Questioning Simmon’s Postmodern Kataphaticism

Last summer, J. Aaron Simmons, one of our regular contributors, wrote about the possibility of a Postmodern Kataphaticism, questioning ground and future of religion within a postmodern context.  This post is from a guest contributor, responding the possibility and promise of such a project.

Questioning Simmon’s Postmodern Kataphaticism: A Jamesian Pragmatic Rejoinder

by J. Edward Hackett

J. Aaron Simmons is correct in the dogmatism of postmodern Continental philosophy of religion. As he suggests in his article “Postmodern Kataphaticism?”,

Namely, it appears that the only legitimate possibility for postmodern religious existence is one in which faith occurs “without seeing, without having, and without knowing” (Caputo 1997, 103), such that the structures of religiosity are maintained without determinate content.

In this contribution, I inquire about how it is possible that the postmodern kataphaticism Simmons proposes can provide us an account of determinate content in religious beliefs without transgressing the higher-ordered commitments of postmodernism.

I concede that the postmodern dogmatism of Continental philosophy of religion has its popularity from the simple fact that if we can never say anything positive about God (that God overwhelms comprehension), then the fundamental disagreements about religion have no basis. The pragmatic upshot is an attempt to honor religious difference. Moreover, the motivation for maintaining the apophatic conception is one of humility. Many postmodern philosophers, Simmons reminds us “all warn against the dangers of self-protective theological insularity (where claims to certainty insulate one from critique).” In an apophatic conception, there is no truthmaker to anchor our disputes about God. We could never assent to any proposition about God given that we cannot predicate anything of God. On the contrary, postmodern kataphaticism would speak positively about claims we can make about God. Simmons writes, “although Postmodern Kataphaticism would certainly resist reducing religious existence to a matter of propositional assent, it would maintain the importance of trying to hold true-beliefs about the nature and existence of God.” For Simmons, this is a call to revitalize philosophy of religion more generally. He feels that kataphaticism can be an analytic and Continental endeavor.

Simmons uses the example of the phenomenologist Marion. Marion says that “Love is God.” This is a proposition with some content; it is determinate and insisted upon by Marion for its truth. In the apophatic tradition, at least in prayer, one recites mantras as a way to steer our concern from our self, and turn towards God. There are no images or words. The same is true of apophatic theology. In negative theology, God is ineffable, indeterminately open and exceeds comprehension. We can attribute no positive predicate about God. However, Simmons is concerned that when this is taken to need no argument. That’s when the real difficulty starts. At that point, it becomes a dogma. By extension, one cannot evaluate the claim that Marion is making about God if this apophatic orthodoxy persists.

Let us concede everything about the state of Continental philosophy of religion to Simmons, and everything he suspects about Caputo. Simmons rightly explains that Caputo’s advocacy of apophatic postmodernism calls for a weak theology over a strong theology, and that this claim is made with little, if no, argumentation at all on the part of Caputo. In Simmon’s words, “this must be done with argument and not with assumptions about what postmodernism entails—for it does not entail anything metaphysical in such ways.” At issue, Simmons wants to make sure that the epistemic anti-realism in the apophatic orthodoxy does not immediately imply a metaphysical anti-realism that delimits what can be said about God.

When Simmons starts to make his case, he uses the example of two different conceptions of whether we should adopt Caputo’s theo-poetics or James Smith’s Radical Orthodoxy. For him, this is a discussion “worth having,” and both positions could muster reasons for why they believe what they do about matters of faith. Simmons hopes to show this is still possible in the postmodern framework about theo-poetics and Radical Orthodoxy. In other words, a reasoned exchange can occur within the postmodern framework. I find this highly problematic given that Simmons desires to preserve the postmodern element in Continental philosophy of religion.

“Kataphaticism” is made up of two Greek words. “Kata” indicates the sense of descending, and the verb “phatos” to speak. In this way, kataphaticism means “to bring God down to our level so we may speak of Him.” A postmodern kataphaticism would accept the anti-foundational status and death of meta-narratives. But how would this square with Simmon’s earlier remark about the “importance of holding true-beliefs about the nature and existence about God?” This is a problem in wanting to participate in informed discussions about whether we ought to accept a strong theology or a weak theology, or what metaphysical claims can be made of God more generally speaking when the impetus for postmodernism arose with the specific concern of putting an end to Western pretensions to metaphysics. The dream for a postmodern kataphaticism would be over before it even began—this is the paradox of determinative content. On the one hand, kataphaticism wants to make true claims of God even though it might ever be able to know they are true. Unless, of course, Simmons want for holding true-beliefs moves past the purely epistemic consideration of what it means to hold a belief. Holding a belief means more than simply wanting to be on rapport with the reality of God’s existence.

In what little space remains, I want to suggest a solution to the paradox of determinative content, and what holding a belief really means given that readers might also accept the postmodern milieu that motivates Simmons concerns in philosophy of religion. Both Jamesian pragmatism and negative theology are motivated by the intractability of traditional metaphysical arguments. They share many of the higher-ordered commitments about metaphysics. In the Will to  Believe, James writes:

For what a contradictory array of opinions have objective evidence and absolute certitude been claimed! The world is rational through and through,—its existence is an ultimate brute fact; there is a personal God,—a personal God is inconceivable; there is an extra-mental physical world immediately known,—the mind can only know its own ideas; a moral imperative exists, —obligation is only the resultant of desires; a permanent spiritual principle is in every one,—there are only shifting states of mind; there is an endless chain of causes,—there is an absolute first cause; an eternal necessity,—a freedom; a purpose,—no purpose; a primal One,—a primal Many…(James, WB, 16)

James continues on, and the list is pretty extensive of all the different claims that have exemplified Western metaphysics. But, simply giving up on the objective certitude of these claims does not mean giving up on truth itself. For the pragmatist, however, truth just comes to mean a different thing, and James is well-known for his conception of truth. For the purposes of brevity, I will focus on these themes in his religious thought.

In The Will to Believe, William James makes the case that we can believe in propositions that we have no evidence for, and that following the Peircean maxim, we ought to accept beliefs for the conceivable effects they will have in increasing future possibility of our lives. If there is greater conceivable effect that follows from accepting an idea, then it meshes more with our experience and restores harmony to our lives. Holding a belief matters to personal experience and possibilities of future action. As Charles Sanders Peirce put it, “Our beliefs guide our desires and shape our actions” (Fixation, 114). Therefore, one can understand James’s threefold criteria that he dubs a genuine-option, or for our purposes are the types of beliefs under discussion here. Genuine-options must be decided in our lived-experience when no evidence is available for consideration.

First, an option must be living; the choice must really matter between two hypotheses. Second, the option between two beliefs must be forced. They cannot be indifferent like asking whether or not you will be taking an umbrella on an easy-going night out. The option there is not forced. You can avoid going out by staying in. The choice between God existing and non-existence is unavoidable. Third, the option must be momentous. In that very instant, deciding on this belief really does matter. Religion presents us with a “vital good.” That vital good can be lost with our belief or non-belief. Religion is a living, forced and momentous affair.

Following James, beliefs orient us to the world. They do not simply express a true view of the reality of God, as one might construe between the differences of Caputo’s theo-poetics and Smith’s Radical Orthodoxy. Instead, what should be put to these two positions is a question of concern to our lives: what is the conceivable effect to my life in adopting one version of theology over the other? Subject this to a pragmatic test! Truth is an existential event in our lives. “When we stick to it that there is truth, we do so with our whole nature, and resolve to stand or fall by its results” (James, WB, 23). I could not have put it any better.

Indeed, we overstep the boundaries of what beliefs can say about God given that our experience of the world is forever incomplete, bound to different purposes and needs, and this incompletion of reality and experience restrains what we may say about what we experience more generally. The very intelligibility of all claims arises not from the fact that our language corresponds to a static eternal reality, but from the effects of an idea. The conceptualization of an idea arises out its effect on human action. We sorely dismiss any idea that we find unsuitable to our present need and purposes (WB, 10). Instead, we hold beliefs for their general efficaciousness suited to our temperament, what James calls the “actual psychology of human opinion” (WB, 4).

Let me be clear. In the space of 2400 words, Simmons did not endorse any positive statement about how we might regard true beliefs and still keep our commitment to a postmodern outlook. He ends,

Postmodern Kataphaticism reminds us of this and helps us to understand that even the most radical apophatic discourse is dependent upon positive claims.  Such claims may or may not be true—hence the need for continued conversation and good arguments—but that they might be true is what is important.  Postmodern apophaticism does not avoid making truth-claims, but it becomes problematically dogmatic and unhelpfully orthodox when it forgets this while criticizing everyone else for doing so.

How does Simmons understand the possibility of arguing for positive claims? The silence on this point is an implication of the exploratory nature of his essay. Simmons is after the possibility of a postmodern kataphaticism, calling about the need to open up a space of exploration in an otherwise dogmatic orthodoxy. I agree. However, in wanting to open up that space, he leaves it rather unclear what undergirds his position. My hope in this brief essay is to call attention to the difficulties that may be present in such a conception. The want for determinative content and the possibility to evaluate the truthfulness of that content is articulated with seemingly traditional notions of truth in mind and the want of postmodernism—all at the same time. One possible way out this conundrum is to adopt more pragmatic conception of truth and belief, and in doing so, the possibility remains that we can preserve the anti-foundational modesty of postmodern inquiry without succumbing to the conceptual tension Simmons is seemingly committed to on the surface.

J. Edward Hackett
Southern Illinois University Carbondale
Department of Philosophy

Bio: I work on the philosophy of religion in William James and Max Scheler. More generally, I am schooled in phenomenology and ethics; I hold a Masters in Analytic Philosophy from Simon Fraser University. I am defending my dissertation, Scheler’s Phenomenological Ontology of Value, next month at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Simmons is a colleague of mine, and we often correspond.


James, William (1896) The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (New York: Dover Publications).  

Pierce, Charles Sanders (1877) “The Fixation of Belief” in The Essential Peirce (eds) Nathan Houser and Christian Kloesel.vol. 1. (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press): 109-23.

Simmons, J. Aaron (2012) “Postmodern Kataphaticism” in The Other Journal.

  • J Aaron Simmons

    Ed, thanks for this response to my notion of postmodern kataphaticism. I will offer a rejoinder to you next week.