On Postmodern Epistemology: A Rejoinder to Hackett

J. Aaron Simmons

Department of Philosophy
Furman University

I would like to begin this short rejoinder to Ed Hackett’s critique of my notion of postmodern kataphaticism by thanking him for his time and energy in responding to my short essay.  What follows is not at all intended to be conclusive, but simply one more move in a conversation that I hope will continue between Hackett and I, and many others, about the possibilities of determinate religion in a postmodern context. I should note that I have written a more substantive defense of postmodern kataphaticism that is forthcoming in Analecta Hermeneutica, so hopefully that more formal essay will go a long way toward addressing other concerns that might remain even after my comments in this rejoinder.

Hackett worries that postmodern kataphaticism might face problems of inconsistency (expressed as a “conceptual tension”) when it comes to the “seemingly traditional notions of truth” that appear to underlie my proposal.  As a positive suggestion, Hackett offers William James’s pragmatic approach to truth as a model that would allow for a postmodern framework and also for determinate truth claims about God. The key difference between “seemingly traditional notions of truth” and a pragmatic approach to truth, Hackett indicates, is the way in which the pragmatist is not concerned with achieving correspondence between a statement and a state of affairs, say, but instead attempts to investigate the practical consequences to one’s existence of holding a particular belief. The epistemic criterion would then be subjective lived-experience rather than an external truth-maker.

Hackett’s worry about a possible inconsistency within postmodern kataphaticism is a serious one, but ultimately no such inconsistency obtains. As I have argued elsewhere regarding the possibility of a postmodern apologetics (Simmons 2012), postmodernism entails far less than Hackett suggests. According to Hackett, though, postmodernism is defined by two “higher-ordered commitments”: “anti-foundationalism and the death of meta-narratives.” Even if he is right about such commitments, it is not obvious how we should understand them.

First, “foundationalism” is not a singular thing. There many different foundationalisms. Even if postmodernism rejects classical foundationalism, whereby justification is achieved only by way of incorrigibility and self-evidence, say, that does not mean that postmodernism rejects all forms of foundationalism as an understanding of the structure of belief and justification. Indeed, I have argued elsewhere (Simmons 2008, chap. 11) that some postmodernists, such as Derrida and Levinas, can quite consistently be read (and perhaps should be read) as displaying a foundationalism of a particular sort: namely, a “modest,” “minimal,” “fallibilist,” or “weak” foundationalism in line with the epistemological work of such thinkers as Scott Aikin (2005), William Alston (1989), Robert Audi (2001), or Nicholas Rescher (2003). Now, that does not mean that postmodernists must be modest foundationalists. There are good reasons to think that the coherence theory of Keith Lehrer, the foundherentism of Susan Haack, or the infinitism of Peter Klein, as just three examples, are all plausible justificatory strategies available to postmodernists. Indeed, Scott Aikin and I have argued that Levinas, especially, is an important resource for debates concerning epistemic infinitism (Simmons and Aikin 2012). That said, it doesn’t work simply to say that postmodernism is anti-foundationalist. We have to make clear which postmodernists and what version of foundationalism we are talking about.

Second, to say that postmodernism affirms the death of meta-narratives is an ambiguous claim. On the one hand, it can be read as an epistemic thesis: since humans cannot get outside of their lived contexts, it is unlikely that metanarratives are going to be the best way of making sense of reality. On the other hand, it can be read as a metaphysical thesis: meta-narratives are false because there is no state of affairs that could be properly described by them. As I see it, the metaphysical thesis assumes the epistemic thesis, but in doing so it faces other problems. Namely, while the metaphysical thesis is certainly possible, it seems also to forget its own commitment to epistemic perspectivalism. Simply put, where would one stand to claim that reality is not available for meta-narratival description? This is my point in the earlier essay about the Kierkegaardian claim that even if existence is not a system for us, it might be a system for God. In order to say that it is not or could not be a system for God we seem to need the very objective perspective on the whole that we lack according to the epistemic resistance to meta-narratives. Indeed, even in Lyotard’s famous claim about postmodernism, he only suggests an “incredulity toward metanarratives,” not a rejection of metanarratives as false. In this way, he stays consistently epistemic rather than inconsistently metaphysical. Let’s distinguish, then, between epistemic postmodernism and metaphysical postmodernism. In Kierkegaardian terms, we might say that epistemic postmodernism is about “how” we relate to reality (i.e., it endorses epistemic humility, inescapable perspective, the role of conceptual metaphors, etc.), and metaphysical postmodernism is about “what” reality there is, or in this case, is not. Metaphysical postmodernism would seem to make a hash out of the very debate about what there is in the first place because it assumes a perspective that has already been put into serious question. Were we to draw upon Merold Westphal, which I do often, we might say that just because we might be limited to lower case-t truth doesn’t mean that “the truth is that there is not Truth.” It very well might be that “the truth is that there is Truth.” Operating internal to epistemic rather than metaphysical postmodernism allows postmodern kataphaticism to leave both of these “truth” claims open.

Importantly, in my earlier essay, I did not say that John Caputo’s account is false, but simply that it is only one alternative among many within postmodern philosophy of religion. What matters is that there can be serious philosophical discussion about those alternatives rather than a quick assumption about the only possibility: that quick assumption is what I term the “apophatic orthodoxy.” This assumption can be motivated by a wide range of things, but in particular I think it is often a result of assuming that anti-foundationalism and the death of meta-narratives straightaway means an abandonment of epistemology, in general, and a decided metaphysical anti-realism that is often taken as being obvious.

That said, I welcome Hackett’s questions about assumed theories of truth within postmodern philosophy of religion. Moreover, I think his suggestion that pragmatism offers important resources to such debates is probably correct (I have made significant use of such neo-pragmatists as Richard Rorty and Hilary Putnam in my own work). Though I would go to Kierkegaard rather than to James for a robust account of the existential importance of truth-seeking, Hackett is right to suggest that holding belief “matters to personal experience and possibilities of future action.” As Kierkegaard puts it, it matters that I find a truth that is “true for me.” Yet, Hackett’s affirmation of the existential importance of truth just reinforces the broader importance of attempting to hold true beliefs in the first place (according to whatever theory of truth one deploys). Maybe the difference that matters between John Caputo and James K.A. Smith is more a matter of the “ways of life” that their account make possible, as Hackett seems to suggest, rather than which account accurately depicts reality. Perhaps. But, if so, then we should be very careful to consider what those ways of life are and how they function—that is, we should get clear on the truth of the matter at hand in order to even ask into the utility of such belief one way or another. Such a discussion, though, should be guided by the expectation that the participants in it are committed to giving good reasons for their claims (as defined internal to the discursive community in which they find themselves) and are willing to revise their claims in light of unmet objections. It seems to me that epistemic postmodernism is a better framework for this than is metaphysical postmodernism. Hence, postmodern kataphaticism is a better way forward than apophatic orthodoxy regardless of whether we then decide in favor of Smith or Caputo, Gianni Vattimo or Alain Badiou, Bruce Ellis Benson or Richard Kearney, or whoever.


Works Cited

Aikin, Scott F. 2005. “Who’s Afraid of Epistemology’s Regress Problem?” Philosophical Studies 126: 191-217.

Alston, William. 1989. Epistemic Justification: Essays in the Theory of Knowledge. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Audi, Robert. 2001. The Architecture of Reason. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Rescher, Nicholas. 2003. Epistemology. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Simmons, J. Aaron. 2011. God and the Other: Ethics and Politics After the Theological Turn. Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press.

Simmons, J.Aaron. 2012. “Apologetics After Objectivity.” In Reexamining Deconstruction and Determinate Religion: Toward a Religion with Religion. Eds., J. Aaron Simmons and Stephen Minister. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 23-59.

Simmons, J. Aaron and Scott F. Aikin. 2012. “Prospects for a Levinasian Epistemic Infinitism.” International Journal of Philosophical Studies. 20, no.3: 437-60.

J. Aaron Simmons :
  • Frederick

    Please find a thoroughly postmodern epistemology, metaphysics & ontology via this extraordinary essay. Check out section 3 in particular.

    Also – following on from Wittgenstein
    Plus this shocking description of what Western civilization in both its secular and so called religious forms, is really all about

    On the fabricated origins and institutional political purposes of the “New” Testament.

  • Ed Hackett

    First, I am delighted that Simmons took the time to have this conversation with me. With excitement, I anticipate the more formal presentation of his idea. Before responding, let me just concede several points.

    Next, I did assume a definition of postmodernism as rooted in Lyotard’s work. With a rather unconscious flare, I assumed this involved a strong repudiation of meta-narratives and the
    anti-realism without distinguishing either the epistemic or metaphysical varieties this might imply. Moreover, I took the Lyotardian notion past simple “incredulity.” Needless to say, the earlier informal piece did not clarify exactly what Simmons meant by postmodernism either, and as such, this starting point is a good place to continue the conversation as I am charged with thinking postmodernism entails less than I think it does.

    Simmons distinguishes between my two higher-order commitments of postmodernism, what I earlier called “the death of metanarratives” and “anti-foundationalism.” I concede he is right. I did not spell out how my audience should understand these terms. He, then, proposes how best to understand postmodernism by addressing my specific concerns. His first response to my conception is that there are many types of foundationalisms, and not all these proposals in their specificity will be like others. I am willing to grant him that. On this he writes,

    “Even if postmodernism rejects classical foundationalism, whereby justification is achieved only by way of incorrigibility and self-evidence, say, that does not mean that postmodernism
    rejects all forms of foundationalism as an understanding of the structure of belief and justification.”

    Classical foundationalism would seemingly include all thinkers of modernity in our standard canon like Descartes, Leibniz or Locke that attempt to ground knowledge in the subject through incorrigibility and self-evidence and just how exactly these factors either depend on experience or not. The point might be that the simple act of “grounding” In fact, the Continental suspicion of classical foundationalism arose as an appropriation of Heidegger’s critique of the metaphysics of presence as in Derrida. For Heidegger, the assumed uniformity of the subject’s constant presence in reflection and the ever-present nature of reality are two beliefs that go unquestioned in the history of Western metaphysics. In effect, we might say that holding these unquestioned assumptions is at the heart of all species of strong foundationalism, even to the point that an uncritical acceptance of a universal subject is the mistake of classical epistemic foundationalism, and assuming the unchanging permanent nature of reality is the mistake of classical metaphysical foundationalism. While Descartes might be a prime example, this scheme could certainly include Plato. Instead, the implication of postmodernism has been to reign in the powers of philosophy from those in the past and to transform it into a deep reflection on the historical situatedness of the subject without thinking that the reflective powers of philosophers can transcend history and language.

    Levinas’s philosophy turns on the simple phenomenological insight that the Other is radically unique and absolute. To speak of an inherent epistemological scheme of justification might
    suggest the very reduction to the “logic of the same.” Levinas saw as a problem in the history of philosophy from the Greeks onward. And while this claim might sound ambiguous, internal to Levinasian philosophy it carries significant weight. If one does not buy into Levinas’s critique of the “logic of the same” and his observations about the entire history of Western thought, then there is little motivation to take his phenomenology of Otherness seriously and understand how Levinas desires to supplant the privilege of epistemology and/or metaphysics with ethics-as-first-philosophy. Simmons knows this all too well; he develops an account of justification in the minimal or modest sense with an account of trust with this Levinasian insight in mind.

    In Simmons 2008, chap. 11, Simmons does not invoke a typical notion of evidence-based criteria for the wanted justification of beliefs. Instead, Simmons relies on what he calls a
    “postfoundational epistemology of trust.” Trust as a social act could include its commitments to, say, the radical otherness of the Other commitment in Levinas without invoking traditional epistemological categories that spurned my earlier worries about exactly postmodern kataphaticism was doing. Indeed, I allowed for the possibility I could be wrong about that initial post by saying that there was a conceptual tension on the surface. So the question now facing
    us is this: Does postmodern kataphatism rely on the gestures made to a postfoundational epistemology of trust, and does that dispose of my worry of inconsistency?

    The decisive moment of Chapter 11 in his God and the Other: Ethics and Politics After the Theological Turn rests on showing the difference between the status of justice in Derrida as different than Rorty. One could possibly say that my worries of inconsistency were motivated by the way Simmons understands Rorty. Derrida calls for a sense of justice that Simmons labels quasi-transcendental. This sense of Justice is an infinite demand made of us, and we are invested in that conception. In his words, “I want to suggest that it [Derrida’s justice] is best understood as a gesture of trust” (p. 237). Compatible with weaker foundationalist approaches like Audi who allows for defeasible foundations to revise themselves rather than secure a distinction between basic and non-basic beliefs, Simmons calls upon the trust displayed in Reformed Epistemology. We are invested in the truth of justice just as much as the Reformed Epistemology regards the belief of God’s existence “is one of trust rather than knowledge” (247). Up front about these limits, what might a postmodern kataphaticism attempt about debates internal to doctrinal difference? How might the determinative content of, say, Catholics versus Presbyterians be handled if there are contentions between two rival beliefs and at stake relies on being on rapport with what God really is. Now even though Simmons
    accepts this postfoundational epistemology of trust, “trust in God is not something that excuses the believer from her epistemic duties” (247). At least at the surface again, we are back again at the fact that there is something like epistemic duties without a story about how to fulfill those duties about the determinative content of rival beliefs. What is different is that we have some provisional acceptance of a hermeneutic circle or a weak foundationalism
    that eschews my earlier concerns.

    I don’t want to push this concern too far in Simmons works because this is a comment, and an intention to open up exactly what postmodern kataphaticism is without having read the formal presentation of the idea. The purpose of the blog is to open up conversation. I’ll stop here for now and see if he picks up on anything he would like to share.