Can we still do philosophy?

Written by J. Aaron Simmons
(Associate Professor of Philosophy at Furman University)


In the first Saturday Night Life episode after 9/11, Lorne Michaels asked then mayor Giuliani, “Can we be funny?” With four words, Michaels got to the core of all the existential realties of the situation and the difficulty of living after tragedy.

Of course, I do not see the events of this past week to be a tragedy in the same sense as 9/11, but they might lead to very real tragedies in the lives of many, many people. We will see.

Nonetheless, the question I keep asking myself is, “Can we still do philosophy?” It seems that there are many other, and much more important things to do. But, C.S. Lewis rightly notes in the essay called “Learning in Wartime,” which he wrote in the midst of WWII, it is in the midst of existential threat that doing good intellectual work is more important than ever because it reminds us that what we are fighting for is worth the effort. We must keep building the world that is at risk of being turned to ruins.

In agreement with Lewis, then, I offer the following.

I often tell my students that I write in order to figure out what I think about things. So, let me make clear at the outset that I am still working through where I am on where we all find ourselves. I keep thinking that maybe the other night when I was watching the election results until 4am, that I just lapsed into a really bizarre dream and just haven’t woken up yet.

If only . . . but, here I am.

I am awake and thinking well matters and the luxury of delaying one’s thoughts until things “calm down,” is one that I don’t think remains an option.

In the past few days I have had terrified students come to me in tears to express their existential concern about their own future due to their immigration status, race, sexual orientation, and gender identity. That this is the case demands a response from everyone, but especially those of us who because of our position as professors are the ones to whom some people look for answers—we spend our life thinking about things for a living, don’t we? Surely we have a response that is helpful, right?

Again, if only . . . but here we are.

There are a variety of possible responses that are all reasonable and maybe even helpful, but whatever else we do, we should at least respond by thinking well with them about where we find ourselves. But, what makes things so difficult is that, in the current context, I struggle to see how in doing so I am not literally a performance of what has been shown to be untrue within our social and political reality.

See, I stand in front of my students every single day and tell them that critical thinking, a concern for truth, being well-spoken, reflective, intentional, hermeneutically charitable, and ethically motivated is what real education is all about. This is why I celebrate liberal arts education in the first place: the point is not to train people for jobs, but to invite them into meaningful life—a life that will still be difficult and full of both joys and miseries, but a life that they will hopefully have the strength to live, and to live fully.

David Foster Wallace once said in an interview that one of the benefits of education is being able to be articulate about your frustration, your hopes, and your failures. He is right. This benefit is not simply an esoteric, or theoretical, meta-ability to offer a post-colonial-critical-theoretic-non-onto-theological-socio-political-Deleuzian-etc interpretation of your situation, but instead the real, concrete, no shit ability to own up to the complexity of the situations in which we find ourselves. It is what allows us to avoid the temptation toward assuming that questions are useless because answers are obvious. It is this idea that has motivated my career, my life, my faith, and my identity.

Yet, here I stand in front of my students who may just see it all as a big (albeit eloquent) lie.

Ultimately, this week may have shown that only power matters, money is status, hate is more motivating than love, and cultivating fear generates social action more effectively than building coalitions around tenuous and fragile points of common values. Accordingly, the liberal experiment about critical social discourse, mutual respect for divergent views, and the shared hope for some sort of political solution to pressing social problems is now on life support—and, it very well might die.

Whether this is a good thing remains to be seen, but here we are.

So, how do I stand in front of them and keep teaching them that philosophy is worth their time and their energy when this situation in which might not only makes right, but verbal abuse just counts as good argument? How do I explain to them that to engage in argumentum ad hominem is actually a fallacy rather than a good political strategy? How do I weep with them without also shedding tears for the manifest irrelevance of the very conversation of humankind that has for so long been what invites us to cry, laugh, love, and rage in the first place?

To paraphrase Walt Whitman, we might ask what good is philosophy amidst these who confuse being offensive with provoking reflection, who mistake vulgarity with a critique of political correctness, who flaunt ignorance as a productive challenge to the “liberal elitism” of the universities? As Whitman puts it: “The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?”

To be honest, I am not sure. It may be that the simple answer is just that philosophy is worth precious little.

But what if that little remains precious, nonetheless?

Must we throw up our hands, shrug and keep weeping? I don’t think so. In fact, I think that Whitman gives us a good suggestion for a better response: “That you are here—that life exists and identity, That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”

It matters that we demonstrate critical thinking even while others assume that shouting louder is tantamount to evidential refutation. It matters that we think well when it seems hard to think anything at all. It matters that we care about truth because only then can lies and bullshit still be categories to avoid.

I am here, and so are you. Life exists. Identity exists.

While I have breath, I will speak—God help me to speak words of life that foster identities in others who are then able to contribute their own verses.

So, here I am. Weeping at moments. Raging at others. But through it all trying to find the words to say such that my contribution to this play might matter such that it doesn’t turn tragedy into nothing other than a farce.

Here, then, is what I have found myself leaning on in order to be able to be someone upon whom my students can lean. I am not sure if any of this actually restores truth about that which now seems to be a lie to so many of them, but as the small stool in my grandparents’ bathroom said: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” I am a philosopher and so philosophy is what I can do. I will stake my claim that what seems to have been shown to be the case over this past week is not, finally, true. This is a moment in which truth is, itself, at stake. So, all I have, I give to you so that you might have a little more left to give. Philosophy matters now, more than ever, because it is, here and now, at stake more than before.

Cynicism is cheap grace—it allows us to excuse our own apathy. Costly grace is always costly because it requires us to risk ourselves. Aware of the risk, then, here are three thoughts keep me going and keep me committed to thinking well even when those in power have abandoned such a commitment:

First: Democracy matters more than those who are empowered within a democracy. There will always be individual leaders and there will always be those who are marginalized within a social structure. Yet, what democracy is about is not voting practices, but a commitment to the idea of critique being possible all the way down. Rightness is never assured because of one’s position. Truth is never guaranteed because of one’s status. This is the fundamental democratic opposition to authoritarianism. This is the reason that democracy requires that justice recognize that we are never democratic enough. There is always more work to be done. So we keep working.

It is important to keep in mind that marginalization occurs even when we are attempting to include the marginalized. Martin Heidegger’s account of truth such that every unconcealing is also a concealing is a helpful framework for understanding that to stand with a particular group is always going to be perceived as standing against some other group. This is what we liberals have too often forgotten. When we fight for the rights, voices, and status of the oppressed, which we should!, we tend to ignore that someone else feels (whether rightly or not) to have had their rights restricted, their voices silenced, and their status threatened. I do not want to equivocate here between those who have no social status and those who, because of their traditional status, feel entitled to have even more, but a sensitivity to the complexity of experiential context is important.

My point is not that we need to find a way to be more charitable to those who are not charitable. Nor do I mean to suggest that there can be a society without exclusion. Rather, I am saying that we all (whether liberal or conservative) can do better at realizing that our own identities are not necessarily the hallmark for the identities of others. To forget this is to foster the very sort of resentment that festers into hate and then translates to violence. We are all responsible for where we now find ourselves.

Presidents matter, but democracy matters more. It matters more because it is what allows us to understand why Presidents matter. It matters more because it is what allows us to continue to be right about our very moral commitments to inclusion and critique. It matters more because it is what allows us to have the institutional structures that facilitate speaking up against injustice (whether real or perceived) in the name of our own experience, while always aware that our experience is not total.

Second: Critique is a mode of caring about others, but dismissal is not. This is important because marginalization is not a one-way street. Had the election turned out differently, there would still have been half of the voting populace that feels unheard. It is difficult to own up to the fact that both the working-class rust-belt white worker who may have voted differently than I did, and also the undocumented immigrant in my church who was not able to vote at all, demand my concern and my attention. It is frustrating to live into the realization that my community, my neighbors include both the Bentley-driving white family who thinks that the United States is really “their country,” and also the Muslim refugees who have literally lost everything in the attempt to come here in order to save their children. Of course I realize that I am setting up extreme dichotomies because unless we own up to the extremes, we are likely to avoid trying to understand what is at stake between them. As Søren Kierkegaard and Emmanuel Levinas both show us, when we try to restrict who counts as our “neighbor” to those who we are most comfortable with (whether the members of the country club or the facilities staff at the country club who can’t afford to be members), we miss the moral insistence of the command to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

That said, it is easy to rest complacently in the postmodern logic of theoretical superiority, but difficult to enact the entailments of Jacques Derrida’s claim that “tout autre est tout autre,” and that a democracy must be hospitable even to the enemies of democracy. It is not for nothing that he also notes that a democracy worth its name would be a “Christian democracy” because the virtue of loving your enemy must be enacted within democracies as a social practice. This is very, very hard work. I am not sure I am up to it on most days. But, I do know that it matters that I try to be.

When I work to care about others, I must not give in to the temptation to conclude that this requires me to shut down my critical engagement with them (and the views that they hold). Indeed, one of the truly regrettable aspects of the postmodern philosophical world in which I work is that it sometimes gives the impression that everything is interpretation, except for our interpretation, which is fact about the interpretations of those who don’t agree with us. This can’t be right.

Postmodernism is worth defending because it throws us all back on our hermeneutic decisions. We are all in this together, but that doesn’t mean that everything is equal or that just anything goes. Rather, when we understand the moral imperative of democracy itself, as ultimately rooted in neighbor-love instead of self-interest, then we can better appreciate that it is patronizing to “tolerate” everyone’s views, rather than lovingly taking their views seriously enough to allow them to be worth refuting or adopting. Standing with those who are marginalized by those in power does not require standing for what they consider to be true.

Third: There is a time for anger, but it is important to think really, really well about when that time is. There is a real risk in expending one’s emotional and psychological energies in trying actually to fight a rhetorical war. The danger is that by taking to the streets merely in opposition to the potential policies that might come, you galvanize the opposition’s resolve to enact those very policies. Anger rarely breeds charitable responses from those at whom one is yelling. And yet, there is a contrasting real risk that in waiting to take to the streets until actual policies occur, you can make it seem like it is ok for such policies to be enacted. The question is not about what one ought to speak up and speak out, but rather how to know when and how to do so?

I refuse to be the person who didn’t stand against oppression because I happened to be among those not being oppressed. I refuse to be the person who waits so long to get involved that involvement has become a futile exercise in self-congratulatory moral superiority. It is kind of like waiting to see how bad the hurricane gets before deciding whether or not to evacuate. By the time you realize that you need to leave, it is now too late to do so. Alternatively, however, there are also real consequences to leaving just on the rumor that a hurricane might be developing far out to sea. The goal has got to be to live such that we are prepared to leave at any moment, and yet attentive enough to be able to use good judgment about when to get in the car.

Part of me wants to march in solidarity with those taking to the streets. Part of me wants to applaud Elizabeth Warren for being willing to work within the democratic structures to bring about justice even if it might mean working with the people who seem so often willfully to refuse to see the faces of the victims of injustice (or at least some of them). I do not know how to reconcile these two parts of myself.

If only . . .

I have not yet figured out how to move forward, but I know that we must not judge too quickly those who already have moved forward in ways that raise for us genuine concerns. There are always genuine concerns that attend any movement in any direction. So, I will keep doing philosophy and be ready to march. But, in marching, we must not stop doing philosophy, and in doing philosophy we must realize that we are continuing to build the world for which we march.

Kierkegaard was right to say that life must be lived forward but understood backwards. None of us know what is going to happen tomorrow, much less over the next four years. Yet, we have to live into tomorrow and every day after that with boldness tempered by humility.

May we have the humility to be so bold.

From a Sigh to a Self: On Phenomenology and Vocation

***Originally presented at the Cothran Center Conversations on Vocation – Furman University, Fall 2016. 


So, I do not like Drake. I think he is a mediocre rapper (if we can call him that since he does more off-key, auto-tuned singing than rapping these days) and generally bad for the art form of hip hop. I am not entirely sure what bothers me so much about him—probably a combination of things—but I know that his recent hit “Hotline Bling” does not help his case. Let’s listen to some of the wisdom that he presents therein:

“You used to call me on the cell phone, late night when you need my love. I know when that hotline bling, that can only mean one thing.”


Ok, well, I take seriously the idea presented by Leo Tolstoy that we should be actively aware of the “wisdom of children” that can sometimes be missed in our very adult way of being—which too often just means being serious and boring with a good dash of egoism thrown in (but usually this adultness is characterized simply as “acting like a professional”).

Again, sigh.

But, perhaps, Drake can tell us something if we are maximally charitable to his “childlike” wisdom—of course usually he is a child of about 15 who has just discovered how cool sex and money are. Anyway, here is my thought: Drake actually does an excellent job of presenting a reductio ad absurdum regarding the idea of vocation. In other words, he shows us how we should not understand the idea of a call.

We will come back to Drake in a bit, but first, in order to think about my own “vocational story,” I want to think about what it means to respond to a call.

A call is always phenomenologically distinctive in three ways:

  1. It calls to someone. Even if anonymous in its origin, it is never anonymous in its reception.
  2. It always comes from somewhere; though it is an open question whether it must come from someone.
  3. It calls for something. It is not declarative, but inquisitive.

We might understand these three characteristics as Ethico-religious, Ontological, and Epistemic, respectively.

The philosopher Jean-Louis Chretien writes a lot about the idea of a call and he argues that the call is never possible without a response. Indeed, he goes so far as suggesting that the call is only ever heard in the response itself. The phone rings, we might say, only when we decide either to pick it up or to ignore it. A ringing phone without such a response is not a call, but merely a sound. It becomes a call when the response is given in one way or another.

Look, I know that this will sound weird—how can we respond to something if it doesn’t exist prior to our response. The call comes first, only then can we respond, right!?

Well, think about it, calls are distinguished from questions precisely along this phenomenological line. When we ask a question, the answer is not what constitutes the question as a question (indeed, merely the grammatical mark of a curly thing with a dot under it does it—or at least in English with the raising of one’s voice). Well, at least that is the way that it seems. Alternatively, calls are not obviously that. They are calls only when we respond, when we constitute them as calls by treating them as such.

Ok, I can see that a bunch of you are now thinking: yep, this is why I am majoring in Health Sciences (wasn’t Dr. Slining’s talk great?). But, just for a few minutes, suspend your general annoyance with the way that philosophers think about things and, instead, realize that sometimes it is only when we look at things in ways that most other folks don’t that we begin to see what we and they usually miss. Or at least this is what I want to propose to you tonight.

We will see whether this turns out to have been a call to you—it will all depend on how you respond.

The point is that a call occurs in its being interpreted as a call. Said a bit sexier, we could claim that a call is never without a contextual framing. It is not hermeneutically transparent. Instead, it is always dependent on the decisions of the respondent. Importantly, not just anything can count as a response. For example, we don’t get to ask “will I respond?” – for to ask that is already to have responded such that the call has been heard as calling-for a response. Instead, we can only ask “how will I respond?”

Calls are often missed when we confuse them for questions. We often simply attempt to “answer” the call. In this way, the call merely becomes a self-standing question, rather than the call putting you into question as a self.

See, the funny thing about a call is that it is always calls us to selfhood. Think about it. What is the first thing that you say when you answer a phone (well, at least prior to caller ID)? “Hello, this is Aaron.” “Aaron Simmons speaking.” “Aaron Simmons, how can I help you.” We literally identify ourselves as the one to whom the call has been offered. Without such identification, think about how weird calls would be:



“What are you doing tonight?”
“I don’t know yet. What about you?”

“It kinda depends on how much homework I have”

“Oh yeah.”


“Why is that?”

“Well, because my Philosophy professor is crazy and expects us to read like 100 pages of Levinas tonight.”

“Come on, Josh, just drop that course already?”


“Isn’t this Josh?”

“No, this is Kate.”



Notice that even in this call and response, what eventually gives context to the entire conversation—its meaning maker, if you will—is the moment of self-identification. Without that moment, the entire thing is ultimately silly. Think about it. Why is it that when we dial the wrong number we apologize to the person? Why not simply say, “Hey, it is great to meet you. If you live in Greenville do you want to do something tonight?” Of course, the reason we don’t is quite clear: we don’t know who the caller is and so are unable to make sense of ourselves in response. Indeed, this is why we can see that even if the caller is anonymous, when we answer we tend to be the ones who have to say who we are to see if the caller intended to call us or not.

So, calls not only call to someone, they call us to be someone.

Further, calls are always from somewhere. Their status as a call might depend on the response, but after having responded, then the call is seen to have preceded us. It is like the Danish philosopher, Kierkegaard, says: “Life is to be lived forwards, but understood backwards.”

Often, we spend a lot of time worrying about the source of the call because it tells us not only a lot about the caller, but it also helps us to understand the appropriate decision that we should make in response. Is it my mom calling? Is it my ex? Is it my next? (is that a thing?)

Let’s do a bit of philosophy: Perhaps the call to selfhood comes from God? Perhaps the call comes simply from some anonymous force of existence itself? Does it matter if we decide one way or another? Well, here I am on shaky ground because if the call is only ever understood in the response, then we have to pick up the phone before we know who is calling. But, I do think it matters that we take a stand on what or who is calling.

The deep stuff about who we are is connected most decidedly to what or who we name as that which calls us to ourselves. Yet, what someone believes matters. At the most basic level, what you believe about the source of your call to selfhood determines how you make sense of the status of yourself and others. The stakes are high indeed.

The idea is that ideas have consequences and what we believe underlies what we do. But, this runs in reverse too. Actions give rise to ideas and what we do facilitates what beliefs we can take seriously as options. The point is that when we understand ourselves as responses to a call, we have work to do figuring out what/who calls and how we decide will in many ways form the interpretive frame in which we then interpret ourselves.

T.S. Eliot said that he had to “put on the faces to meet the faces he would meet.” This is the challenge before all of us. Whether you take yourself to stand before God, an all pervasive life-force, or the anonymous void, you do stand before something.

The call comes to us from somewhere—or so we should choose to believe. Otherwise, if there is no call, then we run the risk of there being no task of selfhood. We simply are. I am an existentialist, but I think Sartre was wrong about how he chose to make sense of himself and the source of freedom. He might be right, but it matters that we move in different directions. It takes courage to stand somewhere.

Although I disagree with Sartre about the caller, I agree with him about the importance of standing on the idea that we have to make the most of what has been made of us. In other words, “we are who we are becoming.” Our subjectivity is a task that requires us to live truly as we care about believing truly. To give up on truth is to give up on ourselves.

The call comes to someone, from somewhere, and is always calling for something.

Ah, so here is the difficult part (as if ethics and ontology were not hard enough!). How do we know what the call says? What if you pick up the phone and the person speaking is using a language you do not understand? Que faites-vous alors? What if the person speaking is using words you understand but in ways you don’t? Wal-mart is pretty in the evening time after caterpillars march through cell phones.

See, the hermeneutic task returns! We not only decide to respond, not only do we decide what or who calls, but also we have to decide what the call says.

Let’s put this all in language that your parents will understand:

What are you going to do with your life?

Your parents will far too often hear this as a question. Moreover, they will usually think that this question should be met with an answer in relation to a job. But, this misses the point. Jobs matter, but only because they are specific ways in which we live out how we have chosen to hear the call to ourselves. When we think that we are called to a job, then we stop being selves and become employees.

So, will you hear “What are you going to do with your life?” as a call or merely as a question? If it is the former, which I hope it is for you, then the point is that there may not be any precise answer. Instead, there is only decision, and then more decision. But, and this is really, really cool: once the decision is made, then you get to see why it turns out to have been the right or wrong response and you move on from there.

We are who we are becoming.

We live forwards and understand backwards.

I realize that this is not exactly what you probably expected me to say tonight. But, I was asked to give my vocational story, and this is it. It is all about owning up to the decision to be someone who I liked being and then to do stuff that helped me to continue in this task.

The specifics are just that, specific to my case. I started as a physics major, but thought my professor was ugly and so went to Europe and fell in love with art and ideas, came back and went to graduate school to watch FSU football (another sigh) with the hope that I would become a professor so I could spend my summers fishing, but along the way discovered that the questions that kept me up at night were questions worth spending my life asking—philosophy let me do this so I became a philosopher. Here I am.

I could have chosen differently and things would have been ok—that is what I think too many students forget. My path is mine. Your path is yours. Don’t let your parents, your friends, your professors, or your pastors tell you what the right path is.

Only when you choose for yourself can you, then, and always after the fact, realize that the question was indeed a call that defined your life. Then you can see that what you thought was a term-paper was really an invitation to a different identity. That joining that group was actually the turning point in everything that followed. That sometimes just not being busy is the key to being properly directed toward what matters for you and your life.

My vocational story is a story about my becoming, but it is still ongoing. I am still working on it. I have not yet finished the story and so I am still trying to figure out whether some questions that I am trying to answer will turn out to have been calls. We will see.

So, let’s get back to the childlike wisdom of Drake.

You thought I would forget, hunh!

“I know when that hotline bling, that can only mean one thing.”

Notice that for Drake, everything is clear from the outset. There is no reason to pick up the phone because we already know who is calling, what they want, and who they want to speak to. In this way, Drake reduces the call to not much more than a sigh.

It’s him again.


It’s her again.


But, what if we realize that when that hotline bling, it never, ever, only means one thing. It all depends on what you decide to believe about who is calling, what they want, and how you will respond.

When we stop being overwhelmed by questions, we might begin to hear calls.

It’s him, again! – Who am I?

It’s her, again! – What should I do?

When we let the call call us, then we might begin to see that the really, really great callers are those that are not immediately identified because the lack of clarity invites us into relationship.

When we let the call call us, then we might begin to see that the really, really great calls are those that remain a bit perplexing because the mystery invites us to dig deeper.

Henry David Thoreau said that in order to go for a walk, you have to be willing to get lost. I think he is right.

A former professor of mine who was only a few years older than me died this week after a very long battle with cancer. In an email when he first got diagnosed with “stage 4 cancer” and given only a few months to live, he wrote to me and said “In the end there is the unmanageable but we would trivial beings without it. So, onward with my day.”

My vocational story is simply this: I did the best I could to make the best decision with the information that I had at the time, but the unmanageable persists. And then I did that again, and again, and again.

Somewhere along the way, my sigh at knowing that the call could only mean one thing, turned into a self whereby there are always more options.

I have enjoyed the walk, though on some days it is easier to say “onward with my day” than on others.

The important thing is to keep walking. To keep responding.

Come walk with me. Or, perhaps even better, let’s dance. But, please, please don’t do whatever it is that Drake is doing.



“Mashup Philosophy of Religion” – Special Issue of the JCRT

The Special Issue of the Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory that I edited on the idea of “Mashup Philosophy of Religion” is now available. It contains essays by:

  • Nicholas Wolterstorff
  • J. Aaron Simmons
  • J.L. Schellenberg
  • Martin Shuster
  • Martin Kavka
  • Nathan R.B. Loewen
  • Timothy D. Knepper
  • N.N. Trakakis
  • Christina M. Gschwandtner
  • A.G. Holdier
  • Christy Flanagan-Feddon
  • Markus Weidler
  • Jack Mulder Jr.
  • Michael R. Kelly
  • John Greco
  • Scott F. Aikin
  • Paul K. Moser
  • Kevin Schilbrack

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.

Why Epistemology Still Matters for Phenomenology: An Engagement with Neal DeRoo

By J. Aaron Simmons
Originally published at The Other Journal – The Church and Postmodernism as part of a Review Symposium on Neal Deroo’s Futurity in Phenomenology (Fordham UP, 2013).

Let me begin by saying that Neal DeRoo’s Futurity in Phenomenology is an excellent book and a significant contribution to the contemporary debates in at least two ways.

First, DeRoo offers a nuanced and compelling argument for why the new phenomenology of Levinas and Derrida should rightly be considered phenomenology. Though this book is not primarily about the philosophy of religion, DeRoo rightly challenges recent claims that new phenomenology has abandoned phenomenology and has, instead, turned into thinly-veiled confessional theology.  Better than any other book of which I am aware, DeRoo’s text shows in detail the ways in which Levinas and Derrida continue the Husserlian phenomenological project, even while pushing it in directions that Husserl himself might not have pursued.  Yet, one of the main theses of the book, I take it, is that Husserlian phenomenology was defined by a robust openness—to phenomena, to interpretive frameworks, to the future, etc.  As such, what might be sometimes judged as the phenomenological “heresy” of Levinas and Derrida (as suggested by Dominique Janicaud, but also at some points even by Levinas and Derrida themselves) is better understood as an extension of the methodological and hermeneutic openness (we might term it “hospitality” (Derrida) or “charity” (Marion)) of phenomenology itself.

Second, by offering such a sophisticated account of the ways in which futurity gets cashed out in phenomenology, DeRoo ultimately offers a vision for the future of phenomenology. This future is one that we might describe as positive and promissory. That is, when we see how futurity amounts to a constitutive relation to the Other, it invites an essential openness to that future/Other. As such, attending to this relation invites (and, indeed, encourages) behaviors, institutions, and structures that would enable the future to come on its own terms.  In other words, the future is not something that we should close off and, hence, we should practice hospitality and charity to this future as our mode of living here and now. “Communities and institutions, and not just individuals,” DeRoo explains, “are called to live in, as, and up to the promise” (152).  He continues on to show the way in which this brings the descriptive analysis (and tradition) of phenomenology to bear upon normative questions about social existence of concern to our shared future:

“Phenomenology bears on issues that are communal and institutional and therefore political, ethical, ecological, juridical, religious, and so on. Phenomenology is not confined to speaking strictly of the individual and its acts, and therefore its insights and breakthroughs are similarly not confined strictly to the individual. Hence employing a (quasi-)transcendental move does not prevent us from acting or thinking positively, contra Rorty and Wood. Rather in undertaking a genuinely transcendental analysis, we can come to understand the sense that our actions, communities, and institutions have received via traditionality and therefore, in turn, the sense that they pass on, via that same traditionality, to others. Such a transcendental analysis is, in and of itself, not merely a negation but a positive, ethical action” (152-3).

Now, for anyone who has read my own work, it probably won’t come as much of a surprise that I am impressed by DeRoo’s book. I have also argued at length for the phenomenological legitimacy of new phenomenology (see: The New Phenomenology: A Philosophical Introduction). Additionally, I have argued for what I consider the important ethical, political, and religious possibilities that are opened by taking the potential normative implications of contemporary phenomenology quite seriously (see: God and the Other: Ethics and Politics After the Theological Turn; and Reexamining Deconstruction and Determinate Religion). Indeed, I have even contended that quasi-transcendental argumentation is precisely what needs to be rehabilitated for such ends within a phenomenological context. That said, my initial desire when I set out to write this response to DeRoo was to explore issues related to political existence in light of DeRoo’s account. For example, how ought we to incorporate both the appreciation of tradition and also the promissory anticipation into political life? Does the emphasis on tradition yield a surprisingly conservative approach to governance and social institutions? Or, perhaps the constitutive anticipation and eschatological orientation invite a radical political vision of perpetual change? Moreover, how does openness to the future avoid giving rise to chaotic indeterminacy and undecidability about social realities? Surely the future is not absolutely open in the sense that we would unflinchingly affirm simply whatever may come. The future might bring new possibilities for charity, but it also might bring new realities of exclusion and violence. How does DeRoo see his decidedly technical account of contemporary phenomenology to respond to such worries?

Although I am deeply interested in having such a conversation with DeRoo and many others who are engaged in these issues in the literature, I want to go a slightly different direction in the remainder of my brief remarks here. Rather than asking these practical questions about social existence and political theory, I want to engage in some meta-philosophical speculation about the very conditions under which these questions could be most effectively asked (and perhaps answered).  Specifically, I want to think about DeRoo’s account of a “nonepistemological phenomenology” that he suggests to emerge especially in Levinas, but also in Derrida (see 57, 62, 69, 82, 86, 142, 151).  My tentative suggestion is that, despite very good reasons to resist some aspects of what Charles Taylor terms “the epistemological tradition” (e.g., the problematic notions of self-evidence and certainty that can be sometimes found within that tradition), contemporary phenomenologists should be wary of being viewed as engaged in “nonepistemological” inquiry—well, at least not without significant qualification.

They should be wary for two reasons. First, they should hesitate because the idea of “nonepistemological phenomenology” risks offering a reductive reading of the history of philosophy and equivocating on what “epistemology” means. Second, they should hesitate because they want to avoid the problem of self-refutation that seems to emerge when one offers reasons to resist traditional approaches to epistemology. That is, reason-giving requires serious thinking about what will count as evidence, how justification operates, and what knowledge requires—all of which are decidedly epistemological considerations. In the end, one could only argue for a “nonepistemological” approach to something if one is engaged (at least implicitly) in epistemological inquiry.  One could avoid such a problem of self-refutation by abandoning the task of reason-giving, of course, but that hardly seems a promising strategy for philosophical engagement. Ultimately, appearing to reject epistemology comes at too high a cost: it either invites being perceived as a weak thinker, or not being a thinker at all.

I do not think that Levinas, Derrida, or DeRoo are weak thinkers and I think that they all give very good reasons to take their accounts seriously.  As such, let me all-too-briefly try to reframe the notion of “nonepistemological phenomenology” as a more defensible notion. It may turn out that this is what DeRoo himself has in mind, but it is worth getting clear on this. My suggestion is that by better understanding epistemology itself (especially as formulated in contemporary analytic debates), we are better able to argue for the decidedly bright future of phenomenology. What is required, then, is not “nonepistemological phenomenology,” but a more robust appropriation of contemporary epistemology by those working in phenomenology (and continental philosophy, more broadly). Minimally, this appropriation is necessary in order that phenomenologists make a compelling case for phenomenology itself.

My suggestion is that when we talk about the “nonepistemological” phenomenological project of someone like Levinas, what we must mean is that he resists the priority of epistemology to ethics. Surely that is right about Levinas, and probably right about ethics itself. Indeed, Levinas often claims that the ethical relation is not a matter (primarily) of knowledge, but is a constitutive encounter that inaugurates my very subjectivity as a response. For Levinas, as for others such as Jean-Louis Chrétien, this encounter is what makes possible subsequent epistemological inquiry.  Simply put, only because I am called to respond by the Other can that task of reason-giving, say, be something that presses upon me. As Judith Butler suggests, “giving an account of oneself” is something that is called-forth by others. Ethics opens the very space for epistemology. So far so good, in this sense it seems entirely appropriate to suggest that Levinas’s ethical philosophy is a “nonepistemological” phenomenology.  And yet . . .

The problem is that the nonepistemological dimension is only something that can be presented, accounted for, explained, outlined, etc., by engaging in epistemic discourse.  Only by considering what would count as evidence for the Levinasian account of “originary peace” as a better alternative than the Hobbesian account of “originary war,” for example, could the Levinasian alternative be weighed and considered on its own terms. Indeed, one of the ways in which DeRoo nicely demonstrates the Husserlian aspects of Levinas’s thought is by focusing on the ways in which Levinas appropriates “the principle of all principles” in new ways—and thus, allows for a more expanded conception of evidence itself. Importantly, though Levinas compellingly argues that ontology is not fundamental (at least as early as 1951), he argues for this conclusion!  Moreover, even if ontology is not fundamental, that does not mean that we are able to be non-ontologically situated.  In other words, the account we give of the ethical relation is never adequate to the relation itself, but the relation is something only taken up in the accounts we offer of it—hence the importance and radicality of Levinas’s very project.

Despite the frequency with which DeRoo talks about a nonepistemological phenomenology, toward the end of the book, he offers a more nuanced account of what is going on in new phenomenology.  It is not as if there is an epistemological phenomenology (Husserl) and a nonepistemological phenomenology (Levinas and Derrida), but instead that phenomenology (when broadly considered in light of its commitment to openness) displays both epistemic and nonepistemic dimensions. This seems exactly right, but hardly surprising. Surely a methodology and tradition defined by a commitment to considering that which gives itself in its very mode of givenness would require a variety of ways of making sense of such givenness. Some phenomena are given in ways that easily allow for primarily epistemic consideration, but others resist such consideration because they present themselves “of themselves” in such a way as to challenge the supremacy of epistemic consideration itself—e.g., the face of the Other, the trace of God, the event, etc. And yet, such nonepistemic dimensions require epistemic analysis just as the epistemic dimensions require being located and challenged by ethical and or ethico-religious interruption.

Ultimately, then, continental philosophers should be careful in seeming to reject epistemology. To do so would be to reject the very conditions according to which such a rejection could be justified. And, one of the central upshots of the ethical relation is that such a demand for justification—for one’s beliefs, actions, and very selfhood—is required because of the primacy of sociality. Rather than defending a nonepistemological phenomenology, my suggestion is that we need a phenomenological intervention into contemporary epistemology. We should be able to offer good reasons (as I take DeRoo to do) for why phenomenology deserves to be considered a viable participant in the future of philosophical inquiry.

Can Philosophy Come Forth As Prophecy?

By J. Aaron Simmons and Zachary Jolly
Originally published at The Church and Postmodernism (2013)

In 1984 Alvin Plantinga’s landmark essay, “Advice to Christian Philosophers,” appeared in print in Faith and Philosophy. This widely celebrated essay can rightly be said to have crystalized the early gestures toward what has become known as contemporary “Christian Philosophy,” and stands as an important moment in the resurgence of philosophical theology more broadly in academic discourse at the end of the twentieth century. Though this single essay’s influence can surely be overstated (among others, Nicholas Wolterstorff, William Alston, and Plantinga himself were doing work that could rightly be considered as “Christian Philosophy” prior to 1984 – for a good synopsis of Plantinga’s influence, see Wolterstorff (2011)), this essay has received something like mythic status as part of the founding narrative of contemporary Christian philosophy, at least as largely embodied by the Society of Christian Philosophers.  Though granting the significance of Plantinga’s essay and concurring with the historical assessment of its importance, we want to highlight another, less familiar essay, an essay that, while calling for something quite similar to Plantinga, predates “Advice to Christian Philosophers” by a decade: Merold Westphal’s “Prolegomena to Any Future Philosophy of Religion Which Will Be Able to Come Forth as Prophecy” (1973). Westphal’s essay offers a significant challenge to the “scientific” presumptions of the philosophical study of religion (both as natural (a)theology and also as phenomenology of religion).

For Westphal, the main characteristic of such a scientific approach is “objectivity”—or, at least, the attempt to achieve such objectivity.  Drawing heavily on the work of Kierkegaard, Westphal suggests that approaching philosophy of religion in an objectivist manner is problematic because it fails to appreciate the radically subjective aspect of religious existence. As Westphal explains: “It appears that the notion of scientific objectivity, even without the ideals of mathematical precision and general laws, when torn from its natural habitat and transferred to the religious realm, reveals the fundamental incongruity between itself and its newly assigned subject matter” (1991, 5).  Unlike the relation between natural science and the philosophy of science in which “the same pursuit of detached objectivity is fundamental to both” (1991, 11), religion and the “scientific” approach to philosophy of religion, Westphal suggests, do not admit of such “harmony” (1991, 11).  Instead, “it appears that the phenomenology of religion can be justified only in terms of interests that are foreign, even hostile, to the subject matter” (1991, 11).  In light of such a tension between “methodology and subject matter,” Westphal advocates articulating possible alternative methodologies that are more appropriate to the content of our inquiry as philosophers of religion.  While admitting that there might be a variety of such alternatives, Westphal suggests that one promising model that stands in contrast to the scientist is “the Hebrew prophet” (1991, 11).

According to Westphal, prophetic discourse is characterized by four qualities.  It is personal, untimely, political, and eschatological (1991, 12).  Detailed analysis of each of these aspects is beyond our scope here, but, in brief, personal discourse occurs “in the mode of direct address” (1991, 12) such that objectivity is displaced with subjective investment in one’s context and community. Untimeliness expresses the idea that prophetic speech is always “conspicuously out of step with the spirit of its times” and, hence, “it is always the speech of a minority” (1991, 14). Here we can see that untimeliness requires the quality of personal discourse—one is only out of step with the time in which one finds oneself and represents a minority only in relation to some historically constituted majority, etc.  The political aspect might more properly be understood as a challenge to the power structures operative within a community. Prophetic speech is political insofar as it contests the established order.  Again, this is in relation to the other aspects: one challenges power structures with an eye toward the status of the marginalized (“the widow, the orphan, and the stranger”) and from within the community in which those structures continue to claim legitimacy.  Finally, the eschatological dimension of prophetic discourse amounts to the fact that such discourse is “penultimate” and affirms the “priority of God’s future” (1991, 17). As Westphal explains, there is always a “Gospel” to which the prophecy testifies.

With this brief overview of Westphal’s account in place, we might notice that it shares quite a bit with Plantinga’s own “Advice to Christian Philosophers.”  First, both Plantinga and Westphal call for philosophy of religion to abandon modernist pretentions to objectivity such that philosophers of religion fully appreciate that they operate within the communities in which they always already find themselves. While we think that there are important points of difference between the way Plantinga and Westphal will cash out the idea of community, that fact should not overshadow the way in which they both advocate philosophy of religion that is “personal.”  Second, given the general state of the philosophical discipline in which Plantinga and Westphal were writing, a call for “Christian Philosophy” or “Prophetic Philosophy of Religion” is untimely indeed.  Third, both Plantinga and Westphal are eschatologically oriented in that they call for philosophers of religion to think in light of the “Gospel” such that there is a positive content toward which the philosopher of religion might strive.  The only one of the four qualities outlined by Westphal that is noticeably absent from Plantinga is the “political” dimension.  Yet even Plantinga might be read as politically engaged if one understands the “power structures” being challenged to be those of mid-century American philosophy still under the influence of some problematic forms of classical foundationalism and the lingering traces of positivism.  Despite these points of resonance, however, Plantinga does not articulate his account in terms of “the prophetic.”  Indeed, even in later essays where Plantinga returns to the idea of what would constitute Christian philosophy, he does not draw primarily on the idea of prophetic discourse, but instead seems more motivated by the idea of shifting the epistemic starting points of philosophy from non-Theistic/Christian assumptions to Theistic/Christian ones (see Plantinga 1998, chapters 12, 13, and the afterword).  Accordingly, Westphal’s project is, as we see it, broader in its scope and potential impact since it is not simply a epistemic defense of “Christian” starting points, but instead stands a call for a revised mode of philosophical discourse itself—a mode that will hopefully remain open to the radically subjective/experiential/dispossessing way in which that which we call “religion” shows itself both in culture and in personal practice/belief.  In this sense, Westphal remains quite rightly in line with the phenomenological and hermeneutic traditions in which he primarily works.

(As a parenthetical remark, we should note that in his regrettably titled The End of Philosophy of Religion (a better title would have been, The Reconstruction of Philosophy of Religion, or A Revision of Philosophy of Religion, etc.), Nick Trakakis (2008) turns to “prophetic” alternatives to what he considers the continuing appeals to objectivity within analytic philosophy of religion.  In particular, Trakakis looks to Westphal’s prophetic philosophy of religion and John Caputo’s notion of “prophetic postmodernism” (see Caputo 2000) as “literary” alternatives to the “scientific” mode of discourse in mainstream philosophy of religion.  Unfortunately, Trakakis overstates the impact of stylistic differences.  Importantly, Westphal’s point was not that philosophers of religion should be more poetic, but that they should challenge the criteria governing their discourse such that objectivity and detachment are assumed as ideals. One can challenge such criteria without, thereby, writing more poetically.  Indeed, we think that there might be less perceived distance between and analytic and continental philosophy if such stylistic differences were viewed as secondary matters of form rather than primary matters of content and conviction.)

So, what does the distinctly “prophetic” dimension get Westphal that might remain lacking in Plantinga?  Without being able to argue this at length, we want to propose that by appealing to the prophetic, Westphal allows for a distinction between what we can term “prophetic philosophy of religion” on the one hand, and “prophecy” on the other hand.  Namely, when Westphal first turns to the Hebrew prophet as an alternative to the scientific philosopher of religion, he states that prophets (“like apostles”) were originally distinguished from “geniuses” insofar as “the listener is asked to accept the message not because of its profundity, eloquence, or beauty, but because ‘thus saith the Lord’” (1991, 11).  Here, Westphal is in agreement with the basic description of the prophet given by Abraham Joshua Heschel: “In speaking, the prophet reveals God.  This is the marvel of a prophet’s work: in his words, the invisible God becomes audible. He does not prove or argue.  The thought he has to convey is more than language can contain.  Divine power bursts in the words.  The authority of the prophet is in the Presence his words reveal. There are no proofs for the existence of the God of Abraham.  There are only witnesses” (1962, 22). For Heschel, the authority of the prophet comes from the authority of God. Though making it clear that the prophet is something far greater than a mouthpiece of the divine, Heschel insists that “God is raging in the prophet’s words” (1962, 5).  While Westphal admits that “thus saith the Lord” is the hallmark of prophecy, he claims that “I do not wish to suggest that philosophers of religion seek to imitate prophets in this respect” (1991, 12). This move is key.  Following Kierkegaard, Westphal is rightly hesitant to allow philosophers, as philosophers, to speak with the authority of the prophet/apostle. Yet Westphal’s halt here is made not in the name of philosophical supremacy, but of religious humility.  In order to make room for the possibility of prophets, Westphal calls only for “prophetic philosophy” and not for philosophers to be prophets.  For, as Heschel explains, the prophet does not care primarily about proofs and argument, but revealing the glory of God.

In this way, Westphal’s call for philosophy of religion that would “come forth as prophecy” can be read as a limitation of philosophy itself.  Simply put, lest it give in to the very sorts of objectivist/scientific assumptions that it attempted to overcome, philosophy of religion cannot deny the possibility of prophets who speak with an authority other than that of philosophical argumentation.  Yet, philosophers of religion who recognize this limitation are, thereby, far from limited.  Indeed, they are now opened onto the possibility that their own discourse was merely a primer or prolegomena.

The philosophical humility invited by prophetic philosophy of religion is something that stands, we believe, as a possible corrective to the temptation to which much of contemporary Christian philosophy yields: arrogance regarding philosophical ability and scope. This might play out as the idea that philosophers really make the best theologians (see Plantinga 1998, 341; this also seems to be a danger of some of “analytic theology,” we believe)—let’s term this the temptation to philosophical arrogance.  Or, it might show up as the idea that there are philosophical limitations on what prophecy might proclaim (consider John Caputo’s seeming dismissal of the some of the key miracles of Christian Scripture as either poetic parables or magical presentations of God as merely “the ultimate laser show at Disneyworld” (2006, 16))—let’s term this the temptation to theological reductionism.  On the one hand, when philosopher’s leave room for some people legitimately to speak with the authority of “thus saith the Lord,” a more radical openness to “the impossible” is countenanced than would (ironically) otherwise be possible internal to a “religion without religion” (Derrida/Caputo).  Virgins might really give birth.  The dead might really walk out of their graves.  Justice might really “roll down like waters” (Amos 5:24).  And, if we have really abandoned the modernist conception of scientific objectivity and naturalistic presuppositions, then why should we think that the last example is any more “possible” or “less miraculous” than the former?  On the other hand, when philosophers realize that, as philosophers, they cannot claim the authority of “thus saith the Lord,” they stay far from the temptation that philosophy is really all that is needed for religious existence. Now, importantly, we are not saying that Plantinga (or analytic theology) gives in to this temptation to philosophical arrogance. And we are not saying that the only way to interpret Caputo is as giving in to theological reductionism (for other readings of Caputo, see Olthuis 2002; Dooley 2003; Simpson 2009; and Zlomislić and DeRoo 2010). Our claim is more modest: Westphal’s notion of prophetic philosophy of religion, as distinct from prophecy (and the attendant authority structures operative therein) allows for philosophy to be open to more than itself.  This seems to us like a good methodological first step in both philosophical and religious truth seeking.  It is not clear what carefully attending to Westphal’s account as a similar, but different, approach to philosophy of religion than that offered by Plantinga will yield in the contemporary debates, but we think that it is well worth finding out.

Works Cited

Caputo, John D. 2000. “Philosophy and Prophetic Postmodernism: Toward a Catholic Postmodernity.” American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly LXXIV, no. 4: 549-67.

Dooley, Mark, ed. 2003. A Passion for the Impossible: John D. Caputo in Focus. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Heschel, Abraham Joshua. 1962. The Prophets. Peabody: Hendrickson.

Olthuis, James H., ed. 2002. Religion with/out Religion: The Prayers and Tears of John D. Caputo. London: Routledge.

Plantinga, Alvin. 2011. “Response to Nick Wolterstorff.” Faith and Philosophy 28, no.3 (July): 267-68.

Planginta, Alvin. 1998. The Analytic Theist: An Alvin Plantinga Reader. Ed. James F. Sennett. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Plantinga, Alvin. 1984. “Advice to Christian Philosophers.” Faith and Philosophy 1: 253-71.

Simpson, Christopher Ben. 2009. Religion, Metaphysics and the Postmodern: William Desmond and John Caputo. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Trakakis, Nick. 2008. The End of Philosophy of Religion. London: Continuum.

Westphal, Merold. 1973. “Prolegomena to Any Future Philosophy of Religion Which Will Be Able to Come Forth as Prophecy.” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 4, no.3 (Fall). 129-50.

Westphal, Merold. 1991. Kierkegaard’s Critique of Reason and Society. University Park: Penn State University Press.

Wolterstorff, Nicholas. 2011. “Then, Now, and Al.” Faith and Philosophy 28, no.3 (July): 253-66.

Zomislić, Marko and Neil DeRoo, eds. 2010. Cross and Khôra: Deconstruction and Christianity in the Work of John D. Caputo. Eugene: Pickwick Publications.

Postmodern Kataphaticism?

By J. Aaron Simmons
Originally published at The Church and Postmodernism (2012)
For a more developed consideration of these ideas, see my more recent essay: “Postmodern Kataphaticism: A Constructive Proposal.”

Let me begin by simply offering the following thesis: The genuinely important negative theological trajectory in much of postmodern/continental/deconstructive philosophy of religion has led to its own problematic dogmatism.  Specifically, in the crucial attempt to overcome onto-theology, much of continental philosophy of religion has seemingly given rise to what I will term an “apophatic orthodoxy.”  By “apophatic orthodoxy,” I mean that postmodernism has, for the most part, insisted on only one approach to the truth-claims, religious practices, and determinate authority structures of religious communities.  Namely, it appears that the only legitimate possibility for postmodern religious existence is one in which faith occurs “without seeing, without having, and without knowing” (Caputo 1997, 103), such that the structures of religiosity are maintained without determinate content.  It is as if many postmodern philosophers read the second half of Johannes Climacus’s famous statement, existence “cannot be a system for any existing spirit,” but paid no attention to the first half, “Existence itself is a system—for God” (Kierkegaard 1992, 118).  Even if we follow Merold Westphal and introduce the hermeneutic awareness that reality “may very well be” a system for God (2001, 190) rather than the stronger claim that it “is” that way for God, it is important to realize that for many postmodern philosophers, since existence is not a system for us, it simply is not a system at all.   Yet, as Westphal rightly points out, this move is an obvious non-sequitur.  While there are a host of reasons for worrying that an overly determinate religious discourse would slide back into onto-theology and epistemic arrogance, whereby theology is made to answer to philosophical categories assumed to be objectively stable, there are not good reasons to think that all determinate religious discourse is necessarily overly determinate.  Accordingly, I want to propose an idea of “Postmodern Kataphaticism.”

This idea is not new, though the phrase might be.  I am drawing heavily on Westphal and other postmodern philosophers of religion such as Jean-Luc Marion, Richard Kearney, Kevin Hart, James K.A. Smith, and Bruce Ellis Benson, among others, who all warn against the dangers of self-protective theological insularity (where claims to certainty insulate one from critique), while also realizing the danger of moving too far away from the religious traditions in which the God-talk being criticized finds its historical expression.   So, although Postmodern Kataphaticism would certainly resist reducing religious existence to a matter of propositional assent, it would maintain the importance of trying to hold true-beliefs about the nature and existence of God.  In this way, Postmodern Kataphaticism need not be exclusively “continental.”  Many philosophers of religion working more in an “analytic” mode are also likely to be at home with this basic idea.  I am thinking in particular of thinkers such as William Hasker, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and C. Stephen Evans, who all resist propositional reductionism while taking quite seriously the importance of tracking with truth.

Similarly, though Postmodern Kataphaticism would be suspicious of thinking that human cognitive and linguistic abilities are adequate to the task of understanding God, and in this sense would continue to maintain an apophatic dimension, it would not give in to the temptation of thinking that if we cannot understand God fully, then we cannot understand God at all.  When Levinas said that the Other “overflows comprehension,” he is careful not to suggest that the Other is absolutely incomprehensible, for that would eliminate the very possibility of an encounter with the Other in the first place.  Similarly, when postmodernists rightly stress the problems with thinking about God as a being, they should be wary of going further and saying that God does not exist or that God cannot be a being.  Instead, with Marion, we should admit that it is possible that God is at least a being, though Being is likely not the best category in which to think of God, and probably not the primary name for God.  Yet, when Marion suggests that Love is a better name for God than are “prime mover” or “causa sui,” he does not mean this as empty rhetorical play, but instead as a determinate truth-claim.  He is putting forth that “God is Love” is a better way to understand God than other alternatives on offer.  Accordingly, Postmodern Kataphaticism would understand that one is not stuck with the false dichotomy of either Classical Onto-theology or something like Derridian “Religion without Religion.”  Instead, determinate religious identity (Pentecostal, Presbyterian, or whatever) is still possible for those who have embraced Derridian deconstruction.  Following Derrida on some things need not mean that one follow Derrida on all things.  Being deconstructive in terms of language, textuality, and identity need not entail that one also “rightly passes as an atheist.” That said, an important upshot of Postmodern Kataphaticism would be that atheism would also be a determinate identity that remains possible as well.  Kierkegaard was right to stress the importance and difficulty of “Becoming a Christian,” yet Sartre was just as right to stress the importance and difficulty of “Becoming an Atheist.”  The apophatic orthodoxy that threatens postmodern philosophy of religion would make Kierkegaard’s notion a non-starter and Sartre’s notion entirely too safe, and thus unimportant.  Let me give just one example in order to work some of this out—if only very tentatively.

In The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida, the groundbreaking book which significantly contributed to the contemporary prominence of “Continental” or “Deconstructive” philosophy of religion, John Caputo argues that deconstruction yields a “generalized apophatics” according to which “negative theology is everybody’s business, that it has a general translatability, that we cannot trust any discourse that is not contaminated by negative theology” (1997, 28; see also 32, 41, 46, 55).  Caputo continues on to claim that generalized apophatics involves a “deeply affirmative desire for something that is always essentially other than the prevailing regime of presence, something tout autre—too, too other, oui, oui—is of general interest.  A passion for the impossible is a matter of general concern” (1997, 28).  I think that it would not be too far off the mark to say that all continental philosophers of religion are sympathetic with Caputo’s account and display similar suspicions and desires.  Nonetheless, is it the case that one has to go quite as far as Caputo seems to suggest?  Must a generalized apophatics get cashed out as a rejection of what Caputo (2006) elsewhere terms “strong theology”?  Why can’t the “contamination of negative theology” be something that invites merely epistemic humility rather than metaphysical exclusion?  Another way of saying this is that the non-sequitur discussed above occurs when one moves from epistemic antirealism to metaphysical antirealism without additional argument.  Apophatic orthodoxy occurs when one assumes that no such additional argument is needed.

The point is that Caputo seems to suggest that we can trust a discourse that is contaminated by apophatics.  Yet, this general epistemic anti-realism would not prescribe the content of such a contaminated discourse—i.e., it would remain metaphysically uncommitted.  It is entirely plausible that theistic, atheistic, nontheistic, etc., accounts might all qualify if they are accounts held with requisite hermeneutic sensitivity, contextual appreciation, historicist sensibility, and perspectival understanding.  As Westphal might say, we might be restricted to lower-case t “truth,” but that doesn’t mean that “the truth is that there is not Truth.”  Indeed, it might be that “the truth is that there is Truth.”  This would be the difference between the equally perspectival accounts of Kierkegaard on the one hand and Nietzsche on the other hand.  Deciding one way or another would always involve risk and, as Derrida would say, amount to a real decision.  Accordingly, postmodern philosophy of religion should not and, indeed, cannot start from a rejection of particular theological accounts, because that would be to assume the very thing it fundamentally challenges—a systematic and final view available for existing individuals.  Rather such philosophy can, from the outset, only critique particular ways of relating to such accounts: as held and affirmed with certainty.  Problems arise when, having moved from epistemic to metaphysical antirealism, one then assumes that only some metaphysical accounts, namely those which stress the ineffability, unknowability, excessiveness of God, are viable while other, namely those which stress the intimacy, personality, proximity, relationality, and historical incarnation of God are not.  That is not to say that one might not be able to then go on to provide good reasons for moving in one direction as opposed to another, but the point is that arguments are required to justify such a move.  Just being a postmodernist, a deconstructionist, or a continental philosopher is not sufficient.  Again, let’s consider examples from Caputo.

Although Caputo does claim that he offers “no final opinion” about God “as an entitative issue” (2006, 10), his account of the “strong theology,” to which he is so strenuously opposed, ends up looking a lot like any perspective that understands God as a personal being.   Indeed, Caputo’s suspension of judgment regarding whether God is a being is offered just one page after his claim that “The name of God is being’s aspiration, its inspiration, its aeration, for God is not being or a being but a ghostly quasi-being, a very holy spirit” (2006, 9, emphasis added).  Moreover, it is offered just two pages prior to his claim that “the name of God is the name of an event rather than of an entity . . .” (2006, 12, emphasis added).  Accordingly, it becomes difficult to know what to make of Caputo’s seeming allowance for what we might term a “divine personalism” within a deconstructive frame.  Though he says that he has not excluded such a possibility, he then seems to deny that very possibility twice within three pages.  In this way, Caputo appears to follow quite close on Derrida’s suggestion that “We should stop thinking about God as someone, over there, way up there, transcendent, and, what is more—into the bargain, precisely—capable, more than any satellite orbiting in space of seeing into the most secret of the most interior places” (2008, 108).  This proximity to Derrida is explicit when Caputo goes on to say that “I do not think of God as some super-being who out-knows, out-wills, out-does, out-powers, and out-exists every entity here below, a higher super-entity, a hyper-presence dwelling in a higher world.  I do not think of God as an omnipotent onto-theo-cosmo-logical power source for the universe, but as the unconditional demand for beneficence that shocks the world with a promise that is not kept, as the heart of a heartless world, as the call from below being that summons us to rise beyond being, beyond ourselves” (2006, 39).  “By ‘God’,” Caputo continues, “. . . I do not mean a being who is there, an entity trapped in being, even as a super-being up there, up above the world, who physically powers and causes it, who made it and occasionally intervenes upon its day-to-day activities to tweak things for the better in response to a steady stream of solicitations from down below (a hurricane averted here, an illness averted there, etc.).  That I consider an essentially magical view of the world” (2006, 39).  Lest we think that we have now made sense of Caputo’s account as denying that God is a being, which given the three passages above would seem like a safe assumption, on the very next page he again insists on his neutrality on that issue: “Whether over and beyond what we might call the hermeneutics of the event, the lived experience of the call and of being on call, there is some entitative cause calling, some entity or hyper-entity out there with a proper name, verifiable by a metaphysical argument or certifiable by a divine revelation, is no part of my hypothesis, one way or another (for or against)” (2006, 40).

While it is crucial to appropriate the postmodern apophatic suspicion that Caputo hopes to cultivate, it is equally important to understand that such suspicion is always directed toward something.  Apophatics can only contaminate something if there is something there to contaminate.  So, when Caputo defends a notion of “weak theology,” as an alternative to “strong theology,” this must be done with argument and not with assumptions about what postmodernism entails—for it does not entail anything metaphysical in such ways.  Whether Caputo successfully offers such argument is beyond the scope of my brief remarks here.  Yet, if he is successful, then even his own “weak” model is still a demonstration of Postmodern Kataphatics, because it would make the case that within postmodernism a determinate account of God is possible.  One can be determinately negative or determinately positive—and both gestures can be found in historical theological archives.  The key, however, is to resist the temptation to immediately think, or to take it as obvious, that only such a “weak” model would be viable within postmodernism.  Postmodern Kataphaticism invites serious consideration of the variety of models on offer and attempts to understand them as always apophatically interrupted.  As Kevin Schilbrack might say, whether one defends strong theology or weak theology, both accounts should be “held weakly.”  To say that postmodernism necessitates exclusively defending a weak theology that is “held strongly” is going too far (again, I am not saying that Caputo does this, but simply that his work provocatively illuminates the stakes of such questions).

My hope in calling for a Postmodern Kataphaticism is that Caputo’s “theo-poetics” and something like Jamie Smith’s Pentecostally oriented Reformed version of Radical Orthodoxy would both be recognized as options worth weighing and considering within postmodern philosophy of religion (whether within a continental or analytic mode).  The debate about what reasons one might offer for choosing one over the other is a debate well worth having and, I believe, would productively help to overcome the overblown opposition between continental and analytic philosophy of religion.  Even if postmodernism, in general, invites hesitation in the face of dogmatism, one cannot sit on fences forever.  Postmodern Kataphaticism reminds us of this and helps us to understand that even the most radical apophatic discourse is dependent upon positive claims.  Such claims may or may not be true—hence the need for continued conversation and good arguments—but that they might be true is what is important.  Postmodern apophaticism does not avoid making truth-claims, but it becomes problematically dogmatic and unhelpfully orthodox when it forgets this while criticizing everyone else for doing so.

Works Cited:

Caputo, John D. 1997. The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion without Religion. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Caputo, John D. 2006. The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 2008. The Gift of Death and Literature in Secret. Trans. David Wills. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kierkegaard, Søren. 1992, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments. Ed. and Trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Westphal, Merold. 2001. Overcoming Onto-Theology: Toward a Postmodern Christian Faith. New York: Fordham University Press.

The Relevance of Philosophy of Religion to Religious Studies

By J. Aaron Simmons
Originally published at The Church and Postmodernism (2013)

In 1996, William J. Wainwright edited a book entitled God, Philosophy, and Academic Culture: A Discussion between Scholars in the AAR and the APA.  That book features contributions from some of the most influential philosophers of religion and theologians in recent history: Nicholas Wolterstorff, Merold Westphal, Walter Lowe, Stephen Crites, Philip L. Quinn, C. Stephen Evans, Wayne Proudfoot, and Robert M. Adams.  In the introduction to that volume, Wainwright notes that despite important steps toward engaged dialogue and productive collaboration, “the gap between APA philosophers of religion and their counterparts in the AAR remains” (p.3).  It has been 16 years since the publication of Wainwright’s book and I think that it is well worth considering whether this “gap” has been, as Wainwright hopes, “overcome” (p.3).  Further, it is also worth considering whether such an “overcoming” is really an appropriate goal to continue to advocate.

Perhaps the dialogue between philosophers of religion in the APA and “their counterparts in the AAR” is more productively fostered by maintaining some distinctions, even if those distinctions are tenuous and continuously revisable as the dialogue itself continues to progress and new questions begin to be asked.  Moreover, it is important to ask whether the AAR/APA “gap” is really the most pressing “gap” about which scholars working in the philosophy of religion should be concerned.  Perhaps with the increase of a wide variety of philosophers working, at least in part, within the AAR, there has emerged a different “gap” internal to philosophy itself.  Namely, it is worth considering whether the more troubling “gap” might be seen as existing between, for example, the Society of Christian Philosophers and the Society of Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy. Yet, it is certainly plausible that this alternative “gap” might itself still be merely a reflection of the more traditional AAR/APA divide regarding methodology and historical appropriations.  If so, I think that it would be productive to explore the relationship between the philosophy of religion, on the one hand, and what is sometimes called “theories of religion,” on the other.  Some of the most prominent voices in the “theories of religion” camp, and here I am thinking of Russell McCutcheon, Timothy Fitzgerald, and Jonathan Z. Smith, among a few others, have occasionally encouraged the exclusion of anything that might seem “theological” (including much of traditional philosophy of religion) from the academic study of religion.  Importantly, they do not advocate the elimination of theology, as such, but simply suggest that it should occur within the confines of seminaries and not academic departments in universities.  Their reasons are sophisticated and worth serious consideration by philosophers and theologians, but, unfortunately, their work can be sometimes be read as stopping such a conversation before it could even get started.  Yet, what can perhaps be overlooked is that scholars working in the theories of religion might have more in common with philosophers of religion, and theologians, than is often realized.  When it comes to their all making something of a methodlogical common-cause as distinguished from those who want to approach religious studies from a decidedly “scientific” direction, whether that be understood as sociological, neuro-scientific, anthropological, etc., the theories of religion challenge to “religion” as a sui generis category characterized by determinately “religious” phenomena is itself a challenge that should invite and encourage philosophical and theological interlocutors.  My hunch is that many philosophers and theologians would be willing to grant such a rethinking of what is called “religion” while resisting the notion that this should yield a professional and institutional separation of philosophy/theology from religious studies.

Since I am a member of the Midwestern Regional Committee of the Society of Christian Philosophers, the Philosophy of Religion Section Chair for the Southeast Regional AAR, and someone who draw both upon 19th and 20th century European philosophy and also contemporary analytic philosophy, I am quite invested in thinking carefully about the “gap” identified by Wainwright and also about more recent “gaps” that may have begun to mark the contemporary landscape in the philosophy of religion.  With that said, I do not have the space here to even begin to think through such things in any detail (though I am working on some longer essays in which I do try to move forward in that direction). So, as merely a suggestive, and hopefully productively provocative, short set of reflections, I will offer just a few ideas about where I think that philosophy of religion continues to be a crucial resource for the academic study of religion (which I mean to be inclusive of the AAR very broadly, but to include the scientific study of religion and theories of religion camps within it). My hope is that these reflections will stimulate some discussion about the often complicated and overlapping professional allegiances and identities of contemporary philosophers of religion and encourage the sort of dialogue called for by Wainwright.

Whether or not scholars end up “overcoming” the “gaps” between the AAR and the APA, or the SCP and the SPEP, or between philosophy of religion and theology, or between philosophy of religion/theology and theories of religion, or even philosophy of religion/theology/theories of religion, on the one hand, and the “scientific” study of religion, on the other, etc., there are reasons, both intellectual (as it relates to our research programs) and political (as it relates to our hiring practices and tenure decisions) for a serious and sustained meta-philosophical conversation on this front.  I am not sure where such a conversation will lead, but I do think that it will quickly demonstrate that answers to questions concerning the boundaries of disciplinary or methodological communities are not easy and are certainly not obvious.  Accordingly, there is hard work to do as we continue to ask Wainwright’s important questions in our contemporary context.

As a conversation starter and a critical reply to those who would attempt to exclude philosophy of religion/theology from the academic study of religion, below I offer three ways in which I find the philosophy of religion to be deeply relevant to the academic study of religion.

  • The very question of what should count as “theology” as opposed to something else is itself a question that philosophers are very good at considering.  However, the majority of scholars in both the APA and the AAR realize that any clear demarcations separating theology from philosophy are fraught with difficulty.  Now, this might simply indicate to some, working in the theories of religion, especially, that this is why philosophy is no better than theology and departments of religious studies should avoid them both.    But, I think that a more sustainable understanding is that those who see a hard and fast distinction between theology and philosophy, or philosophy/theology on the one hand and something else (sociology? Anthropology? cognitive science?) on the other hand, are overstating (and oversimplifying) things.  Now, this is not to say that distinctions cannot be made, however.  I have argued elsewhere (see Simmons 2011) that there ought to be a difference made between the authorities to which different communities of discourse appeal.  So, while I think theology rightly appeals to such authorities as sacred texts, ecclesial history, priestly proclamations, etc., such authorities are unlikely to gain traction within philosophical discourse, as philosophical.  Yet, this is not to say that theology appeals to authority while philosophy remains neutrally and objectively detached or some such thing.  Rather, all inquiry presupposes authority structures.  As Wolterstorff so rightly notes, in a passage that just as easily could have been said by Martin Heidegger or Jacques Derrida, “we are profoundly historical creatures” (1984, 97).  As such, philosophical appeals to logic and reason, say, are not neutral or objective, but simply a different way of affirming an underlying authority structure within an historically located community of inquiry.  In this way, dismissing philosophy of religion and/or theology as biased, confessional, subjective, question-begging, etc., itself requires an appeal to the actuality of some sort of questioning that is not biased, not subjective, not question-begging, etc., which I think is likely to be hard to find.   This is not to say that philosophy has abandoned the affirmation of objective truth, say, although some have.  But, it does mean that philosophers are especially likely to realize the stakes and complexities that attend to such an affirmation or its denial.  Scholars working in the academic study of religion would do well to be in conversation with philosophers minimally because philosophers can help those scholars to get a better handle on the stakes of their own academic practice as both normative and descriptive such that theology and philosophy of religion may not be as much of a problem as is often thought.
  • In his contribution to Wainwright’s volume, Merold Westphal (1996) entertains the hypothesis that one of the reasons that some in departments of religious studies might want to do away with philosophy of religion and theology is because it admits of too close a relation to actual religious persons who are viewed as dangerous for political stability and social progress (pp.24-25). Having been raised in a Pentecostal Christian tradition, I am certainly sympathetic with the worries about particular kinds of religious belief and practice for social order.  However, those who would quickly advocate that religious believers are “unreasonable,” as do many defenders of political liberalism, and are thereby justifiably excluded from public discourse, simply fail to attend to the serious objections that have been offered to this view within the philosophical literature from a variety of perspectives. Indeed, even Richard Rorty, who famously referred to religion as a “conversation stopper” (Rorty 1999) revised his view (Rorty 2003) after having been largely refuted by Nicholas Wolterstorff (2003) in an exchange that occurred in the Journal of Religious Ethics a number of years ago.  If we are really committed to reason-giving, as we should be, then we should be willing to reconsider our views about whose reasons get to count as legitimate.  This is not something that could ever be settled by philosophical analysis alone—power-play is always part of any question of legitimacy—but scholars working at the intersection of philosophy of religion and political philosophy are making great strides in problematizing the ease with which one would rest comfortable in one’s own reasonability as opposed to one’s unreasonable neighbors.  Additionally, lest one worry that these debates continue to be narrowly circumscribed into a very American and classical theist framework, let me recommend the exceptional book by John Witte Jr. and M. Christian Green (2011) entitled Religion and Human Rights: An Introduction, which has chapters considering Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Indigenous Religions.  Those working in religious studies would do well to draw upon the philosophical work being done addressing the important questions of how what is called “religion” can signify and function internal to the various political contexts in which it is claimed to show up.
  • As just one final point, let me turn to my own area of specialization. Despite the serious critiques of classical phenomenology of religion, most of which I endorse, it is important not to throw the Levinasian baby out with the Eliadean bathwater, as it were. Simply put, regardless of what one thinks about whether there is or is not an essence to “religion” and regardless of whether or not one thinks that religion is sui generis, the new phenomenological inquiry into the conditionality of phenomenality, givenness, and appearance is important for getting clear on what we are talking about when we talk about something often termed “religious phenomena.”  Now, by this I do not mean that there is a “what” that exists of itself as religious.  I think that it is likely the case that a phenomena counts as “religious” because it is classified as such by determinate historical communities, whether academic or not.  But, involved in such classification, in such naming, in such recognizing, and even in the criticism of such classification, naming, and recognizing, is a tacit view about what counts as a “thing” (consider Martin Heidegger’s famous essay devoted to this topic), what the conditions of experience are (consider Edmund Husserl’s focus on the centrality of intentionality, Heidegger’s notion of “worldliness,” and the debate between Jean-Luc Marion and Jacques Derrida regarding the necessity of horizons), and the way in which both things and experiences are themselves always already implicated in interpretive frameworks.  Accordingly, phenomenological considerations of ontology, epistemology, the philosophy of mind, and hermeneutics are not abstract and secondary considerations of that which we engage in some sort of naïve realist encounter.  As Kevin Schilbrack (2010) has demonstrated, naïve realism need not be the other kind of realism within religious studies.  Rather, phenomenology helps us to wrestle with what is going on when we consider all that is going on in the world.  I would suggest that the lack of critical self-reflection and epistemic awareness that one finds in Rudolf Otto, Mircea Eliade and Gerardus van der Leeuw is importantly contrasted to the approach of contemporary philosophical phenomenology.

In light of these three points, I suggest that whatever it is that is called “religion” is more likely to be appropriately considered, though probably not adequately considered, when those working in the academic study of religion begin to draw upon the work being done by philosophers, and especially by philosophers of religion.  Yet, this relationship should not be viewed as a one-way street.  The philosophy of religion will be dramatically improved as a normative and descriptive discourse if it attends more concretely to the diversity and complexity of what does get called “religion,” which can be productively enriched by working with scholars drawing upon alternative methodological backgrounds.  Philosophers need scholars of religion.  Scholars of religion need philosophers.  To think otherwise is either to be a disciplinary essentialist, which I think faces problems on numerous fronts, or to be an essentialist about “religion” itself, which I think faces even more problems.  Ultimately, many of the “gaps” occurring in scholarly debates dealing with “religion” are not due to such essentialism, but instead are better understood as reflecting often unacknowledged political decisions about who will be part of “us” and who will not.  Such decisions might be necessary, I think that auto mechanics and hot dog vendors, for example, are unlikely to fit very comfortably in either the AAR, APA, SCP, or SPEP, but the burden is on those who would advocate such exclusion to provide reasons for it that are not merely arbitrary reinscriptions of their own power.   Or, at least, to own up to the fact that it is power that they are concerned about.

16 years after Wainwright’s important book, problematic gaps do remain, but dialogue and collaboration also remain as constructive possibilities.  Such possibilities are productively explored when scholars work together to explore the gaps.  In this way, perhaps philosophers of religion should, ironically, be grateful for the very gaps themselves, because they demonstrate that work still needs done in thinking about what it is that philosophers of religion do.

Works Cited

Clayton, John. 2006. Religions, Reasons and the Gods: Essays in Cross-Cultural Philosophy of Religion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rorty, Richard. 1999. Philosophy and Social Hope. London: Penguin.

________. 2003. “Religion in the Public Square: A Reconsideration.” Journal of Religious Ethics 31, no.1 (March): 141-49.

Schilbrack, Kevin. 2010. “Religions: Are There Any?” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 78, no.4 (December): 1112-1138.

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

Wainwright, William J., Ed. God, Philosophy, and Academic Culture: A Discussion Between Scholars in the AAR and the APA. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1996.

Westphal, Merold. 1996. “Traditional Theism, the AAR, and the APA.” In Wainwright 1996, 21-28.

Witte Jr., John and M. Christian Green. Eds. 2011. Religion and Human Rights: An Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wolterstorff, Nicholas. 1984. Reason Within the Bounds of Religion, 2nd Ed. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

________. 2003. “An Engagement with Rorty.” Journal of Religious Ethics 31, no.1 (March): 129-39.

Philosophy and Theology . . . “Analytic” or Not

By J. Aaron Simmons
Originally published at The Church and Postmodernism (2013)

The following are thoughts inspired by the vigorous discussion that recently occurred on Roger E. Olson’s blog. Olson instigated the discussion by commenting that philosophy and theology are distinct disciplines due to the way in which “special revelation” is used by theology, but not by philosophy “AS philosophy” (pay special attention to the back and forth in the “comments” section of his post). Because I have written elsewhere about the relation between theology and philosophy, I will not repeat the details of those arguments here. Nonetheless, in what follows, I aim to do two things. First, I want to express my general sympathies with Olson’s way of differentiating between theology and philosophy (though I draw upon new phenomenology to make sense of such a distinction, which Olson does not). Second, I want to outline reasons that the contemporary project of “analytic theology,” which has gained significant attention (and traction) in recent years (see the new journal devoted to it), and is referenced indirectly by Olson, ought to keep a distinction between philosophy and theology in play, even if only to challenge the specifics of how that distinction gets articulated in the future.

In an essay entitled “On Shared Hopes for (Mashup) Philosophy of Religion” (which is available online at the Heythrop Journal website), I argue for what I term “mashup philosophy of religion.” [See also the special issue of the Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory that I edited on this topic]. Drawing on the idea of “mashup” music, I suggest that we can productively do philosophy of religion while drawing jointly on continental and analytic resources in order to open new spaces for thought that might remain concealed without such collaborative engagement.  Therein, I propose a way of making sense of the distinction between philosophy and theology operative in the work of such new phenomenological philosophers as Jean-Luc Marion, Jean-Louis Chrétien, and Michel Henry, among others. In brief, I argue that there is an important authority structure assumed in their work such that philosophy (at least of the phenomenological variety) cannot appeal in the same way to the authorities that theology can: for example, religious experience, revealed texts, ecclesial proclamations, etc., are “immediate” for theology in a way that they are not for phenomenological philosophy.  Put slightly differently, we might say that for the new phenomenologists, what counts as “evidence” is different for theology and for philosophy.  This is not to say that it is absolutely different—both would appeal to valid forms of reasoning, say.  Yet, theology can assume things that philosophy simply cannot—and this is what gives rise to the important historical conversation between philosophers and theologians that has inspired both disciplines in productive ways.  In other words, it is because philosophers and theologians draw on different evidentiary sources and authoritative structures that they have something to say to each other.  In light of the recent idea of “analytic theology,” the new phenomenological account of different notions of evidence and authority is worthy of careful attention by philosophers of religion and philosophical theologians.

My suggestion is that some sort of distinction between those scholars who are operating as theologians and those who are operating as philosophers—or even the same scholar operating alternatively as a theologian and a philosopher at different times and in different contexts—makes sense insofar as the distinction recognizes the basic postmodern insight that we always start thinking, reading, and speaking, from somewhere—in a context, a location, a place, etc.  Simply put, even if there is possibly a “view from nowhere,” it is not clear how we could get there (i.e., nowhere) in order to see what the view would look like. Gianni Vattimo once wrote that no one starts from zero when it comes to religion, which seems right, but we might expand his idea to inquiry more broadly. Even to make sense of what “inquiry” means relative to different disciplines, methodologies, and traditions, one must have some idea of what has counted as “inquiry” such that this specific discipline, method, or tradition is differentiated from relative alternatives.

When it comes to the relation between philosophy and theology, then, it is sensible that the distinction is not hard and fast, but itself a product of the histories of the disciplinary trajectories in which scholars find themselves.  Although there are certainly other ways to cash out a distinction between philosophy and theology, phenomenology has much to say about the way that historical and hermeneutic decisions always underlie such disciplinary trajectories.  Simply put, beginning to inquire in this or that way already assumes from the outset a range of interpretive gestures that open and close down different ways forward.  I applaud the inter-disciplinary aims of analytic theology, and it is because there is much in the project worth affirming that I think we should be wary of what might seem to some as merely a philosophical takeover of theology on the one hand, and a reduction of philosophy to theology on the other hand. Indeed, even to make sense of what productive engagement between theologians and philosophers might look like such that both of these problematic interpretations are avoided, the distinction between the respective authorities and evidentiary sources available to each is something that needs maintained (for now). Minimally it should be maintained as a place to start the conversation such that the distinction might then be revised, retooled, or abandoned as the conversation continues.

Let me close with a brief passage from my forthcoming essay that summarizes my general view on the relation between philosophy and theology:

“While I grant that all disciplinary boundaries are products of contingent social histories and, as such, are going to be porous and constantly renegotiated, there is value in at least keeping the conversation going about the distinction between philosophy and theology, especially in light of the new phenomenological appropriation of theological archives, rather than too quickly concluding that it is a conversation no longer worth having. I am inclined to say that the distinction needs maintained in order appropriately to respect the plurality of voices contributing to the philosophical and theological dialogues themselves. In other words, if the boundary between philosophy and theology becomes too porous, then this might invite a problematic hegemony. Alternatively, if the boundary is too rigid, then this might invite a cloistered disciplinary exclusivism that shuts down productive dialogue. As [Jean-Louis] Chrétien importantly encourages, philosophers and theologians should continue to explore what lies between these two extremes, but they will likely do so as philosophers or as theologians—we always already begin to ask such questions from within a discourse where such questions are asked.”

For what it is worth, my own hope is that a distinction between philosophy and theology is maintained so that scholars can take seriously the assumptions and authorities operative in the discourse of others.  In this case, the distinction would seem to foster the dialogical hospitality required of genuine conversation because it allows others to engage on their own terms, which we all can then weigh and consider in relation to our own terms.  Ironically, though, it might be that the “analytic” descriptor will  itself threaten to become an orthodoxy that serves to exclude rather than to invite a broad range of individuals into dialogue about central issues of religious life, belief, and identity.  In other words, despite being sympathetic with much of analytic theology, I believe a “mashup” approach is a better way forward because it maintains the philosophy/theology distinction (at least for the time being), while also encouraging scholars to draw on analytic and continental resources when addressing such issues.

That said, I recognize that these comments here are all-too-brief for the difficult topic at hand.  Again, this is not meant to be a fully developed argument for the distinction between philosophy and theology, but rather a few general thoughts on why such a distinction (as developed in new phenomenology) is worth taking seriously in the contemporary context of scholarly debate.  Hopefully, the project of “analytic theology” will end up encouraging continued discussion about who it is that one is as a philosopher and/or as a theologian, and what that person is doing when claiming to do philosophy and/or theology. . . whether “analytic” or not.