On Postmodern Epistemology: A Rejoinder to Ed Hackett

By J. Aaron Simmons

Originally published at The Church and Postmodernism (2013)

I would like to begin this short rejoinder to Ed Hackett’s critique of my notion of postmodern kataphaticism by thanking him for his time and energy in responding to my short essay.  What follows is not at all intended to be conclusive, but simply one more move in a conversation that I hope will continue between Hackett and I, and many others, about the possibilities of determinate religion in a postmodern context.

Hackett worries that postmodern kataphaticism might face problems of inconsistency (expressed as a “conceptual tension”) when it comes to the “seemingly traditional notions of truth” that appear to underlie my proposal.  As a positive suggestion, Hackett offers William James’s pragmatic approach to truth as a model that would allow for a postmodern framework and also for determinate truth claims about God. The key difference between “seemingly traditional notions of truth” and a pragmatic approach to truth, Hackett indicates, is the way in which the pragmatist is not concerned with achieving correspondence between a statement and a state of affairs, say, but instead attempts to investigate the practical consequences to one’s existence of holding a particular belief. The epistemic criterion would then be subjective lived-experience rather than an external truth-maker.

Hackett’s worry about a possible inconsistency within postmodern kataphaticism is a serious one, but ultimately no such inconsistency obtains. As I have argued elsewhere regarding the possibility of a postmodern apologetics (Simmons 2012), postmodernism entails far less than Hackett suggests. According to Hackett, though, postmodernism is defined by two “higher-ordered commitments”: “anti-foundationalism and the death of meta-narratives.” Even if he is right about such commitments, it is not obvious how we should understand them.

First, “foundationalism” is not a singular thing. There many different foundationalisms. Even if postmodernism rejects classical foundationalism, whereby justification is achieved only by way of incorrigibility and self-evidence, say, that does not mean that postmodernism rejects all forms of foundationalism as an understanding of the structure of belief and justification. Indeed, I have argued elsewhere (Simmons 2008, chap. 11) that some postmodernists, such as Derrida and Levinas, can quite consistently be read (and perhaps should be read) as displaying a foundationalism of a particular sort: namely, a “modest,” “minimal,” “fallibilist,” or “weak” foundationalism in line with the epistemological work of such thinkers as Scott Aikin (2005), William Alston (1989), Robert Audi (2001), or Nicholas Rescher (2003). Now, that does not mean that postmodernists must be modest foundationalists. There are good reasons to think that the coherence theory of Keith Lehrer, the foundherentism of Susan Haack, or the infinitism of Peter Klein, as just three examples, are all plausible justificatory strategies available to postmodernists. Indeed, Scott Aikin and I have argued that Levinas, especially, is an important resource for debates concerning epistemic infinitism (Simmons and Aikin 2012). That said, it doesn’t work simply to say that postmodernism is anti-foundationalist. We have to make clear which postmodernists and what version of foundationalism we are talking about.

Second, to say that postmodernism affirms the death of meta-narratives is an ambiguous claim. On the one hand, it can be read as an epistemic thesis: since humans cannot get outside of their lived contexts, it is unlikely that metanarratives are going to be the best way of making sense of reality. On the other hand, it can be read as a metaphysical thesis: meta-narratives are false because there is no state of affairs that could be properly described by them. As I see it, the metaphysical thesis assumes the epistemic thesis, but in doing so it faces other problems. Namely, while the metaphysical thesis is certainly possible, it seems also to forget its own commitment to epistemic perspectivalism. Simply put, where would one stand to claim that reality is not available for meta-narratival description? This is my point in the earlier essay about the Kierkegaardian claim that even if existence is not a system for us, it might be a system for God. In order to say that it is not or could not be a system for God we seem to need the very objective perspective on the whole that we lack according to the epistemic resistance to meta-narratives. Indeed, even in Lyotard’s famous claim about postmodernism, he only suggests an “incredulity toward metanarratives,” not a rejection of metanarratives as false. In this way, he stays consistently epistemic rather than inconsistently metaphysical. Let’s distinguish, then, between epistemic postmodernism and metaphysical postmodernism. In Kierkegaardian terms, we might say that epistemic postmodernism is about “how” we relate to reality (i.e., it endorses epistemic humility, inescapable perspective, the role of conceptual metaphors, etc.), and metaphysical postmodernism is about “what” reality there is, or in this case, is not. Metaphysical postmodernism would seem to make a hash out of the very debate about what there is in the first place because it assumes a perspective that has already been put into serious question. Were we to draw upon Merold Westphal, which I do often, we might say that just because we might be limited to lower case-t truth doesn’t mean that “the truth is that there is not Truth.” It very well might be that “the truth is that there is Truth.” Operating internal to epistemic rather than metaphysical postmodernism allows postmodern kataphaticism to leave both of these “truth” claims open.

Importantly, in my earlier essay, I do not say that John Caputo’s account is false, but simply that it is only one alternative among many within postmodern philosophy of religion. What matters is that there can be serious philosophical discussion about those alternatives rather than a quick assumption about the only possibility: that quick assumption is what I term the “apophatic orthodoxy.” This assumption can be motivated by a wide range of things, but in particular I think it is often a result of assuming that anti-foundationalism and the death of meta-narratives straightaway means an abandonment of epistemology, in general, and a decided metaphysical anti-realism that is often taken as being obvious.

That said, I welcome Hackett’s questions about assumed theories of truth within postmodern philosophy of religion. Moreover, I think his suggestion that pragmatism offers important resources to such debates is probably correct (I have made significant use of such neo-pragmatists as Richard Rorty and Hilary Putnam in my own work). Though I would go to Kierkegaard rather than to James for a robust account of the existential importance of truth-seeking, Hackett is right to suggest that holding belief “matters to personal experience and possibilities of future action.” As Kierkegaard puts it, it matters that I find a truth that is “true for me.” Yet, Hackett’s affirmation of the existential importance of truth just reinforces the broader importance of attempting to hold true beliefs in the first place (according to whatever theory of truth one deploys). Maybe the difference that matters between John Caputo and James K.A. Smith is more a matter of the “ways of life” that their account make possible, as Hackett seems to suggest, rather than which account accurately depicts reality. Perhaps. But, if so, then we should be very careful to consider what those ways of life are and how they function—that is, we should get clear on the truth of the matter at hand in order to even ask into the utility of such belief one way or another. Such a discussion, though, should be guided by the expectation that the participants in it are committed to giving good reasons for their claims (as defined internal to the discursive community in which they find themselves) and are willing to revise their claims in light of unmet objections. It seems to me that epistemic postmodernism is a better framework for this than is metaphysical postmodernism. Hence, postmodern kataphaticism is a better way forward than apophatic orthodoxy regardless of whether we then decide in favor of Smith or Caputo, Gianni Vattimo or Alain Badiou, Bruce Ellis Benson or Richard Kearney, or whoever.

Works Cited

Aikin, Scott F. 2005. “Who’s Afraid of Epistemology’s Regress Problem?” Philosophical Studies 126: 191-217.

Alston, William. 1989. Epistemic Justification: Essays in the Theory of Knowledge. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Audi, Robert. 2001. The Architecture of Reason. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Rescher, Nicholas. 2003. Epistemology. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Simmons, J. Aaron. 2011. God and the Other: Ethics and Politics After the Theological Turn. Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press.

________. 2012. “Apologetics After Objectivity.” In Reexamining Deconstruction and Determinate

Religion: Toward a Religion with Religion. Eds., J. Aaron Simmons and Stephen Minister. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 23-59.

Simmons, J. Aaron and Scott F. Aikin. 2012. “Prospects for a Levinasian Epistemic Infinitism.” International Journal of Philosophical Studies. 20, no.3: 437-60.


One thought on “On Postmodern Epistemology: A Rejoinder to Ed Hackett

  1. Really appreciated this. I hope to dig into some of your other writings and the Homebrewed podcast, but this perspective is one that I have been missing in some of the recent dialogue. Reading Caputo’s Insistence of God, I couldn’t help thinking that there is a lot of good thought there but in the end his own “weak” theology is not weak enough and his “perhaps” explicitly rules out certain meta-narratives, such as the possibility of metaphysics.


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