community, as they represent the highest form of Geist at any available time.”[8] Ontologically speaking, this ethical privileging of communal instantiation reflects Hegel’s general commitment to digest that which appears to be outside—everything is fodder for the gullet of Geist. Thus the exception must always be mediated back into the whole.

Hegel’s ontology comes under radical scrutiny from Kierkegaard from a variety of domains. Epistemologically, Kierkegaard criticizes both a recollective model of knowing and Hegelian mediation for failing to account for that which is genuinely new.[9] Further, and this is the point Braver wishes to drive home, Kierkegaard’s understanding of Christian revelation requires that there is something other than human categories and knowledge which is capable of delivering truth to human beings. As Braver writes,

The Christian teacher…brings us something we not only lack, but which we lack the ability to attain, perhaps even to understand or become aware of. Rather than Hegel’s canceled and incorporated otherness, these lessons represent ‘the different, the absolutely different,’ which so exceeds our capacities that we cannot grasp it without a profound change, undergoing something like a conversion rather than merely acquiring a new fact.[10]

Yet greater than the epistemological objection is an ethical one. In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard’s pseudonym Johannes de Silentio thematizes the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, as an event wherein our conceptually secure ethical constructions are relativized, “teleologically suspended,” via a radical, Divine interruption. Abraham is asked to commit literally the unthinkable, to murder the son who is supposed to be the vehicle for God’s promise to Abraham, the dissemination of descendents and blessing. Of course, even more than the logical contradictions (this defies the accepted ethics of our time! how will the promise be fulfilled! what validates such a radical command!) is the bond of love between parent and child. In the Akedah, no amount of philosophical ethics will save Abraham from the anxiety and, more importantly, the task to which he has been called. The presence of this story in the Bible throws a massive wrench in the ethical gears of both Kant and Hegel. God is supposed to be the highest expression of ethical truth—yet here, we are forced to either wrestle through the radical demand God has made of Abraham or condemn God and/or Abraham in light of our rational ethical systems.[11]

Of course, Kierkegaard is banking on the fact that his readers do not want to condemn God or Abraham, something we can hardly take for granted today.[12] Yet the philosophical kernel of what is going on here, which is what interests Braver primarily, is of the utmost importance. “Whereas Kant and Hegel place morality entirely within our reach,” writes Braver, “Kierkegaard insists that we dare not claim to know all that morality is and can be. In short, ethics and reason acquire an outside.”[13] What Kierkegaard thus develops philosophically via religion is a third way other than Kant and Hegel, a third way which is not a mediated way but a new way. “Not only is there an outside, as Hegel denies, but we can encounter it, as Kant denies; these encounters are in fact far more important than what we can come up with on our own.”[14] Summarizing Transgressive Realism, Braver writes:

Kierkegaard created the position by merging Hegel’s insistence that we must have some kind of contact with anything we can call real (thus rejecting noumenal), with Kant’s belief that reality fundamentally exceeds our understanding; human reason should not be the criterion of the real. The result is the idea that our most vivid encounters with reality come in experiences that shatter our categories…[15]

Braver’s position is a creative reading of Kierkegaard’s project. At the very least, it contextualizes some of the problems to which Kierkegaard responds historically. Reading Kierkegaard as a realist is also not wholly alien to Kierkegaard studies (see the work of C. Stephen Evans, M. G. Piety, and others). In the remainder of the essay, Braver also puts Levinas and Heidegger in dialogue with a Kierkegaardian Transgressive Realism, arguing for a line of continuity which is worth pursuing (and this, too, is noted in secondary literature on Kierkegaard, especially by Merold Westphal). Problems remain, however; Kierkegaard’s Hegel is certainly only one version of Hegel, and challenging this reading of Hegel is something of a lucrative business these days in contemporary philosophy. While this wouldn’t necessarily challenge the exegetical/historical points Braver is making, it does pose some potential issues for Transgressive Realism. Further, commentators like Jon Stewart and David Kangas have suggested reading Kierkegaard as a figure who subverts Idealism from the inside, pushing it to a radical conclusion–these readings may be able to corroborate Braver’s analysis, but they do seem to complicate matters a little further. In the end, however, I find Braver’s analysis to be a very useful tool in articulating a dynamic at work in Kierkegaard’s thought as a whole, which might give Kierkegaard more purchase in contemporary debates. After all, if there’s a “Speculative Turn,” it’s only a matter of time before Kierkegaard returns, perhaps with a Socratic vengeance, or perhaps with an edifying word. Braver’s analysis allows both paths.


[1] Lee Braver. “A brief history of continental realism.” Continental Philosophy Review. 2012. 45:261-289.

[2] Braver. “A brief history.” 262-263, 263-266, and 266-271, respectively.

[3] Lee Braver. “On Not Settling the Issue of Realism.” Speculations: A Journal of Speculative Realism. IV. 2013. 10.

[4] Braver. “A brief history.” 263.

[5] Braver. “A brief history.” 264.

[6] Braver. “A brief history.” 265.

[7] Braver. “Á brief history.” 267.

[8] Braver. “A brief history.” 267,

[9] Braver notes Philosophical Fragments as a place where Kierkegaard’s criticism of recollection functions also as a criticism of Hegel. It is important, however, to note that Kierkegaard differentiates recollection and mediation elsewhere, as in his book Repetition—thus the theories are not necessarily conflated, but Kierkegaard will note that they come to the same problem, namely, being unable to account for genuine difference. See Braver. “A brief history.” 268. For an excellent exposition of Kierkegaard’s concept of repetition and its relation to mediation and recollection, see Edward F. Mooney. “Repetition: Giftsin World-Renewal” in On Søren Kierkegaard: Dialogue, Polemics, Lost Intimacy, and Time. Ashgate Publishing Company. Burlington, VT. 2007.

[10] Braver. “A brief history.” 269.

[11] Braver seems to suggest Fear and Trembling has its sights primarily on Kant, where Kierkegaard attempts to show a problem for universalizing ethics of a Kantian stripe, but it is important to note that Kierkegaard is explicitly targeting both Kant and Hegel on this score. See Braver. “A brief history.” 269-270. While Kierkegaard commentators are divided, at times, on whether or not to see Fear and Trembling as primarily a criticism of either Kant or Hegel, it seems unnecessary to pick only one target—neither system is capable of dealing with Abraham, and this appears to be Kierkegaard’s ultimate point.

[12] And something Levinas was quick to point out in his criticisms of Kierkegaard, which have, curiously, been themselves criticized by Derrida, not to mention several Kierkegaard scholars. Still, however, in today’s philosophical climate, and especially with regard to Braver’s audience which is largely comprised of self-proclaimed materialists, this point requires some revision. This is the strength of Braver’s analysis.

[13] Braver. “A brief history.” 270.

[14] Braver. “A brief history.” 270.

[15] Braver. “A brief history.” 261.

Posted in Epistemology, Existentialism, Fear and Trembling, G. W. F. Hegel, German Idealism, Immanuel Kant, Johannes de Silentio, Lee Braver, Realism and Anti-Realism, Søren Kierkegaard | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

May Day

Chinese factory strike portends global workplace changes.

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The Practice of Philosophy and Modes of Knowing: Hart’s Rejoinder to Zuidervaart?

Yesterday, I presented a post wherein I briefly examined Lambert Zuidervaart’s criticism of Hendrik Hart’s conclusions about God in his 1984 book Understanding Our World. Zuidervaart suggests Hart is beholden a Kantian phenomenal/noumenal problem, which restricts God from our conceptualizing, a problem which begs for a qualified Hegelian response. I ended the post discussing, however, my remaining anxieties about speculating about God. Revisiting some material from a course on Reformational philosophy I happened to take with Zuidervaart, I ran across some thoughts in Vollenhoven and Hart that might provide at least a germinal response from Hart. Because Hart’s thinking is borne out of Dooyeweerd and Vollenhoven, it seemed natural to revisit what they had to say about epistemology in particular. I then dug up an essay on epistemology by Hart from 1994, ten years after his conclusions in Understanding Our World. What I found eased some of my anxieties. I’ll thus present some initial backdrop from Vollenhoven (a root both Hart and Zuidervaart share), then offer Hart’s development.

At the turn of the twentieth-century, philosophy limped forward after the roller coaster that was the nineteenth-century. Producing the heyday of Idealism, positivism, and hermeneutics in its early half, it found itself rocked by the insights of its best pupils. In continental philosophy, the impact of Idealism was already being supplanted with the trickery of Kierkegaard and the barbs of Nietzsche and transformed through the materialism of Marx. Though analytic thought took longer as it championed positivism, Wittgenstein, the movement’s golden child, proclaimed to have solved all of philosophy’s problems only to spend the rest of his life overturning the source of the problems entirely. It is no wonder, then, that movements like phenomenology, existentialism, and common sense philosophy were born, attempting to find out what philosophy was supposed to be up to. It is interesting to note that it is in this context that Reformational philosophy was born, and in this context of questions and ambiguity surrounding the nature of philosophy that Dirk Vollenhoven and Herman Dooyeweerd would champion a completely new ontology and philosophical posture with great confidence.

Building a philosophical system from the ground up requires a lot of work, but at the bottom it requires determining the particularity of philosophy itself. Vollenhoven does this by distinguishing between “theoretic” and “nontheoretic” thinking and knowing, a distinction which appears in his Introduction to Philosophy. Nontheoretic knowing “has to do with things in their totality, as for instance, when I perceive things around me” (75). Theoretic knowing, on the other hand, “proceeds methodically,” dealing with “one aspect of the whole” (75). Neither way of knowing, suggests Vollenhoven, can do without the other, and though they are different they are not in opposition to one another—there is, in fact, a positive relation between them. “For knowing begins with nontheoretic knowing and then, sometimes, proceeds to the differentiated knowing found in the special sciences; and subsequently turns back, on this detour, deepened and enriched, in philosophy to the knowledge of the whole” (75-76). Philosophy is therefore contextualized, proceeding from everyday experience and returning to it, never lording itself over it.

But what is the special science of philosophy? Vollenhoven and Dooyeweerd strike a radically ontological stance, allowing philosophy to examine the components of reality and existence and their inter-relations. Hart, their student, has more to say on this issue. Having entered the philosophical climate in the midst of its tectonic shifts, Hart carries the tradition of these two thinkers forward, running alongside, into, and against several contemporaries. In an essay on epistemology entitled “Conceptual Understanding and Knowing Other-Wise,” Hart considers the problem of reason and its role in western philosophy. Surveying a multitude of contemporary approaches to the problem of reason (including analytic, continental, pragmatic, and feminist theories), he shows how reason is unable to ultimately ground itself, resting instead on a foundation of trust (if anything unites Reformational thinking and thinkers in “Reformed epistemology,” it’s this commitment). This foundation does not negate the possibility of scientific knowing, but simply affirms its place. The affirmation of place is where philosophy proper comes in—it falls to philosophy, Hart tells us, to take on the role of a kind of meta-discourse, or meta-methodology, analyzing our rational capacities at their most general, even to the point of realizing there are things, modes, etc. which lie beyond reason itself. Hart writes, “If philosophy is practiced as providing the theoretical integration of the largest frameworks of rational-conceptual knowing of which we are capable, then philosophy provides the space par excellence for openness in our rational understanding to what lies beyond reason” (47).

These comments are intriguing given that they subvert a kind of Idealism. Where Hegel wishes to have thought take what is other into itself, Hart affirms (explicitly with recourse to Levinas and other French thinkers) there must be an outside to thought–and God, of course, is perhaps the most outside one can get. But this does not eliminate our ability to make propositions about things; rather, Hart wants to stress that these propositions come with a foundation of trust, which should be understood as a significant foundation. Despite its significance, such a foundation can indeed be shaken, changed, or negotiated. Thus Hart preserves our ability to know something about God, but also reserves the right to negate that knowledge because God is other than our concepts about God (presumably the same goes for the rest of knowable reality). In an instructive passage, he writes:

“If within faith we speak of matters such as God’s right hand, we are not articulating beliefs in the originally rational-conceptual sense of the word, but using metaphors to express our trust. All faith-talk is in that way metaphorical. It breaks through the limits of given language to remain open to saying what lies beyond being said. It does not lend itself to closed logical-conceptual relationships. God-as-father is an image of a certain time. No conclusion as to essential divine maleness is possible here. Attuned hearing of that language allows translation into God-as-mother in our time” (45).

It’s important to note, here, that Hart’s essay is not primarily theological but weaves through several philosophical approaches to knowledge with a few theological consequences throughout. I’ve read it theologically, in a sense, in order to fit it into my conversation yesterday, but the above passage comes on the heels of a much more expansive discussion. Thus there seems to be a philosophical difference here, either between an earlier Hart and later Hart or between Hart and Zuidervaart. Whatever the case, the salient point seems to be taking two positions for granted: that reality is conceptually mediated all the way down for human beings, and that reality also exceeds conceptual mediation (an epistemological point which Lee Braver has argued is identified by Kierkegaard). This position is perhaps the most compelling to me, as it preserves the “ethical limit” to thought I mentioned yesterday.

Posted in Dirk Vollenhoven, Epistemology, Hendrik Hart, Institute for Christian Studies, Lambert Zuidervaart, Reformational Philosophy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

God and the Limits of Thought: Zuidervaart on Hart

How does one think about God? That this question begins with a “how” and not a “what” is worth highlighting. Despite what is often a reasonable objection to the mixture of philosophy and Christianity, there is simply no denying that all religious persons have plenty of “whats” to posit about God—the question is how we get there. The problem is especially pertinent for Christians who study philosophy, which so often finds itself in the business of predicating particular “whats” to particular things, often (perhaps even usually) unfairly. The motivation for treating philosophy with suspicion when it comes to “God-talk” is understandable; Pascal’s famous commitment to follow the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as distinctly opposed to the god of the philosophers has distinct merit, and is even heroic and admirable. Philosophy has time and again done its best to tame God and force God to become a victim of a theoretical Procrustean box, and as a Christian who has devoted considerable time and energy to understanding both my faith and philosophy I have to admit I find myself caught in this historical tension.

Hendrik Hart, in an appendix to his book Understanding Our World: An Integral Ontology, attempts to deal with this problem as he articulates a Christian ontology. Though he treats traditional problems in ontology such as order, universality, individuality, etc., he suggests in the end that one cannot give a philosophical treatment of God. God, Hart suggests, transcends philosophical categories. Being the origin of all things, God is unable to be contained by argumentation (for or against his existence), as argumentation (logical or philosophical thought) thereby becomes something which God is subject to. Given God’s sovereignty, Hart throws up his philosophical hands in the end and suggests God can indeed be known, but only via confessional belief.

In contrast to this, Lambert Zuidervaart, in an essay entitled “Existence, Nomic Conditions, and God: Issues in Hendrik Hart’s Ontology,”* criticizes Hart for being too loose in his discussion of God and philosophy. Suggesting Hart presents a Kantian limit, placing God beyond the reachable realm of theoretical thought, Zuidervaart suggests with Hegel that such a move encourages thought to transcend its own limits. One is reminded, too, of the simple critique from Jacobi, that Kant’s suggestion that the noumenal cannot be known is itself a statement of knowledge about the noumenal. Zuidervaart further presses Hart’s analysis suggesting that all his efforts to limit philosophy’s talk of God are themselves philosophical, and thus the problem collapses on itself. Though Zuidervaart shares Hart’s anxieties about opening the doors to unbridled speculation about God (such as it has been for most of western philosophy’s history), he wonders (rightly) about the possibility that we ever escape speculation, and further what the implications for such a view would have for theological discourse. Perhaps most convincing, however, is Zuidervaart’s explanation that God does indeed reveal himself in understandable and certitudinal ways for human beings, such that we are able to trust and love God. In this way, perhaps God is subject to certain normative constraints (which are not necessarily negative) after all.**

I find myself situated uncomfortably between these two Reformational thinkers. On the one hand, Hart is undeniably correct when he chastises philosophy’s presumptions to contain God in a conceptual apparatus. Philosophy regularly attempts to diffuse God’s eruptive power by attempting to manage God via constructed systems. At the same time, Zuidervaart’s question as to whether or not this is avoidable is important. Though I find myself convinced by Zuidervaart’s critique, I cannot seem to shed my anxieties about philosophy’s nasty habit of colonizing religious belief. This is, of course, the limit which philosophy must think beyond, according to Zuidervaart–but I would prefer (and I think Zuidervaart would agree) to situate this limit ethically rather than epistemologically. In other words, predicating something about God (or, for that matter, almost anything else–consider Kierkegaard’s aphorism “Once you label me you negate me”) must be done recognizing an ethical limit, wherein one’s speculations are always relative to allowing God the space to overwhelm one’s conceptual categories. Thus speculation is affirmed as something unavoidable, but such speculation is done with fear and trembling.


*Philosophia Reformata. 50 (1985): 47-65.

**This notion is not without further critique in the Reformational tradition, perhaps most notably from Nik Ansell, who suggests starting with normativity, rather than a primordial and originary blessing, is problematic.

Posted in G. W. F. Hegel, Hendrik Hart, Immanuel Kant, Institute for Christian Studies, Lambert Zuidervaart, Reformational Philosophy, Religion | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Conference Clowning

At a recent conference where I presented a paper on Wittgenstein and Rosenzweig, my wife, Emily, managed to snap this photo of me with Alvin Plantinga (left) and Kierkegaard scholar C. Stephen Evans (second)! It’s official–I’m in the big leagues now.

(Also, kudos to Emily for sticking it out through the conference.)

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