On Risks worth Taking: A Reply to Smerick and Minister

This post is a reply to Christina Smerick and Stephen Minister as part of a Review Symposium on my book, God and the Other.

by J. Aaron Simmons

Originally published at The Church and Postmodernism, June 27, 2011

Let me begin by thanking Professor James K.A. Smith for his invitation to host this symposium on my recent book, God and the Other: Ethics and Politics After the Theological Turn.  I also want to thank Professor Smerick and Professor Minister for their careful analyses of the book and especially for the serious criticisms they offer.  In this reply to Smerick and Minister, I will not only respond to their criticisms, but also attempt to clarify a few things about the intention of the book itself.

In light of Professor Smerick’s suggestion that my “main concern seems to be to ‘translate’ Continental philosophy’s main constructs to appear more reasonable and ‘grounded’ than they are often understood to be,” I want to make clear that my goal is less one of translation and more one of expanded conversation.  In the introduction to God and the Other, I outline three guiding questions for the book.  The third of these questions is: “Can the insights of Continental philosophy of religion and Continental ethico-political philosophy be brought into a productive conversation with ‘mainstream’ debates in Anglo-American philosophy?” (7)  My answer to this question (at least as presented in the book) is less of an unqualified “yes” than it is of an “I hope so” or, even better, “we should try.”  We should try because it is problematic to think that one philosophical tradition would have an exclusive grasp of truth while all of the work occurring in other traditions would rest on mistakes and misunderstandings.  For ease of reference, let’s term this view “disciplinary exclusivism.”  It is important to understand that I am not attributing such an exclusivist view to any specific thinker(s).  Rather, I see it as a temptation that can creep into one’s professional life for all sorts of reasons and, even if no one else is tempted by it, I know that I occasionally am (surely everything I believe is right, right?).  Moreover, I do not think that the temptation toward disciplinary exclusivism only affects continental philosophers; it can certainly run in other directions such that continental thought is what gets excluded.

That said, in light of this temptation, I think that philosophers who take seriously the Socratic admonition to “follow inquiry wherever it may lead” would do well to remain open to the possibility that inquiry might best be served when one stands in conversation with those outside one’s own community (or professional society).  Now, crucially, this conversation may for the most part be quite critical.  This critical engagement, however, is not something of which philosophers should be wary.  The worry is that the temptation to disciplinary exclusivism can potentially give rise to what I term philosophical “cliquism” (7), which I take to be an obstacle to inquiry precisely because it would already too narrowly circumscribe where such inquiry could go.  For those who have not read God and the Other, let me note that I do not affirm the reality of such cliquism, but merely raise it as a possibility that can emerge if the answer to the question about bringing Continental philosophy and Aglo-American philosophy into conversation is “no.”  Accordingly, I would not say that my “main concern” is a project of translation, though there are certainly moments in the text where I do engage in such work, but instead one of encouraging dialogue where it has not been as prominent as it might have been.  However, my commitment to dialogue is not simply for the sake of dialogue.  As I see it, the central task of God and the Other is to demonstrate how key questions in the philosophy of religion and political philosophy are more productively addressed when one is receptive to both Continental and non-Continental voices.  In other words, I think that there are good reasons to affirm a Levinasian account of subjectivity, a Kierkegaardian approach to faith, and a Derridian model of democracy.  Nonetheless, these perspectives are themselves enriched and made more plausible when drawing upon, for example, Robert Audi’s notion of modest foundationalism, Susan Wolf’s critique of moral sainthood, and the excesses that attend to some dimensions of John Rawls’s political liberalism.  Though there are certainly risks when one attempts to draw upon different perspectives (sometimes entailments and assumptions can be introduced that lead to possible incoherence at different levels), I think that following inquiry wherever it may lead requires us to take this risk.  Hence, I do not think that I am asking Continental philosophy “to speak the language of analytic philosophy in order to be considered ‘legitimate’,” as Professor Smerick suggests.  Rather, I am attempting to work though issues such as political criticism, postmodern religious belief, and ethical normativity in a way that does not offer merely a “Continental” perspective or a non-Continental perspective, but instead provides what I hope is an account that is well-argued and made all the more substantive precisely because it draws upon relevant philosophical resources wherever they may be found.  Though it might seem trivial, I think the best philosophy occurs when we are motivated to answer difficult questions even if doing so might put in jeopardy our prior commitments.

Nonetheless, one of the risks that Professor Smerick rightly cautions against is the possibility that when one brings Continental and non-Continental philosophy together it is easy to fall back into the “very ideas or lingo that Levinas, et al., was trying to problematize: that of agency and choice.”  I wholeheartedly agree that this is troubling and, if I am guilty of it, that it would indeed be at odds with one of the underlying claims of God and the Other—namely, New Phenomenology (when read in light of an engagement between Kierkegaard and Levinas) provides a more robust ontological account than one finds in liberalism (whether classical or contemporary).  Crucially, one of the key components of this ontology, which I term the “ontology of constitutive responsibility,” is that it does not rest upon autonomy and agency, but instead on heteronomy and obligation.  While I appreciate Professor Smerick’s objection, which I admit is perhaps invited by my occasional use of words like ‘assent’, ‘endorse’, and ‘affirm’, I want to suggest that there might be a confusion of levels occurring between my use of such terms and Professor Smerick’s critique of such use.  This can be illustrated by turning to her defense of a Levinasian approach to ethics, which she takes to be occasionally at odds with my own supposedly Levinasian account.

While Professor Smerick is absolutely correct to say that “using [the] language of ‘assent’ seems very problematic when applied to Levinas, as it may indicate a self-that-asserts rather than a self that is itself constituted by the gaze of the Other,” I do not think that this poses a problem to my argument.  Notice that the passage from God and the Other quoted prior to Professor Smerick’s claim reads as follows: “Levinas and Kierkegaard . . . offer an account of human subjectivity and sociality that is worthy of our assent precisely because . . .” (32).  Here the use of “assent” is in reference to what account of subjectivity one decides to affirm.  Obviously there are many alternatives from which one can choose and when one chooses between such accounts one gives assent to one account while not giving assent to others.  This is not a matter of subjectivity itself, but of the account of subjectivity one considers to be true.  If giving one’s assent to the ontology of constitutive responsibility entails rejecting the priority of the Other found in Levinas, then this would indeed be a problem (since I have claimed that this ontology is in line with Levinas’s notion).  However, my contention is that one of the reasons that such a Levinasian ontology is worth assenting to is its ability to challenge the self-priority found in so many alternative ontologies.

Part of assenting to the ontology of constitutive responsibility is recognizing that there is a deeper level of ethico-religious relationality that establishes selfhood prior to any autonomous decision of the self.  Nonetheless, affirming such relationality does not lessen the importance of choosing here and now how best to live in the world as a result of being constituted by the call/command of the Other.  Being (pre)originally given over to the Other does not mean that I am somehow not required to answer for what I do or do not believe, say, do, and endorse within my specific historical and political context.  I would even go as far as suggesting that for Levinas and Derrida this is precisely the underlying reason for why justice is said to be “impossible.”  My proposal is not that we abandon the language of autonomy and agency, but that we relocate such language as occurring on this side of the subjectivity that has always already been established by the Other’s call/command.  Now, I do think that Professor Smerick is right to say that I attempt to “arrive at some sort of normativity” in Levinas because I am worried about the problems that accompany a purely descriptive account.  Yet, I think that the place to look for such normativity (and I work this out in the last chapter of God and the Other) is the lives of individuals who have struggled with the requirement of choosing how to live in the world in light of assenting to an ontology of constitutive responsibility whereby the self is not its own ground.

In response to Professor Smerick’s suggestion that I think that “if these thinkers will not tell us how to live . . . then they have no pragmatic advice to provide the world, and thus Rorty and others are right to dismiss them,” I want to draw a distinction between telling one how to live (which I take to be too authoritarian and final) and giving pragmatic advice (which I take to be dialogical and thoroughly revisable, though I don’t remember using that specific terminology).  New Phenomenology is decidedly not the right place to go for a thick theory of ethical and political normativity such that one could algorithmically live a righteous life simply by following a set of codified rules or instructions.  However, one of the central theses of God and the Other is that New Phenomenology can be read, nonetheless, as relevant to difficult realities that accompany postmodern social existence.  Part III of God and the Other is a series of suggestions on how the ontology of constitutive responsibility might offer productive ways forward for such issues as religious belief, epistemic justification, religion in the public square, climate change, and moral guidance.  While it is entirely plausible that others might take issue with the specific ways in which I work out some of the possible implications of New Phenomenology in such areas, I think that a more robust conversation about such implications would be a step in the right direction for overcoming the Rortian charge that much of continental philosophy is disconnected with the real struggles that individuals face.  Although we should not miss the weight of Professor Smerick’s question: “if one wants to hold that the subject/object dichotomy is not just problematic, but perhaps unethical in its very structure, how does one, who takes one’s subjected self seriously, agree to submit to a language that seems inherently unjust?”, my answer to this question is quite simple: we should give good reasons internal to the context of one’s discursive community for doing so or refusing to do so.  Yet, since I believe that the stakes of epistemology are ethical, giving good reasons is as much an ethical demand as it is an epistemic requirement (see Chapter 11 of God and the Other).  Accordingly, the Levinasian should be especially attuned to speaking in a way that does not prevent others from joining the conversation, but actively invites them to do so.  This is not tantamount to asking Continental philosophy “to adopt a language that it is trying to interrogate,” as Professor Smerick says, but rather amounts to trying to do the hard work of resisting the complacency that can accompany preaching to the choir, as it were.  This is the key move to my defense of democracy in God and the Other, and I appreciate Professor Smerick’s claim that I do not do enough on this front (especially as it concerns the work of Gianni Vattimo).  Though I have written other essays that attempt to go further in this regard, perhaps I should have done more in God and the Other as well.  Regardless, while it is tempting to give in to disciplinary exclusivism, it is also risky trying to resist such a temptation by seemingly calling into question one’s own tradition at key points.  For good Levinasian reasons, though, it is a risk worth taking, and I do not think that God and the Other is unique in this regard.  Many others have also attempted to work at similar intersections while taking similar risks—to name but a few, consider the work of Merold Westphal, John Davenport, James K.A. Smith, Bruce Ellis Benson, as well as that of the second of my reviewers, Stephen Minister.

Let me, then, turn to the two main objections offered by Professor Minister.  On the one hand, he suggests that since I do not spell out in enough detail exactly what I mean by the “God-relation,” the bi-directional relationality I advocate is not adequately supported.  On the other hand, he challenges my proposal of a deconstructive approach to justification by claiming that all one needs is an understanding of “justifying” as an ongoing social phenomenon.  Though a substantial response to each of these criticisms would take a full essay in its own right, in brief I want to say that I actually agree (to some extent) with both of the objections as being quite on the mark.  I do think that I leave the “God-relation” underdeveloped and, as such, Professor Minister is right to wonder if more than merely leaving space for a postmodern apologetics, my account actually requires a supplemental apologetics (and he even suggests that it might require a theology) if I am to make the case for the bi-directional relationality.  That said, this underdevelopment was not an oversight on my part, but the result of an intentional attempt to think through the structural relationship between the relation to God and the relation to the Other (and the attending implications for ontology, subjectivity, politics, etc.) and not the specifics of a particular way of understanding that relationship as historically deployed internal to Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, etc., and, I would even say, internal to Atheism.

Of course Levinas and Kierkegaard (and Derrida, Henry, Marion, and others) will understand the content of the God-relation in different ways.  In this book, my goal was not to defend one specific content as more philosophically plausible (or even more pragmatically worthwhile) than another content, but simply to contend for the importance of keeping the Other-relation and the God-relation both in play and in tension with each other.  My hope is that God and the Other stands as an invitation to others operating from within different religious backgrounds and internal to different religious communities to see the ontology of constitutive responsibility and the attendant bi-directional relationality to be a helpful framework for thinking through different ways of understanding the God-relation itself.  So, I take the underdeveloped notion of the God-relation to stand as a strength for opening spaces for the political import of New Phenomenology beyond the primarily Christian and Jewish perspectives of its main proponents.  I grant that it is important to go beyond this structural account and get into the hard work of dealing with specifics, but I see that as a different project motivated by a different question.  For my own part, I do attempt to go further in this direction elsewhere.  For a book entitled Religion with Religion, that (ironically) Professor Minister and I are co-editing, I have written an essay entitled “Apologetics After Objectivity.”  Therein, I attempt to sketch what such a postmodern apologetic enterprise might look like in the context of Pentecostal Christianity (though my arguments there are certainly not limited to such a perspective).

Regarding Professor Minister’s suggestion that we do not need a “full-blown, normative account of justification,” I think our disagreement lies in what counts as such a full-blown account.  I am very sympathetic with Professor Minister’s claim that descriptive relativism need not imply metaphysical relativism, and I grant that there is a danger of theories of epistemic justification “risk[ing] closing off the critical conversation with others.”  When one begins to speak about whether someone is or is not justified in affirming a particular belief, say, there is always the worry that claims to being within “my epistemic rights” can end up masking a persistent dogmatism. While granting this serious worry, which I think raises the same point regarding the ethical stakes of epistemology that I attempt to do in the book, I again think that offering an account of justification compatible with New Phenomenology is a risk worth taking.  Indeed, I would suggest that Professor Minister’s own notion of “justifying” is quite plausibly framed as a “full-blown” epistemic theory of justification in its own right—namely, I take it to be a variety of epistemic infinitism (which is a theory that suggests reasons are ongoing and nonrepeating, and has been defended variously by such thinkers as Peter Klein, Scott Aikin, and a few others).  The dangers of dogmatism are significant if a particular theory of justification allows for finality, certainty, or indefeasibility.  However, according to the modest foundationalism I propose as consistent with the philosophy of New Phenomenologists such as Levinas and Derrida (drawing on such philosophers as Robert Audi, William Alston, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and Alvin Plantinga), none of these temptations toward dogmatism remain in place.  Instead, we are left with an account that is sensitive to non-inferential sources of belief while admitting that the beliefs we hold about how best to account for these sources (the particular content that we affirm about the ethical relation or the God-relation, say) are themselves bound up in language games, practices, histories, and shared understandings that occur internal to the community or communities in which one finds oneself.

While strong foundationalism  or even some thick varieties of coherentism might indeed lead to the sort of dogmatism about which Professor Minister rightly worries, I do not see that modest foundationalism does so.  In fact, I think that abandoning the attempt to give a theory of justification might be likely to yield its own version of dogmatism.  That is, if we do not have a “full-blown” theory of justification (in the sense that it is not merely a descriptive but also a normative account), then it is hard to see what would prevent the conversations occurring “in the context of the shard social existence of responsible subjects” from being merely self-interested manifestations of power-play.  What something like a deconstructive approach to modest foundationalism gets us is a reason for understanding what is required of “responsible subjects” when it comes to the ethics of belief.  Importantly, the normative account of modest foundationalism is itself open for revision and so already allows for the ongoing “justifying” called for by Professor Minister.  However, within such an epistemic framework, which is itself ethically demanded according to the ontology of constitutive responsibility, I think that we have good reasons to keep the critical conversation going as not only an epistemic task, but also as an ethico-religious requirement.  Nonetheless, I do think that Professor Minister’s suggestion that we need to focus more on the constant social dimensions of justification itself is exactly right.  In a paper I recently co-authored with Scott Aikin, we attempt to make such a move.  Therein, Aikin and I argue that something like an “impure epistemic infinitism” (which would allow for modest foundationalist doxastic inputs) might come as close as we can get to a theory that recognizes both the virtues of a full-blown theory of justification, as it were, and also the importance of keeping the process of reason-backing ongoing in the context of “social justifying,” as Professor Minister might say.  As I see it, this impure epistemic infinitism is another way of cashing out the basic idea of a “recursive hermeneutics,” which I defend at length in God and the Other.

Let me again express my genuine gratitude to Professor Smerick and Professor Minister for their thoughtful and engaging criticism.

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