Hierarchy and infinite regress

I’ve written before on the Christian tradition’s fear of infinite regress. Now for various reasons, I’m thinking about the ontological hierarchy so prized by our Radical Orthodox friends and wonder if that, too, is in part motivated by a fear of infinite regress, in the form of a vicious circle.

As readers of Pseudo-Dionysius will recall, in the hierarchy appointed by God, the “higher” members minister to the “lower” members, mediating God’s goodness to them and thereby bringing them to the highest level they are able to attain. To a certain extent, then, the higher beings are “for” the lower, but at the same time they can’t receive anything from those lower beings — that is to say, the lower beings’ relationship to God is determined by its mediation through the higher beings, but not vice versa, or at least not in the same way. Thus while beings in a hierarchical ontology as opposed to a monadic or individualistic ontology are determined by relation, there is no real possibility of mutual determination. Relationships are unidirectional, all stemming ultimately from God as the “master signifier” of the chain. No infinite regress occurs because everything flows from God down the chain, with no “circles” of mutual determination anywhere along the line.

It would be easy to collapse this hierarchical scheme into a monadic one where everything stands in unmediated relationship to God, and I for one can’t think of a reason why the hierarchical approach would be obviously preferable to the monadic. A relational ontology, including mutual determination, seems to me to be obviously preferable to both — from the perspective of such an ontology, both would indeed fall into the same category. Of course, a thorough-going relational ontology would ultimately have to displace God as “master signifier” as well, allowing God and creation to be mutually determined — a move that in Christian theology shouldn’t be too much of a stretch given that God’s own “internal” life is supposed to be one of mutual determination among the trinitarian persons. (Moltmann’s later work moves in this direction.)

Of course, this whole line of thinking only works if hierarchy really does exclude mutual determination. It seems to me that if hierarchy was thought in terms of mutual determination, it would fail to be hierarchy at all — it’s not like a general has to take a vote among his troops before making a decision, for instance. But maybe I’m wrong.

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15 Responses to “Hierarchy and infinite regress”

  1. Joe Says:

    I agree with what you say about hierarchy as the unidirectional mediation of God’s will or goodness or whathaveyou. Howver, there’s a Zen saying that when the student steps forth, the teacher arises. There’s also Marx’s example of the co-dependent constitution of a king and his subjects, and Lacan’s twist on this that the king who thinks he’s a king is as mad as the non-king madman who thinks the same thing.

    I’m also reminded of Nietzsche’s comment on the Laws of Manu and Hindu castes in The Anti-Christ: “‘The world is perfect,’ – thus speaks the instinct of the most spiritual, the affirmative instinct – ‘imperfection, everything beneath us, distance between man and man, the pathos of this distance, the Chandala themselves pertain to this perfection'” (section 57).

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I really don’t know what to do with your quotes from other religions, but I agree that actual existing hierarchies aren’t unidirectional — because the world simply isn’t structured in such a way for that to be possible. That’s the root problem of the hierarchical and monadic views — they don’t actually describe the world, and attempts to make the world conform to them are destructive.

  3. Joe Says:

    Right. I was mostly commenting on your last paragraph and your suggestion of hierarchies that allow for mutual determination. I think there is something to this.

    Take the story of the two women who come to Solomon fighting over a baby they both think is theirs. His solution is to cut the baby in half and give a piece to each. One of the women rejects the idea in horror and says the other woman can have it, but that other woman insists on Solomon’s idea. Solomon, seeing who the real mother was, ends up giving the baby to the first woman.

    We understand why, because the real mother is not interested in the baby as an object of ownership but a living being she values, but the other woman’s response shows how Solomon’s “wisdom of God” is wholly dependent on those coming to him to seek it. That other woman simply repeats Solomon and heartily endorses it, we might assume because she feels Solomon is wise and knows what he’s talking about, but also because she’s selfishly concerned with getting her piece of the pie (as it were). This is also an example of that ressentiment Zizek talks about in Violence that would hurt oneself if it could hurt the other (“But the other [woman] said, Let it be neither mine nor thine, but divide it” (Kings 1 3:26). The first woman rejects Solomon’s wisdom though, and on compassionate grounds, which is really the source of his decision.

  4. Alex Says:

    I’d never understood why the woman who doesn’t get the baby in the end is bothering to squabble about it in the first place if when its clear she doesn’t care if it is chopped in half. After all, half a baby isn’t a baby, the source of the original dispute.

    Don’t know what this has to do with hierachy though.

  5. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    “Of course, this whole line of thinking only works if hierarchy really does exclude mutual determination. It seems to me that if hierarchy was thought in terms of mutual determination, it would fail to be hierarchy at all — it’s not like a general has to take a vote among his troops before making a decision, for instance.”

    Well, I think you may be right in terms of social hierarchy, but ecology does use the idea of hierarchy in this way. If you wanted, though I wouldn’t necessarily suggest it, you could look at Salthe’s Evolving Hierarchical Systems.

  6. adamsteward Says:

    Don’t we find what your looking for in American democracy? Here we have hierarchy of power that derives its “mandate to rule” from popular vote, but which mediates the populace’s relationship (perception, desire, etc.) to themselves through the media.

    Also, although I don’t claim to fully understand what they mean by it, are Foucault and Agamben getting at something similar when they talk about the dispersal of power in biopolitics?

  7. Adam Kotsko Says:

    No, we don’t find what I’m looking for in American democracy, because I’m not looking for a “soft” hierarchy.

  8. Daniel Says:

    “I’d never understood why the woman who doesn’t get the baby in the end is bothering to squabble about it in the first place if when its clear she doesn’t care if it is chopped in half. After all, half a baby isn’t a baby, the source of the original dispute.”

    I always took it that the other woman just really didn’t want the mother to have her baby. Thus the “neither mine nor thine” — she doesn’t want to possess the baby herself so much as she wants the mother not to possess it.

    I don’t know what this has to do with hierarchy, either.

  9. Joe Clement Says:

    I already said what it has to do with hierarchy. Both of the women are Solomon’s subordinates, and come to him to resolve their dispute. The “other woman” illustrates a hierarchy that is unidirectional, because she simply parrots Solomon’s decision. The true mother, while taking Solomon just as seriously as the other woman, rejects Solomon’s judgement not as a matter of asserting herself over Solomon, but by withdrawing her own selfish stake in the dispute in order that Solomon’s order is not necessary. Solomon’s ultimate judgement, as we all know, is based on the difference of the true mother’s response to his initial judgement. The true mother manifests the wisdom of God, though it takes Solomon to point it out and make if effective.

    The true mother’s response is not all too unlike Zizek’s talk of social habits, which is really a pretty everyday experience: I do something offensive to a friend and say I’m sorry. They usually might say “Oh, no apology is necessary,” but only after we’ve apologized. Likewise, the two women bring their problem to Solomon, he says what he says, and the true mother says “Oh, that’s not really necessary.” Admittedly, it’s all a very minimal hierarchy, arguably of master and slave, but I think it goes much further AND its an example of mutual determination in a hierarchy.

  10. Adam Kotsko Says:

    No, I don’t think you’re reading the story right. The lying woman has done something to disrupt society, and the king’s job is to set it right. It’s not as though he sincerely suggests cutting the baby in half and is stunned when one of the women objects — he orchestrates the whole scene in order to uncover the deception and set things right. What’s more, all the glory redounds to Solomon and how wise he is. The true mother is doing nothing more than her duty, what any mother would do.

    I’ve already conceded that fully unidirectional determination is impossible in real life, even in (attempted) hierarchies. So it’s no surprise that the women “determine” Solomon in the sense of giving him information necessary for his decision — but the whole story is set up in order to minimize the lower people’s determination and make everything flow to the glory of the king. The most it can do is minimize it, not eliminate it, because the world is in fact fully relational and you can’t get rid of relationship (monadism) or make it truly unidirectional (hierarchy).

  11. Lee Says:

    This is interesting. Does process theology get at the kind of mutual determination you have in mind here? Though even in most process thought God retains an eternal essence that is untouched, even if the “consequent” aspect–is that right terminology?–is affected by what creatures do.

    So I wonder, then, if Christian theology would ever be able to rid itself of hierarchy entirely since God, after all, is responsible for bringing created being into existence, and that continues to be the case even if creatures are then able to affect/enrich the divine life.

  12. Joe Clement Says:

    I never thought Solomon was serious about cutting the baby in half, nor probably are we as an audience expected to believe it either. Although comparing this story to the Zen koan about “Nansen and the cat,” where a similar dispute over a cat is resolved by a threat to cut the cat in half, though the threat is made good, makes me think harder on that. I never suggested Solomon was stunned by the true mother’s response either. My whole point is that “he orchestrates the whole scene in order to uncover the deception,” but that his plan is not one with a clear outcome, is not guaranteed by his position (in itself or as a man of God), though the efficacy of his judgement nonetheless functions because of his position.

    You want to relegate the true mother’s response to “what any mother would do,” but clearly not any mother would do this. We are dealing with two mothers after all, and I think a certain dose of contemporary commonsense about motherly love is applicable here: it’s not just about your own kids, but kids in general. That is to say, there’s a different significance to the other woman’s response that has to do with how Solomon’s initial judgement is taken. The other mother’s acceptance of Solomon’s initial judgement illustrates the absurdity and complete unworkability (you may say impossibility) of the unidirectional hierarchy. This is probably the better reason to see this story as a commentary on hierarchy and how we insulate ourselves from responsibility with it, and not just “what any mother would do.”

  13. Adam Kotsko Says:

    This whole exchange about the Solomon story seems to be reaching a point of diminishing returns. I understand what you’re saying and how it relates to hierarchy. I just think you’re forcing a very strong and non-obvious reading onto the story, making it say more than it really says.

    Where do I say that the whole story is simply about “what any mother would do”? The story is clear — the woman who accepts the cutting in half is not the real mother. She has in fact stolen the baby, and Solomon wisely figures out a way to reveal that fact beyond a simple “she said, she said.” Order is then restored — the child is with the rightful mother. His ability to discern the way to restore the proper order is the measure of his wisdom as a ruler.

    If you want to read all this other stuff about the critique of hierarchy into it, go to it — but at least acknowledge the common-sense reading of the story, or the “guardrail of traditional criticism.”

  14. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Here is the actual text of the story from 1 Kings 3:16-28, if anyone doesn’t remember clearly:

    Later, two women who were prostitutes came to the king and stood before him. One woman said, ‘Please, my lord, this woman and I live in the same house; and I gave birth while she was in the house. Then on the third day after I gave birth, this woman also gave birth. We were together; there was no one else with us in the house, only the two of us were in the house. Then this woman’s son died in the night, because she lay on him. She got up in the middle of the night and took my son from beside me while your servant slept. She laid him at her breast, and laid her dead son at my breast. When I rose in the morning to nurse my son, I saw that he was dead; but when I looked at him closely in the morning, clearly it was not the son I had borne.’ But the other woman said, ‘No, the living son is mine, and the dead son is yours.’ The first said, ‘No, the dead son is yours, and the living son is mine.’ So they argued before the king.

    Then the king said, ‘One says, “This is my son that is alive, and your son is dead”; while the other says, “Not so! Your son is dead, and my son is the living one.” ’ So the king said, ‘Bring me a sword’, and they brought a sword before the king. The king said, ‘Divide the living boy in two; then give half to one, and half to the other.’ But the woman whose son was alive said to the king—because compassion for her son burned within her—‘Please, my lord, give her the living boy; certainly do not kill him!’ The other said, ‘It shall be neither mine nor yours; divide it.’ Then the king responded: ‘Give the first woman the living boy; do not kill him. She is his mother.’ All Israel heard of the judgement that the king had rendered; and they stood in awe of the king, because they perceived that the wisdom of God was in him, to execute justice

  15. Dave Belcher Says:

    I had a big long comment typed up, that I decided to wait to send, so I copied it…then my computer literally just restarted on me when I went to get something to eat from the kitchen, thus erasing the saved copy.

    By the time I came back to re-write my comment I got so exasperated by all the stuff with Solomon and the half-and-half baby that I gave up…so, in brief Adam, I think this is basically right on, but I would want to be more careful about an espousal of Moltmann’s social trinitarianism (especially as an analogate for “mutually determinative” human relationships)….

    I should say more, but I’m being lazy….if there is actually interst in what I mean, I’ll say more.


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