Tuesday, February 17, 2015

"An incarnation is not the sort of reality available to recollection." An unmusical reflection

The face, the enigma, and the paradox

This is what has been in the oven for so long.  I had to let it proof, and then I had to let it bake and then I had to let it cool.  I don't know how much of this I will have to quote before it makes sense; or even if it will make sense.  It's a rather technical argument analyzing the relationship between the thought of Kierkegaard and Levinas, so already we're in a rarified atmosphere.  But reading it over last night made me laugh with joy, so:

Like Climacus's [in Philosophical Fragments] pursuit of the Paradox, Levinas's engagement with enigma is a form of critique directed, like the earlier critiques of Augustine and Kant, against the hubris of a human reason that would be autonomous and self-sufficient.
I pause to note reason is being used here to critique reason.  One of the major weaknesses of the "New Atheists" is their insistence that reason is a unitary "thing" which stands alone, contains and embodies truth, and has no need nor ability to self-critique or to be used to examine the very limits of reason itself.  There's something weirdly Platonic in it, as if reason itself were the Good which, once obtained, was also self-contained and self-complete and incapable of being used to, well, deconstruct what reasoning has wrought.  And maybe that's the helpful distinction:  reason is not a thing, and reasoning is not the action of reason as a thing, or even the discovery of what reason has to tell.  Then again, that's where this argument is headed, by distinguishing "logocentric Reason" from other forms of Reason:

It is motivated in part by the sense that logocentric Reason is dogmatically atheistic, that it arbitrarily excludes God from its world or, what is worse, domesticates God by transforming the divine into a (visible or intelligible) phenomenon, a process in which "the divinity of God dissipates"[cit. omitted].  "Phenomena, apparition in the full light, the relationship with being, ensure immanence as a totality and philosophy as atheism."

It is also motivated by the sense that the transcendence thus reduced to immanence properly belongs to philosophy.  In pursuit of enigma he takes as his guide "the notion of God, which a thought called faith succeeds in getting expressed and introduces into philosophical discourse."  To affirm this thought requires that one "endure the contradiction between the existence included in the essence of God and the scandalous absence of this God....[and] to suffer an initiation trial into religious life which separates philosophers from believers.

Right there I would pause and insert a discussion of Gould's "magisteria" and Rorty's metaphor (which he ascribes to Max Weber:  "One can be tone-deaf when it comes to religion just as one can be oblivious to the charms of music.") that religious belief is akin to being "unmusical:"  a useless and harmless ability that excludes from the experience of some an otherwise meaningless aspect of human life, and one wholly unrelated to anything covered by Reason, especially logocentric Reason.  But maybe another day.  There are more important considerations to get to:

But this thought that faith manages to introduce into philosophical discourse is not entirely eccentric to the latter.  [pace Rorty and Gould!].  In the first place it is a thought, not simply an image or a feeling.  There is no hint that what distinguishes this thought from the thoughts of logocentric ontology or phenomenology is that it is an undergraduate mythos that has not yet learned the doctoral level language of the logos, a miner league Vorstellung not yet good enough to join the Big Show and its superstar Begrime.  The distinguishing mark of this thought is simply that it radically disturbs the thoughts by which we construct the worlds of nature and history.

A mysterium tremendum, in other words.  Continuing:

In Philosophical Fragments, Climacus's critique has the same dual motivation [as that of Levinas, explained in a paragraph omitted here].  On the one hand, it is directed against what is perceived to be a dogmatic and arbitrary exclusion without which human understanding could not absolutize itself as Reason.  In his case the God whom the world cannot accommodate is the specifically Christian God become human in Jesus of Nazareth.  What his thought experiment is designed to show is that the Socratic assumption that knowledge is recollection excludes this possibility a priori (as Lessing clearly saw).  An incarnation is not the sort of reality available to recollection.

And now we enter fully into an epistemological discourse, setting up a third way of knowing apart from Socratic recollection and empirical discovery.

At the same time, Climacus thinks human understanding has a built-in desire for an absolute will that will relativize it.  He says that "the thinker without a paradox is like a lover with passion," and that "the ultimate paradox of thought [is] to want to discover something that thought itself cannot think."

Which still puts me in mind of Godel's theorem, and the result that any system can generate a question it cannot answer.  That doesn't invalidate the question, it just points to the limits of the system.

The human understanding, when not deluding itself into thinking it is Reason, has a "paradoxical passion that wills the collision...and, without really understanding itself, wills its own downfall."  Concretely speaking, God incarnate is "this unknown against which the understanding in its paradoxical passion collides and which even disturbs man and his self-knowledge."

Which could explain the passion of the atheist to snuff out the belief of the theist.

Abstractly speaking, the unknown against which human understanding in its paradoxical passion continuously collides is "the absolutely different...Defined as the absolutely different, it seems to be at the point of being disclosed, but not so, because the understanding cannot even think the absolutely different."

Pay attention now; this is where it gets interesting.  The subject of Levinas's concern is "a theory of enigma as semantic alterity."  For our purposes, "enigma" and "paradox" will be interchangeable terms.

The semantic disturbance Levinas has in mind is "the entry into a given order of another order which does not accommodate itself with the first.  Thus we exclude from disturbance the simple parallelism of the two orders that would be in a relationship of sign to signified, of appearance to thing in itself, and between which, as we have said, a relationship would reestablish the simultaneity of one single order."

Since the other cannot appear "without renouncing his radical alterity, without entering into an order," only that which will be transcendent (and thus disturbing) which can show itself without appearing.  It cannot allow itself to be tied down to the "unbreakable chain of significations" that make up the "triumphant, that is, primary truths" of a given cultural order if it would signify as enigma rather than phenomenon.  It must "tear itself" free from "the public order of the disclosed and triumphant significations of nature and history."

It would seem to follow that the gods who are the keystones of these humanly created orders of intelligibility, say the God of Aquinas in relation to the structures of nature and the Geist of Hegel in relation to the structures of history, are phenomenal and not enigmatic, onto theological and not truly transcendent.  This is why a God like Kierkegaard's who is quite thoroughly enigmatic, is "essential in a world which can no longer believe that the books about God attest to transcendence as a phenomenon and to the Ab-solute as an apparition.  And without the good reasons atheism brings forth, there would have been no enigma."

In other words the "atheism" of Hume and Kant in relation to the God of Aquinas and the atheism of Feuerbach and Marx in relation to the Hegelian Geist need to be seen not as the vindication of dogmatic secularism but can be construed as a kind of prophetic protest against every project of domesticating the divine.  They can be read as opening the question whether the absence of God from self-evidence and the "scandalous absence" of God from "the mortal conduct of the world" points to the abyss or to revelation as disturbance.

Which point to an interesting connection between belief and atheism, a connection deeper than the surface similarities between neo-atheists and fundamentalists.  And here we also reach the problem of the sign:

The problem of the sign, according to Levinas, is its re-presentational character.  It assumes that the signified has been present, has appeared, and serves to recall that appearance to mind.  By definition, the enigma cannot be such a signified.  "But how to refer to an irreversible past, that is, a past which this very reference would not bring back, like memory which retrieves the past, like signs which recapture the signified?....But in a face before signifying as a sign it is the emptiness of an irrecuperable absence.  The gaping open of emptiness is not only the sign of an absence...but the very emptiness of a passage.  And what has withdrawn is not evoked, does not return to presence, not even to an indicated presence."

"In place of the sign," Levinas would put the trace, a reference to "the past of the other which must never have been present."

This notion of a past that has never been present is by not means an easy one.  But one thing is clear--it precludes, as it is intended to preclude, the notion that knowledge is recollection....Recollection presupposes the essential kinship or likeness of subject and object."  And so knowledge makes available to us only immanence and totality.  "It is this immanence ant totality that Kierkegaard and Levinas seek to deconstruct with their notions of divine transcendence and infinity."  Levinas says of the ontological tradition:  "Philosophy is atheism, or rather unreligion, negation of a God that reveals himself and puts truth into us."  The God Levinas has in mind is precisely the God whom Climacus presents in the Fragments as giving to the learner not just the truth, but the very condition for recognizing the truth.....This is the God whose self revelation is the antithesis to the situation where "self-knowledge is God-knowledge."

This would seem to leave us with no pathway to God, since God is wholly Other, and there is no kinship or likeness of subject and object.  However, Climacus reveals the understanding of Kierkegaard, the seminary student, the would be pastor:  only connect to human beings.

...in his view it is not "all thought" or "all cognition" that are cut off from the presence of God, but sinful thought and sinful cognition.  Radical alterity is not to be found in an ontological interpretation of finitude  vis-a-vis infinity, but in a more interpretation of evil vis-a-vis goodness.
Climacus might put his critique of speculation this way.  Ontology is the option moment of human thought, the longing for salvation.  The trouble with ontology, from Plato to Hegel, is that by insisting prematurely on replacing faith with sight it converts utopia into ideology, claiming to possess now a presence for which we have only the right to hope.  But the critique of ontology that responds by eliminating even the hope of sight, thereby reducing ontological utopianism to political utopianism, is a counsel of despair.  Is not this despair, that is to say, political utopianism devoid of both the sense of sin and the hope of divine salvation, the major source of the violence of our most recent history?
...Just as for Climacus it is sin that generates absolute difference, in this context what makes the other absolutely other is fault, not the conditions of "all thought" or "all cognition."  Most immediately this fault is in relation to my neighbor.  But if the human race has its moral appeal "only if it engimatically comes from the infinite and its immemorial past," if the absolute He "solicits across a human face," then injustice towards my neighbor is sin against God as well.
I think Levinas is precisely right: philosophy is unreligion, negation of a God that revealed God's self and puts truth into us.  Much of this depends, of course, upon what you consider "truth."  But this discussion, obtuse and technical as it may be,  takes place entirely within the terms of the discussion in Western civilization.  There are other ways to discuss it, but those ways either end up comforting the already convinced (not that there's anything wrong with that!) or straining at gnats and swallowing camels.

I just like to present alternatives when I can.  And while the discussion as quoted is decidedly arcane, it ends in favor of Kierkegaard and does so, in ways I can't fully capture here without even more extensive quoting, by illustrating (intentionally or not) Kierkegaard's fundamentally pastoral concern, which I think is the real point of view of the authorship, and surprisingly the basis of modern existentialism (and undoubtedly why I find so much value in Sartre and Camus, though still not so much in Heidegger.  I consider this a failing I may overcome one day).

All quoted material, except Rorty, from Merold Westphal, "The Transparent Shadow:  Kierkegaard and Levinas in Dialogue."  Kierkegaard in Post/Modernity, ed.  Martin J. Matustik and Merold Westphal. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1995.  pp. 265-278.  Rorty quoted from:  Richard Rorty, "Anticlericalism and Atheism."  The Future of Religion, ed. Santiago Zabala.  New York:  Columbia University Press, 2005, p. 30.

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