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

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

Habermas Replies to Rorty

Jurgen Habermas

Jurgen Habermas

In my search for a reasonable referent for the term “philosophy,” thereby shedding some light on what some philosophers have called “anti-philosophy,” I have to admit that a survey of the last hundred years of thinking on that issue has done more to muddy the waters than clarify them. Richard Rorty does an excellent job surveying the land, so to speak, of contemporary philosophy, noting that in pretty much all camps there has sprouted a plant of thought that is deeply suspicious of its own soil. In response, Rorty gives up on philosophy as a privileged discipline, or as having any specialized realm of discourse, preferring instead to consider philosophy as a kind of eclectic mix of things that attempts to see how things “hang together,” in the terms of Sellars. In response to Rorty’s call for the demise of the philosopher as the “guardian of reason,” Jürgen Habermas proposes a new role for philosophers, not as “Master Thinkers,” but as translators and mediators between different cultural spheres of inquiry. In his essay “Philosophy as Stand-In and Interpreter,” Habermas pursues the historical shifts of philosophy as an insular discipline in order to discover whether or not such a conception of philosophy is viable today.

Habermas goes quite far with Rorty on this issue, granting him quite a bit of ground and tracing, historically, the collapse of philosophy as an insulated discipline of its own. Rorty celebrates the collapse, and Habermas gives him plenty of room to do so. Habermas agrees that the model of philosophy which recognizes philosophers as members of a privileged, esoteric inquiry is dead and gone, and it deserves to be thrown out. Already with Kant, he argues, philosophy began to yield its special ground to the human sciences, ethics, and the arts, and it has been yielding that ground ever since. In the twentieth-century, philosophy continues this habit, leading both Rorty and Habermas to wonder if, after fraternizing with other disciplines so intimately, philosophy can assume an identity of its own.

Noting Rorty’s allergy to philosophy as the keeper of reason, Habermas takes up the shield, or perhaps the defibrillators, hoping to rescue reason and place it at home under philosophy’s tender care. Reason, for Habermas, is a kind of shorthand here for simple conversational dialogue, that common ground that all conversations seek. Pragmatism and hermeneutic philosophy, he says, have joined forces to highlight this very space and role for philosophy. In this new role, the philosopher, argues Habermas, must become the interpreter between the specialized discourses of things like science and the “life-world.” As Reformational philosopher Calvin Seerveld says, philosophy is the janitor of the disciplines. Philosophy becomes a kind of cosmopolitan meeting ground in the world of ideas, an airport where thoughts arrive and depart, but not before comingling. These common conversation spaces force us to make decisions, as Habermas says “They force us into yes or no positions.”

This decisional aspect is highly attractive to me, yet I find Habermas particularly weak with regard to philosophy as the “guardian of reason.” For all his talk of common understanding, when he writes “Everyday communication makes possible a kind of understanding that is based on claims to validity, thus furnishing the only real alternative to exerting influence on one another, which is always more or less coercive.” Given postmodern criticisms of reason as a veiled will to power, I find it difficult to go all the way with Habermas here, even given his humble admission that reason appears to be as simple as “pointing to something beyond the spatio-temporal ambit of the occasion [of a conversation].” These concerns are difficult to square, but at the same time they grant a greater capacity than Rorty to actually discern what is healthy or not for social life—and if it is simply a matter of being afraid to take the risk of reason, then I suppose I might be willing to tentatively side with Habermas, given that this risk is always taken in and for community.

Posted in Antiphilosophy, Calvin Seerveld, Jurgen Habermas, Richard Rorty | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Richard Rorty’s Anti-Philosophy

Richard Rorty

Richard Rorty

This fall, I’ve been reading After Philosophy: End or Transformation? It’s an excellent anthology, collecting seminal essays from both analytic and continental circles, which explores the crisis of philosophy happening in the discipline irrespective of stylistic or geographical allegiances. I’ve read a number of essays, but only recently took on Rorty’s essay, “Pragmatism and Philosophy.” Ron Kuipers, a Senior Member at ICS, recently wrote a book on Rorty, and I’ve been entertaining a passing interest in William James and C. S. Peirce for a while now, so I was excited to read the article. There are a few other essays in the book responding to Rorty (Habermas and Putnam), which I’ll probably share some thoughts on in the coming week. For now, here are some preliminary reflections on Rorty to set the stage.

Rorty attempts to clarify the relationship of pragmatism (at least his own variety of it) to the general tradition of philosophy in the west. He begins by making the distinction between “Philosophy” (capital “P”) and “philosophy,” suggesting that it is the former that deserves to be abandoned. What characterizes Philosophy is its search for other words that are capitalized—Truth, the Good, Beauty, etc., while philosophy is a practice of speaking in generalities and, following Sellars, seeing how things “hang together.” Rorty does an excellent job surveying the historical overturning of Philosophy in both analytic and continental traditions, which leads him to suggest that pragmatism has been waiting at the end of these roads all along (a bold claim, but intriguing). Pragmatism, he says, has long since abandoned the search for the Truth behind the truth, preferring instead to speak of provisional truths which contribute to utilitarian ends and modes of being. The role of the philosopher is not therefore abandoned but contextualized; philosophy is the practice of finding connections and disconnections and imagining possible trajectories society might entertain.

There is an obvious attraction here for me, being a reader of the great anti-philosophers in western thought (Kierkegaard, Rosenzweig, Cioran, etc.). The strength of Rorty’s conception is that he does not do away with philosophy entirely—it still performs an essential role in human discourse. Further, the abandonment of finding the “essentials” or capitalized knowledge of Reality is an important move; if nothing else, getting rid of foundationalism is a positive development. One can infer, here, that Rorty does not eliminate the speculative (or perhaps more accurately the imaginative) aspects of philosophy, nor the ability of philosophy to reasonably discern between better or worse developments in society. But this raises particular problems—given that philosophy can no longer inquire about normative conditions lying behind our historically contingent realities, how is one to pronounce particular value judgments on the developments of those contingent realities?

The issue is plain when Rorty discusses the historical debate between religion and secularism, a debate which is decided in favor of secularism, ultimately a preferable fate, as far as Rorty is concerned. But on what grounds is Rorty able to make such a claim? (Cue the usual critique of strong “relativism.”) Is it not possible that religion can, has been, and could be a contextual help to our utilitarian ends (which are, themselves, problematically in flux)? In being dismissive in this way, Rorty fails to be sensitive to the actual plurality of the Christian tradition, and one wonders how he might see how things “hang together” if those things are not properly dealt with in the first place (Kuipers makes a similar but obviously more astute critique in his introduction to Rorty). The question of how one properly deals with or defines particular things brings us right back to the problems Rorty is attempting to do away with—the Truth behind the truth—and it seems difficult to me how one might escape the circle. Without a notion of normativity, even if that normativity is loose and tempered with all of the usual postmodern qualifications of finitude, it is unclear whether or not the pragmatist project can ever get off the ground.

Let me be the first to admit that coming out of the gates with anti-philosophical rhetoric is enticing, exciting, and definitely contains an element of truth (maybe, dare I say, even Truth). But once one begins the race, certain truths seem less contingent and provisional than one might at first admit, and navigating these truths will require more than utilitarian optimism. Rorty’s emphasis on human finitude is excellent and praiseworthy, but finitude is not a cause for resignation, which I fear is what gets the last word for Rorty . As Kierkegaard wrote against Hegel, if everything is in motion then nothing is in motion. Likewise, if everything is contingent, then nothing is contingent.

Of course, reading and commenting on one essay is hardly enough attention for a seminal thinker like Rorty, and thorough-going Rortians would be reasonably up-in-arms over a number of my moves here. But if Rorty really is pulling the relativism card over and against all philosophizing, this is not the kind of anti-philosophy I’m looking for. We may have a common target, at least, in those Philosophers which take themselves too seriously–but, in the end, the anti-philosophers I mentioned paranthetically above still seem to have some normative tricks up their sleeves (even if they remain up their sleeves most of the time).

Posted in Antiphilosophy, Institute for Christian Studies, Pragmatism | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Capitalism’s Rotation Method Pt. III: Anthropology, Economics, Fear and Trembling

New Anthropologies, New Economies

We ended the previous post with the suggestion that individuals do not, in fact, create their own desires out of the blue–and, in capitalism, advertising is a powerful tool that creates desires for us. That desire is not an autonomous force seems to be quite readily accepted in most contemporary continental philosophy.[18] Not only this, but such a notion is affirmed in earlier philosophical trends as well, seen obviously in the fatalistic nature of the Greeks and the love-oriented philosophy of the early Christians and medievals. It appears that modern philosophy embodied in the Enlightenment, which produces the type of anthropology capitalism depends on, is in fact an anomaly when it comes to theorizing about the self and desire–a kind of hiccup in the history of thought. Modernity posits a self that is radically autonomous, whether it is in the form of an empirical, rational, or transcendental ego. This self is capable, say the moderns, of cognitively picking and choosing from a variety of options in a theoretical vacuum guided by the light of reason rather than tradition or religion.[19] If I choose X, then it will indeed be me choosing X. This notion of subjectivity is what guides capitalist apologetics. Naturally, if this vision of the subject falls, the whole system seems to pivot; the arguments for capitalism are like mountains hanging by a thread. As Cavanaugh suggested, however, it is precisely because capitalism does not function with such a subject in practice that it operates so well; indeed, that it functions in a highly religious and formative mode which it covers over with an alternative, autonomous anthropology to the contrary is its primary mark of ideology.

This fictional autonomous self is the root of all kinds of evil. In an attempt to secure the subject as a stable and “free” entity, capitalism legitimizes vast mountains of injustice precisely because it secretly eschews all commitments to ethics, let alone a loving God.[20] A finds seducers to be his prime examples of great aesthetes—they view life as a work of art, something to be fictionalized in hopes of crafting a new world devoid of boredom. To do this, they seduce young women without abandon, as ethical constraints are only obeyed insofar as they serve the obliterating sovereignty of desire. Capitalism, too, functions as such. It, too, finds seducers, pornographers, exploiters, ruthless competitive tactics—it requires individuals willing to bypass any relationship to fellow humans or the natural world. Such individuals happen to be quite good examples of how to succeed in the aesthetic-capitalist life. Ethics are only appealed to insofar as they let the market expand and let desire desire. As a result, subjects are not “free” to follow any sort of Good life, nor is capitalism hoping that individuals find solace in a loving God—no, this would ruin everything! Capitalism needs subjects who refuse such constraints, even if the general consuming populace finds such acts disenchanting (though usually not disenchanting enough to actually take action, of course). The seedy world of capitalism, which in many ways is the grease within the gears, is, like advertising, the “in-house” discussion, concealed by pervasive public ideology—and this all in the name of Freedom.

Just think of all the objectively rational facts about Halo Burger brought to you in this advertisement, which appeals to your reasonable side and would never coerce you by seeking something beyond your conscious will.

My arguments against capitalism are not the result of a “lack of belief in freedom itself,” but rather a lack of belief in what capitalism calls freedom (and, more positively, a belief in a different kind of freedom). Contrary to Friedman, wherein completely arbitrary advertisements and the objectification of bodies, food, and natural goods lead to freedom, I would suggest that if we are to truly understand the forces at work in capitalism we must change our anthropology from one of autonomous, rational subjects to one that accounts for our given, relational, and desiring being-in-the-world. In aesthetic existence, and in capitalism, all ethical decisions are eclipsed, relegating them purely underneath the allegedly greater cause of the will to pleasure. This will to pleasure is not autonomously exercised but dependent on outside forces to coerce it into particular consumptive choices. A true alternative, however, will not attempt to eliminate coercion—this is an impossibility. The goal for anyone hoping to give space for true freedom is to provide space for true formation, formation leading to the good of the individual and the community. If we contrast this with capitalism’s negative freedom from, which cannot provide the soil for a healthy life-view, we might call this a positive freedom to. Advertising, the institution responsible for formation in capitalism, is not interested in forming anything more than consumers, ethics be damned. This is clearly the case considering it is common public knowledge, and even the topic of colloquial jokes, that fast food restaurants engage in atrociously unjust means of production regarding animals and the land, and the majority of producers involved in technology and fashion have an utter disregard for the quality of life of their working people, the human image, and the environment. If we want to provide space for true freedom, we must begin by trying to decipher what it is we should desire that would bring health, peace, and love to our selves and our communities—we must give space for a freedom to love. I do not mean to say, here, that another construal of the economy or the social matrix would eliminate the aesthetic life, but I do mean to suggest that capitalism functions in service to it; it intentionally promotes and enables such a life, as highly ethical and reflective subjects do not make very good consumers in our current politico-economic organization.

Moving Forward with Fear and Trembling

Jesus heals the leper--and the systems of oppression have no authority here, be they government or advertising.

Jesus heals the leper–and the systems of oppression have no authority here, be they government or advertising.

“Aesthetic existence for Kierkegaard,” writes John D. Caputo, “is a dead end, but not because it is internally inconsistent, a logical contradiction, for it is all too coldly logical and consistent. Rather, it is a moral nightmare, an outrage of our moral sensibilities, which is what induces in us the need for a higher point of view.”[21] The cold logic of capitalism, of supply and demand, monetary abstraction, and commodification is indeed quite logical; this logic, however, produces a justifiable outrage of our moral sensibilities, and as such we should not be content to dwell there. Just as the aesthete in Either/Or is unable to think of himself beyond the matrix of desire he is situated in, so we in the capitalist world so often refuse to think of a system outside of the matrix desire we find ourselves in. If we are to truly engage in political and economic structures for the sake of freedom and liberation, we will have to construct systems other than those we are currently coerced to participate in (for we really do not have many options in the current state of affairs). Fortunately, there are already plenty of upbuilding discourses going on about alternative formulations of economics, power, and political relations.[22] Whatever the alternative we choose, however (and we must choose), we should always keep the words of Kierkegaard in mind, the words that capitalism so often ignores:

Every human being is to live in fear and trembling, and likewise no established order is to be exempted from fear and trembling. Fear and trembling signify that we are in the process of becoming; and every single individual, likewise the generation, is and should be aware of being in the process of becoming. And fear and trembling signify that there is a God—something every human being and every established order ought not to forget for a moment.[23]


[18] Indeed, an overwhelming number of theorists center on subject/object relations, perception, and desire. Many French thinkers have made desire a particularly important issue, especially Jacques Lacan, Gilles Deleuze, René Girard, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and others. German thought is likewise no stranger with its long history of critical theory. The turn to Augustine in Christian theology is easily situated here. The phenomenological attempt to locate the processes of consciousness within a given world is a valuable subject, and so is the recent polemical move against this movement falling under various realist headings in continental philosophy. Whatever the approach, however, any attempt at positing an autonomous self seems to be a theoretical move that comes on the scene too late; such reflection is always after the fact.

[19] It is, of course, interesting that capitalism is born out of a philosophical posture that seeks to throw off the authority not only of the Church, but of the spiritual narratives of Christianity as a whole.

[20] One might be tempted to point fingers at Kierkegaard’s “suspension of the ethical” on the same grounds here, but to do so would be a shallow misreading of the concept.

[21] John D. Caputo. How to Read Kierkegaard. W. W. Norton & Company Inc.: New York, NY. 2007. 30.

[22] As regards money, I am intrigued by the work of Philip Goodchild, whose theological investigations of money are certainly worthwhile. In relation to power and politics, I am thinking primarily of the return to political theology, but particularly of those Kierkegaardian politicians such as Jacques Derrida, John Caputo, and especially Simon Critchley. The Augustinian strand is also intriguing, including James K. A. Smith and William T. Cavanaugh, though I am not entirely convinced that this is the final solution. Regardless, a responsible inquiry into the nature and structure of our current system should alarm all those who are quickened by the Spirit that something must change if we are to promote a political structure that more readily enables the serving of Christ

[23] Søren Kierkegaard. Practice in Christianity. Trans. Howard and Edna Hong. Princeton University Press: Princeton Township, NJ. 1991. 88.

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Capitalism’s Rotation Method Pt. II: Desire, Advertising, and Aesthetic Capitalism

 Capitalism and the Production of Desire

In all of our analysis, A appears to be a strange and undesirable sort of fellow; he builds a theory of desire off of the actions of a seducer. How is A, then, an embodiment of capitalism? Indeed, it appears so far that he is simply a sort of neurotic over-thinking member of the bourgeoisie. I want to suggest, though, that the strategies and attitudes which A employs in day-to-day life are quite easily detected in the structure of capitalism itself. Let us revisit then, for a moment, Milton Friedman. Like the aesthete, Friedman views life as a series of autonomous choices; though reality certainly contains an element of chance,[10] the point is to make reality what you want it to be. There is no particular group telling you what you want, no ethical system arbitrating between your desires. There is only desire, and capitalism is a system that allows one to rationally choose between whatever desire he or she has. One might summarize this version of freedom as a negative one—a freedom from particular things.

A and Friedman, however, fundamentally misunderstand both the human experience and the capitalist structure. One need only look to the highly lucrative advertising market, an industry without which global capitalism could not function, to find that capitalism is not interested in preserving the freedoms of consumers but instead in trying to manipulate said freedoms into purchasing particular items. William T. Cavanaugh identifies two particular ways marketing functions in capitalism in order to exercise its power: the first is that “marketing is communicated to the broader public as the provision of information about products so that consumers may make choices that are both informed and voluntary. Here consumers are depicted as autonomous and rational, perfectly sovereign over their choices of products and ends.”[11] The second is that “marketing is an in-house presentation to its practitioners and clients that it is a machine fully capable of creating desire and delivering it to its intended goal.”[12] So, the public assumes the capitalist system is a neutral service; it simply provides helpful options and opinions from which the consumer may make a choice. This hides the underlying processes, however, in that advertising actually functions with precisely the opposite anthropology in mind—it assumes that humans are not in fact simply choosing different products through rational choices but through something underneath the surface, something at the level of desire and not purely the rational mind.

A Google Image search will soon reveal the kinds of nostalgic heartstrings advertisers harness to shape consumer desire.

A Google Image search will soon reveal the kinds of nostalgic heartstrings advertisers harness to shape consumer desire.

Marketing is thus capable of manipulating desire precisely because it convinces the public that this is the very practice it wants to eliminate. The public understands the market as a vehicle for information, while the market understands itself as a vehicle for the production of desire. This is not simply a conspiratory observation funded by what some might label as Cavanaugh’s “liberal” imagination. This is a fact actually admitted by the influential voices of advertising. In an NPR article discussing a new book by George Lois, pioneer of the 1950s advertising boom, a curious story is related:

One of Lois’ clients was the pancake company Aunt Jemima. He began working on their advertising campaign before they made syrup, when they were only known for their pancake mix. Wondering why the company didn’t have their own syrup, Lois devised a questionnaire about pancakes. It asked consumers which syrup they’d purchased recently, and he included an option to circle “Aunt Jemima Syrup,” a then-nonexistent product.

“Something like 90 percent of the people or so circled that they had bought Aunt Jemima syrup,” says Lois. “I took that research to the head guys, and I said, ‘I want to talk to you about syrup.’ … Of course, they created the syrup, and they became the leading syrup brand in the world.”[13]

This is a clear example of capitalism’s ability to create a desire which it then fulfills, and the fact that Lois, a major player in the “creative revolution” in advertising, recognizes and exploits this is telling.

The Aesthetic Mode of Capitalism

Advertising and DesireCurrent marketing trends bear a strong resemblance to A’s strategy of crop rotation. We experience an economy built on the infinite rotation of similar themes; as A says “The method I propose consists not in changing the soil but, as in the real rotation of crops, in changing the method of cultivation and type of grain.”[14] Such a method is institutionally realized in advertising, which is constantly trying its best to re-narrate commodities in order to make them appealing again. This is precisely A’s strategy, an attempt to repackage his own experience in order to feel interested once more. This rotation is also evident in the very means of production itself—advertising creates desire which it must then actually fill. One gets bored with this product, so the company produces a new version with subtle differences.[15] Cavanaugh notes a particular instance: “Marketers intensify the desire for such goods by calling into question the acceptability of the consumer, what General Motors’ research division—in a reference to changing car models each year—once called ‘the organized creation of dissatisfaction.’”[16]

Judge Vilhelm, another prominent character of Either/Or, disagrees with A’s position. He responds to the aesthetic orientation that is present in A and exemplified by advertising and even the physical production involved at General Motors. The Judge’s critique is usually centered on A’s refusal to acknowledge the meaninglessness of his desire. He says to A,

You are always hovering above yourself, but the higher ether, the more refined sublimate into which you are vaporized, is the nothing of despair and you see below you a multitude of areas of learning, insight, study, observation which for you, though, have no reality but which you quite randomly exploit and combine so as to adorn as tastefully as possible the palace of mental profusion in which you occasionally reside. What you see below you is a multitude of moods and situations which you use to make interesting contacts with life.[17]

This final line encapsulates advertising and production quite well. The multitude of moods and situations, of areas of learning and insight, are granted no basis in phenomenal, given reality. From the point of view of advertising and capitalism, these things are mere tools to be exploited to “make interesting contacts with life.” Capitalism does not function, on this analysis, in order to produce a neutral space of uncoerced, free trade. It functions in order to produce desires and objects to satisfy them. Once its attempts at satisfaction begin to wane, it re-narrates these attempts in order to create new needs and desires, particularly with recourse not to rational facts or information but through creating feelings and experiences; it operates sub-rationally, at the level of desire. Just as it is in the case of the aesthete, treating desire as an end in itself grants a huge capacity for injustice, as all reflection and inter-subjective interaction is reduced to desire-satisfaction.

In the final post of this series, we will end with a resounding call for new anthropologies and political consciousness, founded not on the myth of uncoerced economics, but on an alternative anthropology that sees freedom as a positive orientation in contrast.


[10] Chance is, in fact, something A champions in his discussions of theatre and ancient drama, and here I would actually suggest that A’s position is superior to Friedman’s, who seems to lack any real investigation of contingency. That the aesthete’s position is even more accurate than modern capitalist theorists is something that cannot be worked out here, unfortunately.

[11] Cavanaugh. Being Consumed. 16.

[12] Ibid.

[13] NPR Staff. “‘Damn Good Advice’ From One Of The Real ‘Mad Men’.” NPR. March 19, 2012. http://www.npr.org/2012/03/19/148764719/damn-good-advice-from-one-of-the-real-mad-men?sc=fb&cc=fp (accessed October 5, 2012).

[14] Kierkegaard. Either/Or. 233.

[15] This is easily manifested in new models of vehicles or, especially, technological devices. The endless proliferation of handheld computer devices and attachments on cellular phones is merely an attempt to make the commodities still more interesting to subjects who find themselves trying their hardest to escape boredom and commitment.

[16] Cavanaugh. Being Consumed. 17.

[17] Kierkegaard. Either/Or. 504.

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