No, really, what does Christian theology want from philosophy?

Back in 2009 I asked the question, “what does (certain) contemporary Christian theology want from philosophy?” No one from among the “certain” Christian theologians answered the question. Hardly surprising, as they rarely do answer questions, or engage outside of their own very closed circles. Perhaps it has to do with something about pearls before swine or, just maybe, something about cockroaches scattering when you turn the light on them (I’ll allow the reader to choose their preferred speciesist insult). Without anyone willing to answer, I still have the question rattling around. Recently a few friends and acquaintances on Facebook have been raving about David Bentley Hart’s recent The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss and exchanging Christian high-fives about how Hart has really given it to those stupid, incoherent (new?) atheist materialists. I admit it, something about Christian triumphalism in a world bleeding under Christian knives means I couldn’t help but make a few jokes and ask a few aggressive questions. Now, I have never enjoyed reading Hart (his prose so often praised by other Christian theologians has struck me as bloated and pompously overblown, typical of an aggressive 16 year-old overachiever) and I haven’t touched his most recent books (after trudging through the burnt husk of a body that was his reading of Deleuze in The Beauty of the Infinite I had used up all the charity I had for his work), but this question is not really one about Hart in general. Rather, the question has to do with the kind of general condition of the kind of contemporary Christian theology that Hart and others do. When I see a book like The Experience of God or a recent article in Modern Theology by Aaron Riches called “Christology and Anti-Humanism” I cannot help but wonder, who are they writing for?

While I haven’t read Hart’s recent work, and likely won’t (my life is finite after all and I have books that actually bring me bliss sitting on my shelves), I did recently read through Riches article. I am going to use this article to highlight a number of problems present in the attempt to engaged with philosophy by contemporary Christian theology and foremost amongst them, I am claiming, is the problem of audience.

Riches article is ostensibly an orthodox Catholic response to “anti-humanism” of “Speculative Realism” (always capitalized by Riches in the article, referring, I suppose, to what he takes as a proper school of thought). In many ways it is better than some of the works of his teachers and cohorts. One doesn’t have an image of an overly aggressive, drunken, wild-eyed man, spittle collecting at the corners of his mouth, shouting that “Meillassoux has the ontology of an abortionist!” But, it is precisely on this issue of abortion that the entire essay pivots, though to catch this one needs to pay attention to the footnotes. The threat of anti-humanism is couched, for Riches, in the posthuman condition where suddenly the blending of technology and non-human animals with humans is the norm (setting aside that, frankly, it is true that human beings do not exist in a vacuum, that the domestication of human beings by their technology and by animals is an observable historical phenomenon, that the wider biosphere matters for the existence of human beings, etc.). He puts it somewhat hyberbolically, writing “The broader cultural consequence of this destablisation is evidenced, for example, in the way it is increasingly uncontroversial for someone to argue in favour of ‘animal rights’, while defending the morality of infanticide, euthanasia, and the destruction of human lives that do not exhibit ‘rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness’.” Here Riches is quoting and referencing Peter Singer, who most of you will know is a utilitarian ethicist. This is the first weirdness of the engagement with philosophy undertaken here. For Riches is, again, ostensibly giving the Catholic response to the the supposed anti-humanism of speculative realism, and yet we begin with Peter Singer whose work has a certain antipathy towards metaphysics, before then touching briefly touching on eliminative materialism, and then turning to Ray Brassier and Quentin Meillassoux, who are supposed to be the paragons of speculative realism, before finally turning to Badiou (and Althusser, and Foucault) as somehow another example of speculative realism’s anti-humanism (ignoring the fact that none of these thinkers are very sympathetic to “animal rights” or even a thinking of the animal as such).

Much of this is a confusion over the meaning of speculative realism. Brassier, as is well-known, has essentially denounced the term and called discussion of speculative realism an “online orgy of stupidity”. Meillassoux has distanced himself from the other three thinkers who spoke at the original one-day event. Iain Hamilton Grant is just out in the world doing Iain Hamilton Grant, arguing for a radical version of idealism. And Graham Harman is milking the phenomenon for all its worth on the philosophical stock market. It’s far from a school and even Riches contradictorily admits as such before abandoning any responsibility to present any attentive account of it writing, “The term ‘Speculative Realism’ is diverse, fluid, rigorous and elegant, and deserving of an attentive account (which I have not provided).” I won’t detail the confusions that arise in the collapsing of French theoretical anti-humanism, which reaches its apogee in Badiou’s work, with the neo-scientism of Brassier’s Nihil Unbound. And I have not even mentioned the very interesting sections on Kojève’s reading and reversal of Solovyov or his very deft and elegant use of Bérulle to summarize Christology. In a certain sense I’m not doing that because I am returning Riches’ polemic back to him and I have to remind ever Christian theologian of their own scriptures regarding swords. But also because, in so far as Riches engaged with these works outside of Christian theology and in so far as he does so within the pages of a theology journal, I have to wonder why? He’s not engaging them on their own terms. He is not presenting them to theologians in a fair way (admitting as such, even claiming that doing so is a kind of trap of liberalism). He is not reflecting on the various practices they share in common and he does repeat the usual radical orthodoxy genealogy which traces back all the problems in the world to Duns Scotus (I recently read a Graham Ward piece where he lets the cat out of the bag and traces it all back to Ibn-Sina). Does he think his critique will be read by adherents of their various fluid, diverse philosophies? That they will turn back to Sancta Mater Ecclesia? Is that what this is ultimately about? Or does engaging with the hard core of contemporary philosophy allow the Catholic theologian to pretend that this is 1907 and they are making the brave fight against what Catholic theologians, and only Catholic theologians, refer to as Modernism (this is not your historians modernism)?

Ultimately what Riches present as a response to his cobbled together Franken-anti-humanism is a familiar argument for anyone who is conversant with 20th Century Catholic (European) theology. The incarnation of Christ is what reveals the true identity of Man [sic or not, your call]: “The human being (homo sapiens) is fully humanised (divinsied) when God and the human are ‘one’ in Christ. […] For the Christians, this means that there can be no theologically neutral ground on which to affirm or deny the dignity of the human person or speak of human rights; in abstraction from Jesus Christ the fate of the human being is necessarily (and metaphysically) one with disintegration of all matter.” In other words, only Christianity secures the “transcendent dignity of the human person in the face of a culture of ‘passive nihilism’.” Is this not an obscene statement sent out into the very world wrought by Christianity, both in the form of Christiandom and its secularized civil religion? To say it in the light of murdered peoples? A continent ravaged by disease and admonished not to use sexual protection to stem that tide? A generation of damaged children? Generation upon generation of women hobbled by what Mary Daly named the sin of psychological paralysis? And, in a Church so complicit in the horrors of the last 1500 years, whose social teaching has always built in the plausible deniability of their third way, why is it always in the face of the actual ambiguity of human life that it stakes all of its political capital? Are human beings not being treated in the most indignant of ways at Guantanamo Bay right now? Where is the word on their dignity? Where are the marches in solidarity with those bodies? But always the fetus as the rock upon which this Church must be built! Why is there so little engagement with the other monotheistic theological traditions who support the transcendent dignity of the human person (though, obviously, with the incarnation) but whose views on abortion are very different? Why too the glib dismissals of ecological posthumanism? The threat to the biosphere doesn’t arise out of anti-humanism, but ultimately is derived from a vision of the world that sees human beings as very much separate metaphysically from the rest of the world. And for all of the misunderstanding of Brassier’s philosophical casting of the meta-extinction of life, we are facing in the short-term the very real extinction of a number of species and perhaps even our own.

But, I don’t know why I’m asking these questions. No one will come along to answer them. Because ultimately, though folks like myself are the few who do engage with both de Lubac and Deleuze, Badiou and Bérulle, these sorts of works are not written for me. What does contemporary theology want from philosophy? A fantasy that this is a debate which matters, a scapegoat to avoid the introspection that the decline of traditional religion demands, a projection of an other against which one can take a stand. Theo-boys playing dress up, putting on the outfits of their Fathers and playing disputatio, slapping each other on the back and saying to one another things like, “It has often been observed that most of us incline instinctively to one or another form of heresy. It is why heresy is the most natural (and also the most individually satisfying) thing in the world, while orthodoxy takes effort and requires a whole community of individuals listening to one another and not only to their own inner voices.” Doesn’t that feel good? Theology as culture war, but with the added benefit of a certain disavowal, of a certain transcending the idiocy everyone knows is present there.

And so I can’t help but wonder, at the end of this polemic, can’t theology do better? But more than that, does theology even know what it wants?

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37 Responses to “No, really, what does Christian theology want from philosophy?”

  1. Scu Says:

    I can’t read the article, because it is a year delay for the sources I have access too. However, based on simply your quotations, it is like someone wanted to a write an article to make sure I would never even be tempted to become Catholic, ever.

  2. Brad Says:

    My sole moment of conference grandeur was referring to Hart during a Q&A as an “unemployable twit.”

  3. Steven Shakespeare Says:

    This might be off base, but I was wondering if the role played by philosophy here is to provide the problematic, with a certain sort of theology then providing the solution (kind of a method of correlation with colonising overtones). So, philosophy (or it could be science, or social science) might be used to suggest that alterity or embodiment or political agency or ecological relationality is the problem. Theology then says ‘yes, that is the key issue; but immanent philosophy is actual a (nihilistic) denial of the other/the body/politics/nature and only by deriving this from a transcendent source do we give its proper dignity’. With anti-humanism, I guess the negative reaction will be less disguised, but even then it seems to be along the lines of: ‘yes, anthropocentrism is a problem, but only by putting humanity in its proper place in relation to Jesus Christ/the Trinity/the Church/the Eucharist can it be overcome’. It’s a tactic that, as you say, is designed to evade self-criticism or actual encounter with arguments and experiences from outside the orthodox framework.

  4. Adam Kotsko Says:

    They would also probably be horrified to learn that the theological method Steven describes is essentially Tillich’s “method of correlation.” Secular reason asks the questions — and lo and behold, theology has the answer! But of course, Tillich’s answers could potentially be new or unexpected and/or make actual sense, because Tillich wasn’t a total hack.

  5. hoodie_R Says:

    What do white theoFrat boys want from philosophy? Let me offer a stab at this: they want legitimacy. In spite of their anti-intellectualism and inability to regard serious theological & social critiques, the theo-fraternities prefer to just name drop & talk about conservative pet issues. The name dropping is just posturing.

  6. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    Steven,

    Yes, I think there is exactly this kind of colonialization-cum-correlation that you identify. Riches even spells out four theses that anti-humanism trumpets which Christological humanism agrees with and completes. The question that still remains though is why colonize? I don’t think anyone really thinks they are proselytizing with this kind of work, so that can’t be it, and the only thing that does make sense to me is that it’s a kind of a bonding-act for the group.

    That said, and I want to be clear on this, I focused on Riches article because I had 1) just read it, 2) it surprised me to see this coming from him since he does systematics and I didn’t expect to see him playing theology as culture war, 3) I don’t think he is a hack and so if this kind of behavior is present in someone I think is skilled as a Catholic systematic theologian, then it is emblematic of something more foundational within Christian theology itself. It’s interesting, because I am guessing that if the theoboys of the theo boys studio end up talking about this I think they’ll say the usual things. They’ll accuse me of being an atheist because I have rejected my evangelical upbringing and didn’t come to the true Church (which bears no actual relation to my life). They’ll accuse me of demanding that they engage me on the grounds of natura pura. I’m not. I don’t believe in pure nature and I actually address this very local (European) Roman Catholic debate in my recent book in relation to how I develop an ecological vision of philosophy and theology. In short, they will bring out all the usual, comfortable ways of waving off any kind of call to engage with the question.

    While I’m stream of conciousness-ing, I suppose what bothers me about the current climate of theology is how clueless it is when it does engage with culture. I am very clearly pro-choice when it comes to the policies I support with my votes and the little bit of money I am able to give for political lobbying. All of that is worth very little. But I am one of the people mentioned in the article as being able to argue for “animals rights” (I actually find this to be a horrible abstraction and failure of thought, but again, for the sake of the commonplace political positions and for what those are normally worth) and for the right to end pregnancies on demand (again, a position supported by the mainstreams of secular culture, Judaism, and Islam). But abortion is clearly a symptom of wider societal problems (here I am bracketing the blanket ban on contraceptives in Catholicism, a position I find to be ultimately incoherent and based upon a horribly undertheorized concept of nature). These problems need to be addressed, but I rarely find (white, male) orthodox theologians doing that work. Hell, I don’t think even the practically already canonized Francis is doing this work. The only people who are are heterodox or heretical theologians like James Cone and Mary Daly. This tells me something and sadly I think it tells me I have wasted a lot of time engaging with orthodoxy in my studies.

  7. DavidWebster Says:

    Hugely enjoyed reading this.. Especially “Theo-boys playing dress up, putting on the outfits of their Fathers and playing disputatio, slapping each other on the back ..”

    Also, largely persuaded by the final paragraph – have been to lots of Theology seminars, claiming to be ‘deeply philosophical’ which turn out to be a mere rejection of anti-theological views, with whooping delight and self-congratulation all round, but only a parody of their opponents’ views, dragged out for inspection while their apparent wrongness is presented as self-evident. Eurgh…

    Of course – I think you see more potential in systematics than I do (or care about it, I guess) – whereas I only seem to encounter waves of the theology-as-culture -war stuff which wearies me of any engagement with it at all.

    Mind you, even the contemporary theologian can’t out-smug the x-buddhist movement that I should be writing about..

  8. DavidWebster Says:

    Reblogged this on Dispirited and commented:
    I actually enjoyed reading this, you might too:

  9. Paul Ennis Says:

    I’m unlikely to ever read any of this kind of work and I admit the idea of reading it horrifies me, but just out of interest does Riches discuss Meillassoux’s divine inexistence (that’s pretty much christology, right?). Also, Meillassoux states quite directly that he is a humanist in that same text. Also, from what I can gather the great irony is that there are few philosophers with a feel for human dignity as strong as Meillassoux amidst the current trends. On the topic of distancing himself I am not sure it as strong as that. I think it’s more that Brassier thinks SR is nonsense explicitly and Meillassoux/Grant are just neutral and never really made much of it either way. Though, we have had all four of them at events like the one in Berlin last year under a generic speculative label. The school of thought thing seems to be a meme that will not die.

    For the record, ‘The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss’ sounds like the name of a leaflet you’d find at a self-help center.

  10. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    Paul,
    I guess speculative realism works as a kind of name for conferences or a book series, but in a very real way isn’t that where it stops? At the level of marketing? I mean, why would Brassier turn down showing up somewhere, travel paid, people interested to hear him speak, just because it’s being called something? I wouldn’t, especially when as a name it generally requires no loyalty oaths (unlike some movements/schools/marketing slogans in theology). But yeah, I hear what you are saying.

    And, no, he gives a bit of attention to the divine inexistence in a footnote. I don’t think that’s Christology so much as good ol’ fashioned theology (unpacking what a transcendent divine being is or, in this case, would be), but much of what he does in The Number and the Siren is a kind of Christology that flows out of that (something both Barber and I have criticized him for). The confusion comes, I think, from placing Meillassoux’s thought a little to close to Brassier and Badiou (who are both anti-humanist, but in very different and important ways). I think the main problem is just that, he tries to collapse too many thinkers together under a general banner, which I suppose isn’t impossible, but I don’t think in this case it is successful. Meillassoux’s arche-fossil is not the negation of the human, but both the negation of a kind of servitude (to the fideism and relativism of postmodernity) and the affirmation of the human (as the creature able to think the absolute that is not them, again a very Christian, though secularized, theme!).

  11. Scu Says:

    Animal Rights (1) The other thing is that even Singer reject rights. Seriously, I cannot count the number of times people accuse Singer of believing in the rights of animals (even Derrida and Rosi Braidotti makes this mistake). I also cannot the number of times people accuse Cary Wolfe or Matt Calarco of believing in animal rights. To believe that Singer, (or for very different reasons) Calarco, and Wolfe believe in rights, is to have literally not read them. Or at least not well. There are, of course, several people who believe in animal rights– Tom Regan, Gary Francione, and Paola Cavalieri, just to name a few of the more famous ones. (I actually am one of the few continentalists who believes in something like animal rights. At least I believe, a la Hannah Arendt, that animals have a right to have rights. And following from, say, Foucault and Ranciere, I believe in the rhetoric of resistance that can flow from the discourse of rights).

    (2) While we are on it, the charge of intellectual hypocrisy on abortion, especially coming from someone supporting the Catholic church’s perspective, is odd. It seems that opposition to contraception would more likely lead to people wanting to obtain abortions than a belief in animal rights would. At least the Catholic church is not as hypocritical as some of the conservative protestant denominations that don’t want health care or help for a young woman raising a child.

  12. dbarber Says:

    The thing that jumps out at me, w/r/t Adam’s comment (Tillich) and Paul’s comment (Meillasoux) is that, despite the obvious and despicable craziness at work in RO / Theobros, they do actually have a shared paradigm (not sure if this the right word) with both liberal protestantism and secularized european philosophy — that is, the Theobros concern to hold together discourses of the human with the “theological” (i.e. the Christian) is very much shared by Tillich’s correlationism and Meillasoux’s divine existence. No doubt this latter pair can do “weirder” or more interesting things, can be broader, etc., than can the Theobros, but i have to say that this feels a bit like the difference between the Tea Party and Obama (or whoever the next Obama will be).

    Along these lines, i think it’s telling that someone like Cone or Daly is able to stand out as different, because they are working off of the asymmetries (of race, or gender) that are not central in those mentioned above. (The question of the animal might be another asymmetry.)

    So, i guess i tend to see the Theobros treatment of philosophy as something like a colonizer planting down a flag. Obviously the philosophers don’t listen, but i imagine there’s an assumption by the Theobros that the philosophers, too, are trying to plant their own flag. I don’t think that that assumption is incorrect.

    Also, i think the notion of the human is one that is more problematic than might be imagined … in other words, the Theobros, when they presume that the human is inseparable from Christianity, are not wrong in a genealogical sense. The human race was, more or less, a Christian invention. The Christianization of the human was already a racialization of the human. And so I’d argue — or am working on the argument — that discourses that want to turn the human against Christianity, or to argue that Christianity is nuts to claim that humanity needs Christianity, are already captured. And that they may be better served on giving up on the category of the human. (This, by the way, is why I find Brassier far more useful than any of the other “SR” people.)

  13. Craig McFarlane Says:

    James, in his most recent comment, is obviously correct: Singer, as a utilitarian, rejects the concept of rights as such except insofar as the word can be used informally as a short-hand for “the sort of protections a creature should have under normal circumstances.” It is amusing that, from those who love the wholesale slaughter and misery of animals (as, presumably, the author of the article APS is discussing does) accuse those who do not hold animal rights positions to be extreme animal rights ideologues (and then list, say, Singer and Calarco) while does who do actual hold animal rights positions call people like Singer a welfarist and people like Calarco (and James and myself) fashionable bourgeois academics who only want to secure their place in the academy.

    The obvious problem with the various “speculative realisms” isn’t that they are “anti-humanist,” but that they are latently humanist and refuse to address their residual humanism and anthropocentrism. See, for instance, Bogost’s really odd discussion of—wait for it—animal rights in his Alien Phenomenology (which, on my last reading, still had no aliens and little phenomenology, alas). Similar things can be said with respect to Levi, especially when he comes to matters of politics and ethics.

  14. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    I have to confess, I don’t know exactly what it would mean to give up on the category of the human. Maybe I can understand giving up on the *category* but not on humans as such. For me Brassier remains too Thomistic. His giving up on the human is predicated on a teleological understanding of meaning that I find kind of bizarre. But maybe in terms of the destruction of a kind of thinking. But surely you don’t follow him in thinking our salvation comes through a further accelerating of the enlightenment project that went hand in hand with Christianity throughout the world.

  15. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    Craig, I just love your comment. That is all.

  16. Adam Kotsko Says:

    One of the few articles I’ve ever read in JAAR was a piece by JZ Smith about how Tillich is the secret theorist behind the entire enterprise of “religious studies.” From what Dan says, it would make sense for a Christian theologian to fill that role.

  17. Patrick Ley Says:

    To colonize is to attempt to pacify or domesticate, isn’t it? If you percieve a challenge or a threat, colonizing is about forcing that challenge into a shape you can deal with.

    This is inspired heavily by the thesis about religious change that Bokenkamp offers in Ancestors and Anxiety a book about how during the 6th century CE in China rebirth went from a minority doctrine to a crucial part of how everyone thought about death.

  18. Wilson Says:

    I remember John Milbank saying a few years ago after a talk, when pressed directly, on why he studied Badiou (the talk had been on Logique des mondes before it had been translated) that Milbank saw in Badiou something close to a christology in his concept if twoness and so it was a missionary effort akin to Paul on Mars Hill. That’s the interior logic, I would suspect, of what theologians want from philosophy: sophisticated objects of proselytizing.

  19. Scu Says:

    If you mention animals rights three times on a blog, you summon Craig and myself. Like a (self-)righteous Beetlejuice.

    Craig, you are right to bring up Bogost on this.

    I don’t want to keep beating up on an article I haven’t read and have no investment in. But, when added to the point there is no real interaction Meillassoux’s divine inexistence, I don’t know what the point is.

  20. Rory O'Connor Says:

    I don’t mind too much not engaging here too much with what you say, other than noting that I imagine theologians, like other people, can be appalling closed-minded, and not open to being ironised, and inviting you to look at my pet-project at the following address: http://www.owenbarfield.org/articles

    Beyond that, I would say that, that word again, irony, is the key to consideration of, for example, the suggestion that the arche-fossil is not a negation of the human, or that Brassier has a theological viewpoint of meaning. The fact is that the arche-fossil does ironise or relativise the human. And that’s damage enough. After Finitude is a strong, and in that sense, good book for that reason. There should be no problem with press-ganging philosophy in defence of the human, and indeed humans. It’s nice that Anthony won’t give up on his fellows, and I’m the same, but others do all the time. Pragmatically, you do need to defend the human if you want to put up a defence against that.

    The theologians you refer to are probably very very afraid of thought, But they’re not alone in that.

  21. drwilliamlarge Says:

    Nice. I should say more. I just thought this was great.

  22. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I’m pretty sure there’s already a well-known solution to the arche-fossil problem, and it’s called Being and Time, specifically the sections on reality and truth at the end of Division One. Meillassoux is very interesting and very smart, but that section of the text is dumb and unconvincing.

  23. Paul Ennis Says:

    Just on the humanism issue…I know I’ve been banging the drum a little on this, but there is actually very little anti-humanist sentiment stated in the non-OOO thinkers mentioned here. Meillassoux is clearly quite content to consider the human the highest being, Brassier is not interested in thinking according to human self-esteem, but nonetheless registers that as rational agents we have a traction on how the world hangs together that presumably distinguishes us from other entities, and so on. Maybe latent is the right word for where they are at.

    Regarding the arche-fossil it’s intended as an aporia, admitted to twice by Meillassoux, designed to show that we should be able to relate to the sciences without undermining them or going deeper. With Heidegger we are in the ultimate more originary, quasi-theological terrain with regard to the sciences. The argument could be made that Meillassoux ends up embracing the trickiness of the circle in the end anyway since we have to go through the correlation to escape it, etc. But I think the big error for Meillassoux was not having the problem of the arche-fossil tucked in a footnote at the back somewhere. It’s worth noting that is disappears more or less in his overview of AF in the Berlin paper (along with a bunch of other stuff).

    [Meillassoux on the nature of ‘factial’ speculation: The factial is a humanism which, in so far as it is opposed to the religious inversion of values, is equally opposed to the Prometheanism inherent in the classical form of humanism, DI 214].

    [Meillassoux on how to take the opening chapter of AF: ‘In fact, in the first chapter of After Finitude, I simply try to lay out an aporia, rather than a refutation,’ from Time without Becoming, 5].

  24. dbarber Says:

    Anthony, very much agreed about “But surely you don’t follow him in thinking our salvation comes through a further accelerating of the enlightenment project that went hand in hand with Christianity throughout the world.” Accelerationism is just a conversion narrative.

  25. Paul Ennis Says:

    “But surely you don’t follow him in thinking our salvation comes through a further accelerating of the enlightenment project that went hand in hand with Christianity throughout the world.”

    “Accelerationism is just a conversion narrative.”

    I sort of know what you guys are getting at with this, but I can’t help but wonder whether this borders into its own reductionism. Brassier, as far as I can see, never mentions salvation or attempts to set up the accelerating of the enlightenment project as leading to it. Unless the idea is that he is implicitly offering up a release from theological categories? But properly speaking the quasi-transhumanist vibe tends to come from Reza rather than Ray. The acceleration in Brassier seems to side with a disinterested will-to-know over ‘life’, but with no real liberation flowering from this. Quite the opposite since it basically means one just recognizes that they are essentially a conduit in a base material sense rather than what to me is the more ‘positive’ sense of vessel one finds in religion.

    Or, is this exactly it and am missing the obvious…that the very idea of knowledge ‘passing’ through us is the ‘conversion’. I guess my fear here is that the atheist-materialist in this matter can also feel that escape from the theological gaze is impossible. Almost as if an atheological model is structurally impossible since whatever you present will have some narratological affinity with, in this example, the Christian heritage (for me this would constitute the ultimate horror).

  26. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I don’t think Dan is saying that something like an atheological model is impossible, just that it’s much more difficult than one would initially think.

  27. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    “one just recognizes that they are essentially a conduit in a base material sense rather than what to me is the more ‘positive’ sense of vessel one finds in religion.”

    You find plenty of mystics that have no positive sense of vessel. I don’t know that you can really identify a positive sense of teleology as always religious. I do think that Brassier is horribly trapped within a kind of mystification of meaning in an amphiboly with religious faith, yes.

    But how can you say Ray doesn’t have a kind of salvation narrative? He sets up a certain kind of disillusionment as “grown up”, presents his vision of the world as on the way and a fellow traveler with the correct way of seeing the world. I guess what I’m saying is that we still have the problem of evaluation in Brassier and it’s a problem that eats through his entire philosophy, in my view.

  28. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    I may be alone in this, and it’s been interesting for me to see the differences between some of the AUFS authors grow on these kinds of things, but I do think that escaping from some kind of theological frame is, if not outright impossible, nearly impossible.

  29. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Could you give us an estimate of the odds? 99.5% impossible maybe?

  30. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    No need for mocking. Enough of that in the main post.

  31. Steven Shakespeare Says:

    Anthony, agreed. Brassier seems insufficiently self-critical here. How can any position be presented as enlightened without also being proposed as a ‘good thing’?

  32. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I’m not sure how I meant that last comment, but I didn’t mean to mock. Sorry that it inescapably came across that way, though.

  33. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Paul, I don’t see where Heidegger is theological on this specific point related to so-called “correlationism.” He shows that the problem of the access to the outside is actually a product of an abstract stance toward beings that is founded in our originary access to beings. Since we do have access to beings — beings really do show themselves to us, even if only in a partial way — we then have the ability to make reasonable inferences about how beings “are” in abstraction from us, including before and after Dasein exists. The arche-fossil is absolutely not a problem or aporia for Heidegger. It’s a false problem that comes from attempting to take the abstract and artificial position of the isolated subject as the starting point and “work back” to our actual experience.

  34. Paul Ennis Says:

    Great answers, as I’d expect from here.

    ‘I don’t think Dan is saying that something like an atheological model is impossible, just that it’s much more difficult than one would initially think.’

    I can certainly accept this. Sticking to Nihil Unbound I would tend to attribute this to something like the ‘speed’ of the text. It feels like a text that is a little impatient and in a way this was, at least for atheists such as myself, very alluring. As Steven puts it “insufficiently self-critical” more or less covers that.

    ‘I do think that Brassier is horribly trapped within a kind of mystification of meaning in an amphiboly with religious faith, yes.’
    This too I can accept. I would actually say the moment when he is properly stepping into mysticism is his desire to maintain a normative rational agent that manages to survive even the elimination of the self in eliminativist neuroscience.
    ‘But how can you say Ray doesn’t have a kind of salvation narrative? He sets up a certain kind of disillusionment as “grown up”, presents his vision of the world as on the way and a fellow traveler with the correct way of seeing the world. I guess what I’m saying is that we still have the problem of evaluation in Brassier and it’s a problem that eats through his entire philosophy, in my view.’

    For sure, but I always felt he presents it as ‘it is happening’, but it is not ‘for us’. The will-to-know pursues its interests against our own. I may be missing the point here, but surely salvation would at least include some kind of positive promise? (I am quite happy to be schooled here on traditions that explicitly did not do this). Most materialism tends to drop in the political angle as a reason to adopt the elimination. But he doesn’t even discuss politics.

    ‘Paul, I don’t see where Heidegger is theological on this specific point related to so-called “correlationism.” He shows that the problem of the access to the outside is actually a product of an abstract stance toward beings that is founded in our originary access to beings. Since we do have access to beings — beings really do show themselves to us, even if only in a partial way — we then have the ability to make reasonable inferences about how beings “are” in abstraction from us, including before and after Dasein exists. The arche-fossil is absolutely not a problem or aporia for Heidegger. It’s a false problem that comes from attempting to take the abstract and artificial position of the isolated subject as the starting point and “work back” to our actual experience.’

    I don’t entirely disagree. I defended Heidegger against Meillassoux in a similar way in my PhD thesis. The aporia is not Heidegger’s, in terms of his own thinking, but how it has left (a strand) of philosophy in an ‘aporetic’ relationship to scientific statements. I think you will know all of what follows (and disagree), but I read him as wanting to complicate the priority afforded to the originary, philosophical level – transcendentalism seems his common target most of the time – with what amounts to an ill-planned thought experiment wherein we discover we are unable to make ancestral statements directly without simultaneously re-asserting that one needs to include the philosopher’s layer…which he takes to undercut that literalness. I think it’s presented badly and the placement at the opening of AF ill-judged (maybe I’d also add that its appropriation as standard move of ‘SR’ has not helped here). But I don’t want to push this too much since I think the interesting bits in his thinking lie elsewhere and look forward to the time when the Berlin lectures, out soon in Germany, replace AF as his main text since the arche-fossil is downplayed a little more and he tries to clear up some of the terminological confusions he admits he made.

  35. david cl driedger Says:

    As someone who by profession has to be considered a Christian theologian of sorts I will say that what I want is to learn from philosophy . . . now was that so hard? And the strange thing is that first it wasn’t hard (high-school and just after; when these things were just exciting) and then it was hard (pseudo-Anglican period; when I learned what was ‘at stake’ or how things ‘really’ work when inhabiting a particular theological imagination).

  36. Tim McGee Says:

    I think this line from DBH’s older book sums it up nicely: “Modern Continental philosophy is very much the misbegotten child of theology, indeed a kind of secularized theology….[T]heology is always already involved in the Continental tradition…and so is responsible for and before it; modern philosophy was born of some failure and some anguish within the language of faith…This is the burden of consanguinity: theology cannot disown its history–or its children” (The Beauty of the Infinite, 30). Most fundamentally, this group seems to want what every patriarch wants when faced by a its own wayward progeny: the rival/threat to feel the same horror of itself as he does (and then to disappear). I mean, theology is not there to learn but to overcome (which perhaps explain the odd intellectual habit of reducing all differences to the same fundamental error).

    Also, Milbank also links it all (“univocity”) to the “Oriental” Muslim, and names ibn Sina as the key source of the contamination in his essay “Sovereignty, Empire, Capital, and Terror.”

  37. Upbuilding LInks 10.16.13 | Re(-)petitions Says:

    […] Kotsko presents a polemical reflection on the relation between philosophy and theology–as usual, the comments section is […]


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