Thursday, January 20, 2005

Being is Back

...though it may be news to some of you that it was even gone in the first place. If you are among those so fortunate, I recommend avoiding getting blogged down by the following somewhat tedious academic aside that seeks to recover the notion of "being." But for those who may have been told that "ontology is out," I recommend reading on. Academic seasons change, and the new line of metaphysics is taking over the scholastic runway by storm.

In order to explain why "being" needs to be recovered, I will need to start with how it got lost.

The Challenge to Being
One of the most positive developments of 20th century philosophy was when Martin Buber moved from a depersonalized frame of mind (I - It relations) to an alternative which he proposed in his book "Ich und Du" (I and Thou). Buber's inspiration for this new philosophy came from the Torah, as he was quite serious about being a Jew.
Influenced by Buber's personalism, Emmanuel Levinas (also a Jew) developed the the idea of "le different" (pronounced with faux French accents for those who want to sound academi-chic). Levinas developed this in opposition to Martin Heidegger, who was quite fond of the notion of "being," and was also quite fond of Hitler. It followed that Levinas yoked the totalizing idea of "being" with the Holocaust. As Levinas' philosophy took hold (which it did), so did the idea that "being" necessitated effacement of "the other."

(By the way, I'm aware I'm speaking in generalizations, but this is a blog.)

As we shall see, in the critique of this kind of being Levinas may have been right. But what if, rather than an abandonment of the concept of "being" altogether, we attempted its recovery? After all, Abusus non tollit usum (Wrong use does not preclude proper use). Perhaps the best way forward is an ontology which takes Levinas and other postmodern philosophers seriously, that is, an ontology of difference, a metaphysics in which the full realization of self is only possible via the other. In other words, a notion of "being" that respected the deconstructionist critique without surrendering to it.

I suspect that many theologians will spend the rest of their careers complaining that in a postmodern world such a sort of thing needs to be done... While others, like Oliver Davies, have actually begun to do it.

A History of Being
Guided by Davies, who seems to have somehow mastered the history of philosophy, the following will attempt to chart the different ways that being has been conceived. Some of these will be clearly open to Levinas' critique, some of which clearly will not. Those that survive will provide the raw material for a contemporary recovery of metaphysics, which will be touched on at the end. All page number that follow (and most of the good ideas) are from Davies.

At least four ontolgies can be detected in the history of philosophy:

1. Ontology of oneness enveloping the self and the other (Levinasian red light)
By this we mean the "totalizing" metaphysics that which Levinas deplored. The culprits are first Parmenides, who contra Heraclian flux said all things were statically united. Another "totalizer" would be the great Neo-Platonic philosopher of the mysterious "One", Plotinus. Not only did Plotinus understand the cosmos to be hyper-unified, but one could only access it in solitude. For him, "the One can be made present on earth only fitfully, in rare and solitary ecstasy"(p.61)... which doesn't sound too "other-friendly" to me.

Also implicated in this category of metaphysics is the Medieval envelope pusher Meister Eckhart. Eckhart is in fashion today because he bucked against church authorities, and everybody loves someone who faces off to the ecclesiastical "man." But Eckhart, though admittedly brilliant and well worth reading, may be guilty of "other-smothering" as well, for notion of the dissolution of the self into God like a stick into a blazing fire did little to establish le different. Next on the hit-list is everybody's favorite Enlightenment era Jewish pantheist Baruch Spinoza, and of course, Heidegger whom we've mentioned, who in his attempt to lead western philosophy back to being, provoked the Levinasian attack.

Incidentally, I wonder if Hinduism and/or Buddhism can fall into this "totalizing" critique as well. If the only reason I care for you is because of my epihanic realization that all is one, and I am in fact you - then le different becomes le meme faster than you can say millinervanna (credit to Pat for that one).

By the way, if my critique of another religion makes you think that I have an armored steed hoofing at the dirt waiting to take me on the next crusade, then I'm sorry to be so misunderstood. In my view, genuine disagreement (not jihad) between religions is all part of respecting people as different. Conversely, it's the totalizing rhetoric of the garden variety "all-religions-are-the-same" religion scholar which I find imperialistic. Claiming that all religions are essentially the same only subsumes difference and in my opinion veils a patronizing disrespect.

2. Ontology of self enveloping the other (Levinasian yellow light)
Rene Descarte's metaphysics has been called by Jean Luc Marion "an ontology by denial," because as we know he doubts his way to the bedrock of existence which is his personal cogito (I think), and only achieves God, his own selfhood and the other after this essential move. This new personal basis for philosophy would be used by later idealist philosophers to pursue their various ends, and it should come as no surprise that Descartes' after-the-fact God, other, and selfhood would ultimately get lost in the shuffle.

As the acids of David Hume's skepticism ate away at these eroded Cartesian foundations of knowledge, Immanuel Kant attempted to stem the tide by positing that knowledge of things in themselves may be impossible, but a subjective knowledge of things as they appear was. This may have bought "the other" some time - as Kant's categorical imperative was merely a creative recasting of the golden rule - but the respite wouldn't last. In fear that Kant's ideas has limited human freedom, J.G. Fichte was "concerned at all costs to lay bare the sphere of otherness, or non-self, as being in essence a modality of the self, and not extraneous to it"(p.103).

And most famously, in Friedrich Hegel, history and humans along with it would become mere vehicles of the universal spirit. Hegel, who was quite the fan of Heraclitus, gave us the great modern shift from being to becoming... and in this great process, one might suggest, what could be the big deal if the "other" gets caught in the gears? Perhaps their getting geared is in fact a step in the universal spirit's realization of itself. For Hegel the Idealist, le different could be merely
"a stage in the unfolding of the Spirit, which is re-enacted at different points in the cosmic myth but always in the form of that otherness, the overcoming of which is the dynamic life of the Spirit"(p.111).
It is no accident that the thought of Fichte and Hegel led to German nationalism, for nations were sure to play a key role in the universal spirit's self-realization. "The other" would clearly not fare well in such a world.

3. Ontology of pure difference, whether self or other (Levinasian green light)
The brilliant Nietzsche laid his metaphysical cards on the table when he famously referred to the "error of Being." He would write in the Geneology of Morals that "No such substratum exists; there is not 'being' behind doing - the doing is everything." All that would be left is the will to power. Davies writes that
"Nietzsche's genealogical method makes terms such as 'the self', 'free will', 'truth' and 'morality' the playthings of a will to power exercised by hierarchical elites. 'Being' too becomes a cultural property in this way, and thus a cipher for the very processes of manipulation and appropriation to which Nietzsche is seeking to draw our attention" (p.118).

Just as an aside, Davies also calls Nietzsche "a deeply religious thinker, whose contestation of the person of Jesus can still be viewed as a kind of inner-Chrisitian critique"(p. 136). According to Karl Jaspers, Nietzsche's critique "sprang from the tension between Christian reality and Christian ideals." For those interested in pursuing this further, this might be a good place to begin.

Following Nietzche, the philosopher Gilles Deleuze (close in both thought and friendship with Michel Foucault) would revolt against any notion of being or that could stitch the world together. Refusing any ontology became his basis for rejecting both Facism and capitalism.

But I hope by now we are beginning to see that the "being" that is being rejected is quite far from the "being" that a Christian might propose. Furthermore, the best defense agains Facism and the abuses of capitalism surely is not a metaphysical void waiting to be co-opted by the next fuhrer, but the rightful detection of a universal fabric that will not permit power hoarding or greed.

But moving on, it is Davies' treatment of Derrida which I found the most interesting of all. There is an ancient Hindu tale of a farmer refusing to enter a barn because of the cobra inside... only later to realize the cobra was in fact a rope that he could use. I must admit that I've had a similar experience with Derrida. Though initially skeptical because of how some Christian thinkers used his ideas as a smokescreen for sloppy thinking, I've come to appreciate him quite a bit more. That is, he may be a rope and not a cobra. When understood as an acid against structuralism and the ideas of idealism of Edmund Husserl (which were his initial targets), then I can sign onto Derridas wholesale. Sure I'm a deconstructionsist - in the sense that I think structuralism was a bad idea in the first place.

But when it comes to Christianity, Derrida may be more friend than foe. Davies writes that
"Derrida is aware (more than Deleuze, for instance) that the very negativity which defines his semantic philosophy also offers a potential reappropriation of his deconstruction back into the reconstructive ontotheologies to which he declared himself opposed. Having been banished to the very margins of contemporary intellectual life, the deus absconditus (God in hiding) might redefine that margin as the new epi-centre of a metaphysical/postmetaphysical re-enactment of traditional theism"(p.124).
Furthermore, Derridas ends his self-described "most autobiographical" of lectures (Comment ne pas parler: Denegations) with a powerful meditation on prayer. It is a lecture which "invites the reader to consider whether Derrida's ambient exercise in denial and no-speaking may not in fact enclose the possibility of a kind of commitment of 'negative' affirmation of a final non-metaphysical theism"(p. 125)... as long of course that this theism is free to be rejected or accepted, which of course for a Christian it must always be.

So while certainly passing the Levinas test of otherness, Derridas may also be pointing the way to a renewed metaphysics of compassion with its anchor in the compassion of God.

4. Ontology of self and other in relation (Levinas never formally approved, but still avoids his critique)
Notwithstanding Derrida's openess, it will be from this last category of ontology where the most raw material for a new Christian metaphysic of difference can be found. Augustine could first be considered a culprit however, for his equation of Platonic being with Exodus 3:14 "I am" would be a key step towards the metaphysics of stasis that everyone is now trying to avoid. But Augustine moved away from this Platonism towards a more Chritian ethic of difference later in his career, making him quite the ally. Writes Davies
"Over the course of his long life, Augustine moved from a strongly Platonized world-view, governed by the displacement of being and the appetitive eros of longing, to a more kenotic (i.e. self-giving) and incarnational understanding of love, modeled upon Christ's love for us. Substantially, this was to exchange a platonic paradigm, with its account of being as immutability and source of truth, for a Christian ecclesiology, as an account of the ethical realm between self and other, opened up by the creator God"(p.81).
One can imagine Levinas' retroactive smile.

It is no secret as well that Thomas Aquinas had a concept of differentiae woven through his work. In his transfiguring Aristotle's unmoved mover, Aquinas developed an ontology quite sympathetic to "the other", for Aquinas'
"interest is not in the unity of being as a whole as grasped by the intellect, but rather in the rich interactions that inhere in the created ord... Thomas has exchanged Aristotelian friendship therefore, with its social particularity, for a universal concept of love which extends even to our enemies… an ethics of universal love..."
which follows directly from his Christian metaphysic.

And finally, it was Kierkegaard's impassioned attack on Hegel's "totalizing" certitude that recovered a radical ethics of otherness. Kierkegaard's response to Hegel was to
"impose upon the metaphysical speculation of Idealist philosophers the absolute imperatives given by the incarnation, engendering new insights into the meaning of Christian existence."
It is no surprise that the only work of Kierkegaard in which he abandoned his pseudonymity was his "Works of Love" which demanded radical service to the other, against a smug Lutheran ethos of the already justified. This is moving us towards the goal of an inherently other-centered metaphysics.

Postmodern Chrisian Responses
Davies' attempts therefore to learn from the success of Augustine, Aquinas and Kierkegaard while still moving ahead. In so doing he seeks to avoid approaches such as that of Mark C. Taylor (not to be confused with Mark L. Taylor at Princeton Seminary) who basically takes radical deconstruction and clothes it in Christian language. This strikes me, as a character in Doctor Zhivago once remarked, to be like a meal made entirely of horseradish.

But Davies is also mildly critical of John Milbank who while much more constructive, still goes just a bit too far in his concessions to the deconstruction of language. For Davies, postmodernism is pleasantly parasitic but not positive - a corrective critique and not a replacement for substance.

In his own attempts at constructing a new metaphysics and theology, Davies starts in the concentration camps. He begins with a phenomenology of consciousness for those who acted compassionately in the midst of evil. He continues with an in depth engagement with the God of compassion as displayed in the Exodus 3:14 (avoiding Augustine's overly-Platonized exegesis and drawing more upon Rabbis), and not without some very deep meditations on the eucharist - ends up with a new metaphysics of compassion.

That is, being as the fabric of the cosmos can be recovered for the twenty-first century, but not as statis - as a compassionate reaching out instead.
the development of a new metaphysical language carries with it certain obligations. In the first place, we have argued for a language of being which is both an acknowledgment of the ontological traditions of the past and an embrace of the present, with its prioritization of radical otherness. It is here that our own project can be set apart from the ontologies of Pryzawara, Rahner and von Balthasar, as well as those of Bultmann, Tillich and Zizioulas, which, for all their insights and achievements, seem out of place in the vigorously language-centred and deconstructive landscapes of the present day (p.158).
As the alternatives begin to reveal themselves, I think we'll find that Oliver Davies is not the only one among many contemporary recoveries of metaphysics to choose from (not to mention Davies' sequel to the book here discussed.

The Levinas/Derrida critique is valid, it has been heard, and the Christian tradition is once again asserting its peculiar ability to invigorate itself without leaving being behind.