Open Thread

This is an open comment thread for the general public. Feel free to comment here if you’d like to discuss something that doesn’t directly bear on a particular post.

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6 thoughts on “Open Thread

  1. I accept that Earth was Colonized by our High Tech Human Ancestors from Space, in Genesis 1,2. And in Genesis 5-9 is the High Tech History of that High Tech Society’s Planetary Flood that lasted 1 year, 1 month and 27 days, but still handed down as a 40 day flood in the Mideast! Why?

    I post these comments on Facebook.

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  2. Martin and Aaron, I’ve read both of your recent posts and figure that this open thread is the best place to respond to both, particularly because my response also engages the larger project as well.

    I want to bring into conversation Martin’s chapter on philosophy and genocide (available at academia.edu). I think it may have important implications for The Varieties of Understanding Project (the Project from now on) as a whole and your group’s section on inquiry into religious understanding. Let me see if I can pull these threads together then you two can let me know your thoughts. I do not have a thesis to put forward, rather a set of comments and questions.

    My main question is this: If secular rational society harbors genocide within itself, or in other words, if integration necessitates elimination, then in what ways are the varieties of understanding placed at risk within the Project?

    But how did I get to this question from your two posts here and Martin’s chapter on philosophy and genocide? First, your two posts, read together, raised the question for me of the prioritization of ethics over metaphysics. Initially, an inquiry into religious understanding seems to naturally raise questions about the metaphysical reality of the divine, as articulated in Aaron’s post. Martin raised an additional concern, an ethical one, by suggesting we explore when negation “is spurred by means of something like an ethical or moral orientation.” Upon reading your two posts here I was immediately reminded of an undergraduate seminar on the philosophy of genocide in which I tried to use a bit of Levinas to defend the prioritization of ethics over metaphysics as way to promote solidarity and reduce violence. As I was pondering this connection I was also reading Martin’s biography which led me to his chapter on philosophy and genocide, which I downloaded and read in haste. There, in that chapter, Martin articulates Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (DE), which I have not read, but according to Martin, is the dialectical process whereby secular rational society is teleologically driven to produce genocide. The Enlightenment is a totalitarian integrator, and “anything that is unable to be integrated is eliminated” (p 230). I immediately connected this thought to one of the stated purposes of the Project:

    “If different types of inquiry provide different forms of understanding, how might they be combined to produce an integrated understanding of the world” (http://www.varietiesofunderstanding.com/about.html).

    But according to Horkheimer and Adorno, secular rational society harbors the dark passenger of genocide, or total integration plus the elimination of remainders. For Martin, “the question becomes: given the proximity and inherent friction of vocabularies [what I assume to be the fertile union of secular rational society and genocide], how does or can disagreement lead to cohesion or unity without silencing certain segments of society or without manifest conflict with others? Ultimately, how do we achieve community” (p 233)? And more basic, is community possible? Can we integrate and not eliminate? And this is the direct challenge to the Project’s wish to “produce an integrated understanding of the world” from its constituent projects in philosophy, theology and psychology.

    Martin, in his chapter, suggests that an empirical solidarity, actual community, depends on first sorting out a theory of our commitments to each other, which I read as prioritizing ethics over metaphysics. Martin articulates Adorno’s material, bodily, or a-cognitive, model of solidarity in which bodily suffering demands a response from other agents. For the witnessing agent, there is no retreat into discursive or logical forms because the other’s bodily suffering demands an immediate response, a response which is an ethical response first, grounded, I suppose, in the solidarity between each other’s body-ness and present-ness, a solidarity prior to any metaphysical truth claims.

    Although Martin discusses this solidarity in the context of preventing genocides, if we read it in terms of the broader context of the potential eliminations that result from the DE (in so far as contemporary researchers and thinkers practice Enlightenment values), then we can ask my main question about the Project: If secular rational society harbors genocide within itself, or in other words, if integration necessitates elimination, then in what ways are the varieties of understanding placed at risk within the Project? And secondly, what would an a-cognitive solidarity look like between the sciences, philosophy and theology?

    Best,
    Jeremy Allen

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    • Jeremy — thank you very much for this comment, it is useful and perceptive.

      You ask a lot of powerful questions, so let me take a stab at the general thrust of them — my apologies if I don’t get to all of them. Above all, it seems to me you are asking about our goals with this project (and the goals of the broader project in which it is embedded). On one hand, you reference Horkheimer and Adorno’s dialectic of enlightenment (but one could just as easily place Levinas’s notion of ‘totality’ here, or Bergson’s ‘closed’ system, or a host of other critiques of totalizing elements within modernity). On the other hand, you note that the broader ‘varieties of understanding’ project is meant to “provide an integrated understanding of the world.” Your worry, as far as I understand it, is whether these are at cross purposes.

      This is an apt and interesting question, but it is, to my mind, one that perhaps operates at too high a level of generality. The basic inquiry orienting the ‘varieties of understanding’ project asks after how the ‘mind makes sense of the world,’ and the guiding thread is that exploring differing notions of understanding (across disciplines and across traditions within disciplines) will aid in this task. In this way, the project hopes to bring together these differing inquiries into an ‘integrated understanding of the world’. What I take this last sentence to mean is that they hope to bring together a variety ways of how the ‘mind makes sense of the world’ in order to see whether putting them together can produce a more complete picture of how the ‘mind makes sense of the world.’

      Now, it seems to me that there are (at least) two ways to approach this procedure. First, we might ‘integrate in order to eliminate,’ where that means that we, at some point, prioritize one way of ‘making sense of the world’ (say, the ‘scientific’ one) in order to exclude the others (to show, e.g., that they are ‘poor’ versions of the scientific view or that they are simply nonsense — this is certainly one way in which the dialectic of enlightenment unfolds). Second, however, and alternatively, we might ‘integrate in order to validate’ or display all of these different sorts of understanding in a sort of synoptic view, where each are understood as important to making sense of ourselves, understood as human agents who evolve historically and normatively in the broadest sense of all of these terms; we might even opt to tell a story about how these particular approaches to understanding hang together. I would like to think that the ‘varieties of understanding’ project is committed to something like this second procedure (although, to be fair to your point, the way the project is framed does seem sometimes to suggest the former model, especially when the broader project asks: “how can recent work on understanding in philosophy and psychology be applied to theology?” — I’d respond here: as if it is impossible that recent work in theology might inform philosophy and psychology). At the very least, I know that we as a research team are committed to this second model, indeed reject the former, which is reductive and dangerous (as you highlight).

      To return to your questions about dialectic of enlightenment (DE) — in my book, Autonomy after Auschwitz, I give the problem a much more precise formulation: that DE is a thesis about the Kantian notion of ‘autonomy’ (and thus about a certain self-understanding of freedom), and that this is a problem for human agency, regardless of material conditions. In part, I take this route exactly because there is an ambiguity in how to understand DE — is it describing a conceptual problem or a material one? How do the two levels relate if they do? I think that DE describes a conceptual problem (again, surrounding a certain understanding of human agency), and that the material problems are related, but distinct; they involve elements—whether political, economic, social, or otherwise—that aim at integration through elimination, but these elements are not thereby understood through the DE, and indeed are distinct from the major conceptual problem, which is a problem of agency. This is all a way of saying that in the Oxford Handbook piece you cite, I hadn’t yet made this division and collapsed the two (as Adorno himself sometimes—but importantly, not always—does). Since then, however, I have found this distinction useful and would present it in light of your questions to stress that, no, not all integration implies elimination (as even Adorno says: “negative dialectics…is tied, at its source, to the highest categories of identity-philosophy” — see Negative Dialectics 147 in the English, 150 in the German). (Incidentally, I take up this theme in much more detail in a recently published article called “Nothing to Know: The Epistemology of Moral Perfectionism in Adorno and Cavell” — also available on my academia.edu page).

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  3. Hey Jeremy (and Martin),
    Wow, what a great comment. Thanks so much for participating in the public dialogue here in the open thread. This is exactly the sort of thing that we are hoping to foster.

    Ok, so regarding your question/comment/worry. Martin does a nice job of addressing the level of generality at which the project operates and so I will try to touch on something else here. I am thinking out loud, here, and the following is not meant to be precise, but hopefully it is suggestive in ways that will encourage continued thoughts toward precision in the published outcomes from the project.

    I admit that I have not yet red Martin’s paper that you mention (though I am sure it is excellent, as all of his work is). But, the description of exclusion resulting from integration as “genocide” seems extreme to me. As he says in his reply above “Not all integration implies exclusion.” Perhaps his view here is simply more tempered than it was in that previous paper, or perhaps the context explains the extremism of the previous claim. Again, perhaps he has qualifiers in place that would address that worry, but for the time being, I will simply respond to your presentation of his argument, not necessarily his argument. That said, exclusion, as such, seems ethically neutral to me – everything depends on the context. And, as relates to questions of religious understanding, in particular, the contexts that matter seem to be entirely historical to me. In other words, I am sure there is some non-historical context (in something like possible world semantics, say) in which one could consider moral and religious questions, but when it comes to the question that we are trying to engage in our project (What is distinctive about religious understanding?) only historical contexts are relevant (at least initially). This matters because within historical contexts, the specifics of the exclusion will depend on what is being excluded, by whom it is being excluded, for what reason it is being excluded, and to what end it is being excluded. Without such specifics, I think it is dangerous to speculate about absolute moral claims on one’s action and normative claims on one’s religious commitment.

    It could be that religious understanding is precisely not a matter of history in that the truth content is not historically available (I am thinking here of Kierkegaard’s account of history and Christian truth in Fragments). Yet, even if that is the case, then understanding that understanding would throw us back into the historical context in which the non-historical content is said to be understood, etc. The point is that I don’t know what it would look like to speak about religious understanding, or moral understanding, except as understood by someone, somewhere, and at some time. Such specifics are existential and also epistemic. Accordingly, I think that the task of integration is probably not best conceived at the level of universal coherence, but lived existence. How can I, or my community, make sense of the claims, commitments, practices, etc., by which my/our identity is formed? In this sense, integration is not exclusive, it is invitational and, hopefully, guided by what Derrida will term “hospitality.” Yet, that there is some set of truth claims, or some particular set of practices, or whatever, that we be active for any historical person/community will, indeed, require that other claims, practices, or whatever, will be put off the table. If this is the exclusion about which you are worried, then fine, but here the problem is not exclusion, but the certainty and complacency by which the exclusion operates. In my book, God and the Other, I contend that ethico-religious existence requires the constancy of a “recursive hermeneutic” project by which justification is possible and decision is required, but even so, self-critique always follows. The real worry, as I see it, is that all claims to understanding be hermeneutically aware, epistemically humble, and historically responsive.

    Ultimately, Martin and I probably disagree about the way in which reflection on such understanding should occur – I tend to slide toward analytic epistemology (though Kierkegaardianly interrupted), and he tends to slide toward historical analysis. Ultimately, probably both of us are right and need each other. Here, though, integration again seems important in order that we not find our individual approaches to be the last word.

    All historical communities are exclusive in some sense, but this exclusion need not be a problem if we are attentive in the very sort of ways that Levinas, Derrida, Kierkegaard, Wolterstorff, Alston, and many others recommend.

    Our project is, hopefully, a model of what such integration can look like when mutual interruption is not a threat, but a stimulus to better thinking beyond one’s own exclusivity. Surely there will be some exclusive account that results (thus allowing our project to be weighed and considered, rather than simply assumed), but this need not worry us unless we think that it has adequately integrated all the other possibilities. Thankfully, attempting to make sense of apophatic discourse quickly makes one hesitant to claim adequacy when it comes to religious understanding!

    Thanks again for your comment and please keep the conversation going!
    Aaron

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  4. Martin,

    Thank you for the very helpful response. You wrote, “At the very least, I know that we as a research team are committed to this second model, indeed reject the former, which is reductive and dangerous (as you highlight).” Me too. And this makes me happy.

    Unfortunately your’s and Adorno’s books are still on my wishlist. I am trying to finish a couple of other books, then I’ll get these. I also look at your paper you suggested.

    Aaron,

    Thanks to you, too. All of this is very helpful.

    You wrote that “the description of exclusion resulting from integration as ‘genocide’ seems extreme to me.” I don’t think Martin or I was saying that exclusion by integration is genocide as much as genocide is a type of exclusion by integration. There can be other types of exclusion by integration, one of which could be, though hopefully not, the application of scientific understanding to religious understanding in a way in which religious understanding is integrated into scientific understanding.

    I share the hopefulness expressed in your idea that integration is invitational and guided by hospitality. Also, I agree that my concept of exclusion included a value judgement, in that what is excluded is deemed unworthy. I see your point that some exclusions are not value judgement but are rather just practical bracketings of ideas for the sake of furthering investigation. For example, in the Analytic tradition, there is The Frame Problem in artificial intelligence, at least as discussed by Daniel Dennett, which shows us that we cannot, without paralysis, consider every implication of every decision or action; for any action to continue, we need some heuristic that excludes an enormous amount of considerations so that we can simply proceed with a given course of action. And these exclusions are not necessarily value-judgmental. They are the absences that are constitutive of whatever is. I’ll call them constitutive exclusions not value-judgmental exclusions.

    Your book, too is on my wishlist, and I will get to it sooner than later. And because I am completely ignorant of the literature on apophatic discourse, I would appreciate even more book recommendations. A quick search led me to Franke’s two-volume On What Cannot Be Said. I can start there unless you have a different recommendation.

    Best,
    Jeremy

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    • Hey Jeremy,
      Sorry for the delay in responding to this. I am not sure why it took me so long (sigh). Anyway, yes, I think that you are right about the value-judgmental and non-value-judgmental exclusions (I like the example you provide as an illustrative instance).

      As for a few recommendations, if you are looking for some stuff dealing with generally apophatic discourse as it relates to serious analytic philosophy and logical analysis, I recommend the work of Graham Priest (see especially, _Beyond the Limits of Thought_). If you want a good collection of some primary source material from the Christian apophatic traditions, see _The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism_ edited by Bernard McGinn (McGinn also has some other really good books of his own in this direction too). Other texts, William Franke has an interesting book titled _A Philosophy of the Unsayable_, and also the work of Denys Turner is great in this respect too (see _The Darkness of God_). I hope that helps!

      Thanks again for being part of this conversation!
      Aaron

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