January 7, 2012 / The Church & Postmodern Culture
This Christmas season I had the privilege of attending a memorial service, a vigil in …
October 18, 2011
It is tough to still think, a hundred years into the linguistic turn, that philosophy is much in charge of anything: growing the food, overseeing the menu, preparing the meal, or even serving it up. But philosophy can still help us chew on things. It can be a second stomach that helps digest the kinds of ideas we’re growing, the kinds of machines we’re building, the kinds of societies we’re composing, the kinds of poetry we’re writing, the kinds of love we’re making.
Philosophy can, as Alain Badiou puts it, help us think the “compossibility” of our ideas—ideas that we can’t predict, order, or control—and then fashion concepts that “weave a general space in which thought accedes to time, to its time.”
If Continental philosophy of religion is headed someplace different in our time, it will be because we have begun to incorporate new and different kinds of materials. A steady and disciplined diet of Heidegger, Levinas, and Derrida has given us our current pallor and lean figure. For my part, I think the field should loosen its belt. It should eat more and with greater variety. In the future, I imagine it looking more like a rotund and laughing Buddha than a svelte European fashion model.
What, in particular, will be different? I see the future of Continental philosophy of religion as shaped by a growing acknowledgement of four conditions: (1) that math thinks, (2) that science thinks, (3) that America thinks, and (4) that I think.
1. Math Thinks
Continental philosophers should do more math. Even if it isn’t what Heidegger meant, it has been a popular trope in the field that, unlike poetry, math does not think. Math denudes being. Math is derivative. Math is a kind of linguistic parlor game. Math is just so much stacking and calculating.
It would be a shot in the arm for Continental philosophy if we were to collectively acknowledge that math thinks, that it’s worth our time, that it’s rigor and formality bear immense strength and creativity, and that a Cantor and a Gödel may be worth as much as a Hölderlin and a Trakl.
Ironically, as Badiou has demonstrated, this may be especially true when mulling religious issues.
With Levinas and Derrida in the lead, Continental philosophy of religion has been circling the problem of infinity for generations. How much of what’s been written in the past 60 years boils down to this one issue? How many journals? How many conferences?
Leave it to Badiou to raise his hand and point out one small problem: working with an Aristotelian notion of infinity as transcendent, singular, negative, potential, and indefinite, we have almost entirely ignored 150 years of epoch-making work done by Georg Cantor et. al to re-cast infinity as immanent, multiple, positive, actual, and articulatable. Imagine, Badiou says, scientists still working with Aristotelian notions of physics or biology! Why are philosophers still working with an obsolete, Aristotelian notion of infinity?
“What is infinity, or more exactly, the unlimited?” Badiou asks. “For a Greek, it is the negation of presentation itself, because what-presents-itself affirms its being within the strict disposition of limits.” But in Cantor’s hands infinity is no longer synonymous with a gesture of transcendent withdrawal. Rather, his “audacity lay in ex-centering the use of this concept . . . towards a characterization of being-qua-beings: nature, the moderns said, is infinite.” Infinity, Cantor demonstrated, is thinkable. It has an immanent, intelligible logic of its own that is fit for describing the contours of this world, here and now.
Making just this one point, Badiou opens an enormous field of labor for Continental philosophy of religion. Keeping God’s traditional association with infinity in play, what would happen were we to experimentally translate the whole of Western theology into a modern, Cantorian idiom of transfinite sets? What would happen to grace, to sin, to love? What would happen to creation, to fall, to redemption? What would be the same and what would be different?
2. Science Thinks
Continental philosophers should read more science. Continental philosophy, faithful to its phenomenological and semiotic insights, has long shouldered the burden of an assumed anti-realism. The antipathy that exists between science and Continental thought grows primarily from this.
Continental philosophers, confident that the deferred and differential constitution of experience makes all human knowing provisional and relational, are suspicious of scientific declarations about hard, objective facts. Scientists, confident that they tangle on a daily basis with actual objects that are not neatly separated from us by a film of epistemological artifice, are in turn suspicious of Continental declarations that “there is nothing outside the text.”
Both sides should spend more time with Bruno Latour. Latour grants from the start that science thinks and that scientists are right to claim that their work is not intelligible in terms of anti-realism. But Latour also grants that Continental insights into the plural and differential character of experience are accurate. Latour wins a prize for showing how these two positions are not incompatible.
The problem is twofold: (1) Continental philosophers have mistaken their own position as epistemological when it is actually ontological, and (2) scientists have assumed that reality, in order to be real, had to possess an underlying, preformatted unity that it doesn’t. Remove these stumbling blocks and you get a robust epistemological realism coupled with a messy ontological pluralism: the world shows up as provisional, plural, contextual, and relational not because that’s how humans happen to know it but because that’s how objects actually are.
Latour’s point is Cantorian in spirit. We’ve been happily smashing all the philosophical idols we find in the Holy of Holies, but we haven’t been able to confess that guarding the purity of that empty space may itself be idolatrous. We’ve been hanging on to a classical assumption that cripples our thinking: the assumption that the world’s tangle of only partially compatible sets veils an absent but original unity. We mistake the divine work of piecing things together for the work of piecing things back together.
Scientists and philosophers alike have taken this same bait. Scientists have assumed that they can get their hands on this firm, underlying unity and philosophers have assumed that it’s impossible to dig down that far. The first is a kind of naïve realism, the latter a kind of anti-realism. But both share the same pre-Cantorian assumption of underlying unity and compatibility. The world is one, not many. They just differ about whether it can be reached.
But what if the world, at root, is multiple? What if, while capable of local unity, it is not one? What if we no longer demanded that God star in our ontotheological theater as the guarantor of an underlying unity? That is, what if God no longer had to guarantee either the possibility or impossibility of touching this unity, not because there is no way to guarantee it but because it doesn’t exist? What if we let the naïve-realism/anti-realism pair collapse into the just plain realism of a Cantorian space filled with a multitude of only partially nestable sets?
If believing in God no longer amounted to believing that he either did or did not have his finger in the ontological dike, what would believing in God look like?
Borrowing from Latour, I’ve been speculating – but however one gets there it seems to me that the future of Continental philosophy lies jointly with science and realism. Too much is happening: too many advances in biology, too much new cosmology, too many discoveries in neuroscience, too much new technology, too much raw information is now available for us to even appear to stick with the blithe antipathy of a fashionable anti-realism.
3. America Thinks
It is symptomatic that, here in America, some of us do “Continental” philosophy. This locution names the way our work is legitimately indebted to a particular line of European thinkers, but it also names the way that we non-Europeans are often hesitant to speak in our own names. Our work tends to unfold as thrice removed commentary on Europeans who are, in turn, reading someone else. Continental philosophy is methodologically Talmudic in this respect. As a result, looking for something new to happen in the field can mean waiting for the next big thing to cross the Atlantic or, more proactively, scouring the Continent ourselves for new philosophers to elevate, admire, and imitate.
Of this kind of thing, Emerson says in “The American Scholar”:
Perhaps the time is already come when it [American thought] ought to be, and will be something else; when the sluggard intellect of this continent will look from under its iron lids and fill the postponed expectation of the world with something better than the exertions of mechanical skill. Our day of dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a close. The millions around us that are rushing into life, cannot always be fed on the sere remains of foreign harvests.
The question is pointed, but where are our homegrown schools of “Continental” thought? We may be good at getting pollinated by our European friends, but where’s the cross-pollination?
The future of Continental philosophy of religion lies in the recognition—by Americans in particular—that America, too, thinks. Our apprenticeship, however beneficial, needs to end. It is time to graduate and work as peers. “Confidence in the unsearched might of man belongs, by all motives, by all prophecy, by all preparation, to the American Scholar. We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe. The spirit of the American free-man is already suspected to be timid, imitative, tame.”
The benchmark for equality is straightforward: when Europeans in the Continental tradition start imitating books written by contemporary American thinkers in the Continental tradition, the situation will have changed. If I’m not mistaken, this day has not yet come. Still, it won’t come until we determine, as Emerson urges, that “we will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds.”
4. I Think
Phenomenology is the backbone of the Continental tradition. The strength of phenomenology is that it empowers us to begin thinking from the seat of our own experience. The irony of phenomenology is that it often proceeds simply by reading and commenting on other people’s phenomenological accounts. It is entirely conceivable that one could spend a lifetime working as an expert in the field without ever doing any first-person phenomenology.
As Thoreau puts it, “there are now-a-days professors of philosophy but not philosophers.” Phenomenology appeals because, when conducted in the first person, it can bridge this gap between the ordinary business of philosophy as a profession and the classical ideal of philosophy as a way of life.
“To be a philosopher,” Thoreau continues, “is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life not only theoretically, but practically.” Were we to be philosophers and phenomenologists rather than just professors we would have to heed Thoreau’s advice and take our own bodies and minds as grounds for philosophy. Laying aside other concerns, we would have to “find it labor enough to subdue and cultivate a few cubic feet of flesh.”
This is easier said than done. There are, of course, phenomenological autodidacts, but it’s not necessary to start from scratch. Contemplative disciplines, especially those cultivated in Buddhist practices like vipassana and zazen, may be the key to invigorating the Continental practice of phenomenology as something other than commentary. Contemplative practices and phenomenological investigation dovetail for a field of research concerned both with religion and Continental thought.
It takes training, patience, and practice to examine with sustained and searching attention the content and character of one’s own first person experience. These contemplative traditions have dedicated millennia to teaching, exploring, adapting, and refining strategies and techniques for penetrating first person phenomenological investigation. In the Mahasatipatthana Sutta, the Buddha’s own introduction to vipassana (or “insight” meditation) as a kind of phenomenological practice looks like this:
The direct path for the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sadness and distress, for the cessation of unease and depression, for finding the way, and for the direction realization of unbinding is this: the application of present-moment awareness in four areas. What are the four areas? Now being ardent, fully aware, and mindful, and having put down longing and discontent toward the world, you should live observing the body in and as body, live observing the feelings in and as feelings, live observing mind in and as mind, live observing mental qualities and phenomena in and as mental qualities and phenomena.
In relation to this four-fold framework, the Buddha goes on to give detailed descriptions of twenty-one distinguishable practices of phenomenological investigation. The instructions are clear and precise. Such fearless first-person investigation not only exposes the practitioner to the nature of body and mind but, as the Buddha claims, the investigative work can itself be liberating in a deeply practical way.
Granted that contemplative practices like these are generally religious in character, the business of training and coordinating the work of first-person phenomenologists may naturally be the provenance of Continental philosophy of religion. But the benefits would likely accrue for the discipline as a whole. For my part, the future of Continental philosophy of religion ought to involve this kind of lived return to the things themselves.
Philosophy is what it eats. I imagine the field being different in the future because I imagine that we’ll be consuming more and different things. Heidegger, yes. Levinas, yes. Derrida, yes. But a tax should be imposed. For every three hours spent on Heidegger, one should be spent learning statistics. For every three days spent on Levinas, one should be spent investigating, first-person, walking. For every three weeks spent on Derrida, one should be spent with The Journal of Neuroscience. Once through Being and Time should be matched by going once through Stephen Jay Gould’s The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. Once though Totality and Infinity should be matched by going once through The Visuddhimagga. Once through Of Grammatology should be matched by going once through Walden.
Non-European, realist, mathematically literate, scientifically savvy, first-person phenomenologists might then end up flooding the field. God help them, if they do.
 Alain Badiou, Manifesto for Philosophy, trans. Norman Madarasz (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999), 38.
 Alain Badiou, Being and Event, trans. Oliver Feltham (London: Continuum Press, 2005), 74.
 Ibid., 143.
 Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The American Scholar,” in The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson (New York: The Modern Library, 2000), 43.
 Ibid., 59.
 Ibid., 59.
 Henry David Thoreau, Walden, in Walden and Other Writings (New York: The Modern Library, 1992), 14.
 Ibid., 14.
 Ibid., 5.
 Glenn Wallis, Basic Teachings of the Buddha (New York: The Modern Library, 2007), 57.