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.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Person and Reason

Round about the dusk of the Bronze age, two different critiques of religion were stirring. One was philosophical. It is associated with names like Xenophanes, Epicurus, and Pyrrho. It took many shapes, some more radical than others, but the gist of all of them was to press the question "Really?" -- what is it, really? Why does that really happen? -- as far as it would go. If you keep on to the end with this, you will wind up with a globalized agnosticism. It's a perfectly respectable position, except that you can't actually live there.

Meillassoux intervenes at the point where modern philosophy has, roughly, recapitulated this ancient course. He tries to invert this agnosticism, whose modern form is what he calls "correllationism," into a knowledge. While Socrates may be parsed as having said "I know that I know nothing, because everything I think I know is groundless," Meilassoux says, "I know that I know, because I know groundlessness." However it must be added that Meillassoux is a modern and the correlationism he critiques is modern as well; he is not addressing the ancient forms of thought, which seem to not divert him much (he is avowedly a Cartesian).

There is different critique of religion, approximately contemporary with the philosophical but somewhat older (judging by extant evidence), which begins in Biblical writings and continues in the post-Biblical strata. It is, no less than the first critique, a scathing critique of religion -- but it is precisely a religious critique of religion. It culminates not in the skeptical leveling of piety but in its hyperbolic elevation.

The Biblical paradox is integrally related to this hyperbole; specifically the hyperbolic assertion of God's reality, rule, and love; or, perhaps better put, God's glory. (I could argue for this particular characterization, but the point of this post does not depend on these particular divine attributes; it depends upon them being attributes of God.) The uncompromising la ilaha illallah does indeed inherit the spirit of the Sh'ma Israel. The Bible begins, in either Hebrew or Greek: In the beginning, God created... The world has no other principle, says the Biblical writer, than that God creates.

It has become easy in some circles to press this home as though it was obvious. When Kierkegaard championed the notion of paradox, it was actually a challenge. It is depressing to contemplate how domesticated it has become merely by being mouthed over and over. Fashion is the enemy of thought, and can appropriate anything. Paradox -- or rather, the idea of paradox -- has become, not a challenge to thinking, but an alibi for it.

The same is true of hyperbole. "Instead of cosmic principles, darkness and light, chaos and order, etc, only the will of the creator" -- that is casually said. The matter is more scandalous than this easy dichotomy of "pagan" vs "Jewish" lets on. Myth is undermining itself here. To say that the world has "no other principle" than that God creates means that this comes first; not merely before any other principle you could name -- it also comes before "principle." It comes before "First". It comes before "Before."

The quest for principles and the tracking-down of phenomena in terms of principles is carried on in terms of reasons. Meillassoux's criticism of the philosophical quest for reasons -- a critique carried out in the name of rationalism -- is loomingly pertinent here. Meillassoux is a serious and invigorating thinker in part because he has turned his mind towards the sheer bruteness of brute fact. The name of this bruteness, in Meillassoux's thinking, is "facticity." Thought is irritated by this bruteness, and it secretes lubrication to protect itself from abrasion, a secretion called the Principle of Sufficient Reason. Meillassoux wants to face the irritation rather than salve the abrasion. Necessity is contingency, he says, and you can see this once you press philosophy's pursuits of reasons to the nth degree; at which degree, you invert not just the pursuit of reasons but the very terms of the pursuit, of reason per se. First it opens into the agnostic moment of strong correlationism, because it stays faithful to the notion of the Principle of Sufficient reason; then, abandoning this for the principle of facticity, it identifies necessity with contingency itself. What is contingency, after all? Nothing but the capacity of anything to be other than it is. It is literally an-archic. (There are local laws, of course, in Meillassoux's cosmology, but they are themselves radically unstable, because -- by definition -- they are ungrounded.) One finds here absolute freedom, and absolute power -- the capacity-to-be-otherwise is clearly both of these -- but it is the freedom and the power of no one.

Meillassoux's philosophy styles itself a critique of fideism, but it is not a critique of Biblical faith. The Biblical vision did not pursue Reason, but the Person. Its question is neither What, nor Why, but Who?. And this "Who?" comes (for the Biblical stance) not just before What and Why, but before "question" and before "before." This is what the "ontological priority" of the Person means, and it is why those thinkers who have struggled to articulate it, like Levinas, wind up stammering. To say the Person is ontologically primary does not just mean it is "first", but that it comes before firstness, before ontology, before any terms on which it could be regarded as "first." All such terms are given by this principle; but they are genuinely given. This is the personal analogue of the bruteness of brute fact; what it means to seriously mean it when you talk about the love that moves the sun and the other stars. It too, is an-archic, but it is an an-archic archē. It is why the Biblical paradox is a paradox.


  1. Thanks for articulating that. I was trying to get at something similar here in my Barfieldian/Teilhardian Christological response to the shock of Meillassoux's ideas: http://footnotes2plato.com/2011/05/05/towards-a-christological-realism-thinking-the-correlation-with-teilhard-and-barfield/

    1. Ah, of course. You read this already back in 2011 (just remembered your comment). Carry on!

    2. Thanks, Matt. Always glad to know you are reading along. I haven't explicitly treated Barfield here for a while but he is always in the background. On the other hand, I have not read v much in Tielhard and know only his most famous works, and even those more by perusal than by real study. Glad to have this reminder from you to look more deeply.

  2. If you keep on to the end with this, you will wind up with a globalized agnosticism. It's a perfectly respectable position, except that you can't actually live there.

    Some of us, on the contrary, think we have no choice to live there, having rejected both faith and fideism the hard way. Tolkien says that to reject the Gospel leads to either sadness or wrath, and I hold that wrath is always a cover-up for some other emotion. I am sad, because I would like to believe but cannot.

    1. Hi John, welcome.

      I should say that the 'agnosticism' I refer to here is neither a religious position nor expressly a negation of religion. I of course do contrast it with religion of a kind, but although Meillassoux (who is my point of reference here) is thinking of a kind of "religiosity," he isn't thinking of a particular credo. What I was thinking of when I wrote that one cannot 'live there' is that the position which makes doubt the beginning and end is pragmatically unworkable. I think I would go to the wall for that one -- at any moment, there are some things that are not called into question (though these things may change). But this critique of skepticism is not a religious position. That comes later.

      As to the sadness you mention -- Yes. I think it is far, far better to stand honestly sad than self-deceivingly "believing." I'm with Simone Weil here: "The danger is not lest the soul should doubt whether there is any bread, but lest, by a lie, it should persuade itself that it is not hungry. It can only persuade itself of this by lying, for the reality of its hunger is not a belief, it is a certainty."