Book Symposium: Futurity in Phenomenology – “The Politics of Epistempology,” DeRoo Responds to Simmons
Below is Neal DeRoo’s response to the first review of his book Futurity in Phenomenology in our Book Symposium by J. Aaron Simmons.
Neal DeRoo is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Dordt College (Sioux Center, IA). In addition to writing Futurity in Phenomenology, he has co-edited several works in phenomenology and philosophy of religion, including Cross and Khora: Deconstruction and Christianity in the Work of John D. Caputo, The Logic of Incarnation: James K.A. Smith’s Critique of Postmodern Religion, Phenomenology and Eschatology: Not Yet in the Now, and Merleau-Ponty at the Limits of Art, Religion and Perception.
Re-formation and the Politics of Epistemology
I would like to begin by thanking J. Aaron Simmons for his response to Futurity in Phenomenology. He allows the book to speak on its own terms, while also pushing it into contact with the broader social, academic and cultural world in which the book was produced. In doing so, he helped me think through the book, and not merely think about the book. I am grateful for this in no small part because I take one of the weak points of the book to be the fact that it does not clearly lay out the concrete implications of the argument it contains. I might phrase it this way: the book is a careful preparation of the ground of phenomenological inquiry, but it never spells out explicitly what that ground has been prepared for; if the book does, indeed, help us re-consider the purpose, function and understanding of phenomenology itself (see 140), it does not lay out in nearly the same detail what the reconsidered phenomenology can do for us. And Simmons has helpfully opened the door here for me to begin to speak to that—and for that I thank him.
Simmons raises two distinct avenues where he’d like to see the argument of the book used: first, in concrete political life; and second, in epistemological inquiry (perhaps including some attempt to bridge the “Analytic-Continental Divide”). Since Simmons focuses his response largely on the latter, let’s begin there. First, I think Simmons is correct that one ought not read “nonepistemological phenomenology” as if it implied a phenomenology devoid of epistemological considerations. What is at stake is, as he well notes, a question of priority, not of exclusion. But this question of priority is not itself merely an epistemological issue. That is, challenging the primacy of epistemology does not just free us up to acknowledge that there must be “a variety of ways of making sense of” the givenness of phenomena; the upshot is not just that we must recognize that some phenomena (the face of the Other, the trace of God, the event, etc.) present themselves to us in ways that “challenge the supremacy of epistemic consideration itself”; it does not just help us acknowledge that “epistemic dimensions require being located and challenged by ethical and/or ethico-religious interruption.” Rather, the implications of the priority of something else over the epistemological is that epistemology itself is constituted by non- (or pre-) epistemological concerns: epistemology does not get to be the self-made ground which can only be ‘interrupted’ by other things; epistemology must acknowledge that it, too, is founded upon decisions, actions, intentions, or institutions that cannot, ultimately, be justified epistemologically. At its root, one cannot give (epistemological) reasons for one’s epistemological foundation.
This is not news to epistemology. The “Reformed Epistemologists” (Plantinga, Wolterstorff, etc.) have been arguing, at least since the 1980s (if not earlier), that proper human cognitive functioning requires a groundwork of basic beliefs that cannot themselves be justified, except after the fact. Indeed, all the way back to Wittgenstein in the early 20th century, epistemology seems to have been aware of this kind of claim, and “post-analytic” philosophers like Quine and Davidson have built off it. But I think phenomenology introduces two new things into that debate of the meta-epistemological foundations of epistemology: first, the ethical imperative at the root of those foundations; and second, the need for (quasi-)transcendental analysis. On the first issue, the presuppositions of epistemology are promises or injunctions, not merely concepts or ideas (see p. 142, and 186n.8). These presuppositions, as promises, are not only given to us for our use and evaluation, but (and here we begin to get at the second move) constitute us in such a way that they imply a certain ethical force to thinking in this way rather than that way. To say, as Simmons rightly does, that “ethics opens the very space for epistemology” is to say more than that our being situated in a culture (i.e., with other people) opens up the possibility or necessity of giving reasons; it is also to say that the reasons we are called on to give are justified by us, and not us by them. The sphere of reason-giving is not self-justifying. Reasons, in other words, are not compelling apart from the socio-cultural milieu in which they operate. It is that milieu which, ultimately, is compelling or not compelling. Reasons offered within it can be more or less compelling within that milieu, and can be more or less coherent with that milieu, but they cannot justify that milieu itself.
So I disagree with Simmons’ claim that the “nonepistemological dimension is only something that can be presented, accounted for, explained, outlined, etc., by engaging in epistemic discourse.” This does not mean I reject the notion of giving reasons per se—I merely am suspicious of how long we can go on giving reasons: at some point, our reasons themselves must be justified by appeal to something fundamentally non-epistemological.
The notion of the promise developed in phenomenology helps us see that the de-prioritizing of reasons need not leave us in a relativistic quagmire that is ultimately hopeless, meaningless, arbitrary and nihilistic. Realizing the (quasi) transcendental move inherent with phenomenology helps us acknowledge that who we are in our very abilities is constituted by the tradition we find ourselves in. This, in turn, allows us to acknowledge our own historical situatedness (we are who we are because of where, when, and with whom we are), without this meaning that we are condemned merely to repeat or re-enact our past. Because not only are we the promise, but we also agree to take up the promise in our life, our tradition becomes something we live out of but not something we are trapped in. Our tradition is something that positively enables us to do things we would not otherwise be able to do, and it does so because it is the product of the actions of human beings, like us. Our tradition—while immensely formative of who we are—is itself formed. As such, the milieu or tradition in which we find ourselves is immensely important: it will shape the very things we see as possible, the very reasons we will find convincing, the ideas we will find reasonable. But it does not wholly determine us, because it is not itself wholly determined, and therefore while our tradition or milieu may not be able to be abandoned, it can be re-formed.
This notion of re-formation has important consequences for both epistemology and political life. For epistemology, it suggests that the primary epistemological agent might be corporate and historical (the community, the tradition) rather than individual. Due to this corporate nature, issues of ethics, politics, and historical development cannot be separated, de jure, from epistemological questions. While I’m not familiar enough with the state of contemporary discussions of epistemology to know what impact these suggestions might have there, they seem like the point of departure for the kind of “phenomenological intervention into epistemology” that Simmons calls for (and which I also endorse).
And the re-formation of tradition also speaks to the concerns about political life that Simmons is “deeply interested” in. He asks if the account of phenomenology as a promissory discipline “yields a surprisingly conservative approach to governance and social institutions” or whether it “invites a radical political vision of perpetual change.” The notion of re-formation, however, is neither conservative nor radical. Against the conservative reading, it emphasizes that the tradition is itself constituted, formed, by the work and acts of people like me, and that I must take up the project of the tradition as my own project (indeed, as my own life, since I am the promise), not merely to repeat it, but to live it forward and to re-shape and revisit the tradition. Contra the radical reading, the notion of the promise accentuates that change happens within a tradition, not upon a tradition: change is precisely re-forming a tradition that has been formed, not casting out one ‘way it is’ for a competing vision of the ‘way it is.’ Change is not revolutionary, but reformational.
Concretely, this implies that the way to work for change is to appeal to something within the tradition in order to make changes in that tradition. This is probably not news to frequenters of this particular website: we know that, if we want to change the church’s view of postmodernism, for example, citing Derrida or Caputo or Zizek will not work nearly as well, with most Christians, as citing the Bible (or maybe Augustine, who is in the unique place of being both hip and square at the same time). But understanding phenomenology along the lines of the promise can help us see that this is not a matter of “mere rhetoric.” One does not just appeal to promises inherent within a tradition to be more convincing, or to increase one’s favor with that group; one does it because, ultimately, that is the only way to be convincing, epistemologically and politically. And this not because all politics is, at its basis, epistemology (as if politics were mainly a realm for the weighing of ideologies on the basis of their rational merit), but because epistemology is, at its basis, politics (or, if you prefer, ethics). Ultimately, the ‘validity’ of my argument is tied, in necessary ways, to my validity as a trustworthy member of a community or tradition. Inference and deduction are secondary to trustworthiness, as much in epistemology as in politics or ethics.
The call of the promise is, I think, always re-formational, rather than reactionary or revolutionary. I therefore fully agree with Simmons that such reformation is needed in epistemology, as much as anywhere else. But I’m not convinced that phenomenology will revolutionize epistemology in a way that analytic epistemology never could do on its own. Phenomenology may help epistemology re-discover elements of its own tradition that were already present (if undervalued), and it may help analytic epistemology think about things in a way it does not currently think about them. Both of these are good things, so I am decidedly not saying that there is no point in placing phenomenology into contact with analytic epistemology (or placing any tradition in contact with another tradition, for that matter). But we should not hope that one tradition will somehow ‘save’ another from itself (and I don’t think that Simmons has this hope, let me be clear). If phenomenology is to prove helpful for analytic epistemology, it will be because it is able to aid in the on-going process of re-formation that already characterizes the analytic tradition in its best forms.
This is significant as we talk about connecting the tradition of the church with the tradition of postmodern thinking: if we want postmodernism to “catch on” in the church, we have to be sure that our reason for wanting that is that it will help the church be the church, and not because it will help the church be something else (more palatable to me, more ‘relevant’ to society, etc.). We have to be trustworthy as church members, before people in the church will trust the theories and ideas we are espousing. That is to say, postmodernism has to help us re-form the church, rather than revolutionize it.