A Theory of Bird

A couple weeks ago, I presented a paper at a conference within a conference–the annual meeting of the North American Association for the Study of Religion which meets during the annual meeting of the AAR. I was asked to write and present a response paper for one of the NAASR panels after submitting a short paragraph with an account of what I think “explanation” is as a method in religious studies. My presented paper was in response to an essay by Ann Taves and Egil Asprem, two scholars who are deeply interested and invested in cognitive science of religion. I won’t rehash their paper here; it suffices to say that they were arguing for a comprehensive reductive explanation of “religion” as the best kind of explanation we can have through an appeal to a reductive method from the biological sciences. In the course of the discussion following their paper and the three responses to it, one member of the audience made what struck me as a rather strange remark.

“Why are we talking about a ‘theory of religion?'” he objected. “What does that even mean? To me, having a ‘theory of religion’ is like having a ‘theory of bird.’ It’s completely meaningless.”

In other words, religion isn’t special. In one way, his comment makes sense in the context of NAASR. This is the organization that has consistently railed against scholarship that renders religion as “special” in any sense. “Critical religion” emerged from (or founded) NAASR in the mid-80s and has more or less maintained the same position since then: Religion is no-thing. It isn’t special in relation to other “master categories.” To many in this camp, there shouldn’t be a protected discipline called “religious studies” at all. The position goes even further, however: any attempt at all to safeguard religion from “disinterested” academic study, even if only a perceived attempt, is taken to be “crypto-theology” or as part of a “theological agenda.” The prefix “cypto” is crucial here. On this view, most of the scholars that make up the AAR are actually engaged in a kind of theology, even if that majority would deny that theology is what they’re doing (for example, as Eliade and other phenomenologists of religion did and do.) These erring scholars do so through obfuscating the discussion surrounding what “religion” as a concept is or ought to be even while they claim that religion is something “out there” that we can identify and understand through comparison, description, interpretation, and explanation on the religious adherent’s own terms.

How is this obfuscation to be identified and proven to actually be theology-in-disguise? A genealogical account of the ways this obfuscation has operated along lines of power, masking Protestant-Christian motivation (even if latent) has proven amazingly fruitful But this move has already gone through a variety of vexed iterations in its relatively short history in religious studies. At first, proponents thought we ought to drop religion in favor of less problematic categories such as “politics” or “culture” (e.g. Timothy Fitzgerald)–thereby paradoxically (and unwittingly) rendering religion “special” in the sense that it required special attention to its discursive formation in a way politics or culture didn’t. Proponents of this position have since recognized that these other categories also have discursive histories that must be reckoned with, and that they are all actually inextricably linked together in important ways. This has produced some very interesting, fruitful, and important analyses of the relationship between these categories, particularly in analyses of Western colonialism (e.g. the uses of Christianity for disciplining politically liberal colonial subjects) and the relationship between “the secular” and “the religious” in Western political discourse.

At this point, however, we’ve strayed very far from what the initial comment was getting at. While his intention was to remove the “specialness” from religion, he did not do so by appealing to the social and political construction of the category. On the contrary–his comment  was intended to render religion simply natural. This solves the problem of obfuscation, since the comment implies the meaning of “religion” and to what it refers, like “bird,” is so clear as to need no theorization at all. However, there’s a problem here. If religion does not need a theory because it’s like “bird,” then religion cannot be no-thing. It is, in fact, something that apparently requires no theorization about what it is because it’s “in the world” for us to find just as birds are.

This position isn’t actually coherent–for what does it mean to say one doesn’t have “a theory of bird?” As one of my colleagues quipped when I related this story, it would be rather odd to find orinthologists wringing their hands over whether they are allowed to appreciate the position of the bird-lover (or the bird?)–to accuse each other of crypto…chirpology? But putting that aside, “religion” is obviously not like “bird.” That is, even if there is a “theory of bird,” it is certainly nothing like a theory of religion, as the entire history of religious studies shows us–as many careful genealogies of the field show us. While we might characterize the former as “positive” in the sense that it could tell us why a penguin is a bird but a bat is not (via the positive characteristics that birds possess) the latter is the story of the contestation of the very existence of any positive concept of religion and how an insistence on clear, empirically demonstrable instances of religion is actually extremely problematic often because of the politics that generates such claims. What religion “is” in this sense is primarily the story of what it is not and that it is not. It is no-thing. It is an academic invention. It is a political force. It is a discursive structure of power. As such, to insist on a rigorous genealogy of a concept such as religion must be to insist on its lack of clarity–on its slippage, its incommensurability between accounts, its disjuncture with any attempt to describe it in absolute terms. Because once we encounter an insistence on simplicity and clarity, particularly with a complex concept like religion, there’s a good chance that there are ideologies at work intent on normalizing themselves for purposes of power through an appeal to clarity and simplicity.

Which brings us back to NAASR, critical religion, and the panel where I heard this comment. It seems “a theory of bird” reflects a deep tension within NAASR itself and among scholars who are interested in denying “religion” special status as strongly as possible. To put it bluntly, the language of “natural science” seems to be the only way in which many scholars in support of the Critical Religion project can conceive of “critical approaches to religion.” The language of genealogy (in the philosophical sense) and the language of natural science are not in conflict on this view; rather, natural science seems to be the only option once the work of showing that religion is no-thing is complete. In other words, for Critical Religion, genealogy is the work that needs to be done to clear the way for the real critical work of a “natural science of religion” that can get at a wholly natural, often evolutionary biological account of what religion is, which underlies and grounds even the genealogical account.

But if genealogy must insist upon complexity, slippage, difference, disjuncture, etc., then this is an utterly incoherent position. In short, it assumes that natural science is neutral, that it is the only method that escapes politics, that it has no inherent politics, no discursive history–that it has no ideology–and, thus, is outside the scope of genealogy. One of my fellow respondents at the NAASR panel questioned Taves and Asprem on this very problem. From his perspective, it seemed as though Taves and Asprem were presenting the choice to use evolutionary biology as an explanatory method as completely apolitical. Thus, on their view for example, explaining the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11 by employing evolutionary biology has no discursive political history or baggage. He rightly questioned whether that was actually the case. In response, Taves argued that to say evolutionary biology has a politics is to engage in a dangerous, anti-intellectual project no different than climate change deniers claiming that climate change is a partisan political issue and not a scientific one.

Of course, this is totally ludicrous. Let’s ignore the fact that Taves’ comment completely misunderstands the meaning of “political” as employed by the respondent. Given so many NAASR members’ commitment to genealogy, it is, at first glance, very difficult to see how an analysis of the genealogical development of the natural sciences could be rejected out of hand so easily. Not a single person objected to Taves’ claim about the politics of evolutionary biology, let alone the claim about theories of birds. It’s especially bizarre because the history of natural science–particularly those branches that study human beings–have a deep colonial history that is often inextricable from both religion and politics, often part of the same project of disciplining and civilizing the colonized into acceptable liberal, Enlightened subjects.

If there’s anything this election season has taught me, it’s that it is a mistake to too quickly assume that people who hold two seemingly contradictory positions are actually hypocritical or acting in bad faith.

There is an explanation for this, and you won’t be surprised to learn that it can be illuminated through a genealogy of Critical Religion that shows how their deployment of “genealogy” obfuscates a problematic commitment to natural science as apolitical and, therefore, outside the scope of what genealogy is concerned with, i.e. ideology. There’s no room for a full account here, but on my view, it has to do with a too-easy, extremely vague distinction between “scientific” and “confessional” which, as I mention above, goes back to the 19th century. But I can offer this observation in closing: The relationship between post-structural genealogical theoretical modes and a commitment to natural science as a method in religious studies has generated a very interesting form of doublespeak wherein the demand for clarity of language results in the obfuscation of a contradiction, namely the one outlined above.

If you pay close enough attention to those scholars typically associated with NAASR and Critical Religion (Russell McCutcheon, Craig Martin, etc.) you begin to notice a pattern. Any new scholarship that, in their view, “protects” religion as a concept in any way is automatically full of terms intended to obfuscate the author’s point, which in turn is intended to make the argument difficult to attack–the point being that such obfuscation always prevents a reduction of the concept to more “concrete,” “clear,” or “real” terms, i.e. those of natural science. Thus, if we can point out the key terms that are meaningless, we can dismantle the author’s argument. This is the same strategy utilized by analytic philosophers and historians who find continental philosophy and “theory” in general to be needlessly dense, complex, and obscure, e.g. Derrida/Foucault/Deleuze is talking about something really simple in the most complicated way possible. If we can demonstrate the simplicity of the argument, we can show it’s not just a simple argument but a pointless one. This demand for clarity of language, that “words matter,” betrays the Critical Religion commitment to natural science which actually contradicts any commitment to genealogy they claim to have.

In other words, these scholars have staked their careers on proving to us (very successfully, I think) that religion isn’t simple. If it were, why would we need to have so many histories of the discursive power relations that generate the concept in various contexts and for various purposes of political power? Why is there ever a demand for simple straightforward language or simple, easy definitions of terms in analyses of religion–for commensurability, conjuncture, and on, and on–when genealogy shows us that the moment you encounter claims to simplicity and clarity in language, you can be absolutely sure things are not simple or clear? There is incommensurability. There is disjuncture. There is dissonance. How could there not be if “religion” is a cultural construct formed along lines of power?

Encountering Tragedy: Thoughts on Nietzsche and Plato

The goal of this post is to put onto ‘paper’ some thoughts regarding Nietzsche’s rendering of tragedy in The Birth of Tragedy and the way in which tragedy functions in Plato’s The Republic. I have prepared these thoughts within the context of writing a paper on Nietzsche and Bloch and preparing the syllabus for the introduction to philosophy course I am currently teaching at California State University Bakersfield. As I am now unable to produce anything like a lucid non-academic blog post, I have chosen to write this in essay format.


The confrontation Nietzsche seeks throughout his project with the figure of Socrates, I argue, is summarily available to his readers through the way in which Plato construes tragedy negatively as an inappropriately imitative form of art. My thesis is that Plato’s censorship of particular genres and modes of storytelling reflect the positive content Nietzsche locates within tragedy for the unleashing of the human without the constraint of a purely Apolline, epistemic, ontological commitment.

Defining Key Terms

Several key terms forms the basic building blocks for my argument and necessitate clear definition – aesthetics and tragedy. Ancillary concepts, which I define within the body of the essay, are “affirmation” and “repetition.” The order of my argument follows: aesthetics, tragedy, repetition and affirmation as tragic, and hope.

By aesthetics, I am referring to the realm of experience in which concepts of beauty, terror, or any other example within the range of human being finds expression through art and by which art elicits from people such emotions and experiences.[1] Such experiences do not occur in abstraction from philosophical concerns regarding ontology and politics, rather, the aesthetic names an integral doorway into such concerns, engaging them in ways that formal discourse cannot reach.[2]

By tragedy, I refer to particular aesthetic performances on dramatic stages. Such narratives are those that frame heroic existence against the background of the inevitability of the heroes demise. Fate will always destroy the life of the tragic person. Yet, the person continues to fight, she resists her fated destiny even to the point of death. It is precisely this resistance that occupies my attention; tragedy renders individuals in-themselves, against any transcendental grounding or guarantee of their ontological identity.

What Aesthetics Do

Insofar as I identify the tragic as a particular kind of aesthetic production capable of producing specific effects in the political lives of persons, the role of aesthetics in relationship to other modes of inquiry becomes clear; the aesthetic dimension acts together with other modes of human creation as an access points into the metaphysical realities of the world. Poetic prose, musical movements and other formations of creative art expose what Nietzsche, following Schopenhauer, refers to as the primordial one. The primordial one is the basically immanent unity from which individuated entities, social formations and power relations all arise. The one is the causal core of the world, its common substance. This “one” is precisely that which individuated being, in its initial formation before the tragic experience, denies in its persistence to remain individuated, within the status quo’s projected ontology.

With regard to the general concept of art in this context, the aesthetic moves the person from the everydayness of life in which people find themselves individuated in their notions of identity and truth. The presupposition is that the ways people exist in societal structures of power correspond to reality as such. Hierarchical thinking in morality, religion and politics serve as examples for this initial state of the person in the world.

The critical function of aesthetic production is to collapse the structure of being, to render the world to the audience as essentially one with regard to its causal contingency, its lack of teleological grounding. Such a collapse disorients notions of propriety with regard to social relations. Thus, Nietzsche’s writing on the genealogy of morals proclaims, “It might even be possible that what constituted the value of these good and revered things is precisely that they are insidiously related, tied to, and involved with these wicked, seemingly opposite things – maybe even one with them in essence.”[3]

The aesthetic is always metaphysical even as it seeks to project an anti-metaphysical posture; the aesthetic is in a verbal sense, claiming something about the nature of reality within its moving of individuals toward a reflexive awareness of one’s connection to nature’s unified causal meaninglessness. The critical nature of tragedy is that the tragic performs the function of instilling in the audience a reflexive posture with regard to such meaninglessness.

The reflexivity Nietzsche wishes to engender through tragic drama is not the sort of posture one finds in the form of idealist thought. Rather, in affirming that existence, that nature itself, is an aesthetic phenomenon, Nietzsche advances a vision of human being that turns the nihilist pain of nature’s being into a resource for what Deleuze refers to as “the joy of affirmation as such,” the reorienting of the self to the immediacy of experience. The problem is not individuation in-itself but rather the sort of individuated structures of life that obscure primal realities of chaotic force in the erection of concepts of meaning.

Affirmation in the context of the movement into the primordial pain and chaos of existence and back out into an individuated state of self we may term “repetition.”[4] I want to position “repetition” within Giles Deleuze’s reading of Nietzsche; repetition denotes the affirmation of the validity of every singularity of being, different from the other and from transcendental definition. Repetition is the affirmation of every individuation that occurs after exposure to the primordial pain of reality humans experience through aesthetic exposure.[5]

Here I must be clear with regard to the differentiation between an affirmation of individuation and that of subjectivity. Subjectivity is a concept reliant upon the structures of traditional ontological discourse. Repetition, however, is the affirmation of life’s unlimited singularity within the univocal reality of the world’s chaos. In this sense, Nietzsche’s tragic movement of the person constitutes an affirmation of agency in the moment.

Nietzsche’s tragic person corresponds to an agency of “will.” This is a notion of agency in which all transcendental conditions for “the subject” become diffuse across the plane of immanent exposure to the primal realities of life .

We are to recognize that everything which comes into being must be prepared for painful destruction; we are forced to gaze into the terrors of individual existence – and yet we are not to freeze in horror: its metaphysical solace tears us momentarily out of the turmoil of changing figures. For brief moments we are truly the primordial being itself and we feel its unbound greed and lust for being…we are pierced by the furious sting of these pains at the very moment when, as it were, we become one with the immeasurable….Despite fear and pity, we are happily alive.[6]

Nature as Aesthetic Phenomenon

Nietzsche defines nature as an essentially aesthetic phenomenon, and in so doing addresses the problematic political relationship between oneness and individuation. Individuation in the first instance denotes a political ontology of an authoritarian nature; it denies the primal oneness and contingency of the world, and subsumes the subversive transgression against nature that is human agency in light of contingent being. Only an ontology that abandons this notion of individuation within the order of nature is able to posit a concept of identity that does not subsume the person within a hierarchical, or theological, structure of being-qua-being.

Rather, the Nietzschean realisation of tragic being attempts to ‘ground’ singular existent persons on no thing other than their self-assertion, their will-to-be, in themselves.[7] Tragic individuation turns out to be a notion of agency, which denies nature’s order in the assertion of the person’s singularity against the backdrop of death. The person in everyday existence is transformed into a tragic hero insofar as she asserts her singular newness of life in the face of her fated being-in-one, insofar as she grabs ahold of the contingency of her being and lets go of the false individuations, which metaphysicians and moralists sale for comfort.

In order to undo the condition of un-reflexive individuation and reach the concept of subversive agency, Nietzsche must render nature itself as an essentially aesthetic phenomenon. Nietzsche’s assertion takes form in the theoretical arena of metaphysical problems concerning transcendence and immanence, oneness and plurality; the question is how does one justify existence in all of its individuated forms, which include Church dogma, when the nihilistic reality of oneness in-death looms overhead?

By posing the question in this context Nietzsche takes aim against both the theoretical underpinnings and the societal structuring of human reality itself. Tragedy is that movement of music, bodies on the stage and emotions that confronts the individuated audience and beckons them into reality’s inevitable unity. The tragic rendering of the gods, for example, illustrates this function of tragic drama insofar as the gods are made to live the lives of humans and represent the elemental forms of nature. Through this representation the gods seduce human beings to continue living through a catharsis of seeing the truth of their being mediated. Thus, Nietzsche calls nature as an aesthetic phenomenon “the only satisfactory theodicy,” justifying the world through solidarity as opposed to logic.[8]

Here the importance of thinking tragedy becomes clear with regard to religion; the gods who correspond to the capricious natural elements function in a mythological sense in the same way as the stage itself, creating the necessary distance in which the audience is able to approach the nihilistic core of being without being overwhelmed and destroyed. Religious imagery and experience will function for Bloch in a similar fashion, bringing the religious person into contact with parts of their political and ontological reality that are unknown prior to the aesthetic experience.

The Mechanism of Tragedy: Schein

I want to explain the mechanics of Nietzsche’s tragedy that allows for the creation of the necessary distance between the audience and the reality of the world through the gods and stage. I wish to draw attention to the role of “semblance” as the primary vehicle through which tragedy accomplishes its dual task of deconstruction and reconstruction of individuals. The link between ‘representation’ and metaphysics is the essential feature of Nietzsche’s theory of nature and semblance is where this link occurs; semblance is the artistic creation on which human meaning is founded.

Semblance names the aesthetic element that Nietzsche finds basic in human existence. Nietzsche begins The Birth of Tragedy by accounting for the occurrence of dreaming as one instance of semblance’s appearance, denoting its basically hidden place in the constitution of human nature. Nietzsche writes, “When this dream-reality is most alive, we nevertheless retain a pervasive sense that it is semblance…philosophical natures even have a presentiment that hidden beneath the reality in which we live and have our being there also lies a…quite different reality…this too is a semblance.”[9] Thus, the world of human life is essentially aesthetic semblance.

To be clear, semblance does not denote something unreal, but rather identifies the mechanical reality of how humans think about the real. Tragedy does something to the audience insofar as it engages this hitherto unknown metaphysical feature of human being. Tragedy moves the audience into the flux of the emotive and spiritual realms of their existence. This movement questions the terms of agreed upon social ontology in its exposure of ontology itself, as a discourse of power, as semblance. The deconstruction of ontology itself frees the individual, empowering her to assert her will in-the-world without regard for essentialist notions of identity or ultimate meaning beyond her immanently given self.

Plato’s Censorship of Schein

It is the role of schein in the tragic production which Plato finds damaging in The Republic. Semblance of this kind enables humans, through an imitative experience to sympathize with and to live-into the reality of the stage, in opposition to the hitherto unacknowledged semblance of everyday existence in ordered society. Such imitative possibility is the definition of subversion with regard to the necessary ordering of the polis’ life.

Plato establishes early on in book III of The Republic a sense of moral propriety with which the rulers of the polis are to judge particular stories. Interestingly, and politically telling given the above analysis of Nietzsche, Plato positions the poetic merit of a story as coterminous with a story’s potential to affect corruption upon the city’s youth.[10] More pertinent to the theoretical divide between Nietzsche’s upholding of tragedy against the figure of Socrates, however, is the way in which Plato proceeds to define three specific modes by which one is able to tell a particular story. “Now I think I can make it clear t you what I couldn’t make clear before, that one type of poetry and storytelling is purely imitative – this is tragedy and comedy, as you say. In another type, the poet tells his own story…The third type, using both imitation and narrative.”[11]

Each type of storytelling corresponds with a particular set of behaviors and habits that each story produces within people. In short, the founders should censor any aesthetic production that engenders imitation inappropriate to one’s “natural aptitude” and corresponding role within the city.[12] It is precisely this schematization and censorship of aesthetic production itself, suspending concern for particular content, that separates the Socratic posture and the liberated will of human spirit in Nietzsche’s work.

The drive of the Socratic posture is the equation of knowledge and wisdom, and the political correspondent equates to each manifests as the properly ordered, intelligible, society.[13] The power of the unconstrained tragic production to pull oneself into the purely imitative posture subverts this rational, scientific and moral order.

“For there is an infinite number of points on the periphery of the circle of science, and while we have no way of foreseeing how the circle could ever be completed, a noble and gifted man inevitably encounters, before the mid-point of his existence, boundary points on the periphery like this, where he stares into that which cannot be illuminated. When, to his horror, he sees how logic curls up around itself at these limits and finally bites its own tail, then a new form of knowledge breaks through, tragic knowledge, which, simply to be endured, needs art for protection and as medicine.”[14]


What tragedy breaks apart is the inability of the person to exist in limitation with regard to one’s relationship to aesthetic production. The danger Plato’s locates in comedy and tragedy as imitative kinds of aesthetic production is exactly where Nietzsche locates the horrific freedom for life after tragedy. Tragic truth obliterates the surety of moral and epistemic order, leaving the door open for tragic agency in the world to emerge in opposition to every sense of propriety.

What I find most interesting is how each thinker’s analysis, opposite as they are with regard to prescriptive argument, details the same affect aesthetic form has upon people. The formal movement that occurs in the imitative tragedy is what is most dangerous and liberative. In this sense, both Plato and Nietzsche locate the potency of tragedy in the same fashion. The only difference is with regard to ontological commitment.

[1] Audi, R., The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. Second Edition: 1999, Cambridge England; New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 12. “Questions specific to the field of aesthetics are: Is there a special attitude, the aesthetic attitude, which we should take toward works of art and the natural environment, and what is it like? Is there a distinctive type of experience, an aesthetic experience, and what is it? Is there a special object of attention that we can call the aesthetic object? Finally, is there a distinctive value, aesthetic value, comparable with moral, epistemic, and religious values?”

[2] Eagleton, T. The Ideology of the Aesthetic. 1990, Oxford, UK ; Cambridge, Mass., USA; Blackwell. p. 3. Eagleton, admitting that his readers will most likely find his definition of aesthetic too vague or all-encompassing with regard to the political qualifications of aesthetics writes, “But is the aesthetic returns with such persistence, it is partly because of a certain interdeterminancy of definition which allows it to figure in a varied span of preoccupations: freedom and legality, spontaneity and necessity, self-determination, autonomy, particularity and universality, along with several others. My argument, broadly speaking, is that the category of the aesthetic assumes the importance it does in modern Europe because in speaking of art it speaks of these other matters too, which are at the heart of the middle class’s struggle for political hegemony.”

[3] Nietzsche, F.W. and W.A. Kaufmann, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future. 1989, New York: Vintage Books. p. 10

[4] Deleuze, G., Nietzsche and Philosophy. European Perspectives. 1983, New York: Columbia University Press. pp. 71-72. Here Deleuze offers a picture of how repetition manifests within Nietzsche’s work via the concept of the eternal return. “The eternal return is the being of becoming. But becoming is double: becoming-active and becoming-reactive, becoming-active of reactive forces and becoming reactive of active forces. But only becoming-active has being; it would be contradictory for the being of becoming to be affirmed of a becoming-reactive, of a becoming that is itself nihilistic. The eternal return would become contradictory if it were the return of reactive forces. The eternal return teaches us that becoming-reactive has no being. Indeed, it also teaches us of the existence of a becoming-active. It necessarily produces becoming-active by reproducing becoming…The old song is the cycle and the whole, universal being. But the complete formula of affirmation is: the whole, yes, universal being, yes, but universal being ought to belong to a single becoming, the whole ought to belong to a single moment.” Repetition is the continual movement into the newness of life in-the-world, a decision to be oneself, to create oneself, to be(come) one’s singular existent, to borrow from Jean-Luc Nancy’s lexicon.

[5] Deleuze. Difference and Repetition. p. 57. Here the relationship between the dismantling of transcendental reasoning and the affirmation of will-in-itself, through within the singular occurrences difference as ‘will’, becomes clear. “It is always differences which resemble one another, which are analogous, opposed or identical: difference is behind everything, but behind difference there is nothing. Each difference passes through all the others; it must ‘will’ itself or find itself through all the others.”

[6] [6] Nietzsche, F.W., R. Geuss, and R. Speirs, The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings. Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy. 1999, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 80-81. Here Nietzsche is specifically describing the function of Dionysian art. However, for the purposes of my analysis of agency, his description illustrates the sort of movement into the univocal reality of chaos from which the will emerges in assertive, tragically heroic, force.

[7] Nietzsche. The Birth of Tragedy. p. 82. While Nietzsche provides other examples of the sort of hierarchies he attempting to deconstruct, or more appropriately ‘reevaluate,’ here Nietzsche illustrates the logic behind such hierarchical individuations of human being. The logic which Nietzsche opposes is, “the dialectical drive towards knowledge and the optimism of science…there is an eternal struggle between the theoretical and the tragic views of the world.” Socrates represents the quintessential anti-tragic thinker insofar as he embodies this posture toward knowledge over and against tragic embodiment of life in-the-world as primary. While Nietzsche refers specifically to science in this instance, theological morality Here, as my invocation of Heidegger’s neologism suggests, the Nietzschean posture informs the Heideggerian disavowal of metaphysics, of the onto-theological constitution of metaphysics. Against “Being” as “ground,” the most elementary definition of “nature,” both Nietzsche and Heidegger render Being as somewhat perverse, as chaotic and in opposition to singular beings, participating in reality with them but not defining their various essences. See: M. Heidegger, Identity and Difference. 1st ed. 1969, New York,: Harper & Row. p. 57.

[8] Nietzsche. Birth of Tragedy. p. 24.

[9] Nietzsche. Birth of Tragedy. p. 15.

[10] Plato, G.R.F. Ferrari, and T. Griffith, The Republic. Cambridge texts in the history of political thought. 2000, Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 71-72. Here, Plato specifically refers to the censoring of theological stories. “We shall have to ask them to stop being so negative about the underworld, and find something positive to say about it instead…Not that they lack poetic merit, or that they don’t give pleasure to most people. They do. But the more merit they have, the less suitable they are for boys and men who are expected to be free, and fear slavery more than death.”

[11] Plato. The Republic. p. 82

[12] Plato. The Republic. p. 52. Natural aptitude, the natural place of each individual in the world, forms the basis by which the person socializes into society. “And one thing immediately struck me when you said that, which is that one individual is by nature quite unlike another individual, that they differ in their natural aptitudes, and that different people are equipped to perform different tasks.”

[13] Plato. The Republic. p. 60. “And are love of knowledge and love of wisdom the same thing?’ ‘They are.”

[14] Nietzsche. Birth of Tragedy. p. 75.

The Time of Economy

In his The Kingdom and the Glory, Giorgio Agamben demonstrates that the key distinction at play in the theological thinking on economy is that between monarchy and economy; between God’s being and activity. To put it another way, the question that necessitates the elaboration of an economy is that of how to account for simultaneous unity and multiplicity in God; a simultaneity that is later worked out in philosophical elaboration on the doctrine of the trinity.

“Oikonomia,” the Greek reader will remember, “means ‘administration of the house.’”[1] And so, the distinction between politics and economy is founded in (pseudo-)Aristotle’s treatise on economy in the distinction between the city and the household:

…it is important not to forget that the oikos is not the modern single-family house or simply the extended family, but a complex organism composed of heterogenous relations, entwined with each other, which Aristotle divides into three groups: ‘despotic’ relations between masters and slaves […]; ‘paternal’ relations between parents and children; ‘gamic’ relations between husband and wife. These ‘economic’ relations are linked by a paradigm we could define as ‘administrative’ and not epistemic: in other words, it is a matter of an activity that is not bound to a system of rules, and does not constitute a science in the proper sense. This activity rather implies decisions and orders that cope with problems that are each time specific and concern the functional order of the different parts of the oikos.[2]

Once this concept is transposed into theological language it has been generally assumed to acquire the meaning of a ‘divine plan of salvation.’ Agamben argues that this reading is a projection into the ‘sense’ of the word what is in fact simply an extension of the same sense into different denotative fields. It’s not that economy takes on a ‘technical’ theological sense, but instead what occurs is “a displacement of its denotation onto the theological field, which is progressively misunderstood and perceived as a new meaning.”[3]

The bulk of the second book in the pseudo-Aristotelian Economics is devoted to a series of anecdotes on the generation of monetary revenue: a sort of catalogue of governmental money-making schemes. Kings, city leaders, and property owners are recorded as engaged in any number of management paradigms wherein they increase their monetary wealth by variously dispensing the productive relations under their power; manipulating taxes, temple offerings, celebrations, etc., in order to encourage increases in production and tax revenue. What is of interest is the improvisational nature of these unscientific tactics: each is undertaken in order to deal with some contingent circumstance that the monarchic ruler wishes to approach. Often, this circumstance is the need to pay soldiers for war, but in any case what is at stake is the acquisition of commodities which embody a use-value for the ruler. That common law of household economics maintains a constant force: “that the expenditure must not exceed the income.”[4] In Marxian language, the classical origins of economy never exceed the strict temporality of the C-M-C relation: a commodity’s exchange-value is alienated by a seller, who gains money for it, money which is then alienated in favor of a new commodity which embodies for the buyer a use-value. And so, at one moment the monarchic economic actor has at his disposal exchange-value; at another, money; at the last, use-value to be expended for the monarch’s aims. The entrance of credit and debt into this equation do nothing to effect the strict linearity of this economic ‘time:’ what the monarch has in his possession at any given moment strictly limits the possibility of his economic action.

The temporality of the divine economy, however, is not constrained by this linearity. We can perhaps see this most clearly in the mechanism of recapitulation. According to this logic, what is necessary to cancel the debt that humanity has incurred is a sort of return to the original point of sale: from the point of view of this reenactment, which corrects the original retrospectively, the status of the original act of debt changes, appearing no longer as a theft or removal, but as a step in a chain towards the gratuitous redemption of humanity by God. According to the logic or recapitulation, this earlier ineffectiveness of the divine economy can be transmuted into an effective step into that economy. Anselm conceives of the recapitulation by Christ of Adam’s sin in terms of a two-moment motif borrowed from Irenaeus: if the problem of sin is opened by Eve and then universalized in Adam, then it is fitting that repetition and correction of Adam’s transmission of sin to humanity would be accompanied by a recapitulation of Eve’s original act; and so the pair Mary-Jesus comes to echo that of Eve-Adam.

According to the linearity of a C-M-C economy, however, this presents a paradox: how is it that Mary, who is still under the sin of Adam, can recapitulate Eve? What is required is a certain economic futurity: the future of the economy must be able to meaningfully recondition the present. And so, “that Virgin from whom the man about whom we are speaking was one of those who, before his birth were cleansed of sins through him, and he received from her in the state of cleanness which was hers.”[5] In the logic of recapitulation, the temporality of speculation (which, while not absent from Aristotle’s time is clearly delineated from the notion of economy as such) becomes the basic temporality of the divine economy, now freed from the former constraints of linear finitude.

[1] Agamben, The Kingdom and the Glory, 17.
[2] Ibid., 17-18.
[3] Ibid., 21.
[4] Aristotle, Economics, II.1.14-16 (2135)
[5] Anselm of Canterbury, Cur Deus Homo in The Major Works, II:16, 340.

Atonement and Economy

First, a bit of a meta-comment: faithful readers will note that some promised posts (notably on mysticism) have failed to materialize. Sorry. I’ve been a little terrible at keeping up on blog stuff this summer, what with conferences, trips, and my independent study. I’ll try to get something out here in reference to my work on Marguerite Porete soon, but this is still not that post.

I’ve been working on a study of patristic and medieval atonement theories this summer, exploring connections between the concepts of atonement and economy in hopes that this connection might yield a thesis topic. I’m happy to say that this study has been massively ‘paying off,’ and that I’ll probably be proposing a thesis related to the topic this fall. In the meantime, as I begin synthesizing some of this work for a paper on Anselm, I thought that readers might be interested in some of my preliminary thinking, since it combines several of the native interests of the blog:

…two broadly speaking political paradigms, antinomical but functionally related to one another, derive from Christian theology: political theology, which founds the transcendence of sovereign power on the single God, and economic theology, which replaces this transcendence with the idea of an oikonomia, concieved as an immanent ordering—domestic and not political in a strict sense—of both divine and human life. Political philosophy and the modern theory of sovereignty derive from the first paradigm; modern biopolitics up to the current triumph of economy and government over every other aspect of social life derive from the second paradigm.[1]

In the sixteenth chapter of the first book of his Cur Deus Homo, Anselm of Canterbury begins a lengthy diversion from his otherwise meticulously [streamlined?] treatment of the necessity of Christ’s incarnation and atonement. Anselm’s digression picks up a prior Augustinian notion: the numbering and replacement by humans of fallen angels.

It should not be doubted that reasoning beings […] exist in a rationally calculated and perfect number known in advance by God, and thus it would not be fitting for it to be greater or less. For either God does not know what number would be best for reasoning beings to exist—a false supposition, or, if he does know, he will bring it about that they exist in the number which he will recognize to be most fitting for this purpose.[2]

The paradox is that either the angels were created in the correct number in the beginning (and thus there are now ‘gaps’ in that number) or God made ‘extra’ angels, and thus in some sense created the necessity that some would fall, since for there to be more angels than needed would contravene the perfection of God’s ordering of the angels.[3] It may come as no surprise, then, that the question concerning angels is a question of God’s economy.[4] How is it that this aporia is to be reconciled with God’s administration of the world? Indeed, it will also come as no surprise that the history of atonement is one of the privileged places where economic theology is worked out in explicit detail: after all, where is God’s administration of the world more evident than in God’s active intervention as the God/man? And so economic theology has always been concerned first of all with an economy of salvation, of a certain administrative dispensation according to which the world is reconciled to God’s order and purpose.

What this digression into angelology reveals, in addition to the connection between atonement and economy, is a certain relation between economy and theodicy. After all, the reason the problem of fallen angels appears as a scandal is that the choice isn’t simply between two versions of the ineffectuality of the divine economy, but between ineffectuality and something more sinister; between ‘gaps’ in God’s economy created by the fallen, and a God whose economy in some sense presupposes evil as integral to its effect.

The question that motivates me here is, in a sense, Anselm’s own: “by what logic or necessity did God become man, and by his death […] restore life to the world[?]”[5] My intent, however, is to shift the emphasis of this question ‘by what logic?’ What sort of logical machinery has to be in place to render intelligible the death of the god/man in terms of a redemption; an economy that exchanges a murder for a reconciliation. “Given a certain effect,” we might ask, “what machine is capable of producing it? And given a certain machine, what can it be used for?”[6] Further, my wager is that in posing this connection between atonement and economy, what becomes clear is a concomitant connection between economy and theodicy—a connection that continues to condition the secularized governmental paradigm of economy.

A common objection to ‘economic’ treatments of atonement—and Anselmian atonement in particular—is that these treatments flatten a mysterious and gratuitous theological motif into simple exchange and bookkeeping. What these objections miss is that the economic field already exceeds the delimitation of a field of the calculus of exchange; a field of markets and commodities. The economic field concerns a government, or a dispensation, not only of the exchange of commodities but of the allocation of bodies, of production in the broadest possible sense. Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory already in some sense explores the theological development of this paradigm, but I think there’s something important that’s missed in his zeal to separate economic theology from its traditional locus in ‘redemption:’ certainly, it is necessary to challenge the thesis according to which economy and salvation are merely synonyms of each other; in other words, the thesis that the term ‘economy’ as it appears in patristic and medieval Christian thinking refers more or less to the general notion of a ‘divine plan of salvation,’ in contradistinction to non-theological usage of the term. But by focusing on the question of economy in relation to the paradox of a unified will that directs a diverse governmental dispensation, what’s left unthought is the relation between this development and its connection with theodicy and temporality. What makes the specifically Christian form of economy effectively governmental is that it brings along with it an economic theodicy and an economic time: a time that will render thinkable new formations of credit and debt. Further, the relations between these terms necessitate the ability to think economy in terms of modes of transmission and circulation: and so the history of blood and the history of economy begin to intertwine.

I plan to post two more blog entries on this before I start writing the proper thesis: the next one will be on the question of time and economy in Anselm, and the one after that will be on blood, economy, and theodicy.

[1] Giorgio Agamben, The Kingdom and the Glory, 1.
[2] Anselm of Canterbury, Cur Deus Homo, in The Major Works, 290.
[3] Anselm notes that one of the obvious solutions to this dilemma would be the restoration of each of the fallen angels to their original place. Such a reinstatement, however, is impossible for Anselm because of the terms under which any redemption must be effected. We will return to this point in a later section. For now, it is the concerns that animate the dilemma—rather than Anselm’s solution—that is of interest.
[4] While he does not deal specifically with Anselm, Giorgio Agamben has mapped the significance of this relation between angelology and economy—which Anselm inherits from Augustine, and which Aquinas will inherit from both—in his The Kingdom and the Glory. See especially the sixth chapter, “Angelology and Bureaucracy.”
[5] Anselm, Cur Deus Homo, 265.
[6] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus.

Theology, Science, and Critical Discourse (Part 4)

I concluded Part 3 by pointing out that Troeltsch departs from Rickert on the question of “value neutrality.” It’s worth noting that this is also a departure from Troeltsch’s friend and colleague at Heidelberg, Max Weber, who is really the father of the idea of ethical neutrality in social science scholarship.

This first departure is arguably both Troeltsch’s most subtle and his most important. His case against value free judgment is primarily built upon the fact that without something recognizable in ourselves, we would never be able to make a judgment in the first place. This does not open the door, however, for unscientific polemic against cultures and histories as objects of study; rather, it is precisely what allows for empathy, for an even handed and rigorous study of unfamiliar times and places. This is also not say that such studies become automatically subsumed under the normative value judgments of the scholar. Rather, as we shall see, Troeltsch argues along Rickertian lines that value relations constitute the organizing principle of historical study.

Troeltsch agrees with Rickert that in the course of human history thus far, there are actually very few values which we can claim as relevant to history. This fact immediately eliminates the concern of an insurmountable and overwhelming relativism which had assumed that there was no means of establishing any sort of non-arbitrary way of approaching the infinite manifold. Thus a hopeless relativism (or irrationalism) is no longer an issue. This first step is important for Troeltsch particularly in rejecting the claim of the orthodox apologetic that the materials of history are dangerously relative, offering no means of discerning values in a normative way. On the contrary, history provides us with precisely the most salient normative developments. Troeltsch writes:

The important thing is to compare these developments in such a way as to take in the widest possible historical horizon in the hope of discerning not a universal principle of law like that at work in concepts employed in the natural sciences but a principle suggestive of tendencies toward a common goal. […] We will draw together the most outstanding results of man’s spiritual development that are known and accessible to us, basing this procedure on the supposition that their being known to us is not a mere accident but is due to the fact that they are the only significant developments which spring from an elemental matrix.

Among the world’s major religions, Troeltsch argues that there are really only “three or four basic orientations in which the power of religion is disclosed, orientations that have their counterpart in, and give support to, entire spheres of culture.” On the surface, this claim sounds reductive; however, these orientations serve as value concepts in precisely the same way that Rickert’s understanding of values functions–with the vital difference that they are not universal. In other words, these concepts only function in historical study insofar as they hold validity for reality. They are ideal, not real. They do not presuppose a correspondence to reality. And they are permeable, malleable, and non-permanent. Troeltsch tempers this assertion with the following:

There is nothing to prevent us from regarding the significant results of scientific, political, artistic, social, and religious life as enduring. It must be remembered, however, that just as these results took shape within definite contexts, so too they always assume individual forms. The doctrine of endless progress, or rather the theory of endless change, is a groundless prejudgment that seems plausible only to people who have consigned all metaphysical ideas regarding a transcendent background of history to the status of illusion—and with such ideas the religious belief in the unity and meaningfulness of reality.

We may take this as yet another illustration of his attempt to temper the relative with the absolute and vice versa. He is not content to take either on their own as a ground from which to approach history—only the two together.

In broad strokes, the same can be said of Troeltsch’s ambiguous gesture toward a “common goal;” however, more unpacking is necessary to see what he is getting at there. He acknowledges that this idea is at least vaguely reminiscent of the absolute which he has already rejected. Indeed, he means the concept of the common goal to replace the absolute altogether. This common goal, as a concept, has no content but serves as a general telos, as a criterion for judgment and is in this respect at least related to the previous idea of the absolute. The vital distinction between the common goal and the absolute, however, is found in the former’s origin. Troeltsch writes:

In the same way that we today think of the ultimate primarily as an inexhaustible movement of life, we may likewise understand the criterion of evaluation as something that merges within this movement of life as a result of a universal perspective on the one hand, and involvement in this movement on the other. It can be characterized as the determining of a direction, the setting of a course among the great, dominant tendencies of history. The criterion itself is both the product of a particular historical situation and a means for its further development; it is not a static and completed principle that determines how the process will take place (my emphasis).

In other words, Troeltsch is attempting a new understanding of what it means for a concept to be essential or a priori; namely, that all such concepts have a history of development, are currently in development, and have an unknowable historical trajectory.

We can see here Troeltsch’s explicit rejection of an absolute principle outside of history as the criterion for normative judgments. In effect, Troeltsch’s argument leads to the conclusion that Christianity must be understood in the context of the history of religions–with the important difference from Ritschl that it not have an ahistorical organizing principle driving it. That is, whether the common goal takes the form of the overcoming of suffering, perfect moral and spiritual development, or the establishment of a kingdom of God, Christianity must always be understood in the context of the basic orientations of the history of religion so that a proper comparison may be made, and thus an evaluation. This comparison is not a means of establishing Christianity as the absolute religion above all others; rather, it is a means of clarifying the internal, subjective commitments of the individual Christian or Christian community. In other words, the criterion that serves as the principle of judgment is always ultimately a matter of personal conviction–the conviction of the historical church.

The history of theology and the church move forward when emerging ideas, those beyond the historical horizon of the current epoch, flood into the mainstream by fusing with current ideas/social-historical-material conditions. And this isn’t only true for theological history, obviously. Troeltsch thinks this is how history moves–not “forward” necessarily, but it moves. Troeltsch also thinks this process is much more rational and “clean” than either Weber or the historical theologian Karl Holl do, which itself could be a whole different series. In the final post, I’ll finally give me own commentary on Troeltsch and Rickert and how I think they can contribute to the articulation of a materialist theology.

Theology, Science, and Critical Discourse (Part 3)

We finally arrive at Ernst Troeltsch and his engagement with a multifaceted and problematic relationship between theology and social science. In parts 1 and 2, I laid out the problems he is grappling with as I understand them. On the one hand, we have the dual problems of “value neutrality” and the “objectivity of values” in historical and social scientific study and on the other, we have the problem of theology as a discipline centered around an organizing principle, attempting to take into consideration the development of Christianity as one world religion alongside others, while also utilizing its organizing principle to assert its own absoluteness.

In the foreword to the first edition of The Absoluteness of Christianity and the History of Religions, Troeltsch remarks that the aim of the text is to clarify the relationship between the “theological faculties” and those utilized in the study of the history of religion. Systematic theology, traditionally a discipline of describing absolutes in the form of law-like doctrines, seems to shake itself free of historical contingency through its appeal to the absolute, universal truth claimed to be central to and revealed through Christianity. Its sister discipline, historical theology, does not carry the same normative tone, but instead examines the ways in which doctrine has attempted a normative approximation of the absolute. Theology, Troeltsch says, is primarily concerned with normative knowledge, which it derives, he argues, “from the history of religion instead of from scholastic theories of revelation or apologetics against philosophical systems,” in order to “give to the Christian world of thought a form that will correspond to the present religious and intellectual situation.” In other words, Troeltsch here accepts Ritschl’s claims about historicism but rejects his Hegelianism in the form of an absolute principle toward which Christianity is unfolding. What Troeltsch is after, then, is adescription of a theology that is able to maintain both intellectual and normative rigor while delimiting the two extremes of absolutism and relativism along non-universalizing lines through a unification of the two. He argues throughout the text that the absolute and the relative are inextricably linked, that both history and theology find their deepest meaning in their connection to the universal and the absolute as he now understands those terms. Troeltsch is arguing for a different understanding the absolute here, one that escapes both the problems he finds in the Hegelian understanding of history and those of traditional apologetics.

itroelt001p1This relationship, as Troeltsch understands it, raises interesting questions about the nature of theology as a discipline, and especially (as I mentioned in the first post) it’s relationship to the natural sciences and its place within the academy more broadly. As Troeltsch himself and later Troeltschian scholars note in detail, this question is central to The Absoluteness of Christianity: What are the constructive possibilities for a systematic theology that is necessarily bound to its own time and place with no appeal to be made to an absolute telos as its anchor?

The consensus among much of the theological community has long been that Troeltsch’s project ultimately failed, primarily because it could not adequately reconcile the poles of absolutism and relativism; hence, theology snapped back toward the former in the theology of Karl Barth. But I think a re-examination of Troeltsch’s theology by paying particular attention to his articulation of a properly scientific theology in light of Heinrich Rickert’s philosophy of history, especially the ways in which the latter outlines the process of concept formation in both the natural and historical sciences, could be fruitful in clarifying the relationship between theology and religious studies/sociology of religion and even theology and the hard sciences. Furthermore, it seems to me that one of the primary faults in traditional criticism of Troeltsch has been to read his project as attempting to reconcile two sides of a binary, that is, find some sort of “third way” between them, rather than as an attempt to articulate a means of doing away with that binary all together.

A constructive Neo-Kantian Troeltschian theology can probably best be understood as a normative-historical science which develops concepts of historical individuals out of a non-essential value and general concept apparatus that constitutes the “core” of Christianity itself. In Rickertian terms, constructive theology for Troeltsch proceeds in the development of historical concepts in relation to a set of values taken as ahistorical but always manifested historically as well as a set of general concepts that establish a permeable boundary for theological discourse. The important Rickertian resource in this move is the way in which concepts are related to reality itself: historical concepts more closely reflect our actual experience of reality than any other type of concept, whereas general concepts are empty of all empirical content and instead hold validity for reality (see Part 1.) Neither concept type has any ontological content; they are only two different ways of regarding our experience of reality. I read Troeltsch, therefore, as advancing a viable material-ideational strategy (not in a binary sense) for systematic theology, one that is necessarily dependent upon the historical and social situation in which it is produced yet is still able to secure the normative authority necessary to still be called a properly constructive theology.

Troeltsch sets up the historical problem as it exists in the study of religion in particular, although it is clear he thinks that the problematic exists in historical study more generally as well. Troeltsch’s terminology, relativity and absoluteness, roughly parallels Rickert’s distinction between the individual and the general when referring to concepts. Troeltsch writes, “Relativity simply means that all historical phenomena are unique, individual configurations acted on by influences from a universal context that comes to bear on them in varying degrees of immediacy.” Both are concerned with the potential meaninglessness that the infinite manifold of experience presents us with. However, Troeltsch brings to bear the normativity which theology and religion more generally demand out of the manifold—to transcend the manifold—on his formation of the problem. In other words, the problem is not simply that the selection of historical individuals has the potential to be arbitrary given the nature of empirical experience but more importantly in the theological context such selection has the seemingly obvious potential of lacking any authoritatively normative content at all thereby rendering such selection non-theological by definition.

The result of this tension between theology and history has been recourse to the absolute. The parallel between this term and the function of general concepts and universal laws is not quite as clear nor is it as strong. Troeltsch identifies two ways in which the same absolute has been regarded in the history of the church. The first, Troeltsch refers to as “the apologetic of supernatural, orthodox theology”—namely, the primary tradition of the Church writ large—which, though it may admit the historical contingency of human institutions (i.e. the Church), still holds that these institutions have access to a universal, absolute truth that is outside of history. The second and Troeltsch’s primary target he refers to as the “evolutionary apologetic.” This is the absolute according to Hegel’s speculative philosophy, which similarly posits an absolute of which all of history partakes and toward which all history is unfolding. Under both methods, however, the absolute is more or less the same thing: an ahistorical, universal guiding principle. It is the absolute telos under which all historical individuals are subsumed. It is in this way that doctrines can achieve the status of “divine law” if they are posited as universal and outside of the scope of history.

Troeltsch’s aim, then, is to resolve the tension between history and theology—between the relative and the absolute. Troeltsch writes that the problem of resolving this tension is “the problem of how to discern, in the relative, tendencies toward the absolute goal. Or, to state the problem more accurately: How does one work out a fresh, durable, and creative synthesis that will give the absolute the form possible to it at a particular moment and yet remain true to its inherent limitation as a mere approximation of true, ultimate, and universally valid values? That is the nub of the problem, and it cannot be set aside either by the naturalization of history or by skeptically oriented specialization. It arises directly out of the material of history itself.” As we saw with Rickert, the material of history is a selected material according to specific value relations, and it is in the process of selection that Troeltsch most radically departs from Rickert, particularly in his understanding of value relations and valuation. In short, Troeltsch does not think that value neutrality is actually possible or even desirable in historical study broadly conceived. In Part 4, we’ll turn to an examination of Troeltsch’s proposal for a solution.


Theology, Science, and Critical Discourse (Part 2)

More time than I would’ve liked has passed between part 1 and 2 of this series. I’ve been in Berlin since the beginning of July improving my German and will be here until the end of August. My intensive language course has left little time for comprehensive exam preparation, let alone blog posts! Still, I’ve managed to find some time to crank out some reflections here. In this post, I begin to move into a discussion of theology by first considering Ernst Troelthsch’s mentor Albrecht Ritschl. Ritschl provides the second stream which flows into the river of Troeltsch’s thought and is important to consider so that we can see what Troeltsch is doing in his project (which will be the third post, contrary to what the first post says.)

In the first part of these posts, I laid out Heinrich Rickert’s philosophy of history which includes the justification for a viable human science on the basis of historical individuals and value relations. I also pointed out the obvious ways in which this methodology went very bad very quickly and remained so until the latter half of the 20th century when critical discourses were finally able to diagnose the various problems that underlay methodology in the social sciences. I’m especially interested in how theology fits into this story, particularly in whether theology is interested in the general or the individual (as Rickert understands those terms) or if instead it can somehow take an interest in both that doesn’t fall into the traps that Rickert’s philosophy does. Aside from what, from the perspective of critical discourse, is the impossibility of value neutrality and indeed the necessity of examining value neutral discourses to expose their underlying colonial, patriarchal, etc. commitments, Rickert’s insistence on the objectivity of values (i.e. value neutrality) seems to expose him to the precise criticism which he levels against positivism in the first part of The Limits of Concept Formation in Natural Science.

Remember that objectivity in the strict Kantian sense does not mean and should not be equated with knowing things as they are in themselves, i.e. knowing reality as it actually is. What Rickert is insisting on instead is to regard values as objects–but this is tricky. Values, we’ll remember from the last post, though they are abstracted from empirically reality, have no empirical reality when taken as the objective ground of historical study–they are wholly ideal. His insistence on this point is a little confusing since it seems like the point he is wanting to make is that these values are basically additional categories of perception, both empirically real and transcendentally ideal. Thinking back to Kant, we’ll remember that in order for perception to even be possible, these categories are required–they’re what make it possible for us to talk about empirical reality at all. But they themselves are not observable within empirical reality (e.g. Hume’s famous refutation of the observation of a necessary cause and effect.) The problem is that value is not a demonstrable condition of perception, and Rickert is aware of this. Values, then, essentially become general categories of value. This is the best Rickert can do. Like universal laws of science, these objective values which are meant to ground historical study are universal, general categories of value that must hold some sort of validity for empirical reality for every human being across time and space. His explanation of objective values, then, seems to slip general categorization back into historical study through a back door. If we were to really dig into an analysis of how these values operate, we would see that they’re not quite the same as the sorts of universal laws of human history and behavior that positivists in the late 19th century were trying to abstract from historical study. Still, we cannot deny that in order for Rickert’s system to work, he [thinks he] needs an objective ground; otherwise, historical study is arbitrary. The problem, of course, is not that Rickert insisted on the wrong ground but that he argued for an objective ground in the first place.

That’s a well worn path, and I don’t mean to rehash something that now comes so naturally and is so obvious to cultural theory and critical discourse to the point of seeming banal, essentially behaving as a first principle of sorts. However, the way that Troeltsch comes to wrestle with mediating between the poles of what he calls “absolutism” and relativism–and in 1902–with regard to theology is, to my mind, rather revolutionary. However, we first have to get a handle on the other, theological side of things, though with regard to both the social sciences and theology, Troeltsch is wrestling with absolutism, ethical neutrality, etc. Troeltsch was perhaps the final prominent member of the Ritschlian School and arguably Albrecht Ritschl’s sharpest critic. This garnered a lot of attention for Troeltsch from younger theologians and students, notably Paul Tillich, who were seeking out alternatives to the classical liberal theology that Ritschl’s work embodies. (My own thoughts on Troeltsch’s membership in classical liberalism will have to wait for another post. In short, I don’t think he belongs there.)

One of the difficulties in undertaking a commentary on Troeltsch’s departure from Ritschl and its philosophical underpinnings is that both Ritschl and Troeltsch are usually considered, in part, neo-Kantian theologians, Ritschl influenced primary by Hermann Loetze and Troeltsch by Rickert/Weber. Ritschl founded what is typically referred to as the “History of Religions” school of theology.  He was trained under the historicist biblical scholar and theologian F.C. Baur in the mid-19th century. This was a period of great transition and turmoil for theology, philosophy, and the study of history.Ritschl The Geisteswissenschaften were already emerging (well before Rickert came on the scene), and the question of the nature of history as a proper object of study was experiencing both reactions against and defenses of the dominant Hegelian idealist paradigm of history. Most important for the fields of study within Christianity was the question of historical context: Could theology be understood as a properly scientific discipline if its scholars presupposed Christianity to be the absolute religion? Baur’s response was a decisive “No.” However, his students, most notably the biblical scholar David Friedrich Strauss and Ritschl polemicized against this view, Strauss appearing to be the more orthodoxly Hegelian of the two. Ritschl insisted that the question of presuppositions was the wrong one to ask. Christianity is one of a number of major world religions, and, so Ritschl argued, it is only from the context of the history of religions as seen from the point of view of Christianity that the latter could be truly understood in its religious form, thus attempting to eliminate or at least delimit the problems Baur identified with assuming Christianity as the absolute religion.

As mentioned, Ritschl was also heavily influenced by the then burgeoning neo-Kantian philosophy, particularly that of Hermann Lotze. A full exploration of this influence is beyond the scope of this already lengthy post, but a few points are of interest: 1) Lotze affirms Kant’s view that the ethical will is the will of God. 2) However, Lotze departs from Kant in positing religion as a three-part relationship, I-God-Man. 3) He further departs from Kant in positing the Kingdom of God not as a kingdom of future ends toward which we infinitely approximate but as an actuality in the present. Finally, Lotze argues that doctrine and dogma can never be transmitted in an account of their actual truth. Instead, their transmission contains an “intuitive seeming” which makes intelligible what is ultimately inexpressible and maintains a true relation to the actual.

The primary effect of this influence is Ritschl’s rejection of an absolutely transcendent will in favor of a more contextualized understanding of the human person and agency. Ritschl, however, still maintained Idealist tendencies, particularly on the concept of the absolute in theology. For Ritschl, theology requires an organizing principle, and, according to Ritschl, the organizing principle of all Christian thought is the Kingdom of God, a view he began to develop as early as 1858. In his magnum opus, The Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation (1874), Ritschl writes, “The Kingdom of God is the summum bonum which God realises in men; and at the same time it is their common task, for it is only through the rendering of obedience on man’s part that God’s sovereignty possesses continuous existence.” This definition reflects the mid-19th century tension between historically bound human beings and transcendent theological principles. The Kingdom is a good that is imparted to humans by God, something they receive passively; however, it can only be realized in the moral striving of human beings toward it as their goal. It is thus dependent upon human will, which Ritschl does not view as itself transcendent the way Kant did. Christianity solves this apparent problem by means of a transcendent connection of the two ideas in the logic of grace. Therefore, the divine act of the gift is what ultimately constitutes the ground of the highest good. Human beings only contribute insofar as their moral striving is done out of faith in Christ. In other words, membership in the Kingdom of God is the condition for any human contribution toward it’s reality in the present or future. Johannes Zachhuber writes, “In this dual sense, the Kingdom of God correlates with human activity in the spirit of justice: it is its ground, purpose, and means. Its function as telos corresponds to the divine end in itself, which is dogmatically expressed in the idea of the Son as the ‘necessary and eternal object of God’s love: The Kingdom of God is therefore the ethical exposition of divine love as an end in itself.’”

Of particular importance for our purposes here is the absolute character of the Kingdom of God. Ritschl makes it clear that this is in no way to be identified as an earthly kingdom, i.e. as a State. Its operations in how it understands wrongdoing (sin), punishment (separation from God), and justification (removal of separation) completely transcend any worldly handling of these terms. This extends to all other religions as well. In other words, in asserting the Kingdom of God as the organizing principle for all Christian thought, Ritschl is also asserting the absoluteness of Christianity over all other religions. All human development is striving toward the ideal of the Kingdom of God. The Hegelian influence on this point is obvious. From this perspective, however, it is difficult to see how Ritschl can reconcile this understanding of the absoluteness of Christianity with his assertion that Christianity must be understood in the context of the history of religions more generally. This was not a problem for Hegel, who paid no attention to the world religions and was arguably only concerned with Western Europe. But for Ritschl, it imparts a nagging relativism which he does not seem to take seriously enough. Indeed, this is the primary criticism which his student Ernst Troeltsch leveled against him, to which we turn in the next post.


Theology, Science, and Critical Discourse (Part 1)

I’ve been immersed in neo-Kantianism this whole year between reading and rereading Weber as well as the literature that surrounds his work. This last quarter, I worked through a handful of texts that came from the Baden School of neo-Kantianism, spending most of my time in Heinrich Rickert’s The Limits of Concept Formation in Natural Science. Two seemingly unrelated questions were raised as I worked my way through it: (1) What sort of discipline is theology? and (2) What is the status of valuation in critical discourse. I have a number of friends working on the relationship between theology and science, something I too have waded into since my time in seminary, and I think Rickert provides some ways of thinking about the relationship between the natural sciences and the humanities/social sciences that have begun to change how I think about theology’s place in that spectrum. It also, I think, provides another way of conceiving materiality in relation to theology and some good reasons for why a materialist theology, carefully defined, is ultimately the most fruitful way forward.

This is going to take a few posts. In this one, I’m just going to lay out Rickert’s philosophy of history, and at the end, I’ll allude to what I’m going to do in the next post, which is to start talking about theology in relation to Rickert.

Rickert’s primary aim is to illuminate a logical opposition between concept formation in the human (historical) sciences and the natural sciences as a means of establishing what it means to conceptualize what he calls “historical individuals.” When Rickert is writing at the turn of the 20th century, historical study (broadly, what we call the humanities) is still emerging as a collection of disciplines in its own right over against the natural sciences with its own methodology and authority. Prior to Rickert, the study of history was regarded more or less as one of two things: the study of antiquity (what we call “Classics” today) or the far more contepmorary positivist sociology. The latter, championed by the French positivist philosopher Auguste Comte, argued that the study of history was just like the study of the natural sciences: the goal is to collect the data and abstract from it general categories and universal laws. This was untenable for Rickert, who, following his mentor Wilhelm Windelband, argued that general concepts destroy that which precisely makes history what it is: uniqueness and individuality.

Rickert is neo-Kantian in the sense that he doesn’t think that our knowledge is about reality as such. So when he’s setting up this logical opposition between concept formation in the natural and human sciences, it’s on the basis of how we regard our experience of reality. In other words, the difference between the natural and the human science is not in the ontology of their objects but the phenomenology of them. They share the same real objects as they come to us in experience but regard that experience differently. That experience, Rickert says, comes to us as an infinite stream of individuals. It’s actually doubly infinite in that there is an infinite number of individuals (extensive infinity) and each individual itself is infinitely complex (intensive infinity.) Because this is how we experience reality, general concepts are always less real than our immediate experience, i.e. they can never represent our experience of reality as that infinite stream of individuals. That doesn’t mean that they don’t produce knowledge though. General concepts still hold validity for empirical reality. They just can’t give us any knowledge of individuals in their unique individuality. This is a logical impossibility, says Rickert, because the very definition of general concept precludes uniqueness. The goal of the scientific method is to erase anomaly (uniqueness) in favor of repeatability (which we usually call verifiability.)

It’s also, then, logically impossible for general concepts to apply to history. History is by definition unique and therefore unrepeatable in that uniqueness–at least, the history that interests us (more on this in a minute.) The data that eventually becomes “history” in the sense Rickert is after has the same nature as empirical reality (doubly infinite) and, by definition, cannot be made sense of in the same way that natural science makes sense of the infinite manifold. Rickert’s explication of concept formation in natural science shows us that there is this piece missing from our knowledge that natural science cannot provide–a concept of the individual. But now there’s a further problem: How is a concept of the individual possible if individuals are doubly infinite and unique? Up until this point, concepts have only ever been general. Historical concepts have to be something else that isn’t abstracted from the exact historical material in question but is instead formed out of something else.

This ‘something else’ also can’t be arbitrary, which is the other problem facing historical concept formation. As we’ve seen, natural science has the advantage of repeatability in forming its general concepts. Kant showed us this. Scientific observation is about the perception of a sequence (not a sequence of perceptions.) The repeatability of any sequence of perceptions is what eventually becomes knowledge in natural science. Clearly, historical knowledge doesn’t have that advantage within the data itself because in order for a datum to qualify as “historical” it cannot be repeatable. Returning to the idea of interest that I mentioned earlier, Rickert acknowledges that there are many more individuals (infinitely more, actually) within empirical reality than what we could actually study according to the methods of historical science. You can look at every leaf on a tree, every dog, every lump of coal in its unique individuality. But why would anyone do that? Though these individuals, in our immediate experience of them, are unique and individual, they are almost just as quickly subsumed under a general concept, which is what allows us to take in an infinite manifold and not be driven insane by the unique individuality of an infinite number of objects who are infinitely complex. So instead of trying to take in and consider each individual leaf, dog, rock, etc. we instead have leaves, dogs, and rocks as general concepts

But why don’t we do this with every individual? What’s the difference between Goethe and a guy at Tuesday’s open mic night? We can just as easily refer to both as “poets,” “humans,” “men,” etc. as we can examine them in their individuality and uniqueness. What non-arbitrary ground could there be for selecting one over the other as the proper object of historical study? How can we justify our interest in one over the other? Rickert’s answer is that there are two types of individuals: those which become automatically subsumed and “in-dividuals”–those whose uniqueness simply isn’t subsumable under a general category because of the values that intersect it.

Values, for Rickert, are very similar to general concepts in natural science. They have no empirically real content–they are ideal–but they do hold validity for reality. In other words, they are true insofar as they are valid. (“Truth,” by the way, is also a value for Rickert, which may be a problem in how he defines values, but we’ll table that for now.) Thus, Rickert establishes a number of “spheres” which he believes exist in every society–but they have variable content. Examples include art, religion, science, ethics, sexuality, etc. Each sphere has a value relation attached to it, i.e. art-beauty, religion-spirituality, science-truth, ethics-morality. The claim, then, is that the scholar selects historical individuals of interest to conceptualize based upon the ways in which they intersect these values as those values hold validity within the culture and time period in question. Goethe, rather than the guy at the open mic night, intersects beauty, spirituality, etc. in a way that one can identify within German culture at the time that he was alive but also perhaps today and certainly within other cultures as well (especially in the West.) The open mic guy just doesn’t do that in the same way.

That last paragraph probably made anyone familiar with critical discourse cringe. There’s an obvious tendency in this theory that leans toward old white guys deciding what’s culturally valuable, and certainly that’s how this panned out during the majority of the 20th century in the social sciences and humanities. Without giving Rickert more credit than he’s due on this point, I actually don’t think he was interested in the superiority of any one culture (unlike Hegel who clearly thought Germany represented the pinnacle of all civilization and that the history of any non-Western civilization was totally irrelevant to the progression of absolute spirit.) Rickert insisted on a rigorous value neutrality when it came to the scholar’s own personal valuations. This should be familiar to any of us in a social scientific field. It’s one of the challenges of being a theologian in a religious studies department. Value neutrality is still one of the most important aspects of good social science today.

The story should sound much more familiar now. The combination of these two aspects of Rickert’s method, value relations without valuation, inadvertently introduced into humanities/social science discourse the possibility for a normative colonial, patriarchal, bourgeois, and even Protestant agenda disguised as value neutrality, intentional or not–a truly catastrophic combination if there ever was one. This has in turn created the necessary space for genealogical critiques of social scientific disciplines (Foucault), particularly religious studies (Asad), as well as the post-structural critiques of social science found in Derrida, et. al.

All of those discourses have been and continue to be necessary tools, helping to pry open the door for important voices to speak in all of the humanities and social science disciplines, and theology has been no different. In the next post, I’m going to turn to the earliest theological critic of modern sociology, Ernst Troeltsch. Troeltsch is more often than not seen as the first theologian to embrace the modern social scientific method–and he is–but he did not do so uncritically.  It is in his critique of the value neutrality found in Rickert and his close friend Max Weber that we begin to find the answers to the two questions we started with: In what sense can theology be a science and given critical discourse, can theology engage in positing normative values?

Regarding Religious Language: Spinoza’s Political Theology

I’d like to reflect on something that I picked up on in reading Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus a few weeks ago. Right from the beginning I was fascinated by the way in which Spinoza talks about God, consistently anthropomorphizing God in the standard way theology has done in order to speak of a personal God: i.e. “God said,” “God did,” “God demands,” etc.

The problem, of course, is that Spinoza doesn’t think that “God” is a personal God in any way. For Spinoza, as detailed in his Ethics, God is the totality of the universe. God is an infinite, necessary, self-subsisting, uncaused substance with two attributes, extension and thought. That isn’t to say that our physical world is God. Rather, by positing God as Nature, Spinoza means that God is the only substance that there is, and we (and every other physical thing) are modes of that substance. In other words, there are two sides to Nature: Natura naturans (naturing Nature) and Natura naturata (natured Nature.) God is the former, the sustaining activity that causes everything else. The physical world is the latter, sustained and produced by the former. Consequently, we also take part in the mind of God. Therefore, for Spinoza, knowledge of the natural world (what he calls natural knowledge in the TTP) is also, in his special sense, knowledge of God. The more one can stop seeing the world as individual, disconnected substances and events and begin being able to see that world is actually a unity, the more knowledge one is gaining of God.

This way of conceiving of God, though the argument is not worked out until the Ethics, frames Spinoza’s entire discussion of Judaism and Christianity in the TTP which, for me, gives rise to a really interesting phenomenon that I want to explore here briefly regarding Spinoza’s method in the TTP. It would be a mistake not to acknowledge at the outset that one of the likely reasons Spinoza uses the language that he does is his fear of the Dutch government. There’s no getting around the fact that Spinoza’s conception of God would have been (and was posthumously) seriously problematic for church authorities. So in one sense we could say that Spinoza is simply disguising his metaphysic in language that would be palatable to those authorities whom he rightly feared.

But on the other hand, I think I have to agree with Spinoza scholars who argue that Spinoza seems to be obsessed with the idea of God. It would be a mistake, then, to read Spinoza as merely prefiguring scientific material accounts of religion a la the New Atheists, in effect explaining away religion or pulling back the curtain, so to speak, in order to reveal what’s really happening–that behind religious language, ideas, and practice, there is a natural explanation. If that’s all Spinoza were doing, then why insist on retaining all of the religio-theological language? I don’t think fear of persecution is strong enough.

For example, in the first two chapters, Spinoza addresses the ideas of prophecy and prophets, concluding that there should be no sharp distinction between natural knowledge and prophetic knowledge, since all true knowledge simply is knowledge of God. What the prophet brings is a particular imaginative power to knowledge, giving it its peculiar quality. The prophet, then, is someone who has this capacity, who is receptive to the way God “chooses to speak” to him. In other words, Spinoza is content to say that when someone like Joshua sees the sun stop in the sky, we shouldn’t criticize the account on the basis of our knowledge that the Earth goes around the sun and not the other way around. Everyone in Joshua’s day, including Joshua, thought the opposite; hence, the sun stopping in the sky would make sense to them. Spinoza suggests that “God speaks” even through what seems like insanity to us today (e.g. the visions of Daniel.)

Note that this prophetic knowledge for Spinoza, even when based upon something that we today understand as scientifically erroneous, is still real knowledge. All real knowledge is knowledge of nature, and Spinoza’s claim is that prophetic knowledge really is natural knowledge. For this reason, it’s a mistake, I think, to read his account as strictly removing the special status from prophetic knowledge, viz. reducing the prophetic to the natural. Because of how Spinoza has defined God, all knowledge in his special sense is “revelatory.” That may be too far for some readers, but I think it’s fair to say that his understanding of the relationship between God and nature allows for that step. I think a better way to read Spinoza here is that instead of demoting or demystifying the prophetic, he’s heightened the status of natural knowledge. This puts Spinoza’s account in this odd place of reading as reductive but not actually being reductive. He is giving a natural account of the supernatural but writing as if supernatural language still retains some meaning and relevance.

The as if I think is what is most important in this text. Spinoza, the arch-atheist of the 18th and 19th centuries, is actually advocating for what he thinks is a politically viable religion such that religion is a necessary component of society. In other words, for all the talk about Spinoza’s God being non-personal, pantheistic, etc., he sure does speak very seriously as if God is not those things. E.g., Spinoza on what his new, politically viable faith requires in chapter 14:

Hence it follows that a catholic or universal faith must not contain any dogmas that good men may regard as controversial; for such dogmas may be to one man pious, to another impious, since their value lies only in the works they inspire. A catholic faith should therefore contain only those dogmas which obedience to God absolutely demands, and without which such obedience is absolutely impossible.

Just a few paragraphs later, he details seven tenets of this faith that include God’s existence, omnipresence (both uncontroversial Spinozist was of viewing God), God’s “supreme right and dominion over all,” worship and obedience to God consisting “solely in justice and charity, or love towards one’s neighbour,” etc.

Here, it seems to me that Spinoza is not making a case for how to regard religion (i.e. as a mistaken understanding of nature); rather, he’s making a case for how to regard the political religiously. To take it a step further (but maybe too far), this is a case for how one could and should regard reality religiously–or at least the experience of reality (though the latter is not Spinozist.)

To dial it back for a moment, I think it would be reaching too far to say that Spinoza intended the TTP to be anything more than a rendering of religion as a political theology that could be accepted “universally” and uncontroversially with the shadow of the religious wars of the 17th century looming in the background. But I’m interested in this idea of regarding as a methodology, as it has echoes both in Kant’s account of religion and in the latter half of the 19th century and the early 20th century among neo-Kantians like Heinrich Rickert, Georg Simmel, and Max Weber.

(I’m planning a post on Rickert for the not-too-distant future.)

Wittgenstein, Realist?

This semester, my term paper for my Wittgenstein class was an attempt to read Wittgenstein in light of a Deleuzian account of immanence. I was interested in this in part because what became clear to me after a semester or so of reading Wittgenstein: contrary to what’s become the dominant continental reading after Meillassoux, and contrary to a lot of his antirealist interpretation in analytic circles, I don’t think that Wittgenstein’s thinking is rooted in a correlationism. Here’s some scattered thoughts on why I think such a project could be worthwhile—I’ve been thinking that it’s something I may come back to down the line to expand at greater length.

The conventional reading is summed up pretty well, I think, in terms of Meillassoux’s account of ‘strong correlationism’ in After Finitude. Basically, the correlationist reading of Wittgenstein would interpret Wittgenstein’s reservations about talking about a world outside of language, and of the impossibility of giving final grounds for language’s access to things-in-themselves, as referring to a situation in which you have a thinking subject on one side, who apprehends a world on the other, and whose access to that world is mediated by what renders her thinking intelligible: language. Subject and object are correlated in language, and thinkable only on the basis of language, and so language becomes the transcendental correlate without which neither subject nor object are considerable in-themselves. The subject’s only ‘access’ to the world, then, is via language-games that render the world intelligible, and so one is always forced into a position of skepticism about any knowledge that would claim to be real regardless of the formation of a given language-game. Meillassoux, of course, thinks that this formation leads to problems—ancestrality becomes unthinkable in any ordinary sense, and fideism becomes inevitable with regard to claims about the fact that ‘there is a world.’[1]

Wittgenstein himself, while reluctant to label his own position (in part because he was famously leery about ‘theory’ in philosophy) did at least provisionally use the term ‘realism’ to describe the basic orientation of his thought.[2] This should strike one as strange, if the correlationist reading is the correct one. What sort of realism is possible if, as Wittgenstein thinks, to ask about what is ‘outside’ language is always a confused project?

People say again and again that philosophy doesn’t really progress, that we are still occupied with the same philosophical problems as were the Greeks. But the people who say this don’t understand why this has to be so. It is because our language has remained the same and keeps seducing us into asking questions. As long as there continues to be a verb ‘to be’ that looks as if it functions in the same way as ‘to eat’ and ‘to drink’, as long as we still have the adjectives ‘identical’, ‘false’, ‘possible’, as long as we continue to talk of a river of time, of an expanse of space, etc. etc., people will still keep stumbling over the same puzzling difficulties and find themselves staring at something which no explanation seems capable of clearing up. 

And what’s more, this satisfies a longing for the transcendent, because in so far as people think they can see the “limits of human understanding,” they believe of course that they can see beyond these. [3]

To use a well-worn metaphor Lacanians like to throw around to talk about the Symbolic order, we might say that there is something going on with the structure of language, something akin to the way a slightly mis-sized rug produces wrinkles that make it look like something sits underneath the rug, causing the wrinkles.

Faced with this feature of our language, we are tempted toward two options. One temptation is to insist on the priority of what ‘lies’ underneath the rug: we attempt to discern the shape of the invisible givenness that ‘bends’ the rug, and in so doing we generate fantasms of transcendence which are retrojected as causes or conditions for the rug. We might detect something like this temptation in the fixation on givenness found in certain strains of post-Husserlian phenomenology, or even a in neoplatonic metaphysics of participation which underlies so much theological-philosophical thinking.

The other temptation that faces us is to flatten the rug—recognizing that nothing lies beneath it, we try to ’subtract’ this remainder. We might recall here the ideal-language philosophies of the early 20th century, or attempts to reduce the world to a ‘flat,’ de-mystified ontology, a scientism, or even the various speculative realisms. Here the emphasis is on ‘subtracting’ the subject to gain the world, to think the world apart from the subject and the ‘transcendences’ her language retrojects.

It’s here that—even though Wittgenstein doesn’t give anything like a theorization of immanence—there’s an opportunity to give Wittgenstein the sort of monstrous offspring that Deleuze liked to give to various philosophers.[4] Both of the above strategies, I think, enact transcendence. Both—in an attempt to think the world as it is before or without the subject—double the world in thought. Both think the world and something apart from the world: the world and the subject, the world and its transcendent condition—and this and, this possibility of doubling and the mediation entailed therein precisely is transcendence. Transcendence and immanence are, after all, relations before all else—relations enacted in thinking.[5] To think a radical immanence, then, is to refuse both of these temptations, and Wittgenstein thinks at least part of the way in that direction, proceeding in terms of an investigation into the ‘logic of sense’ that starts only from determinate sayings and follows their logic wherever it leads. Thinking from immanence, however allows us to suspend the remaining quasi-transcendence operating in Wittgenstein’s thought: namely, the relative transcendence of sense in relation to nonsense. It’s no secret that, for Wittgenstein, there is a certain priority to sense in the context of philosophical investigation; the task of a philosopher is to examine how meaning and sense are made, how words are used. What is excluded in this formulation is the way in which the question of sense may not in fact be the same as the question of use. The specter of madness consistently haunts Wittgenstein’s investigations; in examining how it is that words come to mean for their users, words and statements which do not mean—mad statements, nonsensical statements—are viewed only from the perspective of sense. Madness is broken sense, incorrect or incomplete sense. In light of an explicit theorization of immanence, however, we are able to think nonsense in its constitutive relationship with sense—not as a privation of a prior sense, but as mutually given alongside sense, as itself doing things in a variety of ways.


1 The problem of ancestrality, for the uninitiated, goes like this: there seems to be a problem that emerges when ‘correlationist’  philosophies attempt to think a discourse that would claim to be able to speak about objects and events which are not only prior to the correlation in question, but in which the correlation itself arises as one event among others. It’s not that the correlationist philosopher has nothing to say about the discourse of the scientist, but that the she must posit a layer of meaning more primordial than the scientific one, so that what the scientist is really saying requires a kind of translation. The scientist’s language is subtly translated by the philosopher’s meta-reflection on the correlate: what the scientist’s reflections amount to more precisely is not simply ‘x occurred,’ or ‘there is y,’ but x occurred/there is y for humans, for the kind of observer who can make sense of x and y. Meillassoux thinks this forces you into a fideism, not with regard to manifest facts, but with regard to speculative claims about any absolute which gives the world as such.

2 “Not empiricism, and yet realism in philosophy, that is the hardest thing.“ Ludwig Wittgenstein, Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics, 325.

3 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, 15.

4 Wittgenstein’s anti-theoretical stance would, of course, preclude him from offering this kind of account.

5 Daniel Colucciello Barber’s reading of Deleuze has been invaluable in clarifying this point for me. See in particular Daniel Colucciello Barber, Deleuze and the Naming of God: Post-Secularism and the Future of Immanence (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014).