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

Gadamerian Reflections on My Conversation with Ed Mooney

Recently, I interviewed Ed Mooney, a Kierkegaard scholar, philosopher, and poet, among other things. The interview was carried out more like a conversation than a series of questions to be answered. In correspondence, Ed and I have agreed that this gave the interview a very unique flavor and allowed a certain play and freedom to show through. I couldn’t help but think of our exchange when reading this portion of Truth and Method this morning:

We say that we ‘conduct’ a conversation, but the more genuine a conversation is, the less its conduct lies within the will of either partner. Thus a genuine conversation is never the one that we wanted to conduct. Rather it is generally more correct to say that we fall into conversation, or even that we become involved in it. The way one word follows another, with the conversation taking its own twists and reaching its own conclusion, may well be conducted in some way, but the partners conversing are far less the leaders of it than the led. No one knows in advance what will ‘come out’ of a conversation. Understanding or its failure is like an event that happens to us. Thus we can say that something was a good conversation or that it was ill fated. All this shows that a conversation has a spirit of its own, and that the language in which it is conducted bears its own truth within it–i.e., that it allows something to ’emerge’ which henceforth exists. (385)

Thanks for the conversation, Ed. It was a wonderful thing to fall into.

Posted in Edward F. Mooney, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Hermeneutics | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Searching for Butterness

I’ve been reading and re-reading Franz Rosenzweig’s Understanding the Sick and the Healthy. It’s an incredibly fast read and well worth the time. It manages to accomplish quite a bit in its brevity (72 pages), and while the content does not feel philosophically rigorous, this is in fact its rigor. This explains the introductory essay by Hilary Putnam, who skillfully compares and contrasts Rosenzweig and Wittgenstein and their struggles with philosophy. The book presents us with the story of a man who has been paralyzed by theoretical thought, now in treatment at a sanitarium for philosophers. Walking about his day, doing normal tasks, all of a sudden he is struck–and stopped! A thought that cannot be resolved. What if his senses can’t be trusted? What if there is no meaning in the world? How does one function?

Basically, Rosenzweig wants to challenge the primacy of reason and philosophical method when it comes to finding and experiencing true and meaningful understanding of the world. An example he uses that had me grinning was the philosopher’s encounter with butter. Philosophers do philosophy everywhere except for where they actually live, he suggests. In everyday tasks, such question is necessarily suspended. After a long discussion about how one comes to want a particular slice of butter (what’s a “slice” anyway?), he writes:

“In practical life no one gives up his intention to buy butter merely because he is unable to prove that the butter he wishes to buy and the butter on sale are identical. The single exception to this is the philosopher, but even he carefully restricts his meditations to theory. When he goes shopping he is unwilling to have an empty stomach as a reward for his thoughts. In theory, of course, he cannot be refuted. As soon as he asks: ‘What is this actually?’ the butter disappears. As for the name—well, that is a matter of convention. Different languages have different names for one and the same thing. If a philosopher, however, should turn his back on our slab of butter, claiming it cannot be butter, because the French call it buerre, the proper place for him would be an institution accommodating philosophers exclusively.” (53)

This question is further explored by Putnam in his brilliant introduction:

Putnam’s creative rendering of this question in logical terms exposes the absurdity of assuming philosophy has recourse to some kind of privileged position of truth. Of course, while Putnam renders this in “analytic” terms, one must be careful to not assume that “continental” thought is somehow immune. I often wonder if the esoteric precision of phenomenology, or the dizzying whirls of poststructuralism, etc., might also be rendered in this kind of parody, for they, too, stop human beings in their tracks and render them unable to move forward. Rosenzweig’s critique passes across the “analytic-continental” divide, just as Wittgenstein’s does. It would be entertaining to see Putnam’s analytic example translated into continental terms, which would contain all sorts of parentheses, hyphens, German words, and more.

This does not suggest that those kinds of analyses are not useful. As Putnam goes on to say, rendering thought in analytic terms can be helpful, and Rosenzweig (suggests Putnam) was interested in conceiving of a new way of doing philosophy as well (what he called the “New Thinking,” which is decidedly dialogical). Nonetheless, I think the critique is powerful and should cause every philosopher to pause and examine how “useful” and how destructive the discipline can be. Philosophers are like doctors; they hold an incredible power, and it can be used to liberate or bind, heal or corrupt.

Posted in Franz Rosenzweig, Hilary Putnam, Philosophy | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment