Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

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Friday, September 17, 2010

patience, gentle reader

Some have noticed it's been a little quieter here than usual. I am grateful to commenters who keep the dialogue going during these down-times. I wish I could say that I've been polishing posts and more posts that will soon appear, but this is only barely true. I've worked for a while on a post for Speculative Heresy's upcoming Science and Metaphysics cross-blog event, and on some other things that will be up eventually, but mostly I've been distracted by the beginning of school and other real-time affairs.

When I began posting, going on a year ago now, it was after a long internal debate. Who the hell, I asked myself, really needs to have all of My Correct Opinions on Everything? The temptation to shout out into the void and glean the little ego-strokes of "someone agrees!" or even "someone thinks I'm an idiot but Ha Ha! Made them look!" could only be bad for me. I opted in after a while because I could see a real exchange -- an exchange I deeply needed, to hone my thinking -- taking place on a few blogs, and decided it was worth the price of self-vigilance to make sure I didn't fall into just "standing up and waving my beliefs," as Adrian recently put it on Immanence. I am sure I have not succeeded 100% of the time, and some may think the percentage is low indeed.

In general, the pace of blogging is too quick for me. I am not just referring to the fact that tempests can swarm up over a very few days and then blow over,leaving in their wake a moniker like "The Derrida Wars," as if something truly momentous had occurred instead of a few well-spoken hotheads typing loud at each other. It's that there's a pressure to put things out there or feel like one is somehow "not participating;" a blog that isn't updated every few days starts to emit the sounds of crickets chirping. One fears that people will acquire the habit turning their attention elsewhere. This generates a tension between keeping the quality of posts high, and keeping things moving so that it doesn't look like I'm asleep at the controls.

There is something attractive about this pressure, too; anyone who's ever written knows that a deadline can be mightily inspirational. So it's not as if a blog is a recipe for inauthenticity. It is an illusion that one has "all the time in the world," and one of the reasons I started blogging was to infuse my writing with a degree of salutary responsibility-to-readers.

At the same time, however, I know from the inside that my attention-span has, if not atrophied, then certainly shrunk as I have spent more and more time online. This is a complaint I read often, and it might be easy to say that there's a groundless blame-the-internet meme making the rounds, but my gut feeling is that there's more to it than this. My itch to post frequently is matched by an inability to read everything I find others posting. Yes, this is "just" information overload, not a very exciting topic, but what I want to suggest is specifically that it's antithetical to the work of philosophy, which necessarily involves being willing to sit with perplexity for as long as it takes. Adrian's post cited above contrasts the opinion-waving of blogging with the willingness to sit still and notice exhibited by a group of Buddhist meditators in New York, sitting silently between groups pro- and contra-Cordoba House on the anniversary of 9/11. Patience and silence are not the whole story for philosophy, which does entail articulation, but they are indispensable and not readily cultivated in the blogosphere.

I also just chanced upon a review of Czech theologian Tomáš Halík's book Patience with God, over at Benjamin Myers' blog Faith & Theology. Myers writes,
the real difference between faith and atheism is patience. Atheists are not wrong, only impatient. They want to resolve doubt instead of enduring it. Their insistence that the natural world doesn't point to God (or to any necessary meaning) is correct. Their experience of God's absence is a truthful experience, shared also by believers. Faith is not a denial of all this: it is a patient endurance of the ambiguity of the world and the experience of God's absence. Faith is patience with God.
Now in fact I'm skeptical of any sweeping characterizations like this of of Myers' (and I have to acknowledge here that I have not yet read Halík's book), but there's something in it that sounds right to me and that I want to salvage from my knee-jerk skepticism.

There is an "impatience" I know well, perhaps akin to that which Halík speaks of; a desire to skip steps, to wrest into explicitness what needs to remain implicit. Wittgenstein says somewhere in his notebooks that one important characteristic of a thinker is the tempo of their sentences and thought. (All of his own sentences, Wittgenstein says, are meant to be read slowly). For every question there is an appropriate measure, and a desire to know the answer is not always just an intellectual curiosity but an appetite. William Desmond would perhaps call this appetite an eros for univocality, an impetus towards nailing down every detail. There is something to be said for this ferocious passion for the explicit, for leaving no vague cloud in which the obscurantist urge can find refuge. But as Desmond also notes, there simply is more to our habitation of being than the univocal. At some point I'll devote a post or three to Desmond's philosophy, in which he details four senses of Being: the univocal, the equivocal, the dialectical, and the metaxological. For now I will simply say that the univocal seems to me to be the realm of the problem, in the sense I've borrowed from Gabriel Marcel: the question with a specific and delimitable answer.

One occasionally meets the observation--it is a staple of popular psychology of men and women--that someone (usually male) has "jumped" to solving a problem before they have given real evidence of having heard the dissatisfaction. The problem-solving is viewed as a defense against the dissatisfaction. Like many bits of pop-psych, this one has its ground in reality. I'm not referring here to the statistics about male and female approached; but there is an approach that tries to start somewhere other than where one is. It tries to appropriate as a premise what can only be a conclusion.

In this sense, I recognize the kind of impatience Halík names. My hesitation regarding this as a characterization of atheism is that this, too, works best (if at all), as a conclusion. It is very little use as a premise. It's no good to start by saying, "as an atheist you are essentially impatient." In fact, it's a bit impatient to do so.

In fact, this notion of positions or formulations that work as conclusions but not as premises is--despite being pretty hard to make work in a rigorously logical way--close to the essence of thinking for me. There's an experiential component to wrestling with the hard problems that makes them akin to a sort of initiation; one needs to undergo these problems, not merely appropriate another's final line as one's own starting point. This is why Kant was right to speak of a scandalous lack of progress in philosophy, and why, for instance, Kant did not definitively refute "dogmatic" metaphysics once and for all, but only provided us with a model for how to wrestle with those issues. Anyone who does philosophy in the western mode after Kant recapitulates that struggle in their own way--and this regardless of whether they accept or reject Kant.

This isn't to say that if it's quiet here I'm always busy wrestling the giants (though you should see some of the 5th-graders I tussle with); but it's a reason for taking one's time. I want to keep the lights on, so to speak, but not at the cost of posting mere filler. But no matter how infrequent the posts here, I assure you they will all be the Correct and Final Word.


  1. As for the impatient atheists the activists regard themselves as up till now having to respect what they consider dismal nonsense. The attitude of the faithful towards the atheist has traditionally been briskly dismissive. The 'fool that sayeth in his heart' (O.T.) , the 'wiser in their generation' (N.T.) (acute, manipulative, goal directed). Other Christians have spoken of a defect in the metaphysical sense brought about by 'this filthy modern tide', relativism or whatever you're having yourself. Islam takes the view that it is so obvious that there is a God that it can only be wilful ignorance to deny his existence. The Buddhist pur sang is above the fray, dicing the concept. Only from the sruti can we have knowledge of the absolute says Shankara even though he also says that in it 'we live, move, and have our being'.

    How is the atheist to move from his position of scotosis? Is it a 12 step programme? Admit that you are helpless, that the concept of god is non-rational; submit yourself to a power that is greater than you can understand and get it that way. Pascal and the Sufis reckon that you should hang out with the sober or those drunk on other wine. Feel the power that can transform lives.

    "A proof of God's existence ought really to be something by means of which one could convince oneself that God exists. But I think that what believers who have furnished such proofs have wanted to do is give their 'belief' an intellectual analysis and foundation, although they themselves would never have come to believe as a result of such proofs. Perhaps one could convince someone that God exists by means of a certain kind of upbringing, by shaping his life in such and such a way."(Wittgenstein/Culture and Value page 85)

  2. Ombhurbhuva,

    Wittgenstein as you have no doubt discerned looms large in my thinking, though I am not willing to reduce everything to the level playing field of sprachspiel. The idea of an idea that is a legitimate conclusion but not a workable premise strikes me as having a Wittgensteinian genesis, someplace back in the filing cabinet of my mind. His remarks on religious belief are few, for the same reason that we would like to have had many: they are the fringe of the "more important" half of his philosophy, which was not (and could not be) written.

    This notion of conclusions should not be equated with "settled' or "unrevisable," but rather the opposite. In a sense, what I mean by a position that works only as a conclusion is supremely non-consequential; the moment you take it for an axiom you can solidly build on and don't need to question, you've made it into a premise. Anything you build on it must be contingent. In that sense, it's of a piece with a kind of ontological relativism. But it's also (as you note with your quote from LW) experiential.

    Now of course Dawkins et al would say that LW's "Perhaps one could convince someone that God exists by means of a certain kind of upbringing" has been the modus operandi of all religious memes immemorial, and that this causal way of "convincing" has nothing to do with whether there is a God. But it is quite clear that there is a sort of indoctrination pertinent to all "beliefs". In any case LW's point that the intellectual "proofs" do not work in the same way that (say) Euclid's do is quite right. Simone Weil says somewhere that the Anselmian proof is really the intellect in prayer.

  3. Skholiast,

    I enjoy your blog a great deal even, or especially because you have such a profoundly different take on things than I. Your observations and discussions challenge me. They force me to read and to think. You force me to confront why, for instance, I am repulsed by Kant. So if I don't respond to some things you shouldn't assume it because I didn't find them interesting. At times I am just left speachless. Sometimes I need time to figure out what I think.

    In some ways it seems to me that exchanges like this are more about becoming clearer about how exactly we ourselves think and feel rather than an attempt to persuade or convince the other. I could no more be a Christian than I could be a Greek Sophist--or for that matter an ancient Egyptian rug maker. I could study such things but never really understand them from the inside. Since I don't profess a god I guess I shouldn't be surprised that those who do will think me an atheist. I actually think of myself as a person of faith. I'm generally inclined to leave it just at that. If I ever try to pin down a "what" to that faith is seems to just sublime away. I'm not saying it humanly impossible to have the kind of specific knowledge that makes people quote the Nicene creed--just that it is impossible for me. So when I hear it said that the atheists are impatient it occurs to me that I see the theists exactly the same way. When confronted with the imponderables they give answers when they should have left the questions alone. Even when they claim that the forms of their worship are vehicles to some unspoken (unspeakable) reality I have to wonder why then all the fighting over the choice of metaphor. I guess I'm saying if they were patient they wouldn't need religion. Just wait til we die, it comes soon enough.

  4. dy0genes,

    While I was writing the post above I found myself thinking a number of thoughts along the lines of-- well, this could all be switched 'round, couldn't it? The creedal definitions for instance-- these too are infinitely better suited as conclusions. Taken as axioms, they just become idolatry.

    Asked if he believed in "the inspiration of scripture," Tillich responded: "If you grasp it, no. If it grasps you, yes." One could call any idol the fruit of impatience, and that obviously includes a great deal of "religion;" some would say most of it.

    Nietzsche was right when he said that the churches were the tombs of God. Many many believers are more or less atheistic but can't say so to themselves-- even, or especially (as Dan Dennett likes to point out) numerous clergy. I don't assume I know what goes on in their hearts either, but a lot of it "smells bad" to me.

    As for myself, half the believers suspect I am an agnostic in sheep's clothing, the other half suspect I am nostalgic for the days when the Inquisition was still doing brisk business. The ones who frighten me are the small minority of these who think this makes me one of them. Among the "unbelievers," half seem to think I'm lost in woo-woo land, and the rest think I am just in bad faith and not courageous enough to tell myself the truth. On different days of the week, I see each of these versions looking back at me from the funhouse mirror.

  5. Isn't the fear and concern regarding pressing 'post' and being outdated from the get go dictated by a sense of vanity of wishing to surf on the crest of blog traffic wave?


  6. Oh indeed. The online medium is a minefield for the ego. It will take a long while to sort out how it is effecting us-- by which time, it may be too late.

  7. Tim at fragilekeys emailed me this comment (posted here in 3 parts), because Blogger was being persnickety about accepting it.
    Maybe you'll think my question naive, but from the standpoint you outline here (which I generally agree with), why even retain the lexicon of "conclusions" in general? Of course, I'm not just asking *you*. Why do people make movies or books that make "statements"-- and why do we write books that make "statements"? I think Nietzsche would respond "Will to Power" (or at least a vulgar version of this concept): we want influence, recognition, respect. But what is worthy of respect is "unintuitable" in the Kantian sense. What is unintuitable is the "Law" (or language?) which (once rendered unintuitable) is in a sense untranslatable. The point is... why would I need a position? WHO, who "is," who would "have" a position? What do we take the fact of this "is" or "I am" as such an uncomplicated 'starting position'?

    It's easy to dismiss this question -- WHO?? -- and I'm often ridiculed for it. People usually bring up Hume, who I've never read and don't care to. But in my eyes, without a sense that digs deep into this sense of "who?" -- its presence and absence, or its (not) being either presence or absence... -- what can the idea of 'coming to a conclusion' or 'having faith' even mean? Who is the "place holder," that place of enunciation always shifting? And who controls it? who "heads up" what I say? What is the history that makes this automatic activity -- this self as auto-affective -- even possible? Why do we think we can continue to take this history for granted?

    So I begin with a premise that casts doubt on itself, as well as all conclusions: this WHO is -- no matter what! -- shared. Which means that it begins elsewhere and ends elsewhere. If it "is" shared, than it "isn't all there." It's not all mine. Inferiority itself has to be complicated. It seems to me that a thinking of God beyond ontology can make this possible, where God simply stands for this excess-over-me-inside-of-me. For it to be free, it is shared. Then I am and we are shared equally, shared freely. Not only do I believe this drives us deep into the territory of praxis, but it drives us into a language, an idiom, a displacement of every common term.

  8. (2/3)
    from fragilekeys:

    (Interlude: "And what if religio remained untranslatable? No religio without sacramentum, without alliance and the promise of testifying truthfully to the truth, which is to say, to speak the truth: that is to say, to begin with, no religion without the promise of keeping one's promise to tell the truth-- and to have already told it! -- in the very act of promising. To have already told it, veritas in Latin, and thus to consider it told. The event to come has already taken place. The promise places itself, it is already promise, that is the sworn faith, the given word, and hence the response. Religio would begin there." (Derrida)) [[I was going to cut my response in half here, since comments only allow 4000 characters]]

    Derrida, in my eyes, is leagues ahead of most on this very question. ((And I disagree with Wittgenstein in this sense -- "whereof we cannot speak, thereof we MUST speak")) For him, Husserl's phenomenology restored the original impetus of metaphysics in general insofar is its 'principle of principles' takes being as self-presence, as the experience of pure consciousness, self-propriety, etc., and this beyond any other determinations. This principle of principles -- extending Descartes himself -- does not accidentally get articulated in the same era that Freud was discovering the psychology of the ego.

    Derrida tries to show that this metaphysics in general plays out along a double limitation. (1) It has always limited the sense of being by imposing the form of self-closure, of being-just-that, of finishedness, of full presence. And (2) is just the reverse: Its drive for formalization or formality itself has always been limited by being determined as presence -- "under the fine control of the is." But the closure of metaphysics does not mean sidestepping this "homogeneous and continuous field of metaphysics" -- it cracks the structure and the history of this field by articulating and inscribing its 'after,' 'before,' its 'outside.' (I would like this to Levinas life-long pursuit to articulate the Other-in-the-Same which can never be thematized or modeled as just another "same." -- Obviously, it's a question of making (a) difference.)


  9. (3/3 from fragilekeys)

    The outside of metaphysics that considers being-as-presence -- metaphysics beyond Being, Levinas would say, metaphysics as ethics -- is only articulated and complicated through terms that come from the 'inside' of metaphysics. Which is just to say that when we are talking about 'the history of metaphysics,; we're talking about the whole history of the usage of the verb 'IS,' and so of language as such -- of the "present indicative." The closure of metaphysics as being-as-presence thus implies the production of an

    "elliptical change of site, within the difference involved in repetition; this displacement is no doubt deficient, but with a deficiency that is not yet, or is already no longer, absence, negativity, nonbeing, lack, silence. Neither matter nor form, it is nothing that any philosopheme, that is, any dialectic, however determinate, can capture. It is an ellipsis of both meaning and form.... In this way we are offered an infinite and infinitely surprising reading of this structure of history."

    Why do I share this? Because I believe your post, at many points, boils down to this idea or the challenge of the ellipsis between meaning and form. Form does not fully give the meaning, nor does meaning lead perfectly to the form. NOR do the meaning of our work and the form of our work form a perfect circle in referring to one another -- ever. There is always an ellipsis, a rupture. And "contrary to what our desire cannot fail to be tempted into believing, the thing itself always escapes."

    I'm pressing "publish" now, with all of that in mind. Cheers.